The Three Little Orangutans

The three little orangutans had been together since infancy, and as juveniles they’d shared a space too small for them. The arrangement had worked all right so far, but now the zoo had additional space available. Two of the orangs were about to move into apartments adjoining the one where they’d grown up. They would have plenty of room in their new digs, room to spread out and swing around by their long arms and do whatever it is maturing orangutans do.

There was just one problem. They wouldn’t go.

My visiting elementary school class watched in fascination as the young primates wrapped their long, strong arms around each other and refused to be parted. A keeper grabbed one orang, pried him loose from the grip of his companions, and hustled him through the door. Before the door could be shut, the other two came trailing after. When the keeper tried to put those two back in the first room, the third returned with them.

I don’t know what the zoo staff ever did about the orangs, but the memory of their camaraderie, their determination to stay together, remained with me through adulthood.

Greg and I weren’t overburdened with money or space when our kids were young, and for a while the three of them shared a bedroom smaller than the first orangutan enclosure. Anna slept on an improvised trundle, an extra baby mattress that slipped under Emilie’s crib during the day. Daniel, though tall for his age at four or five, managed with a toddler bed.

It was hard to get everyone to sleep at once and keep them all asleep. Daniel was old enough to appreciate a good night’s rest and be annoyed by his sisters’ nocturnal baby chatter. It was also hard to maintain anything resembling neatness. I kept their toy collections as streamlined as possible; children who visited us were sometimes surprised to look over all the possessions and realize that this, indeed, was it.

Shortly after Daniel’s seventh birthday, we moved to a relatively enormous house of 1600 square feet. We rejoiced in the kids’ large bedrooms; with all this space, they wouldn’t have to be constantly in each other’s face anymore.

As it turned out, not much changed. The kids were always together. Even when they got on each other’s nerves, they just couldn’t do without each other. Whenever one of them got particularly annoying, I’d tell the offending party to leave the others alone; but the others wouldn’t leave that one alone. Within minutes they’d be together again, tumbling around in a bundle of confusion, kinetic energy, and noise.

We homeschooled from the beginning, so the kids were typically together all day every day. Texts and binders jostled for space on our dining room table, overlapping, just like their lives. They were each other’s constant companions, playing elaborate games with stuffed animals, Legos, action figures, and cardboard boxes.

Their sense of solidarity astounded me. They were always quick to share good news with each other and to assume that a treat for one meant a treat for all. If one kid happened to be in the kitchen when I was shredding cheese for a recipe, and I told him he could have a handful, he’d take off before even claiming his portion, announcing to the others, “We can have cheese!” (Yes, this was ample cause for excitement at our house. We lived frugally.)

I think this strong sibling unity is one reason my girls grew up so physically capable. If one of them was too scared to perform some daredevil feat like jumping off the top of the jungle gym into the shallow waters of the stock tank below or riding a bike down a slope so long and steep that just looking at it gave me vertigo, the others would mock that one until she gave in. No one ever got hurt this way; I speculate that they all developed a healthy sense of what their bodies could do, which actually protected them against injury.

When Emilie was around six, she had a bout of impetigo. If you’ve never experienced this bacterial skin infection, I hope you never do. The treatment involves the painful scrubbing of tender raw tissues, the sheer horror of which has been known to drive many a strong man out of his house for the duration of his child’s anguish. Daniel and Anna weren’t bothered by the cries of their little sister; they were used to being told to suck it up. They even made some rather callous jokes about leprosy. But when they learned that the contagious illness would prevent Emilie from attending our church’s annual Baptism and Barbecue—which promised to be a particularly epic event that year, as it was being held at an absolute wonderland of a private swimming pool complete with slides and trapezes—the joking stopped and they wept in unashamed compassion. Anna was eight; Daniel was ten.

A few years ago our family moved away from the area where we’d lived since Greg and I were in college. We left a lot of friends behind, and making new ones hasn’t exactly been the work of a moment. Sometimes it seemed we had just each other. And that’s not a bad place to be. I want us to be each other’s best friends, to support and rely on each other. The family is a core of permanence in a shifting world. We cling to each other with uncompromising tenacity.

But suppose you took the quality of commitment normally reserved for family and selectively applied it to a larger group, in a way that would expand the kinship without diluting it. Then you would have a clan—a group of households forming a basic tribal unit. Is such a thing even possible in modern American culture? I think it is. I pray it is.

A group of us had a gala occasion Friday night. It was a delightful concatenation of special events: a homecoming, a birthday, a reunion. Some of the kids had been away at college; my own boy is still away at Fort Benning. The evening’s energy level was pretty high. Lots of sugar and coffee were consumed. Somebody tazed a pumpkin, and somebody else smashed it with a sword. Two and half months’ worth of stories were hastily retold. Teenage boys were picked up and hoisted to the ceiling. The dog ate a package of Twizzlers.

My girls and I were the last to go, and our leave-taking was a thing not easily accomplished. The kids would physically grip each other and not let go, or at least not for long. They’d hug goodbye but not depart, then hug goodbye all over. I would manage to get one daughter pried loose, and while I was working on the other, the first would reattach herself to the group at a different spot. The easiest thing would have been to load the whole group into the Suburban and take all six home with me.

Finally they gathered into a group hug, and I just stood and watched. The two boys each had a wing span in excess of six feet, effectively binding the group into a tight circle of humanity. They were like the three orangutans, only six this time.

I’ve lived long enough to have a lot of regrets. I see now that for most of my life I’ve taken friendship for granted. I’ve enjoyed it and been casually grateful for it, but I haven’t always valued it to the point of fighting for it. I’ve been too quick to let inconvenience or pride or fear come between. My children are wiser than I was at their age.

Hold on, little orangutans. Don’t let go.

When Auld Lang Syne Comes Back Around

We were twenty-one and newly married when we met Charlie and Cyndi at the newly launched Denton Community Church. They were a little older, enough to regard us as “heart-children,” as Cyndi later told me. We got to know each other over mugs of Charlie-made coffee and long conversations in the living room of their log cabin in Little Elm. The cabin was like them: warm, unconventional, authentic. Our new friends thought deeply, spoke honestly, and laughed a lot. They loved Jesus, big dogs, the outdoors, people, music, and anything handmade.

The fabric of married life changed when I got pregnant the first time—and I do mean the very first time—Greg and I “tried for a baby.” (Women have ways of knowing these things.) The pregnancy was a difficult one, weaving threads of pain, stress, and fear into our joy. Sick as I was, I could usually muster the will to make it from my bed to the car for church and for Charlie and Cyndi’s Bible study in Little Elm. Greg and I took great comfort in being surrounded by a loving community that prayed for us and cared for us in practical ways.

When at last our son was born, skinny but healthy, Charlie and Cyndi rejoiced wholeheartedly with us. I have never forgotten their hospital visit or their unmixed delight on our behalf—which, considering their own long struggles with infertility, showed great generosity of spirit.

They both played in the DCC band, Cyndi on vocals, Charlie on banjo and harmonica. Eventually I joined too. I spent many years at Cyndi’s side, harmonizing with her. I grew very familiar with her profile, and very fond of it.

Charlie and Cyndi moved to East Texas when our youngest child was too young to know them well. Later they relocated again. After our own family moved south, we learned that our old friends were now only a couple of hours away, living in another log cabin in the Texas hill country. Most joyfully of all, they’d adopted two girls, the same age as our own daughters. We’ve seen them a few times since our move, once with Steve Johnson, another North Texas transplant who was a long-haired single guy back when we all started making music together at DCC.

Following a recent illness, Cyndi found herself writing a lot of music, and she’s asked me to play pennywhistle on the CD she’s making. So last Saturday we again drove to their lovely home in Bandera for chili and cornbread, brownies and Charlie-made coffee, music and conversation. We listened to Cyndi’s demo and played around with parts. Before we left, Anna played and sang two of her own original pieces, and Cyndi offered words of encouragement and praise.

Just to see these cherished friends again and sing and play together more than a decade after sharing the stage at DCC is a delight past describing, and to see my children laughing and talking and playing with the daughters they once thought they’d never have is a gift from God so gracious it takes my breath away. What a boon. What a blessed, blessed boon.

I don’t really have a theme with which to wrap all this up. I can think of nothing more to say than, in all reverence, “Thanks be to God.”

Kim was looking for stray airsoft pellets when we drove up.

Reminds me of Little Elm.

Charlie and Cyndi’s view!

Charlie took his glasses off after Greg started taking pictures.

Getting ready to try some pennywhistle licks on one of Cyndi’s songs.

Executing one heck of an F#.

Aren’t we glad they make these harmonica-holding things so Charlie can play two instruments at once?

Cyndi with the guitar given to her by Margaret Ashmore. The title of her upcoming CD will be “Margaret’s Guitar.”

They assured us they would use the airsoft guns on leaves only.

Taking a break from tennis balls.

Aren’t they charming?

A Long, Pointless Post About Something That Happened To Me In Sixth Grade

I don’t know why I remember this incident so clearly. Maybe it’s because of the two very different boys involved. They both moved away just before junior high, achieving mythic status in my memory.

Arnie was probably the only classmate I’d have admitted to be smarter than myself. He had work ethic and brain power. He was witty and incisive, with a devastating sense of humor and a disconcerting way of looking you straight in the eye and saying just what he thought. In my memory he rarely smiled, though he was well-liked. In short, Arnie rocked.

Starting in fourth grade, Arnie and I shared Advanced Placement classes at our elementary school. For a few blessed hours a week, a dozen or so of us were liberated from our regular classrooms and taken to a kind of haven where we read and discussed modern classics of children’s literature, did logic puzzles, and studied and created analogies. Behavior problems in this group were almost nonexistent; everyone who was there wanted to be there. The teacher spoke calmly and quietly, addressing us as rational beings and not little monsters to be bullied or cajoled. We were in tune with her and with each other, and though we weren’t necessarily the best of friends, we all had a sort of resonant sympathy to each other’s moods.

Each year in AP, we had to do interdisciplinary research projects. I was a lazy bum when it came to the daily grind of busy work, but I gladly rose to the occasion for research projects. In sixth grade, I chose to research otters. I worked hard on my otter project. Besides the written report, I made a small otter model, designed an otter board game, and put on a finger-puppet dramatization of the rediscovery of otters off the coast of California after they’d been thought to have gone extinct. The presentation was well received by my teacher and peers. Best of all, it raised the ire of Arnie.

He didn’t say so to my face. My friend Alma, sounding amused, reported to me how Arnie had told her in a bitter, hostile tone, “On Thursday, I’m doing my report on black holes, and everyone’s going to forget all about these otters.” The moment shines in my memory: I’d actually excited something approaching envy in the heart of the great Arnie. It was the highest compliment he could have paid me. (And his black hole report was brilliant, of course.)

The other guy was Chris, equally remarkable for different reasons. Chris was admired more for the shape of his posterior than for the keenness of his intellect. At eleven years of age, Chris was hot. Besides that, he was a truly nice boy, and I don’t think I ever heard him say a harsh word to anybody.

Some individuals, each excellent in his own way, simply do not get along. Maybe that was the case here. Or maybe Arnie was having a bad day. He was inclined to be impatient with people less sharp than himself, which was just about everyone, teachers included.

So here’s what happened. While we sixth graders were doing our daily stint on the playground, somebody noticed some ashes on the ground, the sort that come from a grass fire and still retain the shape of blades of grass. There had been some fires in the Houston area recently which had gotten some press. And Chris widened his big, beautiful, long-lashed brown eyes and said, “I wonder if these ashes came from Houston.”

I don’t remember the exact wording of Arnie’s reply, but basically he indicated that the idea of ashes blowing from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley was patently absurd. He also added unkind remarks about Chris’s mental prowess.

Then I spoke up in Chris’s defense. I didn’t make a case for his hypothesis; I merely said that while it wasn’t likely the ashes came from Houston, it wasn’t absolutely out of the question. If I’d known then what I know now about formal logic, I’d have told Arnie that you can’t prove a negative.

Arnie turned on me with a savagery I’d never seen in him before. The substance of our conversation was something like this.

“You’re actually agreeing with him? You actually think these ashes blew here from Houston?”

“Well, no. I’m just saying it’s not impossible.”

“How? How can it not be impossible?”

“I don’t know. Somebody could have bagged them up and driven them in trucks.”

It was all pretty much downhill from there. The argument lost all semblance to rational debate and turned into an all-out fight, complete with personal attacks, name-calling, and even physical blows. The violence was all my doing; Arnie, unafraid of being hit or scratched by a girl, mocked my attack, making me angrier than ever. The battle ended only when the bell rang to summon us all back to class. I was an emotional wreck by now, crying with fury, and had to take refuge in the restroom to recover my composure enough to return to class. My friend Alma accompanied me there in a show of moral support, though she may have privately thought I was out of my gourd for engaging in such a stupid argument.

I wish I could wrap up this story with some pithy ending or metaphorical point-to-it-all. I can’t. The incident just sort of blew over, and eventually Arnie and I spoke to each other again. Which is good, because otherwise life would have lost a great deal of its savor.

I wonder how Chris felt about having his honor defended by a girl, if in fact he even noticed; I don’t remember whether he hung around long enough to witness the fight. I wonder what happened to him after he moved away. And I wonder about Arnie. I heard from a mutual friend that he ended up at Yale, but after seventh grade I never saw him again. I wouldn’t mind going a round or two with him in a rational debate, now that we’ve both grown up quite a bit and learned a few things about traditional logic. I promise not to hit or scratch this time.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy

It’s a special blessing when friends who appear to have passed out of your life suddenly show up again. Greg and I knew Steve Johnson before his marriage, and both our families attended Denton Community Church, where Steve and I played and sang in the church band. We also played a semiprofessional circuit of clubs, pubs, and coffee shops in a Celtic/folk band called The Outlanders. Often we’d drive to Plano, Flower Mound, the West End, or Deep Elum on a Saturday afternoon, play a gig, drag ourselves home sometime after midnight (sometimes waaaayy after), then get up Sunday morning for eight o’clock practice for the morning church service. (Dragging from fatigue only, mind you. We didn’t drink anything stronger than coffee at these places.) Sometimes Renee, Steve’s wife, would keep my kids at their place during a gig. Sometimes, if the venue were family-friendly, she’d come along and ride herd on all the kids.

Steve loves God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and as worship leader at DCC, he cultivated a strong sense of community and family among all the musicians. It was the same way with The Outlanders. He was generous with solos, always eager to showcase the talents of fellow band members. I don’t remember any ego friction in either band. Basically we just all loved being together and making music.

Steve and Renee and their kids left North Texas years before we did and proceeded to live in so many different states that we lost track of them. Two years ago, shortly after our move south, we learned that the Johnsons were now living about forty-five minutes away from us. We’ve seen them a few times since then, along with other old friends from North Texas who’ve also migrated south. I can’t hope to describe the poignancy of taking the same wrinkled, much-marked chord charts out of the same notebooks and playing the same songs again after a decade’s hiatus. I can only say it’s a boon from God.

Wednesday of this week, Anna and I went to New Braunfels to play with Steve at the retirement home where he now works. We did a set of our old stand-bys, including some ancient Celtic hymns, a traditional Scottish boat song, and a multi-versed ballad about Irish independence. Anna, who was five years old when The Outlanders last played together en masse, sang two songs of her own composition and accompanied herself on guitar. Time does tend to go on, doesn’t it?

Now I’m remembering various gigs I played with just Steve, when the rest of the band couldn’t come or there wasn’t room for all of us. Like the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon, also at a retirement home, where a Scottish lady greeted us in Gaelic, and in addition to our pay we were each given a potted shamrock centerpiece to take home. And the lunchtime spot at the café in The Cupboard in Denton, with Steve on mountain dulcimer and me on pennywhistle, for which we were paid in much-appreciated store credit. Then there was the wedding reception for the Asian couple at Denton Bible Church. What serendipitous whim led two first-generation Asian immigrants to contract a Celtic duo for their wedding reception, I do not know and have often wondered. I remember playing “Dance Around the Spinning Wheel,” a lovely romantic piece, heavy on pennywhistle, with about a million verses for Steve to sing. Besides our fee, we each received a blue cloth printed with images of fish. I think there was supposed to be some cultural significance to this but I never caught what it was. Whatever it represents, it’s a beautiful reminder of the day.

I could go on and on about the band’s adventures, including the time we actually left the state to go on tour. Maybe I will in another post. My years with the band were exhausting and exhilarating. Often my homemaking suffered from the late nights and frequent practices, but I think my kids’ casual exposure to music and musicians was an excellent thing, giving them a cellular-level confidence about artistic endeavors. “Is this you?” they used to ask when hearing a CD of Celtic music. Sometimes it was us; sometimes it was The Chieftains or Bill Whelan’s Riverdance. Apparently they thought anything was possible. Still do.

Our chops aren’t what they were back when we were practicing and/or performing several hours each week, but we still more than hold our own. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reconnect and hoping for more of the same. And I’m grateful to Steve for taking me into the band, back when it was called Steve Johnson and Friends, and giving me a good reason to learn a new instrument. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thanked him for that before now.

Steve and me back in the day. Notice the angsty musician facial expressions.

Steve and me the day before yesterday. We’re all over our angst now.