| The International
Child and Youth
It’s amazing the places that we think of things. I got out of the shower the other day and I looked at my plant. I thought to myself how odd it was that I hadn’t realized how big it had gotten recently. I water it and I see it, but I really hadn’t looked at it for quite some time. I had made a connection.
I was driving down the highway that takes me home, to the place I grew up, when the wheels in my head started turning to the rhythm of my tires hitting the road. It’s a good beat to sing to or to smoke to or to get lost in your thoughts to. I experienced the latter phenomenon. I was excited to be on my way home and I wasn’t exactly sure why. I was looking forward to a bit of R & R. I was looking forward to spending time with my sister, my brother, my mom, and my grandma. But it was more than that. That’s when I remembered the plant. Maybe that’s what I was really looking forward to: being connected. I smiled as I turned up the radio and lit a cigarette.
My first stop was at my sister’s house. We chatted briefly about our lives. She explained that the tax season was an accountant’s nightmare and she was right in the middle of it now. I give her credit; I could never work with numbers for a living. We also discussed our love lives lately. Our conclusion was that they are non-existent. I added that the kids at the community center where I do field work are so surprised that I do not have children of my own or that I’m not married or that I don’t even have a boyfriend. I thought, “I’m only 25, a lot of people my age aren’t married and don’t have kids.” She gave me credit for being able to work with kids. With that we were on our way out to eat.
I had missed my home and my family. But I guess most of my life has been spent trying to run away from it (or break free; I’m really not sure). I would go out to avoid problems at home and to get out of babysitting my brother, who is 10 years younger than me. I got into my own share of trouble and explored the world, but I also had my share of responsibilities. That period was a foreshadowing of who I would be ... I just didn’t know it yet.
We got to the restaurant and met up with my sister’s friend, an unwed, unattached mother of three. My sister and she had become very good friends in the past few months and frequently conversed about self-help books that addressed problems they had in relationships with men. They were both “golden retrievers,” according to one such book, the type of person that always tries to fix things in a relationship gone bad, even if that meant compromising themselves in the process. I didn’t fit into any of the categories. I supposedly have my stuff together. I shared the story of my latest dating episode. We had previously been in a relationship in high school, stopped dating, and then resumed a relationship this past summer. The reason that we are no longer together again was simple, in my view: I needed support and someone to meet my emotional needs, and I wasn’t getting it. I chose to dissolve that relationship after discussing these issues for months and nothing improved. It all seemed so simple to me; I said what I needed from a relationship, I didn’t get it, so I terminated it. After relaying my thoughts out loud, I once again felt connected.
We ate our fish frys and chatted about topics as neutral as the weather. Then entered two more of my sister’s friends. We finished our meals and headed to the bar. We made our introductions and got on the topic of our professions. Sue was 30-something and a school teacher at one of the Lutheran grade schools in the area. Every one of us had gone to parochial schools, and we could relate when she declared that she was a rebel faculty member. Here we were all smoking and drinking and having a really good time, and yet we were all okay with that. Not an easy task when one comes from a very repressed philosophy on life. I related some of my experiences of working at a community centre in Milwaukee.
“You know, Sue, I kind of envy you. You’ve got it kind of easy. If your kids are acting up, you can say ‘Don’t do that, because if you do, God’s gonna be really mad at you.’ I have to say ‘Don’t do that because... because you’re not supposed to.’ ”
We all got a laugh, but in reality, sometimes it is difficult. But I take into consideration my history and why I may think the way I do, and then I know. And I am aware of that.
Again I thought of my plant. Here I was, in a little hick bar in small town Wisconsin, analyzing my life. I never professed to being sane.
We all switched gears and started a few rounds of darts. We whooped and hollered (perfectly acceptable behaviour in the run-down little bar) and drank and smoked and just had a really good time. I frolicked in the moment.
Nine a.m. on Saturday, however, my frolicking ended. I was at home and at my 15-year-old brother’s disposal ... all day. We had our morning ritual breakfast of Cap’n Crunch, headed for the back door, and the day had begun. It was a wonderful day to be outside, too. The air was crisp, but the sun was warm. And the only sounds I head were from cheerful birds and the water dripping off the roof from the melting snow. I looked at the beauty of the countryside around me. No roof-to-roof houses, no sirens, no loud neighbours ... just me and my brother.
We took out the snow tube and made a few runs down our driveway. Too boring. Snowballs obviously weren’t, as I felt one clock me upside my head.
“Of course you know, James, this means war.” I collected my icy arsenal and torpedoed my brother. He, of course, had a pretty effective counterattack. “Prepare to die, little one,” I exclaimed as I took off running, the perfect snowball in hand.
“Bring it on, baby. Give me your best shot.”
I bounded down the lawn, confident that I was going to retaliate. My feet were light; I was catching up to him. I cocked my arm and prepared to release when I saw the ground about ready to smack my face. My feet hadn’t been as light as I thought. I had tripped in the snow and was rolling head over heels down the hill.
I heard laughter getting closer to me as I attempted to wipe the snow off my face. There I was, face down, spread-eagled in a pile of snow, my perfect snowball lying crushed beside me.
“Are you okay? Haahaahaaa ...”
“Oh, yeah. You sound really concerned. No, I’m not okay. I’m in a pile of snow.”
He reaches out his hand and pulls me up. “I wish I could have seen you. It must have looked pretty funny, ’cause you sure look funny now.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I grunted, trying to sound hurt. Then I began to laugh. “I wish you would have seen me wipe out. I bet it looked pretty cool.” I began brushing myself off. “You’re lucky I’m getting old. Otherwise, I might have to kick your ass.”
“I’m glad. You used to be really mean to me.”
I was taken off guard by his statement, but refuted, “I’m supposed to be mean to you. You’re my little brother. That’s what big brothers and big sisters do.”
“Yeah, I know. But I think that a lot of times you were meaner than you had to be.”
The subject was obviously not going to be a passing thing as it had been many times before. This time it was different. This time he sounded like he really wanted to know. I was surprised by what I was about to say to him. “You know, James. It’s like how you throw a fit when I tease you about mom ever having another baby. You’re the baby of the family now and you wouldn’t like anyone taking that away from you. That’s what you did to me. But it’s more than that. If you think about it, at your age, I was taking care of a five-year-old brat. I always got stuck babysitting you when all I wanted was to take care of me. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I suppose that would suck. Let’s go do something else.”
Maybe he wasn’t as ready to hear my reasoning as he thought. Or maybe he was pondering what I’d said. I didn’t ask; I was still in awe of what I had shared with my brother. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d figured it out for myself, but somehow, saying it to my brother made it make even more sense. The afternoon was filled with a little TV watching, a little Nintendo, and then an urge to do something a little different. We went bowling.
We drove down to the village alley, picked out the perfect bowling balls, and started our practice frames. We opted to do a couple; it had been a while and we were both a little rusty. Then the games were on.
The first game was pretty close; I won by only a few pins. The second game was a different story. James wasn’t doing so well and he was becoming discouraged. I’m not a bowling professional, so the tips that I gave him were very minimal.
“You know, Chris,” he interjected in the fifth frame, “I like bowling with you. Mom and Dad are always telling me what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing right. You just let me bowl and have fun. How come?”
Hmm. Good question, I thought. “I guess it’s because I figure if you want some pointers, you’ll ask me. And it’s like you said, you’re playing to have fun, so if you’re having fun, why ruin a good thing?”
“Are you nice like that to the kids you work with in Milwaukee?”
“I try to be,” was the only response I could think of. As he took his next turn, I got lost in my head for a moment. I know that no one in my family has any understanding of why I chose to work with inner city kids, maybe not even me. But my brother just kind of spelled it out for me. I’m there to
be giving of my undivided attention, to be a positive role model, to be a trusted person in their lives ... and to just “be.” I had never thought of it in that way before.
“Your turn, Chris.”
“Thanks, bud,” I said as I grabbed the ball. In my mind, it was a thanks for everything.
We made our way back home as the sun began to drift pretty low in the blue sky. It was late in the day, and time for me to head back to Milwaukee. But of course, I had to stay to see my brother’s latest additions to his room, his brand new stereo complete with a karaoke set-up. I couldn’t leave until we both took turns murdering the melodies to a couple of songs. But with that, I packed up my car, visited a bit with my mom and my grandma and my brother, gave hugs and kisses to everyone, and was on my way back to my other home.
I was back on that highway again, and in a sense, on my way back to reality. It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how relaxed one gets, it doesn’t take long at all to think about this thing that needs to be done or that thing that was forgotten and really needs to be done. But beyond that, I began to think about what I’d discovered about me this weekend. I used to think that trying to figure everything out was exhausting; now I realize it can be even more enlightening.
I rearranged myself in my seat, took a sip of my soda and a drag off my cigarette, listened to the sound of the road, and thought about getting back to watering my plant.