Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Today, June 30th, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life Story Challenge.

“Oh no!  He lost his jacket!” Even with the rather noisy window air conditioner busily breathing cool air into the room, her words were clear, concise.  I shifted my gaze away from the illustrated pages of Beatrix Potter’s classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit to look upon the face of my four-year-old daughter.  Her eyes meet mine.  With her brows pulled downward, she pointed to Peter’s little blue jacket caught irretrievably in Mr. McGregor’s gooseberry net.  “Look!” she implored.

“Yes, honey,” I replied.  “I see it.”

Lying in bed later, I thought about that tiny moment of worry, the distress my little daughter exhibited for a character in a book.  A character, by the way, arguably undeserving of worry or distress.  After all, Peter does knowingly “disobey” the authority figure in the book, his mother.  And yet, my daughter expressed her fear for Peter’s fate anyway.

I recognized the emotion: Empathy.  And I thought about how reading is the way we build our capacity for this essential emotion. In my mind, Empathy might reside at the top of the emotional hierarchy. As author and scientist Maryanne Wolf writes and wonders in her book Reader Come Home (2018), “What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?” She chronicles studies out of Stanford University that show a precipitous decline in empathy taking place over the last ten years or so in our country.  Wolf also describes a discussion between novelist Marilynne Robinson and then President Barack Obama during which Robinson expressed lamentation for what she perceived as a “political drift among many  people in the United States toward seeing those different than themselves as the ‘sinister other.'”

As I look around at what is happening in our country, I sometimes wonder what I can do to make a difference, especially as I watch the actions and repercussions of persons in power who exhibit no empathy for those different than them at all. But then I remember the young girl who was lying next to me earlier in the evening, her eyes glued to the pages of a book I was holding. And I remember I can make a difference for her.

Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Today, June 23rd, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life Story Challenge.

This past Sunday was Father’s Day.  A few days prior, I called my father, now 82 years old, and ashamedly informed him that I had gotten his present in the mail a little too late.  He would likely be receiving it the week after sometime.  In a forgiving tone, Dad said that was alright.  And he began to reminisce a bit.

“I remember a few months after you were born,” he began.  “It was sometime around my very first Father’s Day . . . I put you and your mom on an airplane bound for Portland, Oregon.  You both flew all the way there from Oklahoma, where we were living at the time.  I drove an old truck to meet up with you guys a few days later.”  Apparently, while waiting for my father to arrive, mom and I lived in a tiny apartment with very little in the way of worldly possessions.  I’m not even sure there was furniture.  But Dad, having just graduated seminary school, had applied for and received his first ministerial position at Lynchwood Church in East Portland.

The year was 1968, a year when civil unrest, the Vietnam War, and issues of social justice dominated the social and political consciousness of the country.  Dad told me one of the very first things he did upon arriving as the new minister of his church was to organize groups of Black churchgoers from North Portland, inviting them to his nearly all-White church in East Portland.  Apparently, this did not sit well with some of the congregation of the Lynchwood Church.  Dad recalls vividly being questioned for his integrative efforts on several occasions.  “We’re White here,” he remembers one woman venomously spitting out at him one day.

Over time, my father eventually began receiving invitations to preach at some of the all-Black churches in North Portland, the very community in which he would one day, after leaving the ministry, finish a hard-earned career in social work.  In my father’s recollection, he was the only White person to preach in some of those churches during that tumultuous period.

“What I’m watching on the news now,” he told me, “reminds me very much of the struggles for social justice we saw back then.”  Dad told me he was eventually fired from his first job.  Folks didn’t want to work toward social justice.  They didn’t want to protest the war.  They wanted to go to church on Sunday. So Dad went on to search for other ministerial positions.  After all, he had a family to support.

As I listened to my father on that sunny day last week, I could hear sadness in his tone as he lamented the fact that there was never any recognition or awards for the kind of work he was trying to do back then.  But then, I thought to myself- feeling so proud of my father- that is likely not why he did it.

Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Today, May 12th, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life Story Challenge.

The sound of the door knocker echoed through the house.  Now such a foreign sound, it almost felt jarring.  But only for a moment.  I poked my head into the sunroom, speaking quietly so as not to wake my sleeping toddler.  “Girls,” I said with exaggerated singsong lilt, “they’re here!”  Excited giggles and rushing feet approached and passed by me with shocking velocity as two girls slip-slid in their socks toward the front door.  In a moment the door stood open.  Behind it stood two dear friends: my oldest daughter’s classmate and her mother.

My two eldest daughters sprang out the door and into the sunlight, so excited to see a friend in person.  Due to the pandemic, we have kept ourselves isolated at home, hardly traveling anywhere beyond walkable distances. This unexpected visit, then, was entirely outside the current norm.  Keeping socially distant, my two girls flitted joyfully about like fireflies, gleefully chattering hellos, talking over one another in their boundless joy to find themselves in the physical company of a friend.

For nearly two hours, outside in the unseasonably chilly May air, the three girls chatted, played, built a fort, while my wife and I reveled in actual grown-up conversation with an outside adult.  How odd that this once-normal experience could now feel so abnormal and wonderful.  Who knew human interaction was so very precious?

Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Today, May 5th, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life Story Challenge.

“Well guys, I gotta go.  My family is having dinner now.  Thanks for coming to my zoom party.” My daughter’s voice sounded flat.  Closing the laptop she turned to face me.  “Dad, I don’t know how to make a zoom party fun,” she quipped.

“Honey,” I said, “you tried your best.” I could sense her disappointment.  Even though we had known for weeks that a traditional birthday party was out of the question due to COVID-19, the reality of turning eleven without experiencing the physical presence of friends had begun to set in.  I thought for a moment about the many kids who likely felt the pangs of this let-down.

Time to pivot, I thought to myself.

“How about opening presents?” I offered.  Immediately, my daughter’s face brightened.  As is our normal birthday routine, we had been planning to wait until after dinner to open gifts, but the time seemed right.  The next hour brought much excitement, as my daughter tore open cards and presents from her west coast extended family and her east coast immediate family.  Her favorite dinner – tacos! – was then served, followed by mom’s home-baked six-minute chocolate cake and two types of ice cream.  All five of us then piled into blankets and pillows in the living room to watch a movie, compliments of our new Disney Plus subscription.

Before heading upstairs to bed, my daughter hugged me.  “This was the best birthday ever,” she said.  I watched her as she headed up the stairs, savoring the moment.  And suddenly, the rainy Monday night of her birth popped into my head.  How could that have been eleven years ago? I wondered to myself.  Even in quarantine, time continues to fly.  Switching off the lights, I headed upstairs to tuck my girls into bed.

 

Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Today, April 21st, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life Story Challenge.

On this Tuesday, exactly three years after the passing of my dear mother, allow me to tell a story of one of her final hours…

“I don’t think I can go to work tonight,” she said.  I stared at my mom in disbelief, as she lay stretched out on her flowered couch.  It was Thursday, and this had been an unusually difficult day.  Mom had begun to struggle to breathe properly and spent her hours gripped by severe nausea.  The mere mention of her teaching her Early Childhood Education class tonight seemed so out of the question, it almost shocked me.

“Mom, of course you can’t go to work,” I said.  “You’re too sick.”

A beat passed, and I could tell mom was thinking about something.  “Then you’re going to have to go down there.  Tell them.  Tell my students I am sorry I can’t be there for them tonight.  Tell them they deserve better.  Would you do that, please?”  Her eyes seemed to plead with me.

“Of course, Mom.  I’ll go.  But I won’t tell them they deserve better because you already are the best.”

Fifteen minutes later, I entered the Maywood Park Educational Center.  After asking at the front desk, I located my mom’s classroom and opened the door.  Immediately, around fifteen Latina women turned to stare at me.  Expressions of worry and surprise blanketed their faces.  Do they know? I wondered.  I introduced myself and several of them rose to greet me.  One carried a large bouquet of flowers.  “She wanted me to tell you she is sorry she cannot be here tonight, and she will be back as soon as she can,” I announced with as much confidence as I could muster.  Another woman handed me a card, a card that appeared to have been signed by the entire class.  Her eyes met mine.

“Tell her we love her,” said the woman.

 

My mom never returned to teach her students.  Unbeknownst to all of us, the cancer had mercilessly advanced to a point beyond treatment. She passed away three years ago today.  The story of this final errand I did for my mother has always served as a poignant reminder to me of who she really was:  Dedicated.  Loving.  Generous.  Courageous.  Always thinking of others.  A truly special and amazing woman: Donna Rae Callaway Ball, 1942-2017.