Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hoobenschnoober, Howie

I recently went to the hospital and was commenting over dinner about the expenses we incurred with this most recent visit.  Paola was listening intently to her dad and I as we discussed the cost of healthcare.  Finally, after a long pause for emphasis, Paola informed us that she had a solution.  “What is your solution, Paola.” I asked. 
 “Simple.” she said, “Change your last name to Hoobenschnoober.”  
“Hoobenschnoober!” Her father laughed.  “Why Hoobenschnoober?” 

“Because,” she explained, “when they send the bill, they won’t find anyone with that last name and you won’t have to pay it!”  She continued, “You could make your first name, Howie.”  “I don’t think there is anyone out there with the name Hoobenschnoober comma Howie.”  She said all of this with such a straight face that it added to the comical effect.  Then she went into a whole routine speaking with an English accent as she introduced herself as Howie Hobenschnoober.
“Paola,” I asked, “Where in the world do you come up with this stuff?”  
“I don’t know, Mommy.”  She replied.  “My brain just works that way.”  
There is no doubt that she is quick witted!
One day, when she was about seven-years-old and had been playing dress-up in her room, she emerged wearing her cowgirl hat, boots, western-style skirt and western shirt.  I told her that dinner was almost ready so she went back into her room to finish “dressing for dinner.”   We had some friends over for dinner and we were all seated at the table when Paola arrived still dressed in all her cowgirl garb but she had added red lipstick and blue eye-shadow and was carrying her guitar. Picture, if you will, a black Haitian waltzing in and announcing in her southern drawl that she is a “Red Neck Honey Nut Cheerio.”   She followed this announcement with a montage of country songs she had composed in her room.  She had all our guests practically rolling on the floor laughing.  Our neighbor, Joe, was laughing so hard that he was crying in his food.  I thought I was going to have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on Katie whose drink was coming out of her nose as she coughed uncontrollably.  Paola, unperturbed by the ruckus she was creating, continued singing and dancing.  All of her songs, in true country fashion, were about how someone, “did her wrong.” 
Then there was the time when Paola was about eight and we were going for a walk. During our walk, we strolled by the bingo hall.  Without missing a beat, Paola went into her old lady act.  She pretended that she was walking with a cane and announced in her very shaky old lady voice, “Can someone help an old lady get across the street to the bingo hall?”  Then she continued, “I want to beat that old biddy, Gertrude, out of winning the 50/50.”  She continued the old lady routine all the way home.  I was laughing so hard I almost peed my pants (which only added to her comedy routine as she commented on the importance of having a good panty liner like Depends).  
I don’t know where she gets this stuff!  I guess she really means it when she says her brain just works that way.  Someday I suspect that we might be watching a black “Red Neck Honey Nut Cheerio” on Comedy Central.  Or, maybe she’ll call herself; Hoobenschnoober Comma Howie.  

Iced Tea

I opened the refrigerator to get her snack ready.  She was standing in front of me and she glanced in the refrigerator as I opened it.  Suddenly, her eyes became wide as saucers and she exclaimed, “Mommy we’re almost out of iced tea!”  I was puzzled by this reaction.  
“We can get more iced tea.”  I said.  
“Can we get it by tomorrow?”  She asked with a sense of urgency in her voice.  
“Is there a reason we have to have it for tomorrow?”  I asked.  
“Mommy, you know I want to have a tea party when I get adopted!  She exclaimed.  I want to get adopted tomorrow!  We can’t have a tea party tomorrow if we have no iced tea!  Can I get adopted tomorrow, Mommy?”  Her pleading brown eyes looked questioningly at me for an answer.
I had no answer.  I had no voice.  All I had was an aching in my heart that literally hurt and a lump in my throat that prevented me from speaking.  I knelt down to her three-foot level, wrapped her in my arms and held her tight as if she would vanish right before my very eyes.  She hugged me back and we stayed in that embrace for a very long time.  I fought back the tears that threatened to erupt into sobs.  When I finally let go of her I said, “Lulu, do you know how much mommy loves you?”  She answered with the usual response: “This much?”  She’d hold her fingers just slightly apart.  I’d answer, “No.”  Then she’d spread her fingers a little more apart. “This much?” She’d giggle.  “No.”  I’d shake my head.  We’d go through this little game until she had her arms stretched out as wide as they could go.  “This much?”  She’d yell.  “Yes!”  I’d yell back as we gave each other a big bear hug.  
“I love you this much.” I’d say.  “I love you as much as the whole universe.  I love you more than you’ll ever know.  I’ll love you this much forever.”  All the while I’d silently wonder: How do you explain to a four-year-old orphan from Haiti that her chances of adoption are precarious at best?  How do you explain that the adoption could take years and will require a trip to Haiti for an undetermined amount of time?  
Of course, I cannot explain it to her.  I can only love her and care for her and pray that she will one day be officially adopted.  She is my child already – adopted or not.  It is just a formality.  Yet, it is not a formality to the government.  Everyday, we face the very real threat of her being sent back to Haiti at any time because of visa issues.  Everyday, I wonder if this is the day we will get the news that she has to go.
As I closed the refrigerator, I looked at the myriad of pictures stuck to the door:  Lulu dressed as a nun in “Sister Act”, Lulu in her clown costume, Lulu asleep in daddy’s lap, Katie holding her in her arms… Lulu’s smiling face blanketed our refrigerator just as her smile and laughter has blanketed our lives.  She is a piece of work!  As my grandmother used to say; “No flies on her!”  
Lulu was sixteen months old when she literally arrived on our doorstep in her car seat.  She came to us through Healing the Children because she had birth defects that needed correcting.  We did not anticipate the length of stay she would require (she is now going on five-years-old).  We already had four children and were not intending on having a fifth.  Our intentions were to hopefully find an adoptive family for Lulu during her stay in the United States.  Well, needless to say, our plans changed as we came to know and love this incredible child.  We could no more send her off to another home than we could send one of our own children away.  God has entrusted her to our family and we will love her as our own.  
At sixteen months, Lulu knew one word: Hallelujah!  She would crawl around the house and suddenly stop, throw her hands up in the air, and yell, hallelujah.  It was the cutest thing I ever saw.  At dinner, when we said prayers, she would always finish with a, “hallelujah!”  I learned later that the reason this was the only word seemingly in her vocabulary was they cried, “hallelujah” in the orphanage whenever they received food, water or other necessities.  We called her our “hallelujah baby”.  
She still is my “hallelujah baby”.  Yes, she is stubborn and strong-willed.  Sometimes, when she is tired and cranky, she gets downright mean!  She often tells me I am the meanest mommy around and insists she is moving to her best friend’s house because her best friend’s mommy is nicer.  She unties her shoes and pulls the shoelaces out in the car just because she knows it infuriates me.  She climbs on the kitchen counter, stuffs toilet paper down the bathroom sink, colors on the walls and screams during time-out.  She can tie her own shoes, go across the monkey bars in lightening speed, play tennis, write her first and last name, read all the letters in the alphabet, count to 100, but she cannot put on her PJ’s at bedtime.  She would try the patience of Mother Theresa.  Yet, I believe, it is that strong-willed spirit that has seen her through the first few years of her life.   
Her life began in Haiti as a child born with numerous birth defects.  Her mother, knowing the very real threat of her child being killed, turned Lulu over to an orphanage.  The orphanage sought to get her medical treatment and thus she came to us through Healing the Children.  She had a bi-lateral cleft lip and palate which has since been corrected.  She also has other birth defects that will take numerous surgeries to correct.  Remarkably, in spite of her severe cleft lip and palate, she had adapted to drinking from a regular bottle.  It was her adaptability and spirit that endeared her to the people at the orphanage. They could have chosen from many children who also needed surgery, but they choose Lulu because, as one orphanage worker explained, she had a fighting spirit and we wanted her to have a chance at a good life.
Now, the baton has been passed to my family and we must make that dream come true.  I will fight to the ends of the earth for this child.  She knows that.  I will go to Haiti.  I will go wherever God sends me to give her that chance at a good life.  Ask any adoptive parent – these are our children regardless of flesh and blood.  We love them all the same. 
So, here I stand in front of the refrigerator, staring at the iced tea.  Can we get some more iced tea for my adoption party?  It’s such a simple heart-felt request from a little girl who wants nothing more then to belong to her family.  
I take her in my arms and I hold her.  I hold her so tight as if it will prevent her from being taken out of my arms.  I whisper in her ear.  “Let’s get to the store; we have a tea party to plan!”    
This story was written six years ago.  I am happy to say that Lulu was officially adopted when she was seven.  Her adoption was a true miracle.  We were told that the chances of the adoption going through were about 2% because her medical visa had long since expired.  We had all our prayer warriors praying daily that God would intercede - and he did!  The miracle happened by a “fluke” when one judge was filling in for the judge assigned to Lulu’s adoption.  The “fill in” judge signed the adoption papers on August 27, 2007 without us even knowing.  They arrived one day in the mail.  Needless to say, I cried (happy tears) all day long (and yelled a few “hallelujahs” too) .  When Lulu arrived home from school that day, I had the entire house decorated with banners that said, “Welcome home PAOLA (her given name) HENDERSON”.  And, of course, I met her at the door with Iced tea in hand.  

Be Still...

I picked up the rock without much thought.  I just wanted something to hold in my hand as my alone thoughts swirled under the gnarled shadowed arms of the ancient oak.  I chose the oak because its sturdy trunk represented strength – something I desperately needed at the moment.  I wanted a tree hug! I wanted it to wrap its twisted branches around me and breathe strength into me; renewing me.  As my lips quivered and the nose snot dripped, a tidal wave of sadness washed over my soul.  I feared the awfulness would take root in my heart and burden me with a forever heaviness.  The burden of sadness was filling my brain with its mournful song as I aimlessly snatched the rock from its mossy resting place. 
I held the stone in my hand and studied its smooth surface willing it to reveal the erasing sadness secret formula.  It didn’t hold any secret formula, though.  It was just a rock in a cemetery under an oak tree.  
Earlier today, I was anxiously trying to get to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave.  I had avoided this moment for over thirty years and I felt that I was finally ready to face the reality of my deep pain.  I left Washington DC and expected to arrive at the cemetery in New Jersey in about four hours.  I didn’t get there in four hours.  Instead, I became hopelessly lost as I aimlessly meandered through countless towns.  Yet, almost every town I drove through brought back flickers of childhood memories.  It was as if I had opened some long lost treasured scrap book in a dusty attic.  I drove through the pages of yesteryear; the loud jabber of the duck pond, the tree-lined memory lane where I lost my shoe in the leaf mountain, and the old red shuttered house with the juicy-fruit gum kitchen drawer.  But, no matter the twist or turn, not one road led me to the cemetery.  Finally, out of desperation, I pounded the steering wheel and, through trembling lips, shouted out to God, “I want to see my mother!”  I screamed at Him, “I am ready to find her!  Please, God, help me find her!”  
I turned one last corner and finally, after 7 hours of exploring every nook and cranny of my childhood, I saw the pillared gates of the cemetery towering over the distant trees.
I drove through the gates as the sinking sun cast a primrose hue over the manicured grounds.  I thought I would remember where my mother’s grave rested in this massive acreage.  I had been here once before when we buried my grandmother three decades earlier.  However, I didn’t even know if I came through the right entrance.  Once I actually passed through the gates, I looked for the statue I remembered from thirty years ago.  But, there were numerous statues that all looked the same. I drove from one corner of the cemetery to the next vainly hoping that something would spark a memory in the recesses of my mind.  I searched grave markers as the sun slowly descended and covered everything in deep shadows.  Finally, I gave up and found the old oak where I sat on a knotty root and cried.
My face puffed, my eyes swelled and my nose ran like a faucet as my tears made tracks down my face.  “I want my mother!” I bawled.  “Where are you, God!”  Silence.  He didn’t answer me.  In the quietness I plucked the solitary stone from its mossy resting place by my foot and angrily shook it at God.  
Then, as if out of the rock itself, came an immediate sense of calm.  A quiet awakening arose in me as a little voice broke through my ramblings and whispered, “Spend time with the living.”   “Spend time with the people you love because your time is a most precious gift.”  My sobbing immediately ceased as a quiet stillness overcame my sadness.  Then, one more voice spoke.  It was a mighty voice that spoke a profound truthfulness, “Be still and know that I am God.”  
I believe that He wouldn’t let me find my mother’s grave until I acknowledged in my heart that my dead mother cannot have a stronghold on my life any longer.  I must allow myself to grieve her loss and I must allow myself to embrace the sadness so that I can make room for the joy of spending time with people I love.  God knew I had to relive my childhood that day.  He knew I had to experience the utter frustration of not finding my mother’s grave because I had to come to the point where I cried out to Him for His strength.  
That evening, I left my exhausted, drained emotions at the foot of the oak.  I picked up the stone and wearily trekked back to my car.  I lovingly placed the stone on the seat next to me.  In my exhaustion, the stone provided a sense of serenity.  I found a hotel near the cemetery so that I could return in the morning.
The next morning I knew that I was really ready to say goodbye to my mother.  I found her grave with the help of the cemetery staff.  I kneeled by her marker and held the rock as I embraced the sadness that filled me.  “I’m ok, mom.”  I told her through my sobs, “I’m ready to say goodbye.”  I blew her a kiss as I watched a puff from a dandelion slowly descend over her grave.  It floated in the air and briefly touched my shoulder before catching a breeze.  I whispered these words as I followed the dandelion puff’s ascension into to indigo sky, “Be still and know that I am God.”  

Friday, June 3, 2011


It’s been a long time since I felt like the young’un in the room.  Parent-teacher conferences are always the worst sort of reminder that I’m no spring chicken.  I can remember when Paola was three and I sat in the peewee preschool chairs next to the twenty-something mothers listening to them chatter about their recent bikini waxes as my butt cheeks grew numb and my knees froze in place.  While they chattered, I fretted as to how I was going to maneuver myself out of the dreadful chair.  
I suppose I could drop to the floor and somehow roll to the table.  No, they’d probably think I was doing some kind of stop drop and roll drill...And even worse, I might pass gas since my butt is too numb to squeeze while on all fours...

Inevitably, my thoughts would be interrupted by one of the well-meaning parents in the room commenting to me about my adorable granddaughter.  It always perplexed the other parents that my “granddaughter” was black, but they were almost always bowled over when I explained that Paola was my daughter.  Now that Paola is 11, I bet that I am the only mother who can attend “muffins for mom” in the morning and go to ceramics class at the Sharing Center in the afternoon.
The Sharing Center is an amazing place where seniors can play pool, do puzzles, exercise, dance, learn computers, play cards, play tennis, play shuffle board, swim and attend all sorts of classes for just $25.00 a year.  I recently joined the “Sharing Center” (they’re trying to get away from the senior center stigma) a few months ago having reached the age of majority or, perhaps the more apropos “golden age” of over 50.  I was even asked to show my ID to prove I was over 50!  I think the lady at the desk said something like, “You don’t look a day over 45.”  I was so flattered by her kind words - I almost kissed her.  I never thought I’d see the day when someone telling me I don’t look a day over 45 would be considered a compliment!  “I pushed 40 away a long time ago,”  I laughed as I handed her my driver’s license, “and I’ve started my descent on the other side of the hill.”
My friend, Carol and I have become regulars at the pool hall, the swimming pool and of course the ceramics class.  The ceramics class is a spry group as far as senior centers go.  Most of them don’t use walkers and, if it weren’t for their blue hair, you’d never guess any of them to be a day over 70.  One day Carol and I entered the room just as Helga asked Arnelle in her thick German accent, “Did you ask Mildred why she didn’t answer her phone!”  
I couldn’t believe my ears!  Apparently, neither could our gay instructor who gasped in horror.  “Helga!” he screamed in his falsetto voice, “Did you just say what I think you said?”   
“Yaa, don’t go getting your panties in a wadt!” Helga spat back.  “I’m too oldt to be mincing words!”  “That woman drives me nuts!” Helga Continued.  “Do you know how lonk I’ve been tryink to talk to her!”  
Just then Mildred entered the room.  
Helga was the first to greet her, “Where the hell you been!” 
“None of your damn business!” Mildred countered.  
“Some freindt you are!”  Helga continued unperturbed.  “At least I answer my ‘’ phone!”
“That’s because you have nothing better to do with your time." Mildred smirked. "I, on the other hand, have been busy."  she continued, "In fact, I’m going out of town for a while.”  
“Where?” Asked Arnelle trying to diffuse the tension between the two ladies.
“Away.” Mildred replied mysteriously.  
“Remember that road trip we took last year?” Grace chimed in. “When we rented that van and drove to Ohio looking for molds.”  
At this point, I looked up from my ceramic pot that I was painstakingly painting.  To say that I was intrigued by the geriatric road trip is an understatement.  I regarded the group of four women; Arnelle, Mildred, Helga and Grace.  I surmised that none of them were younger than 80.  Arnelle soon confirmed my suspicion when she said that she was glad Grace was only 85 and had a valid driver’s license.  “Imagine the nerve of them asking me for my marriage license, passport and social security card just to renew my license.” Arnelle lamented, “I’m 98-years-old for God’s sake and never even had a speeding ticket!”  
“Well,” Helga chimed in, “That is why I have driver’s licentses from tree states - if one state won’t renew it - I just ust the utter one!”  
“That was some road trip!” Mildred laughed.  
What I gathered from the conversation that followed is that the ladies got tired of the same old ceramic molds offered in our Florida town so, they decided to go to Ohio where Grace knew of a place that offered unusual molds.  

I pictured them all loading into the van.  The two passengers in the back were Arnelle, the 4'5" 98-year-old who might weigh 80 pounds and Mildred who is taller than Arnelle by about 3”.  I would guess her to be in her early nineties because her doctor told her when she was seventy that her cataract surgery would last her about twenty years and now her eyes are starting to go.  I imagined that neither lady was visible to anyone looking from the outside in.  

Grace, the driver, is a spry quick witted octogenarian.  She always wears bright colors with huge matching flower pins that she makes herself.  Her personality is as bright as the neon blue flower accenting her snow white hair. I could picture her behind the driver’s wheel of the rented van confidently mastering the controls while Helga served as co-pilot.  

Helga is a bit on the heavy side.  I’ve never seen her standing.  She is always in the same chair when I arrive at ceramics and she usually is still there when I leave.  I believe that she is in her early 90’s because she mentioned that her husband died a few years back at the age of 91.   I have no doubt that she had a no-nonsense approach to co-piloting.  I’m sure she kept Grace on her toes as they raced down the freeway.  Their motto, “Ohio or bust”, was painted on the rear van window with shoe polish.  According to Arnelle, they had initially planned to drive straight through but Mildred convinced them all that it would be really cool to stay in a haunted bed and breakfast in North Carolina (but that’s another story).  
I had to laugh to myself as I listened to the dialogue filling the ceramics class.  What an amazing group of ladies!  “Wow,” I interjected, “that sounds like some trip!  I wish I could have gone.”  

“You!” Helga chided, “You’re just a young-un wit a family. You’d have slowt us down havink to call home and all!”  

“Well doesn’t that beat all”, I thought to myself, “Me a ‘young-un’.”  

I knew there was a reason I loved coming to ceramics class!