Dear Daddies

This Father’s Day will be the twelfth I have spent without my daddy, since he passed away in December, 1999. It will be the fourth without my father-in-law–in the fall of 2007, Pete lost his daddy, too.

And yet I still find myself searching through the Father’s Day cards at the store, hunting down the perfect one for each of them. For the first few seconds, it really is absent-mindedness. A blissful state of half-thinking that momentarily blocks my consciousness from the truth–that I will not see them again this side of Heaven.

It is an odd, paralyzing feeling to hold so much love for a person and yet find it impossible to express that love. To feel the tangible pressure of inexpressible gratitude for all those years of guidance, provision, affection.

For motorcycle rides, settled into Daddy’s generous stomach, his thick, strong arms hemming me in at each side.

For soft-spoken encouragement from Pete’s father, especially in regard to my writing.

For the joy of making Daddy laugh, sometimes so hard that his face turned pink and bright tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes.

There were rough years between my daddy and me. Years that I thought would leave irreversible scars. Phone conversations that ended abruptly with hang-ups. Misunderstandings. Harsh words. Tears of sorrow and of anger. Years that Father’s Day cards were particularly hard to read, to choose, to buy.

But then there was grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and miraculous restoration. And one year, I had to buy two cards because it was too hard to choose only one.

When reality hits and I pause in the card aisle, my hand in midair as I reach toward a card that looks promising, it takes me a minute to absorb the blow. Then, when I’ve taken a few breaths and settled my heart, I look through the cards anyway. And I don’t stop until I’ve found the perfect one for my daddy, and the perfect one for Pete’s. And I smile, and I hurt, and I say a silent prayer of gratitude to my Heavenly Father for the gift of earthly years with those strong, gentle, loving, wonderful daddies.

Then I slip the cards back into their places and let them go.

Giving Ourselves Away

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend from church whose family recently took in three foster children (a sibling group, ages 2, 6, and 10). She and her husband are one year away from sending their youngest child off to college. Their oldest three are all either finishing college or already out in the working world. Her husband is just a year or two away from retirement.

She shared with me the day-to-day struggles of caring for a toddler at her age, and dealing with the six-year-old calling her “Mommy” from the first day they met, and the palpable anger of the ten-year-old boy when he doesn’t get his way. She said she ends each day completely exhausted. Looking into her weary eyes, I believed it.

Then she said, “You know, we were really looking forward to our retirement years, and they’re so close now. We talked about how we would travel, and relax, and spend time together. And sometimes I feel like we’ve sacrificed our lives for these kids.”

She paused, leaned back in her chair with a smile, and said, “But that’s what it’s all about: giving ourselves away. What’s our life for, if not that?”

The Packer Game Incident

My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that’s what she said.

There it was, gleaming at me from the glossy pages of a catalog: the perfect slogan t-shirt, with its cheeky grasp of the truth. I reached for my purse, intending to pull out my Visa. My husband, Pete, and I don’t have a ton of arguments—mostly because he’s so nice—but his lack of listening skills has been the source of many of them.

I got as far as my wallet, then stopped and tossed the catalog in the trash. I knew that even the humorous tone of the t-shirt wouldn’t soften the truth of the statement and any chuckle he got out of it would just be masking a wound. I realized that if I did buy the shirt, I wouldn’t be going for a laugh. I’d be going for a “Gotcha!”

Less than one year into our marriage, we had the mother of all our later non-listening incidents. Pete is a huge Cheesehead and Packer Backer (that’s “Green Bay Packer fan,” for the uninitiated). One Monday evening in November, we sat at the dinner table with the tv on and clearly visible in the living room. The Packers were playing the Bears. At Lambeau Field. If that means nothing to you, well, back then it meant nothing to me either.

As we ate our dinner and Pete looked past me to the flickering image of Brett Favre’s green-clad torso, I began to share the details of yet another horrible day at the office. At first Pete tore his eyes from the television at regular intervals, nodding and mmm-hmmming at the appropriate moments.

But then it was first and goal—both at Lambeau Field and at our dinner table. I’d just gotten to the climax of my story, in which a troublesome coworker had scolded and humiliated me in front of several others. As I dabbed my tears with a napkin, I glanced at Pete. He was mid-nod with his head turned toward me. But his eyes were cast to the side, riveted on the image of an airborne football headed straight for the end zone.

Clenching my jaw, I decided to conduct a little test. Beginning a new sentence, I stopped halfway through to see if he’d notice. Instead, he pumped a fist in the air and roared, “Yyyessss!” To Brett Favre and Sterling Sharpe—not to me.

I rose from my place at the table—oozing grace and dignity—and stomped between Pete and the television to the bedroom. There I flopped, sobbing, onto the bed. And waited. I was sure he’d tear himself from the game and follow me, devastated at the hurt he’d caused his precious young bride.

I kept waiting. I waited at least twenty minutes.

By then, it was halftime at Lambeau Field. In our living room, Pete snapped out of his football-induced fog and noticed something: His wife was gone.

Despite his profuse and sincere apologies, it’s taken 12 years for me to find this story funny. Before I saw the humor, I carried it in my back pocket, whipping it out whenever I needed help winning an argument. Pete would swear I hadn’t told him something—perhaps that I’d invited 12 people for supper. Into my back pocket I’d reach: Oh, really? Who was the likely culprit, considering our history? Clearly, it was more plausible that I had told him, but he hadn’t been listening. Didn’t he recall The Packer Game Incident?

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that intentionally wounding Pete because of his failings does nothing to inspire him to listen to me more, or to fix things between us. Actually, my actions and attitudes regarding the problem have been far more poisonous to our relationship than his, infecting it with a spirit of unforgiveness.

I wish I could say that Pete has learned to listen to me all the time. He hasn’t. But I know he tries, and I know it grieves him when he fails. I wish I could say that I’ve learned to quit being angry and manipulative. I haven’t. Apparently we’re both flawed.

But there are some things we’ve learned: to laugh at the little things; to forgive the big things; and, believe it or not, I’ve learned to love football. Which means I don’t want him talking to me outside commercials and half-time either!

Though I didn’t buy the t-shirt, I did tell Pete about it. He got a good laugh and then thanked me, profusely, for resisting the urge to buy it.

Originally published in Marriage Partnership Magazine/Kyria.com. Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership magazine.

A Bit About Believing

My creative writing students are required to write in composition books every day. Often, I find notes to me: “Sorry this is boring,” or, “You don’t want to read this,” or, “I’m lame!”

They’re wrong, but I have to laugh because of what I’m thinking when words won’t flow: “I’m a hack. This will never happen.” It’s hard to maintain belief in your dreams when the road is so long and curvy and filled with pot-holes of disappointment.

That’s what made my latest birthday present from my husband so amazing.

He’d asked a friend of ours–a photographer–to make mock-up book covers for my two novels. Mind you, neither has been published (the second isn’t finished). But the book covers are so gorgeous, one guest at my surprise party asked where he could buy the books!

What’s truly incredible is what they represent: my husband believes. That there will be real book covers one day, covering real books, filled with words that I wrote in those impossible-feeling moments. When I can’t believe in myself, I look at those book covers and let his belief take over.

My students can’t wait to open their composition books when I return them. I write notes like, “You’re not lame,” and, “This isn’t boring–I wish you’d kept going.”

Find someone who believes in you; and find someone to believe in. It makes a difference–believe me.

Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Pikes Peak Writers NewMag.

Photos by Sandi Evans
Note: The Gathering Summer is now titled The Things We Leave Behind.

For the Sake of the Kids

Want to give your children a wonderful treat?  Leave them at home.

I’m well aware of the struggle to find time to go on a date with your spouse.  I’m also well aware of the struggle to find time with the whole family, and the guilt that goes along with that.  It’s tempting to forgo the date in favor of family time.  You know, for the sake of the kids.  Because time goes so fast, and all too soon they’ll leave home, and you can’t get any of that time back.

You want to know another thing you can’t get back?  A marriage relationship that you’ve let wither in favor of playing Monopoly with Junior and Betsy.  When your youngest child drives off in that packed car to college, do you really want to turn to your true love, right there at the edge of the driveway, and find yourself looking at a stranger?

Let me be clear: I am strongly in favor of family time.  We love board games; we love family hikes; we love time together around the dinner table.  We never do as much as I’d like to of any of the above, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try.

What Peter and I don’t do, however, is sacrifice our marriage relationship in the name of our relationships with our daughters.  That would be akin to building a top quality tile roof on a house you’ve constructed of toothpicks and scotch tape.  Our girls need to see us loving one another, making our marriage a priority, and enjoying our time together.  It gives them a sense of belonging to something real, solid, and safe … even fun!

After much trial and error, we have developed a sort of schedule (we do not follow it perfectly, but it’s our master plan).  We set aside every Friday for some activity or another, like so:

1st Friday – Date for Mom and Dad

2nd Friday – Dad gets one girl; Mom gets the other (we switch each month)

3rd Friday – Date for Mom and Dad again!

4th Friday – Family Night

In case you’re thinking that looks expensive, you’re right if you do it the way we started out.  The first month we tried this, we had the loopy notion that we all had to be completely out of the house every Friday evening.  We’ve since figured out that this does not have to (nay, cannot!) be the case.

Family Night might be game night, or dvd and popcorn night, or, on rare occasions, a trip to Arby’s or some other restaurant that the girls love as much as our wallets do.  We also love coupons (more on those later).

When we trade daughters, one pair of us does leave the house, just because it’s more effective that way.  But only one pair leaves, and we make sure we do something within our budget.  Like the dollar theater, or a walk through the neighborhood.  What the girls are really looking for is time to talk to Mom or Dad without a sister there to intrude.  There’s no minimum payment for that.

And on our date nights, we are coupon freaks.  We love the Entertainment Book because, at most restaurants, we only have to pay for one dinner.  This also helps stay out of a restaurant rut, because you can only use the card once per place.  If we don’t have a coupon for the place we’re going, we can still split the meal if we so choose.  We have friends who always get a three-course meal — but only one of each course, with extra plates all along the way.

Not in the mood to eat out?  There are movie ticket deals, event deals, a veritable treasure trove of … well, Entertainment!

Not in the mood to go out at all?  That’s okay, too.  See if you can get sleepovers for your kiddos (make a deal with another date-starved couple to trade nights) and stay home.  We like living room picnics.  We don’t even care what we’re eating, really.  Everything tastes better on a tablecloth, even if it’s on a card table or on the floor.  A candle doesn’t hurt.

If your issue is babysitting, again: you don’t have to actually go out.  If you can’t get sleepovers, you can just delay your date until after the kiddos are in bed.  Perfect time for star-gazing.  Which, of course, is free.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure your date of choice serves its purposes: much-needed time for you and your spouse; and much-needed evidence for your kids of the love you share.

On Second Thought …

Although I don’t think I’ll be posting every weekday as I was before, I have decided to start writing on this blog regularly again. If I can figure out how to do feedburner or something nifty like that, you can sign up to be notified whenever I’ve updated.

Here are some topics I plan on tackling in upcoming posts, beginning this Monday (May 5th):

– Living Parallel Lives (how tv and computers can interfere with your marriage)

– Taking Risks

– Believing in Beliefs vs. Following Jesus

– How Dating Your Spouse Makes a Difference to Your Kids

Hope you’ll tune in!

Mandy

Updates

I just posted a list of my favorite dates at Weekend Kindness. Click here to check it out.

If you want to see my current article in Marriage Partnership magazine, click here. You can read it in its entirely online.

And if you have an overwhelming urge to plunk down actual money to read my writing, you can click here to buy a copy of Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul, which includes my piece, “Adoption Means….” (Weird side note: in the Contributors section, I am listed as “Amanda Brown Houk,” and alphabetized under “B,” making it nearly impossible to find me if you’re looking for “Mandy Houk.” What’s even weirder? When I searched for “Mandy Houk” on Amazon to find the link to the book for this post, I discovered that I am included in the Contributor section of Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms. In this edition, I am listed correctly, as “Mandy Houk.” The problem? I don’t have any articles in that edition! Puzzling …)

As for this particular blog, I have decided to update it periodically, so if you can figure out how to get email notification of updates, let me know so I can post it here. (I don’t even know if that’s an available option!) In the next couple of days, I will be adding some new entries to the Book Reviews page, so look for that.

Thanks for visiting!