Free-Range Parenting: European Edition

Living overseas is an amazing experience for anyone, but particularly for children. And getting to live on an American base offers a “best of both worlds” situation, which was the case for our family during my second half of elementary school.

As civilians, there were actually two cultures to learn: the military one and the German one. For example, each day at 5 o’clock meant stopping in your tracks no matter where you were for the playing of Taps and the flag lowering in the square. I had never seen a gun in real life, yet I was now walking to school alongside soldiers carrying impressively large firearms. Hilariously, the elementary school shared a fence with the firing range. On the one side, the playground equipment, the other side, target practice.

As these were the days before internet, another country was a mysterious thing indeed. There were fashions we’d never seen, like track pants, strange pronunciations of familiar words, like AHDIdas and CAPreeSOHnah. And there were strange foods such as whipped cream without sugar.

My parents were definitely more relaxed than my generation when it came to letting us wander about, and I know a good portion of that was the times in which we were raised. But when I think back to some of these memories at age 10, I can scarcely believe it. Recently, my best friend from sixth grade was in town and we met up for brunch. Her parents were also there, and we all told stories of those years spent on base and the crazy adventures we had.

Lara and I loved riding our bikes around, and since base was only a measly square mile, we’d often ride through the MP-guarded gates and out “on the economy,” as it was called. In the summer months, we’d bike up to the outdoor pool, which would cost about two Deutschemarks entrance and then another mark or so for an ice cream. We wore no helmets, we had no cell phones, no one made sure we applied sunscreen or monitored us from the water’s edge to prevent our drowning, and we possessed only enough language skills to say “Einen Erdbeereis, Bitte,” and of course, “Danke!” when handed a strawberry ice cream cone.

As we rode along the bike path to Vaihingen Freibad, we had to cross through a tunnel. Under the Autobahn. It was a popular place for graffiti, and I learned some fascinating words as well as saw some new symbols. I was wise enough to not ask my parents what they meant.

I know we were safe. I know we were prepared. But I can’t help but be horrified at the thought of sending my own nearly-10 year old off in the same fashion. And I know my mother would be, too! But I guess if you can play on the see saw overlooking the Rod & Gun Club and survive, what’s a little bike ride?

lara's birthday party
lara’s birthday party – my outfit, man.
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Seventeen Years Today Since I Lost My Dad

My mother died a few weeks before my third birthday. When my dad passed away from smoking-related cancer, I was a few weeks shy of my 23rd birthday.

Twenty years provides a significant perspective.

For starters, I barely remember my mother: I have a sum total of two memories of her, in fact. My dad, on the other hand, while he didn’t raise me, occupies a much broader space in my memory. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my dad giving me away. The story was met with an overwhelming amount of support for which I was grateful. It was a story about what it was like for me, a child at the time, which led me to think about the fact that all of us parents were at one time children. Our own children obviously didn’t know us then, but the truth remains that a lifetime existed before we became mom and dad in the story.

I distinctly remember thinking how long ago and far away the childhoods of my parents were from my own. The stories they told were imagined in black and white in my mind to further support the nostalgia of it all. There were world wars and poodle skirts and scary nuns all rolled up into some ancient tale of yore. It might as well have been a hundred years instead of thirty. When I look at my children and realize this is how the 1980s must seem to them, it is impossible to comprehend, considering it feels like last year to me some days. Which is how my parents must have felt about an Eisenhower presidency. Strange.

Today marks seventeen years since my dad died, and instead of remembering his as my dad, I wanted to share a little from that first of his lifetimes – before marriage and children and all that I knew of him firsthand.

Aloysius Joseph Morson was born in 1938 to Mary Agnes in her home. She was 38 years old, considered well past childbearing norms for the day. Although he was her third son, she had previously been unable to pass on my Pop-Pop’s name, as he wouldn’t allow it. But Pop-Pop was a trucker and not present when my dad was born, so Grandmom finally got her wish.

Baby Brownie
Baby Brownie

My dad had a couple of nicknames when he was little, the cutest of which was Brownie, for his super dark brown eyes. This one stuck with him into adulthood, then shortened to Brown. He was Uncle Brown to his many nieces and nephews.

no smiles for school

As a little boy, my dad got himself into a bit of trouble both at home and at school. You can even see the impishness in his eyes in all of the photos. I have no doubt his charm saved him from half of the punishment, which is typical of youngest children as well. My dad was very smart, but school wasn’t for him. I’m certain the nuns and priests who taught him had their work cut out for them, including then-Father, later Cardinal O’Connor, who drove my dad to school. They were all probably relieved to not be parents after having such a student in their classes.

my dad with his dog, Mike

As a child, my dad loved animals. He had a pet chicken called Cluck-Cluck that lived in the backyard. At least he thought he had a pet chicken. Cluck-Cluck was destined for the dinner table, a fact that led my dad to steer clear from poultry from that meal on. There were always dogs and cats for pets, however, and they seemed to gravitate towards my dad.

My dad and his brother, the father who raised me, were best of friends. they were only a year and a half apart, and a full decade behind the next sibling up, so their adventures were often combined. Unlike my dad, however, his brother was much more responsible. I like to imagine they balanced each other out: one keeping the other out of far greater danger, the other helping to keep things fun and interesting. Double-date stories are some of my most favorite of the pair. My dad enjoyed telling on his sainted brother, including one particularly ridiculous moment when they showed up for a blind date with a pair of nurses. As the legend went, the father who raised me took one look at his intended date who was less than attractive, and had jumped a fence and run off before my dad knew what had happened. My dad laughed until he cried while recreating the cries of, “I’ve got to gooooo” as his brother escaped off into the distance.

My dad was a thoughtful dreamer, for sure, and he wrote my mother little cheesy love poems. They were as heartfelt as they were terrible. I have to admit, it took a lot of guts, considering the talented writer my mother was. He definitely lived to make her happy. And as cheesy as it sounds for me to say, I hope the two of them are together again, living out the life they never had time for before she died, leaving him heartbroken after four short years.

I miss my dad everyday. I wish he could have met my babies and been their Grandpa. But today I remember all the silly stories of his boyhood. And when I look at my son, who carries my dad’s name in his own, I will practice an extra dose of patience for the little charmer with the twinkle in his eye.

When Your Best Friend Wins a House

Do you remember that show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Hosted by that dude with the silly name and the crazy hair? Some thought he was hot, but not me. I found him icky. Actually ran into him at a benefit in NYC last year. Turns out I was correct: Creeptown, USA.

Alas, I digress.

So I’ve known my Kim since we were sixteen years old. (Please pretend that was 10 years ago) And as fate would have it, we both ended up living in Northern Virginia at the same time. She with her sweet baby while her husband was deployed, and I with my husband, around halfway through my first pregnancy. Which is when Kim entered a contest and was selected to receive a house. On a reality show.

Home Team wasn’t nearly as fancy as that ABC version, and while we weren’t building a sprawling estate from the ground up, Kim and her new family would be provided a home with a bit of equity and some new furnishings. Instead of creepy Ty and his bird nest hairdo, the host of Home Team was none other than Troy McClain, runner-up on the first season of The Apprentice.

Of all the random situations we have found ourselves in over the years, this was definitely the most glamorous and exciting. Kim didn’t know she had won, she was told she was a finalist, but the producers were busy organizing our little group of friends to rehab her new house in a matter of a long weekend and surprise her with it.

The plan was this: Kim would host us all at her apartment for a party where the television crew would interview us under the guise of “getting to know the finalists.” We all had some snacks that evening, met the crew, and without Kim’s knowledge, made plans to meet up the next day for furniture shopping. Both Kim and her husband’s families were also brought in for the sneaky bits.

I was just coming off my permanent IV for my pregnancy, so I wasn’t much help in the light construction department, but while some were moving toilets and painting walls, I got to tag along on Home Goods runs with the production team, picking out candles and the like. Much more my speed anyway.

After three extremely intense days, Kim arrived at what she thought was a filming location but was actually her new home. It took a bit of time for it to sink in, but we were all there waiting, grinning from ear to ear, and excited to be a part of this amazing gift. The show had even set up a satellite link for Kim’s husband to talk to her all the way from the Middle East.

HOME TEAM!
A SMASHING SUCCESS, HOME TEAM!

When the show aired, I think only a handful of people saw it, and while it was an awesome concept, Home Team didn’t last more than a few episodes. But our Kimmy and her family got a house, we all hung out with a reality TV star who was more than happy to indulge us with a “Troy McClain” impression, and everyone came together and had an awesome time. A job well done, I’d say.

the team hanging out with troy.
the team hanging out with troy.

I Was Far too Polite for Rockin’ the Suburbs.

Shirley Manson. PJ Harvey. Dolores O’Riordan. Annie Lennox. These women are badass. Notice the lack of Jenn on that list.

In all fairness, I have a bit of badassery to my name, but when it came to the stage, I wasn’t the best at it. Go figure, middle school teacher by day.

When you’re young and carefree, you’re just happy to play shows. Any shows. Which is how it came to pass that we were slightly down the beltway in scenic Woodbridge one Friday evening, 2nd in the lineup of four bands. The room was sparse, thick with cigarette smoke, and while it was a bit terrifying to some of our friends, I felt at home, having frequented a number of similar establishments during my college years. You could have dropped the Spotlight smack dab in the middle of Follansbee, West Virginia, and had yourself a thriving venue.

I was feeling a whole lot self-conscious that particular evening as my sister and her husband were there along with my brothers. So when it was our time to play, I was trying my best to focus on the back wall, and just make it through our thirty minute set. A song or two in, no one was throwing beer bottles, so I considered the night a success.

Then it happened. The audience had a special request.

“Show us your tits!” rang out from the darkened room. A few times. And I panicked a wee bit, which, let’s face it, makes sense. I was in a biker bar. My eyes darted around the room, trying to figure out where the creepy was coming from so it could be avoided once I had left the relative safety of the platform stage. I remember feeling like I might throw up.

But did I channel my inner Joan Jett and flip them off? Did I call upon the spirit of Janis Joplin to hasten to my side? No, no I did not.

I meekly replied with a slight giggle, “OH! No, thank you!”

Someone really should have revoked my microphone privileges then and there.DSC01414

The Graminator Strikes Again

My grandmother was ninety years old when she came to live with us. She stayed with us until her death at the young age of 101. Those eleven years are a treasure trove of stories ranging from the challenging to the ridiculous, and sometimes the cringe-worthy. Of course, perspective is everything here, and what may have started off to be a particularly dark moment is now the stuff of family legend.

Take for example my cousin’s wedding.

As luck would have it, I missed this particular event because I was at Girl Scout camp, but the basic premise was fairly routine: getting a large family which included a ninety year-old grandmother out the door on time for an event two hours away. It just didn’t happen.

So my family barreled up I-95 in the big brown van, running woefully behind, and strategizing how to quietly sneak into a wedding in progress. At least it was summer, so no overcoats would be involved.

As fate would have it, they arrived during the bridal procession. My mom corralled everyone in the parking lot to wait out all of the pomp and circumstance, planning to shimmy up the side aisle as soon as all the attention was refocused on the front of the church. It was a solid plan, and one I have also had occasion to implement.

It was at that moment that she realized Grandmom had made a break for it.

My grandmother was a smaller woman, not much over five feet, and she had a strutty way of propelling herself forward which involved a Kramer-esque head jiggle. She always nestled her one arm under her bosom and swung the other one a bit, leaning back as she went, seemingly fueled by her matriarchal pride.

And she was at that moment strutting herself toward the center aisle of the church, a few paces behind the bride.

My parents tried the loud church whisper, and whether it was grandmom’s failing hearing or a dedication decision to ignore them, on she went, right behind the clueless yet beautiful bride of my cousin, smiling and nodding at everyone she passed, certain they were all pleased as punch to see her.

Thankfully, my cousin’s wife is a gracious woman, and while this might have infuriated a good number of brides, she took it all in stride. Maybe Grandmom didn’t hear my mom, maybe she just relished the attention, maybe she was reliving her own wedding, no one knows. But at least everyone was able to have a good laugh.

Grandmom at nineteen.
Grandmom at nineteen, pre-wedding crasher days.

My Scandalous Great-Aunt Rose

My grandmother was the oldest daughter in her family of nine, and the “baby girl” of the family was named Rose, named after her mother. In 1924, Rose was sixteen years old, pregnant, and unmarried.

Teen pregnancy has always existed, certainly, and is still considered to be less than ideal, but in 1924, it was beyond shocking. But there was no shotgun wedding, no rush to legitimize, none of that. I’ve only ever seen photos of my great-grandparents as they died decades before I was born, but I think it’s safe to say that telling them she was pregnant must have been the most terrifying moment of young Rose’s life. To their credit, my great-grandparents supported their child and grandchild, and Rose stayed with them as they helped raise her son, Joseph.

movie star good looks
movie star good looks run in the family

Joe grew to be a fine man, and before leaving to fight for his country in World War Two, he married his love. He was nineteen.

Joe’s wife was pregnant when he died in combat.

Great-Aunt Rose never married, but she helped Joe’s widow raise her grandson, Bobby Joe. I like to think she was one of the many bad ass women in my lineage.

In Honor of My Favorite Russian

For some ridiculous reason, my parents trusted that I was wise enough to start college early. There were of course some conditions, which included having to live with my older sister and have some “house rules” that most college freshmen don’t have, but all the same, I was a sixteen year-old freshman.

One of the first weekends post-matriculation, an outdoor dance was held on the tennis courts next to one of the dormitories. I knew a couple of girls who were siblings of my sister’s friends, and we were all standing around awkwardly when a confident and gorgeous girl strutted by. While we shuffled our feet around, this girl was full of life, laughing and talking away as if she had known everyone there for years and was their most cherished friend. As it turns out, she was also a freshman, and herself only seventeen. As she started to speak, I noticed her foreign accent – it turns out that in addition to being gorgeous, she had mysterious going for as well.

I don’t remember what it was that everyone discussed, but at this extremely conservative Catholic university, and myself still being fairly conservative, I remember we disagreed vehemently. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh well, she’ll never talk to me again,” as I went on my merry way, awkwardly bopping along to some R.E.M. I was pretending to know.

Except the strangest thing occurred – I ran into her the next day in the halls of the dorm, and she did talk to me. Which makes her a better person than I, because undoubtedly I had been a jerk. As one does when one is sixteen.

Inexplicably, we became fast friends. We came from very different beginnings – two different continents, in fact – and had nearly opposite world views. She is an only child, I have five siblings. She was a heavy metal-loving skater girl, I spent my evenings sewing dorky jumper dresses in my room.

But no matter who we met or made out with or fought with, she was my person.

Happy birthday to you, Lena-bunny. I wish Moscow were closer.

Yes, we still look exactly like this. I promise.
Yes, we still look exactly like this. I promise.