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  • Family & Time

    Every time I see them all together, usually only two to three times a year, I wonder where the time has gone. 

    “Them,” in this case, are the six Cook/McFarland first cousins — two boys bookending four girls in the middle. Nicholas, who I brought with me into the McFarland family, is the oldest at 21, followed by Elisabeth, the daughter of Michael and Jennifer who is 14 months younger.

    The remaining four — Kate, Margaret, Emma, and Ben — were born within a 11½-month period from December 1996 to December 1997, a fact that still boggles the mind and no doubt caused their grandparents a great deal of heartburn.

    Both of Jill’s parents have passed away — Betty in May 2005 and Bob last January. My dad died in 2007, and Elisabeth and Margaret also have lost their maternal grandfather. The links to generations past rest with my mom and the McFarland girls’ grandmother, who lives near the family.

    The kids are lucky that they have grown up relatively close to each other. My sister, Julie, and her five children live close to my mom in Texas, and proximity/time/resources have meant the cousins have seen each other only a handful of times growing up.

    In many ways, the last part of that statement mirrors my childhood. I only had two first cousins and saw them only on the odd occasions. It’s only since my dad’s death that I’ve reconnected with one of them, Melissa, and that remains sporadic. In many ways, both because of choice and circumstance, I feel like I’ve missed out on something.

    And that’s never more apparent than when I see our kids and their cousins together.

    As the family’s de facto photographer through the years, I’ve tried to gather all of the cousins together for pictures. Group photos are a bear under the best of circumstances because — depending on the group’s size — you literally have to take 20 or 30 shots to get one or two in all eyes are open and everyone is looking at you in a pleasant manner.

    Last weekend, we drove down to Elon to hear Nicholas perform with his a cappella group, Vital Signs. Usually, because of the other kids’ obligations and timing, I make the 580-mile round trip by myself or perhaps with one child in tow. But this time, we all made the commitment to see the oldest perform.

    We haven’t seen the McFarlands since Christmas — no surprise given the horrid winter and the coordination it requires to get 10 people together under the best circumstances — and my four sibs had not seen each other since February. But on this night, we were all there to cheer Nick on.

    After the show, we all went to eat dinner. Nicholas brought his girlfriend, Katherine, and Margaret’s boyfriend came along as well. The kids and adults caught up, visited, and slid back into the familiar familial rhythms. It was if no time had passed at all.

    ••••••

    One of my great regrets is that I was never able to get a strong posed shot of the six first cousins while Jill’s mom, Betty, was alive. Lord knows Betty and I tried, but I ultimately did not get a good group picture of the six until the Thanksgiving following her death. (Fortunately, after my dad died, my mom recognized how tough it would be to get all nine of her grandkids together, and had a formal family portrait taken that hangs in her house today.)

    Now with the kids in their teens and early 20s, the Cook/McFarland cousins understand that the opportunities for these photos are rare. So even though they occasionally grumble, or make an ill-timed run for the bathroom to primp, they largely comply with my requests.

    After the dinner, we rushed outside to the underlit parking lot. I put on the flash, focused with my fingers crossed and fired several times. Fortunately, of the five shots I took, one came out perfectly.

    I posted the most recent group shot and was struck by how lovely these kids — now teens and young adults — have turned out. Unable to sleep, I went back through photos of the kids through the years and watched them grow up again.

    Today, Ben and Emma are high school sophomores, as is Margaret. Kate is a junior. Nicholas is a junior in college, and Elisabeth is a sophomore. Sooner rather than later, the kids will no longer be part of our day-to-day lives, even though they never will be far from us.

    That’s something every parent must confront, and with so much of our identities wrapped up in being parents/professional schleppers of our all-too-special foursome, it can be scary to think of what the transition may bring. But in many respects, I’m looking forward to it, both for us and for them.

    In reality, it’s already occurring. Kate has driven for more than a year; Emma got her license in March and hasn’t looked back. We are now a three-car family with four drivers and another on the way, something that I haven’t had to deal with since I was a teenager myself.

    The freedom afforded you when your children drive is amazing, and an odd way to prepare you for the next chapter. It’s much like first-time parents experience in the latter stages of pregnancy’s third trimester, when no one can sleep and everyone is overjoyed, scared, and persistently nervous at the same time.

    Jill and I are fortunate, and I know it. Our kids are largely studious, respectful, and want to be the best they can at what they do. They spend too much time staring into the depths of their iPhones and questioning most (or at least many) decisions we make. But they truly are good kids, and I’ll miss having them around when that time comes.

    And it will be all too soon.

  • Everything Changes

    Sometimes it takes a little while for things to hit me. I usually prefer to keep a respectful distance between my emotions and the rest of my daily life.

    Occasionally, however, I get blindsided at the most unusual times for reasons I rarely understand at the moment. When I do, it feels being hit by the wave you see in the opening credits to “Hawaii Five-O” (original, remake, and Emma’s TV show of the season).

    That happened this past weekend, another you can file under the familial "One to Remember" category. Fracturing the time line, let’s start with Monday afternoon, when I went to the pool near our house.

    Memorial Day is the ceremonial start of summer in Northern Virginia, the time when the various suburban HOAs decide it’s finally time to open the community pools. Freezing cold or scorching hot, families flock with their towels and sunscreen and stake claims to the lawn chairs. Some, like us, you will rarely see; others won’t leave until Labor Day.

    I took a book — one of several I’ve been trying to read unsuccessfully for the past several months — and a seat next to Jill while Kate played with some friends.

    The title — Everything Changes.

    ••••••

    The pool and book were a nice way to end a weekend that at times felt more like Groundhog Day (the movie) than Memorial Day (the holiday). On a 900-mile roundtrip that lasted just over 48 hours, I watched as my oldest graduated from high school and my wife and brother-in-law took care of their ailing father.

    It was an explicit reminder that we officially are part of the Sandwich Generation, even if our hoagie feels open faced/ended and overwhelmed by condiments. (And that was before I managed to rekindle old ties in the most unlikely of places…)

    Because he is the family’s oldest child (and grandchild), Nicholas’ graduation is huge in varying degrees for everyone involved. His transition to adult life turns a large page for him (obviously), as well as both of his families.

    The weekend’s activities were an opportunity to bask in nostalgia, to show how proud we are of him, and to take some time remembering what has happened in getting to this point.

    But first, we traveled to Boone to see Jill’s dad, who marked his 80th birthday this month by landing in the hospital with a broken arm and a cancer diagnosis. It was not exactly the way you want to start the ninth decade of your life, but Bob was happy to see his grandchildren, and to get some time away from the rehab facility where he currently resides.

    Jill and her brother have an up-and-down history with their dad, but both are committed to ensuring that he has comfort, and above all else, dignity. They saw his desire to return to his house and are working to fulfill it as they can, even though we live 7 hours away and Jill’s brother is 3 hours from Boone.

    Putting aside past wounds is tough, but admirable, especially in what will continue to be uncertain times ahead.

    ••••••

    Two additional truisms/clichés were reinforced this past weekend: Irony is alive and well, and the world is a very small place. Both came courtesy of our newly coined high school graduate and two of his closest friends.

    One disadvantage of Nicholas’ living in North Carolina and us living here is that we don’t know his friends and their families. On Saturday night, the McFarlands and Cooks had a chance to meet the first girl with whom he shares a his-and-her Facebook status. Ironically, she is working as an intern this summer with the person who encouraged Jill to try musical theatre when she was a child.

    On Sunday, after graduation, we finally met Nicholas’ prom date — a longtime friend from middle and high school — and her parents. Except, as I discovered, we sort of already knew each other.

    As it turns out, her dad and I met more than 15 years ago in Reidsville, N.C., where he opened and owned a local Subway and I worked for the newspaper. Our paths crossed on a number of occasions, and as people tend to do, we talked about our families — his little girl and my little boy.

    They’re not so little any more.

    ••••••

    When it comes to escaping your past, you’d have a better chance of swimming to shore from Alcatraz than shedding the vestiges of a small town. That’s doubly true if you’ve lived in Texas or North Carolina.

    Despite what I may have thought when I left, I have no desire to escape the places that brought me to this point, or wipe them from my memory. My heart always will always have a special place for Reidsville — a place I’ve written about before — and I know I can’t fully leave it behind.

    I think about this often, and was reminded of it again while reading Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe, a comic novel about a man who returns to the small town where he grew up and realizes that everyone hates him, just because he had written a bestselling, thinly veiled piece of fiction about his miserable high school experience.

    Tropper’s self-deprecating, faintly absurdist style appeals to me — I truly wish I could write like that — and I have been slowly making my way through his other books, of which Everything Changes is one.

    Sitting at the pool yesterday afternoon, I looked around at others in the crowd and felt somewhat nostalgic. I remember when the pool opened, and what a big deal it was for our fledgling subdivision. I remembered the lifeguard getting on Ben’s case for running, and hearing him say, “I’m not running, I’m skipping.”

    Then, as I went to get something out of my car, I heard a slightly deep — though distinctly teenage — voice say hello. I turned and saw a young boy/man whom I barely recognized. He asked about Ben and politely reintroduced himself, and I realized he was part of a set of twins who we met when we first got here in 2001. All four kids, plus Kate, started in daycare together and now are teenagers.

    That’s when the emotions hit me.

    I told the young man goodbye and walked to my car, asking myself vaguely existential questions: Where did the time go? What happened to the last 10 years? Why did the time fly by in a blink?

    There’s no easy answer to the last question, or a decent explanation for all the emotions attached. I’m still processing that one.

  • Dimming the ‘Lights’

    It’s fitting that my favorite television show is ending its run with episodes tonight and next week, and I won’t be there to watch it. After all, I have seen only two or three episodes of “Friday Night Lights” in real time any way.

    And that’s OK, because I never really wanted to watch the show when it started.

    I’m a big fan of H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction book, which told the story of a northwest Texas and the obsessive fans who rooted for the Odessa Permian football team. I also enjoyed the 2004 film based on Bissinger’s book, but had no interest in a fictionalized TV version.

    I didn’t, it turns out, want to go home again.

    My family is scattered across the state, from the petroleum-fueled Gulf Coast to the barren West Texas town of Albany to Longview’s piney woods in the east. Football was, is, and forever shall be the center of everything in many of these tiny communities.

    That last statement is overly simplified, of course. It's just like the one from the person who says, “The only reason you have December, January, and February is to celebrate Jesus’ birth and to mark the time between the playoffs and the start of spring practice.” (I know that statement isn’t true because I spent almost a decade in North Carolina, where people live for December through February because that’s the heart of ACC basketball season.)

    Texas was my home state for 28 years, and for much of that time, the town I grew up in felt stifling. Why look at fiction when I could recall my reality in bright, living, humid color?

    The show’s pull loomed large, however, as its first season ended, appropriately when I was traveling back and forth to Texas to see my dad, who was dying of cancer, So I purchased the first season on DVD, but never could watch it. I couldn’t commit.

    Then, two months after my father died, I saw a few minutes of the Oklahoma-Texas game at a restaurant and thought immediately of him. He refused to miss any UT game that was on, sitting in his chair in his Longhorns coat, a football fan until the end.

    After Oklahoma won by 7, I thought again about growing up in Texas. The next night, I went and found those DVDs. Four bleary eyed days later, fueled by insomnia and the fictional Dillon Panthers, I was ready for season 2.

    Fortunately, that season was cut short by the writer’s strike, in part because it had an ill-advised plotline that everyone agrees was a mistake. Still, even in its most ludicrous moments, the show had passages that were absolutely sublime.

    The beauty of “Friday Night Lights” is that it’s not just about football, but life in a small town. It is not afraid to deal with issues of class, economics, and race — all of which are facts of life in any small community.

    Most of all, it captures the little details so beautifully – the rebellion, confessions, religion, community, mistakes, and connections between neighbors, family, and friends. The marriage between the coach and his wife feels real. The other characters, all with flaws and redeeming qualities, sometimes in equal measure, are archetypes of those we all know.

    I know this now having watched all 76 episodes in marathon stretches, always after it has been released on DVD. I usually buy the season on the day it becomes available, intending to watch right away, but inevitably I repeat the season 1 pattern. I dance around it, then watch in a single gulp.

    Because season 5 was released before the show started this summer on NBC — its last three seasons were a split arrangement between the network and DirectTV — I’ve already seen the final episode that ended the series run in a typically classy fashion. As the last two episodes approach on television, however, I’ve continued to reflect on “Friday Night Lights” and what it has meant to me. Why does it make me cringe with memories and smile privately at the same time?

    I guess, because when I’m watching from a couch 1,500 miles away, I have a little piece of home — the home where I grew up — with me. As I raise kids of my own, I’m finding more and more that that little piece is a big thing.