Friday, February 5, 2016

Gratitude Isn’t Enough

Yesterday, I went about my business as usual, not paying too much attention to my surroundings, taking for granted that I woke up in my bed and a hot shower was just steps away and there was coffee and food downstairs in the kitchen. I gave not a thought to the fact that I could lock up my house and leave it and know that my belongings would still be there when I came home.

Yesterday, I might have still grumbled about my crappy old car, and I might have wished for some extra spending cash to go buy myself some new clothes because I’m tired of wearing the same sweaters and jeans. I may have had a thought in my head at the grocery store that it would be nice to try some of those pricey Boar’s Head cold cuts as I settled for the ones that were on sale.

This morning, though, everything felt like a luxury. The warm bed, the heated house, the food in the fridge and pantry, the hot shower weren’t just basic necessities, but something to be truly grateful for. And then there were the actual luxuries: my phone, where I could check my e-mail and the news before actually getting out of bed. The lotion I rubbed into my skin after my shower. My cats—and the fact that we have enough money not just to feed ourselves, but our furry companions. Yesterday, those things may have felt like necessities, but today I realize they are not.

Last night I went to a yoga class—again, a luxury, but one that does my body and my mind a lot of good. I came out of the class feeling good but hungry, ready to go home and get myself a late dinner, probably a healthy salad. I had parked a little farther away from the studio than I normally do, and as I reached my car, I heard a cough. I turned to see a woman in the vestibule of a vacant building, huddled up in a blanket, settling down for the night.

I could not pretend I hadn’t seen her, but I got in my car, and as I drove away, I was rationalizing to myself why I saw a person in need and did nothing. I knew that those rationalizations were meaningless—I couldn’t fix her problems, but I could treat her like a human being and get her something to eat.

I drove a few blocks and then turned around and went back to her. She told me her name and her story, but as she was very particular about not wanting to be “talked about,” I will honor that and not give any specifics about her. But she wasn’t an addict, nor mentally ill as far as I could tell, although certainly, being on the streets for a while is bound to take a toll on a person’s mental health.

She was just a woman whose life had a few loose threads, and once one of those loose threads was pulled, it began to unravel. Although there was one choice in particular that she points to as the reason for her present circumstances, it was not something that seemed like a bad idea at the time. I might well have made that same choice.

She told me about spending her days looking for work, which is difficult when you don’t have a car. She had to turn down a job doing night cleaning at the mall because the buses here don’t run at night, so getting there would be a problem. Of course, not having access to a shower would certainly hamper a job search—particularly since her job experience had been in retail.

She had two large suitcases containing everything she owned, and I wondered (but didn’t ask) what she did with them while she was searching for a job. The idea of being constantly encumbered by one’s worldly belongings and the necessity of keeping them safe was something that had never occurred to me. I stood there holding nothing but my car keys, with my purse safely locked in my car and the rest of my belongings at home, not something I needed to worry about.

I asked her if she had eaten and offered to buy her a meal. She said she did get some food stamps, but that you can only buy cold food with them, so she was happy for the chance for some hot food. If you have no means of heating up (or keeping cold in warmer weather) the food you buy, that does limit things a bit.

She asked me where I was going to get the food, and when I suggested the Noodle House, she said, “Oh, I would dearly love some shrimp fried rice.” Well then, I thought, you shall have some shrimp fried rice.

I went the couple of blocks to the Noodle House and ordered her food, which cost me about as much as a yoga class, and when I brought it back to her, we chatted a bit longer. I was hungry and getting colder in my leggings and fleece top, and that was when I started thinking about how much I have and how much I take for granted.
A couple of years ago, in the course of my work, I came across a word that didn’t mean what I thought it meant: intractable. I had thought it meant something that couldn’t be fixed, but what it actually means is something that is difficult to remedy. Difficult, but not impossible. Homelessness is often referred to as an intractable problem, and it’s a sticky one, to be sure. I felt pretty helpless as I stood there listening to this woman talking about her life, knowing that there was no easy solution.

But this morning, as I noticed with new appreciation everything I have available to me, I realized that being grateful for what I have is not enough. It would further dehumanize this woman who is so invisible to society if I reduced her to a reminder to be grateful. Of course I should be grateful for what I have, and it should not require meeting a woman who has nothing at all to make me grateful.

The concept of a social ladder assumes that there are people on the bottom rung—or not even on the ladder at all. And sometimes, with the income gap widening at an alarming rate, it feels like the ladder has been pulled a few feet off the ground and rungs have been knocked out of it. As I stood there talking and listening to this woman, I wondered how in the world she was going to grab that bottom rung again and begin to pull herself up.

But more than that, I wondered what I could do to help. What we can do to help. Because we have to. It cannot be OK that there are people sleeping with their suitcases in vestibules. We cannot pretend not to see these people, or that they have somehow done something to deserve it, or that, if they just made better choices, they could pull themselves out of it.

It’s not enough to look at them and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We need to find a way for them to experience that same grace.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

If Parenting Is Like Gardening, I'm Screwed

A few weeks ago, we bought some outdoor plants to begin our spring planting—it’s mostly decorative, although I do have herbs on the back deck.

I always say that I’d like a vegetable garden, but the truth is that I don’t think I would make a very good gardener. I’ve gotten better at keeping the plants from dying, but when we first moved in together and started planting green things in the ground and in pots, I needed frequent reminders about watering them during the day. I still need reminders, but not as frequently, and mostly, what we plant does fine, and it’s very satisfying to see those little green things growing and flowering.

Indoor plants, sadly, are another story. You would think it would be easier to remember to water those, since, you know, they live in the house with me, but no. Not even a terrarium, which is supposed to water and sustain itself, survived under my care. We had this hardy little rubber plant, though, that did survive for a long time, trooper that it was.

But a week or two ago, I had a glass of water that been on my nightstand overnight, and I thought, hey, I should water the plant with this! And I went over to the back door where the plant lived, and it was gone. That is how much I had neglected the poor thing—it just disappeared without my noticing it at all. I asked my husband about it, and he said he had tossed it on the compost pile weeks ago.

Alas, poor rubber plant, we barely knew you.

Our butterfly plant. 
It makes me really happy, though, when I manage not to kill them off. We haven’t planted our impatiens yet
this year, but we usually have a bed of them next to the sidewalk, and they’re such cheerful little flowers. There’s a perennial butterfly plant in a pot out front, too, and I love seeing it return every spring, with its purple leaves and delicate white flowers.

None of these would have survived if it had been up to me, but I’m glad I married someone who wasn’t scared to plant just because his wife had a black thumb.

I’ve heard lots of analogies over the years about how parenting is like gardening, and while I can understand the analogy on an academic level, I’m glad it’s not the case that being bad at one means you’ll be bad at the other. When I was pregnant with my son, apparently I was afraid that it did mean that, because I had a dream during my pregnancy that my baby was born, and I left him in a windowsill and forgot to feed him. It didn’t take a lot of dream analysis to figure that one out!

So as much as I tend to disregard those gardening/parenting analogies, I surprised myself by having something of a parenting epiphany the other day while looking at the plants we bought for the planter boxes on the front porch.

They’re some kind of lilies—I don’t know. I tossed out the little card that was in the tray of plants once I got the little guys tucked into their beds, but the picture showed that there would eventually be flowers on these cute little plants that really looked like we had stuck pineapples in the ground and buried them up to their necks. No sign of flowers or buds or anything at all. But awfully cute little plants.

Several weeks have passed now, and the plants have gotten taller. Basically the same as when we got them, but
elongated. Gangly, like teenagers. When the tiniest buds started to appear in the tops of these tall, gangly teenage plants, I thought, oh, goody! We’ll have flowers soon!

But now those buds have just gotten bigger and they are just tantalizing me. It seems like it’s been a week that they’ve looked like any day now they’ll be flowers, but no. The buds stay stubbornly closed, even though to me they look like surely they’re ready to open up.

As I was looking at the buds yesterday, willing them to open, it occurred to me just how much those gangly plants are like my boy. A cute little thing when I brought him home, there was only the vaguest suggestion, based on his anatomy, that he would one day be a man. And he’s grown the same way these plants have grown—mostly just up. As with the outdoor plants, too, there have been influences other than me that have shaped him and aided in his growth.

I’ve enjoyed all of the stages of his growing-up years and noted with satisfaction when the first signs started showing that, indeed, he was going to turn into a grown man one day.

Now he’s 20, and it seems like, really, those buds of adulthood should be opening faster than they are. Now that adulthood is so close, it feels like it’s never going to happen. I keep watching for it, encouraging, doing what I can, but there is no forcing that bud to open. I know, though, that just like that bud will open into a flower, my boy will  be a man.

But whereas I had a picture of the plant to show me how it would turn out, I don’t really have anything like that for my boy. He has always been his own person, doing things at his own pace and in his own way, and he’ll be his own man, too.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old

On St. Patrick’s Day, I saw a bunch of Irish quotes going around, and one that particularly struck me said, “A good friend is like a four leaf clover: Hard to find and lucky to have.”

The reason it struck me is that I don’t think it’s true. I think it should be the other way around: lucky to find and hard to have and keep. Well, when I say hard to keep, I mean it doesn’t just happen—there is work involved to keep a friendship going for 10, 20, 30 years or more.

I have four friends from high school—A, B, R, and S—who illustrate this perfectly. Any description of our friendship will inevitably sound like the back cover copy of a chick lit book, but I’ll try anyway.

I’ve known B the longest, since we were in middle school together before we both ended up at the same small boarding school. A was my first roommate, and we were so different in so many ways that we joked that we were Ernie and Bert—I was the messy, carefree Ernie, and she was Bert. S found me on the first day we moved into our dorm rooms—she was wandering down the hall, wondering out loud to anyone who might be listening why there were so few electrical outlets in our rooms. And R was just one of those people who drew you in—you wanted to be her friend, felt lucky to be counted among those she called friends.

Among the five of us, we covered quite a spectrum: B was the athletic one (and also the smart one); A was the serious, forthright, straight-laced one (another smart one); S was the loud, funny one; and R was the popular one. And I’m the narrator, so I can avoid labeling myself. But since this was the group I fell in with, I can’t say that these good friends were hard to find. We just found each other, and it was lucky we did.

Keeping them, though—that hasn't been luck. That’s taken some effort over the last (ahem) 30-something years, as we’ve all had life happen to us in a variety of ways and we’re scattered all over the country. 

The gang’s all here, plus a couple of extras—but this was us in high school.

S, although she lives the farthest away, has in many ways been the easiest. We did lose touch for a few years after high school, but got back in touch when my son and her oldest were babies, and the closeness came right back and never left. These days if we don’t talk (or at least chat on Facebook) every day, things feel a little off. We talked through the darkest days of my divorce as well as the darkest days of her cancer treatment, and we talk about plenty else that’s not anywhere near as heavy as that. She’s still the loud, funny one, and so much more. She’s also my sounding board, my reality check. Although A, B, and R were in my first wedding, only S was in my second.

A lives out west now, and sadly, she has health issues that keep her from traveling very much. She did come out for B’s wedding seven years ago, but she won’t be at our high school reunion this fall. The thing I love about A is that she is so very pragmatic that sending an e-mail to make a date to talk on the phone next Tuesday at 3:00 is completely normal, and so that’s what we do. But last week she called me because she had fallen down on the floor with a terribly painful back spasm, and after making sure her 10-year-old could get to school by himself, she asked him if he would bring her pain meds, a glass of water, and her phone before he left, and she called me to pass the time until she could get up. Did I mention she’s incredibly pragmatic? We don’t do it often enough, but we make the phone dates, since that’s the only way to stay in touch. 

R is down at the beach, and although it’s been a few years now since we’ve seen each other, for a long time her home was the place I went when I needed a break from life—she was my refuge from the storm. I thought it might change once she got married, but her husband has welcomed me many times too—sometimes it’s just been me, and sometimes I’ve had my boy with me. One time, before I was coming, she was going through a stressful time, and her husband asked if she really felt up to company. “Company?” she said to him. “Sharon isn’t company. She'll probably end up cooking for us.” There have been times I’ve felt like maybe my friendship with R might just fade away—I’ve changed so much that I know it’s hard for her to keep me as a friend. But we talked about it and decided that, despite our differences now, there’s too much history and our friendship is too important to just let it die. 

B was single for a long time—into her 40s—and she and I were probably the closest in the last years of my first marriage. She does have a lot of natural talent, but one of the things that makes B such a strong athlete and student is that she is tenacious, and she’s a fighter. And she can be rather intense. It felt good having her in my corner when things were hard for me, and it gave me strength knowing that someone with that much fight in her had my back. So that’s why it hurt more than I can say when she decided she needed a break from me several years back and cut me off. It was like a break-up, and a painful one. Her first gesture towards a reconciliation was an invitation to her wedding, and we’ve been building our friendship back ever since. It’s been work—certainly not luck—that’s kept us going, and I’m very glad we’re still going.

There are some people who have a knack for finding four leaf clovers—my dad and my sister both have it, but even if my sister points out a single square foot of grass and tells me there’s one there, I can never see it. I did not inherit the knack for seeing them, but I do have ones they’ve found tucked away in various books in my house.

I do, though, have a knack for finding those people who are going to be lifelong friends, and not just these four. I kind of collect them and hold onto them like a friend hoarder. I’m just not willing to give them up when I’ve found them, because they are precious and rare, like the four leaf clovers. Lucky to find, and worth the effort to keep. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Weekend Trip to Atlanta

Most of my work days are spent here at my desk at home, copy editing scholarly books, usually on topics of education. It's interesting work, and there are definite pluses to being able to do it from home.

Then, once or twice a month, I get to write an article for a web site promoting good things happening here in the Upstate of South Carolina--a little bit of spending money for some pretty interesting work, learning about what's going on around me.

But hands down, the most rewarding work I do all year--if "work" can even describe something that brings so much personal satisfaction--is heading up Great Kids Deserve Great Books, the annual children's book drive of Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, now in its 4th year.

Great Kids Deserve Great Books collects books to give to each student in high-poverty schools here in Spartanburg, and nothing could be closer to my heart than that.

The first two years I lived here, I was involved only in the sorting of books and distribution at one of the schools. Having worked in two different children's book mail order businesses, I had a good handle on the sorting part, determining the proper age range for each book, making sure there was a good mix of boy/girl, fiction/nonfiction, advanced reader/emerging reader, and so on. But with mail order, you never get to actually see a kid pick up a book and get excited about it.

So going to that school and being with the kids when they picked out their books--well, I was in smitten. In love. Besotted. Not only were these kids picking out their books, but they were being given the books to take home, and some of these kids may have never owned a book before. I wanted to do it again.

Last year, I was asked to head up the drive, and in addition to the bin collections we had done the previous two years, we were given a donation from the Rotary Club, and with that, I went down to Atlanta to GABBS, the spring remainder and overstock sale, and bought nearly 1,000 books. I was familiar with this sale because I used to go there and buy books to sell in catalogs, thinking about sales projections and profit margin and catalog slots. But this time all I was thinking about was getting as many books as I possibly could for the money I had available.

I loved being able to get so many new books to mix in with the donated used books, and once again I got to go to one of the schools while the kids picked out their books. You may have to know me well to understand how close to heaven that was, being able to buy books and give them all away to kids. To be there with kids as they looked over the books to make their choices. One child tearfully came up to me and asked if there was another Sponge Bob book, because other kids had snatched up the two or three on the table, and I was able to find a different book to make her happy, which very nearly made my own heart explode with happiness. Another  boy came and asked me if I had any snake books, and once more, the answer was no, but we were able to find something he liked. Another satisfied customer.

This year, we got twice as much money donated, this time from Advance America, and again, this past weekend, I went to Atlanta to buy books. I had to use that money to cover the expenses of my trip as well as buying books, so I had to be as frugal as I could be--and not shy about asking the vendors to work with me since I wasn't reselling their books but giving them away.

One of the vendors donated the shipping costs so that I could just spend my money on books. Another took a percentage off of the total to offset the shipping. Yet another gave me her rock bottom prices on the books I was buying (and this is a business with thin margins to begin with) because shipping was out of her control. I'm still waiting to hear from the last vendor, because she was checking with the owner to see how they could help.

There are a lot of things I have loved doing professionally over the years, but I can't think of anything that has given me so much sheer joy as these trips to Atlanta for this show. Back when I was buying books for resale, I loved the book shows, and the remainder shows in particular. Row upon row of books--but more than that, books on sale. For cheap. It doesn't get much better than that for a frugal book lover! And I could, and did, wheel and deal. But as much as I loved it then, doing my best to drive up our margins and down our cost of goods, there is nothing quite so rewarding as buying books that you get to give away to kids.

In a few weeks, the boxes of books will begin to arrive, which will pretty much be like Christmas for me. Then the process of sorting and boxing these books, as well as other donated books we collect, to distribute to our schools. I ended up being able to buy over 1700 books in all. I found not one, but two books about snakes, and I hope the snake boy will be back and find one of them. I have dreams of him growing up to be a preeminent reptile scientist, but even if he doesn't, I'll be happy to send him home with a couple of books to call his own.

These kids in these schools may not have been dealt the best hand in life, but they really are great kids. And great kids do, truly, deserve great books.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On the Occasion of My Dad's Retirement

Dad on his 88th birthday
On Friday night, my parents and sister came to our house for dinner. I meant to have a cake or something special for my dad, because it was his last day of work, but somehow dessert never ends up factoring into my meal planning. I'm not sure he really felt like celebrating it, though.

The truth is, I can't quite imagine my dad not working--and not because he's a workaholic, or because his identity is tied up in what he does for a living, but just because he likes to stay occupied and he likes having a place to go and seeing new people.

Nine years ago, we had a retirement/birthday party for him, but right before the party, he decided that instead of retiring, he would just cut back to part time instead of retiring. He was 80 then, and I think he was hoping to keep working until his birthday this year, when he will be 90. So if anyone deserves to kick back and take it easy, it's my dad.

Dad with my grandpa, circa 1945
I don't know what Dad's hopes and ambitions were for his life when he was a young man, but probably he assumed he would keep farming the land that he and his father had been farming--and he was doing just that when he met a young nursing student at a church singles' group. They married soon after she graduated, and he was past 40 when three children came along.

I've often wished I could know what went on in the conversations that took place in which my dad was convinced to leave Indiana, the only home he had ever known, and go out west, with no particular town in mind, with the object of finding someplace they liked where there was a motel for sale. I have my ideas of how that went, but even if I were to ask them now, I don't know if I would find out the whole story. But in any case, we ended up in Durango, Colorado, the owners of the Alpine North Motel on Main Street. And then we ended up in Peru for a couple of years, where my parents were sort of "temp missionaries." When we came back to Durango, we didn't have the motel anymore, but there were two mini storage businesses.

And then, in 1978, we moved again, this time to Asheville, NC, where my parents still live. They were small business owners again for a little while, but it wasn't a good fit and didn't really work out, so my dad went out and got a job.

When I was 12 and he was 54, he started working as a locksmith at Alan Shaw Company. I remember him bringing home the cylinders and pins and showing me how to put different sized pins in a cylinder lock and how a key is cut to match the pins so that it will open the lock. For 35 years, he's been keying locks and installing them, working on projects big and small, in people's homes and in schools and hospitals.

It may not sound like a very exciting job, but one of the beautiful things about my dad is that he always found something interesting about his work day--someone he had spoken to, or a new route he had discovered while driving to a site, or the particulars of the job itself. When my son and I lived with my parents for a while after my divorce, we all ate dinner together in the evening, and he always had a story about his work day.

Dad with my son, planting his small garden patch
It is rare, going out in public with my dad, that someone doesn't come up and speak to him--and often it's someone he's met on a job site. These days, he's more likely than he used to be not to remember who the person is, but they never know it, because he greets them all in the same friendly way. But these are the people he would talk about at dinner--the janitor whose wife was battling cancer, the contractor who knew a guy Dad went to high school with.

A book could be written about the lessons to be learned from a guy like my dad, but I think the thing I admire the most about him is his absolute contentment. A couple of weeks ago I got a fortune cookie that said, "Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation." I understand the truth of that in terms of the big picture, but in terms of daily living, my dad's quiet contentment with his lot in life is, I think, the way to really live.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

In Which I Ponder Why I Love America

America Fever never runs quite so high as it does during the Olympics, I think. For a couple of weeks we're all cheering for the same team--Team USA--and the things that divide us the rest of the time seem to fall away just a little bit.

One of my favorite things about Team USA, though, is that sometimes you can't tell by the names (the last names, anyway) that they're American, because there's really no such thing as an "American" name in the sense that there are German names or Japanese names or Russian names. In figure skating alone, we've seen names like Yamaguchi, Lipinski, Boitano, and this year Shnapir and Castelli in the pairs competition.

Here are some of the reasons I love America:

I love that Simon Shnapir's father, a Russian Jew who with his wife immigrated to the U.S. when Simon was a toddler, has been making himself a very visible fan of Team USA in his big Uncle Sam hat.

I love the Coke ad with America the Beautiful in different languages, and I can't understand being offended by people from a variety of cultures thinking that America is beautiful. Shouldn't that make us proud, that people from all over the world want to make America their home?

I love that one of the men involved in the rescue of art plundered by the Nazis was German-born Harry Ettlinger, and in English that's still German-accented after all these years, he speaks of himself as an American, with obvious pride and undeniable patriotism.

I love that going out to dinner with my husband's cousins Anna and Beth and their families is like a League of Nations. Anna and her Venezuelan-born husband Jorge have four adopted daughters from Ethiopia, and Beth, whose husband Sam is from Japan, has two children (well, a teenager and a young adult) who are a perfect combination of Myers and Yamamuro, and bilingual to boot.

I love that Brandon Stanton, of Humans of New York, regularly captures moving stories of New Yorkers from all over the world who have come here for a better life--but certainly a favorite was Gac Filipaj, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia who worked as a janitor at Columbia University and went to school on his off hours for 12 years to earn a degree from the university that employed him.


A few years ago, my son and I spent a wonderful afternoon at the Ellis Island Museum, and we couldn't help but be struck by the courage and optimism of the people who got on boats with a dream of a better life--many times with little money and a pretty tenuous grasp on the English language. In fact, my son's great-grandfather came through Ellis Island with his brother and his mother, who had been abandoned by the boys' father just before the ship set sail. 

America was not always kind to the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free--but the fabric of our country is woven through with the stories of religious pilgrims, slaves, refugees, and immigrants from all over the world, in addition to the Native Americans who were already here. 

I heard someone say once that America isn't really like a melting pot, which implies that everything melts together to become the same thing, but it's more like a big salad with lots of different ingredients that are separate and together are delicious. Where that analogy breaks down--or maybe where it's more honest than I'm entirely comfortable with--is when you think about the fact that there really are ingredients that some people put in a salad that you don't care much for.

My sister-in-law makes this wonderful spinach salad with candied walnuts and oranges and craisins (dried cranberries)--and I'll admit I pick around the craisins because I don't really like them. If one ends up on my fork, I'll eat it, but I would prefer not to. Same with that big salad that comes with your meal at Olive Garden--if an olive ends up on my plate, I will generally give it to my husband, because olives are one thing I just don't eat if I can help it.

But the thing is, there's a difference between not really liking craisins or olives and complaining that they shouldn't be there. Even as I'm picking them out, I realize that the issue is with me, not the salad or the individual ingredients.

I love this big salad that is America. With all its faults, it really is a wonderful country, with beautiful and amazingly diverse people.

"America, America, God shed his grace on thee
and crown thy good
with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Guest Post: Sophie's Choice

For the past 20 years, being a mother has defined me and shaped me more than anything else. Nearly everything I do is filtered through that lens. But I am the mother of one boy, and as such, there are aspects of parenting that I will never experience--being the mother of a girl, for one, but also that inexplicable math of loving another child just as much as the one you already have without the first love being diminished.

After reading my friend Laura's explanation of how it works, though, I have a better understanding of how it is to love several children equally but also, occasionally, have favorites.

Sophie's Choice

by Laura Hankins Rand

I have four children. Or rather, I have four adults. The youngest is edging towards 30. I have been asked a few times over the years by an occasional rogue acquaintance if I have a favorite. I always respond with a resounding YES. I love seeing the surprised face and the wicked interest in such an unexpected and ill-advised response. We are supposed to love all our children equally, at all times, in all circumstances, world without end, amen, praise to the father, son, and Holy Ghost.

But I submit that every parent has a favorite. Oh yes, I believe this. Let me explain. When my second child was born, my oldest was 5. She was the center of the world. She defined everything a child should and could be. Her father once said, “I know I will love this new baby. But I also know that I can never love another child as much as I love this one.” Oh, the things we think we know until we experience them. I told him that love isn’t something we parcel out. Love is limitless. We would love the new baby with every bit of intensity that we loved the first.

I was right. And we went on to have four children, two girls, two boys. After the second girl, he admitted defeat and confessed that he loved her as much as he loved our singular first. Then we had our third – a boy. His father admitted to me (was he slightly ashamed?) that he had never felt this way before. It wasn’t that he loved this boy more than our girls. He just loved him differently. And when we had the second boy – the same. He was our last. We knew this. He was special for many reasons, not the least being he was last. The special position that somehow parents with multiple children understand.

Now our house was full – four busy children. Two exhausted parents. We never thought about degrees of love. How could we – we never had a spare moment. But looking back over the years as they and we have aged, I see more clearly the scope and breadth of parental love, the bursts, the pulsating underlying foundation of it all.

This week, one of my children had emergency surgery. He is now asleep in our guest room, recovering well. He is my favorite.

In 2006, I became a grandmother for the first time, by my second daughter – the one I knew somehow I could love as much as my first. I helped coach her through her delivery and saw her baby before she did – from the vantage point of the end of the hospital bed. That day, as she breathed and sweated and worked so hard, my favorite child had a baby.

My oldest, my very heart, was in a horrific car accident. The car rolled over, the glass shattered, and my favorite child walked out of it without a scratch.

You may have heard in the news a couple of years ago about my third child, my oldest son. He was attacked by a group in Asheville, his cheekbone and glasses broken, and left in a parking lot. It was on the local news. What the news didn’t say was that he is the favorite child of Laura Hankins Rand, who was at the place of business the next morning, demanding an answer for what had happened in that lighted parking lot with security guards inside the store.

And it’s not just about when they are in pain or life-threatening situations. That sense of favoritism arises when a child, a favorite, is teased by classmates. Or when he gets 2nd place in the spelling bee. When she is in the school play and lights up the entire gym or makes the valedictory speech at graduation. And when his or her heart is broken by an adolescent crush or as an adult by a spouse. The child who needs me in that moment, my focused attention, my lap, my shoulder, my praise, my laughter, my discipline (yes, even that), is my absolute favorite.

Sophie’s Choice it is not, thankfully. There is an undrainable well inside of parents. It is given either in the labor and delivery room or upon leaving the hospital as a gift of grace. No child can use it up. No number is too many for each to receive the full scope of it. It is not divisible, only multiplicable. There may be some trigonometry involved. Not sure.

Now I experience this same bounty of love with my grandchildren. I had only one for 6 ½ years, and in July my second was born. The first one expressed some attempt at grappling with the measure and limits of love. He said he understood that now I love the baby more than him. I sat him down, looked him in the eye, and said, “Absolutely not. I love him. I love him in his own special way with all my heart. But I will never love anyone more than you. You are you and I have special love for you. The baby has his own special love. Do you understand me?” I hope he did.

Should you ever run into me and just can’t hold back your question, go ahead. Ask me on any given day who my favorite child is. I just might smile properly, lower my eyes, and say, “Favorite? Oh, I love them all exactly the same!”