Monday, August 22, 2005

Life Outstrips Despair

Looking forward at middle age...lots of losses in view. Looking back, is it Life or death? Maybe both. Discipline is to enjoy what is given without demanding what is not. And while I'm looking, trying to see opportunities to give thanks to the God who gives and withholds.
So, here is one opportunity. A bedtime story about the Good Old Days.

Rites of Passage
(February 2001)

Last year, my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, turned thirteen with all the rite-of-passage pomp a drop-dead elegant tea party could dish out. Her friends and mine gathered in flowery hats and white gloves to sample the sumptuous menu she had prepared (on budget!), and to shower her with apprenticeship offers and advice for pressing on to womanhood.

This year, I steeled myself for something quite different, when Elizabeth begged for that traditionally teeny-bopper party: a sleep-over. The sleep-overs provided by the friends of my youth were sleezy affairs presided over by invisible parents, involving a lot of junk foods; pop-psychology reviews of fashion, grooming, and boys; incredibly silly impromptu play readings; bad music; and very little actual sleep. Now I have nothing against junk foods, fashion, play readings and staying up late, in their proper places. It was the illusion of unsupervised abandon that gave those events such an uncomfortable edge and shady reputation.

I agreed on the condition that Elizabeth, her father and I would entirely re-invent the whole institution. I also laid in a good supply of caffeine and Tylenol - just in case.

On the appointed day, the entire feminine contingent of Elizabeth's home-school speech and debate team, her Russian conversation partner, her historico-political provocateur (yes, this IS possible at age 14), some choir cohorts, and her faithful little sister settled in for the Green Gables sleep-over. As instructed, they brought Bibles, sleeping bags and plenty of red-headed spunk.

Little brother, Winston, served snacks while we all played Cranium, and tried to "recover" Anne Shirley's truncated war dispatches. Then we all sat down to crystal and china, and a country Edwardian dinner that would have made even Rachel Lind smile. This produced actual polite conversation, though I must admit, we did talk about boys. It happened quite innocently.

You see, Elizabeth's father had the girls in stitches with his fish stories. They needed little encouragement to brag about their own fathers. By the time the pound cake and raspberry fool arrived, they decided they could put together a sort of father-daughter Mission Impossible team with experts in law enforcement, computer wizardry, high finance, foreign language, construction engineering, persuasion, flying and so on.

Yes, we watched one of the Anne of Green Gables videos, complete with popcorn and hankies. There wasn't a dry eye. But when it came to composing the group photo- everyone swooning histrionically on the fainting sofa blotting eyes with said hankies- they actually got to the teary stage by the expedient of helpless laughter.

According to the girls, some of them didn't get to sleep until 3am. But I happen to know that they were all asleep by 12:30, when the dog had to tiptoe politely through the cocooned sleeping bags to ask ME to let him out. I confess, I was in two minds about whether to preserve their illusion of pushing the envelope, or to assure them that they really had behaved with perfect decorum in spite of themselves.

Morning dawned in a silvery benediction of rain. I passed out empty journals and gel pens, asking that the first entry be a description of the Bible woman each girl would most like to emulate and why, and warning them that there would be a quiz at breakfast. Amid the quiet bustle of morning toilets, sofa cushions tidied to their appointed places, and young ladies finding a solitary spot for their contemplations, one guest stood in the kitchen door waiting to be noticed.
"Excuse me," she began, "Most of us have a piano recital later this morning, would it be alright if we warmed up?"

So while Winston and I laid out lavender scones and lemon curd, bacon omlets, juice and tea, we were treated to Bach, Chopin, Clementi, heartbreaking jazz and ripping ragtime. Even the girls who didn't have a recital serenaded the cook. And I was left to my own contemplations.

While the children are little, we get used to the idea that we will not see the full flowering of our labor for many years yet. But here, so unexpectedly, I was not only seeing the flower, but tasting the first fruits. What I had thought would be a Tylenol occasion was in fact a display of the faithfulness of God. These young ladies, bright, accomplished, courteous, companions to strengthen faith and resolve, so far from being the rotten fruit modern parents have come to expect, are the hundred-fold harvest of parents who have patiently trained and molded and modeled faith and courage over the years. These are the young hands which will rule the future from the side of the cradle. These are the ones who will dictate the terms of peace to God's enemies in the next generation. These are the women who will build up the old waste places of culture and courtesy, and it is my greatest delight, my sweetest privilege to know and to equip them.

Who could have guessed that the teeny-boppers' sleepover would be the mother's rite of passage?

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