Sunday, November 03, 2013

Letter from Harrisburg

A frantic search through the trash turns up nothing but lessons

Maybe, I admitted afterwards, calming my knotted insides with a cup of tea, it wasn’t my job to root, rubber-gloved, through the garbage. Maybe Ben’s college degree and future career did not depend on that missing clear plastic textbook wrapper with its elusive password, after all. Maybe it was up to him to find a way through this little crisis. Maybe it wasn’t mine to fix.
But unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until later.
I used to think that by the time I had four children in their 20s, the house would be mostly quiet. I would have time to make quilts, and we could get by with a single pizza for dinner.
Instead, my independent and adventuresome offspring still go and come in such random patterns that, when people ask how many still live at home, I have to stop and count. Off they go to a few months of Bible school, to a year’s volunteer work in other countries, to college. Then home again for a few months and off on the next quest.
At the moment, five of my six live at home. The best thing about this is their lively company, especially the entertaining repartee, such as:
“You should sing on the radio,” Ben says after hearing Steven sing cheerfully.
“Why?” Steven says.
“So we could change stations,” Ben says.
Or this:
“People with British accents are taken much more seriously than people with Southern accents,” Emily says.
“Yes,” Jenny says. “Unless they’re people with Southern accents and a gun.”
“Somebody, put the ketchup in something attractive,” I say while preparing Sunday dinner.
“Here, Steven, open wide,” Emily says.
I laugh at them and think indulgent motherly thoughts about what astonishingly bright children we’ve been blessed with, so gifted and quick.
And then in the next minute they make me frightened and frantic, because they are all making adult decisions, and they insist on being independent and self-assured in this as well. As opposed to the obvious and wise alternative: asking me what they should do, taking careful notes with a yellow pencil and saying, “Yes, Mom. Absolutely,” as they humbly follow each bulleted point.
I think the boys ought to cut their hair and the girls should eat more nutritious snacks. I want this one to get a better job and that one to send in his Bible school application. I take note of nice, well-behaved, potential future in-laws and make weighted suggestions.
Even though, in reality, none of it is mine to manipulate.
Twenty-year-old Ben spent a year volunteering in the big city of Toronto, and came home in September, just in time to begin another year at Linn-Benton Community College.
As a future engineer, his textbooks are enormous and expensive. Physics for Scientists and Engineers A Strategic Approach Third Edition came in the mail one day and Ben tore the 5-pound book out of its package. The next day, he discovered that the wrapper was supposed to contain a little paper with a password to a corresponding website, crucial to the course.
And he had, of course, ripped off the plastic wrapper and tossed it away. Buying another password would cost more than $60.
What I wonder now is, why did I snatch at this problem as mine to fix and completely obsess about it? Maybe because he is a poor student, fresh off the mission field.
Ben and I pawed through the clean and paper-filled office garbage and the slightly slimy kitchen wastebaskets with no success. I reached around him without asking and scrolled down the Amazon page on his laptop, looking for information, and then insisted that he call his instructor and ask for advice.
Ben calmly said he didn’t think that was necessary and listed his reasons. I thought he was foolish and stubborn, and I hoped savagely that his sweet little girlfriend would see this infuriating side of him before he ever proposed to her.
Then, desperate, we donned protective gloves and dug through the days-old trash in the barrel outside, picking through old meat wrappers and soggy tissues and far worse.
We didn’t find it.
My husband tried to slip an occasional word of advice to me into this frantic quest: “Let it go. Let him worry about it. It isn’t your problem.”
Of course, he was right, which I didn’t admit until the search was over and I saw that I was obsessed beyond all rational reason.
How embarrassing.
I have been teaching a Sunday school class in which we study women of the Bible. The parallels to us, today, are astonishing, especially that recurring resolve: “Nothing is happening here, so I need to take action. This is entirely mine to fix.”
The childless Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis were solemnly promised a son but were still infertile, so, after years of waiting, Sarah got the bright and improbable notion that Abraham could have a child with the servant girl and all would be well. The servant did have a son, but all was very much not well, and the generations to follow paid dearly for her manipulation.
Their daughter-in-law, Rebekah, was determined that her second-born son, Jacob, would receive the ceremonial blessing and used trickery, scheming and outright lies to make it happen. She paid for it by sending Jacob away for his own safety, never seeing him again.
“Dear me, can’t you see this would have worked out if you had just trusted God and waited a bit longer?” I say to these long-ago women as I study the lesson at the kitchen table on Sunday mornings.
But Scripture has a way of speaking right back at me. What about trying to rescue Ben from his own carelessness? Or the probing questions I ask the kids who don’t talk enough? Or all the hints, tinged with accusation, that I toss their way, knowing it’s theirs to figure out but also utterly certain that things won’t work out unless I step in.
“Be quiet. Trust me. Wait. Just enjoy them — your gifts from me.” That’s what I hear from God when they’re all asleep and I sit with a pot of tea and my Bible in the early quiet.
All right then. If you say so. After all, Ben figured out a way to get that crucial password without any help from me.
On the way to church, Steven, who is not into arson or smoking, has a match dangling from his mouth. Emily asks, logically, “Why do you have a match in your mouth?”
Steven mumbles, “ I’m gonna set the church on fire. On fire for God.”
After church, the match is still there. I think, “Oh please!” and other admonishing motherly things I want to say, but I don’t say them.
Emily says, “You setting the church on fire?”
“Nope,” Steven says. “Just looking striking.”
I laugh, which is, in the end, the best response to these remarkable young adults of mine — far better than anxious manipulating, endless hinting or digging through garbage for something that was never mine to find.


  1. The same thing happened to my son!! I, too, tried to fix the situation, but eventually Chris had to cough up $60 to get a new password. Lesson learned---he won't do that again. I just had to let it go!

  2. So good, and so true! Your writing always reminds me it's okay to mother our older children, but it's best to just let it go, no matter how hard it might be! Thank you!

  3. I have been there and done that!! I don't know that I have dug through trash yet, but the hover mother mentality surely does come through way too often! Mothering these young adults is challenging, exciting, mostly fun! But the tightrope can be pretty hard to walk!:-)

  4. It truly is a relief to know I'm not the only mom stressing over her kids' lives.

  5. Grandma Ruth11/06/2013 5:56 PM

    Oh but I doooo enjoy your writing!! Thanks for sharing...and yes, I have grown kids too. :o)

  6. Excellent column, Dorcas. I thoroughly enjoyed (and identified with) this piece.

    Smiling and waving,