Friday, May 11, 2012

Here's a Hint...

Last night at dinner, Jim, Lilly and I were sitting and chatting about what we'd done yesterday and what we would be doing today. On Friday mornings, Lilly has an art class where I drop her off.  It's the first "thing" that she's done where I don't stay.  We're on week 5 and it's going really well as she loves it and has a few of her friends in the class.  But whenever Jim asks her about the class, all she tells him is that I "drop her off".  Apparently that's what sticks with her.  So, last night at dinner, the conversation went something like this:

Me:  "Lilly, tomorrow's Friday.  Do you remember what we do on Friday mornings?"
Lilly:  "Ummm...does Daddy have to go to UBS?"
Jim:  "Yes, I go to UBS on Fridays.  But on Saturdays I get to stay home."
Lilly: "Okay.  Is tomorrow Saturday?"
Me: "No, tomorrow's Friday! Okay, Lilly.  Here's a hint.  Tomorrow, you get to wear your special purple shirt and you get to paint and play with clay and make bracelets..."
Lilly:  "It's my art class!  Okay Mum, here's a hint for you.  Tomorrow, you go and get a coffee, and there's a green thing, and a vanilla scone and an iced coffee and a latte..."
Jim: (literally couldn't stop laughing at the fact that our three year old daughter just patronized me...); "Oh, does Mum go to Starbucks while you go to art?"
Lilly:  "Not you Dad, it was a hint for Mum."
Me: "Do I go to Starbucks tomorrow?"
Lilly: "Yes!  And you drop me off at art..."

For the record, the "green thing" at Starbucks is the one of Lilly's favorite's the little green stick you put in the lid of the coffee to keep it hot.

So yes, Lilly is fully aware that I drop her off at art class and go to Starbucks for an hour with my friends to get an iced coffee or a latte with a "green thing".  I can't wait to hear the stories that Lilly comes home from school with next year.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Birth-a-versary Celebration

I know I've written about my "Birth-a-versary" before.  It's a holiday-well, actually, a combination of holidays-named to frustrate me.  I'm sure you'll be shocked to discover that it was my Dad who came up with this holiday.  That way, he tells Jim, by combining my birthday and our wedding anniversary into one celebration, Jim cuts down on the number of presents he has to buy.  Ingenious.  Except that I love celebrating my birthday.  And our anniversary.  And Jim knows that.  So, despite Dad's best efforts, my birthday and our anniversary remain two distinct celebrations.

Curiously, though, my birthday seemed less significant this year, and our anniversary seemed more special.  The lack of my excitement surrounding my birthday had nothing to do with how we celebrated it.  Jim, Lilly and Jack made it special.  We drank coffee, and mimosas all morning, champagne in the afternoon and spent time doing what we love most...being together.  Lilly and Jim made me a birthday cake (Lilly decorated it!). We sang happy birthday and Lilly proclaimed that even though it was my birthday, she was still the birthday girl.  Don't try reasoning with a three year old.  It doesn't work.  Lilly blew out my candles. It was special, but not because it was my birthday.  It was special because I was able to celebrate with our little family.  And because I got to see my birthday through Lilly's eyes.  I realized this year, how much I look forward to celebrating Lilly's birthday.  And how special Jack's will be.

Jim and I went out to dinner to celebrate both occasions (so I guess that would make it a birth-a-versary dinner) but we spent the evening predominantly celebrating our wedding anniversary.  5 years.  This was a celebration that I was excited about.  I'm proud of us and our relationship.  I'm proud of our marriage and of our children.  I love the family that we have created and I often think back to our wedding day, when it all began.  There are times when our wedding feels like it took place yesterday.  Other times, it feels like an eternity ago.  It's hard to remember life without Lilly and Jack.  Even today, when I was choosing pictures to put in this blog, Lilly kept asking if she could see pictures of herself at our wedding.  I tried to explain that she wasn't born yet because Mum and Dad weren't married but that's another conversation for another time.  The memories from our wedding day are as vivid as ever.  How lucky we were to have all of our family and closest friends gathered together in Austin to celebrate our marriage with a never-ending dance party.  How we served copious amounts of Veuve Clicquot champagne and even though everyone told that no one really drinks champagne at American weddings (it's really only for the toast), we managed to run out of champagne.  Well, the hotel ran out of champagne.  There was no more Veuve Cliquot on the premises!  Apparently people make an exception for Veuve Clicquot.

I look back at the pictures and realize what an outstanding Maid of Honor Ellie was; in her own words, "I may not have been good at fixing your dress, but I always made sure you had a drink in your hand."  And drinks I had.  So did everyone else, which is exactly the way it should be at weddings.  Some of the classiest photos of the night consist of me holding a bottle of Shiner.  Lucky for my wedding pictures, I stuck mainly with champagne.  And, for the record, Ellie attended excellently to her "dress fixing" duties as well.

I remember watching Mum and Dad out on the dance floor, dancing to "Twist and Shout" and smiling and loving my parents and hoping that 25 years down the road, Jim and I would be as happy as they were (and continue to be). 

I think of watching Jim dance with his Mom (to "Sweet Baby James," of course!), knowing the special relationship that they have, and crying.

I think of Dad's speech, which I wish we had recorded.  As Dad so often does when he speaks, he captivated everyone at the wedding.  People who didn't really know our family found themselves laughing as Dad ragged on the boys and told stories of us growing up.

I think of Joseph and Edward, with their unnatural dance moves out on the dance floor, bringing everyone to tears because they were laughing so hard.  Even the photographer didn't know what to do.

I remember clutching on to Dad's arm as we walked down the aisle, and his hand holding onto me.  It was a feeling that I wasn't ready for.  I never had any wedding day jitters.  Just ask Ellie about how soundly I slept the night before.  She'll tell you something along the lines of my snoring actually keeping her awake...and shouldn't it have been the other way around?  I couldn't have been happier or more excited.  But as soon as we walked into the church, I didn't think my legs were going to hold me up.  I started shaking and tried not to cry.  I held onto Dad for dear life, and he walked me all the way down the aisle, to Jim.

I think of Duane, who I had never before seen drink red wine, and haven't seen since.  Dad recalls chatting with Duane while he was drinking a glass.  When Duane heard a song he wanted to dance to, he poured a half full glass of wine down his throat and ran out to the dance floor.  That's probably why neither Mum nor Duane have any idea what they're laughing at here.  Whatever it was, they both thought it was pretty funny.

I remember everyone dancing,

...and laughing,

...and smiling.

I think every day how lucky I am to have been married to my best friend for five years and I look forward to the next 70.  

As is so often the case, what started out as a brief blog entry turned into one that took countless sittings to write.  There were too many special memories and pictures for me to gloss over them. So, I may as well keep going.  When I was writing this, I thought back to a blog entry that Dad wrote the day after our wedding.  It captures the day wonderfully, and it includes the speech that Dad gave as a proud Father of the Bride.  I am including the entry below because I want to keep it.  I want to remember it and I want Lilly and Jack to be able to look back and read what their Papa wrote about their parents' wedding day.  

Saturday, April 21, 2007
A Daughter Becomes a Bride
All is quiet at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel at 6th and Congress, with a slight mist in the morning air and a breeze blowing through the deserted streets. Twelve hours ago, it was anything but quiet here as the wedding reception for Amelia reached its peak, with dancing and champagne and laughter, along with some tears of happiness and sorrow. The evening capped a day so deeply moving and memorable that words fall short of capturing it. But how do you describe the feelings of watching your little girl become a bride? How do you put down in words what you experience with each step down the aisle, feeling her soft hand tremble as it rests on your arm? What words can fairly capture the rush of memories, of your own beautiful bride on your wedding day 28 years earlier – now your beautiful wife and mother of the bride; of how you felt when you exchanged vows and rings; of times when you played with the little Amelia and held her hand in her kindergarten days, and a hundred thousand other times across so many wonderful years?

Language I think is meant to convey many things, even to entertain and educate, but it cannot do this task. You stand in a small room at a church, and see a look in your daughter’s face as she prepares to walk the small distance down the aisle to become a wife, and you want to hug her and hold her and never let her go, and you are so proud of her and amazed at her elegance and poise, and your fatherly instinct wants to shield her from the tears which brim her bright, shining eyes. You search for words of assurance and they wobble in your throat and you wonder, suddenly, how you will manage the walk, how you will cope with the tide of emotion surging through you. You hold her hand again and look in her eyes and see a trust and a love that makes you feel so good, so warm. You tell her it is all about to unfold and that it will be great, and that she looks so beautiful, and you know it’s true and so does she but the words are really just there to fill space and time until you walk together to the alter. At the alter, you pass her hand to her husband and ask him to please take care of her and at that moment, as you place a final kiss on her cheek, you feel what love truly is, and you understand in the depth of your heart what life is about, what matters. You sit through a ceremony and hear her pledge eternal love to her husband, and listen as he pledges his to her. You grapple with the strange notion that little Amelia has become Mrs. Clark, that your girl is now a woman, that the baby of 26 years ago is now a wife, in love, independent.

I cannot do more than list these things, so I leave it there.

The day began with a champagne breakfast, with Cordon Rouge to honor Grace and Ed, and Veuve Cliquot to remind us of Amelia and Jim’s engagement, when we sat on the banks of the river at Spokane last June and drank that wonderful champagne and enjoyed the sight of two young people in love. In passing, it strikes me as a curious irony that we so enjoy this magnificent drink – the original champagne, I believe – which is named after the young widow (veuve in French) Cliquot. But still, life is full or ironies, and it is perhaps appropriate at the time of birth and marriage to silently pay homage to the shadows of life, even if only to sharpen the sense of joy that comes with the creation of life or the joining of two people in marriage.

Kelly came in during the breakfast and cried, which set everyone off crying. And then began one of the most precious and timeless of rituals, as the mother of the bride, the maid-of-honor (Ellie), and the bridesmaids began to prepare themselves and the bride for the wedding. The manicures and pedicures had been done the day before, so wedding day was free for the hair appointments, which were followed by the dressing and make-up and putting the final touches to the bride and her dress and flowers. It was all accompanied by a mix of excited giggling and focused concentration as the women lived through one of the moments all girls dream of, from the time they are tiny and first play with dolls.
For the boys, it was a different matter. Hair is shorter and less complicated to deal with. Nails are nails, and as long as they are clean, they are OK. Dressing takes 20 minutes, and it’s really pretty simple. So while the ladies were engaged in their time-honored ritual, we engaged in ours, which involved sitting in a hotel room, sipping on Veuve, chatting about what the day meant and how odd we all felt and how happy we were for the bride and groom.

The ceremony was difficult for me to describe more than I have struggled to do above. It was a series of moments and emotions that will stay with me forever, and which I may some day actually understand. The reception, with dancing (including some decidedly artistic efforts by the boys) and great food, was more a festival or party than anything else. It ended about 2am, after drinks and chats on the balcony overlooking Congress Avenue, with the State Capitol building in the background illuminated against the night sky..

In the course of the reception, I took the liberty, as father of the bride, to say a few things. Here is what I said:

Let me begin by thanking a few people.
First, I would like to thank Jim and Liz for bringing up such a wonderful son. I am so glad he is our son-in-law. We have long regarded him as part of our family, and I have long admired his character and the way he has treated our daughter. So Jim and Liz, two terrific parents and two good friends, our sincere thanks and congratulations. We are glad to have you as family-in-law.

When you think of the Jim and Liz, married for 32 years, and Maree and me, married for 28 years, the bride and groom obviously come from sound backgrounds and need look no further than their parents for some idea of how to make married life work, and that’s a good position to be in.
Next, I’d like to thank the wedding party, the various best men – Joe and Butter and Steve – and the maid-of-honor and bridesmaids – Ellie and Kelly and Christine. You looked a picture of elegance up there today, and I know how much your being here means to Jim and Amelia. I would also include those family members who read and brought up gifts and played such an important part in the ceremony. Thanks to you all.

To all of you who have honored us by coming so far to attend this great event, my thanks also. A wedding is more than a ceremony. It is the celebration of love and hope in a world that can often seem harsh and impersonal. It is an act of permanence in a world increasingly focused on things disposable and temporary. Your being here to witness this day makes it more beautiful than you could know. I am glad you are here and I hope you have a wonderful time in Austin.

I would also like to thank, in absentia, our families in Australia, especially Maree’s, who could not be here because of distance but who have sent so many good wishes and some fairly cumbersome presents to carry, for Amelia and Jim. My family couldn’t be here because they are only allowed out on weekend release, and having the wedding on a Friday just didn’t fit in with their schedule.
Finally, to my wife, first for giving me such a special daughter as Amelia, and also for all she did to help make today happen so smoothly. I know my role, like so many men at wedding time, was to provide financial assistance and step aside and let the professionals do the work. A father’s role at such times is marginal at best. But Maree, through countless phone calls and emails from the other side of the world, played the role a mother should. Thank you.

To those of us who know Amelia, it comes as no surprise that Amelia is the first of our children to be married. This is in part, of course, because she is the oldest, and building a relationship that leads to marriage takes time. But it is also in part, I suspect, because she is Amelia, a true “first child” and undoubtedly one of the most organized people I have met.

When Amelia sets her mind on something, it tends to happen, and it has always been that way. Those of you who knew her when she was rowing at Boston College know this to be true. I saw it when she was a competitive swimmer. And it has been a trait evident in a million smaller ways as well. I suspect it is why, alone among our family, Amelia excels at math. In fact, she teaches it while the rest of us rely on fingers and calculators and guesswork.

I recall one early sign of this competitiveness and focus when she was just a little girl at kindergarten in a place called The Patch, and the sweet teacher – Mrs Bromham, I seem to recall – put a chart on the wall for the children to record how man teeth they had lost. I visited the school one day and discovered that Amelia was in the lead, having lost more teeth than a veteran hockey player. This came as a shock to me, because her smile was white and complete, but she had reasoned that since they were baby teeth and would all eventually be lost, it was an issue of timing rather than fact, and such matters beyond her control should not be allowed to hold her back.

On other occasions, when children were being driven to school, Amelia developed a habit of leaving her bag right at the front door, where it had to be moved before the door could be opened. The other children, of course, would not move her bag, but would yell for her to do it. This meant that she would get a signal when we were all ready to leave, and she would have pole position to get the much coveted front seat. The other children never worked this out, though I watched in silent awe of such skill. Perfect management, like the perfect crime, leaves no trace.

And in high school and university, she managed to get the classes she wanted, win the races she wanted, and to do it all with her wonderful smile and usually with the acquisition of a t-shirt of some sort too. In fact, the one thing that has surprised me about the preparation for this wedding has been the absence of any t-shirt from the long list of “things to be done”. I thought of suggesting it, but my pride would not let me face another rejection, so I have kept this great idea to myself until now.
I am sad to say that all my proposals and ideas for dress designs, flower arrangements and cakes were rejected, if indeed they were given any regard at all. My polite questions about invitations and readings and music received the same dismissive treatment, often with a note of sympathy as if to register that Amelia knew I was trying but wasn’t it sad that I was so hopeless. Still, one of the great consolations in life, I have found, is that however badly you are doing, there is usually someone worse off, if you look hard enough.

I never have to look far. Amelia’s two brothers – Joseph and Edward -- filled that gap, with their suggestions and questions exasperating her to the point that I think she screened their calls and blocked their emails. Perhaps it was their request, as ushers, to be allowed to wear earpieces and name tags and mink coats that did it, or the furious competition over who should be allowed a higher profile role in the ceremony and the reception. I think Edward offered to sing, which is not a pleasant thought. But whatever it was, I didn’t trail the field in ineptitude and for that, I thank my two sons and also record my relief that their ideas were ignored.

Ellie, fortunately, fell into line quite early on, though it would be remiss of me not to mention that she did, at one stage, ask whether it would be acceptable if she wore a dress slightly larger and more flamboyant than the bride’s. But there she had the good sense to leave it, and I think she has played the role of main-of-honor with great dignity and aplomb.

As I made my various suggestions -- and for any of you thinking of a wedding, I can share them with you afterwards – Amelia responded with that same expression I have seen on her face and, I regret to say, on her mother’s face, a thousand or more times over the years. Jim, I am sure, knows what I mean only too well. It is an expression that begins with a raised eyebrow and ends with a sigh, as her emotions pass from surprise, to disappointment, then resignation. I first saw this from Amelia when she was one year old, and, of course, walking.

I recall the occasion perfectly. I had just returned from a long run on a Saturday morning and, being a good husband and father, was seeking to avoid all domestic duties while I sat and recovered quietly in a comfortable chair and did a crossword puzzle. Amelia, her mind on some other task, tottered past, saw me lounging there and paused long enough to raise the eyebrow and utter the sigh, before going on about her business. I never recovered from this blow. It left a mark I carry to this day. Though I still perform no useful domestic duties, the pleasure of idleness has gone, replaced by a lingering sense of inadequacy and guilt.

In all other ways, though, Amelia has been a wonderful daughter, and is as kind and generous a person as I have ever met. She sends cards, covered with small stars, to congratulate people or cheer them up. She sent one to her brother when a shoulder injury kept him out of football, and I kept the card for some time when Edward left home, and read her message over and over again for inspiration. She sends care packages to her siblings in college and remembers things like my birthday and fathers day, for which I am most grateful. A new baby in our family in Australia is sure to receive a package from Amelia in its first days of life. She approaches life with an optimism and a joy that are infectious and inspirational. She brings these qualities to her friendships, her family, her teaching, her sport, her whole world – and now, to her marriage.

She has been a great friend to Jim, and I know they will be a happy couple. Whenever I see them, I see them both smiling, and that’s a great sign.

We have had the enormous pleasure of knowing Jim well over the years. He has spent time with us on vacation in places like Bali and the Australian Outback, and has become in many ways one of our family even before today. I have been impressed over those years by his sense of fun, his restlessness to succeed as an individual, and his integrity. This is notwithstanding his ability to eat food in a volume far beyond most people. My regard for him survived even though I once saw him walk into a tree.
When he asked for my blessing to marry Amelia, he did so with a dignity that would make any parent proud, and any parents-in-law proud too. Others will tell more about Jim, but let me just say again, on behalf of the Stephens family, how delighted we are to have such a fine man as a son- and brother-in-law.

This combining of two families is a fascinating process, creating what we have come to know as a family tree. Clark, according to my brief understanding of history, denotes the literary class, those who were scholars. It is a venerated name in many countries. In the United States, of course, one think of Lewis and Clark, of Clark Gable, of the many places named Clarksville, Clarkstown, and Clarksburg. When the creator of Superman searched for a truly American name for the boy wonder, he came up with Clark Kent.

By comparison, Stephens is a curious and humble name, referring to a crown or wreath or garland, though why anyone would name themselves after a garland I don’t know. Both names are dignified, both carry meaning and gravitas. But there, I am afraid, the good news ends. While the Clark family seems to be solid American stock, derived from respectable European roots, I can offer less of a pedigree on our side.

In Amelia’s veins flows the blood of Welsh royalty (for what that’s worth these days), of Viking marauders, of Scottish emigrants, of Lebanese merchants. There is even a little Australian somewhere, and I know we have a dentist in our history too. And that is only in the last three generations. We are afraid to look further into the past for fear of what we might discover. And Amelia has lived in Australia and the United States, and spent a good deal of time in Asia. Thus, what was a Clark family tree has now, with one ceremony, become something more of a creeper or vine, a tumbleweed even, which future generations will have to try to disentangle. In times past this would have been a cause for concern. Today we call it diversity and welcome it.

Twenty six years ago, almost to the minute, Amelia was born. In Australia, it is now her birthday. That is perhaps the only indication that Amelia’s organizational skills are not perfect, because from now on, all Jim has to do it get one lovely birthday/anniversary gift and hand it over at dinner on the 20th.
But whatever has happened to the family tree, whatever birthday presents Amelia misses out on from now, I know without a shadow of doubt that today we have witnessed the start of a marriage that will last a lifetime.

Jim and Amelia: We wish you all joy, all happiness and love together. May every day be like this, except even happier and even more beautiful.

To Jim and Amelia Clark.