Stories Told

Then there was the time we were visited by Child Protective Services

I think every kid should know how to ride a bike. Kids today probably disagree, as I see few kids on bikes anymore. They must all be inside playing video games. I taught my sons nevertheless.

Neither was excited about it, but at least my older son tolerated it. My younger son resisted. After I took his training wheels off, he fought me every time we went out to practice. He told me he wouldn’t do it. He cried. He refused to get on the bike. Each time, I cajoled and wheedled until he gave in.

The divorce was final but still fresh. My stress had been off the charts and my fuse was still short. Each time I took my younger son out on his bike, I pulled together all of the patience I had.

He crashed a lot. Then I realized that he was deliberately crashing, hoping that it would shake me off, make me give up. One particular day he had crashed at least three times in five minutes and was visibly agitated. My patience had run out and I had grown angry.

I made him go again, but this time I kept my hand on the back of his seat. My plan was to steady him when he tried to crash. He shortly did just that and I grabbed the seat to keep him upright. Not only did it not work, but it made matters worse — he went right over the handlebars and landed hard on the street.

He was stunned, and he had skinned himself in a couple places. He cried a little. But after a few minutes he seemed okay.

I certainly didn’t mean to send him flying, and I felt bad about it. But I’ll admit it: much more, I was angry with him for not cooperating.

I had visions of my sons riding for the sheer joy of it, as I had when I was their age. My bicycle took me everywhere and was my constant companion. I wanted them to experience the same! I wanted them to have a great childhood, even though it was no longer in an intact family.

But after my sons learned to ride, my older son rode once in a great while and my younger son never rode again. It just wasn’t for them. If I had it all to do over again, I would have still bought them bikes and tried to teach them, but when especially the younger son started fighting me on it, I would have let it go.

If I had that day to do over again, after the second or third time my son deliberately crashed I would have sat on the curb with him and said, “Seems like today’s not the best day or this. Why don’t we call it for today. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.” It would have given us both a break, and would have let me regain my calm.

A week later, or maybe it was two, I heard from Child Protective Services. I’m pretty sure they sent me a letter. If so, I’m sure it’s in my divorce file box. It’s been twelve years; some details have faded from memory. But I remember crystal clear that there was an allegation that I had abused my son, and they wanted to come talk with me about it.

There had recently been a headline-grabbing case of a child murdered by his father (I think it was), after CPS investigated abuse claims but decided to leave the child in the home. It generated outrage all over the city, and CPS responded by hiring a horde of additional investigators and cracking down hard.

I panicked. The end of my marriage and my divorce were so brutal that I needed serious professional help to cope. My mental health had been the focus of my divorce trial. It was partly why the judge awarded me no custody, not physical, not legal. At least he granted me the usual amount of parenting time. Losing custody hurt like hell, but I was grateful not to lose my sons entirely. When CPS came to call, I was still under psychiatric care. I had visions of losing my parenting time and seeing my sons no more.

There was no way I wanted to face CPS alone, so I called my pastor, Ed. He readily agreed to be there when the investigator arrived.

I don’t know why I remember that she pulled into my driveway in an old and worn-out car, a gray sedan. I also remember that she looked too young, probably 21 or 22. Ed and I met her at the door and she asked if we could sit and talk for a few minutes. I led them to the dining table.

She got right down to business. “So I understand after talking with your ex-wife that you’re mentally ill, and that you take medications to manage your symptoms. Are you compliant with your medication?”

I didn’t have time to be stunned by the question. Ed, a big bear of a man, immediately leaned way forward and said loudly and angrily, “Pardon me! Are you a mental health professional? Do you have a medical degree? Because unless you do, you will end this line of questioning right now as you’re not qualified to ask it. You are responding to hearsay from his ex-wife.”

My anxiety spiked. I felt hot; I had probably turned red. I was thinking, “Holy crap, Ed, what are you doing? I need your support and here you are antagonizing the investigator!”

Ed had intimidated the hell out of her. Her eyes widened to the size of half dollars and she immediately changed her tactic. “Ok then. I’m here because we have a report that you pushed your son off his bicycle. Why don’t you tell me what happened that day.”

I recounted my story as I told it above, including expressing my regret for not stopping when I started to get angry. Seeming satisfied with my answer, she then asked me questions about our day-to-day lives in the home. She also looked in my refrigerator and cabinets to make sure I had enough food, which was humiliating. And then she said she needed to speak with my sons privately.

I had sent them to their rooms when the investigator arrived, but we found them sitting within earshot in the living room. They’d heard everything, and their faces were ashen. They fixed their gazes at the floor as the investigator asked them to follow her to the back bedroom so she could talk with them.

She spent all of ten minutes with them behind that closed door. When they emerged, she said, “Mr. Grey, there are three possible outcomes of a CPS abuse investigation. We can find that there is evidence of abuse, or that there is no evidence of abuse, or that there is evidence that there was no abuse. I find that there is evidence of no abuse. You should hear nothing more from us about this matter.

“I’d also like to offer our assistance. It seems like you are working hard to be a good dad, and CPS can support you in that. We could come by from time to time and offer coaching. It’s completely voluntary.”

I was overcome with relief to be exonerated. And the truth was, I could have used someone to talk with who could give me good advice. I was doing the best I could to be a good dad to my sons, but I was building a home life all on my own while holding down full time work and still processing considerable anger from the end of my marriage. And I experienced my ex as very unkind toward me, which only made parenting harder. After all these years I can see that my ex was still processing her own considerable anger. We’d both equally destroyed our marriage; the betrayals had run deep. But all of my instincts insisted that help should not come from CPS — it would be better to keep the government out of my home. I declined.

After the investigator left, Ed said to my sons, “Come into the dining room and sit down around the table. I want to talk with you.”

Even though my own grief, pain, and anger were still strong, I had compassion for my sons. They were trying to cope with the breakup of their family, too. Even though their mom and I hardly interacted in front of them, I’m sure they were aware of the ongoing difficulty between us. It had to be so hard for them to figure out how to be in relationship with both of us. I knew they were going to their mom’s from my house and telling their mom everything that happened. I’m sure they were trying to find favor with her by telling her things she might find upsetting. I often got angry emails from her about things they told her.

I don’t remember Ed’s exact words to my sons, but here’s his message to them: Boys, I know you love your dad, and you love your mom. Your dad is trying to love you as hard as he can. You’re trying to figure out how to love your dad and love your mom now that they’re apart. But you’ve got to stop going home and telling your mom everything that happens here. It can have very bad effects. You came very close today to never seeing your dad again.

I remember my sons sitting up very straight, their faces grave, when Ed said that last sentence.

I thought Ed went too far. I wasn’t crazy about the idea that what happened in my home had to be a secret. But I didn’t know how to respond and I remained silent.

The gift of hindsight shows me now that Ed’s words changed everything for me and my sons, creating a shift for the better in our relationships. Both sons, especially my younger one, became much more receptive to me. We were able to keep building our relationships from there.

This story has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe telling it will help me release my sad feelings about it.

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COVID-19, Stories Told

Changing jobs during a pandemic

Even as I approached the building, all was strange. The front was still boarded up after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the only such building on the block. My key card let me in the front door. It was irrational, I’m sure, but I thought it might not still work after not having used it in ten months. The lights were off in the lobby, as they were on my floor as the elevator doors opened.

My desk was as messy as I’d left it. I didn’t know when I took the week off in early March that I’d never use it again. The company ordered us all to work from home starting the Monday I was to return.

Fast forward to December. I received a fantastic offer from another company, one I would have been foolish to ignore. I took it. On my last day, I drove to my soon-to-be-former office to clean out my desk.

I’ve left jobs before, a dozen times. I have it down. I take stuff home little by little during my last two weeks so my desk is clear on my last day. After lunch I walk around and say personal goodbyes to everyone I can find who I ever worked with, wrapping up with my boss. Not only will I miss the people, who I genuinely enjoy, but also I want to leave a good final impression. The market I work in is small enough that I’m likely to work with some of them again. When I’ve said my final goodbye, I slip out the door.

This was all different. There had been a Zoom happy hour in my honor, which was a nice gesture. I said goodbyes in my normal meetings all during my final week. Anyone I didn’t see, I Slacked. But it all felt so disconnected.

Stepping off the elevator, the floor was silent but for the whoosh and hum of the HVAC. The last time I was on this floor it buzzed with such activity that I needed noise-canceling headphones to be able to focus. I sorted through my things, leaving a healthy portion of it in the wastebasket. I left my laptop and my key card on my desk, picked up my box, rode the elevator down, and walked out for the last time.

Monday morning I started at the new job. My commute didn’t change a bit: I came downstairs, sat at my desk, and started Zoom. But the faces I saw on the screen were all new.

The new company did a terrific job of onboarding, easily the best experience of my career. They committed to everyone’s first full week being nothing but group meetings with various people in the company telling us the company’s history and mission, how we make money, how administrative things work, and what our product looks like and how it works. We got to meet all of the executives.

Yet I kept wishing to see my old team in those little boxes. I really missed them! I always miss the good people I worked with when I leave a job, but never this acutely. But then, I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye.

This post also appeared on my software blog earlier this month.

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Stories Told

Dreading snow

When I was nine years old, my parents bought my brother and I snow shovels, put a bow on each of them, and leaned them against the fireplace next to the tree Christmas morning. I mark that moment as the day I began to hate snow.

My hometown of South Bend is one of the snowiest cities in the nation. It ranks eleventh, actually, netting 66 inches in an average winter. (Syracuse, NY, the snowiest city, gets almost twice that!) Given that winters were colder and snowier during my 1970s and 1980s kidhood, I’m certain that South Bend got more than that then. I shoveled it all.

First snow fell in early November, last snow fell sometime in April, and we usually didn’t see the ground in between. More than once, snow piled up in strip-mall parking lots was still melting the first of June!

The rule was that we had to have the driveway and sidewalks (on our corner lot) cleared before Dad got home. Heaven forbid that Dad have to pull into the garage over snow, leaving tire tracks that would freeze and be nigh onto impossible to remove!

It was common for my brother and I to shovel the drive and walks two or three times in a day, often while snow was still falling. When you had more than a foot in the forecast, you didn’t want to wait until it was all done falling. Even healthy, energetic kids like my brother and me would wear ourselves out trying to remove a giant snow dumping all at once.

The city snow plow left huge deposits across the end of our driveway and on our tree lawns, sometimes six or eight feet high. Once Mom painted a sign reading FREE SNOW and stuck it in the pile in the tree lawn. A photographer for the city paper happened to see it and made a snap. It ran on the front page the next day.

Central Indiana winters are mild compared to what I grew up with, and they’ve done nothing but get milder with each passing year. I had to shovel snow for the first time this winter just the other day. I shouldn’t complain. But I still do.

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Stories Told

A Facebook group for writers and readers of personal essay, personal story, and memoir

I’ve started a group on Facebook for people who like to write and/or read personal essay, personal story, and memoir. You can join it here.

If you write about your life, this is the place to share your writing, wherever you publish it online. It’s also a good place to promote your books if you have published any. Just don’t spam the group with posts about your books — give as much as you take!

If you like to read stories about peoples’ lives, it’s my hope that in time it will be a consistent source of new material.

I believe everyone’s life is interesting — it’s all in how you tell the stories.

I hope you’ll join the group! Check it out here.

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Personal, Stories Told

Trips to the store with Dad

About once a week I wish I could forward Dad an article I found on Hacker News. Dad and I enjoyed many of the same nerdy math and science topics. We especially shared in interest in the history of mathematics. I gave him those textbooks from college, which he kept until he died.

I wish my relationship with my father could have been closer. We never figured it out while he lived. We had the best relationship we were capable of, usually cordial and sometimes warm. I guess that’s not too bad, but it was a disappointment to me. I would not be surprised if it was a disappointment to him, too. I think both of us wanted something from our relationship that the other couldn’t give.

I sometimes think that if I could go back, I’d have a heart-to-heart with him about it. But then I remember that I tried more than once, and he would never go there. Maybe he didn’t know how. I give him the benefit of that doubt. It helps me accept.

I wanted us to share more experiences together so we could have good memories with each other. It’s why when I was 22 I convinced him to make a trip with me to his West Virginia childhood home, a place I’d never been. It was a good trip, but it didn’t bring that closeness I wished for. Nothing did, not enough. Perhaps that’s why I now look back through childhood for moments I can claim.

When I was small, once in a while when Dad needed to buy something he’d take me along. Not usually — I think he rather liked running his errands alone. I’m just like that myself. I love the feeling of freedom and autonomy. But when Dad brought me along I knew the deal: I had to keep up with him, stay quiet, not touch the merchandise — and never pester him to buy me anything.

Brite-Way. Joe Yaciw photo.

Dad went to two stores in particular: Cook’s, a cut-rate department store in a strip mall, and Brite-Way, a hardware store, more or less. Both are long gone. Brite-Way in particular was an institution on South Bend’s south side and longtime residents still miss it though it went out of business more than 30 years ago. But I have clear memories of both stores from the trips with Dad, even though our trips there were short. Typical of men, he didn’t shop. He went straight for what he was there to buy, and then we were out.

Even as a small boy I wished Dad were warmer on those trips, and that he would do something small and special just for me — buy me a candy bar, or carry me on his shoulders, or even just talk to me about the thing he was buying and why he needed it. That wasn’t my father.

But I can still hear his voice in my head: “C’mon, Jimbo! Let’s run up to Brite-Way.” I still remember my mind and body filling with feel-good vibes when he said it. It was just us men on the trip! I watched Dad closely to take in his behavior. This must be how men behave when they’re out in the world by themselves! I noticed how he moved through the store and how he evaluated this brand versus that. He was unfailingly pleasant and engaging with the checkout clerk. I paid close attention and emulated it the minute I was old enough to go to the corner drug store by myself. I still do it.

Me on the bumper of Dad’s van, used to haul lumber and finished pieces

There are other memories. Dad started making custom cabinetry and furniture in the 80s. It was a side business when the plant was running and his primary work when he was laid off. He usually had me help unload lumber or load a finished piece, and sometimes he’d need me to hold a piece in place while he cut or joined it. Mostly, he pressed me into service sanding his assembled pieces. I hated sanding! But it was time together in his basement workshop, building something that mattered. Many of his pieces went to the University of Notre Dame, where they are still used. He had learned classic joinery, techniques to connect wood without fasteners like screws or nails, and he frequently showed me the techniques. He was clearly trying to teach me something in case I could ever use it. I think that this was the only way he knew how to be close to me.

Several times a year our family drove up into Michigan to the little lake my grandparents lived on. We had no money for vacations, making these trips the closest thing to unstructured family downtime we had. I saw a different side of Dad at the lake, one of some relaxation and leisure. He rose before dawn to fish for bass, and would be gone for hours. He usually went alone, but sometimes my uncle Jack went with him. Dad came back in a good mood even when the fish didn’t bite. In his good mood there was an ease, a permissiveness, that let me settle into the good times there.

I made only one photo of Dad at the lake. Here it is:

It was a hot summer day. It was probably my brother’s birthday, because he’s on a blurry photo later in the roll blowing out candles. Dad uncharacteristically needed a nap that afternoon and stretched out on my grandparents’ big green davenport. That’s what Grandma always called it, the davenport.

I also remember going to visit my dad’s Uncle William. He and Aunt Frieda lived in an old house downtown. We used to go over there to watch the city’s Fourth of July fireworks from their front porch. Sometimes Uncle Tom came over and the three men sat around William’s parlor talking about work, telling stories from their jobs past and present. When Dad was just starting out, William and Tom got Dad his first good job and they worked together for some years, so their mutual work history went way back. My brother and I were welcome in the parlor if we sat quietly, but we mostly watched TV in the room across the entryway. We could hear everything, of course. Those men obviously loved swapping their stories.

In the last couple years we had Dad, his vision deteriorated. After a minor car accident, he finally admitted he couldn’t see anymore and gave up driving. Of all the big-box hardware stores I prefer Menards. But to get to the Menards nearest my home, I had to pass a Lowe’s, a Home Depot — and Dad’s place. So anytime I went to Menards, I called Dad to see if he wanted to ride along. He always said yes, his voice unmistakably eager. We always talked a little about the home project that brought me to Menards that day; if he had any experience to share he always shared it. To the end, he hoped to teach me something. Then he’d ask me about my work and listen to my stories. Sometimes one of my stories triggered a memory of one of his, and he’d regale me with his tale.

I will always wish he had stretched himself, met me in the middle, to connect with me in the ways I wanted. But Dad connected with me in the ways he knew how. I stretched myself as far as I could to try to meet him in the middle, but it wasn’t enough.

Dad would have been 80 on Saturday. He died three years ago yesterday.

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Stories Told

It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition

I first told this story in 2013. I tell many more stories like this one in my book, A Place to Start. It’s not too late to make it your Christmas present to yourself — you can buy and download the e-book right now. Click here to see all the places you can get my book.

What’s your favorite personal Christmas tradition?

itsawonderfullife-email

Mine is to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life. It is my favorite movie – and has been for so long that I’ve watched it pass from obscurity to being discovered and well loved. Now I’m seeing it start to be considered cliché and passé. But that won’t deter me from watching it.

I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life when I was 11 or 12. I was spending Christmas with my grandparents at their home in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa’s big antenna picked up stations all over Michigan, and I liked to watch the late shows after everyone else had gone to bed. I came upon this film while flipping channels. I was quickly drawn into the story of George Bailey, a well-known and -loved little guy of modest means who plays the hero against a wealthy and patently evil man named Potter. It’s simplistic and sentimental, but I’m a sentimental man. I fell in love with the film.

TV made It’s a Wonderful Life popular. Even though the film was nominated for several Academy Awards after its 1946 release, it did poorly at the box office and lost money. But after a 1974 copyright snafu put the film in the public domain, television stations everywhere began airing it each Christmas and the film caught on. By the late 1980s it had become an enduring classic.

Through the 1980s I searched for it on TV every Christmas season. Some years I came upon it, and some years I didn’t. Then I received a VHS copy as a gift, and later I bought a DVD copy, and now I never miss it. Meanwhile, a court decision placed the film back under copyright, and now the only place you can see it on TV is NBC every Christmas Eve.

My most bittersweet memory of watching this film was at Christmas in 1987. A beautiful old theater in my hometown was showing the film one night. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the film in such a wonderful environment on a big screen and share it with an audience. But then my grandmother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had been very close to her, and her death tore me up something fierce. I wanted to be alone, but I went to see the film anyway. I found a seat near the back and tried to put away my grief for a little while. It worked right up until the end, when George Bailey is rescued by all of this friends. I always tear up a little, but that night I sobbed openly.

I love how watching the film puts me in touch with my memories of my grandparents, who have been gone for more than 30 years now. They were of the same era as fictional George Bailey; when this film was released, they has been married ten years and their third child, a daughter, my mother, was still in diapers.

If you have a Christmas tradition that holds special meaning for you or that is something you do just for yourself, please tell about it in the comments.

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