Stories Told

Memories from before my family came apart

My first wife made the photos I shared earlier today of my sons when they were small. She had been a professional photographer, and she was very good at drawing out her subjects’ personality and then, at the perfect moment, pressing the shutter button. If only I could be half as good at portraits and candid people photos!

I have precious few photos from my sons’ early years. My ex wouldn’t allow me to have copies of our family photos when we divorced, and my attorney and I couldn’t convince the judge to order it. The handful of photos I do have, my ex mailed to my mom when they were new. Mom let me scan them. Garrett was 1 and 2, and Damion was 3 and 4, in these photos.

My first marriage was always challenging, but in these early years with our boys we both tried our best. At least the photos I have show our boys happy, having good times.

Around the time Damion entered Kindergarten, our marriage took a solid turn for the worse and never recovered. My mom has few photos from those years; my ex must have stopped sending them. I have mixed feelings about not having those photos. On the one hand, I have no idea anymore what my sons looked like then, and little memory of family events from those years. Without getting into details I’ll say that the last couple years of our marriage were genuinely traumatic for me, leading to spotty memory. I call those “the lost years.” Seeing photos from those years might put me in contact with bad memories I don’t want to revisit.

Garrett entered Kindergarten in 2004. The photo above is the boys on Garrett’s first day of school. About six weeks later my wife would ask me to move out.

The next few years were the hardest of my life. It took almost two years for the divorce to be final, and it was a fistfight the whole way. I moved three times in three years. I grieved the very serious loss of not seeing my sons every day.

But eventually life settled down. The boys and I began to make new memories, which I photographed like crazy. They were our best years, and there’s no way I can forget them.

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Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

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Film Photography

Autumn scenes on expired Kodak Gold 400

Gourds

After testing the new light seals in my Nikon F3 recently I wanted to keep going with this satisfying camera. I loaded my last roll of Kodak Gold 400, expired since January of 2008. My previous roll of this film looked very good shot at box speed, so I shot it that way this time too. The results showed greater color shifts and noise than last time, but a little quick Photoshoppery made these images look much better.

Corn

I mounted my 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens to the F3 for this outing. Despite its noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end, I really like this lens. It’s small and light, and its zoom range gives me good flexibility.

Family

We met our granddaughter and her mom in downtown Zionsville, where there were gourds and pumpkins for sale. Here are three of Margaret’s kids, our “granddog” Obie, our granddaughter, and her mom.

With Grandma

We see our granddaughter most Sundays now, and it’s been lovely. When the weather’s nice enough we meet in town or in a park.

Book blind date

The used bookstore was open this day, running a clever promotion where they wrapped books in kraft paper, wrote what the book was about on the front, and sold them as book blind dates.

Zizzy

I finished the roll around the house. As the weather has grown chillier I’ve gone out less, but I’ve still wanted to make photographs. That means looking for new subjects, or new angles on old subjects, at home.

Purple crock

The 35-70 focuses from about 13 inches. I enjoy zooming this lens to 70mm and moving in close.

Heating the coals

Our last gas grill gave up the ghost last season after just three years of service. That’s the way of $250 gas grills. I didn’t want to blow another $250 that way so I bought a little Weber charcoal grill instead. It’s more hassle to grill on charcoal but the flavor is better. Anyway, I’m pleased that I was able to capture this fire so well.

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COVID-19

Being out in the world as much as we safely can before cold weather prevents it

Sunday might have been the last warm (upper 70s) day of the year. So Margaret and I went out in the evening for dinner and drinks, to places where we could sit outside. Forgive my regrettable selfie skills, but here we are wrapping up our night with a delicious lowland scotch at a Scottish restaurant on the downtown avenue where all the hip kids go.

I’m sure we’ll have a few nights in October where we can do the same, as long as we dress for chilly weather.

We need to make a point of being out in the world, and of seeing people we care about, as much as we safely can before cold weather prevents it. In Indiana, except for wintertime activities like sledding or snowball fights, we stay inside from sometime in November through sometime in March. That’s four to five months of isolation.

With that in mind, I bought a propane fire pit for our deck. It was advertised as putting out 50,000 BTUs. That sure sounded impressive! I hoped it would make our deck hospitable until it gets truly cold here. We’ve used it a couple of evenings now, inviting extended family to talk and laugh with us.

Unfortunately, the fire pit is warm within only a few feet, and only across your face and torso. After the sun set the other night, temperatures fell into the upper 50s — and we all went in for jackets and blankets. If we keep bundling up and we have a mild autumn, the fire pit could let us use the deck through about the end of October. I guess that’s better than nothing.

Margaret and I have made it clear to the kids who still live with us: no spending time inside with friends, and no going into places where people don’t wear masks (e.g., restaurants). We’ve talked about how we might be able to see our friends and family during the cold months, but so far none of us has come up with any bright ideas.

This is going to be a long winter. We’ll need to show each other extra grace and kindness.

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COVID-19

Winter’s a comin’

In the spring, I thought that lockdown might flatten the pandemic curve (remember that phrase?) enough that life could return to normal in the summer. I was willing, eager even, to press pause on seeing family and especially friends — to just stay home — for the greater good. But now it’s clear that we’re in this for months longer yet, easily through the winter and possibly even longer.

I’m mighty introverted and love spending time alone, but even I need some human contact. I feel it deeply — I’m not getting enough, even though I live with my wife and some of our children and thus have company whenever I want it. To be whole and healthy, I need to see family that doesn’t live here, and I need to see my friends. Videoconferencing hasn’t been a good enough substitute.

Obviously, risk of COVID increases the more you interact with people outside your household. My wife and I have read a number of articles about it, articles that were as agenda-free as we could find. The consensus is that when you spend time with people outside your household, the lowest-risk way to do it is outside, where whatever people around you breathe out dissipates into the air. Distancing of at least six feet, or masks when that’s not possible, further reduces the risk.

Indiana businesses are open again with a few restrictions (though in at least one county bars remain closed). This appears to have signaled a return to normal for many Hoosiers. I see people spending time in each others’ homes, riding in each others’ cars, and having meals inside restaurants. It saddens me to see it, as this behavior only spreads the virus.

My wife and I are still playing it conservatively — from our observation, much more conservatively than most. But we have loosened up some. Isolation has been hard on us and has contributed to our low moods. Right now, we do see our friends and extended family outside. We are beginning to travel together in limited fashion to places where we spend most of our time outside. We choose to take on what we believe is a small amount of COVID risk to get the mental health benefits of human interaction and being in the world.

We’re getting as much of it in now as we can, because this window will close when winter weather arrives. Indiana winters are cold and snowy, sharply limiting outdoor activity. I never look forward to winter, but I dread this coming winter more than any other in my life because it will mean intense isolation.

We’ve had occasional picnics in a Zionsville park and invited children, siblings, and parents who live in central Indiana. We’re having another on Sunday. We’ve taken dinner to my mom’s a couple times, and eaten it with her on her patio. A couple weeks ago my team at work had a socially distanced picnic together. And I’m starting to see friends a little, always outside, with reasonable distancing. On Tuesday I saw my brother and a mutual colleague for the first time since February. We met at a restaurant with a great whiskey selection, and sipped a couple bourbons on the patio while we caught up. It was wonderful.

Yesterday I took the afternoon off and drove to southern Indiana to meet my younger son, Garrett, at a state park. His mom moved way out into the country with her husband after he retired, and that’s where Garrett lives when he’s not away at college. The state park is about 20 minutes from his home. I don’t remember exactly the last time I saw Garrett, but it was before the pandemic and might have been a long ago as January. I’ve not gone this long without seeing him since he was born. We went for a long hike, and talked. It slaked a deep thirst.

My wife and I have also booked an Airbnb apartment in downtown Louisville for an upcoming weekend. Since we married, we’ve made a point of taking a long weekend away every three months. With all the hard stuff we’ve lived through, these trips help us remember that we love each other and enjoy each other’s company very much. Our last trip was in January. We need to get away. We chose an Airbnb apartment rather than a hotel because we think there’s some risk advantage to a single unit over a room in a large building. We were also able to learn about the owner’s cleaning practices in detail, and they satisfy us. While there, we hope to walk through downtown Louisville photographing its architecture and enjoying meals outside at restaurants. But if it rains all weekend we will buy groceries, make our own meals, and watch Netflix together. If this weekend trip is like all the others we’ve taken, we’ll return renewed in our relationship.

One of our sons moved out a few weeks ago. It brought us no joy as he’s on an unsustainable life path that will go badly for him. It’s been deeply stressful for all of us who live here. He is also estranged from the mother of his child. After he moved out we reached out to the mother, who has since been generous in bringing our granddaughter for visits. We were thrilled when the mother offered to make the visits to be regular, weekly if we can swing it, to build strong bonds.

Already bad weather has backed us into a corner, and we’ve allowed them into our home. We have reasonable assurance that the mother is managing pandemic risk as well as she can, and she has the same reasonable assurance from us. But in the end you never can really know and every person you add to your bubble only increases your risk. And again, winter is coming; the cold and snow will sharply limit our ability to see our granddaughter outside. We’ve judged that the better thing is for us to have time with our granddaughter, so we invite her and her mother in. We hope we’re right.

Holliday Road Bridge

Finally, I’m getting outside for walks and bike rides as much as I can. It’s a solitary activity and so I’m at no COVID risk. But the exercise is good for my body, mind, and spirit in these hard times. I figure I have about six more weeks on the bike before temperatures are too chilly for me to ride without special gear — it’s amazing how cold your hands, ears, and face get on the bike below about 60 degrees. I don’t enjoy wearing cold-weather gear on the bike, but this year it will be worth me investing in some so I can ride for as long as I can.

Walking will be easy enough and not unpleasant until the temps drop below zero Fahrenheit. Then I’ll break out my heaviest coat, a Korean War-era wool-lined Army trench that has blocked every cold I’ve thrown at it for the 35 years I’ve owned it. But walk I will, all winter. I’m making that commitment now. It will help me get through the long, lonely winter.

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COVID-19

Settling into a new normal

It surprises me, but I think we’re already adapting to our new normal here. We’re even enjoying some aspects of it.

It helps a lot that Margaret and I remain employed at our pre-pandemic rates of pay. Unlike many, we have no money concerns right now. I’ve thought Margaret’s company would furlough everyone, and indeed they’ve told many that they should stay home. But they’re still paying everyone, and they appear to want to do that for the duration if they can.

Welcome to Zionsville

I have always wondered whether I could tolerate working from home every day. Before this I did it at most a few times a month, when I needed quiet and privacy such as to write employee reviews, or when I had a plumber here to fix the sink. It was a nice break, but I was always ready to return to the office. I like being in the office.

A couple years ago while I was unemployed, one of the job opportunities I pursued was with WordPress.com for a Happiness Engineer (support) position. I love WordPress and I was excited to possibly join the team. But I wasn’t sure if I’d take well to working from home every day.

I had made it to the interview stage when I accepted an offer from a local software company to manage engineers. I think I would have loved the Happiness Engineer role, but it would have meant a healthy pay cut. Margaret was encouraging and enthusiastic, telling me we’d adjust our budget for a job that made me happy. But I just wasn’t sure I could handle working from home for the long haul. When the engineering manager offer meant a return to office life and keeping my former salary, the decision was easy.

But now I know I can do this, and I believe I can sustain it. It helps a lot that we’re all working from home. I’m not missing out on any hallway conversations, or struggling to hear or be heard on a meeting I’m taking online with a bunch of people in a conference room.

There is a downside. As a manager I’m used to having a lot of meetings every day. But now my calendar is packed — I go from one Zoom room to another all day. I think this compensates for the lack of organic conversations that happen naturally at the office. There has to be a better way, but we haven’t found it yet as an organization. By the time I shut off Zoom at day’s end, I’m drained.

To give myself a break, I’ve blocked my calendar 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon so I can catch up on messages and go to the bathroom. I tell my colleagues that if God Himself sends me a meeting request for those times, I’m declining it.

I’m also blocking 90 minutes at lunch. I eat something in the first 30 minutes while I again catch up on messages, but then I step away from the computer the rest of that time. If it’s not raining and my old hip injury isn’t bothering me, I take a walk around the neighborhood.

I bring a camera on those walks. I’m shooting more film now that I’m stuck at home. At first, it was a distraction that helped me cope with all the changes. Now I see it as an opportunity to finally burn through my queue of new-to-me old cameras, and shoot the last few of my collection in Operation Thin the Herd. Soon you’ll see the fruits of this labor here on the blog. It’ll be a nice break from the road-trip posts I’ve been bringing over from my old site.

At home, it’s been lovely to see and talk more with Margaret’s children, the three that live with us. They’re hardly children anymore at 19, 23, and 28. They were seldom home as they worked and spent time with friends and partners. I like them, and I think they like me, but we’ve not been close. It doesn’t help that the orderly way of life I’m used to doesn’t line up very well with the bohemian way of life they’re used to. Thia more carefree approach to living appealed to me when I met Margaret, and I’ve adapted to it some. But I still need order and routine. I’m sure Margaret’s kids see me as rigid, and even irritable when order breaks down too much.

They’re just as stuck at home as I am now, and that provides more chances to interact. Where we used to eat dinner together maybe once a week, it’s now five or more times a week. Now that I have blocked downtime on my work calendar we even have random chats about everyday life as they pass through the kitchen, ten feet from my desk and the hub of our home. It lets us all see different sides of each other, and I hope will let us all feel closer and more connected.

One of the best times we’ve ever had as a family was a couple Saturdays ago when neither Margaret nor I could face making one more big dinner. I called the Mexican place around the corner and brought in a feast. We all sat around the table and bantered and laughed. Laughter is such the thread that stitches families together.

Other isolation reports from Christopher May, brandib, Simon, and Dan James.

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