Thursday, November 12, 2015

Katie Graduates

My dearest Katie, the first time I ever saw you, you were a bright eyed little girl in a photograph.  Your hair was full of baubles and twists, and you sat up very straight and looked directly into the camera.  You were posed with your sisters, and you were not yet nine years old.  I carried that picture with me for months, until I met you in person.  It was the fall of 2006, and you had just turned nine, a little girl with a mouth full of too big teeth and a sweet smile that reached up to your eyes.  I wonder sometimes about that little girl, who you were then, and who you are now.

Several months later you came to live with us, and it was then we discovered that Katie had superpowers.  It's true.  Katie was capable of moving so quickly, she actually became invisible to the naked eye.  One morning as she was doing her usual hygiene and grooming, Katie realized she had forgotten something in the living room.  A hairbrush I think, and she decided she could run fast enough to get it, even though she was only wearing bright orange underwear.  It was like that hairbrush just disappeared into thin air, and if you were watching closely, you might have seen a flash of brown and orange.

Um no.  Not really.  And of course these sorts of things become part of family legend...remember when Katie thought she could run fast enough to be invisible?

When Katie first came to us she hated to read.  She was a smart girl, who had always done well in school, but reading for fun was a new idea, and she did not like it.  Another family memory is of Katie sitting in a living room chair, holding a book, wailing.  I was making her sit and read, and it was torturous...for all of us.  And again, we often will say something like "Remember when Katie hated to read?  Remember when she used to cry if you gave her a book?"...because we all know that Katie loves to read, and can bury herself in a good book for hours on end. 

Katie was always a girl of few words, and yet for a girl of few words, she was always trying out new ones, and not always successfully.  Once, several years ago, Mrs. Frantz required Katie to write a research paper.  She went through steps like gathering notes on cards, and making an outline.  One night she came home and sighed as she dropped her piles of papers and books onto the table.  I asked what she needed to work on, and she fussed about needing to work on her paper, and not understanding exactly what she was supposed to be doing.  I told her to pull out her work and we would chat.

When she pulled out her paper, I stared at it for a long time, and then I began to laugh.  In spite of Katie's injured look and inquiries as to why I was holding my sides, I laughed and laughed.  On the top of her paper were two words.  Ruff.  R-U-F-F.  Giraffe.  G-I-R-A-F-F-E.  In my mind I pictured a giraffe with a ruffled collar, and I understood Katie's confusion.  Mrs. Frantz of course wanted her to write a rough draft, but Katie had no experience with the phrase.  And so Katie was our girl of few words that was brave enough to try on new words and get them wrong...brave enough to deal with the ribbing of a large family and many older sibling, who still remind her of run ins with words like metabolism and pork loin.

Katie, I will stop here, teasing and telling tales.  Instead I will tell you what came to mind as I sorted pictures for the yearbook, and sorted memories for this speech.  Recently we were talking about your plans for the future, and what different people thought of them.  You sighed and said to me, "I guess I'm just a late bloomer."  It was such an old fashioned thing to say, and it made me think.

You were nine years old when first we met, eleven when you were adopted.  In a short while you will turn eighteen, and so nearly half your life you have been running around with the Vietri clan.  I think about who you were then, and who you are now, and it makes me reflect on the fact that none of us are ever quite finished, not in this world.  When you were nine, you ran faster than the speed of light, but now that you are nearly eighteen, you tell me you are a late bloomer.  The girl who wanted to move fast finds that she has learned the value of going slow too.  You were a girl of few words, yet you mastered so many new ones, and now you might just find that you have something to say.  You were quiet little girl, but some of you may have discovered that Katie likes to make a little noise now and then.

We talked about how it's easy to feel pressured to take a certain course of action.  Now you are all grown up and graduated.  What are your plans?  What are you going to do?  It feels like you have to know, and nail it all down.  But you don't.  I was thinking about the old "choose your own adventure" books that Katie and all of my children read.  I read them too.  I always approached each choice with anxiety.  Do I search for hidden treasure or climb the mountain?  Do I run from the bear or stand and fight?  But the thing is this, it wasn't like a video game where if I chose wrong I would die and the game would be over.  You got to a choosing place, and you picked.  Then you turned to page 63 to find out what came next.  And so you wound your way through the story, having adventures and setbacks and victories.  The funniest thing of all was that sometimes even after making a whole series of different choices, you still ended up with the exact same ending.  I think life is like that.  We come to the end of one chapter and we get to choose.  It isn't the end of the story if you choose wrongly.  It's just a different page number to turn to.  And if you decided not to search for buried treasure this chapter, you could probably do it some other time.

None of us are who we are, The End.  The story twists and turns, and we get to be faster than the speed of light and late blooming too.  We get to be quiet people who are full of words and noise.  We get to be scared and brave all at the same time.  We get to say "no", and then "I changed my mind", and then "yes". 

One of my favorite hymns says "Great is thy faithfulness oh God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee.  Thou changest not, They compassions they fail not.  As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be."

God is faithful and compassionate without fail.  There isn't even a hint or shadow of change in that.  That's the only part of the story that stays constant really.  We are not God.  We are not eternally perfect, and so we change.  We are all light and shadow, and turning.  We move fast, and we sit very still.  Often we do both things at the same time.  It's a hard complicated thing to be happy and sad at the same time.  To want to strike out, but to also want to stay safe at home.  We are tempted to look here and there, for someone who will tell us what to do.  But you are the one that must answer for yourself, and live with the choices you make, and live inside your own skin.  So look here and there for the people who prove they love you, and listen to what they say.  Take the help they offer and be thankful for it.  But choose your own adventure.

This speech was delivered this past June, at Katie's graduation from Faith Mountain Christian Academy.  We celebrated in typical fashion, with a big mess and a whole lot of noise, in September, after a busy season of camp concluded

Sunday, October 18, 2015


I delivered this speech nearly a year ago, at the celebration of marriage, home, and family given for our Bella and her new husband.  Baby bear was only about ten days away from making his entrance into the world.  It's hard to believe he will celebrate a birthday soon, and welcome a new sister or brother in the spring. (Photo credit to our dear friend Allyson Willson.)
In recent years, people would sometimes say to me, "I give you so much credit for adopting Shani."  I always laugh and assure them that Shani is my easiest child, and to make my case I point out that she's always just where I left her, she never gets into my stuff, she never gives me any back talk, and she is ALWAYS happy to see me, no matter what time of the day or night.  Somewhere deep inside my head, this thought always comes to me.  "If you want to give me any credit, give me credit for Bella."

Beautiful, beautiful Bella.  This girl is the whole package with a bow.  Smart, driven, and beautiful.  And impulsive, fiery, and sassy as the day is long.  And so you can see the contrast here, between my oldest and youngest brown girls.  Bella was never where I left her and rarely where she was supposed to be.  She was always into everybody's stuff and business.  She gave me back talk as often as she disagreed with me, and that was a LOT.  And she was often not very happy to see me anywhere in her line of vision.

But these days things have changed a bit, and so I will finally take a shot at throwing Bella a party of celebration, and sending her off into the big wide world with a word of blessing from her father and me...something she would not allowed us to do even one year ago.  Of course it helps that she's learned a lot from Shani regarding being a good child.  These days she is pretty much always where I left her...and that's beached in a comfortable chair, trying to coax baby Grey into making an appearance.  She doesn't move all that fast, so I can chase her down pretty easily.  And she almost never gives me any back talk, and seems happy to see me coming, though I wonder if there might be food involved in that equation.  Regardless, Bella and Shani have become fixtures in my days, always close at hand, sometimes a little fretful when they are uncomfortable, but usually cheerful and smiling.

A week or two ago, Bella asked me this question.  "Mom?  Do you think I can be a good mother?"  It was a sweet time of just talking openly about parenting children.  How the bitter is mixed with the sweet.  How very hard it is.  How perfection is an impossible goal.  I said some things then, and I hope they were an encouragement to Bella, both in our ongoing relationship, and in her relationship with her children in the future.  Given time to gather my thoughts, this is what I would say today:  The most valuable lessons about parenting and perhaps life, I have learned from Shani. 

Shani does not speak, so she cannot lie to me or back talk, it's true.  But she cannot say sweet words like "I love you mama."  Shani cannot use her feet, so she cannot go where I tell her not to, but she cannot run and fetch for me, or dance on a stage and delight my mother's heart.  Shani cannot use her hands, so she cannot get into my things or make messes for me to clean up, but she cannot write, or draw, or hug me.  If you measure worth and love by what a person can do for you, then Shani is pretty worthless.  She is messy and smelly, and a huge drain on our time and resources.

And yet we know this could not be further from the truth.  Shani teaches me every day, how to be a better mother and a better person.  Her needs are simple, and her complaints are few.  If she is awake, she is watching the world around her, always looking for something or someone she loves, and registering delight when she finds that.  Her life is fragile, and it reminds me that all life is fragile, and the time we have with all of our loved ones is fleeting.  And if I get it wrong...if I am snappish and impatient, or demanding and unkind, Shani always forgives and forgets.  Shani always gives me a do over.

Remember these things as you move into adulthood, marriage, motherhood.  Keep it simple.  Look for love, and be delighted whenever you find it.  Love fiercely, the time is short. And say you are sorry and keep showing up.  Ask for do overs.

And by the way, just so you know, today you are my favorite.