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Low Boil

October 11, 2013

I’m in the midst of creating an album of photographs and letters for my Dad’s 87th birthday. As I cull through stacks of prints, I see my father in his youth—a dashing 6-foot-tall, blue-eyed blonde–and in later years, where he maintained his youthful look and more importantly, his lightness and humor. I am reminded of what a rich life he has led, filled with friends who’ve sent along pictures of the myriad trips they’ve take with him and of golf courses they’ve played. There are funny, heartfelt notes, but nothing too sentimental for a guy who doesn’t like to hog the spotlight. In fact, he will probably get pretty embarrassed when we give him this album. He has never wanted a big celebration around his birthday, and we are essentially sneaking this one in, going away for the weekend with the extended family to celebrate several birthdays, not just his.

Mostly, what I’m finding in the pictures are feelings–my own. Yes, I have the perspective of a daughter, second-born but oldest girl of four kids, when I look at these photos, but I’m also seeing them from my perch as a parent.

Parenting an almost-teenage son and twin 10-year-old girls seems for me to be a full-time, 12-hour-a-day job crammed into the hours between 3 p.m. and bedtime, encompassing driving, homework, dinner and all the crises that crop up along the way. When I pick my kids up from school, I try to chat with them, hear about their day, laugh, be relaxed. I’d like to make light of life, the way my dad does. He loves to joke (often cornily), doesn’t lose his temper (really), and is an all-around happy person. It’s very hard to roil him.

For example, I remember once when I was a teenager, my neighborhood friends came knocking on my first-floor window one weeknight after dinner. They were biking down to the convenience store a few blocks away and wanted me to come. I, supposedly doing my homework, agreed, locked my door and turned up my music–inexplicably thinking that would disguise the fact that I was AWOL–and hopped out the window. When I climbed back in a little while later, the first thing my eyes landed on was the open door to my room. Oops. I’d been caught–turns out my music was too loud. I remember sauntering through the den like nothing had happened. My dad just looked up from his newspaper and said, “Sugar, you know you can’t do that. You’re grounded for a week.” He tranquilly went back to his reading. And I was effectively neutralized.

I can’t imagine myself asserting this kind of calm with anyone, much less my soon-to-be-teenage children. In fact, I find myself getting roiled pretty often, even when I’m trying not to. Take yesterday for instance.

I drive my daughter to gymnastics class in rush-hour traffic, taking about 40 minutes round-trip. I pull back into the garage and my phone rings. It’s my son, who is in the house.

“Mom, I forgot my vocabulary book at school and really need it for homework that’s due tomorrow.”

“Fine,” I say. “I’m already in the car in the garage. Just come out and we’ll head up there.” I am thinking, let’s just get this over with. It’s the beginning of seventh grade, so do the kid a favor.

He emerges from the back door, his sister close behind.

“Can I come?” she says. “I don’t want to be in the house by myself!”

“Fine, just hurry,” I say. She climbs in barefooted. I am calm, my pulse normal.

We head up to school in what turns out to be crawling traffic–oh right, rush hour–and what normally takes 15 minutes takes 30. My heart beats a bit faster. Once we arrive, the security guard unlocks the doors, lets my son in, we wait a little bit, and he runs back out. There is no vocab book in his hand.

“Did you find it?” I say steadily, hoping illogically there is some explanation other than that he didn’t.

“No,” he says simply. “It must be in my backpack.” He closes the car door.

“At home.” I again say grimly, eyeing him squarely. I can feel my neck muscles start to strain.

“Um, yeah.” He looks down. “I could have sworn I left it at school.”

“So you didn’t even check your backpack before you called me?” My voice is higher and I’m starting to feel hot.

“Mom, I swear, I didn’t think it was in there!” He gives me a sideways glance and looks away. I know he is contrite.

Tamping down the tiny voice telling me to keep it together, I jump straight to the list of grievances:

“I’ve driven all the way back here and it’s taking up a lot of time and your sister is sitting here in the car and hasn’t been doing her homework and now I need to get home and feed you both and then go get your other sister from gymnastics and rush home to get you all to bed on time and Daddy’s out tonight and now you’ve got to finish your homework so good luck making THAT happen and this isn’t exactly how I need to be spending my time right now!!” I take a breath. I’ve said enough.

“Plus, I need to take a shower!!”

“I get it, Mom! I’m sorry.” Now he looks at me squarely.

“No electronics at all this weekend,” I say with finality. There.

“OK, Mom. I understand.” He is now perfectly calm, even calmer than before. “I get it. I’m really sorry.”

“No electronics. No computer, no i-touch. Nothing at all!” I am toast.

“I know, I know.” What he knows is that now he is in complete control.

Just stop, I tell myself. But that’s the hardest part–just stopping. What do you do after that? Turn on the radio and start singing?

I manage to restrain myself, and when we arrive home, my son goes immediately to his backpack and pulls out his vocab book. I just shake my head slightly and head to “make” dinner (code for leftovers).

I think now about how my father would have handled that situation. Granted, he didn’t have to face the daily after-school routine–that was my mother’s job, and yes, I’m sure she got frustrated–but if he had, he probably wouldn’t have said much. He would have put an expression of veiled disgust on his face–his pulse unchanged–and if it had been me in my son’s shoes, I would have felt really, really awful.

Sometimes no words are more effective than any at all. Maybe I should have given my son a chance to reflect on his actions and feel guilty on his own. Maybe I should have then asked him how his actions affected others and what the consequences for him should be. Maybe I should never have driven him back to school.

Today I came across an essay I wrote years ago for a graduate school application. It made me wonder what I can do that would inspire my kids to write about me the way I wrote about my father:

“As I grow older and reflect upon what factors have influenced my decisions, ideas from particular authors and classes from certain professors come to mind. But it is the people who put into daily practice values upon which others only reflect that serve as the examples I wish to follow. My father claims first place among the people I admire most for the simple reason that I have never seen him contradict in deed what he has put forth in words. I have learned more from my father’s mere presence than from any sermon delivered on a Sunday morning.”

I guess that’s my answer. Whatever my father did, he would have done it with conviction, kept his word, and most of all, reacted in a way that his children could ultimately (even if years later) admire. To that, all I can say is, there’s always next time.

Plus, I better make sure that computer stays off this weekend.



  1. Marissa permalink

    Just great and true. I actually had the exact same experience yesterday and could have invoked a little of your Dad. And yes my kid is off electronics this weekend too….


    • Carrington Tarr permalink

      So sorry for you! But glad there are others out there! 🙂


  2. Rebecca Magnuson permalink

    That was truly beautiful, Carrington. Thank you for the reminder that we can all aspire to be like your father…even after we feel we failed in that tense moment. The driving today all over the metro DC area for the kids was exhausting, but your blog brought a more positive perspective to it all. Thank you!


    • Carrington Tarr permalink

      Rebecca, thanks for your nice comments! We drivers need to stick together! And as for those moments of feeling like a failure–as Scarlet O’Hara says, “Tomorrow is another day!”


  3. Ashley F. Wall permalink

    Love this! But were we really just going to the convenience store? 🙂

    *Ashley F. Wall* *Executive Director Heartstrings * 336.681.1791


    • Carrington Tarr permalink

      Pretty sure we were headed to Magic Market! Isn’t that what it was called?


  4. Leslie permalink

    Loved that. The admiration of your father alongside your own reflection. Can’t wait to read more.


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