Drop-Off Magic

“I will pick you up in a few minutes,” my mother yelled as I opened up the gate and skipped up the cracked sidewalk. I barely heard her words, much less cared. I was focused on the steps ahead that led to the door. The door that led to the house of love.

I couldn’t wait for those afternoons with my great aunt Bootsie. Her given name was “Una.” But who wants to be called Una? We just called her Bootsie and I adored being in her presence. Once through the door and into her home, I was swallowed in her love. Her fat folds embraced my skinny, undernourished self. Her vital spirit welcomed me as if I were important. My afternoon of magical godsend had begun.

First on the agenda – rolling out the dough on the white-flour-coated counter. We cut lard-infused circles, biscuits from scratch. The southern flaky ones, that when met with a pat of butter, went on for days. Like hot lava pouring from a volcano. While the biscuits took their time baking, we danced in the kitchen. Bootsie’s infectious laugh enlivened the room and more importantly, my starved spirit.

Next up, fashion design. We peddled her squeaky sewing machine as we fastened together homemade clothes for my naked baby doll. Where my doll was going to wear this, her newly coiffed attire, I had no clue. But it didn’t matter. I was in the land of Bootsie and that was all that counted. My drop-off magic.

During those afternoons of my childhood, time stood still. I relaxed into the fullness of the moment. And then all of a sudden, the clock reminded me of its harsh ability to betray. My mother was at the door, beckoning my leave from Bootsie’s house of unfiltered love.

You see, Bootsie was never able to have children. Back then, they called it barren. Her husband died a few days within my birth, so, naturally, just by the sheer luck of fate, I was the fortunate recipient of her transferred affection. Loss can do that – make us look for new targets for our love. But Bootsie’s and my arrangement was not just one-sided. It was very mutual. She needed to love and I needed love.

Female love was a rarity in my family. It was too cluttered, too junked up by layers of expectation and dictation of how and what to be. Although rarely spoken aloud, it was clear that scripts were used to shape the formation of a woman. A biscuit cutter of a different, a more lasting kind. But to me, Bootsie offered the refreshment of creativity and play. An agenda-less freedom. She was a nurturing maternal figure and I was the lucky little girl.

Bootsie died while I was in college. Sadly, it was a non-event. Her mind had vanished, long before Alzheimer’s was an “in” diagnosis. I imagine her caretaking relatives were relieved that her body had finally called it in. Her graveside service was small, with only a few in attendance. Unfortunately, I was not able to be among them.

All these decades later, I wish I had that biscuit recipe. My attempts at duplication are more like rock-hard hockey pucks than Bootsie’s perfect circles. I do have a sewing machine. It sits in the musty basement, probably in need of a tune-up, just waiting for me to take the time to put it to use.

But, I do dance in the kitchen – even when my embarrassed kids tell me to please stop.

However, such concrete measures are indeed immaterial. What is most important was Bootsie’s impact. To my little girl heart, this full-sized attentive woman was huge. She was my drop-off magic, my unexpected surprise dose of love.

Love does that, you know. It just shows up. In unanticipated wondrous ways. As a young girl, I sure needed that. Heck, I still need that. I imagine you do as well. We might just need to look around for its offerings in life’s creative underground.

And perhaps on a good day, as the circle goes round, we can be the ones extending surprise love to someone else. For who knows? Maybe it’s in the giving that the magic truly abides.

The Optional Component

It was as if his eyes told the whole story. They seemed hollow, lifeless. He looked past you. Over you. Around you. Any place but at you, as if intentionally avoiding all human contact. Despite his uninviting manner, I attempted to reach him on more than one occasion. Sadly, despite my best efforts, I don’t think I made a difference. During our entire week, I saw him smile one time. I can’t even remember his name.

Our volunteer vacation went exactly as I had imagined. The Guatemalan orphanage, where my teenagers and I did a week-long service project, was bare and emotionally cold. The staff was most efficient with the daily tasks needed to sustain the physical lives of the children – feeding, bathing, dressing, keeping the lot safe and at the end of the day, making sure they were all accounted for.

Despite their best efforts, something was missing. Vacant was warmth and joy – life’s quintessential emotional juice. Not that I anticipated much. It was like trying desperately to cover an entire slice of bread with the scraps of peanut butter remaining on the sides of the jar … there was just not enough to go around. Think two adults per fifteen young children. Just not possible. I guess that is why we were there. All we did was sit on the floor, play, hold, hug, kiss and sing songs in an unrecognizable language. We were there to add that “optional” component – love.

Some of the kids were hungry for whatever we provided. They smiled freely, hung on our arms and lapped up attention, as a thirsty dog discovering a new watering hole.

Some kids appeared resilient and thus, hopeful. It was as if whatever painful circumstances that brought them to the orphanage had yet to steal their spirit. They insisted on keeping an open heart.

And then there were those like the young boy I described above. Tragically, life had taken its toll. As if they had already resigned to the fact that they would never get their share. Heart-breaking.

It got me thinking. What exactly distinguishes one from the other? Why do some children stay alive emotionally while others give up – as if the hurt is so bad they decide to no longer feel, to never try again, to withdraw more and more into the sinkhole of their selves?

Naturally, my reflection at the orphanage made me think about us adults. The ones that have experienced more than his or her share of life’s hard knocks and yet remain bright-eyed. As opposed to those that brittle and break, become hardened, seemingly beyond repair. What exactly determines such different paths?

If I was a betting woman, and being the optimist I am, I am leaning toward that “optional” component – the one called love. Food, clothes and housing alone, without the added necessary ingredient of the soul, is futile. The former makes the child. The latter makes the human being.

I wish I could have given more to that small Guatemalan boy. I certainly hope someone will. Meanwhile, I am grateful to what he gave me – even deeper conviction that pain without emotional cushion sure does a number. That the belly can be full but the heart can remain starved. That love, demonstrated through consistent human contact, is ultimately a non-negotiable ingredient.

Is There Hope for Me, Doc?

Compared to individual and group patients, couples come into my office the most urgently. Typically, and sadly, most couples wait too long to get the needed help for their hanging-on-by-a-thread relationship. As if I am some relationship emergency room doctor, they want me to “fix” them instantaneously. There they sit, in the throes of a dying love, and they desperately need hope that the end is not inevitable. They want encouragement that I not only can keep the partnership alive but that I can give them the wherewithal for relational vitality and sustenance.

Practically speaking, there are four factors to consider as to whether or not a couple can recover, heal and move to a more conscious healthy relationship:

1. The degree of childhood woundedness that remains unhealed. The more the partners in a relationship have unprocessed leftover emotional pain, the less likely the relationship can move to higher, improved ground. In other words, if the folks that make the mix do not have the character flexibility necessary, relational health cannot be created;
2. The degree of woundedness in prior relationships. The amount of unprocessed leftover pain that remains from each partner’s relationship history will impact negatively the current relationship;
3. The degree of woundedness in the current relationship. The depth and length that partners have injured the other and thus, injured the relationship, directly correlates to the chance for recovery. In other words, the greater the damage, the poorer the prognosis;
4. The willingness for each partner to work his/her edge. Even in the midst of deep and overwhelming woundedness, I have seen long-gone relationships not only revive but also blossom into a never known newness. It can be done if both partners are committed to the work required – both within themselves and within the relationship.

Bottom line?

Do your own emotional work so that you are in the best shape possible to be a healthy, intimate partner.

Learn early the relationship skills needed as to prevent destructive patterns of relating from embedding and damaging your relationship.

If consistent troubles emerge without constructive resolve, seek help early as opposed to waiting until it is too late.

Work your relationship as your life’s art – the one with the opportunity for the highest dividend of investment.