The story of a 4th-of-July weekend table

In our living room, in front of the sliding glass door leading to our back patio, is a wooden coffee table stained with antique-white glaze. From a distance, it just looks like a table that has lived through more than its fair share of spills and stains:

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But a closer look reveals that those stains aren’t stains, but goodbye notes and tiny love letters and bits of advice from people we knew in Denton, Texas, before we moved to Tucson:

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I’ve been noticing the table more lately because I can’t believe we’ve been living in Tucson for 11 years. In fact, it was exactly 11 years today that we moved into a hotel on the east side while we waited for the closing on our house on the far northwest side. One of my favorite – although scary – memories of that 4th of July weekend was leaving the four kids, ages 10 through 16, in the hotel to go shopping for some things with my husband, only to be caught in our first monsoon downpour. There were giant palm leaves blowing down Oracle, and the rain was flying sideways. The hot, dusty desert converted into a flood zone (or so it felt to me) in less than 5 minutes. We raced back to the hotel to find the kids standing on the tiny balcony of the hotel, holding onto the METAL RAIL, with lightning ripping through the sky and rain pelting them. They looked thrilled and I was a typical ridiculous mother, jumping out and screaming, “Get out of the lightning!” I ruined their fun, stole their joy.

I’ve spent far too much of my parenting years trying to protect my kids from God-knows-what. (It didn’t help being a journalist, spending one’s days writing and reading about All That Can Go Wrong. Sigh.) I meant well, as all parents do, but when we do that, we frequently over-react and it does little more than make everyone cranky – and it doesn’t really teach young ones how to problem solve on their own. More than that, it focuses attention on what could happen and takes it away from what is happening right now. It makes you live in the future (often giving examples from the past to shore up your argument) and you miss the present.

Which brings me back to the table and this holiday weekend or any family-and-friend celebration. When we left Denton, our neighbors decided to throw us a going-away party. The party was so big – we were truly blessed in that town with a neighborhood of front-porch friends and school buddies and PTA groups and church connections – that my husband and our neighbor, the Mighty Bill Sallack, took down a section of the large wooden fence dividing our homes so people could move between yards, homes, sprinklers, and barbecues. Bill’s wife, the Amazing Hilda, decided to surprise us with the table, upon which everyone who came wrote some sentiment.

I loved the party, and although there wasn’t enough time to talk to every person as long as I would have liked, I’ve been able to time travel back there plenty with the table. Lately, in my teacher prep program, I’ve been paying attention to the sentiments of teachers who signed the table, like this physics teacher who noted that one positive of our leaving was that my eldest daughter wouldn’t have to take his class:

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But mostly, I’ve been thinking about how time flies, and how some of the young ones who signed the table are, married and with young ones of their own now. And how, lucky for us, many of the people who signed the table are still our friends, people we know we’ll never meet the likes of again. And how we all, far too often, get lost in our own lives and busy-ness and forget to reach out and pay attention to the people around us before it is simply too late. It is easier to text than to talk (we can control to whom we speak and when), easier to send an email than write a letter, easier to post a note of care and concern on a Face Book page than actually visit a lonely person. The virtual world and the electronic wizardry that surrounds us has made it easier, in some ways, to find long lost friends and reconnect, but it has also enabled us to be lazy in “real” relationships, and to substitute superficial, emoticon relationships for the messy stuff that comes with relationships in real life.

So, this holiday weekend, word to the wise: Be there. Turn off the cell phone. Unplug from the virtual social network (the world of news and events, I’ve been assured, will go on without anyone tweeting about it), and connect with the face-to-face network. If you’re lucky enough to have someone who invites you to a barbeque or fireworks-watching event, go. Make the time; make no excuses. And if you aren’t invited anywhere, pick up the phone and reach out to someone else. Make your own party! And give thanks that you can.