Even in her mid forties, my mom was still the classiest mom on the block, and she could still jump the chain link fence around the back yard and dance the jitterbug. She was petite boned and svelte and sported a short, salt and pepper hair-do. In a time when hippies were wearing headbands and beads and dungarees, mom still dressed in coordinating colors and carried handbags that matched her shoes. She connected with everyone, even strangers, and took opportunities to pass on her little tidbits of knowledge, interjecting “Did you know…” or “I read somewhere that…” into every-day conversation.
Abandoned with three small children by a lout of a run-away husband, mom continued to carry herself with pride and dignity. With the help of her sister Agnes (another strong and dignified woman), we were a happy family in a quiet suburban neighborhood. We gathered as a family every night at the dining room table to a warm, home-cooked meal. We had conversation, shared our days, and we connected face-to-face.
Now, in 2015, we seem to have nothing but shortcuts, but those shortcuts don’t cultivate curiosity, learning, or personal connection. We google whatever we want to know about. We don’t pour over the encyclopedia or atlases. We don’t congregate over the dining room table with newspapers or newsletters or school papers. We tweet, FB, blog. When I was a young child, we had none of this electronic interference.
My mom always created one-on-one and relationship connection time with me and my two brothers. I remember one special event during the summer of 1966. Mom was taking me – just me! – to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for a week. This special get-away bonding time with my mom is a cherished memory. Though a horrible storm in March of 1962 had destroyed the boardwalk, beachfront businesses and homes, and eroded the beach, by ’66 most of Rehoboth had been restored in glorious fashion. During the storm, waves were reported at 40 feet and this nor’easter is touted as one of the 20th century’s worst coastal storms. Mom and I were going to visit the renewed and rebuilt Rehoboth of 1966.
Mom, dressed in pedal pushers and a sleeveless summer blouse, backed the mint and cream- colored monster of a car out of our driveway. We waved good-bye to my brothers and Aunt Agnes and started on our way out of suburbia and into the countryside of lower Delaware. I think mom was as excited as I was. For one glorious week, she wouldn’t have to listen to arguments over F Troop or Daniel Boone? nor complaints about her meatloaf or tuna noodle casserole, nor would she have to vault the chain link fence to catch my brother after his latest prank or pre-teen mischief.
Our journey started quietly. Mom navigated our way out of Wilmington, moving south, as I watched unfamiliar landmarks and farm lands. We listened to WAMS on AM radio and sang along with Bobby Darren’s “Mack the Knife” and some guy named Elvis.
Mom was never one to pass up a teachable moment or an opportunity to help us learn new things. Along the road to the beach we saw cornfields (Is that where our corn on the cob comes from, Mommy?), passed the Dover Air Force Base and the John Dickinson House. She’d explain landmarks as best she could, and if she didn’t know the answer, she’d say we’d have to look that up.
I asked friend and associate Kim Leatherdale, LPC, for her take on how parents can better connect and foster relationships with their children. According to Kim, “Always live congruent to your message and your [children] will learn daily.” Mom was the perfect example of “learning by example” and was she never too busy to answer our questions. She was kind, curious, and intelligent. She paid attention to people and asked them questions. She made me feel special by her attentions and questions about my day, my homework, my friends. Mom inspired curiosity in us kids by encouraging us constantly to, “Look it up.” We would look up the flag of Germany for a school paper and find the flags of the world and spend an hour engrossed in all the majesty and colors of hundreds of nations. We could look up San Francisco and spend an hour hunched over maps of California in the atlas.
With the advent of TV and TV recording devices, computers and laptops, iPads and smart phones, there seems to be a growing trend of connecting online at the loss of personal, face-to-face bonding and one-on-one time. Everywhere I go – dinner at a restaurant, a work break room, sporting events – I see people staring into their devices and who pay no attention to their coworkers and parents engrossed in what’s happening on their device while they pay little or no attention to their children. This disconnect did not happen decades ago before all these devices were available and popular.
Arriving in Rehoboth, we cruised Rehoboth Avenue, past the bandstand next to the boardwalk, past the grand sign of Dolle’s salt water taffy and candy store. We smelled pizza from Grotto’s and heard the raucous music of Funland with its merry-go-round, bumper cars, and rocket ships. People on fat-tired bikes weaved in and out of pedestrians on the boardwalk, and a rainbow of colored umbrellas polka-dotted the beach. The heat shimmered off the sidewalks, and the sun glinted on the blue water of the Atlantic.
At our room rental, the lady of the house was a vision of grandmotherhood, with the constant apron, her gray hair fighting her ministrations to keep it in a bun. I remember the old man who would bang through the kitchen door every morning with a bucket of oysters. He’d stand over the sink, shucking one after the other, sucking them out of their shells. I was fascinated, though I thought they looked gross, like so much snot on a shell.
According to Delaware Today magazine, beach goers would still have been able to see the remains of the shipwreck of the Collier Thomas Tracy (which had stormed ashore in 1944 and got stuck on top of a previous shipwreck, the Merrimac) at low tide. On the beach, I would occasionally build majestic sand castles under her watchful eye and her encouragement. We would walk and collect seashells and Mom would explain what would have been in the shells. Mom and I would carouse at the water’s edge or read quietly in our beach chairs.
The love of reading books in our family often led to more conversation and learning, as well as more connecting. This was evident on our summer vacation as well. Between Charlotte’s Web, a Nancy Drew mystery, and whatever mom was reading at the time, we would discuss what we’d read, sharing thoughts about quirky characters or interesting events in the stories. About instilling a love of reading, Leatherdale says, “Read to your child every day; make it a loving ritual,” and “Read things yourself and let your child see you enjoy reading.” On this wonderful beach trip, mom and I read the newspaper together in the morning and would relax with our own books throughout the day, either in the living room of our rental or on the beach. I felt comforted and happy either reading together or reading my own book with mom just a few feet away.
Elizabeth H. Cottrell of Heartspoken.com – where she connects with God, nature, others, and self – relates her own feelings on connection: “I have been studying the role and impact of personal connections on our life for several years, and there’s no doubt in my mind these connections nourish our soul and renew our spirit. There is also evidence that in otherwise healthy individuals – those who enjoy regular and healthy personal connections – have an edge in mental acuity as they age. It is surely ironic that while technology has provided us with an unprecedented level of connection, it is no substitute for personal relationships and can, in fact, foster isolation.” I think often about my special connection week with Mom. We had no special phones or electronics. We had newspapers and books, home libraries and reference books, and we had conversations face-to-face.
According to HumanKinetics.com, “…some technological advances cause people to be distracted, overly stressed, and increasingly isolated. Many people are involved in an abundant number of relationships through technology, but sometimes the quantity of these associations leaves people feeling qualitatively empty. Obviously, technology has had a profound impact on what it means to be social.” I never felt empty with mom, or my childhood friends, or my family. On a recent outing with my family and friends, we used the placemats and napkins to play Hangman with the kids. During this outing, I spied a couple with a small child at the end of our long table – both mother and father looking at their phones, “connecting,” while their daughter sat ignored. I felt angry at this couple for ignoring their child during what should have been a family outing, and I wonder would my mom have spoken up to this distracted, disconnected couple.
Computers and electronic devices have opened up the world to us, but at what cost? Instead of tales of spider webs, we sit alone attached to the world wide web; instead of putting a 5 cent stamp on a hand-written letter, we punch a few keys and shoot off impersonal LOLs, OMGs, and ROFLs; instead of watching Disney as a family on Sunday night, we sit alone, with our own TVs, watching the latest series on cable; instead of sharing the corded phone that hangs in the kitchen, we each huddle over our own devices, devoid of real conversation.
Chaplain Rick Wilcox talks about his dad’s parenting gift: “Dad had many gifts and I didn’t comprehend or appreciate most of them during his life. One of the finest was the gift of presence. Dad knew how to sit quietly with me and his silence quieted my restless heart.”
In this century it has become harder and harder to bond, have real face-to-face time, and one-on-one time with our children, our families, and our friends. I remember the beach week as a real connection, significant personal face time, fostering and cementing our relationship, though at times Mom and I would sit quietly. Now, our hand-held electronic devices guide us to a false sense of “connection.”