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Growing up

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Long ago, back when my son was shorter than I, and when he listened to more of what I said, I was driving him and his teammate back from a baseball game that was more than an hour away from our house.

Those were the days when such long rides were part of our weekend routine, as we packed athletic gear, food, paper towels and flip-flops into the car to enable our children to compete against other children from distant towns or neighboring states, while also taking off their cleats and running into a deli to use the bathroom.

I don’t recall the details of the game because, even then, my son played in so many of them that the entire montage of memories blurs into a collection of highs, lows and everything in between.

Halfway home, we were the first car to stop at a red light. When another car pulled up next to us, we recognized the father of one of my son’s teammates.

Looking straight ahead, the father was screaming at the top of his lungs. My son and his teammate, who usually filled the car with nonstop commentary about the game, school, weekend plans and anything else that came to mind, were stunned into silence.

The three of us shifted our heads and saw his son sitting in the front seat with his head down, absorbing the ongoing verbal blows from his father, who had started gesticulating and was so frustrated that he spit on the windshield as he shouted.

During the entire red light, the father excoriated his son. As we drove away, my son’s teammate shared his memories of the game, pointing out that the boy in the other car had made a key error and struck out late in a close game.

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After our next game, my son and I got in the car, and I had a chance to look at us more closely in the metaphorical mirror.

No, I wasn’t screaming at him. No, I didn’t spit on the window. The pattern I noticed, however, was one in which my son — when he was alone with me — focused only on the things that went wrong. He lamented everything he did wrong or didn’t do right. Sometimes, I recalled, I piled on, telling him how he could or should have done something differently.

As I tried to get a few words in after that game, he cut me off. He continued to criticize his performance until he was too exhausted to speak, at which point he urged me to talk.

I didn’t want to review the game. I wanted to discuss our interactions.

After considerable back and forth, I set new ground rules not for coach/player interactions, but for father/son discussions, particularly as they pertained to sports.

I never wanted to discuss whatever he thought went wrong in a game first. I wanted to begin with everything he did well. That could include positioning, fouling off a tough pitch, supporting his teammates, calling for a ball — even one that he dropped — and having a long at bat.

Then, we discussed what could have gone better. He threw the ball to the right base, but the throw was too low. He was fooled on a high pitch at the end of an at bat.

The first game after our discussion, he started off by criticizing himself. But then, something remarkable happened: he remembered our last discussion, and we started with everything he did well. Those first few moments built a positive foundation around which to start making improvements.

In future games, he started to focus on ways to perform well, even after he had struck out or had made a mistake. Instead of focusing on the ways he might have let himself or the team down, he wanted the opportunity to help.

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Ah! It’s summer. 

Yes, there are miserable things happening that we are accosted with in the daily news briefs: congressional hearings, COVID numbers, climate change, warfare, inflation, gasoline price spikes, and so forth. But there is something magical about summer. Maybe it’s a carryover from our school days, when classes and homework ended and we could think about a trip to the beach or lounging in bed in the mornings, that make us feel the specialness of the season.

Come with me, then, as we do some time travel to my elementary school years, and I tell you what summers were like for me.

From first to fifth grades, my mother would visit my teachers in mid-May and get their lesson plans for the rest of the semester and the beginning of the next. She would then take me out of school, and I would not return until mid-September. We would travel to some rustic shack in the Catskill Mountains, a different one each year, where we would spend sixteen weeks in “the fresh air.”

My parents, you see, did not appreciate urban living in the summer, when I recall it used to get hotter than now. Air conditioning only existed in movie theaters, ice cream could only be purchased in bulk from drug stores with freezers, and to get a breeze, one would have to drive really fast along Manhattan’s East Side Highway with all the windows open—that is if one were lucky enough to get a ride in a car. 

My dad grew up in the mountains, my mom in Corona, Queens, which she said was so countrified that there were cows on the road when she walked to public school. They keenly felt the inevitable pollution in the summer air and planned the escape for us children and my mom.

It was lonely for me, fresh air not withstanding I would read a lot. Generally, there would be a farm or two within walking distance, and only occasionally was there a child to play with, only my sister, who was two years younger and had Down Syndrome. But my dad and sometimes my much older brother would come up and stay with us on the weekends, and then the pace of life would pick up.

My dad and I would traipse across meadows and climb hills, for the exercise and just for the fun. Sometimes we would see cows grazing, and they would look at us lazily as we went by. My dad always reminded me to stay alert for the presence of a bull and also to watch out for any snakes that might be sunning themselves at the base of the low stone walls that separated the meadows. Should we see a bull in the distance, we should look to climb a nearby tree.

Often we would find wild blueberry bushes, and we carried containers to bring some back to the rest of the family. We picked the berries in the classical way: one for the pot, two for the mouth, one for the pot, two for the mouth. As we moved around each bush, I enjoyed the warm sun on my back and the smell of wheat and grass carried by the soft breezes that caressed us on their way past. 

When it was time to return, I would wait for his suggestion that I lead the way, and it always came. My dad hoped I would develop a good sense of direction, especially when the terrain looked the same all around us. He would show me nature’s clues, like moss growing on the north side of tree trunks, as a help to finding my way.

One time I remember getting up early enough to watch the sun rise from the top of the nearby hill. I had never seen the sun rise before then, but the real treat was just being with my dad.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Even as I type this, I’m sure my mom, and the parents of people in their 40s and 50s, are going to laugh.

You see, my daughter turned 21 recently. For me, her age comes as a bit of a shock, a take-stock moment and a time warp enigma.

I get it. She’s lived 21 years, but, somehow, her reaching that age seems to have happened suddenly.

I know it’s not all about me, but it is in this column, so, hang with me for a few more minutes.

I don’t remember many of my birthdays when I was younger. At her third birthday, I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop and say to myself, “When I turned three, I was wishing with all my might for a Big Wheel.”

That probably was what I wanted, but I don’t remember thinking that. In fact, I don’t recall other landmark birthdays all that vividly, even though my parents invited my friends over, sang to me, and insisted that I make a “really good wish” before I blew out the candles.

What I remember from that age was my ambivalence. I was uncomfortable with all the attention, but I enjoyed the excitement of opening new presents. One year, all I wanted was basketballs, so I got three of them from my obliging social group.

So, back to our daughter. She earned this milestone birthday, leaving behind a trail of bread crumb memories.

On the day of our daughter’s birth, my wife insisted that I stay with her in the hospital no matter what was happening with my wife, so that we brought home the baby that had been “cooking” as we called it, for all those months.

It wasn’t hard to find our daughter, who has a distinctive birthmark and was exactly twice the weight of the baby next to her in the pediatric unit.

She went through numerous stages on the journey from that first miraculous day to now. When we moved out to a suburb from Manhattan, she took a walk through a nearby wooded path. An inchworm dangled from a tree and landed on her small, thin outstretched finger.

She carried it, slowly and carefully back to our house, offering to show this miracle to our new neighbors. Having lived their entire short lives in the suburbs, they didn’t relate to this city girl’s fascination with small samples of nature and returned to their driveway activities.

She took us with her on a journey that included brief visits to ballet studios (that ended abruptly) and to gymnastics floors (that also didn’t take). We spent considerably more time on hot softball fields and in confined volleyball gymnasiums, where ear-piercing whistles blended with teams celebrating the end of each point.

We also attended numerous concerts, including jazz bands, where she overcame stage fright to play a tenor saxophone solo.

We went through phases where nothing I said was right, funny or even worth sharing. The silent treatment, the lack of communication and the dubiousness with which she interacted with us helped prepare us for the moment when her younger brother exercised his own need to push us away and assert his independence.

So, here she is, at 21, driving a car, preparing for her senior year of college, making friends, gainfully employed during the summer, and filled with so much of the same wonder that defined her earlier years. In fact, these days, instead of carrying inchworms on her now manicured hands, she maintains several ecospheres filled with snails on a small table in her room.

When children act out, parents sometimes caution them that they may one day have a child just like them. In her case, I certainly hope so. I couldn’t wish anything better for our now 21-year-old.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

One day, you wake up and your kids who called noodles “noonies” are getting ready for college.

No, not exactly. It’s a long journey filled with skinned knees, ripped tee shirts — don’t ask — eye rolling and muttering between clenched teeth. Still, here we are, as our kids prepare to move on from the educational minor leagues. Along the way, we went through numerous milestones. Please find below a few of the phases in our journey.

— Deer in the headlights. I’ve seen deer in my headlights. The only difference between them and us when we first brought our children home is that the deer’s eyes are open much wider. We almost instantly became sleep-deprived. Other than that, we had that frozen not-sure-where-to-move feeling, knowing we had to do something, but not exactly sure what or in what order to take care of those needs.

— Hating everyone. People meant well back in the days when our children were young and cried. Numerous people, who didn’t live with or even know our needy infants, offered unsolicited advice about what this scream or that scream meant. Strangers would tell us how our daughter’s cry meant she had gas, was hungry, needed her diaper changed, or was hot or cold. Yes, thanks, those are the options. Thanks for the help!

— Cooking the plastics. Yup, back in the early days, I was so sleep deprived that I put plastic bottles in a pot of boiling water to sterilize them and fell asleep. It wasn’t until I smelled the burning plastic that I realized how long I’d been out.

— Carrying everything: We couldn’t go four blocks without a diaper bag filled with everything, including the special toy each of them needed, diapers, wipes, ointment, sunscreen, bug spray, rain jackets, boots, and extra clothing.

— Straining our backs: Picking the kids up and playing with them was fun when they were under 20 pounds. When they reached 50 and above, holding them the entire length of a ski slope became impossible.

— Crazy sports parents: This phase lasted much longer than it should have. It was only when the kids reached late middle school that I appreciated the fresh air, the sparkling sunlight and the excitement of the moment. Exercise and making friends are the goal. Everything else, including winning, is gravy.

— Giving them space (aka, it’s not about us). As they reached adolescence, our children needed to make their own decisions. Tempting as it was to jump in and redirect them or even to kiss them before they left the car for middle school, we bit our tongues as often as we could, leaving us feeling lonely and nostalgic in our cars as they joined their friends.

— Beautiful naps: Giving them space allowed us to do what we wanted. After years of living our lives while monitoring and helping theirs, we had a chance to do exactly what we wanted, which started with restorative naps.

— Sending them into space. We aren’t putting them in a Jeff Bezos rocket ship or sending them to the International Space Station, but we are preparing to give them an opportunity to explore the world outside our house.

— Looking at the calendar differently. With both of them on the way to their futures, we can choose places to visit that didn’t interest them. We can visit these places when school is in session, which should mean lower costs for us.

— Telling other people how to take care of their kids: With our free time, we see parents struggling with young children. We, of course, know better. Or maybe not.

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The first time we hold them, they fit into the corner of our arms with room to spare. Their impossibly small pink toes fit neatly in our eyelids as we kiss their wiggling feet.

We lower their grocery-sack-sized bodies gently into their cribs. During the day we bring food to their toothless mouths, and their bodies process the food as they take what they need and leave the rest for us to clean and remove.

Suddenly they are coasting, looking into the side of a couch, a chair or our legs, standing for the first time. Amid the cheers and squeals, they fall and we rush to the floor near them and congratulate them. Before long we’re bending down, gently holding tiny hands engulfed in our oven-mitt-sized palms.

From their first walking steps, they progress to trotting. It’s a wonderful yet terrible transition, as their developing minds can’t process dangers at the same rate that their feet propel them. We keep up or race ahead, making sure they don’t step off a curb until all movement on the street has stopped.

They no longer want to sit in the car seat. They arch backs that are shorter than our arms, making it impossible to buckle them in. We distract them enough to close the clasps, run to the front seat and bring the car to a high enough speed that they sleep.

We take them roller skating, skiing or ice skating. We start them early so they’ll become naturals. Brilliant idea, except that they need us to put our hands under their armpits to keep them upright. After a time far too short for our kids’ liking, our backs scream to stop. We can’t bend down or our spines will go on strike. At that point, these small people want hot chocolate or the chance to try skiing, snowboarding or rollerblading on their own.

We stand on a field, tossing a ball lightly near their gloves. They throw the ball back in our general direction, discouraged that they haven’t discovered the magic of a catch. We get down on one knee, look them in the eye, pull up their small chins and smile, hoping we can teach the mechanics of throwing before they become too upset to keep trying.

We protect their heads from colliding with the tops of tables, reach for glasses from the cabinet, and help them into the seats at restaurants where their feet dangle far from the floor.

Pretty soon, they want to ride a bike. We promise to hold on but our backs, yet again, have other ideas. They shout at us for letting go or, maybe, they decide they want to do it on their own because they saw Timmy down the street on his bike.

Their faces, arms and legs get longer, they pick up speed everywhere they go and, before long, their heads are above the level of the kitchen table. They reach down to pet the neighbors’ big dog, and they sit in restaurant chairs with enormous feet that rest on the floor and which we wouldn’t dare put anywhere near our eyelids.

We no longer have to bend our necks to kiss the tops of their heads. In fact, with their braces gleaming in the sun, they stare or glare from under the long hair of adolescence directly into our eyes. Pretty soon we hope, as we go to sleep each night, they will be taller than we are.

Wonderful as that moment is, maybe — just for an instant — we remember that the head perched atop this growing body is the same one that fit so snugly into our arms all those years ago.