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Tuesday
Jul212009

I've Been Framed

I have several pictures on my walls that I love. The thing that irks me though is that framing them cost more than the original print. For awhile I rebelled and just bought cheap frames, but I have to admit the expensive ones look better. Mind you the $10 frames are a step up from the droopy-magnet-on-the-fridge display option. I have also spent a small fortune on having my favorite photographs made into plates and mugs. Only a few. Let's just say that each of my nine children will stand to inherit a dozen or so when they leave home. One time I was cleaning the back of my van and came across a crumpled picture made by my three year old daughter. I could easily have shoved it in the trash bag but I stopped for a second look. It took me a minute to begin to see the complex image she had captured with an anemic red marker.

This picture included all her siblings, complete with fingernails, eyelashes, pockets, and flowers on the dresses. It was beautiful. I framed it and sent copies to my friends.

Once my 16 year old son was tenderly helping corral my 4 year old autistic son at a church service. I didn't especially notice that this was in any way noteworthy behavior. But afterward a friend said "Any mother of a teenage daughter would have made a bid on that young man as a future son in law. He was wonderful." Was he? I guess he was, come to think of it, but I had never had it framed for me that way before.

Another time we were on vacation at the lake and there was an annoying little dip in the dock that necessitated walking through water to get out to the platform. I was taking pictures of really remarkable things like boats and cumulus clouds when my 8 year old son put his arm around that same special needs little boy to help him across what felt like a scary impasse of 3 inches of water. I clicked a picture of it. Now when I see that photograph, (which I have made into a plate in case you were wondering) I am struck by the wonder of that moment. It felt fairly mediocre when it was transpiring, two boys walking across a puddle. But what it means to me now in terms of a boy shepherding his brother across looming fears feeds me still.

Marriage is dense with commonplace moments. Years ago I was reading the book Random Acts of Kindness and found myself tearing up at the gestures of altruism that people experienced from total strangers. One woman, who was financially struggling, found a bag of groceries on her doorstep, just when she felt hopeless and alone. A newly bereaved widow who could not face mowing her lawn was deeply touched when neighbors began doing it for her. A person was slipping into depression when she started to find nameless, cheerful messages on her answering machine. They buoyed her through a dark time. Another woman was stunned to receive $100 anonymously when she could not buy food for her children. These random acts of kindness truly are heartwarming. They are evidence of the goodness of the human spirit.

But what happens when a husband does those things, not randomly but regularly for the woman he married? How many times has my husband brought home groceries, and I saw it as commonplace? How many sweltering days has he wrestled with a lawnmower, but that act was overlooked like the drawing in the back of the van? Couldn't I frame it as the loving gift that it is? Or is it somehow less kind simply because I expect it? I could not begin to calculate the money my husband has placed in my hands, empowering me to buy whatever food I desire to feed our children. How many times has he tried to say something comforting on the phone or in person, yet because he owes me a daily allowance of compassion, it doesn't dazzle me the way it did the woman for whom the caller remained anonymous?

The other day I was listening to a friend complain that her husband was spending an hour each night reading with their daughter, instead of repairing things around the house. I suggested that giving attention to their teenager was wonderful, and that many mothers would willingly trade in their dripless faucets for a husband like that. Reframed, she began to see her husband's behavior as a gift, rather than a failure.

Probably no publisher would print a book of "Regular Acts of Kindness by Spouses" that chronicle spaghetti dinners and garlic bread, laundry washed and folded, fixed dishwashers or paychecks handed over. I can see the text, " A woman showed up at her own home every day for 12 years, and voluntarily washed dishes which occasionally bordered on disgusting". Or "A man, with no thought of compensation, rescued his wife from an exploded washer, that belched water all over the basement." Perhaps the framing is up to us, to single out those actions that so easily end up in our mental trash bag, and give them a place of honor in our minds. I can choose, whether to fill my garbage cans or cover my walls.