The Chinese buffet on 5th street doubled as my mother-in-love’s dining room table at least for this Sunday. We all gather around the big table in the rear of the restaurant under dim lighting to enjoy one another’s company over endless amounts of scrumptious buffet eats and delicious desserts. The place is not fancy, but who needs fancy when you are with family? Five adults and four children. Two young couples, (My wife & I and my sister-in-love and her fiancé) four loud and lively kids, two of which belong to my wife and I (Justin & Justice) and my mother in law. I call her mom as well − a beautiful, sweet and classy widower of 15 years. Today, March 19th marks the solemn anniversary of her long-time husband’s death and we want to be sure she is ok. He was gone before I could ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage or even before I could commend his efforts in helping to produce such a masterpiece.
This buffet spot carries just enough nostalgia to be a suitable locale for us all to reap the good reward of this widowed woman’s great company. We are here to enjoy a good ole family meal before heading out together to the burial grounds of this family’s fallen general. We enjoy a meal filled with loads of food, noise, good laughs and a couple of spilled drinks. Good times. We let our food settle, gather our belongings and wrap up in our winter garb to prepare for the outdoor chill of this crisp Ohio day. We exit the foggy side door of the restaurant and walk through the parking lot trying to herd an energy rich group of toddlers into separate cars for the brief drive to the cemetery. The little red noses of Justin Jr., Justice Eliana (our babies) & Nehemiah and Nathan (our nephews who make up the other half of the kid crew) don’t stop them in any way from continuing to have a grand time. This lively bunch is yet full of laughs and couldn’t be happier to be right where they are in life. I am not sure whether it is the children’s innocence or ignorance that allows them to remain completely aloof of the brevity of life or even the solemnness of this moment. It is in times like this when I observe the whimsical behavior of children and as a father I am unsure whether I should interject with strict instructions or take a step back and begin taking copious notes. Maybe they are still holding on to something very valuable that I managed to drop on my journey into adulthood.
After a brief drive through the mild Sunday afternoon traffic we go through the cemetery gates and wind through the smooth roads that lead to the burial plot of my wife’s deceased father. We arrive to the curb-side of the place where he is resting and all begin to unpack out of our cars. We speculate on where exactly “Pop Wade” is laid but it is not long after that my mother-in-law is first to find his headstone. We remove the leaves and debris from the name plate and all gather around mom closely surveying her face for tears. She rehearses the name on the headstone in silence. I glance over at my wife and embrace her as tears well up in her eyes. She assures me that she is ok but I still want to find some way to make it all be better. You know, it does not matter how old you are or how long ago it happened− being reminded of the loss of a loved one can still pierce you to your very core. I glance over and see my sister in law crying and her fiancé consoling her, all the while our family reflection is mixed in with kids picking up sticks, wrestling each other to the ground, running around on headstones and really starting to make my impatient parent meter rise.
What is with these kids? Don’t they know that there are lives that were lost up under their tiny little stomping feet? I quickly shout out orders to the little tikes who have somehow turned this cemetery into their playground. “NOT SO LOUD” “STOP RUNNING!” PUT THE STICKS DOWN!” At that moment when I was nearly fed up my wife whispers, “Let them be kids babe, the folks under the ground would tell them to live.” Her words stopped me in my tracks. Her statement was short and to the point, yet wildly profound. I had just been schooled by a wife nearly in tears, a group of rambunctious kids, and a graveyard full of not only people but buried potential.
What a strange way to be reminded to live your life to the fullest. I knew these kids were trying to teach me something but it took my wife and a little extra help from the otherworld for me to get it.
To dads and moms out there who like me are most often on the stress filled teaching side of parenting, I want to suggest something to you. Instead of always standing in the front of the class and belting out orders it may behoove you every now and then to pull up an old-fashioned desk-chair, a number two pencil and some wide-ruled paper to learn from your kids. Trust me it will keep you young. Our children in the most unlikely of moments can become pint-sized professors sent by God to show us what really matters in life. What if your kids who you sometimes feel like are trying to send you into an early grave are really teaching you to live the best life you can while you can? Take it from a dad who just got schooled. Certainly, kids can be loud, sometimes hard of hearing and often don’t have a serious bone in their tiny little bodies but they are also extremely cute, innocent and most of all brilliant. I tend to believe that there is a measure of genius in every child, we parents just have to be very watchful to mine it out. So, in the coming weeks as you take your kids to school each day, please allow them just a few times to teach you something. Allow them a little space to give you new perspective, re-spark your zeal for life and to take you to “school” as well.
About Justin Watkins:
Eventually dads learn to embrace being the tickle monster, the human jungle gym, the one who finishes the leftovers, the red ranger and the special guest to the royal tea party. Maybe someday the world will see our fatherly labors, shake their heads a little and still smile at our heart felt efforts. There is undoubtedly a culture that is inbred in fathers that brings a certain fun and flare to home life one attempt at a time. The author of the Dad-ish blog chronicles stories of parental bright ideas that have dad’s saw-dust filled signature all over them.
Justin Watkins is a fun-loving husband and former stay at home dad whom after being laid off for three years fell on severely hard times with his wife and two toddler children. During this time, he stumbled upon the hidden treasure of quality time spent with his family. Suddenly what seemed like a terrible loss turned into a winning lottery ticket earning him some of the best memories and a sturdy foundation both relationally and emotionally with his children.
It was during the time of Justin being laid off from work that he discovered once again his long-lost passion for writing. This reunion of sorts with family and writing has rendered a book, social media content and a fresh new blog.
Justin’s youthful, comical yet insightful take on the cultural nuances of fathers is both witty and refreshing. His desire is for his readers to reimagine fatherhood with a smile and to grow to appreciate the sincere efforts of dads everywhere even amidst some of our most embarrassing blunders.