This Year Of Lasts (May 2, 2008)
The 2007-2008 school year has been a year of lasts. Life has moved at warp speed toward my daughter’s high school graduation. Try as I did, I couldn’t slow its passing. Her final marching band performance, Christmas choir concert and school musical slipped through the hourglass, and all I could do was watch. Always, with tears in my eyes. Tomorrow is her senior prom and I’m sure I’ll be sobbing again, probably long before she even steps into her beautiful red gown, and definitely after she drives away with her handsome prince charming.
Later this month, I’ll be reduced to a blubbering idiot as she sings her farewell solo, and again when she walks across the stage in her honors robe to collect her diploma. I’ll be remembering her as a feisty preschooler, setting her teachers straight when they deemed my cookies too large and attempted to pass them out in halves. I’ll picture her in cotton sundresses and blond ponytails. I’ll reflect on her darkest struggle: her best friend’s suicide at the beginning of their ninth grade year. I’ll watch her under the stage lights and remember all of the moments that led her to this point. I’ll honor the sad and the sweet, the disappointments and the successes. I’ll admire her strength and respect her integrity and be completely awed by what a fabulously complex young woman she has become.
I love you, Kate, unconditionally. I love you every minute of every day, when you’re brilliant and when you’re bull-headed, when you’re making me pancakes and when you’re giving me the cold shoulder. You are the best girl in the world and I am so very proud that you’re my daughter.
A Perfect Weekend (Feb. 12, 2008)
Kevin and I were sharing our Saturday morning coffee ritual when he suggested I go spend the weekend with my Mom and sisters. He promised to take care of the home front and I was on my way within the hour. I
I called my sister Jenny before I left. Inspired by our father’s upside-down vinyl ottoman stint, we made a plan to go sledding. She and sister Judy were waiting with their girls when I arrived. Sadly, the snow had all melted by the time I got there. True to our heritage, we made the best of the situation. We took the girls for a walk instead. The water was too high and the nieces too short, so we didn’t cross the creek this time, but walked along its bank, bushwhacking through the laurel instead. It was fabulously therapeutic.
The whole family met at my brother Brian’s house that evening to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. Judy and Makenna came to the homestead for a slumber party afterward. After my sisters tucked their little ones into bed, Judy revealed a surprise. She’d brought supplies for mani-pedies and facials. The three of us stayed up until 2:30 AM, completing our beauty treatments.
We were awakened sometime later by thunder and lightening. As is my long established habit, I could not return to sleep without first heading to the bathroom to pee. I looked out the window at the top of the stairs on my way down. The lightening lit up the yard and to my delight, I realized that snow was falling instead of rain. I felt like my Daddy had awakened me with thunder and lit the sky with lightening to present me with the gift of snow. My sisters felt the same.
Jenny tuned the radio to Sunday morning polkas before I made it downstairs for coffee. Our Mom had left a message on the answering machine before any of us were awake. Jenny replayed it for Judy and me. Mom was singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” just as Dad used to do to annoy his surly teenagers as they staggered to the showers before school.
I cleaned the snow from my car and drove into town to pick up our Mom. We all had breakfast and coffee together before my sisters and I bundled the girls and headed to the sledding hill. We had such a blast! I’d forgotten the thrill of belly-flopping, head first down the hill, and rolling off the sled to avoid collision. It was exhilarating! No wonder Dad indulged in spontaneous sledding long after we kids were grown and gone.
I returned home refreshed and contented that evening. My wonderful husband had supper waiting, laundry folded and a fire in the fireplace. I went to bed feeling incredibly blessed. I love this life!
My Dad The Super Hero (Feb. 12, 2008)
Lynn’s post, “February is a Silly Month,” has been rolling around my brain, bumping into thoughts of my father. My Dad was the king of silly. It seems only fitting that he died in February, the silliest of months.
The snow is swirling outside my window as I’m typing and I’m remembering him in his funny, furry fedora. It looked like something a yodeler might wear with his lederhosen.
I can’t help grinning as I recall a story my sister, Jenny, likes to tell. She’d once gone outside just in time to witness Dad riding an upside-down, vinyl ottoman down our sledding hill. My parents had bought new furniture and were getting rid of the old. The sledding idea apparently occurred to Dad somewhere between the living room and the truck. He must’ve enjoyed himself. A cousin living in the same neighborhood reports having seen him sledding alone, long after my siblings and I were grown and gone.
I don’t want to give the impression that my Dad was some kind of slacker. He went to work at 17 to support his siblings when their parents died. A man named Floyd Buterbaugh taught him everything there is to know about the hardware business. Dad later bought the store, and owned it for 40 years. The old adage is true: when you own a business, the business owns you. Anyone who’s seen self-employment up close knows it’s not the ‘easy life’ others imagine it to be, especially not in a coal mining town that all but dried up and died in the ‘70’s. Despite having seven kids of his own to feed, clothe and educate, Dad extended credit to whomever needed it. He absorbed tens of thousands of dollars worth of other people’s debt over the years. -And still, he never complained. Anyone who ever asked, “How are you today, Lew?” always got the same reply: “I’m always good. Never a bad day!”
My Dad had more than his fair share of stress and responsibility. Yet, he made time for sledding and snowball fights and practical jokes. Now that I’m an adult, I realize my Dad was a super hero.
He never shirked his duties, but neither did he allow them to rob him of joy. He took happy moments where he found them. I propose we’d all be better off if we did the same. Take a chance this month and see how it makes you feel. Act on an impulse. Do something silly. This is FEBRUARY, after all.
Independence (Jan. 17, 2007)
We blew out of town in a rusting Datsun B210 with the windows down and the Bangles blaring from the cassette deck. Making up dirty lyrics, we sang loudly enough to drawn out the road noise. Our excitement could neither be concealed nor contained behind our Wayfarer sunglasses. We were 19, bent on adventure and headed for Louisville, Kentucky.
Yup. Louisville, KY. Shaun had moved there right after high school graduation. She’d come back to Pennsylvania to visit and convinced Karen and me to return with her for a vacation. The journey was definitely more important than the destination. It was our declaration of independence; our tribute to spontaneity and best girl friends. We took turns behind the wheel and riding shotgun, and covered most of the 500 miles with one of us leaning over the center console from the back seat.
As much as we enjoyed the bonding time in the old Datsun, we were thrilled to finally reach Shaun’s apartment: a surprisingly nice little space above an auto repair shop. We used the stair handrail as a ladder one day and climbed to the rooftop to sunbathe. Shaun assured us it was not the first time the mechanics had seen this done, but they all came out to watch, nonetheless.
Rooftop sunbathing turned out to be just one of many options for the creative traveler in Louisville. We shopped at thrift stores, ate biscuits and gravy at the local diner, and attended a field party at a farm outside of town. Our agenda was loose most days. The best things happened with no planning at all.
Driving around, I noticed a tattoo shop’s neon sign from my perch over the console. “We should get tattoos!” I said, just to get a laugh. Shaun locked the brakes, leaving rubber on the asphalt, and backed into a parking space. Housewives and college kids didn’t sport ink in 1985 like they do today. Tattoos were for bikers, drunken sailors and women of ill repute. Clearly we were embarking on a dangerous, forebidden path.
There were no other customers inside. Just us three giddy girls and the shop’s proprietor. He didn’t acknowledge us verbally when we entered. His well worn t-shirt proclaimed, “I’m Rude, Crude and Tattooed – So Fuck Off” The way he eyed us through his Charles Manson facial hair added a convincing exclamation point to the statement. It was obvious he was waiting for us to leave.
We pretended not to be intimidated as we perused his catalogues. Soon enough, we were genuinely impressed by his intricate designs. We pointed to one after another, noting complexities and vivid coloring. Eventually, he left his post near the door and stood with us, describing his process and recounting anecdotes. Turns out he was a born storyteller with a wealth of material. The longer he talked with us, the more preconceptions melted away, both ours of him and his of us. There we were, laughing like old friends: three college girls in our brightly colored Jams shorts and a long-haired character in a tattered, crude t-shirt.
While we admired his larger works, we were looking for something decidedly less conspicuous (and expensive). The smallest of his designs was $25, still too much ink and too much money for us. Surprisingly, he wasn’t insulted, and we talked him into three lightning bolts at a price of $5 each.
Shaun, Karen and I conferred about the placement of our body art. We were going for sexy, but not overt. Our right hips provided the perfect canvas. No one would see our lightning bolts unless we showed them on purpose. Hairy Tattoo Guy pulled the shades and locked the door. He explained that if a cop happened to walk by and see us reclined in the dentist chair with our shorts pulled below our hips, we could be cited for indecent exposure. More likely he suspected we might be under age, but we didn’t argue. It added raunch factor to our story.
Our lightening bolts were tiny by any standard (except during pregnancy when it seemed our bellies had been etched by Zorro himself.) Still, they were magnificent for all they represented. Our five dollar tattoos set us apart from our peers, our parents, the world. -And all their expectations of who we were. We were 20 years ahead of the trend; long enough to safely say we were not following someone else’s definition of cool. We wanted tattoos because our peers didn’t have them, not because they did.
All the way back to Pennsylvania, one or the other of us would randomly pull down the corner of our shorts and yell, “We got f’n tattoos!” Twenty years of mommyhood has erased the f-word from my vocabulary, but I sometimes still admire my lightning bolt with the same sort of enthusiasm. I have an f’n tattoo! Tiny though it may be, it’s a permanent homage to independence and spontaneity and best girlfriends. What’s more cool than that?
Shari’s Oprah Experience (Dec. 7, 2007)
“Shari is crazy excited.” I’m pretty sure that’s what Lynn wrote before we departed for the Windy City. I haven’t gone back through her blog archives to verify the exact quote, but it was something like that.
And it was SO true. Sure, I was excited for Lynn and for the opportunity to tag along on her Oprah adventure, but I was equally excited about four glorious days without mother/wife duties.
I know, it sounds terrible. I almost cringe to write it, but it’s true. No cooking. No cleaning. No keeping track of anyone’s needs, other than my own. Ah, Heaven. Of course I was crazy excited! How could I not be? The added possibility of meeting Miss Winfrey made me downright giddy.
I think my family was slightly insulted and maybe even a little annoyed by my eagerness to abandon them, even temporarily. My teenagers looked at me with gaping disbelief when I refused to “soften” Dad up for them so their week would run more smoothly. My husband, bless him, tried his best not to scowl when I gave him the week’s schedule. He assured me he wanted me to enjoy myself, but I could read the stress between the lines of his furrowed brow at the thought of performing both his job and mine. I think he’d have appreciated a little sympathy in that moment, but I grinned and continued packing.
Kevin and I had spent the early years of our marriage in northwestern Indiana, thirty minutes from Chicago. I love Chicago. Couldn’t wait to go back. Given my fond memories and “crazy excitement,” I was completely caught off guard by my emotions at the end of Oprah Adventure, Day One. I wasn’t feeling at all as I had expected to feel. I was homesick and more than a little out of place.
Life has molded me into a communicator and a coordinator. The middle child in a large family, I learned early how to function in a crowd. I love meeting new people and organizing group events. This Oprah Adventure, however, was something completely new. I was part of the group, but not really. My role here was to be the proverbial fly on a wall. Some people live their lives this way, but it is completely unnatural to me. My son apparently had some concerns. He reminded me when I spoke to him on the phone that night, “Remember, this is Lynn’s thing. Not yours.” Nothing makes you self conscious quite like social etiquette advice from a 15-year-old boy.
I heard his voice in my head the remainder of the trip.
My son needn’t have worried. The simple fact was that I had little to add to the group conversation. I say that in the singular, not the plural, because that’s pretty much what it was: a single conversation which took place over several days. I’m not complaining. It was as it should have been. These 21 people all had one thing in common: major weight loss. Prior to this trip, few of them had probably ever met anyone else who had achieved the same goal. It was only natural the subject of weight loss would dominate conversation. That’s why they were there, after all. My best option was to take the “speak when spoken to” approach. Just as well. No one would have wanted to hear me whine about my extra twenty pounds.
Despite my best efforts to keep a low profile, there was a very awkward moment the morning of salon day, when the limo wasn’t big enough to transport everyone. I was in and out of the limo several times before finally insisting that I’d stay behind. There was a lot of confusion with all of us trying to make it work before concluding that it just wasn’t going to happen. Damn! I wasn’t upset about being left behind. I was upset I hadn’t found a more gracious out. ”Yes, son. I hear you! It’s not my thing.”
I spent the next five minutes in our hotel room, collecting my thoughts and devising a plan. I decided this was a day all for me. I would shop and have lunch, and enjoy my time alone. Okay, so self-doubt began to creep in as I realized I’d need to hail a cab. What a bumpkin. I’ve never hailed a taxi. Heck, I’ve never ridden in a taxi. Bumpkin, I may be. Timid, I am not. I marched to the lobby and asked the doorman to teach me how to hail a cab.
“I can do that, but there’s no need. The hotel has a complimentary car that will take you wherever you want to go.” Yeah, right. ME. The car is going to take ME wherever I want to go. This felt different than riding Lynn’s coattails in the Harpo limo. Technically, yes, Harpo was still footing the bill, but this car and driver was all mine.
Then I realized there were surely shades of “complimentary.” I had no idea what an appropriate tip would be for a chauffeur. My country roots were showing again, but I did what I know would make my more “reserved” friends shake their heads. I asked. My driver was a friendly, young woman. It occurred to me that I would’ve been more comfortable riding up front with her than in back, like some wannabe. I surely had more in common with the driver than with the people she normally chauffeured. This wasn’t the thrill I’d expected. I felt fake. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even wearing my own clothes that day. I’d borrowed an outfit from my 17-year-old daughter – and what you’re thinking is true. In the future, I’ll remember that borrowing my teenager’s clothes is a bad idea.
I enjoyed my morning, despite the bumpy start. I felt proud that I hadn’t just holed up at the Omni all day. I rewarded myself with some cute, silver hoop earrings. Still, I couldn’t completely escape that “fish out of water” feeling. The longer I shopped, the more I noticed how beautiful the men are in Chicago. They were everywhere and they were much prettier than me. These were not the same breed of men typically found in western Pennsylvania. There was not a plaid shirt or a Carhart jacket among them. I’m sure the women were equally well dressed and groomed, but it was the men I noticed.
I wish I could have enjoyed the experience more completely, but it was a little disconcerting. I felt as if I were in some alternate dimension.
I called the hotel driver and waited on the sidewalk for her to arrive. As I stood there, people watching, I began to worry that those who passed might also be watching me. I don’t mean in a stalkerish sense. I feared they could tell with a glance that I didn’t belong there. I stood in my daughter’s clothes, waiting for a car and driver I could never afford. I was a fraud and I was certain everyone knew it. I tried to act nonchalant, but then, eye contact with two beautiful men. One of them raised his hand and gave me a small wave. “Oh, crap! They really CAN see I don’t fit in here!”
I realized in the next second that the one who waved was David, an Oprah guest I’d met earlier that morning. Relief. I bee-lined to him like an old friend and gushed about how I’d been feeling. His trainer, Chris, hugged me and I felt much better. Believe me, no one could NOT feel better after a hug from Chris.I could elaborate, but that would be a totally different blog entry.
(Here’s a photo of Chris with Lynn and one of me with David) The point here is that David and Chris were kind and friendly and allowed me to ramble. Thanks, guys! They were very normal and that was a comfort to me.
The days that followed were better. I spent a good deal of time with the other guests of guests who were there, like me, in the periphery. I enjoyed myself much more in that setting because I didn’t need to be so worried about “my place” in the group. We were all there for the same reason. Other than my evenings drinking wine with Lynn in our room, these were the times I enjoyed most. We spent taping day sequestered in a Harpo conference room before being led to our seats in the studio. The day passed quickly. The show was over before we knew it and we were saying our goodbyes and loading into limos for the final time. Lynn and I, along with several other guests, headed to the airport in a gigantic, stretch SUV. The original plan was for me to be dropped at the airport with the others, even though my flight was not until the next morning. I had booked a room at a nearby chain hotel, since Harpo wasn’t footing the bill for my extra night. I’d intended to call for the hotel shuttle after an airport dinner with Lynn.
It was already getting dark by this time and we weren’t sure I’d be able to pass through security in order to get to the airport restaurants. I was nervous about being in Chicago alone at night and I had no idea where to catch the hotel shuttle. I opted instead to ask the limo driver to take me to my hotel. This wasn’t part of his plan, but he did it. He talked on the phone the entire three-mile ride. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the tone of his voice was less than happy. The further we drove, the better I understood. My hotel was only three miles from the airport, but the neighborhood was clearly a different world from Michigan Avenue.
“I think this is it,” the driver announced, hastily unloading my luggage. I watched his taillights and assessed my surroundings. Just across the street was a lovely establishment called the “Ambiance.” I quickly made my way to my room and didn’t emerge again until the next morning.
Anxious to get home, I was up, showered and in the lobby, bright and early the next day. Waiting with me was a young man whom I think had spent the night propped there. We exchanged polite conversation, but I kept my distance. Thirty minutes later, I climbed into the shuttle with a middle-eastern driver, a Mexican couple and a bearded white guy in a flannel shirt. (They do exist!) My friend from the lobby remained there.
What a difference a few hours makes. I had arrived the night before, the lone passenger in a stretch SUV. My departure was a bit less glamorous, but cosmically fitting: a beat up old mini van with no hubcaps and a squealing rear axle. I smiled to myself as the driver complained (in his middle-eastern accent) that “This is America,” and the Mexican couple should, “Learn English!” It wouldn’t have been nearly as funny if the guy in the flannel shirt had said it. What a ride. It was worth the extra night, for the entertainment factor alone.
I made it home in one piece, happy to have had the experience, but happier still to return to real life. Of all that I learned in Chicago, the lessons I value most are these: There’s nothing better than being comfortable in your own skin. There’s nothing more important than the people who love you, just as you are. There’s no better place to be than HOME.
Introducing: Shari’s Writing Page (Nov. 2007)
My childhood home is a humble, little place with drafty walls and crooked floors. It sits perched on a hilltop, surrounded by state forest and game lands.
My father was born and raised here, one of nine children to immigrant parents. When his time came for marriage and family, he bought his siblings’ stakes and carried his bride over the same threshold.
I am the fourth of their seven children. My baby sister, Jennifer, owns the homestead now. She, like the rest of us (siblings), spent her young adult years in other parts of the country, and learned first-hand that there truly is no place like home. All but me now live within 30 minutes of the homestead and one another.
I visit as often as I can. Two kids of my own and a two-hour drive keep me from being there as frequently as I’d like.
My siblings and I make the most of the time we have together. We stay up too late, talking and laughing, then fuel the next day with coffee and carbohydrates. When the weather cooperates, we love to hike through the woods and rediscover our childhood haunts.
I recently spent a long weekend when I went home for our uncle’s funeral. Faced with the reality that we are quickly becoming the oldest generation, we were all feeling more melancholy than usual. Our schedule was largely dictated by funeral arrangements, but Jennifer and I carved out enough time for a nostalgic hike. We always begin at the same spot: an overgrown trail that leads away from the county road and into 13,000 acres of wilderness.
Picking our way across the creek, we test the wobble of each mossy stone, and congratulate each other for keeping dry feet. We pause for a moment to appreciate the music of moving water, then scale the opposite bank. Making our way through the laurel, we do our best to remember the course of trails that used to crisscross the mountainside. This particular day, we visit the old swimming hole and try to find an historic reservoir, but the trail has long since been swallowed up by the forest. We run short on time because of the funeral visitation, so we give up the search.
We sit by an old spring and watch the leaves fall through the trees. Our thoughts turn to memories of those we love, who shared time with us in these places. They feel close to us here in the silence and the scent of autumn. The moment is at once comforting, yet tinged by an acute awareness of how quickly time passes.
In the quiet, we imagine our younger selves, trampling along behind our daddy, chewing bark from the white birch branches he cut for us. We remember swinging from wild grape vines, building dams, catching crayfish, riding horses. Our souls are nourished, simply by being here, sitting still.
We push our time restraints, willing to be rushed a little later in exchange for a few extra minutes now. We breathe more deeply, soaking up the dappled sunlight and trying to slow time. We stay a while longer reflecting, being grateful, feeling blessed, and knowing there is no better place on earth than home.