Category Archives: Family

Firsts (the Holiday edition)

Last weekend, two of my four grandkids came to stay for a few nights – the oldest, Claire, who is 12, and the youngest, Audrey, who is 6. I live in a small house with only one spare bed in my office, a twin, and an air mattress for company. With floor space at a premium, where we drop the air mattress is decided with careful calculation.

Audrey prefers the air mattress because it’s easier for my dog Zuzu (whose name you have to say in a very high pitch voice to capture the vocal rendition of Audrey saying her name, almost like an angel is singing it) to jump in bed with her. But for this combination of grandchildren, I decided it would be OK if Claire slept on the air mattress in the living room and Audrey slept in the spare bed. That way they’d have room for their bags and a place to change in the office without the acrobatics of maneuvering around a mattress in the middle of an already small room.

“Nooooooooooo!” said Audrey when I told her my plan. “I want to sleep on the air mattress!”

“The air mattress will be in the living room. Do you want to sleep in the living room?” I asked rhetorically.

“Nooooooooooo!”

“Then you’ll sleep in the spare bed.”

“Nooooooooooo!”

This went on for a good five minutes until Claire and I were able to reassure her that Zuzu could, in fact, jump up on the spare bed and would probably happily do so more than once in the middle of the night.

The rest of the weekend was mostly resistance-free. Jim and the girls worked on wood projects in the garage. Claire shot the BB gun. We played Skip-Bo, ate mussels (yes, even Audrey, the pickiest eater ever), went to see the Christmas tree in the rain, and watched Home Alone. Claire also mentioned her grandma Julia intermittently throughout the weekend, in that spontaneous, unconscious way we honor those who have died by recalling the ordinary, everyday things we loved about them. “I remember when Grandma would…” or “Grandma used to say…” and she laughed as she talked, because Grandma Julia was always making her laugh.

Julia died in February after a years-long battle with cancer. It’s been a difficult year of firsts for our grandchildren and the rest of the family, and now here we are at the front door of perhaps the most difficult of firsts: the holidays.

As is the tradition of many families on Thanksgiving, we go around the table and say one thing we’re grateful for. For me this year, that one thing is Julia.

In March I wrote about the last time I saw Julia, but I was too close to the loss to write more. I had to let the grief be there and not try to explain it to myself or anyone else. I needed to simply miss her and to honor the gaping hole in my heart by doing nothing other than feel the wind pass through it. Now, though the tears still come, the sharpness of her death has softened somewhat. With nine months of perspective, I remember more than I would have in the tight confines of grief, and I’m better able to offer a sincere thank you to the powers that be that gave us Julia, where in March, I was angry.

Obviously, without Julia there would be no Matt (my son-in-law) and therefore no Claire, Luca, Mae or Audrey. But what I’m most grateful for is how she lived her life as a grandmother and friend, and even as a woman dying. When I saw her the last time, I held her hand and thanked her for showing me how to be the kind of grandma who keeps a stash of color books and crayons in her car, snacks and wet wipes in her purse, and says yes to drive-through French fries. She looked at me a little confused and said, “Oh, honey, you would have figured it out!” Nope, no I wouldn’t have. Not in that Julia way anyway.

When Claire was born, my heart was full of so many strong emotions. It took me a few weeks to parse and understand them all, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to share her with others. Then when I saw Julia holding Claire and gushing all those same emotions over her, I knew that was the kind of love I wished for my granddaughter, the kind all of us can never have enough of.

There are times when I feel a burden of being Claire, Luca, Mae, and Audrey’s only living grandmother. Then I ask myself, what would Julia do if I was the grandmother who died, and I know for sure that she would share with them her memories of me and would never let them forget how much I loved them.

I know many of you are experiencing similar firsts this year. My hope is you can find peace in those dark places as you miss the person you lost and feel the gravity of their absence. May you be able to say, even under your breath, “I’m glad I knew you.”

20150228_160801_copyClaire took this selfie of me, Claire, and Julia in February 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Honor of All Veterans (and their mothers)

(My column from December 6, 2001)

I’m being weaned, figuratively, from my children by my children. At 17 and 18, Cassie and Carlene don’t need me for many things anymore, except maybe to buy face wash, body lotion, or tampons. Then it’s not really me they need, but my Visa card.

From the minute they were born, I’ve been letting go. I let them go with the nurses to be cleaned, weighed, and measured. I let them get on a bus to go to their first day of kindergarten. I let them go to birthday parties, sleep-overs, field trips, and to the mall and movies with their friends. I’ve even let them go on dates with boys I didn’t like, not because I trusted the boys, but because I trusted my girls. And trust is at the heart of letting go.

While Carlene grew up, her letting go of me was harder than me letting go of her. She hated day care, she wanted her first-grade teacher to call me after a thunderstorm one afternoon, and she usually sat on my lap when strangers or people she hadn’t seen in a while were in the room. As she got older, though, Carlene grew a strong backbone, and combined with her level-headedness, she’s turned into a strong young woman, even though I still buy her razors and shampoo.

On the opposite end of parenting is Cassie. Our letting go experiences have been of her pushing me rather than me pushing her. She had no problem disappearing into clothes racks when she was 2 years old while we were out shopping, leaving me frantic looking for her. She couldn’t wait to go to school, and loved it when I hired a babysitter if I went out. I always knew she needed me in some esoteric way, but she hasn’t given up the secret of why.

She’s done some fast talking and gentle pushing lately to help me face the hardest letting go of her yet. Last Tuesday, I signed a consent form allowing Cassie to join the Army Reserves. She made this decision before September 11, and I was mostly OK with it since she could finish high school without interruption, and go to college while doing her military work. Then as I watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse, and saw the Pentagon on fire and the smoldering airplane debris in a field not far south from where we lived, I decided there was no way in hell I was going to let her join anything that might put her in the middle of whatever was coming.

But when she came home from school that day, she was more determined than ever to sign up.

I knew out of my fear I could be the control freak I’m known to be and refuse to let her join, to make her wait until she was 18 and no longer needed my permission. But I’ve spent 17 years reigning in this child, and to hold her back might break her.

After all, this is a girl who, when she was 3, thought she could stick a penny in an outlet like it was a vending machine. When the lights flickered, I heard a “snap” and felt a bump on the floor. I ran in to her room, and there she was, blinking and stunned, with a penny bent and burned near the outlet. I didn’t punish her. I figured the electric shock that sent her flying a foot from the wall was lesson enough.

This is the same girl who, when she was 7, decided to visit her 80-year-old friend for five hours without telling me where she was. How do you get mad at someone who’s doing a good thing, but who didn’t follow the rules?

Just as control defined me as a parent, dichotomy defined Cass.

I read the consent form. It was perfectly clear. My signature meant I understood Cassie might be put in dangerous, life-threatening situations should her reserve unit be activated. It meant I promised to not sue the government if something happened to her while in their care, like a broken leg, loss of eyesight, or death. This form made the paper I signed so she could get her belly button pierced seem like a sales slip for lipstick. I was granting permission for the government I live under and pay taxes to, to use my child’s talents and interests for the country’s best interests. God help me, the government had better appreciate her.

She’ll go to basic training this summer, a complete letting go if there ever was one. If she screws up, it won’t be me talking to her about her mistake or grounding her for a night. She’ll have a drill sergeant in her face calling her names and screaming at her to do 50 pushups. Instead of her favorite mashed potatoes with cream cheese and sour cream, and Italian chicken drizzled in butter, she’ll be eating chipped beef on toast. Instead of sleeping in on warm summer mornings, she’ll be up at 4 a.m., running, learning to shoot an M16, and throwing grenades. They’ll even put her in a gas chamber. “Cool,” she said.

So, I signed it. She’ll come home a soldier. A lean, mean fightin’ machine. But she’ll still be my little girl, and she’ll still need me. And my Visa card.

I’m being weaned. Weaned from directing and controlling my girls’ destinies. But you know something? When I look at them, when I think of all we’ve been through, I smile like a Cheshire cat and think, ‘Damn, I’ve done a good job.’

 

 

Families (Un)Defined

I don’t remember what program I was listening to the other day, but what stuck with me was the person being interviewed said that it was his mother’s third husband who was his best father; the man who listened to him and raised him up to be the caring and kind person he is today. Paternal biology had nothing to do with it.

From the outside and in writing, my family history may seem (understandably) complicated to a newcomer. But like all complex family structures, if you take the time to look around it, you’ll see they are often a beautiful amalgamation, a patchwork quilt of daughters and sons and nieces and nephews and friends who are as close as sisters and brothers. No two families are alike, and that is grand!

When my husband died in 1983, my love for his family didn’t die with him. Parts of his family are still my family, 36 years later, and no one dare tell us otherwise. The same is true of my stepsons, now age 26 and 27, both of whom I’ve known since they were born. Their father and I were together for 14 years before we separated in 2010. But even though our marriage broke apart, our family didn’t. The grandkids still have their Papa Larry, and I’m still Evil Stepmother. We’ve remained a family through thick and thin, and right now, things are a little thin, which has me a bit nostalgic, to the days when the boys were little and I was a newbie stepmom.

To all the step and other families…rock on, despite what anyone else thinks. Your support and love for the people you consider family is all that matters.

Little Women Meet Ren and Stimpy

December 1999

If the number of stepfamilies continues to increase in the twenty-first century, as they are expected to, then stepmothers need some better press than they’ve received in the past.

Ever since Cinderella, people have a picture of stepmothers as cruel, mean, nasty creatures who rank just below mothers-in-law as the most ostracized family members. All my life I was sure I never wanted to be a stepmother. But I am one, and life, for the most part, is normal, as normal as it can be when a woman raising two teenage girls meets and marries a man with two young boys.

This coming together of our families is a little like Little Women meet Ren and Stimpy. My girls have learned to accept, or at least ignore, the boys’ burping contests, and the boys pass off the girls singing Dave Matthews songs loudly in the basement or prepping in front of a mirror as just weird.

Bras don’t dry over chairs in the kitchen anymore, and the froufrou lady stuff shares space in the bathroom with bubblegum flavored toothpaste and Star Wars toothbrushes. Marbles are strewn throughout the living room, and plastic bloody eyeballs are sometimes hidden in the refrigerator.

The boys taught the girls their favorite song: “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat the more you…” You can guess the rest. The girls have turned the boys on to “cool” music – no more Raffi in this house.

The girls read Chicken Soup books and Brontë novels. The boys prefer Captain Underpants. The boys tell a lot of stories, usually the “Know what?” variety, and they take every opportunity to say the word “butt.” In their world, having smelly feet is a good thing. So is pro wrestling and Pokémon.

Unlike Cinderella’s stepmother, the chores I make them do are pretty benign. They clear the dinner table, dry dishes, and make sure the toilet lid is down. I’m kidding about the toilet lid. They never remember to do that.

They like to talk about their futures as astronaut paleontologists or anthropologist brain surgeons. We’re especially encouraging Andy’s most recent dream: to be a guitarist and a professional baseball player – professions that are sure to keep his dad and me comfortable in our retirement.

We’re fairly sure Kevin will be a detective or a biologist. He likes to crawl in bed with us and explain how ladybugs eat aphids, and he spies on the girls while they are watching television using his telescope. He also checks the cats for fingerprints.

This quasi Brady Bunch life didn’t just happen. Adjusting to each other’s personalities, needs, fears, and aversions was often difficult. But of all the relationships in this new family, the stepmother-stepson one was the hardest to forge.

By the time I married their father last year, the boys and I had interacted on several occasions, few of which were particularly memorable. Their behavior usually translated into: Who is this strange woman with our dad, and why should we listen to her?

I did few things right in their eyes and spent many frustrated moments in tears asking friends what I was doing wrong.

Finding my place in their lives and they in mine took time. But with each visit, we saw how important we were to their father, and realized, subconsciously of course, that if we wanted a part of him, we had to accept a part of each other as well.

I think our difficulty was mostly due to my desire to nurture them as I nurtured my own children, and their fear of allowing me to nurture them. Since they already had a mother, they didn’t feel they could be true to her while letting me wipe away their tears or laugh at their jokes. The words, “You’re not my mom!” frequently rolled off their tongues, especially if I didn’t allow them to jump on the couch or swing from their bunkbeds. There were times I wanted to give up.

But the tears, the time, the patience, and the prayers gradually paid off. I’m not exactly sure when or how it all happened, but their most recent visit demonstrated how far we’ve come in three years.

Andy, who just turned 8, doesn’t usually want to be hugged. The other night, he had a bad dream. He started crying because he missed his mom, but he let me hold him and stroke his hair and tell him it was OK to be sad. He thanked me the next day for listening to him. I told him I listened because I loved him. He said he loved me, too. I’ll bet Cinderella never said those words to her stepmother.

Kevin, on the other hand, is still a little boy of 6, and likes to be sung to and to sleep with his stuffed dog, “Pup.” He won’t let any of us catch him under the mistletoe, but he and Pup always snuggle on the couch with me while we watch holiday movies. He listens to me when I correct him, holds my hand when we cross the street, and climbs on my lap while we play a game on the computer – oblivious acts now that three years ago would have been met with resistance.

Being a stepmother isn’t about being cruel and nasty or having warts. It’s a lot like mothering, a little like friendship, and a lot like love. In fact, it’s a pretty good deal. I inherited two terrific boys without going through labor, highchairs, or potty training.

It’s a great beginning to happily ever after.

 

What’s real, what’s true, what’s on repeat?

I buy it with good intentions, but good intentions don’t preserve lettuce. It usually dies in my refrigerator crisper.

For years I ate a salad almost every day. Every. Day. Trust me, if you do that – or eat anything every day (except maybe chocolate, cheese, and bread) – you’ll get bored.

I ate salad almost every day because I told myself it was good for me, and physically speaking, it is good when you consider salad at its basic nutritional level, sans all the stuff that makes it really good like croutons and ranch dressing, or if you’re in western Pennsylvania, french fries. But I also ate a salad almost every day because I told myself that if I didn’t put salad on repeat, I would gain a whole bunch of weight and show the world what an impulsive, undisciplined person I was.

Because of other people. Yeah…that’s a reason to eat salad every day.

What is real and what we tell ourselves is real are often different things, and often not true. Undergirding what we think is real is usually fear, which is NOT fun to admit, let alone deal with. It’s easier to blame circumstances or other people for our actions, reactions, and go-to coping mechanisms. In the case of eating salad every day, what was real had nothing to do with outward appearances and everything to do with my fear of losing control of my body, and then if (and I did) gain weight, having to love myself as I am, and then living inside that loved body in public (and in private).

I’m better with the whole loving-my-body-as-it-is, and I won’t go back to eating a salad every day in support of what I know now isn’t real or true, but sometimes I still act from within that false reality of “If I eat a salad, I am (somehow) a better person.”

Weight is an easy target. But often our feelings about our weight masks more wide spread beliefs of what we inherently believe is real but not true.

Tara Brach talks of this often.  There is so much false reality in the world, our respective countries, our backyards, and our lives. Individually and collectively, when we cling to and act on what we think is real – whether it’s our political, religious, or medical beliefs (I’m referring specifically to vaccinations), or ideas and opinions of other people based on their race, sexual orientation, or gender identification – we expose our fears. For instance, it is not possible to hate or even casually disregard someone who doesn’t pray or look like you, or to take advantage of or purposely hurt someone without being afraid, to the core, of losing something, be it self or national identity, power, or fate (either here or after death).

What does this have to do with eating a salad? There is so much injustice all around, from the self-inflicted and personal to the universal. I am in the world, and so are you. Our personal concerns and belief systems, no matter how big or small, mingle and coalesce with the world, and they affect the world in a micro and macro way. It makes sense, and is necessary, to take a personal inventory and contemplate what we think is real to discover if it merely supports an ideology born of fear or if it is true.

Here’s an example, something I experienced and wrote in my personal journal prior to my hip replacement in July.

I woke up this morning feeling deeply sad and frustrated. I’d had a horrible dream and it took me a few minutes after I woke up to realize it wasn’t real. It set the tone for the morning.

 After breakfast, I put laundry in the wash, loaded dishes in the dishwasher, and started vacuuming. My left hip kept threatening to toss my ass on the floor with every step. When I needed to change attachments to vacuum the bathroom floor, I couldn’t disconnect one of the hoses. I tried, failed, and cursed, tried, failed, and cursed before I threw myself against the wall and cried. I thought I was crying because I couldn’t change the hose and because my hip hurt, but they were just the catalyst. In and of themselves, hip pain and vacuum attachment failures wouldn’t make me cry. Make me angry, yes. But I felt empty, and an even larger emptiness rose up; an indescribable loneliness.

 I took a deep breath and did a brief inquiry, ala my years of meditation training, and I think I figured out that I was crying because I couldn’t stop thinking about how last night I witnessed a tender moment between an adult daughter and her mother. A simple thing, really. The daughter and mother were talking and laughing with each other in that familiar way parents and children do when they like each other as people and love each other as family. It’s an intimacy that the outside world isn’t meant to understand or intrude upon. As I cried, I realized that what was really true in my head and causing the tears was not the hip pain and the vacuum snafu. That stuff was real. What was true was I missed my daughters and was frustrated that I didn’t live closer, and – and this is the hardest one to admit – sad that I didn’t have that same kind of intimacy with my own mother.”

Parsing out all that shit was hard, but in the end it was worth it. The things I put on repeat – the “you shoulds,” the “how could yous,” the “WTF were you thinkings,” the “why are you crying now???” – deserve my attention! And your own WTFs deserve your thinking, too! I really believe that.

Take inventory. Ask yourself: What is real? What is true? What do I put on repeat?

The world feels like it’s turned upside down, and there are times when getting inside myself seems selfish. But if we don’t get inside ourselves and figure it out, who will? No one, that’s who.

Now go eat a salad. Or not. All I ask is that you question why you do what you do on repeat when it feels…wonky.

 

Pain Is NOT an Identity

Physical pain is something most of us don’t like to talk about in public, or even among friends and family. I mean, seriously, who wants to be that person? Most people wouldn’t believe you anyway if you told them you hurt pretty much all the time, and it’s not easy to brace against the look that says, “Really? It’s probably all in your head.” When we’re asked, “How are you?” we politely reply, “Fine! And you?”

But pain can be scary, especially when its origins are unknown or sketchy, or the cure daunting, and when we carry that burden privately, holed up in our head, pain can make us feel isolated and emotionally weak. We might think we’re being brave by sucking it up and continuing to do the things that make us hurt, like it’s an act of defiance, but really it’s an act of denial. We take the Advil and the Tylenol and the prescriptions, and almost always we adapt, usually without realizing how and to what extent.

Now that I’m on the other side of hip replacement surgery, I recognize how I consciously and unconsciously coped with the pain, and how pain became my identity. I was someone who limped and sat around a lot. I planned my days by how many times I would have to move because standing, walking, and climbing stairs sucked equally and took a great deal of gritting my teeth to do. I stopped doing things I loved, like going to flea markets and perusing antique malls. Jim got the mail most days, even though our mailbox is only 40 feet from the house, up a slight incline. When we’d talk about going on vacation (hell, even going out for breakfast!), to me it felt like a pipe dream, something I used to do. I couldn’t think beyond the pain because it had taken over my life, and I had let it.

I also ate for comfort. My food intake was pathetic. Salads? Nope, because making one meant standing for longer than a few minutes. I’d throw a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato on a cheese sandwich and call it a day. Fruit? Once in a while I’d slice a banana on top of a bowl of Cheerios. Most fruit and lettuce went to the crisper to die. White bread was more calming than whole wheat, Hershey’s Kisses more sympathetic than an apple.

Now that the hip pain is gone, I look at my world with a bit more hope. But I also realize how deeply embedded those adaptive habits are and how loud that voice is that still tells me I can’t. Therefore, I want to – consciously and in good faith – change the message and the habits.

  1. I want to listen to what’s going on in my body with joy and expectation that this new hip will allow me to move again without fear. When it would be easier to lay around, I will remind myself that it’s OK to move. To get up on that country road I live on and walk a little. Take the dog along, or call my neighbor and have her meet me halfway to her house a few tenths of a mile from mine. Who cares what I look like with a cane and T.E.D. hose? (Confession: I had to do some positive self talk this morning to get motivated to go to the grocery store wearing shorts, my T.E.D hose, and my sensible slip-on shoes. As I walked through the store, I realized that no one but me gave a damn what I was wearing, and it was a humbling and good lesson.)

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    First order of business once I don’t have to wear these anymore: a good shave and a pedi (in that order).

  2. I want to be more mindful of my food intake. Not that I will return to my militant ways from 2005 to 2012ish, but instead, I want to engage with food in a more balanced way. To see it as all things healthy and comforting. More vegetables, fewer nachos. That kind of thing.
  3. I also want to work on changing how I respond to pain in relation to other people. I noticed that in the last 18 months, I often compared my physical pain with someone else’s pain and pain circumstances, especially those that I perceived were worse than mine. I would then demote my experience to insignificant/not-so-bad, even though it impacted every facet of my life. But my pain is my pain, and it’s possible to acknowledge and sympathize with the pain others experience, while also acknowledging that what I feel is significant to my life.
  4. Also, there’s no need to feel guilty for reaching out to a friend to say, “Today is not a good day. I hurt. I needed to say that out loud.” I say this because today I reread something I wrote in 2014, the last time I had a hip replacement, that helped me remember that we really do need people, and that people need us to need them.
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Family therapy a few hours after surgery. The grandbabies brought me a pink sloth and a blanket that says “Namaste and Cuddle”. 

Pain is a suck fest, no doubt, but we’re better off acknowledging it, especially to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s the only way to be aware of our responses and our coping mechanisms. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, a woe-is-me moment with a friend, or a slice of carrot cake when we’re mindful of why.

Pain is not an identity. It might be a part of our life, but it’s not who we are.

 

 

 

 

“Vietnam Coffee Cans” and Other Childhood Memories

I was born in Minneapolis in 1963, when the tallest building in Minnesota was still the Foshay Tower; Harmon Killebrew and the Twins, and Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings played ball at Metropolitan Stadium; the Guthrie Theater opened; and Hubert Humphrey was a senator.

Several famous people share my birth year: Johnny Depp, Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, Larry the Cable Guy, and Charles Barkley. We were born at the apex of the Baby Boom and Gen X, in the age of Mad Men, “Duck and Cover,” and the space race. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech two weeks after I was born, and JFK was assassinated in November.

My family at the time – Dad, Mom, Marty, sister Debbie, and me – lived in the then-burgeoning suburb of Bloomington. In 1966, my brother Matthew was born.

We lived on the west side on a street of newly built houses with enough structural variety that they didn’t all look the same. We lived there until I was 8, so my memories are mostly of a Leave it to Beaver, homogenized neighborhood, where husbands went to work in the morning and wives stayed home to take care of the kids. Neighbors held Fourth of July parades, backyard carnivals, and picnics in the summers, and in the winter, there was ice skating and hockey at the rink near the grade school. Mom made us put bread bags over our socks so we could pull on our boots more easily.

I didn’t know until I was much older that a pedophile lived among us, as did a drug dealer and murderer. My only bad memory of Bloomington was when I nearly drowned in a neighbor’s pool when I was 5.

I had asked my mom if I could go swimming in “Tyler’s pool.” Tyler was a little boy about a year younger than me. She thought I meant his plastic wading pool and I didn’t correct her. My plan was to go in the big pool with the slide.

Tyler’s parents were at the same backyard picnic as my parents, so there was no supervision. I don’t know if I thought it just came naturally, but I had no idea how to swim. There were a few other kids there, swimming and playing Marco Polo. I stepped carefully down the ladder, but being less than four feet tall, I didn’t clear the shallow end by much. As I floated into the deep end, I struggled to stay afloat and started gasping for air. I don’t know if it was grace, luck, or a guardian angel directive, but when I was no longer able to keep my head above water, an arm reached down and pulled me out. It was Mr. Hoard and he saved my life. (Mr. Hoard, from Little Avenue, if you read this, thank you!) He wrapped me in a towel and brought me to my mom, who offered a little sympathy, but mostly a good tongue lashing.

I took swimming lessons a few years later, but I never conquered my fear of water. I still need to be able to touch the bottom whenever I’m in a pool, a lake, or the ocean.

In 1970-71, Vietnam was still abstruse to me, but not to the women in the neighborhood or my older sister. I recently asked my sister and mom (who will be 87 on Sunday) to fill me in on what I remember as “The Vietnam Coffee Cans” days.

Debbie: I do not recall whose idea it was to do this, but the women named the group “Little Avenue Neighbors.” Little Avenue was just a few blocks from our house. We got the names and addresses from neighbors, churches, etc. When dates were settled on when the cans would be filled, the families would start saving coffee cans of all sizes. The women would visit local businesses – usually drug stores – for donations of toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, mirrors, sweets, writing paper, pens, air mail envelopes, etc.  

Mom: A neighbor on Little Avenue had the idea of sending packages to our service men and women in Vietnam. I am not sure how she got the names and addresses, but she ended up with many of them. She would go to grocery stores, drug stores and any other stores she could and got them to donate products to be sent.

Debbie: I only recall this event being held at our house, but I could be wrong. The evening before or the morning of, Dad would move the furniture in the family room against the wall and put in a few saw horses and some plywood for our work space. We circled the tables with folding chairs.  

Mom: We met at her home to pack the coffee cans, also donated by businesses and
neighbors. She didn’t have much room at her house. We had added on the family room, so I
volunteered our house and that worked out well. All the products were brought to our house the night before, so our living room was quite full.

Debbie: I would help make simple sandwiches for everyone in the morning for our lunch. Probably also had some chips, coffee and iced tea. All the ladies brought their non-school kids, so it was quite chaotic! We wanted to get the whole job done by the time the school age kids got home and in time for the ladies to make dinner, I’m sure!  

Mom: Even the kids helped when they had a day off from school. Also, some women brought their little kids with them, so we made sure they had things to play with. The women would bring food for lunch and treats for coffee. Being I furnished the house, I just had the coffee and Kool-Aid for everyone.

Debbie: We filled the cans assembly-line style, so we put all of the goodies in piles and moved the cans down the line. Everyone would fill out a recipe card with their name and address in case the guys wanted to write to us. This would go at the very top of the can before closing it. The lid would be taped down with masking tape, then we would wrap the can in brown paper and label it. All the cans went into large boxes and one of the men would drive the cans to the post office. Everyone pitched in for the postage.

Mom: All the things we were sending had to be put into individual piles. We had bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, candy, peanuts, you name it. We were not to pack cookies or anything that would crumble in the cans. We would write notes to them and change off jobs packing, typing addresses, etc. We worked all day and then some would pack up the cans and take them to the post office. The postal workers did not like to see them come in with all of the cans!

Debbie: I think our dinner those nights were very simple or take out! The whole experience was exhausting, to say the least.

Mom: It was a lot of work and we were all tired at the end of the day, but it was a good tired. We had a good time. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. I do believe the families of all of the women knew they would have to take care of themselves for supper. We were all pooped! Your dad (now age 88) reminded me that we would have Chinese takeout with extra rice and extra noodles.

Debbie: I just looked at my letters. I have one from a guy from January 1971 and three from another guy in August, September, and October 1970.  I have two photos from the guy who wrote three times.  

Mom: Forgot one story. We found out that there was one woman we sent to. Her name sounded more for a man. Anyway, she wrote us thanking for everything, she used the shaving cream for hand lotion, said it worked great. The next can we packed for her we made sure she had all the right things.

Thanks for having me relive that time in my life.

I’ve been thinking more lately about my childhood, namely because all four of my grandchildren are old enough to remember things, and their kind, loving, grandmother (and my compatriot in grandparenting) Julia passed away in February. There are bits and pieces that 6-year-old Audrey will remember, and more than bits and pieces that 11-year-old Claire will remember from these days and beyond, and I hope I have the good fortune of being able to fill in any missing pieces of their childhoods, should they ask me when they are my age.

It’s their last day of school today. Audrey, Luca (10), Mae (8) and Claire.

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“Will Garage Sale for Salmon”

Last weekend, my daughter and son-in-law held their annual/sometimes semi-annual garage sale. Several of us participate, friends and family alike, and at some point alcohol gets involved. We can never predict what will sell, and we’re pretty laid back (some might say lousy) hagglers. But we always have a good time, rain or shine, and never fail to meet the most interesting people.

Carlene and Ben live a 90- to 100-minute drive from me. For this sale, in addition to the usual garage sale stuff I’d packed in boxes, I had a porcelain stove and display tables to haul. I’m…meh…OK/comfortable driving Jim’s pickup on a good day, but the stove took up the back window, and I had to rely on the side mirrors to see around me, so I was a little nervous. Thank goodness I had on my big girl panties that day. It rained almost the entire trip, sometimes so hard I couldn’t see the end of the hood. It took two hours and change, but I got to their house, and in the end, it was worth the work and white knuckles for the experience.

I talked to a woman who’d recently lost her mother and bought a lion necklace in her memory, and a little boy who bought a scooter because his mother said he refused to ride a bike. A guy (wearing a political hat representing a person I oppose with all my being) and his wife stopped by, and when she spotted the jewelry, he didn’t once say an unkind word to her (not that I anticipated he would, just to be clear) about her taking 45 minutes to go through the unsorted costume jewelry. He just seemed happy that the sun was out, like we all were. He even brought her back the next day. Lesson learned: garage sales can bring people of opposing views together if both parties are willing to rise above the rift and difference. There was also the guy who my son-in-law is convinced was flirting with me as he bought my Moody Blues and Elton John CDs, but I think he was just enthusiastic about music and talking about JBL (or was it JVC?) speakers.

God knows the proceeds of a garage sale won’t make any of us rich. This weekend I netted about $50, $10 of which went to pay for a tuna sub on Friday and a calzone on Saturday. The rest I spent on the way home at the gas pump and at Willy’s Smokehouse in Harrisville, PA (population: not too many), home of the most amazing smoked salmon and, I’m told, ham salad. The salmon was my splurge from the booty; the ham salad was Jim’s.

I love smoked salmon, but it’s spendy. I’m not much into the thinly sliced stuff you get in a flat package that you pay $10 for 4 ounces for at the meat counter (although in a pinch…lox and bagels…). I prefer a filet-o-fish, one that looks like this:

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I forgot to take a photo before I dug into it for breakfast yesterday, but you get the idea.

I had in mind two specific purposes for this lovely filet: smoked salmon on an English muffin with a dippy egg (yesterday’s breakfast), and this no-fail, amazing recipe for quesadillas:

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Even though the recipe comes from one of the companies that sells the thinly sliced stuff you find at the meat counter, I can attest that it is best with the kind of smoked salmon you flake off a filet.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how tight $$ is (see Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels). And it still is, like it is for many millions of us sometimes or all the time. The $50-minus-gas profit would have paid for some groceries, part of the phone or electric bill, or more petro. And that’s what makes this salmon so special. For me it was like splurging on a pack of fancy-ish underwear or a pair of flip-flops. When you have an extra $20…money can buy a little happiness, even if it’s fleeting.

I will garage sale for salmon (and ham salad because I love Jim). The next sale is in August. If you’re in the area, stop by. We’ll get you a lawn chair and a plastic cup of something, and you can watch and talk to people with us. Bring something to sell. You just might make enough to buy a little something for yourself.

Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels

Have you ever put on your spring jacket after a long winter and found a $5 bill in the pocket? Or looked in the glove box for a pair of sunglasses and found a Hershey Kiss?

That’s Past Us taking care of Present Us.

We don’t plan those little surprises; they just work out that way.

For instance, last month, money was really tight. Zu needed to take her monthly heart worm and flea medicines. I knew I had a heart worm pill, but I was out of the flea pills, which cost in the neighborhood of $10 each if you buy in bulk and $17 if you buy one. I didn’t have the $60 for the bulk discount, and $17…well, it was going to be hard to come by. When I dug through the crate in which I keep Zu’s treats, brushes, and toys, I found the heart worm medicine AND, tucked way on the bottom, one flea pill. Thanks, Past Me!

Also last month, I thought I was out of Zu’s favorite dog chews. It would be a few weeks before I could buy any more. Then I spotted a package behind her bin of dog food. Thank you, Past Me!

When I was working in the garage, sorting things to eBay, I was jonesing for something sweet. I opened my desk drawer looking for a paper clip and found a Salted Nut Roll I forgot was there. Thank you Past Me!

The other day, I was feeling really low, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. Then I found this photo of 19-year-old widowed me with my daughter Carlene.

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Thanks, Past Me.

 

 

A Wake-Up (Scam) Call

It was the week that nothing I planned got done, and instead, I earned a degree in Phone Scams 101.

Since Tuesday, I’ve been on the phone with bankers and doctors and computer experts and a plethora of other people to help get back the $9,500 phone scammers stole from my brother, a vulnerable adult with short-term memory loss.

Some of you might recall that in 2011, Marty suffered a grand mal seizure, and the post-ictal period (the time during which the brain recovers from a seizure) lasted several hours. It was the next day before he recognized anyone, and five days later, he still had no sense of time. Eight years later, he lives independently in a senior living community, but his short-term memory is almost nonexistent, and so our younger brother Matthew and I serve as his power-of-attorney.

We’re not sure if it was the Social Security, IRS, or Microsoft scam because Marty can’t remember the details, but how it played out is in keeping with the description reported recently in the New York Times: “In some cases, the criminals are quite aggressive and try to scare their targets into action. In one common tactic, the fake callers tell the potential victim that his or her Social Security number has been ‘suspended’ because of suspicious activity or because it has been involved in a crime. The callers may ask their victims to confirm their Social Security numbers. They even say that the victims must withdraw cash from their bank accounts and that the accounts will be frozen if the victims don’t act quickly…Some people are scared enough that they follow the caller’s orders to withdraw money and put it on a gift card, then give the card’s number to the criminals.”

In Marty’s case, the pieces-of-sh*t (toned down from what I originally called the thieves) convinced him to transfer money from his line of credit at his bank to his checking and then they took it from there. Literally.

They also convinced him to go to the nearest retailer and buy a $500 Google Play gift card, which he did. But before he called them back with the card number, something in his fuzzy brain told him to report it. He went to the police, but they did nothing but call the county adult protective services to report Marty as a vulnerable adult. I was mad at first, both at Marty for not calling Matthew or me first and at the police for making a report. It turned out to be a blessing, though, because the social worker gave us some invaluable advice and information on how to protect Marty from future scams. His case, for now, is closed.

Thanks to the manager at his apartment complex, Marty was referred to a computer expert who cleaned up his computer, erased the malware, and created a Fort Knox-like wall that (we hope) no one can break through or climb over to gain access to Marty’s computer again.

There’s a special hell for people who prey on vulnerable adults.

I’m sure you, like everyone, get fake calls almost every day. I choose not to answer any call that isn’t from someone I know because the one time I did, it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Caller: Lynn! Is that you? (like she was my best friend)

Me: Um…who…

Caller: I’ve been trying to get a hold of you! I’m a professional solicitor…

Me: Click.

I apologize to any of you who are employed as a “professional solicitor,” but that’s one job in the gray area of ethical. No legitimate solicitor should pretend to know the person they’re calling. For people like my brother, they could get confused and believe (and do) whatever the caller says.

My boyfriend Jim regularly gets calls from someone claiming that if he doesn’t pay his student loans, he will be prosecuted. Jim has never had a student loan, and he tells them that, only in a very…colorful way. He enjoys messing with phone scammers. So does my daughter and our milkman. They say it gives them a moment of satisfaction.

Matthew is in possession of the Google Play gift card, and thankfully Marty didn’t give the scammers the card number. We’ve also made sure his bank account is locked up so tight that he can’t withdraw $5 without us being notified. The only satisfaction I’ve gained from this scam is that it was a wake-up call to yet one more way in which my brother is susceptible to fraud. Matthew and I have said many times this week that we “should have been” more diligent, but we can’t figure out how we could have prevented this scam without taking away more of Marty’s ever-shrinking independence.

Have you ever had to take away Dad’s car keys? Move Mom into a nursing home? It’s a fine line we walk being responsible for a vulnerable adult. In many cases, they’ve entrusted us to make the right decisions for them when they can’t or won’t see the big picture, but love and a long history make these decisions emotionally difficult. We have roles as children or, in our case, as a younger sister and brother, and those roles are part of the emotional fabric of the family. It’s not “natural” to tell your mom or dad or older brother what to do, and yet we must.

If this is you, if you’re in the position of being responsible for a vulnerable adult, how are you doing? How do you walk that fine line? How do you make those decisions, and how do you feel when you do?

Thin Places

How this happened, I don’t know, but I’d never heard of “thin places” before this morning. (And I’m not talking about skinny.)

I was listening to Nikki Mirghafori’s weekly Happy Hour guided meditation. The topic was thin places. As she was explaining what it is, I started to tear up, realizing that I was in a thin place several weeks ago without realizing it. Too restless to finish the meditation, I decided to write about thin places instead. Meet the divine at my computer, so to speak.

Lacy Clark Ellman from A Sacred Journey blog defines it this way: “A thin place is a term used for millennia to describe a place in time where the space between heaven and Earth grows thin and the sacred and the secular seem to meet. The term comes from…Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Christians, who were deeply connected to the natural world and considered every aspect of life to be infused with the presence of the Divine, even (or perhaps, especially) the ordinary elements of everyday life.”

When I saw my friend Julia in early February, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand and talking with her about our grandchildren. (Julia is my daughter Cassie’s mother-in-law.) With only a short time left to live, Julia was consciously aware that she was in that thin place between Earth and the eternal world, and by holding my hand, so, too, was I. She said she was going to meet Jesus. She was certain. I said I was sure she would, but inside I was angry at Jesus.

Is it possible to encounter the divine with awe and anger?

Thin places inspire intimacy with the divine, but we have to be willing and open to the encounter. Perhaps I need to finish the meditation I abandoned this morning and feel what there is to feel; to enter the memory of that thin place and consider the certainty of Julia’s conviction that the divine was ever present as she lay dying.

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Julia with two of our shared granddaughters, Mae and Claire, Thanksgiving 2018.