The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

wedding

Searching for Normal

Normally on Saturdays, Jim and I go on a breakfast adventure. We either try a restaurant we’ve not been to or try something new in the places we have. Jim is always on the lookout for the perfect sausage gravy or creamed chipped beef over home fries. I look for fresh brewed iced tea, non-instant oatmeal, and homemade hash browns. And if the place uses fresh mushrooms in their omelets, five stars on Trip Advisor! Generally we stay within 45 minutes of home, but we’ve been known to wander a bit farther on a nice day.

20191222_092550
Zuzu loves breakfast adventures, too, and when she’s with us, I get her a side of bacon or a slice of ham for the ride home. Today, she enjoyed looking out the window at cows and very large farm dogs who could eat her in one bite.

There’s definitely not much normal about these days. Schedules have changed, activities are greatly limited or restricted (or greatly increased if you are an essential worker, and I can’t thank you enough for what you do). As a germaphobe with anxiety, everyone and every surface is suspect to me anyway, but that sense of germs, germs everywhere(!) is heightened right now. I needed a slice of normal this morning, so Jim and I went on a breakfast adventure, sans breakfast, since the drive is always half the fun.

We took a circuitous route on back roads, across swollen rivers and past a covered bridge. I saw Canada geese floating on ponds, turkeys walking across bare corn fields, chickens free ranging, doing their chicken thing. Daffodils dotted the banks of the hills and the ditches…a sure sign of spring. Listening to the radio, the song “Roll Me Away” by Bob Seger came on and we were acutely aware of that desire for freedom within uncertainty: “Roll, roll me away, Won’t you roll me away tonight. I, too, am lost, I feel double-crossed, And I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right.” 

There’s a freedom in normal, and now that normal has been turned on its head, I realize how much I take my normal for granted. It’s the right thing to stay away from others as much as possible, especially in the upcoming week (although I confess I giggled when I heard a doctor say we need to take “prophylactic measures”), but my hope is that, despite it all, each of us can find a little freedom in our lives every day, either inside our homes or inside our heads or driving down the road listening to the radio.

Or…if you have some cheese and macaroni lying around… Comfort food is not always a bad thing, people 😉.

Macaroni and Cheese (Lynn’s adaptation from an Epicurious recipe)

8 Servings

6 T butter, divided

1 C Panko bread crumbs

8 C shredded cheese (I usually use 6 C extra sharp cheddar, 1 C mild cheddar or Monterey Jack, and 1 C smoked gouda – the secret ingredient 😊)

1 pound macaroni (it’s more fun with spiral pasta or medium shells)

3 ¼ C whole milk

3 T all-purpose flour

1 ½ t dry mustard

¼ to 1 t fine sea salt (I start with ¼ t and adjust later if needed)

½ t ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, although you can make this ahead of time and bake later. Store in the fridge sans the topping, which you make just before it goes in the oven.

Spray/grease a 9×13 baking dish, or use a 3-quart round casserole. I find that the round casserole keeps the mac and cheese more creamy.

Cook the macaroni according to the directions on the package. When done, drain without rinsing and return to the pot they were cooked in.

In a medium saucepan, melt 3 T of butter. Add the flour to make a smooth roux. Add a bit of milk and whisk until smooth. Add remaining milk and cook over medium high heat until the sauce thickens. Just be sure not to let the milk come to a boil. Turn the heat to low and add the mustard, salt, and pepper. Add the cheese and stir constantly until it is completely melted and smooth.

Pour the cheese over the macaroni and mix well. Taste and add more salt if you want. Place in casserole or baking dish.

For the topping, melt 3 T of butter and mix it with the Panko. Sprinkle on top. Bake for at least 30 minutes or until the topping is browned and crispy.

#Coronapocalypse

 

Hope is our only Hope

A disclaimer before I begin: As many of you know, I don’t usually write publicly about politics generally or about my political ideology specifically. Politics, especially in recent years, can be so divisive, and I truly believe we have way more in common than not, so I focus my writing mainly on common grounds rather than what could trigger irreparable divisions. But you also know, especially long-time readers, that when I feel strongly about something, I will say it and share it (and I never expect you to fall in line with my way of thinking), and right now, I really want to say and share my feelings about the current political climate.

Yesterday, after coming home from a one-night stay in downtown Youngstown (Ohio), I was pumped to write about how much fun I had spending time with my daughter, Carlene, and meeting comedian Brent Terhune. Then I heard that Pete Buttigieg was ending his bid for the Democratic nomination for President and I got stabby. I even cried. No politician has made me cry before. Well, at least not sad tears. I shed plenty of angry tears in November 2016.

I first learned of Pete early last year in an interview with Joshua Johnson (@jejohnson322) on the NPR show the 1A. I was not only impressed with what he said, but how he said it. Hands down, Pete is/was the most articulate and composed candidate, and he is a helluva debater, and his was the first political campaign I’d ever supported financially.

Openly gay and proud to be married to his husband, Chasten, Pete (and Chasten) restored my faith that kindness can exist in politics, that it must exist in politics. Hearing he’d dropped out made me feel so…lost. I’m not mad; I understand why he did it, and I support his decision. But I will miss his voice, his calm, his intelligence, his hope, and his vision of a united America. The paranoid, deceitful, and hate-filled America that has emerged in four years has left so many people marginalized, afraid, unheard, and – at least in my case – dumbfounded that that truth is almost always usurped by lies and that so few people seem to care. Pete’s message of hope gave me hope that one day, truth, genuine care for people, and common sense could reside in the White House.

I’m tired of angry. I’m tired of the shouting. I’m tired of the finger-pointing. I’m tired of the lying. I’m tired of old.

What Pete’s campaign did was to encourage our country to find its conscience again. We live in a capitalistic, democratic country, I get that. But how about those currently in power stop supporting racist rhetoric or rhetoricians and separating families who are seeking asylum? Stop voter suppression and allowing people to die because they can’t afford life-saving medicine? Start acknowledging that climate change is happening, and fast? That’s not socialism. That’s just plain morally right.

Political power is not the be all and end all in life. Death will come whether we have $$$$$, power, or a high horse. We have a responsibility to each other in life, despite of ideology, and I hope Pete’s message of hope is reflected at the polls in November.

A Tale of Two Valentines

Love has come and gone in my life (through a revolving door, some might say), but it’s the big-time first one I will always remember, as well as the two Valentine’s Days that infused that relationship.

Valentine’s Day, 1982

I was pregnant. I didn’t mean to be. Bruce and I were planning a May 29th wedding and a honeymoon in the Poconos. (Heart-shaped beds were the rage!) I was living in Minneapolis with my parents and Bruce was living with his parents on their family farm 200 miles away. We commuted on weekends to see each other, and Valentine’s weekend was my turn to be on the farm.

We found out about the baby 10 days earlier and our relationship had become strained, mostly because his parents were politely pissed. Well, at least his mother was polite. His father wasn’t one to hold back how he felt about anything, especially when it came to me. He didn’t like me. Not. One. Bit.* But Bruce gave me this V-Day card, and it filled me with hope:

V21982

As I got ready to drive back to Minneapolis (which in hindsight, I should have), I noticed blood on my underwear. Panicked, I told Bruce and he told me to ask his mother about it (one of those times when a cell phone would have been really useful…). She and their Sunday company were drinking coffee in the kitchen, so I asked if I could talk to her privately in the living room. She was noticeably nervous talking about such a private matter, but I was desperate. She said she’d heard that spotting could happen during early pregnancy (my words, not hers) and advised me to call a doctor. I found one in the Yellow Pages, and when he called back, he told me to meet him in the county hospital emergency room 11 miles away.

I was 18, and only one other doctor had ever been in my VJ region before. I was scared and I didn’t have the words to ask the right questions. Bruce was clueless, too, but he stayed with me. After the exam, the doctor told me to go home and to call if I experienced any more bleeding. Home was 200 miles away, so I went back to Bruce’s parents’ house, and in the early morning hours of February 15, I painfully and quietly miscarried in the upstairs bathroom.

Bruce took me back to the hospital and I had a D&C. His mother visited later that afternoon and brought me a jar of peanuts. I can only imagine she didn’t know what to do or say, but she showed up and, god love her, I appreciated that. The next day, I went back to Bruce’s parents’ house to recover, which lasted five minutes before the fight. His father told Bruce that he no longer “had” to marry me, and my response was epic: I threw my engagement ring at him, and I launched f-bombs everywhere. I was tired, grieving, and not at all prepared for a reasoned response. Bruce took me to a friend’s house and somehow…we got married on April 3, the earlier date we’d chosen because of the baby.

Valentine’s Day, 1983

Valentine’s Day was on a Monday. We lived on the farm; his parents had retired. After lunch, Bruce said he was going to town, and I probably sent along a grocery list. I was less than a month away from birthing Carlene and I didn’t fit behind the steering wheel anymore. It was probably snowing and minus 100 degrees outside, I don’t remember. What I do remember was that after he left, I was in the living room watching All My Children when he sneaked back in the house through the mud room – the place he took off his coveralls and muddy, shitty (literally shitty, we were farmers) boots after chores – and went down to the basement. I didn’t say anything because it felt…private. His business. If he wanted me to know he was there, he’d have said something.

He tried to be quiet, but I heard him rummaging around. A minute later, he was gone again. When he returned, he handed me two roses in the bud vase from the basement and this card:

v1983

With another year of getting used to each other under our belts, the doe-eyed love we once had was replaced with the real, work-for-it kind of love. When he died five weeks later, I knew no Valentine’s Day – or any day – would ever be the same .

* When Bruce died, his father was devastated. I don’t know exactly what moved him, perhaps it was his faith and guilt, but he lived the rest of his years loving me and his granddaughter with no reservations. And I loved him, too.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fine Line Between Compliment and Judgement

In all the years I’ve written about weight issues, I’ve never addressed the “compliment.” I thought I had, but I checked the archives and, nope, not a word. I know I’ve had that conversation with all of you before, but it was a conversation only in my head, apparently.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about weight issues, mostly because weight lives more in the periphery than the forefront of my life these days. It’s still there. I can see it. But lately I’m more concerned about crossing my legs before I sneeze than what I weigh.

I’m bringing weight back into the conversation here, though, for a few blogs, maybe more, and it is sparked by a recent meeting with a friend I haven’t seen in many months. When she got out of her car, she was notably thinner. I didn’t say anything about it. Instead, I complimented the necklace she was wearing, a lovely triple circle diamond pendant. She said she bought it for herself as a reward for losing weight. She explained that at her last doctor’s visit, her blood pressure was up and she wanted to try to control it through diet and exercise. Considering she is 59 and post-menopausal, that’s no small feat, so extra kudos to her for her success.

I didn’t want to say anything about her obvious weight loss for a few reasons, one being that if she lost weight because she’s sick, that is her story to tell and not my business to neb. The other reason is that I’m careful offering “compliments” regarding any changes I notice about someone’s physical appearance, particularly when it’s clear(ish) that they’ve lost weight. It’s usually without malicious intent that someone says, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” But often what the recipient hears (or at least internalizes) is, “You weren’t good enough before.”

In recent years, people like Lizzo, Kelly Clarkson, Chrissy Metz, and Rebel Wilson have shut down weight critics, but they also admit that the comments still hurt sometimes. And their body acceptance doesn’t mean that everyone’s lovin’ on their own bodies all of a sudden, either. How someone looks still equals approval. Everything we wear (or don’t wear), what we put on our face, all that we weigh and the way we age… what we look like, and especially what we weigh, is important to someone other than ourselves, often people closest to us, even though it’s none of their business.

One example I will remember forever happened while planning my daughter’s wedding back in the days when I was actively losing weight. I was looking for someone to make cupcakes and a small wedding cake. Several friends recommended a woman who baked cakes out of her home. I made an appointment and went to talk to her.

She’d never met me and so of course had no idea I once weighed more than 300 pounds. At the time, I weighed about 170, and if it was the first time you had ever seen me, the thought might cross your mind that I was overweight. We sat down at her dining room table – the woman, me, and the woman’s 20-something daughter, whose leg was in a large metal brace.

After some brief chit-chat, and apropos of absolutely nothing, the woman outright apologized to me for her daughter’s weight. I was speechless, and the poor girl looked mortified. But she seemed used to her mother’s behavior and launched into an explanation (read: she was apologizing, too) about how she used to be on some high school sports team when she was in a horrific accident that crushed her leg. Subsequently, she spent months in rehab, and, apparently, gaining weight. Her mother then said…and I’m sure you can guess what’s coming…“She has such a pretty face, doesn’t she? If only…” and at that moment, I thought I was going to lose my sh*t all over her unforgivable parenting a@@, but I didn’t. I just smiled at the girl and told her how sorry I was. I didn’t get specific.

So what does this have to do with complimenting someone who has lost weight? Everything. Anytime we comment on someone’s weight, we’re making a judgement, even if we mean it in the most sincere, kind way. I know some of you might think it would be rude to ignore the obvious, and really, who doesn’t want to compliment a friend? I get that, and I’ve learned to frame a comment in a way that starts a conversation. Saying something like, “I notice you’ve lost weight. What made you decide to do that?” allows the person to talk about their feelings about their weight rather than us interjecting our feelings (as sincere as they might be) about their weight first.

Just know, if you lose weight because you want to, I support you. But also know this: you look great, you are great, just the way you are right now. Don’t let anyone (especially someone who’s supposed to love you) tell you otherwise. Trust me. As an ex-member of the Pretty Face Club, I know what I’m talking about.

 

“Hope”ful New Year!

hopeI woke to a poem in my inbox this morning, January 1, a day of hope and possibility. At least that’s how it’s marketed.

I’m optimistically cautious by nature, and I don’t believe in much, especially fate, destiny or divine intervention. Each of us has the potential to act in accord with our innate goodness. Each of us is responsible for how we respond to heartache and loss. No one is responsible for making us happy, and each of us is no better than the other.

But…I do believe in hope and possibility, which is, sadly, lacking in too many people’s lives. And for those of us who can, I believe it is our responsibility to offer hope and possibility – when appropriate – to those we love, and even those we don’t know. Not pithy hope, and certainly not head-in-the-sand hope, but genuine care, be it a smile, a helping hand, or simply not expressing every opinion we have when we have it. For me, today, it’s sharing this poem that I hope will offer you…hope. In spite of everything, may you find hope to begin again. And again, if necessary. Happy “hope”ful new year!

The New Year
by Barbara Crooker

When a door bangs shut, a window doesn’t open.
Sometimes, it slams on your fingers. God often
gives us more than we can handle. A sorrow
shared is a sorrow multiplied. There’s a bottle
of Champagne waiting to be uncorked,
but it’s not for you. Nobody wants another poem.
The prize-winning envelope has someone else’s name
on it. This year you already know you’re not going
to lose those ten pounds. How can you feel hope,
when the weight of last year’s rejections is enough
to bury you? Still, the empty page craves the pen,
wants to feel the black ink unscrolling on its skin.
In spite of everything, you sit at your desk and begin.

Looking Back… (kind of the Get-Outta-My-Yard-You-Damn-Kids version)

While December 31, 2019 is not technically the end of the decade, it is the end of the 20teens, and despite my fussiness about calendar time (which is arbitrary anyway), I was still drawn to a question someone posted on Twitter a few weeks ago: “As we near the end of the decade, what is one thing that 2010 you would be extremely proud of 2019 you for doing/being/experiencing/achieving/overcoming/discovering?”

I was drawn to it because my answer is: Do we really want to go down Memory Lane?

giphy

What concerns me about any exercise in reviewing the past is that we often have to consult that mental file drawer that contains folders marked: “Well, That Didn’t Work Out,” “Crap, I Forgot About That,” “I Never Did Get Around to Doing That,” and my favorite, “What the Hell Was I Thinking?” Thumbing through those files can drag a person down, and if this is you (and it’s definitely me), shut the damn file drawer!

Looking back for one thing might be fun for some, or it might be quickly apparent for others, but it can often become a walk through Regret Park. I have no ill will toward 2010 Me, not at all, but I prefer to stay here in the present and ask more helpful questions with less potential for psychological disaster: What am I thankful for? Who do I think about and like to hang out with? What is something I’d like to challenge myself to do in 2020?

Because here’s my truth: What 2019 Me knows that 2010 Me couldn’t know was that everything and everyone in the last 9 years, every loss, every moment of WTF, anger or aha, and every kiss, hug, tear, and discussion over a cup of coffee coalesced to make me content with my life, as it is, in all its complexities, anxieties, and unknowns right now, at the end of 2019. I was not defeated, and – while cautious – I’m looking forward to the next 10.

I think that’s the best any of us can want for ourselves.

If there is one thing you are proud of, I truly am happy for you. Just don’t forget to thank 2010 You for helping you. No matter who we are now in 2019, 2010 Us had a hand in some way.

As Edith Wharton wrote, “We’ve but one life to live, and fifty ways to live it in.” Here’s to the forks in the road, the decisions we make, and the mistakes, disappointments, and triumphs to come. May your 2020 be a year of hope, self-care, and positive change, if that is what you desire.

Some Woman to Some Man
by Edith Wharton

We might have loved each other after all,
Have lived and learned together! Yet I doubt it;
You asked, I think, too great a sacrifice,
Or else, perhaps, I rate myself too dear.
Whichever way the difference lies between us,
Would common cares have helped to lessen it,
A common interest, and a common lot?
Who knows indeed? We choose our path, and then
Stand looking back and sighing at our choice,
And say: “Perhaps the other road had led
To fruitful valleys dozing in the sun.”
Perhaps—perhaps—but all things are perhaps,
And either way there lies a doubt, you know.
We’ve but one life to live, and fifty ways
To live it in, and little time to choose
The one in fifty that will suit us best,
And so the end is, that we part, and say:
“We might have loved each other after all!”

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.