What families do

caregiver, creative non fiction, family, forgiveness, health & wellness, meditation, Only Children, psychotherapy, Social Trends, thoughts for living, Uncategorized

me and parents 2As an only child, I bargained with God to protect me from seeing my parents die. God ignored my fear-of-grief-based request although He gave me the grace of nearly two decades between the departure of them.

My father left us quickly. He had gone in for placement of a defibrillator pacemaker. I believe he lost interest in life when doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to repair lawnmowers because of the interference of the electromagnetic fields on the heart device. Repairing lawnmowers was a satisfying hobby for him because it was mechanical and practical.

My mother lived independently for many years after my father died and we were mutually supportive to each other. We took over mowing her yard and when I returned to work she took over caring for my first-born son who was only six months old when his grandfather died.

My father left us quickly, but my mother took her time. She lived with me and my family for the last two and a half years of her life. Daily, I was filled with anxious dread she’d fall and re-break her femur, which was the body part that ultimately stole her independence. She fell twice. The first time she broke her nose, blackened her eye and sprained her ankle.  The second time was the precursor to her final days as she was just too weak to hold herself up anymore.

Fast forward two years after her death and I continue to process the profundity of having cared for my mother. I spontaneously completed an on-line survey for the Institute for Spirituality and Health, which is conducting research on personal quality and medical hardship and researchers followed up with a phone interview.

The Rice University college student probed what personal qualities I possessed which allowed me to persevere through my mother’s medical hardships. I inventory myself frequently for self-improvement but when pressed all I could identify as to how I managed to juggle all the demands on my time is “that’s what you do for a family.”

He queried about how society could better support people who are experiencing medical hardships.  I didn’t delve into political divisions but spoke about the benefit to society when families are better supported in caring for any relative with a medical need.  If women were paid for the informal caregiving they provide to relatives, it would conservatively be valued between $148 billion and $188 billion annually.

He asked me how I dealt with the disruption within my family when my mother lived with me. It wasn’t a disruption. It was a 180-degree change. Everything changed within and without for our family, including our living arrangement.

When women provide unpaid caregiving, they sacrifice about $40,000 in retirement savings because of the compromise they make for paid work. To accommodate my mother’s mobility needs, we moved from a 1,000-square foot home to a 3,000-square foot home and invested in handicap accessibility tools. I transferred my retirement savings into this family investment.

To supplement financially, some caregivers are fortunate to have a large network of extended family who can pitch in. As an only child, my extended family consisted of my husband and two sons. My husband worked to keep the roof over our heads, and my sons weren’t old enough to drive themselves, much less anyone else.  So, any supplemental support we needed was a fee-based one, including for tasks as Good Samaritanish as giving my mother a ride to see her doctor.

Research and statistics indicate caregivers absorb an inordinate amount of stress and sacrifice. With the baby boom population aging at the speed of sound, more middle-aged children will be stepping into new roles. No matter a person’s inner stockpile of eagerness, loyalty, and love, caretaking is daunting.  Many medical-specific organizations and caregiver-based groups offer in-person and on-line support groups.  Both society and families benefit financially and emotionally when caregivers are supported.

Without stating it directly, he inquired as to the psychological toll on me. I reflected the personal story of the anonymous statistics and while my mother was living with me I didn’t have time to participate in emotionally satisfying functions. In the remote area in which I lived, it was difficult to access therapy but I reached out for on-line counseling, which was a competent substitute for a face-to-face therapeutic relationship.  

Finally, he asked me how others responded when I told people I was caretaking for someone with a medical hardship. I gave him anecdotes of how medical staff laughed at my mother’s awkwardness with her walker and wheelchairs. Other people’s daughters who weren’t yet faced with this season would remark, “I could never live with my mother like you are.”

Pity on them, not me.  I couldn’t really do it either, yet I did. And if life should demand this from you, you can, too. Because that’s what well-meaning families do.

timothy verse

 

Love is stronger than death

creative non fiction, health & wellness, meditation, thoughts for living, Uncategorized

My father, who would have turned 85 today, showed his love in practical ways. He grew a garden and its bounty he shared with others, he repaired lawnmowers for free, and he often gave rides to strangers who were down on their luck.

I inherited one of those three talents from my father. Giving rides to and toward strangers in unfamiliar territory is something I’m able and willing to do. So, when an opportunity was offered on my late father’s birthday for me to facilitate a Monday night depression and bipolar support group, I plugged in the GPS the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center.

My father studied the Bible, searching for answers to explain the pain and suffering he witnessed during his time on Earth. Had he not been a Presbyterian Jehovah’s Witness, I think he would have found solace in the Jewish faith.

hollis in koreaAt least that’s what I think if I work under the premise children are at least half and half of each parent. I think about my mother all the time, but I feel all the time the same way my father seemed to feel about many things in life.

The generational difference between him and I, though, is I was born at a time when tools became available to more peacefully cope with the suffering that surrounds us, whereas my father was born at a time when he enlisted in a war and responded the way anyone would who sees the powerful injustice of suffering. He raged at it. His favorite book in the Old Testament was Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun and everything is meaningless.

After the group, I studied the gallery of Jewish philosophy hanging in the community center and wondered what my father would have experienced had he been there with me. I like to think he would have realized how whole his broken heart really was. And that he would have found reassurance in that love is stronger than death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To our coffee drinking heroes: cheers

business, creative non fiction, Social Trends, Uncategorized

 

 

I was nine, when I tried coffee for the first time. Sitting with my mother at our breakfast table, I took a sip from one of our reversed-dyed Easter egg coffee mugs and immediately scrunched up my face.

“How do you stand this stuff,” I asked her.

“You learn to like it,” my mother responded, as she took a sip from her own mug as easily as if she was taking a swallow of tap water.

Learning to like most things deemed for grown ups, such as coffee, has been my ongoing struggle into maturity. My mother was 40 when she answered my question about coffee drinking. Now, I’m 50 and finally learning to like coffee, but I have, as of yet, failed to learn to like it straight up black as my mother did.

After my first coffee encounter,  I chose to avoid it for a long time. Most people I knew by the time they were 25 jolted themselves awake with a cup of joe. Not me. Although Pepsi is an afternoon drink, something to refresh and revive you after a long day toiling in the sun, it was the closest to the coffee jolt that I would allow. Later, I switched to Diet Coke when I conceded I needed to stoic up a bit in my approach to life. No more unlimited amounts of a sugar buzz for me. Before bedtime I would be lulled into dreamland with a somniferous sip of milk, or later in my life, herbal tea.

Coffee, on the other hand, is what you drink to parachute yourself into your life, to hit the ground running, to take on the battles of the day. But I wanted no part of that. I didn’t mind watching other people jump from the plane, but I didn’t want to myself and I barely wanted to even board the plane.

People would ask, “would you like a cup of coffee,” and immediately I responded with a grimace on my face at the long ago memory of that one sip. “No thanks, I can’t stand coffee,” I said. “But do you have a diet Coke?” I convinced myself that caffeinated cola products were just as grown-up as coffee even though whenever I ventured into Quik Trip, a local convenience store, the people in business suits gravitated to the coffee makers and the high school students headed for the refrigerated drink section.

I graduated from college with a journalism degree, a field notoriously famous  for hard-drinking, chain-smoking, facts-oriented wordsmiths. These people were content with the world as it was without embellishment. I wanted to search for deeper meanings and look at life through an artist’s lens, softened by sugar and cream.

 

I needed to dig deeper to reconcile the life of the coffee grower in Brazil who handpicks a crop by hand and earns less than five cents a pound with the coffee drinker who spends an average of $6 a day from specialty coffee shops.  And I wanted to excuse myself for any culpability in the exchange. Dollar for dollar, the exchange rate is in favor of the middle man on Wall Street and not the field worker or the coffee drinker.

 

It’s easy to be in solidarity with third-world farmers by refusing to drink something I didn’t like anyway. But giving up other luxuries, such as my car, is another matter. Petroleum is the most traded item on the world market with the U.S., China, and India leading the way.  All the way around, petroleum is a volatile commodity on the markets for pricing and as a discussion between opposing political forces.

But in the end, though, it’s been an oil and gas man who has progressively changed my thinking about certain grown-up aspects of life , such as coffee, that I only cared about from the edges.

My husband has been a thermos-full (and many times two) of coffee a day drinker for most of the time I’ve known him: 19 years. As part of his morning routine he brews a pot of coffee, takes a single mugful from the pot to drink with his breakfast, and the rest he pours into his thermos, which he takes with him to work. When I first met him he drank only the strongest black brew that could be made, cowboy coffee. He had lived for 12 years in the west Texas, eastern New Mexico region of the United States and there the sugar-filled mocha lattes and double espressos were harder to come by than just plain, straight up black coffee.

In urban areas you can now buy a cup of instant mix cappuccino at a gas station. Until recently, in west Texas oil towns your offerings of coffee were limited to a range of intensity of black and decaff and the decaff, many times, could only be obtained by special request of the attendant. It’s not that the lighter versions are hard to buy or transport to the remote desert it’s just hard to sell to calloused-hand oil roustabouts and rodeo riders.

I have always had a shut down time of 6 p.m. when I stopped drinking pop. My husband can savor a cup of coffee just minutes before bedtime and still drift off into lullaby land as if he had been rocked to sleep like a baby in his mother’s arms. He has either developed a tolerance to caffeine or he ignores its stimulating effect to ensure a restful night of sleep. He knows every day is a rigorous joust in conquering the monstrous iron machinery.

My husband had a brief period when he disliked coffee. In his 20s, my husband participated in a smoke-ender’s program. A three-pack a day Marlboro man, he voluntarily signed up for the program when the oil company he worked for enacted a policy prohibiting smoking at the gas plant. It was a sensible policy on the surface, but a difficult one to enact from a practical matter. Many of these guys had smoked from the time they were teenagers and it didn’t occur that their deadly personal habit could have far harsher consequences if the right flick of a cigarette met up with the wrong vapor of gas.

“They had us brush our teeth five times a day,” Mike said of one of the techniques used during the six-week program. “The taste of the coffee just didn’t sit well in my clean mouth.”

Except for that brief interlude, my husband has sped like a train through life with coffee and caffeine coursing through his engine. This penchant for coffee is one of the few bad habits that remains with my husband. As he has matured, my husband has eliminated a number of other poor lifestyle habits in addition to smoking cigarettes. He’s  embraced the responsibilities of his life as a husband, father, and employee and immersed himself in all of it.

While I, on the other hand, still pitter patter my way around the edges of life. Any sign of an uncomfortable situation within my responsibilities cause me to scrunch my face much like that first sip of coffee did. And while I’ve been able to reduce my consumption of Diet Coke and increase my cups of daily coffee, my coffee still comes with a side of cream and Splenda.

a_small_cup_of_coffee

Your obsessions can be your salvation

autism, creative non fiction, health & wellness, meditation, mindfulness, thoughts for living, Uncategorized

My youngest son, Daniel, and our dog, Pepper, made our daily field trip to the nearby developed lake. We hunted for turtles, fish, and green algae. I have surrendered the idea of convincing my son about switching obsessions to something else because of my opinion of its tediousness. He loves this daily ritual of speaking to the flora and fauna and listening to their quiet. So, who am I to disrupt this calming activity, which, once I look past its repetitiveness, is calming to me, too?

The symptoms of repetitiveness and obsession are aspects of my son’s diagnosis on the autism spectrum. He is rated “high functioning,” whatever that means. I am rated a high functioning recovering person. My home environment mostly reflects my high functionability withgood-orderly-direction echoes of chaos. I married a high functioning working man who has an obsession of taking opportunities wherever they take us. They have taken us to eight homes in 18 years. That’s a household move every 2 ½ years. So, it ought not be a shock that some boxes are 18 years old, but when I look at them I am surprised that they are still with me. They are loaded into the moving van and relocated. This last relocation, however, feels like a long-term one. While I rationalize it as being in my son’s best interest, I know deep down it’s in my best interest, too, to stay put. More boxes have been unpacked than ever before, including the 30 plus ones bequeathed to me by my mother.

One room displays like a museum. It is perfectly put together and we don’t live in it. It is used only as a passage way into the kitchen. It is an unattainable model for the rest of the house. Every other room is in some kind of organizing process with a few boxes scattered around as reminders to my previously vagabond life. My son, with his obsession to reliable routines, is helping me exchange my feelings of discomfort to feelings of security for order and structure.

Which immigrants are responsible for you being an American?

creative non fiction, holidays, Iowa life, Marriage, Social Trends, thoughts for living

Mary Christine Fredvorst gave up her first-born son to foster parents.  An orphan herself, Mary Christine was surviving as a Goose Girl, sleeping in the barns and sheds of the families for whom she herded.  Whether it was a traumatic or romantic encounter that resulted in her son, as a single, young mother her capacity for supporting herself and child was non-existent in mid-1800 Germany.

Mary Christine had no formal education, but she did possess an abundance of wits and wisdom about her future in Mecklinburg, Germany. And so did John Schwarck. A  decade older than Mary Christine, John was a skilled cabinetmaker. As a betrothal gift, he offered her a Bible with her initials in gold on the cover.

A set of triplets was their first experience with parenthood as newlyweds in 1856. But one of them was buried shortly after his birth. With the entrenched Germanic feudal system, the Schwarck’s outlook for prosperity was bleak. The couple knew their children’s future would be even darker in their homeland.

baltic shorelineAs beautiful as the Baltic sea shoreline was, a feast for the eyes is not going to fill the stomachs of a family of four…

This is one of the snapshots of my family history, embellished (slightly, as you will see later) by me.

If you have a family member who has been the oral historian, I hope you will take the time to document your generational stories. Down the road you will be grateful you did and even further down the road your descendants will be glad, too, although they may not yet know it.

With the recent passing of my mother, I am uncovering papers and memorabilia which offer me a broad stroke view of my maternal family history.

The Fourth of July is an appropriate time to remind us of the cost many of our immigrant ancestors paid and are paying in physical and emotional toil to gain their (our) independence from economic poverty and other tyranny. The “Know-Nothing” Donald Trump counterparts alive in the mid 1800s, (President Martin Fillmore of the Whig-American Party) also were ignorant loudmouths of the quality of people who were teeming to our shores. The saving grace is my relatives and others like them may only have known their native language when they arrived and couldn’t understand the vitriol.

And like Ben Affleck and his embarrassment of distant relatives who were slave owners, I, too, have family skeletons that force me to face my genogram dynamics and how they may affect my and future generation’s lives. But unlike Mr. Affleck, I am willing to face these rattling bones because to deny them denies me insight which can help move future generations forward. I am the offspring of my great-great grandparents, and just like them, I have a strong compulsion to improve my life. Had my ancestors resigned themselves to their Germanic feudal system fate, my existence is moot.

Understanding the full breadth of my ancestor’s choices to leave home gives me an opportunity to take my children off their bubble-wrapped pedestals and encourage them to take the risk of venturing out. The new lands of discovery may not be the soil of foreign countries, but, instead, may be the vistas of our generational psychology.

While the following family history is specific to my family, I hope it inspires you to investigate the story of your heritage.

old photo

The Schwarck-Price family, Grundy County, Iowa

My great-grandmother Hannah (Schwarck) Price provided oral history to relatives who transcribed it in 1966. Fifty years later, I offer it as it was written then with minor editorial changes to reflect correct spelling, grammar.

Schwarck Family History

John Peter Schwarck was born in Mecklenburg, Schwerin, Germany, May 13, 1818, and passed away at his home in Grundy County, Iowa, Aug. 29, 1888. Little is known of his early life or of his brothers or sisters. He became a skilled cabinet maker.

Hannah Mary Christine Fredvorst was born in New Vorpommern, Germany, April 4, 1830. She was the youngest of three children, a sister and brother being older. Their parents died when Mary was a small child and the three children were put in different homes quite a distance apart so that they became strangers to each other. The brother, when he was a mere youth, was drowned. Little Mary was shuttled from place to place. One of her jobs was being a Goose girl, which is to herd the neighborhood geese. Often she ate and slept whenever and wherever she could. However, she managed to survive. One day, when Mary was probably an early teenager, she received a package containing the wedding bonnet of her older sister who died shortly before her wedding day. In this bonnet was a long red hair so she thought her sister must have had red hair but she had not seen her for many years and she didn’t really know.

With the meager funds he had, John gave a betrothal gift to Mary, his bride-to-be, a German Bible with her initials and date in gold letters on the cover. They married in Germany and triplets were born in 1856. One infant passed away soon. The other two, William and Mary, came with their parents, to the United States. Ocean travel was not as comfortable in those days. Here was a time when people on the seas had to furnish their own food whether the journey was a few days or several weeks. At best, it was not an easy trip. The ship was small and very crowded. It probably was a sail boat. Aunt Hannah said her mother (Mary Schwarck) told her that a bad storm came up and they were afraid the ship would tip over. So they ordered all the able-bodied men to man the oars but John was honored. He was excused from rowing because he was the father of twins on the boat. The storm eventually abated and they reached New York safely. There were no stevedores so John carried most of their earthly possession from the boat in a trunk and Mary carried the twin babies. But New York was not the goal. John knew he wanted to come to Iowa. He had heard of farms to be had by homesteading and he was interested. They did not tarry long in New York. They had a little money but not much. So he spent the most of his money for train tickets, but it was not enough. It carried them to Naperville, Illinois. When the ticket ran out, the train conductor put them off.

Now the urgent need was to find some place to stay and something to eat and a means of earning enough to provide these necessities. There were still plenty of woods, and most people burned wood for heat, so John set out to find a wood cutting job and Mary took in washing whenever possible. They managed to get along. The days passed into months and years. About 1858 little baby Bertha was born. Her life was not long nor are the dates very accurate, but it is believed she left this life about 1862.

Henry was born in 1861. He remembered in later years of his mother finding a small toy that had been Bertha’s. Christian, commonly called Chris, came in 1862, and George, in 1864.

With three little boys so near the same age, it was not easy to keep clothing in readiness. Sometimes the clothes were washed at night, but with five children besides the parents in one small sleeping room, where was there room to hang clothes to dry in the winter? There was no money for extra clothes. But this place was not where John wanted to go. He kept hearing of the open prairie where farms could be had for living on them. He was restless and wanted to go on to Iowa.

By frugality they had saved up a little money, so in about 1866 they gathered up the family and bought train tickets and started. The people on the train could not help but notice this family of lively youngsters and their parents and they visited to pass the time. Upon hearing where they were going, some of the passengers told Mary that the Native Americans would surely get them out there on the prairie and she became so frightened that she refused to go further than Cedar Falls, where they lived a year or so. John still wanted to go on. He wrote to try to sign up for a homestead but there was none. However, he could buy a farm at $1.25 per acre, which he did. Here again, in Cedar Falls, they must find a place to live and work to do. They lived in an upstairs room with no electricity and no water.  Again Mary took in washing, carrying all the water up the stairs to wash and emptied it by carrying it all down again.

Hannah was born in Cedar Falls in 1867. Sometime during that summer John hired a team and buggy and came to see the farm he had bought. It was the first place south of Ivester, a good piece of land and there were no Native Americans to be seen. He was pleased with what he saw. He went back to his family to make preparation to move them here.

The next spring they started for their new home, with oxen pulling the covered wagon and a cow tied behind the wagon. The wagon contained all of their possessions and as many of the family as were not able to walk. All the older children walked, thus relieving the already heavy wagon from their body weight.

There were few good roads and still fewer bridges so many streams must be forded. Few miles were passed in one day. Though it is not far by car now, it seemed a long ways by ox team or even by horses. On one occasion the tire came loose from the wagon wheel. They had to stop and build a fire and heat the tire and replace it; finding fuel to heat the tire was the big problem, so John sent the children to gather up cattle chips from the prairie pastures.

When they reached their new home, there was no ready house to move into but first one had to be built. How so many people found a place to sleep in so small a house is a miracle even to the modern idea.

In 1869 Charley Ernest was born, followed by Freddie in 1871. He lived but a short while. Then it became John’s task to make the little box in which to lay him away. He was buried in the family lot at the Ivester Cemetery, where others came later.

At a very early age Henry’s job was to collect the neighborhood cows together with their own and herd them all day on the prairie grass, and then return them to their owners at night. One day it seemed a very short day; it commenced to get dark fast. He was miles from home. The chickens went to roost. He started home but soon it was so dark he couldn’t see where to go. There he was alone with the cows and he didn’t know which way to go. He was very scared, not of the darkness but because he thought he had failed to bring the cows home on time. He didn’t ordinarily cry, but what else could he do? The black darkness didn’t last very long, until it began to get light again. There had been an eclipse of the sun. Bigger people than this small boy were frightened because they didn’t know the eclipse was coming.

Henry, age nine, and Chris, age seven, both tied bundles of oats and/or wheat with a wisp of straw on the platform of that wonderful invention, the harvester that cut the grain and saved the hard labor of scythe-cutting, heretofore used. These little boys had nimble fingers and soon learned to make such motion count, so they could keep the harvesting going. At nine years of age, Henry was plowing corn with a walking plow drawn by a team of oxen. One day it was hot and the flies were bad. Henry was having hard work keeping the oxen going. They wanted to brush off the flies with the corn stalks so they took off down the field and Henry could not stop them. All he could do was get help as soon as he could.

In 1874 Robert Thomas was born. He loved animals and he made friends with all of them. One day they missed him and found him asleep with a hog for a pillow. Their lives were not all work. The Ivester Church had a singing school in the evenings. Anyone could come but it was especially for the young people and they all enjoyed it. Here they learned to sing by note without benefit of an accompanying instrument. Henry, Chris, George and Hannah attended, perhaps others of the family also. Henry sang tenor and Chris, bass. The teacher evidently did a good job because these men’s voices were often heard and enjoyed in church services the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile the children were growing up, and, with six boys coming up, they would soon be able to farm more land. So when John had an opportunity to buy another farm, he bought it. It is located the first place in the second mile east of the Hardin-Grundy County line on what is now the paved highway 57 (75 now). They built a small house and a barn and two of the boys moved up there. Twice a week Hannah or Mary cooked food and brought fresh supplies to them. This went on for a number of years. John and his sons had made an agreement that if the boys stayed at home and worked till they were 21 years of age, each would receive a stipulated sum with which he could start for himself.

In the winter of 1881 George W. Smith of Hubbard came to the Ivester neighborhood to visit his lady-love, Mary Schwarck, one of the twins (or triplets) of John and Mary Schwarck. She had been a dutiful daughter and remained at home to help her mother and Hannah longer after her 21st birthday. George drove a horse and buggy some 20 miles or more, so he came with the intention of staying overnight or possibly over Sunday. But he did not count on the big snow storm that blocked the roads. When the intended staying time had elapsed, he still could not go home, but he was not overly anxious. In the meantime, he and Mary decided to be married, so she could go home with him and save that long drive over there again soon. George borrowed a clean shirt from one of Mary’s brothers and on March 16, 1881, they procured a license at the Grundy County Court House and were married by A.P. Strickler, the minister of the Ivester Church. John Dinnis and Christian Schwarck acted as witness to the ceremony.

William was now also past 21 years of age and was farming for himself though he was not married. He lived at home awhile.

It was about 1882 when the family moved from south of Ivester to the new place. The younger boys took over and the older ones moved out for themselves.

Here in 1888, John, age 70, passed away and in 1893, Mary, age 63, also passed away. This left three unmarried sons, George, Charley, and Robert, and one daughter, Hannah, though only Charley and Robert and Hannah were living at home. Charley worked away part-time. After her parents’ deaths, Hannah kept house for Rob until she married. Meanwhile, George and Charley had married. Rob, together with a hired man, kept bachelor’s hall awhile, then Rob also married, and all of the big family had homes of their own. Rob remained on the same farm the rest of his life.

John Dinnis’ arrival. When John and Mary Schwarck left Germany, they left behind Mary’s son, John, who was raised by foster parents by the name of Dinnis. So he had assumed that name, also. In 18XX, he jumped ship from a German ship in New Orleans and came to St. Louis. There he wrote Mary a letter saying where he was and that he would like to come if she wanted him and if she would send him the money, which she did.

(To be continued, many generations to come…)

My Mother’s Gifts for a Lifetime

creative non fiction

Author’s note: My mother passed away in February of this year. Below is a tribute I wrote for my mother 10 years ago. If it fits for your relationship, please feel free to use this as a template if you would like to write a tribute to your mother. Ten years went by fast and now I wish would have written something for my mother every year. 

Dear Mom,

Whyoung marvylat an amazing journey you have been on for the past 70 years. I’m proud to have known you for 39 of those 70 years. Time marches at a swift pace, even for me. I feel rushed by the way the clock ticks, and I have so many things to say and do before it stops. I also want to believe that if I put off saying and doing the things that are necessary it will make the clock tick longer and slower. But that is only an illusion.

Now that I’m a mother, I understand some of what I may have put you through. My life with my son is a series of unending days of worry. There are also many moments of joy, and I hope I have given some of those to you, too.

lighthouse-faron-spanish-englishLike my son does to me, I know I take you for granted. But I do so in the same way a person sailing a ship takes for granted the lighthouse on the shoreline. In the storms, the ship’s captain doesn’t consider that the lighthouse can be harmed by lightening, rain, and wind, but only that it serves to illuminate the way so the ship won’t be damaged. But of course, time and storms wear away at even a rock-solid lighthouse.

I’ve wanted to thank you for a long time for all of the things you have given me, and I don’t mean the material items although they have been appreciated and generous, too.

I’m grateful for these gifts:

My creativity
My love of books
My ability to recognize a solid, good person
My sense of family
My work ethic
My enjoyment of friends; and
My independent spirit.

My list could go on but these are the best aspects of my life to which you directly contributed.

Believe it or not, Friday night laundry was one of my favorite outings because I knew you would take me to the library.

I’m also happy for all of the field trips and birthday parties you organized for my friends and me.

I think a reason I’ve picked people for friends whom I genuinely like and are down-to-earth is because you showed me how with your friends.

We’re the kind of mother and daughter who finds it hard to utter the more tender feelings we have for each other. But I recognize your actions as the manifestations of those feelings. It meant more than I can ever say that you drove all that way from Iowa to New Mexico to visit us.

You’ve commented that turning 70 has kind of bothered you. It kind of bothers me, too, because it reminds me our time with each other is getting shorter. I understand you didn’t want to be the reason for us leaving New Mexico to move back to Iowa, but you were a big factor in that choice. I have no regrets about it as far as that aspect goes. I feel grateful my family and I can have this time with you.

This last year has been one of learning about a large unknown segment of your life. I know it has brought up a myriad of painful feelings for you. To  me, I find it adds depth to you as an interesting woman who is more than just my mother.

Whatever our time is left for each other–and I’m counting on it being many more years–I hope you will share even more with me about who you are.

And no matter how you feel about your name, I think Grandma was right to give it to you. You are marvelous, Marvyl Louise.

I love you very much,

Your daughter,
Brenda

Love is the Answer and You Know That for Sure

creative non fiction, Social Trends

john-lennon-mind-games-singleToday would have been my father’s 83rd birthday, and as a gift for the life he helped create, I indulged in a reverie of an artist at a Houston art gallery, who too, no longer has birthdays with his family.

My father fought in a war and John Lennon protested a war. And after my father fought in a war, he protested them, too, and healed himself by growing tomatoes and giving them to neighbors. John wrote songs and drew pictures to order his thoughts about the chaos of life.  The artist and musician had as much influence on me as the man who was the warrior and the gardener. And in my youth, the warrior gardener took his “Working Class Hero” dollars and bought many of the vinyl albums for the daughter who loved the musician who sang about “Give Peace a Chance.”

I wasn’t prepared for my reaction at the visual reminders of a nation’s youth and later its sorrow when John was killed.  Then, I saw the piece and the tears in my eyes convinced me it should be mine.

The sales woman inquired about my interest and, of course, it came down to a business transaction. Because really that’s what the world is that we live in even though “all you need is love.” I was prepared to pay and asked about options other than the 12-months-same-as-cash advertised in the store. So the petite woman with the beaming smile said she would inquire on my behalf.

She returned and said “yes, it was okay to pay for ½ today and to pay the other ½ when I picked up the piece” on Tuesday.

Until the owner of the Vegas art road show overheard and in front of all of the people in the gallery shouted “NOOOO!” at the saleswoman. And me, the woman with a visceral and automatic reaction to bullies, immediately walked up to the small circle in the middle of the gallery and interjected “you are very rude.” And the 6’2”, 230-pound man said quietly and calmly to me that he was speaking to the petite brunette. And I stood a little taller and said to him that he was speaking to me through her because his answer was about my question and that he was exceedingly rude. And he apologized in a calm manner to me and I redirected him and suggested he apologize to the woman at whom he shouted. He explained his rationale as to why my proposal was not workable. And his reason for his no was not offensive yet his communication of it to the sales lady was which I reiterated for him. And then he replied, “It’s not necessary for me to apologize to her, she works for me.”

And he suddenly walked off and the third person in the small circle inquired if I wanted to pay by credit card. And I told her that I would express my response to her in the same way the gentleman expressed his answer to my question and that was “NOOOO!”

real loveBut I wandered to the front of the store where my tears first began to fall and considered the circumstances of the day I had planned to distract myself from the loss of my father and mother in the springtime. And the petite brunette came up to me and gave me a book of John’s that he had co-written with his son, Sean, as a way to make up for the scene. I apologized to her that she was the subject of such bad behavior and the woman and I hugged.  And after all was said, I decided to buy the piece because “love is the answer and you know that for sure.

Cleaning up

creative non fiction

People need loving the most when they deserve it the least. 
John Harrigan

Paul and Rick fought on the Tuesday before winter break and again on the Wednesday that classes resumed. The first argument was over the cigarette butts. Paul flicked the last of his cigarette on the ground even though a black metal canister was right beside him. Rick, the building’s maintenance man, walked by just as the butt landed on the ground. In a polite way for Rick, but a rude way to Paul, Rick barked that Paul should use the ashtray. Paul shouted where Rick could put the ash tray.

The second argument continued the first over the disposal method of cigarettes but was also fueled by Paul’s inattentiveness to clean spaces. Rick had just mopped the floor and Paul walked through it, rather than around.

As the full-time maintenance man, Rick walks a tight rope of self-restraint in word and action. His job is menial enough–unplugging toilets, changing lights, cleaning up vomit–without people deliberately and immediately wrecking what he just finished wiping up. On this second day of blatant defiance of common courtesy, Rick ignored self-restraint and came to our office. He complained loudly and expletively to us about Paul. He demanded we do something to stop Paul or he would.

I agreed with Rick and understood his frustration at our students. My coworkers and I wished Paul would quit being rude. But we didn’t know how to stop him or any of the other inconsiderate students in the Adult Learning Center. Many students ignore the rules and procedures. But for these two incidents, Paul was the student caught at it.

We told Rick we would talk to Paul. The Adult Learning Center’s director took Paul aside and said we would have to call the police if he acted this way again and, especially, if he threatened Rick. She advised Paul to avoid Rick and save himself from further trouble.

Paul is one of an endless stream of students in Adult Basic Education Centers who hope to make up in basic education skills what they didn’t learn when they were kids. So many of them, though, are missing more than just the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Dozens arrive without homes, teeth, cars, jobs, food, and hope. We try to give them encouragement, but we know the center is here because society doesn’t know what else to do with them nor does it want to do anything-meaningful at least-with them. It’s a daytime holding place. We don’t know where or to whom some students go to at night.

I understand some of the societal causes of their problems, but my critical, judgmental voice tells me that life shouldn’t be that hard for them. I don’t vocalize it as Rick does, but I’m thinking the same thing: “Use the ashtray. Walk around where he’s mopped. Learn your multiplication tables. Why do you go out of your way to make life more difficult for the rest of us? Can’t you act like you remember even one thing you learned in kindergarten?”

All these thoughts bulleted through my head as Paul walked past my desk. And after he walked by I didn’t give Paul another thought. For emotional protection, I don’t think very deeply about our students. I don’t ask them personal questions nor do I tell them about my life. And they don’t ask me either. They know what they don’t have and they don’t need me to remind them.

After I finished working I went home and didn’t think any more about Paul and Rick until I came back after the weekend. Sadly, that Friday, Paul didn’t think any more deeply about himself than what I had. He hung himself in his basement bedroom where his mother found him.

My boss and Paul’s teacher went to the funeral. Rick and I stayed behind. My boss said the minister didn’t know many personal details of Paul and didn’t have a lot to say about him in the eulogy. She shook her head.

I tried to learn more about Paul by reading the newspaper’s obituary. A professional portrait was used in it. It showed a smiling, dark haired young man wearing a suit and tie. Pictures probably do speak a thousand words. But these were words of happiness and good health that were from sometime in Paul’s past. In the weeks we knew Paul, he wore only faded blue jeans and worn t-shirts. He rarely combed his hair. My mental picture of Paul was one of anger, defiance, and loneliness.

Rick came into our office after the funeral. He consoled us, or maybe himself, with the comment, “he’s in a better place now.” He didn’t express any remorse about his feelings toward Paul. But I wondered if he regretted his harsh judgment like I regretted mine. We talked a few more minutes and then we all got back to work.

The next day I came to work and Rick, the maintenance man, was mopping the floor. This day the floor would stay clean.

Author’s note: this is an essay I wrote about an incident I experienced when I worked in Adult Basic Education a few years ago.
your life matters

My Wabi-Sabi Volvo Life

creative non fiction, meditation, thoughts for living

My heart sank as I sat in the group room with my 10 clients on federal probation. I was working as an intern for a mental health practice leading substance abuse recovery groups for people who were reclaiming their lives after serving drug trafficking sentences. As we discussed the triggers that caused them to use, we heard the pelting of hail. We anxiously shifted in our chairs wanting to bolt out and take our rides to shelter. Instead, we talked about honesty in submitting our insurance claims the next day and my clients shared tales of acquaintances they had that they knew would drive their car across town just to have it hit by hail so they could collect money. We mutually agreed before we left session that our hail-damaged vehicles would not be a trigger to use drugs or drink beer.

The Volvo I aspire to drive.

The Volvo I aspire to drive.

I had just bought my 2006 Volvo a few months previous. I was proud that I spent a conservative amount of money on what others judge as a luxury model of upscale liberals who want to make a visible statement of their political views.   I wanted to drive the European-branded car because of its reputation for safety and durability, perhaps fulfilling another aspect of the Volvo-driving stereotype. I was working part-time as a member representative for a small business lobbying group and I traveled long distances for the position.  My husband and I purchased my Volvo sight unseen from Texas Direct in Houston and had it shipped to the eastern New Mexico town where Republicans are as common as the tumbleweeds that rolled across the region’s desert highways.

As a second-hand car, it required a few minor repairs that we addressed. But the pummeling of ice rocks gave the Volvo a forlorn look all the way around. Within a few days of the storm, I stood in line with my clients at the insurance adjuster site. I knew, though, I wouldn’t be using the funds to replace the trunk lid, the hood, or the roof. Instead, my husband and I decided to use the money to pay off the loan we had on the car.

The Volvo I actually drive.

The Volvo I actually drive.

If circumstances had been different, we probably would have made sure my Volvo was gussied up to its original sheen. But at the same time I was finishing up my graduate school internship, I was also moving to another house so my mother could live with us. A bankruptcy listing, the house needed even more attention than my Volvo to bring it to a tolerable working condition. Paying off the Volvo freed up several hundred dollars each month to pour into the house which we bought on faith that we could afford because we were following the fifth Biblical commandment of “honor your parents.”

The Urban Dictionary satirically characterizes Volvo owners this way:  “Although the cars are pricey to buy and maintain, Volvo drivers see them as works of art–well-made machinery that protects their passengers, other drivers, and even pedestrians from the hazards of the road.”

I do see my Volvo as a work of art and I have had difficulty wrapping my mind around how all the dime- and quarter-sized dents all over the car have added to its beauty. To console myself, I have embraced the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi which declares beauty to be all things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

Wabi-Sabi is a frame of mind I continue to develop for the tenuous aspects of my life which refuse to fit in the picture frames I constructed for them. My Volvo is a material manifestation of how my illusions are shattered by the reality of pell-mell running through the world.

Since the initial introduction of Wabi-Sabi through my Volvo, I’ve had other episodes of it. I parked under a tree where birds did their business on it right before I was to meet with a woman I wanted to impress. Recently, I chose a side road and a stranger’s driveway to turn around so I could be headed in the right direction. The driveway’s incline was so steep it tore off the right side of the front bumper. My husband wrangled it back into place. But repairing the bumper came several hours after driving my Volvo around town, me oblivious to the damage, and included an exhibition in the car pool line of my son’s school where many parents drive shiny BMWs, Lexuses, and Mercedes Benzes. None of those cars have hail dents or bird poop that I’ve noticed.

According to an Utne Reader article, “To discover Wabi-Sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly. Wabi-Sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through Wabi-Sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.

Today, when I drive my Volvo I realize I have put on the full armor of a Wabi-Sabi life. If I encounter people who are only living life on the surface, then they may look at me in one of two ways: either enviously or derisively. They’ll experience envy if all they see in me is the status sign the Volvo represents or view me derisively if they judge me for not repairing the external skin which betrays the fine mechanics of the interior.

Sometimes I react to the judgment and I’m tempted to say “wait, you don’t understand. You don’t know everything I’ve been through.” Then, I realize explanations make no difference to people who live on the superficialities of life. And then I remember that this desire to connect with people who aren’t capable of deep connections is also Wabi-Sabi.

And I let it go.