The Lost Sisters – Braid Elaboration

My mom and her little sister Gertrude

When I was growing up my mom talked constantly about the tragedy of losing her two younger sisters in 1936, when she was about thirteen years old. The only female left in her home besides her mother, she always felt that her life would have been better if only she’d had someone else like her, another girl, rather than being sandwiched between four brothers. Gertrude, who was three years younger than her, developed rheumatic fever, likely following a strep or scarlet fever infection. Mom said she had a hole in her heart. I suspect she more likely had a leaky valve. Most probably finances prevented my grandparents from having a common childhood infection like strep or scarlet treated, often the precursors to rheumatic fever. Antibiotics had been around for about ten years. Did they even know about them in the tiny world they occupied? I’ll never have the answer to these questions. I know that Gertrude wound up bedridden before she died, and that mom did what she could to help her. Her lasting memory was how awful it felt to kiss her sister goodbye, her lips on that cold cheek. What I didn’t know was that mom carried Gertrude’s braid with her for the next 78 years, from her childhood into her old age, through every move she made in her life. I found that braid wrapped in a handkerchief in a plastic bag in a dresser drawer a few months before she died at almost ninety-two years old.

I only have one more damaged photo of my aunt Gertrude. She might have been four or five. As it is undated, her age at the time will remain a mystery. I don’t know if there are any photos of mom’s other sister, Norma, who died just months apart from Gertrude. She was an infant, about 6 months old. From what mom remembered, the death was unexpected and swift. To me it sounded like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome event, a term that wouldn’t come into use until decades later. Mom also said that her eldest brother had dropped Norma on the floor at some dim point in time before she died. I hope that teenaged boy never felt responsible for possibly contributing to such a tragedy. I suppose she could have suffered a subdural hematoma from a dramatic fall. Regardless, her little life ended too soon. When mom shared her vivid memory of this loss, she couldn’t have anticipated the transposition of that memory into my mind – an image of Norma being taken out of their apartment in a suitcase. A chilling snapshot of a dreadful moment in time.

The blurry photo of my lost aunt Gertrude

Reinforcing my mom’s wistfulness for her absent sisters was the fact that my grandmother, reeling from these agonizing losses, left her home in Chicago for awhile, to be with her own sisters who lived in Detroit. I can imagine the power of that symbolism, my mom realizing that the solace afforded by those sisters was something she would never experience in her life. The power of her feelings stayed with her. I grew up knowing that having sisters were a critical component of a healthy, happy life. But is anything ever so simple? At the same time mom was shaping my worldview with this fundamental precept about the importance of sisters, she was waging a bitter campaign against my father’s only sister, Sylvia.

Sylvia, my dad’s sister, second from left on the couch

I don’t know much about my dad’s family. Dad wasn’t a big talker. Most of what I learned came to me from mom, through her definitely hostile lens toward her in-laws. I never knew my dad’s parents. My grandfather died when dad was only eight years old, leaving his mother, his older sister and his younger brother on their own. Dad took on the classic role of “man of the house” at an early age. Because he was only nineteen when he fell madly in love with my mom, his family was decidedly disappointed that he was moving on from them to start his married life, abandoning their family unit. Mom said she was poorly received, especially by dad’s mom and Sylvia. Those two relocated from Chicago to Sioux City, Iowa at some undetermined time. During the first eight years of my parents’ marriage, they had my older brother and sister while living with my maternal grandparents in Chicago. I was born in 1951 and eight months later, our family moved to Iowa so dad could join a business venture with Sylvia’s husband. His mother had recently died there, shortly before I was born. Mom told me that dad remarked that she was carrying his mother’s name in my as yet unborn state. Her name was Rae which my mother hated – thus I became Renee, after someone I never knew.

My grandmother Rae, for whom I’m named with my father

I don’t remember anything about being with those people. All I know is that mom detested Sylvia who she felt was bossy and jealous of my parents’ relationship. Mom said Sylvia pushed her into cutting her long hair to make her look less attractive and that she couldn’t stand watching Sylvia snuggle with me. The business venture, selling water conditioners and farm implements, took dad away from home, leaving Sylvia in charge. At least that’s what I was told. After several years passed, mom was overwhelmed by being home with now four of us kids, in an environment which made her miserable. She told dad she wanted to move back to Chicago and hoped he’d come too. When I was seven we all left Sioux City. Contact with Sylvia was minimal and dad’s family life became mom’s parents and most especially her younger brother’s. His own siblings were never close again. Mom felt righteous about having driven a wedge between dad and his sister as she thought Sylvia was a terrible person. The dissonance of that attitude with her own beliefs was not addressed.

Sylvia and her husband at my wedding

I saw that side of our family at a few weddings, never getting to know my three cousins except in the most peripheral way. Mom came first for my dad and never spoke about missing his siblings. As I grew up, I marveled at the dichotomy between mom’s feelings about the importance of sisters while never thinking twice about separating dad from his family. She held on to her bitterness. When dad died, one of her first statements within minutes was telling us that Sylvia wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral. I never forgot that jaw-dropping remark. In my adult life, I’ve made a few attempts to locate my paternal cousins but after sending out a few inquiries, I gave up. I don’t know if any of them ever looked for me. Their side of the family saga remains a mystery.

Michael’s parents

The ideal sister paradigm I held as a standard was further challenged by my entry into Michael’s family. His mother, a privileged, superficial person with whom I had no synergy, was the older of two sisters. By the time I met her, whatever relationship she might have had with her younger sister was seriously damaged. Those two spent more time not speaking to each other than they did communicating. In all the decades I was with Michael, I only saw his aunt Eleanor and her family perhaps half a dozen times. When we got married they didn’t attend the wedding. The irony of so little contact was that Michael really felt more compatible with his aunt than he did with his own mother. I couldn’t find a single photo of her in the hundreds that we collected through our life. This fracture carried over to the next generation. Michael had an older sister. Betsy was a high strung person who despite her fervent wish to be as unlike her mother as possible, was in actuality, her virtual clone. She was hostile toward Michael most of their young life. As they matured, they each tried to make efforts to establish a rapport, but invariably she wound up in an adversarial posture in even the most trivial situations. Mostly they were unable to develop intimacy, each circling the emotional chasm between them. Their dad also had a sister whom he rarely saw. When she died, he didn’t attend her funeral, causing his only niece to permanently sever ties with him.

Michael and his sister Betsy
Betsy and Michael at our wedding

Their family had no role models for bridging the issues that can separate siblings. Each of them had a desire to improve their relationship but they lacked the necessary skills. I remember talking about about all these less than ideal kinships between the siblings with my mother, as I was curious about her ability to still believe that having a sister would automatically ensure a better life. She was somehow able to hang on to her childhood dream while acknowledging the more common wreckage that was happening in our families. That ultimately included our nuclear family.

Me with my three siblings – I am the third oldest.

When I was born, my brother was almost eight and my older sister was three months past five years old. My younger sister came along when I was two and a half. The gap between the older two and us younger ones grew more pronounced as we grew. Their life experiences were so different from ours. But aside from the chronological gap, I always had a sense that my older sister wasn’t thrilled that I’d ever shown up. She was remote and highly critical of me. As a child and adolescent I found this distance confusing. My approach to the discomfort was to feel helpless about her in addition to making sure that I never made my younger sister feel the same way. The truth was that she and I shared some common traits but fundamentally were the classic oil and water mixture who could never blend together. As years passed, the older two siblings were moving into adult activities while we younger ones were still just kids. My mom always said she felt like she’d had two different families.

Me and my sisters – I am thirteen.

There was never a time during our youth when we we were fully estranged but the levels of closeness between these “families”was palpably different. Eventually life took the older two into marriages while my younger sister and I were sharing our youth. While we were always in contact we didn’t experience each other’s lives. By the time I was an adult, my sister had moved away from Chicago and never returned. My brother lived closer to my parents but his life was fraught with emotional difficulties which weren’t conducive to peaceful times with anyone. Eventually my younger sister moved to the community where I lived and some years later, my parents joined us as well. Because they were aging, I organically stepped into the role of caregiver, supplanting the natural progression of responsibilities often conferred by birth order. As mom and dad’s needs changed, the dynamic between me and my older siblings declined precipitously. I always felt that each of them always had issues with me but as my parents became ill, I had no time to consider those feelings. My dad died and my mom required care. Having my younger sister was a good thing but there was distance and vastly differing views between me and the others. Ultimately I became further remote from both of them. My brother died in 2015, a few months before my mother. My older sister and I may as well have been from different planets. Our relationship essentially disappeared after my mother’s death. Despite all the divergence I’d seen from mom’s idealized sister scenario I never thought that could happen in my personal life.

Mom, my younger sister and me

For years, I’ve thought about all the lost sisters, especially the ones with whom I thought I could’ve had a relationship. I did try. But my efforts in the past brought nothing but failure and negative feelings. Both Michael’s sister and my older one have birthdays within a day of each other in early February. Each year when those days arrive, I have the urge to contact them, to try finding a way to repair the breaches. But as I’ve aged, I’ve recognized that my mom’s idyllic childhood belief was something she couldn’t practice in reality. Neither could I. Because I’ve had a lifelong successful relationship with my younger sister, I know excellent familial ties are real. But they don’t always happen, even when good intentions exist. Reality can be so sad and anyone can be lost. One of life’s harsh facts.

Primal : The Four of Us

November, 2013

I could never forget the day we took this photo. Thanksgiving, November 28th, 2013, just over two weeks after receiving the dreadful news that not only had Michael’s remission ended, but that without treatment, he had 2-3 months to live, and with treatment, maybe a year. We weren’t sure we could get through what was traditionally our favorite holiday. Ultimately, we decided that the opportunity to gather our family one more time before we disappeared into the uncertainty of chemo world was worth the effort. I still have no idea how I prepared all that food which was remarkably delicious. I guess muscle memory is real. Although lots of crying punctuated that day, the normalcy of sharing our holiday with family and close friends allowed for plenty of laughs and singing. We were lucky enough to have three more Thanksgivings as a family, with Michael miraculously outliving his dire prognosis.

I’m not one of those people who glosses over the past or pretends that my life was like one of those holiday letters which reports all the great trips and events that happened in the previous year. When I receive one of those I always wonder about the unmentioned parts, the ones that no one wants to tell any outsiders. Is it really possible to constantly have only a non-stop upside of life? In my experience, the complexity of living in groups, whether the people are related or not, always entails conflicts, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and disappointments. Thankfully, those hard parts can be offset by the positive emotions and events which form the glue that bonds individuals into their version of a family unit. In this most reflective time in my life, I’ve been pondering how my family unit got to be the tight-knit intimate crew it is, even with Michael having been absent for almost five years. Because for me, despite my kids’ partners and the fact that I have grandchildren, what will always feel primal, essential, is still the four of us.

Michael and me, about 50 years ago and

Almost 50 years ago, in April, 1972, I moved in with Michael, after almost 8 months of being almost instantaneous best friends. We both knew that we had some magic between us. Flipping from friendship into lovers and partners was scary but we both knew whatever had happened between us didn’t come along every day. We were so young, just 20 and 22 years old. During our first four years together we plowed through the process of learning each other in the practical ways that are the underpinnings of daily life. Dazzle aside, the key to a successful long term relationship is whether the mundane is manageable. The power of our connection never disappeared but sometimes when we annoyed each other. We needed tools to address our issues and after we developed those, we got married. Neither one of us ever wanted to fall away from the other. A few years later, we started trying to get pregnant. That took longer than we expected. Michael was anxious to have a family, hoping he could build a more successful one than his original one. Initially I wasn’t as eager as he was but as time passed and we weren’t successful, I eventually went all in, hoping we’d get lucky. And we did, welcoming our daughter in August, 1981. We were so ready to share our life with this new baby. We’d had plenty of time being just us so there was little frustration about no longer being able to have the universe revolve around our needs. Our staggering love for this kid was unquestionably enhanced by the depth of the feelings we shared as partners. The two of us were besotted.

Of course we experienced all the expected difficulties incumbent on working parents in those early years. Childhood illnesses, adjusting to day care, learning to understand who our kid was and what her needs were, along with discovering who we were as parents – all that happened in our life. I guess the operative word is “expected.” We were lucky to have most of our family issues confined to a normal range. Michael and I were both pretty opinionated and known for scrapping with each other, but fundamentally, we agreed on the key issues which can become problematic as people adapt to parenting. The good news was that we really liked each other and our kid. We put family at the center of our daily life while making sure we made time to continue nurturing us. We hoped to add a sibling to this picture when our daughter was approaching age three, but that effort took longer than we’d hoped. Our son was born when she was a few months past age five. He was a remarkably sweet baby but that fact had little impact on our feisty five year old, used to being the center of the universe.

Our daughter wasn’t thrilled to give up one shred of center stage to her brother. Michael and I marveled at how much attention little people needed, especially as both of us grew up feeling we each could have used more within our own families of origin. We worked hard to be balanced about providing enough recognition for each of the kids, while simultaneously teaching them about realistic expectations, sharing and the importance of support and loyalty to each other. For the most part, kids are fundamentally me-focused. But we figured we’d hammer away at our values while they were young enough to be influenced more by us than their peers and the bigger world. Both of us felt like the early years were opportunities for us to press our values, easier to manage while we were still the key figures in their lives.

My daughter hates this photo – her brother was vociferously arguing that “I was here first, pronounced “fust,” which had little if any effect. A moment frozen in time.

Reporting that all our grandiose ideas were easily digested by the kids and that our life was idyllic would be nice. However, we were living in the real world which meant that every day had the potential for introducing complications and challenges for all of us. I’d say that generally speaking, we had an easy go as parents. Our kids were healthy and bright, funny and kind. Their sibling rivalry wasn’t as intense as it might have been because of their age gap. They liked us, which was nice, but that didn’t ensure that they were always angelic. They argued and jostled for attention. Their rooms were messy and they needed constant prodding to do their chores. They could be selfish and insensitive to each other and to us. Michael was impatient and hot-tempered. Miraculously, he was never physically aggressive, just loud. My patience usually lasted longer before all the refereeing wore me down. I sometimes felt that I shouldn’t have bothered to plan fun outings when the constant bickering spoiled my time off and reduced me to tears, an interesting situation as I was never a big crier. Parenting brings out new aspects in your personality, at least the one you thought you had before making children. But, despite the hassles we persevered. As the kids grew, they couldn’t have been more different in terms of their personal styles, but they shared similar interests. When they weren’t being annoying, you could tell that they felt affection for each other. When our four year old son missed Halloween because he had pneumonia, our nine year old daughter collected treats for him. When he was seven and weeping with empathy at the plight of The Elephant Man, she was the big, sympathetic twelve year old, piled with Michael and me on the couch, providing comfort. She said she thought he was a pest but an endearing one. He, on the other hand, wanted to do everything she did, as she was his idol, albeit a mean one some of the time. When she felt wronged by anyone during those complicated early teen years, he was her loyal supporter. Each one had emergency room visits in the middle of the night during that time, and both chose to be there for the injured one. As a family, we spent a lot of time together.

Because of their age gap, the kids were never in the same school at the same time. In some ways that was a good thing as they were never treading on the other’s turf. That also meant their lives were more parallel than entwined. We spent time talking to them about how in the future, their relationship would be the longest and most sustaining of their lives if they prioritized each other. As they got older, they irritated each other less and supported each other more. They embraced each other’s friends. As they grew, it became clear that they’d absorbed our concept of family and were truly able to appreciate the strong sense of intimacy which was an extension of the powerful bond between Michael and me.

In 1999, our daughter graduated from high school and went off to college. Our son was in his last year of middle school. These two teenagers had sorted out their childhood issues and had turned into each other’s fans. Meanwhile Michael and I were in a transitional period in our lives. He was getting ready to embark on a new career, trading in his job as music store owner for teaching U.S. history. I was going to be holding the economic fort while my entire family was in school. Despite that pressure, I think that time solidified our family unit. As life pulled all of us in different directions, we tried to ensure that we blocked out family time when we could all be together. We appreciated the sense of refuge and connection that was obvious when we were together. We all liked each other’s company. Sometimes families can feel so awkward and uncomfortable. Ours was relaxed. We were all on each other’s teams.

Of course we all had problems, issues that required attention. That’s how life works. But the relief we felt in our family bubble exceeded the hopes Michael and I had for our family. We showed up for each other and continued to grow our bond. Our son joined us when we went off to follow our daughter in her athletic career in college. When he went to Washington to compete in the National Spelling Bee, she flew in from school to be there for him. We took a short winter trip to a state park every year and another every summer to a favorite destination on Lake Michigan. We laughed, we swam, we hiked, we ate and we talked. We had the good fortune of evolving in the same directions which made the potential friction attributable to age, political and personal differences minimal, at worst. The icing on our family cake occurred in 2003 when our daughter graduated from college and chose to pursue her law degree at our hometown university. She based her decision on the fact that she wanted to spend more time sharing experiences with her brother as the age difference between them was less significant than when they were little kids. Her presence back in town provided opportunities to deepen their connection while being a huge bonus for Michael and me. He was particularly moved since his own relationship with his older sister was pretty minimal. He felt so proud that despite his difficult youth, he’d managed to get the family he’d wished for since he was a boy.

Those law school years which coincided with the last few of our son’s high school life were special for all of us. Every family doesn’t have the luxury of having their high-achieving kids make choices about their futures which include staying close to home. That’s exactly what happened to us. When our son graduated from high school in 2005, the four of us took off on a two week road trip to New Mexico where we stayed at a conservation teaching ranch with one of our oldest friends from college.

We had a fabulous time, especially sweet as our days as a foursome were coming to an end. Our daughter had already met her future husband. Michael and I wanted both of the kids to be as fortunate as we’d been in finding big love. That fall our son went off to college, just a few hours’ drive away from home. Our girl was living in town, proceeding toward her professional life. We saw each other frequently. The following year we threw a wedding for our daughter; the one after that we all headed to St. Louis to share our son’s 21st birthday. Life had definitely changed, as it should. Michael and I were back to living on our own. We weren’t sad empty-nesters. We well remembered those first ten years in our life and easily transitioned back into that couple mindset.

The world continued to spin. My daughter and her husband set down deep roots in our hometown. They have two kids, satisfying careers and a house right across the street from ours, where years ago, we brought our baby girl home from the hospital. Our son graduated from college and after a year off, came back home to pursue his PhD. Although that took him to the tropics for half the year, he was home for the other half. He made himself present enough to become a beloved uncle, an intimate part of his nephews’ lives.

We went through the scary five years of Michael’s cancer. The four of us were together when his death came in 2017.

Two days after Michael died, the three of us went out for a meal. Our son, in the midst of a post-doc, was going to be leaving soon to continue his work. We decided to take a bleary-eyed selfie as we were leaving the restaurant and wound up with an eerie white light just over our shoulders. We all thought it was Michael, making his presence known. During these past years, our son has conducted research, taught university classes and found his life partner. He joins our daughter in having the big love we wished for both our kids. Our grandchildren are growing fast and I lament how many wonderful experiences Michael has missed that he would so dearly have loved.

I am moving forward along with everyone else. I still miss Michael constantly but I’ve used all my coping skills to get the most I can out of every day, especially knowing how much he wanted to lead a meaningful life, and for me to have one as well. I have a busy mind and often wonder whether I’ll ever get through the long list of assignments I’ve given myself before my time is finished. My kids and I live enmeshed. No matter where they are, on almost every day, they touch base with me and frequently with each other. For us that is normal. I’m grateful that I’ve developed a loving relationship with my son-in-law and that the foundation for a similar one has already begun with my son’s partner. I love my grandchildren. That said, in my deepest core, I think my most primal sense of myself in the universe will forever revolve around the four of us. Aside from the cosmic connection that still binds me to Michael, we are all tumbled together in what we called the family pile. A forever gift.

Wrinkles in Time

I was twelve years old when I read “A Wrinkle in Time.” This fanciful book, which posits that people have the ability to pass through dimensions and time, was awarded the Newbery medal, which honors distinguished contributions to children’s literature. Always an ambitious reader, I’d assigned myself the task of reading all the Newbery books dating back to 1922. Generally a pretty grounded kid, the science fiction/fantasy genres were not my go-to-first choices in literature, but even back then, I wondered at the possibilities in the inconceivably huge universe, full of mystery and largely so unknown. I also saw the film “The Time Machine” in the early ‘60’s. I remember thinking that I’d never want to travel forward because the future might be too terrifying. But I frequently thought about how great it would be to go backwards, to witness events as they actually happened and to do the good stuff one more time.

I thought of wrinkles in time with a tongue-in-cheek smirk on my face this afternoon, when I opened a handmade oak box, the one with a cecropia moth embedded below a thick plastic layer on its lid. I gifted Michael the box in the early 1970’s. I remembered being unable to part with this small but heavy chest when I was going through Michael’s stuff after his death. He was an oak lover who cherished anything made from his favorite natural material. I’d decided to use it as a storage container for my letters from my always-missed friend Fern, along with the condolence cards and letters I’d received after Michael died.

Today, once again at the apparently never-ending task of downsizing, I am speculating as to whether I will ever get to the state called “minimalist.” As the years zip along, I make progress, but living in the same place for 44 years has allowed for quite an accumulation of stuff. I still have so much left to sort through, despite my best efforts. Meanwhile I’m aware that my physical wrinkles are increasing with age, which of course is expected as bodies show the wear of time. The other wrinkles of my past, the emotional and psychological ones, are deepening as well, including those that exist below, and perhaps beyond the dimensions I occupy in my current life. Although still pretty grounded, I allow for more fantasies about the great unknown, mostly because of inexplicable experiences that dot the landscape of my life. Have I altered my memories over time? What have I forgotten? What about the strange moments I’ve never been able to fully explain? I’m sure there are scientific discoveries that will come long after I’m gone which will provide answers for some of my questions. For now, curious about what’s in those more intangible wrinkles, I popped that box open, searching for clues.

I know that some people would’ve dumped these missives from the past. I just can’t do that. The oldest ones are approaching 60 years old. They are part of my history. I think that one day my kids will be fascinated to flesh out their understanding of who we were, based on the light shed from the messages I’ve tucked away. They’ll also remember bits of themselves, caught in a snapshot, a moment. In the bowels of a downstairs closet are tubs of letters, apology notes and greeting cards from them to us. In addition, as they became regular technology users, I started printing their emails so certain priceless exchanges wouldn’t be lost. No one appointed me curator of family artifacts but apparently I have a gene for this role.

Emails folder

I went through an unearthing experience like the one I imagine in my kids’ future, with a more paltry collection of letters my mom had carried around for years. In my case, the found letters created more confusion than clarity. I suspect that my mom found these mixed in with my grandmother’s photos after gram died in 1982.

That she had them was interesting as my grandmother was illiterate, something which astounded me years ago and still does. I knew her as a very smart woman who managed to pass her citizenship exam orally in her late ‘70’s. The idea that she accepted her life shut out from the written word is hard to assimilate. Although no one could ever call her submissive, she conformed to the woman’s traditional second class status accepted in the old country. My grandfather, who I don’t believe was anywhere close to her rival in intelligence, did nothing to help her past those outmoded mores. Those two were first cousins whose family members were and still are, tangled in a confused mess of complicated relationships. When I found this stack of fragile letters and postcards in my mom’s albums, I was determined to find out who’d written them to which person, hoping to understand all the mysterious connections. Mom remembered letters arriving at her home during the 1930’s, years after my grandparents had emigrated from Poland separately, in 1913 and 1920. By the late 1930’s, communication from Europe ceased. My mom has sparse information about the lost family. Through a circuitous route, I connected with a sophisticated translator in Berlin who was able to deconstruct these mashes of Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. The author of them seems to have been my grandfather’s mother/my grandmother’s aunt. A mundane litany of daily problems, illnesses and queries about life in the U.S., they shed little life on the mysterious family relationships and in fact, brought up the possibilities of more unknown family members. Mom said her parents rarely discussed the past with her. The letters remain evocative of a faraway life, much like the old photos of people I’ll never identify. My unknown relations.

Who were they?
Mysteries
Maybe my grandfather’s brother?

The letters I unearthed from my own life today took me back to slices of experience that burst from a flat, one-dimensional memory into vibrant technicolor reels spinning off the written page. With the keyboard having virtually replaced long-hand, the surprise in looking at pages of cursive is how they instantly evoke the person who penned them. No anonymous keystroke can compare to the unique response handwriting elicits in sussing out the individual wielding a pen. I selected letters which at the briefest glance, instantly conveyed authorship. Fern’s backhand, for example, the mark of a classic lefty, although over years, her handwriting changed. I felt those changes reflected her deteriorating emotional state. Michael’s flowing strokes, so reminiscent of his relaxed, lounging behavior. My friend Dennis, intermittently my boyfriend, whose handwriting reflected his training as an architect. My mother’s dramatic spikes. My own classic penmanship, honed by hours of practice in Miss Kittle’s Penmanship workbooks. The styles alone drew me into distant places.

But of course content is everything. I am steeped in the emotional life I’ve built up over decades. I require no external validation for my feelings. Still, there is something remarkable about having a concrete representation of experience, like the souvenirs brought home from a special trip. Reading your life, especially through another’s voice is unique and special. The thoughts in those letters vibrate across time, reinforcing what I’ve held as my truths. I am here in the present, but for a glimmer, I am back there, fifty years ago, forty years ago. Being transported to another time by those absent pillars of my world, Michael, my mother, Fern, who took a few moments to codify our relationship, is a gift. My own expressions from deep inside myself, expressed in written form to them, which they cared enough to save, are also priceless.

Me – 1964
Me – 1985

So just exactly where did I wind up in time by sinking into these wrinkles? The Fern letters I read took me to 1964 and 1985. She wrote me the first one from overnight camp in Wisconsin, a summer experience outside my family’s economic wheelhouse. Back then I was envious of her privilege. As years passed, I learned that her vacation opportunities were meaningless given the challenges of her daily life. That letter was innocent and confiding, a recounting of the transient flirtations that occupy adolescents. The one from 1985 was substantially different. Only three years prior to her suicide, we’d lived apart for a number of years. She was married, although that relationship would soon end. She was delving into therapy, confronting difficult life issues. “I don’t know where to begin. Writing you is not like writing anyone else. I feel guilty for so many things…you know them all. I am trying to come to grips with my profound conviction that I can never mother a child – I am inconsistent, cold and selfish. I hope that you, who knows me best of all, but who can be a mother, can understand me. It’s funny, I can say all this to certain people and it’s just words, I don’t feel a thing, no regret, no emotion at all. But it is very hard to write it to you. Probably because I know you understand.” Fern has been dead for 34 years. I have mourned her all that time. Our friendship lasted for 37 years and despite some bumps and physical distance, it remains one of the most intimate bonds I ever experienced. This wrinkle took me back to that essential connection which has never left me. Not a fabrication – she felt it too.

Dennis and me

The only letters I saved from any significant other besides Michael were the ones I have from Dennis. We stayed friends well into out adult life, after we were both married with our own families. I think that was because I was never convinced that we could take our relationship to that level required for an adult commitment. He was a wandering guy. He felt differently, that he could ultimately settle down. In the end, I moved on, but we both saw value in our communication. For me, he was a reminder that I wasn’t always the person who was abandoned, one of the great fears of my life. I remembered that after diving into his note from that other dimension as well as knowing he could never be monogamous, despite his best efforts. “I mentioned that while I was in Columbus, Ohio, that I met someone very much like you. I had no idea there could be two such crazies in the world. The similarities were staggering. However I did practice restraint and reminded myself that I’m an upstanding husband and father. I didn’t give in to my old habits.” I hadn’t thought about my impact on him for a very long time. But it too was real.

Me – 1972 – At my parents’ apartment

I well remember 1972, the year Michael and I shifted our relationship from friendship to the romance that endured until his death. But I’d forgotten that I’d reached out to my parents for support when my previous boyfriend, whose inconsistent behavior finally drove me away from him, reappeared in my life right before he was moving to California to begin graduate school. Despite the fact that my mom and dad often seemed to forget which of us was the parent, they remained a secure refuge for me when I needed one. I did note that when I wrote them, I was trying to assure them that I was fine, even when I wasn’t. “Dear Mom and Dad, I called the other day because I was kind of upset. I had a big shock, but things are under control now, so don’t worry. What happened was that I saw Albert after a really long time without being near him. I knew he was leaving in two weeks, so when he asked me to sit and talk for a while, I figured it would be alright, since I had wondered what he was doing and since I probably wouldn’t see him again. Well, he bowled me over. He told me the same old story, how he hadn’t gotten over me yet, but with a few pretty incredible additions. He said that since he’s been alone, he’s had a lot of time to think about his problems and immaturity and that he always ends up miserable when he’s away from me. That every time he gets involved with someone else, he always becomes bored and unhappy and with his dissatisfaction, he soon remembers, turns to me in his head and gets lonely.” A wrinkle in time, indeed. What a dramatic saga played out with me and Al so long ago. My letter to my parents is much less alienating than my many repetitive, embarrassing journal entries from that bumpy time in my life. Another thing I didn’t invent.

Me and Michael – 1972

Reading letters and notes that Michael wrote me is most like time travel for me. I remember much of our life together but the details they reveal are not what I think about daily. These treasures transport me to the very beginning of our friendship and then boomerang me forward through our 45 years together. They feel like a favorite bathrobe you slip on when you need comfort, except they provide interior solace. I’m so grateful that he was a writer, although he wouldn’t have thought of himself that way. I found a letter he wrote me in February, 1972, a few months before our romance started. I was in Chicago at the time, getting ready to depart for a trip abroad. We’d been fast friends since the previous August. “ I just got back from Carbondale last night and found your letter in the mailbox today. I’m pretty lousy about writing letters, but I really feel like talking to you…If I can get all my stuff out of the way tomorrow I’ll be in Chicago on Friday and I’ll call you when I get in. I’m alone and it feels better to be lonely than it does when I’m with 20 people. Right now, I’m actually feeling kinda nice – I’m listening to some good rock n’ roll – I can feel your presence very close. Reminds me of other days. Don’t worry about feeling bad – just keep feeling. Later…love you, Michael.” When I read this, I was temporarily absent from today, lost in that space when my life was about to change direction, when I was going to be with a life partner. If there are wrinkles in time, I can definitely immerse myself in this one.

Milky Way Galaxy – Alexander Mitiuc

I don’t know what’s out in the great beyond. I know that science has established that wavelengths are real and measurable. Perhaps as I write this, my activity is spiraling off somewhere, so that it will forever be drifting. Who knows? The only thing I can be sure of is that the capacity to at least temporarily be on another plane or in a wrinkle, as I’m defining them, can feel pretty real. I’m glad I have these reminders at hand that provide the escape hatch to places far from now. Write a letter. You never know what a treasure it might be for someone years down the road.

The Final Cancer Invoice – Redux

The five year anniversary of Michael’s death is looming, just a few months from now. In some ways, it feels like yesterday, in others like a hundred years. I wrote copiously through his illness, taking refuge in the blank pages which absorbed my pain, took the edge off the darkest days and allowed me to continue operating like a mostly sane person. The bonus byproduct of writing things down is that you get to see how you evolve over time. My number one coping skill is what I call “The Five Year Rule,” an aid in maintaining the perspective that what feels most impossible in any particular moment, will seem quite different five years down the road. I was interested to read my thoughts on Michael’s cancer at almost the five year anniversary of his death. Surprisingly, I wouldn’t change a word of what I felt when I wrote this brief essay back then. I didn’t realize that I would be left with PTSD when I was left on my own. I worked my way through that complication. But, I still feel the same love and emotional connection to Michael that sustains me as I move forward through life. And I think that for those coping with cancer in themselves or someone they love, that what I wrote might be at least a bit helpful.

Years ago I had a friend who was describing some symptoms that her mother had been experiencing recently. I listened carefully, recognizing that they sounded very similar to those my dad had before being diagnosed with bladder cancer. When she finished talking, I gently and carefully suggested to her that what I heard was sounding a lot like cancer. She looked at me rather nonchalantly and said, “we don’t get cancer in our family.” I was really surprised. She was smart and thoughtful and in a blink just dismissed the most non-discriminating killer on the planet. Within a year her mother was dead from her bladder cancer, after putting off appointments over and over because cancer wasn’t part of their history.

Cancer is the original equal opportunity employer. Cancer isn’t sexist. Cancer isn’t racist. Cancer is nondenominational. Cancer doesn’t care what you believe about life or death. Cancer doesn’t care about your looks or your smarts or your interests. Cancer just is. Cancer can fell anyone, no matter your strength or your attitude. Cancer isn’t a fight. At least not a fair one. When people die from cancer, they’re not losers. They haven’t lost their battles. They’ve just been overcome by an elusive, stealthy biological mystery that in their cases, had no true known answer to its mutable abilities. As cognitive beings, we naturally search for answers and reasons for what we can’t understand or didn’t expect. Everyone gets to decide what’s best for them. We found our own way.

Michael knew that skin cancer ran in his family and was vigilant about using sunscreen, seeing his dermatologist every three months and attacking any suspicious spots by excision or medications. My big, strong husband who was everyone’s hero was felled anyway. Cancer liked his body and his immune system couldn’t do a thing about it. We knew from the initial diagnosis that the likelihood of him surviving his orphan cancer was small. Reading the Merkel Cell website the day of our life-changing phone call was grim. We had an instant flash of recognition – our world was forever changed. Both of us, different in so many ways and virtually identical in others, got ready fast, an especially tough trick for Michael who always moved slowly. The big joke between us was him saying, “Would you mind removing your feet from my back?” as I blazed past him. But he knew this was different and that speed was mandatory. We learned everything we could and followed best practices, with multiple medical opinions from the top experts in their field. We had a genetic analysis of his tumor tissue. He tried one treatment after another. I wrote every principal investigator of every clinical trial I found on the Clinicaltrials.gov website. About half of them answered me and they consulted with each other about our case. We realized they were doing their best to brainstorm for a viable solution to this disease. But there wasn’t one.

Michael had eighteen rounds of a potent cocktail of chemo drugs. Over 5 years, he had 75 radiation treatments. For 45 of them he wore a molded facial mask which was then bolted to a table to keep him still while he was blasted with rays. He took shots to support his bones which weaken during treatment. He tried a targeted therapy, aimed at a genetic mutation. His skin erupted in an astonishing rash that covered his back and torso and eventually elevated his liver enzymes. Just as well, as the drug cost was astronomical and economically prohibitive. His tiny skin cancer jumped into his lymph system and over time, showed up in bones all over his body leading to an agonizing spinal cord compression.

More and more skin lesions popped up on his head, his neck and his groin. We went to Barnes in St. Louis to try to get him into a clinical trial for one of the new immunological drugs. He was rejected, an unconscionable decision that was impossibly hard to absorb. Eventually our local oncologist was so desperate, he applied for the drug pembrolizumab or Keytruda, which was magically approved because of Michael’s terrible prognosis. And suddenly, within less than two weeks, the tumors began to disappear. He was to be a miracle responder, one of the small number who manage to wind up in the success cohort.

Within a few months, he was well, normal even. All through the various treatments, he’d had positive responses which gained us months that we used as a compressed retirement. With the prospect of death always threatening in the background, we chose to spend lots of private time together, traveling and making memories which would sustain me. We spent as much time as we could with our family, reveling in the everyday moments, a dinner, lounging in the afternoon on our kids’ back deck, going to movies or just reading in the same room. Suddenly it seemed anything was possible. At least in the short term.

But with 6 months of remission in the books, Michael experienced a profound spike in his liver enzymes. Our doctor felt compelled to stop treatment. I argued vociferously against this as he was taking other medications which could be implicated in the liver issue. Knowing that his disease could get active at any time, the doctor thought we might do a challenge once the enzymes returned to normal, to see what would happen. But the next thing we knew, our doctor was gone, the second oncologist we lost in a few years. So we started over with a new one. Each oncologist has a personal perspective and I knew right away that our new one was a more cautious individual than the previous one. She was opposed to taking the risk of a challenge and instead recommended continued full body scanning every three months. The year 2016 was treatment-free and we cautiously continued to make the most out of our time. But any time Michael was ill, whether with a cold or a dreaded case of shingles, I was alarmed at what I saw as a failure of his immune system.

By December of that year, his behavior was getting a bit peculiar. I was hyper-worried and in January we had two doctor appointments and two CT scans which indicated absence of disease. I couldn’t believe it. Michael was behaving oddly and changing perceptibly. After 45 years together, there are the things you just know. After a scary night less than 4 days after receiving a clean scan, I called the oncologist the following morning to say I was going to get Michael into the ER for a brain MRI, the one test he’d never had. The doctor said that those were hard to get in emergency rooms but I was absolutely determined. I used all the trust between us that we’d built over the years to get Michael to go with me to the hospital. He was wary and resistant but he believed in me. By the end of the day, we had test results which showed a brain cancer presentation that could only be likened to meningitis. His brain was filled with a sludgy cancer that infiltrated the ventricles but was undetectable by CAT scans.

The doctors said he had central nervous system lymphoma. But I fought back because I knew it was Merkel cell which is what it had always been from his first biopsy to his last. Most people with that metastatic disease just didn’t live long enough for the medical professionals to see what it looked like in the brain. An average lifespan following his diagnosis was 4 weeks. Michael chose a combination of awful whole brain radiation and Keytruda and managed to survive for 17 weeks. After a long hospital stay of 32 days and nights together, we managed to get home. For years, we’d discussed how he wanted to die. First and foremost, he wanted to stay alive. But absent that option, he wanted to die as undiminished as possible, not wasted away to a shell. He also wanted to be in his home, not in a medical venue. He sadly wondered if he’d ever have another good day, one in which he could feel okay. His desires became my mission. With endless encouragement, prodding and the most ingenious protein shakes I could concoct, we stayed at home. One lovely April day, we managed to get across the street to our daughter’s home to spend the afternoon, to sit together with our grandchildren and then go back to our own house, content with that feeling of normalcy. Our son who was abroad working on a postdoc, managed to stop his work and get home so he could share the last days of Michael’s life. He died a year ago today, peacefully, quietly and unwillingly, with me beside him, holding his hand.

I will always wonder about the might-have-beens. There were so many steps in our journey when a small adjustment could have made a difference. I used all of my powers, intellectual, emotional and persuasive to push things outside the box of standard medical care. I learned more about cancer and medicine than any English major would ever have thought possible. I don’t know what could’ve happened, if only. All I know is that cancer ultimately presented its final invoice to us, the price being Michael’s life which he lived and loved so well. This past year has been filled with many different experiences for me. I’ve been out in the world with people and also on my own a lot. I’m deep inside myself exploring, probing and searching for my answers, for a way to live that feels right for me. I remain in love with Michael. I expect I always will be. We had a bond that could withstand everything life tossed against it.

One of his favorite movies was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He watched it almost any time it appeared on late night tv. The story is one of a widow who occupies the home of a sea captain who’s died, but insists on being in his house with her, as if she’s the invader of his personal space. Of course, this isn’t a perfect metaphor for what’s happened to us. But I often feel that we will be in our home until it’s my turn to be done with whatever lies ahead of me. I didn’t know I could survive a minute, a week or a whole year without Michael. But here I am, still alive and evidently destined to go forward. So I will, holding him in my heart and feeling the buoyancy of his presence which shows up unexpectedly and fills me with unexpected sensations I’m learning to accept as my new normal. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing which you think cannot do.” That’s exactly what I’m doing. The magic that Michael and I built helps me. I expect it will forever. One minute, one week, one year. On I go, on we go.

Life on Broadway- Chapter 10 – 1991 – A Busy Year and I Am Forty – Part 2

Mom and our kids – August, 1989

Looking back, I realize that I was caught in a struggle which had its inception when I was just a kid. Life with my parents was complicated. I was well-loved. Fortunately for me, that piece of my emotional life was never in doubt. Unfortunately, mom and dad were ill-prepared for establishing the other elements of a secure childhood. From the time I was a little girl I was afraid of something terrible happening to my parents. Mom was frequently overwhelmed by her busy life with four kids, too little money, and the unresolved issues of her own youth. She was hospitalized frequently which was frightening for me. Dad was more reliable but was caught up in trying to find a stable job which could support the family. By the time I was in my teens I’d evidently decided, somewhere in my subconscious, to assert myself in the role of caregiver as the best defense against my fears. I was constantly taking on the adult role with my parents, even as I was trying hard to grow up myself. I experienced frustration when I realized that I’d saddled myself with responsibilities too big for me, with my parents being complicit by accepting my efforts. By the time they moved from Chicago to join me, my family and my younger sister, who’d moved to my community years earlier, the boundaries between child and parent were more than blurry. When my dad was close to death in 1989, he turned to me, asking me to arrange his funeral. In asking that I make preparations for the end of his life, he effectively transferred my mom’s care to me, the assignment being to protect her from the harsh realities of life. I knew this was terrible for me and inappropriate in every way, but the situation was immediate with a life of its own. So I stepped up, despite my misgivings, and did what needed to be done.

In the midst of raising kids, being a partner and having a full-time job, I was doing my best to help my mom get a life. I remember sitting at my desk in the office, reading obituaries, trying to find some newly-minted widow who sounded like she might be a potential friend for Dorothy. I actually made contact with one bereft woman who kindly agreed to meet mom. They hung out together a few times but ultimately they had nothing in common but absent spouses. I kept plugging away at this caregiving project, wishing I could feel like I still had at least one parent. But our roles were permanently reversed. I thought of one plan which might make mom happy. She’d always wanted to see Colonial Williamsburg but couldn’t get dad off the couch. I drew up an ambitious driving itinerary which included Jefferson’s Monticello, Williamsburg, York and Jamestown, with a bit of Civil War around Richmond tossed in for me. Michael was too busy to take off work so I was going to be the sole driver, hauling mom and my two kids, ages 9 and 4. We’d leave after school was out for summer. Meanwhile, Michael and I celebrated our nineteenth year together, along with my 40th birthday.

I packed up my maroon Chevy Celebrity station wagon, the one with the “way back,” where the kids could be belted in but face backwards so they could wave at oncoming traffic. I wasn’t sure who was more worrisome, my energetic kids bouncing in their seats or mom, who had a very painful knee she’d been advised required surgery. She pooh-poohed the idea that it might cause problems worse than her current one. I tried to ignore my anxiety, determined to get this good deed in the books. We headed out, planning on taking two days to break up our almost 13 hour trip.

View from a scenic overlook on our drive

We got off to an inauspicious start as mom wasn’t satisfied with our hotel on the first night. Finances dictated that my contribution to the trip was going to be less than hers so my reservations reflected economics rather than creature comforts. We wound up checking in and then checking right out to move into a fancier place. I hoped that wasn’t a harbinger of things to come.

We had a beautiful drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains the next day, making our first stop near Charlottesville at Monticello. There was plenty of space for the kids to run around and burn off some energy after hours in the car. We were all interested in the house with its unique inventions from the past along with the natural artifacts Jefferson collected. Appreciating him for his creativity and brilliance is complicated because he chose life as a slave owner. I asked a docent a question about Sally Hemings, which was met with her withering glare. Truth is hard. In any case, I dearly loved the gardens. I found new flower species which I later incorporated into my own beds. We finished our excursion by dining at the Michie Tavern which was built in approximately 1784. Food there was classic American fare, served cafeteria-style on pewter or porcelain tableware. We enjoyed the atmosphere, trying to imagine who’d eaten there while resting from their dusty mountain journeys a few hundred years before.

Monticello
Michie Tavern
Michie tavern meal

We headed toward Williamsburg. The dense green trees along the road reminded me of Sherwood Forest from my favorite Robin Hood movie. The air was thick with humidity, reminding me that the area was swamp-like. As we cruised toward town, plantings of giant pansies, a far cry from the Midwestern ones which were container favorites in spring, overflowed their beds in dazzling protrusion. As I write this, I’m keenly aware of how different road trips were back then, with paper maps instead of GPS, no cell phones and cameras which required thought before taking a photo. Another world. Anyway…We were spending three days in Williamsburg which would include traversing the Colonial National Historic Parkway, and side trips to Yorktown and Jamestown. The kids got three-cornered hats, quill pens and fruit-flavored rock candy. We visited historic buildings and monuments, watched marching bands and attended demonstrations of weaponry used during the Revolutionary War. My daughter was selected to light a fuse on a cannon and was astonished by the ear-shattering noise she made, even without real ammunition. For the most part, everything went surprisingly smoothly although mom’s knee was worrisome. We managed to get a rental wheelchair which was both helpful and yet a nuisance as it was ill-suited to cobblestones.

Mom in wheelchair
Every parent’s dream

We wrapped up this leg of the trip with the usual irritations that are part of traveling with multiple generations. I had a little bonus planned for myself – we were so close to Richmond that I figured I could squeeze in some Civil War tourism before we turned toward home. After having spent so much of my life studying this war I wanted the opportunity to see some of the actual places where the unimaginable occurred. We pulled into Richmond in the afternoon. Our hotel was near the center of the city and almost immediately we saw the Virginia Washington Monument, built in the mid-1800’s.

Just a few minutes away was what became known as the White House of the Confederacy, home to Jefferson Davis, the president of the secessionist states. I thought we could fit in a visit before checking into the hotel. When we pulled into a parking space nearby, I immediately became anxious. At three stories tall, this place would be daunting to my mom whose sore knee hadn’t improved with all the walking we’d done. Checking inside we found that there was no elevator or special accommodations for anyone who had a mobility challenge. I asked mom if she could confine herself to the first floor to protect herself from further injury. I still remember her defiantly tossing her head, stating that she intended to to what everyone else could do. With great trepidation, I walked up the stairs behind my three charges, hoping for the best. After working our way back down to the first floor, my mom’s knee buckled and she cried out in pain. I was furious. If only she’d been reasonable. Yes, if only.

White House of the Confederacy

We got in the car and headed to our hotel. The scene in the parking lot was straight out of a Marx Brothers film. I was carrying most of our luggage while holding up my limping mother and trying to keep my four year old from running in front of cars. Sweat was pouring down my enraged face. Somehow I got us checked in before staggering to the elevator. A large group of people, evidently assembled for a family reunion, was being wrangled by an imperious woman who after looking at me shouted out, “Demetrius, go help that woman carry her mama.” But for Demetrius, I’m not sure I’d have made it to the room. I got everyone situated while seething with anger. My mom, swollen knee stretched out on the bed, was apologizing profusely. She actually suggested that I, as the street-smart woman I was, go downstairs and outside, to see if I could buy some morphine from the dealers that she was certain were on every corner. I turned on the television for the kids and stormed out of the room. Once in the lobby, I went to a pay phone from which I called Michael to announce that the trip was prematurely ending and that I was heading home the next day. I also told him that I’d seen the historic Appomattox McDonald’s which would have to satisfy my history desires for the moment. Haha.

That drive home was tough. I was grouchy and dying to be with Michael instead of my mom. A terrifying two lane stretch through the mountains in a driving rainstorm, the proverbial white knuckle trip, did little to improve my mood. But finally we arrived. We dropped mom at her place and went home. Michael was standing sheepishly at the door where he had to instantly confess that while sitting on the front porch reading the newspaper two days earlier, he’d forgotten that our dog Sydney was lying on the lawn. Suddenly she dashed into the street after a feral cat and was hit by a car. Her leg was severely damaged. He took her on to our university’s animal clinic where they performed restorative surgery. She was still in the hospital and we owed a thousand dollars for their miracle. Honestly sometimes life is just too much. But I was glad Sydney survived.

My mom never did have surgery on that knee which grew infinitely worse over time. Eventually the sting of her behavior lessened although the stage was set for our years-long haggling over our complicated mother-daughter relationship. Meanwhile I was paying attention to my own family. Summer went forward. After my daughter was done with camp, we headed up to Michigan to join our friends for the annual reunion at The Beechwood. We now stayed at regularly at Cabin 1. I prepared the first night’s communal meal, a spicy chicken and potato meal for our burgeoning group. That week was always special.

We squeezed a lot into our summer. We picnicked at the swimming pool and had camp outs in the backyard. Our four year old was nervous during his first night in a tent and barely slept. In the morning, we stuck him under a pair of headphones and he passed out on the couch, exhausted from his hours in the wilderness. I threw a baby shower for a pregnant friend. Michael and I both gardened, me in the flowers, him in the vegetables and herbs. The kids played with their friends on the block and often just hung out with us at home. We took one more weekend trip to Lincoln Park Zoo and Arboretum while seeing our friends from college, now part of the Michigan cohort. The end of August brought E’s 10th birthday and the beginning of the school year.

That fall when E. started fifth grade, she started teaching herself the Cyrillic alphabet. She then decided that she wanted to learn Russian. I found an exchange student through the university who was willing to give her lessons. Vera Kalashnikova was from Ukraine. She became part of our lives for the next nine months, teaching E. Russian and letting us expose her to American home life and experiences. She was with us for meals and holidays, often overwhelmed by the wide variety of choices from food to clothing, from grocery stores to department stores. Her world was limited and spare. She became quite a consumer which ultimately led to problems because of luggage limitations for her return trip home. She was extremely nervous as the Soviet Union had disintegrated during her year abroad, not knowing if ethnic prejudices tamped down by the USSR might resurface with the dissolution of the state. She told us that Ukrainians were considered inferior to native Russians. Looking back, her situation still remains illustrative of what is currently happening in that part of the world.

Vera with E. – Halloween, 1991

In early November, H. had his 5th birthday. Because our local school district required that fifth birthday before September 1st as the cut-off date for kindergarten, he had another year of day care ahead of him. We had his party at a park district facility so the kids had room to run around. His best friend, a really physical guy who invariably wound up hurting our kid, tripped H. up as if on cue. H. hit the floor which caused a bloody cut on his head. His friend was so guilty about hurting him that he started sobbing. H. felt terrible and gave his buddy one of his birthday gifts. Michael and I knew that our kid was really soft and hoped he’d get through the tough times in his young life without being emotionally crushed.

As the year came to an end, we realized that we were entering a new phase in our lives. Soon we’d have a middle school kid in addition to being done with day care. Both our children had attended the same child care facility, starting back in 1982. Almost a decade had passed with our babies moving on into the increasingly more complex world of school and their social universe. Michael and I were expanding ourselves to keep our relationship fresh and solid while adapting to their changes and the subsequent ripple effects. I’d been through profound personal losses and was continuing to sort out the dynamics between me and my mom. We attended our last holiday party at day care, our tenth one. On to whatever was next.

The Myth of Control

Too many squirrels

Squirrels are ruining my life. Wait. Does this sound overly dramatic? Maybe. But in recent days that’s what I’ve felt like as I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to circumvent the marauding behavior of these smart rodents. That’s what they are – rodents. Rats with tails. I’ve been skirmishing with them for years. They’ve eaten their way through four sets of wires for the lights I’ve strung along my porches. So much for brightening the night. They routinely chomp the flowers in my garden while denuding my tomato plants. At one point, they ate the armrests in a car we kept in the garage.

But their most annoying crimes involve their wanton destruction of my bird feeders, while consuming pounds of food intended for the avian community. I can’t count how many feeders they’ve destroyed. I’ve tried all the squirrel-proof designs, and the deterrents which are supposed to keep them off the shepherd’s hooks. I bought a red pepper liquid guaranteed to send them back where they come from, a concoction so strong, I choked, eyes watering, as I saturated seeds according to the instructions on the bottle. My squirrels didn’t even blink as they chomped on the expensive new treat. A friend shipped me two deluxe feeders which were ruined within a few days. Sigh. When I wasn’t spending long hours at home, I wasn’t as consumed by my hostility to these unwelcome, irritating guests. The pandemic changed everything.

Attracting a a wide variety of bird species has been my great pleasure during the past couple of years. I’m fascinated by their behavior and their fabulous colors. Their songs are diverse and comforting. For those who’ve set up housekeeping in my yard, there’s the additional pleasure of watching their fledglings grow up. During these long stretches of being on my own, the birds have been welcome companions. I got so attached to my cardinal pair that I named them. When the female vanished, I mourned her like I would’ve a domestic pet. A mistake, but a product of a strange time.

I’ve moved my feeders to different locations around the yard, but squirrels are quick to adapt. Two weeks ago, I decided to order a new sturdy model which mounts on a door with five big suction cups. I thought that maybe a surface with no place to grab would prove more difficult to access for these vermin. Who was I kidding but me? These guys can run straight up my siding and vault right into the food tray. They also excel at walking up wood trim. My paint job is looking pitiful.

Breaking the perch included with the feeder happened by the second day. Knocking the tray off its tracks so it crashed to the ground was a piece of cake. Every morning I swept up the seed, replaced the tray and tried again.

Yesterday I hit despair, at least for a few minutes. The tray was on the porch, broken into three pieces, seed scattered everywhere. In addition to the interference with my deep desire to cultivate a habitat for the birds I love, I can’t believe that I have so little control over managing my own little corner of the world. I’ve been confused about what’s going on out there. I’m not the only person in my neighborhood who has bird feeders. What’s up with my yard? Besides scarfing down the food and wrecking anything in their way, I’ve been finding blood traces right below the feeders. Who’s getting hurt? I have no idea.

I was overcome by frustration. For a moment. My initial response was to throw up my hands and cede my desires to the failed experiment bin. The wretched rodents win. But that only lasted a short time. I patiently took the broken bits of the feeder, got my packing and gorilla tapes out and re-fashioned the tray. So far it’s lasted over 24 hours. I guess that’s a small victory.

I’m aware that my agitation about the squirrels has gotten ratcheted up because of my overall sense of having no control over virtually anything right now. I’m frantic about the politics playing out in this country. A loud, cohesive minority is engaged in perpetrating belief in a proven lie about the 2020 election and its supposedly fraudulent outcome. To ensure victory in the midterms and beyond, the coup supporters are willing to trample voting rights. Two conservative Democrats are pretending that they can’t support renewal of the bills which would protect this critical constitutional right, because changing the rules to pass them needs to be bi-partisan. What a horrible joke. Republicans have turned the proverbial blind eye to the dangers of the false narrative perpetrated by Trump and his sycophants because they know that their solidarity, even as a minority, is the only way they can hang on to power. They haven’t won a popular vote in decades. You can watch their hypocrisy and denial of their past views play out on news programs every day. They could care less. Their supporters are all in with conspiracy theories and phony political scenarios. While some are wringing their hands over critical race theory and their maddening “cancel culture” stories, I’m trying to figure out how so many people lack the ability to think critically about anything. Between the politics, climate change and the pandemic it’s hard to avoid the feeling that life is totally out of hand. A perfect maelstrom.

Of course, life is always beyond our control whether we like it or not. The sun still shines in the day, even when it’s hidden by clouds and the moon brightens the night sky. But every day can bring unexpected and undesired surprises that change the trajectory we thought we were on, in one quick second. Chaos is often right around the next corner. So we try to establish control and order whenever and wherever we can. I believe control is a myth which we cling to in order to survive. Mostly we exist in a state of flux, which is unnerving, uncomfortable. From my experience, while I believe that there is no real universal control over so much of life, with practice, a person can develop a set of responses that are useful in managing ourselves. I’m glad I fixed my feeder, whether it lasts or not. I’m still going to work on creating a supportive habitat for birds in my space. I can try to influence the political madness by working for candidates who are sane and donating what I can to environmental groups working on conservation and political entities working to ensure voting rights. I hope I can get a grip when the bad stuff feels like too much. Life is a lot of work, at least for me.

Looking for some calming therapeutic activities, I dug out my bead box and jewelry-making tools which I haven’t touched in years. I’d tossed in broken earrings years ago which I’d forgotten. I proceeded to repair those and also made a bracelet. My eyes are not as great as they used to be when I was more engaged in this hobby, but working with my hands still helped. I dipped into my yarn stash to start making a scarf and am continuing to create a portrait of my daughter’s recently deceased pet dog. I’m not great at any of these hobbies but I’m okay enough to feel good when I’m doing them.

For now, the rodents have receded to an annoyance, rather than the agents of my doom. We’ll see how things go tomorrow.

Coping Skills – The Five Year Rule, Manageable Pieces, One Beautiful Thing A Day…The Cancer Exception

Surgical theater – Johns Hopkins

Today four people I know are having surgery. No one is my age. They’re all younger. Two are having knee replacements, one is having a hysterectomy, and the last is having a lipoma, generally a benign fatty tumor, removed from just below her back shoulder blade. Because of Covid hospital-crowding issues, the two knee replacement patients will go home today, as will the lipoma patient. The hysterectomy patient gets one night before getting booted out. That is, if there are no complications for anyone, which I hope will be the case for everyone. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, five years from now, they’ll look back on their experiences as a necessary evil that, after having been addressed, markedly improved the quality of their lives. On a day like today I’m reminded that I should recognize that overall, I’ve been pretty lucky, health wise. Aside from having a broken nose at age eight, two babies and two knee replacements, I’ve skated through almost seventy one years with few physical problems. Reminding myself of the positives is a tool in my coping skills toolbox. Focusing on the negative is a dangerous trap if you’re looking for a successful life.

Sisyphus – Titian

I’m a fervent believer in the necessity for developing coping skills in order to successfully navigate this crazy world. In my experience, there’s just no way to get through life without finding ways to contend with the problems invariably confronted by virtually everyone who lives past infancy, at least a healthy infancy. Except for those people who manage to bury their difficult issues somewhere below their consciousness, or to anesthetize themselves by whatever means they contrive, the rest of us are going to be confronted with situations that are overwhelming, painful, confusing and sad, to name just a few possibilities. Life has its own timetable although mostly, I think there’s a lot of random in how things shake out. In my own life, the benefit of hindsight informs my contemplation of how just the tiniest, seemingly insignificant choice from long ago, twisted a little differently, could’ve changed my future. But then again, that’s hindsight, a useful tool for understanding a past personal trajectory, but rather ineffective when coping with the present. After years of trial and error when trying on coping styles, I’ve wound up with three mainstays, tested by time and experience. Useful to me, apparently they have resonated with my kids, who’ve told me that they’ve both used them in their own lives, in addition to sharing them with their contemporaries. I guess they’re my little contribution to mental health, which for me is more important than other measures of success at living.

One of my top three skills is finding the ability to break down that giant ball of worries and responsibilities, the one that can feel like you’re carrying the proverbial weight of the world on your shoulders, into smaller, manageable tasks. I’m not too proud to admit that periodically, I’ve made a daily to-do list that includes going to the bathroom and brushing your teeth, up at the very top. Sometimes you need a simple starter, one doable accomplishment to reinforce the idea that you can get the next task done. If you inch your way along, eventually the load becomes smaller and so much less daunting. I’ve literally felt my anxiety ratchet down every time I put a line through a chore, slowing heartbeat by slowing heartbeat. Feeling overwhelmed is too hard to maintain on a daily basis. Chipping away at all the stress is the only way to survive, at least for me.

My already-pondering baby daughter
Busy thinking “and just who are you?”

I suppose some form of justice demanded that I wind up with a little girl who questioned everything as soon as she could speak and I’m certain, even before she could. Long ago, Michael referred to me as his little existential soulmate, restlessly hunting for meaning and answers while disbelieving so many accepted norms. It’s one thing to be an adult grappling with the big ideas. Having a little kid look you in the eyes while saying life has no meaning is another matter altogether. Back then I wanted nothing more than to arm my daughter with skills to navigate all the challenges she perceived so early in her life. I realized that one way I always got myself through the hard days was by finding one bit of beauty out there in the muddle of life trials. My task became translating that principle into real world situations. Over the years, I did precisely that, pointing out wonderful flowers, animals, trees and clouds which were easily identified by my observant child. I think she’d be the first person to say that strategy helped her. The irony is that my attempts to help her reinforced the same skill in me. Now I automatically find the beauty in every day. That hunt has hauled me through the darkest of times and is part of the fabric that makes me who I am. I highly recommend the strategy, especially in light of the dystopian reality facing us all these days.

Coupled with looking for beauty is the quest to learn something new, no matter how small, somewhere in each successive twenty-four hours. I remember when I thought time was limitless. Sometimes the dragging minutes went on forever. I couldn’t wait to get to “next.” I believed I had more than enough daylight ahead of me to experience everything, learn everything, feel everything, with room to spare. That innocence disappeared a long time ago. Every dream, every fantasy about all that open space was simply that – dreams. Now I make deliberate efforts to absorb as much as I can, following my brain down any rabbit hole that pops up in my mind. The machine that’s my mind needs renewal. The world is packed with interesting ideas and facts, many of which I’ll never unearth. But I try. Never a fabulous student when I was supposed to be one, I’ve morphed into a scholar. Perhaps I won’t employ what I learn in a practical sense. But I’m satisfied knowing that formal education didn’t interfere with my passion to learn. Here’s today’s discovery.

While getting gas at a station near my house, I glanced up at a tree on the parkway. Bare branches are so interesting as they reveal the complex networks normally hidden by leaves. I was instantly struck by the similarity to the human circulatory system. When the traveling display called The Human Body came to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Michael and I attended the fascinating exhibit. My gas station tree looked just like the blood vessels which dangled in their case at the museum, but upside down. I couldn’t find a photo of that exhibit but I did find an illustration on the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine website. I’m by no stretch of the imagination, the first person to notice the similarities between the branching patterns of trees and blood vessels. What I didn’t know was that these never-ending patterns which repeat themselves in nature and math are called fractals. That name was coined in 1975, years after my formal education ended. I’d brought my observations up in a conversation with my son who happens to be a biologist. He responded with the moniker “fractal,” and a general description of the phenomenon, which I built on by exploring further online. Little intellectual jaunts like this one are healthy for me. They are the opposite of mental stagnation which is the enemy. I don’t want to live stuck, never learning anything new. I want to continue being dynamic as long as I’m breathing.

Michael and our oldest grandson, January, 2017

I’d say the centerpiece of my coping skills arsenal is the five year rule. While raising my kids, there were always these dramatic moments when one incident was blown up to such a magnitude, that they felt that life as they knew it was coming to a calamitous end. Grabbing onto those soaring emotions seemed critical in deflating their chaotic experiences, to bring them back into the realm of normal. I can’t recall how old my daughter was when I first managed to blurt out, in the midst of one of those moments, “what were you doing five years ago today?” I do remember the look of astonishment on her face, along with her earnest attempt to recall whatever that activity was in her past. Of course, she couldn’t remember. And so that question became part of our family’s management style, with both kids, as well as Michael and me, regularly reminding ourselves about perspective and ratcheting down the hyperbole about various challenging incidents. For the most part, I’d say this tactic is a great tool for keeping balance through life’s ups and downs. I know my kids use this skill and share it with their friends. But at this particular moment in my own history, the five year rule doesn’t apply. I know exactly what was happening five years ago, including minute details of that time.

Michael in the oncologist’s office – January, 2017

Five years ago, in January, 2017, Michael had been in remission from his Merkel Cell cancer for almost a year. He hadn’t been in treatment during that time. I was noticing changes in his behavior which were making me nervous and uncomfortable. I was coaxing him into multiple appointments with his cancer team, who in turn, were ordering scans which showed no evidence of disease. Five years ago I was in an anxious state, knowing that Michael was different, and not in a good way, with no evidence to support my opinions. He was irritable, had experienced a significant decline in appetite and was being driven crazy by my laser-like attention focused on him all day and night. But his behavior was simply not normal. A bit more than five years ago, on January 31st, 2017, I would be using all the trust between Michael and me, and all my persuasive powers, in convincing him to go with me to the hospital emergency room where I would demand an MRI of his brain. There we would receive the dreadful diagnosis of a meningitis-like metastasis which had infiltrated his brain, but which was invisible on all the previous scans he’d had earlier in the month. We had four months left in our decades-long relationship, months which were the most difficult in our lives.

Michael in the emergency department- January 31st, 2017

I could easily recount, in vivid detail, the excruciating details of five years ago. I’ve always had a good memory, but the events of that time have retained their harsh edges, coupled with the intense emotions which accompanied them. So I guess the five year rule, although an effective antidote to many of life’s overwhelming moments, sometimes falls short in creating perspective. Michael’s cancer and its cost to our family is seared into my brain. Although time has helped in allowing me to continue living what I hope is a rich, productive life, I can be in five years ago in real time, still feeling all that was happening during that experience. Cancer is the exception to my helpful rule. I suppose there’s something like that in everyone’s life. Now I’ll just have to work my way through the memories…

A Fun Memory on a Gray Day

Best Road Trip Ever (Every Word in this Story is True)

Oral histories are very cool. But I love the written word. When Michael died, my kids realized that our stories and experiences were deposited in my head and they asked to know more about what we shared before they showed up. This is one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it.

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In the December cold of 1974, we were in sore need of a vacation. I’d been in a paranoid state for some time. We lived in a small white house on Oregon Street near some railroad tracks. The rumble of freights in the night and the squeaks of the rails frequently woke me. Michael the train lover slept through everything.

I was paranoid in our house. I always felt like someone was watching me. Our idea of window treatments were cheap bamboo shades, virtually transparent. Michael was always soothing me and saying I was imagining things, but one morning I woke up to let our dogs out and saw human footprints in the snow all around the perimeter of the house. The next night people were visiting us, playing cards and chatting. My friend Fern was in the midst of one of her “mental break hideouts,” and had been staying with us for a couple of weeks. Shortly after heading to the bathroom for a shower, she suddenly burst through the door, saying there was a face looking at her through the window. Everyone leapt up and ran out the door to capture the peeper but me and my frightened friend. They caught this bizarre person by the tracks, hauled him to the front yard and called the police. The guy was quite penitent and promised not to return, but Michael was in a barely controlled rage, while I was a mixture of terrified and righteous because I’d known all along that we we weren’t alone. Getting out of town felt like a necessity.

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We had this old green Ford pickup truck. I don’t remember where we got it. Vehicles came and went from our lives with a casual frequency. The truck needed work. But this baby was going to haul us all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, where Michael had been a few years before. He said there was the most beautiful campsite really close to the Gulf. We were both water lovers and thought this would be the perfect adventure, our first long trip in our young two year relationship. And a welcome relief from the stress. Michael, who was experienced at fixing cars, worked at Earthworks garage, night after night. The truck would be finely tuned and perfect for our adventure. Solenoids, alternators and carburetors tumbled through my head like word salad while car parts floated in containers on the kitchen table. In addition to the top notch mechanical repairs, Michael decided to build his own camper top out of wood. He painted it bright red, and added a couple of custom windows. Truly deluxe. Eventually he felt he’d done everything so we loaded up camping gear, food and our dogs and hit the road. 

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Back in the day, scraping together enough cash to take a road trip meant having about a hundred bucks, an urge to blow out of town and a fun destination in mind. Plans were fairly vague. Good company was the critical factor. We were eager to get to our destination, so except for a few bathroom and picnic stops, we decided to drive straight through to Florida, about a 25 hour trip. We took turns driving, sleeping, chatting and reading. Now and then we could pick up a radio station. No tapes, no CD players, no IPods. Day turned to night and then day again. The air warmed and though bleary-eyed, we excitedly pulled into Ft. Myers to make camp. 

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Suddenly, the truck started making really scary sounds. We managed to get to a gas station. Back then mechanics actually worked in gas stations and after awhile and a brief perusal, they informed us that the truck’s engine block was cracked. A total loss. What a moment. Michael sprawled on the lawn near the station, staring up at the sky, close to catatonic. I, always brimming with great ideas, borrowed a phonebook and starting looking up parts shops, hoping we could strip out all Michael’s improvements and raise some cash to help us with the next phase of the trip. Loaded with camping gear and two lively dogs, we needed a vehicle. Tough to get with our meager funds. It didn’t take long to figure out that we’d need to swallow our pride and call our families for help.My parents, although far less financially well off than Michael’s folks, were more generous and infinitely more understanding. At the time, my dad worked for The First National Bank of Chicago which miraculously had a branch in Ft. Myers. He wired us $500, which we picked up and took directly to the closest used car lot. A classic experience. A tall middle-aged man named Jim, a toothpick spinning in his mouth at a pace that equaled his chatter, started walking us around his little lot, extolling the praises of the great deals he had for us. He really wanted us to buy this Oldsmobile Toronado. When he popped the hood, the engine was painted bright orange. We could only imagine what rust lurked underneath and felt helpless and confused.

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Vehicles in our price range were scant and we had dogs and gear to consider. Suddenly Jim remembered that he had a Chevy pickup with a camper top in the back, newly purchased from a family of migrant farm workers. He hadn’t even had a chance to spruce it up but at $450, it sounded like a dream come true. He pulled it up and we took it for a quick spin. We didn’t exactly have many options so within half an hour, we bought it, drove back to the dead Ford, transferred our stuff and our dogs into the back and resumed our road trip. Yup. Just like that. That blue Chevy truck. One of the best moves we ever made. Here’s a photo of it in its long lasting glory, me behind the wheel.

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So, problem solved. We took off for our beautiful campsite, determined to continue our trip and not let some setback wreck our good time. We headed toward the Gulf. The campsites were on a wooded side of the road. Michael was having trouble finding the location. He swore it was “right here.” But right here was nothing but concrete. To quote the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” You could begin to feel like the stars were aligned against us. We were exhausted. A long drive. A dead car. A nonexistent campsite. What next? I still remember our youthful determination. We were getting our trip no matter what the obstacles. We saw a police car and asked where other campsites were located. And he told us something that hadn’t made the news in Illinois. Evidently, the hotel/motel associations in Florida had figured out that camping was cutting into their profits. There was a new set of regulations that effectively banned camping, likely aimed at young people like us who were turning their beaches into hippie eyesores up and down the Gulf Coast.

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Lido Beach

What despair. We had no idea what to do next. Eventually we headed north to Sarasota, where Michael’s grandmother lived. He was more familiar with that area. When we showed up on Grandma Ruth’s doorstep, she took one look at us, said, “wait here,” came back with $100 and told us to get lost. Unforgettable. We got creative. We drove to a YMCA and asked if we could park our truck around the side of their building at night. They said yes. Sweet relief. Off we went to Lido Beach, where there was a bathhouse for showers and the beautiful white sand and turquoise water of our dreams. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or baloney and cheese, laid on the beach, played with the dogs and read books. At last, our slice of paradise. Here’s a photo of Lido. That night we drove back to our parking space next to the Y. We piled into the back of the camper with the dogs, cracked the windows and went to sleep. Scant hours later, we were roused by knocks on the back window, accompanied by flashing red lights and fast-moving heavy footsteps. We opened the door to the sight of police officers shining flashlights in our faces. They were looking for a fugitive and thought we might be hiding him in the truck with us. After they went through everything, they left us alone but we were so shaken by the idea of an armed felon in our new backyard, that we got back in the front to drive to a place which was better lit and not likely to draw attention from law enforcement.

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Southgate Shopping Mall

Our next choice campsite was the Southgate Shopping Center in Sarasota, still pretty close to Lido Beach, with the bonus of having easily accessible bathrooms when we woke up in the morning.We finally went back to sleep in the parking lot of this mall. When we woke the next morning, we found the public bathrooms, walked the dogs and made our breakfast on our little Coleman stove on the back gate of the truck. People came and went, running their errands, doing their shopping and looking at us with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. By this time we were really enjoying ourselves. We were wearing our “outside the norm attitude” with pride. We knew how to make lemonade out of lemons.

We lasted three nights at the mall before someone informed the police of our presence. They politely asked us to pack up and leave. That day was rainy. We went to a Dunkin’ Donuts, treated ourselves to sugary delights and spent the afternoon reading Raymond Chandler mysteries and trying to figure out where to go next. By this time, we felt like guerilla warriors on a mission to squeeze a decent vacation out of corporate America on the cheap and love it to bits, no matter what the obstacles. Where could we camp and be left alone by the authorities? And then it dawned on me. The one place you could park 24 hours a day and be unnoticed. The airport.

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A perfect location. Bathrooms. Constant traffic. No one would notice us. With great relief, we drove there and parked, close enough to the terminal so we wouldn’t have a long hike for the bathroom and far enough away so no one paid us any attention. The airport was close to several beaches so we sampled many of them. The relaxing days passed until trauma once again descended on our trip. About the dogs….

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Mine was a border collie named Ribeye and Michael’s was an Irish Setter named Harpo. Ribeye was the smartest dog I ever owned, easy to manage, well-trained, an intellectual dog that Michael always accused me of favoring over a “dog dog.” Harpo was another matter. A “dog dog” all right. No intellect to worry about with Harpo. He was nice, sweet, handsome and dumb as a post. In the days before leash laws, we used to open the door in the morning and let the dogs out. After a bit, we whistled and they came back inside. At least Ribeye always did. Harpo, who seemed to be missing his sense of direction, often disappeared. He wore tags with our phone number, so eventually we would find him, miles from home or perhaps a few blocks away, having wandered into the wrong yard and plopped himself down, spent from his travels. And that is exactly what happened at the Sarasota airport one morning, when we let them out. Ribeye returned and Harpo didn’t. Poor Michael. How he loved that absurd dog. We ran through the parking lots, searching, calling his name. There was a highway not far from where we were parked and we had visions of him crushed on the side of the road. Sarasota was a busy city with lots of traffic. We felt terrible. Suddenly I remembered that we’d been listening intermittently to what could be described as an indie rock radio station. Between songs, there were announcements for happenings and events that seemed to be directed at the “alternative” community. And only a mile from the airport there was New College, possibly a place where some kind student types like us, might find a dog with out-of-state tags and call that radio station to do a public service announcement. 

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I got the call numbers from the radio, went into the airport, found a phonebook, phone booth and voila! It happened just like I thought it might. Someone on campus had found Harpo, called it in to the radio station and within a few hours, he was ensconced in the back of the truck with Ribeye, snoozing as if nothing traumatic had ever happened. Which it hadn’t, at least to him. 

By this time, we felt like maybe we’d pushed this trip to its limit and decided to head home. We had almost no cash left and enough experiences to last awhile. We headed north, with fingers crossed that our “new” truck had enough life to get us back to Illinois. 

Things went swimmingly, mile after mile until we reached Kentucky. Then those awful thunking mechanical noises started. We managed to get to a Chevy dealership at mid-day. Michael figured out that we had a bad alternator. This place had some dead vehicles in the back and the office people said he could go back there and look around to see if he could find a replacement. Off he went with his tools and fairly soon, came back, triumphant, alternator in hand. We asked how much they would charge for it and were told 10 bucks. Which, if we paid in cash would leave us nothing for the rest of the trip home. Michael asked if they’d take a check. The person working in the office informed us that the only person who could decide to accept an out of state check was the owner of the dealership. Okay then. Can we speak to the owner? Sorry. The owner went home and is taking a bath. Well, then. Michael went outside and swapped out the alternators. He came back in, hoping that the owner had returned from his midday soak. But, alas. We went back outside and although I tried to argue him out of leaving, Michael’s infamous short temper had finally asserted itself and he said he was leaving and hoped I’d join him. I got in the truck and spent the next hours craning my neck, looking behind us, waiting to be arrested for stealing the alternator. Michael was bemused as I imagined myself in prison stripes, trying to explain everything to my parents. We arrived home safely with this absurd vacation tucked into our memories. It became the stuff of our personal lore and we often thought about what a great time we had, despite every ridiculous event that happened. I guess the most important thing we learned was this trip was a metaphor for our life. Lots of wrenches unexpectedly thrown into our innocent plans, which we navigated without ever coming unglued. Best road trip ever, best life trip ever.

Look What You Made Me Do (It Should Be “Look At” but no one ever says that…)

Odd as it may seem, I was worked up yesterday about a random tennis player. I’ve had a big problem with Novak Djokovic long before his recent crisis, being denied entrance to Australia because he’s unvaccinated. Maybe it’s absurd to hold public figures to any standard of behavior, except for those who’ve been elected by voters. Generally, elected officials have made commitments about their approach to key issues. If they fail their electors, they can be voted out of office. Then there are those public figures who made no promises about anything. Their fame arrived, not because they have anything to say about matters which affect the public, but rather because they’re athletically gifted, excellent actors or exceptional musicians, among other careers. The sad truth is that people whose lives play out under public scrutiny often lose the privilege of anonymity. They also reap the benefits of their fame. The classic double-edged sword quandary. Djokovic is the top-ranked tennis player in the world. I’ve never liked him because of the multiple temper tantrums he’s displayed on the tennis court throughout his career. He’s not a kid. He’s an adult. Watching him break rackets, shout, and hurl objects that have even hit a volunteer in the face is disgusting. His anti-vaccine stance which led to him throwing his own tournament in 2020, and which ultimately got other players, along with himself and wife infected with Covid, was just an example of his arrogance. I won’t even address his other science-denying opinions, such as the one that prayer can purify food and water. He’s just an obnoxious person who wants to be beloved and who can’t understand why his behavior is off-putting to so many people. I hope the Australians don’t cave to pressure from those who think he should be given a pass because of his status. No one else is off the hook. He shouldn’t be either. The question I ask myself is: why do I even care about this guy? I get cranked up about lots of irrelevant people like him. I’m still annoyed with some folks who are not part of my life any more. Some would say that the amount of energy I expend on things like this is toxic. That I should let it all go and become more Zen. Michael used his annoying phrase, “ mellow out,” to try toning me down. He was worried that my vitriol would have negative impacts on my health. Well, he’s been gone almost five years. I’m still here. On most days, I’m mad about something. Here in my eighth decade, I’ve had the gift of a healthy life. What does it all mean? I thought about this for a long time last night. I drew some interesting conclusions about myself. I wound up mulling over my family history. What were the lasting lessons I took away from my early years? I can still hear mom and dad’s pronouncements and advice. Through my own filters and maturation process, some of those were altered. But apparently, the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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Me kissing dad

Evidently I was a really kissy baby. At least that’s what my mom always said. In our complex adult relationship, she frequently remarked, “What happened to you? You used to be so sweet.” I’ve thought about that observation a lot. I don’t know if kissing is the equivalent of sweetness. If it is, then I’m certainly more sour than I once was. I haven’t had a real juicy romantic kiss since 2017, before Michael died. Except for the ones which pop up in my dreams of him, that kissing is gone forever. I will always miss those. And kisses of the more casual kind are gone too, victims of social distancing and Covid anxiety. In truth, I don’t think my sweetness has been around for a long time. I can be kind. I can be compassionate. But sweet? My mom and dad both ensured that the sweetness of my childhood didn’t have a place in my adult development. I learned my lessons about the risks of that trusting naïveté from them.

Dad, mom and grandma

Mom and dad both lived through difficult childhoods. Mom was the only surviving daughter in her family. My grandmother had eight live births, but lost three of those children to early deaths. Girls weren’t valued in their family culture. Mom had heavy household responsibilities even as a young girl, and spent a big part of her early life fighting off undesired sexual advances. She felt unloved and abused. She said no one at home ever taught her anything, that her mother never told her she loved her. She was eighteen when one of her brothers introduced her to my dad, also a teenager. His father died when he was eight. He stepped up as the “man of the house,” selling apples from a wagon to help support his mother, his older sister and his younger brother. A streetwise kid, he dropped out of school after his sophomore year in high school. Disappointed that his father’s financially comfortable family did little to help his mother, he scrabbled hard to make a living, never forgetting that sense of familial abandonment. He was always skeptical and mistrusting, a perennial boy with a grownup’s life. He and my mom were married at nineteen. They were deeply in love with each other, a couple of romantic kids who had a child ten months after their wedding.

Mom with my older brother

Plunged into adult responsibilities before having much of an opportunity to fully develop emotionally, my parents brought a curious mixture of lessons to their parenting skills. They were both loving although dad was a terrible teaser, part of his boyish affect. Although they each experienced disappointments in their family lives, my siblings and I were raised to believe in fierce loyalty to our relatives. That paradigm was challenging as they both, with my mother leading the charge, made sure we were all in the know about every failure of that loyalty. I don’t think either of them forgot even the smallest slight or shortfall within our tribal allegiance. I became a repository for all their stories of betrayal. I learned that in life you never forgot who in the family made you feel terrible or why, nor any outsider who’d hurt anyone in our clan. My dad’s older sister resented my mom, found her weaknesses and dominated their relationship. After living in the same Iowa city for my early years, mom insisted that we move back to Chicago to put distance between them. Within minutes of my dad’s death, the first thing she said was that dad’s sister wasn’t invited to his funeral. An astounding moment. Even though she and my grandmother had lifelong issues, her own family was preferable to dad’s. He was willing to do anything for mom and so was distant from his immediate family. They certainly remained dedicated to each other. My parents were the center of my universe. Because I loved them, I incorporated their feelings about everyone into my worldview. Anyone who was portrayed negatively to me, who had hurt them, became my enemy. I think all four of us kids came away with that attitude. There was none of the forgive and forget philosophy. All slights and perceived treacheries were kept passionately alive. What was emphasized as central tenets in our lives was to always remember the bad, to be guarded and to be mistrustful. As I grew up and developed myself, I realized that I’d internalized this philosophy. My family was bigger than my blood relatives, expanding to include close friends, but nonetheless, I always prioritized within my circle. As I’ve reiterated multiple times throughout my years, I play for one team within the context of my familial network. If someone hurts my teammate, my fierce loyalty becomes the operative factor in subsequent interactions with the perpetrator. Although I’m willing to try settling problems and entering into negotiations before ending relationships, I’ve wound up shedding anyone who’s broken the essential trust with me and/or mine.

Me sitting on dad’s lap. Mom sitting next to her deeply resented sister-in-law.

I seen to have the same unlimited passion for my perceived unforgettable wrongs that my parents did, although I think I come at them from a more rational internal center than the grievances of childhood. I have a solid intellectual foundation for my opinions about what constitutes unforgivable behavior and am not prone to childish unfairness. What separates me from my grudge-holding parents is a willingness to confront these issues when they’re with people in my life, instead of letting them smolder into perennial resentment. My parents were never as forward as me about direct clashes. I prefer to clear the air, to express myself instead of either burying the feelings, or letting them govern my life. Often the other party is not so willing to go through that direct process. I do try. But there’s no doubt that my fundamental evaluation of behavior standards, rights and wrongs, and the permanence of those evaluations, were passed on to me as a standard at home, when I was growing up. The irony of my mom wondering what happened to my inherent sweetness was lost on her but not on me. Life happened to me. My interpretation of my personal experiences was informed by both her and my dad, within the framework laid out by them. The way I handled myself as an adult was simply different from their approach. But I could easily say to her, “look what you made me do.” My penchant for judging the people in my life was honed at their proverbial knees. The energy required for living this way has to this point, been inexhaustible, despite the opinion that anger is bad for my health. I even have enough bandwidth for annoying individuals like Novak Djokovic, who’ll never know what I’ve thought of his behavior. But I know what I think, and that will do.

A Slap Upside The Head

Every once in a while, when I find myself slipping into the useless act of wallowing, I recognize my need for a figurative “slap upside the head.” A pop culture example of what I mean can be seen in the film “Moonstruck,” when Cher strikes Nicholas Cage in the face, shouting, “snap out of it!” Like so many others, I’m just feeling frustrated with the Omicron barrage. Afflicted with the curse of constant awareness, and once again spending the bulk of my conscious hours locked in my house with not a human in sight, I started to fall into the doldrums, not a positive mental state. I decided to change things up by reading a book about a topic about which I knew nothing. The Lost City of the Monkey God is the story of an archaeological expedition into a mountainous, jungled area of Honduras, where rumors of an abandoned city had been floating about for a few hundred years. What could be more distracting than a real life adventure story? Not much. Or so I thought. As I got into the last part of the book, the adventure receded into the recounting of how many people on the exploring crew contracted Leishmaniasis, a tropical parasitic disease which is categorized as a neglected tropical disease, a disease for which little efforts toward wiping it out have happened. Affecting over a billion poor people annually, that this parasitic nightmare commands little scientific attention is tragic. With multiple forms of the infection, which was transmitted by sand flies, the symptoms ranging from a hideous skin presentation to a life-threatening one, the intrepid crew made their way to the National Institute of Health for diagnosis and treatment. Suddenly I found myself reading interviews with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a scientist and immunologist serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was talking about the dangers of pandemics along with the perils of climate change. As the world warms, tropical diseases like “lesh” are making their way north into the U.S. So far, cases have turned up in Texas and Oklahoma. Tropical disease-naive people may have significantly more troublesome outcomes than our neighbors to the south. I mean, really? Our own beleaguered Dr. Fauci, the current Covid lightning rod, was jumping out of the book which was supposed to be all new and a diversion from the current day.

I couldn’t possibly have known the turn my distracting book would take, but clearly this read was not the best choice for putting some distance between me and the present state of affairs. I finished that book and moved on.

Black Hills, South Dakota
Badlands, South Dskota

What I don’t want to become at this stage of my life, is unconscious of all the privileges I’ve experienced along the way. When I was young, my family definitely scraped along financially. My parents didn’t really get comfortable until all four of us kids were basically out of their apartment. But I was never starving. We lacked health insurance and regular dental care but for the most part we got by. I didn’t get stitches for a big cut on my leg once and had a tooth pulled instead of repaired. Compared to the world’s poverty-stricken millions, that’s not much to complain about. Hence, the slap upside the head. I’ve traveled both in the U.S. and abroad. I’m not going to be able to do everything I dreamed of doing, but on a relative scale, I’ve done great. The sensation of being confined, which is what Covid has aided me in acquiring, melts away fast when I realize how much I’ve squeezed into my life.

Yellowstone, Montana
Yellowstone, Montana

The average American has visited just 12 states, according to a study conducted by Livablity.com and Ipsos Public Affairs. I’ve been to 46 states. South Dakota and Montana have been visited by fewer than 15% of Americans and North Dakota by fewer than 10%. I’ve been to all three. How lucky am I? Very. In addition, 27% of Americans have never been out of the country. Almost 31% have been to two or fewer countries. As there is a different country at both the northern and southern borders, that proximity probably accounts for a significant number of those visits. I’ve been to twelve countries, a couple multiple times, which puts me in the top 11% of my fellow citizens. I’m sure I’m not in the top 11% of the population income-wise, which means I’m really fortunate to have gotten in so much travel. Of course, I’d like to do more and I think going into the third year of the pandemic in my “golden years” kind of sucks. But on a relative scale? Shut my mouth. If and when this bizarre situation ends, I want to like myself when it’s over. I won’t be able to do that if I become a whining pest. Maintaining perspective is the only way for me to get through this time. After all, I managed to sneak away twice in 2021. That’s more than many people can say.

After sorting myself out a bit, I went back to peering out the windows and doors of my house. Observing the behavior of the animals who inhabit my yard is always interesting and was a boon during the winter months of 2020 and 2021. Today finally brought seasonal temperatures for January, rather than the mild ones which have lingered through November and December. The chilly air brought multiple bird species to feast at my feeders. The icy glaze on the glass through which I was shooting make for blurry pictures, but I like them anyway.

Bluejays
Carolina wren
Cardinal on the way to the feeder
Female cardinal
Junco
Sparrows waiting their turn in the lunch line.

I did venture out into the cold. Fresh air is a critical necessity in maintaining a healthy mental balance. Despite the biting temperature, the draw of my garden is still strong. I poked around, looking for bits of color, planning for the empty spaces which invariably pop up every year. I garden both economically and defensively these days. My back hallway is full of rhizomes and seeds I pulled from the ground in the fall. They’ll all go back in after the danger of frost is gone. So far I’ve been lucky with cannas, dahlias, milkweed and tithonia sunflowers. Each success feels like a small triumph over endless consumerism. I’m also trying to plant in a way that holds down the amount of weed pulling which always faces those of us who love the dirt. There are ways to subvert those pesky volunteers.

The juxtaposition of the winter and summer garden is somehow comforting. I hope I’m not around long enough to see my yard turn into a one season environment. I can’t imagine what the world would be like if there was never the pleasure of watching new blooms emerge as if it was their first time.

Back inside I pulled out the old standbys that help me while away the daytime hours. The thick book of challenging New York Times crossword puzzles. The art supplies. I remind myself that if I don’t practice I’ll never improve. My attempt to draw my beloved female cardinal Pumpkin, who disappeared from my yard a few months ago, is not satisfying to me. I’m going to give that rendering another go.

In a few weeks, the online classes I enrolled in will begin. Hopefully after those end, this latest surge will have run its course. Or if not, the weather will be mild enough for me to break out the digging tools so I can be up to my eyeballs in the open air and my dirt. This afternoon, the sun broke through what felt like endless days of gray sky. I was able to catch the moment. For the time being, that moment will have to suffice.