Monday, October 06, 2014

The Biggest Little Surprise

What does it mean when your children are grown and living on their own but you still stock Blue G2, Smuckers PB&J’s, Hershey’s chocolate syrup and whole milk?  You randomly pick up girlie stickers, paint brushes and High School Musical games?  You might just be a Big Sister like me.

Raising my three boys, there were definite gaps in my teen girl IQ. My little sister is educating me. I know the words to every Taylor Swift song. I am knowledgeable about all things Monster High. I have someone to try out crafts and art projects with. I have my own sous-chef and baker’s assistant. I have an enthusiastic tennis and racquetball partner.

My little sister looks up to my boys and often asks where they are and how they are doing. When they are home for the weekend she wants to stay for dinner and quiz their girlfriends about relationships, in a way only she can. She wonders what my husband is doing when he’s not home. She even got over her fear of cats and jokes around with Miss Pearl.

In my family, we each have a drawer (called our “nook”) on the first floor where we can throw our junk, so my little sister has her own drawer at my house. It is full of pictures, games, art supplies, puzzles, scrapbooking materials, and any odds and ends (think pinecones and ribbon) I deem of possible interest to a creative young woman. There is a piece of blue tulle in there, and she regularly wraps it around her head or waist and becomes a DJ or Karaoke star. 

We are into our fourth years as BBBS matches. I know I am becoming more a part of her life because she wants me attend her choir concerts and calls me up to let me know she got First at her bowling tournament. Her big sister before me died at a young age (my age), and she speaks of her often. We spent one afternoon locating her marker at the cemetery, and have been back once more to visit. Sometimes people ask me how long I plan on being a Big Sister. My little sister is 13, so my math says in five more years she will be 18. I’m all in if she is.

Monday, September 22, 2014


My parents and I had the privilege of seeing and listening to a man who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2001. He has a PhD in Psychology and is one of the best speakers I have heard in a long time. His name is Richard Taylor, and he has dementia. Hard to believe. He could speak more fluently and eloquently than I could on my most lucid day. His message was as an advocate of people with dementia, to be treated with dignity and as if they are living, not dying. He says not to lie to people or walk into their delusions. He says we treat people with dementia as if they are getting more and more holes in them, when in reality, we are always whole, aren’t we? 

As long as I can remember my father has verbalized his biggest fear:  falling into the grips of dementia, hardening of the arteries, Alzheimer’s, senility, whatever the current phrase. At one point, my mother threw out all our aluminum pots and pans, when dementia was briefly linked to that.  Working as long possible, volunteering as much possible, performing on stage, and doing daily crossword puzzles were all part of my parent’s antidote to the possibility of developing dementia. My father’s fear was largely due to watching his mother and other family members slowly lose their cognitive functioning, that being something my father made his livelihood on (teaching at the university level). My grandmother lived with us, as her dementia took hold. She wandered, repeated, forgot things, became paranoid, accusatory and finally combative. For some reason, I became the object of her ire. I always knew she didn’t like me, but it became pretty hostile when I was in high school, which I admit I didn’t really understand. By college, I could deal much better and even came home sometimes to keep an eye on her while my parents got away for the opera or to visit friends. Luckily for Dad, my husband remarks frequently how sharp his father-in-law’s mind and wits are.

The question I most wanted to ask Dr. Taylor was if he thought it was okay that our family uses humor to deal with the prospect of dementia amongst ourselves? What we do is call out “Minneapolis” as soon as someone (anyone, any age) tells a story we have heard before, most likely, many times before.  The term comes from a memorable car trip with an aging relative in throes of dementia, who asked anyone and everyone approximately every five minutes, “Have you ever been to Minneapolis?” Minneapolis has spawned the term Dallas, which is when you know you are telling a Minneapolis story, but are doing it intentionally. The lastest wrinkle, is to call out Albuquerque when someone tells a story you’ve never heard before.

Dr. Taylor used a lot of humor in his talks, for example, he admitted to a phase of “wandering,” but said “I wasn’t wandering, I was going somewhere, I just don’t know where the hell I was going.”  He also compared the tubing on an old enema bag to what he imagined hardening of the arteries to look like. If I had to guess, I would say he would approve of our humor, and when we we lose that, we just might be in trouble. 

Friday, September 05, 2014

Confessions of an Empty-Nester

Not surprisingly, I have been asked more than once, how I am doing with the empty nest syndrome. It was not long after Eli and Cal were both lodged in their apartments near Illinois State University that I started noticing little differences around the house, most of them nice little benefits. I wasn't sure if there would be much change, since Eli was in New Jersey all summer and Cal was busy working and playing with his homies. However, here are few things that hit me these past three weeks:

  • I can lock all the doors every night because we don't have to worry if "someone" remembered their house key
  • I can walk from the bathroom to the bedroom (or wherever) in a towel or less without fear of scaring anyone to death
  • The weekly grocery bill is under $100 and the cart looks positively empty (I can splurge on T-bone steak since we can get by on one)
  • I might be able to get Pat to eat healthy now. I didn't have a chance when it was 4 or 3 against 1
  • Leftovers can be safely put away immediately after dinner
  • The house stays remarkably clean
  • It is a huge joy to be able to help our kids financially and emotionally now rather than the physicality that was put into their early years
  • Time with the boys (Adam included) becomes that much more special. Eli and Cal joined me in Louisville this past weekend and it was absolutely amazing to have that time together.  
I wouldn't tell them "don't let the door hit you going out" but I wouldn't say this phase of life doesn't have its own sweetness. You just have to open your nostrils to the new scents.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Half of Nothing is Everything

There's an essay circulating around Facebook called "16 Things Only Half-Siblings Understand."  I've tried not to use that term, which I despise, half brother, with my boys. To me they are brothers, even though they have different last names and different dads. I realize because of the almost five year age difference, some people don't know Adam is related to Eli and Cal, or that the younger boys even have an older brother, and vice versa.

The realization that Adam had a different dad and would go off with him periodically when they were little, I believe led Eli to invent "my dad with the monkeys" who was his imaginary dad who owned an ice cream store, and a castle and an amusement park. He must have found it quite mysterious and wondrous that Adam had another life outside of our family, so much that he created his own make-believe world away from us. This prompted Cal to chime in with what cool stuff he got to do with "my dad with the giraffes."  Later we were all able to spend time with Adam's paternal grandparents going to Nebraska football games and chilling at the lake.

One incident really gave me pause in how I portrayed our family.  A friend pointed out to me that my answering machine message said, "Please leave a message for Pat, Susan, Eli or Cal," excluding Adam completely. I don't know why I did this (he had his own cell phone?), and I was floored when it was pointed out to me. After that I became hypersensitive to making sure Adam was included in pictures, messages, letters, cards, etc.

I feel a lot of shame at what I just wrote. The truth is, Adam has been the longest term relationship of my adult life. He has been with me longer than my marriage, or any other friendships. I know we are bonded by that, however awkward different stages have been.  I can't tell you how pissed off I was when an ignorant clergy once suggested that I hadn't raised Adam, because somehow his faulty memory or the fact that he didn't want to attend his f---ing stupid services drew him to the conclusion I had abdicated my responsibility as a parent.  *probably need to let go of that resentment*

Adam actually helped me attract my current spouse, helped keep us together in ways he may not even know, and was even a chick magnet for his Uncle Chris. Yes, he was a pretty cute, awesome and precocious tyke. I've always called him my "best boy" and I want him to know he is 1/3 of my Everything.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I had to use three times for this Post

I thought I was doing fine. I was excited for and proud of Cal for his financial intelligence, organizing skills, and ebullience over finally getting out of Macomb.  I wasn't even cranky with him the last few days. He took off today with a van not too full of stuff.  But on the way home from work it hit me.  I started bawling a couple blocks out of the parking lot.  I almost caused an accident crossing Washington Street in front of an oncoming car.  I remembered his first day of Kindergarten, and never having a problem with the older boys, balked at the idea of this being any kind of emotional milestone.  More like wrecking ball (thank you Miley Cyrus).  That day and today, the day he left for college.

Maybe it was the pressure I am putting on myself at work, which has caught the attention of my supervisor and a trusted colleague, just today, and is not assuaged by any amount of reassurance.  Maybe it's menopause. Maybe I feel bad that my former co-workers are picketing 24/7  for a fair teaching contract. Full moon, Mercury in Retrograde?

Whatever the confluence of events, the empty nest is a real emotional minefield, whether or not I expected it. Luckily Eli and I are driving over tomorrow and switching vehicles. I'm looking forward to getting out of town and making sure they both have what they need in their apartments, maybe even grab a cup of coffee in a cute shop in Uptown. But right now I just want to veg out with a book and a plate of No Bake Cookies. And a box of tissues.

Monday, August 11, 2014


My friend Rob Porter said, "I had to get up early and run away, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to leave. Endless Mountains, East and West branch Susquehanna Valley, Genesee Valley. Those streams and mountains, shrouded in fog this morning with mist rising from the forests. They are my soul."

I imagine it looking something like this:

I thought that was really beautiful, but it's not my soul (home).  This is my soul:

Yeah, Eli took this picture last summer.  He told me on the way home from his summer in New Jersey, on the train between Chicago and Macomb, he felt that pull and that he was home and it was a great feeling. I don't think he'd ever been gone from the Central Illinois area long enough to appreciate that before.

I remember having that for the first time when I lived in Colorado and driving back, being overwhelmed by the cornfields and the small but rolling hills and knowing that I was home.  Yes, the mountains were beautiful and I still dream of them a lot, but the flatness, the endless fields, the silos and the pungent odor of pigs is my heart, my soul, my home.

I think Forrest Robinson said it beautifully (and I can't believe I just found this poem I have saved for many years):
                                              Western Illinois Country

This is the land of the dropping sky
where stars sparkle flat out east and west,
north and south, where you ride at night
on top of the world; and dawn sets fire
to waterbeads along roadsides, cornstalks
spider-webby and silver in the fields, running
forever. No one growing up in hills can know
the origin of thunderclouds, the slow demise
of days in blinding , pink haze or clear azure,
fielding that single star we realize is meant
for us-fresh hope rising in deluge, drought,
and snow to pierce the sky like a church spire,
watchful as a windmill waiting for wind.
This land, flat and haunted by wagonwheels,
washes into the soul like an inland sea,
its tide singing in the summer night air,
calling us forever on our passage home.

Published in Eureka Literary Magazine

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Art of Humility (and Frugality)

My parents always set a good example of humility. At a young age I was taught, however unconsciously, not to be prideful or boast. The message seemed to be that it is best to lower yourself in relation to another person, so as not to embarrass or make them feel bad; their feelings are more important than your own.  This took the form of deflecting and not being able to accept a sincere compliment, not talking about myself unless asked specific questions, always being careful not to flaunt material possessions or accomplishments, and to be sure to let everyone know how thrifty and parsimonious I am, eg. wearing the same clothes for 15 or 20 years, making do with rusty old appliances and utensils, using the public library, riding a bike or walking as transportation.  I remember growing up with the same thread bare bath towels (which are still knocking around my mother's rag bag), which were barely big enough to reach around me, stiff from drying on the line, and secretly longing for just one plush bath sheet that was warm and fluffy when pulled from the dryer.  I later learned these take forever to dry, and have the weird ability to actually repel water...a total waste.  There were certain things I rejected as an adult (reusing paper towels and baggies *although my husband would argue that point*, clothes lines, turning plastic bags into rugs *I kid you not* and thin, cheap towels ) and others I retained  (generally cooking and eating at home, doing without fancy cars or jewelry, saving and reusing paper, rubberbands, etc.) and even exceeded my parents on (thrift shop and yard sale clothes, trash picking, couponing, driving late model cars).  A few things I tried (coloring my own hair, making my own paper out of dryer lint) and decided it's just not worth it. 

More recently I have learned that humility doesn't have to be lowering myself or being ashamed of myself. It is the clear perspective of one's self, as neither above or below another person.  That has been one lesson that is harder to unlearn. I don't really like talking about myself, which is maybe why I prefer writing.  I can pretend no one is reading, and essentially this is true.   

With all that said, here are some things I am proud of (I have worked for them, but I can't say Divine intervention has not played a role, too):

  • My three healthy, smart, talented, funny and unique sons.  They are all different, but I am equally proud of them.
  • Being married for 22 years, though Pat has made it pretty easy.
  • Having a 30 year career that allows me to connect with people, not so much things or ideas, and volunteering my time to help others.
  • Maintaining 15 years of continuous sobriety.
  • Earning my master's degree.
  • Helping my children through college without taking on a debt load.