Now, About Those Resolutions

 

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This post was originally written – but not posted – in January 2012. Now, a full year later, it is fun to look at last year’s musings on the topic of New Year’s Resolutions. And a little insightful, too. 

January’s end is upon us, and I haven’t quite finished my list of resolutions yet. Not written ones anyway. And truthfully, isn’t this the point in the year when most of us forget our resolutions anyway?

After all, I found a parking space at the gym yesterday without too much trouble. And my friend who Facebooked every day about her progress reading the entire Bible in six weeks has gone strangely silent. At Costco the other day, I didn’t see that big Nutrisystem display that stood so prominent a month or so ago; it looks like Valentine candy is in full swing at my local CVS, with Cadbury eggs not far behind.

I have plenty of excuses for skimming over the tradition of “resolving” much for 2012. I have lived most of my life on a school-year schedule, and for me the new year always begins in September, not January. It is the time when I get a fresh 18 month calendar and neatly write in birthdays and special occasions. I organize the closets. Those old habits die hard – I guess I am still performing my own rituals of getting school supplies and school clothes, even now.

Still, the notion of resolution-making catches my attention. This past January 1, I couldn’t help but notice the many tips for making and keeping “good” resolutions for 2012 sprinkled through my daily paper and regular stops on the web. Some columnists vowed that they were making “anti-resolutions” and that the ritual of resolving was little more than setting ourselves up for failure. Others took advantage of the opening to educate us on SMART goal setting, or filled us in on the Dalai Lama’s advice for attaining contentment.  At the other end of the spectrum, I clipped out the article that recommended 2,012 resolutions for the year. This equates to fulfilling 5.5 resolutions per day, even accounting for Leap Year. I admit that I smiled when I saw the single resolution: Be Awesome.

If I wrote them down this year, my list of resolutions would probably look a lot like some of yours. Eat healthy food. Exercise more. Live my dream – which means time at the keyboard cannot wait until everything else is done and the house is clean and organized to perfection. Figure out a way to make enough money to support a writing life. Be kinder, more spiritual, more patient, more conscientious…be kind of awesome, in my own way.

Does that list set me up for failure?

Can I accomplish those resolutions in a year? Or by the beginning of September?

It’s doubtful if I can accomplish them in the same way that I could put a check mark next to “flossed teeth” or “folded laundry fresh from the dryer.” Some of them do indeed fall into my daily “to do” list – choose the salad instead of the sandwich at lunch, hit the gym, that type of thing. Others? Not so easy to quantify (and thus not qualifying as SMART goals, by the way.) How  do I quantify patience, or spirituality, or kindness? Can’t be done, can it?

But it’s almost February, and I haven’t given up on those “not smart” resolutions yet. I keep at it, putting one foot in front of the other. A year from now, I probably won’t even remember what those resolutions were….but I can live out 2012 in hopes of making each day just a bit more awesome.

 

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It Started Like Any Other Day At School

Connecticut School Shooting

The summer before the Columbine shootings, I worked at a middle school. Our French teacher was taking a leave of absence, and we scheduled a full day of interviews. Positions for French teachers were scarce, so we had lots of applicants.

Two stand out, even today.

One because she didn’t really speak French. She did, however, affect a decent French accent when we asked her about her own proficiency with the language.

The other, more promising, asked an odd question as we wrapped things up. She asked where her classroom would be if she were hired. Of course we couldn’t give an answer as clear as “Oh you will spend your entire teaching career in room 100.” But she persisted. We talked a bit longer, until the real question came out. She wondered how close her room would be to an exterior door. Her husband was a violent man. They were separating. She was worried. Back then we didn’t lock all the doors the way we do now. But that woman’s story raised the hairs in the back of my neck. We couldn’t hire her. We couldn’t put our school at risk, no matter how fine a teacher she may have been.

Over the years crisis planning became a science. FBI agents taught us (and the police) how to spot those whose behavior might pose a risk. Psychiatrists and psychologists warned us to watch the loners, the ones preoccupied with violence, the ones who might be bullied. We learned what a crisis team ought to do, assembled plans, and practiced lock downs and evacuations.

Those lock down drills always gave me the creeps. It was my job to walk the building during the drill and be sure that no child could be seen or heard from the hallways. The same hallways that, on any other day, would be buzzing with activity. The silence during those drills was very different from the silence when I worked late at night, alone.

But when we really faced those crisis moments, it was scary. At that same school, a long-time teacher once asked me if I ever thought of wearing a bulletproof vest. Another day, I learned that my name topped a hit list drawn up by a tragically troubled child…a child who took his own life at a young, young age. I sat with parents who feared violence at the hands of their own children. I sat with parents and police, when we knew that the parents had done horrible things. I met fathers freshly released from prison. I calmed hysterical mothers, at the end of their rope. I stood face to face with rage.

All the grad school in the world didn’t teach me to handle those situations.

But hear this. Hear it plain and loud and clear: My experience is not unique.

At each and every school in America, teachers and principals face a microcosm of our culture every day. It is hopeful and horrifying all at once. Today, little children in Newtown, Connecticut woke up with joy and went into classrooms with teachers who loved them. At this very moment, their parents are surely shaking in horror and grief as officials piece together what on earth has happened.

Yesterday those same parents were probably at Target, finishing up Christmas and Hanukkah shopping. They hurried to wrap presents and hide them under the bed. They bundled up the kids for the evening concert at Sandy Hook Elementary.

This afternoon, our President spoke with a catch in his voice. Many voices call for gun control. There will surely be some outcry about the state of education in general, and who knows what else. Some parents will debate whether to home school. Others may succumb to the temptation to politicize this tragedy, and to somehow fit it into “us vs. them.” I hope not, but I fear it will happen.

Instead, let’s say a prayer for the innocent lives lost, for families everywhere that are doing the best they can, and for the folks in the school down the street from where you live.

Posted in Issues, Memoir, Opinion, Parents and children, Schools, Teachers | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Parade Day

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The first Sunday in December is a big day in my home town. Main Street closes down by 10 in the morning; traffic is diverted a mile or so west, and everyone knew that there will be a few spots in town that are pretty much out of reach till after the annual Christmas parade breaks up.

Winter comes early in Michigan, so when I was growing up, Parade Day meant bundling up in snow pants and parkas, with mittens stuffed into pockets. We loaded into the car right after lunch. I’m sure that Mom was more concerned about finding a decent parking spot than finding the perfect vantage point to watch. In the 1960’s and 70’s, stores were closed on Sunday, so there was no thought of combining the parade with lunch out, or even a cup of steaming cup of coffee for the adults in the crowd.

We huddled near the curb as the sound of marching bands approached. West Jr. High wore red. Central Jr. High, where I would attend one day, wore royal blue. We listened, captivated, to eighth graders’ renditions of Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls. When we spotted the big Rochester High School band, we knew that Santa was almost here. Eventually, when a second high school opened on the other side of town, Rochester High still held on to Jingle Bell Rock as its signature parade song.

There were floats of course, built by Rotarians and Jaycees. Clowns tossed candy into the crowd. The Chevy dealer provided Corvette convertibles for the day, so that the mayor could wave to his public and we could all get a glimpse of Miss Rochester. The year I was nine, the Girl Scouts from all over town dressed as Christmas packages and marched in the parade; we poked our heads through holes cut out in gift wrapped moving boxes and practiced our cadence. Left. Left. Left, Right, Left. My knee socks slid down past my heels and bunched up inside my snow boots before we had gone very far.

The VFW marched silent and dignified behind their banner. Everyone recognized that these guys knew what they were doing when they marched.

The grand finale was, of course, Santa high atop his sleigh. Parents took hold of their children’s shoulders and turned their little bodies to be sure they didn’t miss seeing St. Nick’s arrival. “There he is!” the adults shouted. Mittened hands waved, the cold suddenly forgotten. Every child breathed a sigh of relief. Santa was back in town. Christmas itself couldn’t be far behind.

Photo: The Big Bright Light Show, Rochester, MI 2012.www.facebook.com/downtownrochester

<Postscript: Over the years, our little town grew, and so did the parade. Bands from schools in other towns appeared. Newscasters from Detroit showed up to provide parade commentary, just like the hosts on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day event. Every business in town joined in in one way or another. The grain elevator (a throwback to Rochester’s agricultural days that now sells a lot of snowblowers) donated a truck for my son’s Cub Scout pack. They won first prize in the Youth Division.  I don’t think there were any prizes at all when I was growing up. There certainly wasn’t any news coverage – not even a PA system to announce the participants. We just knew: we knew who the police chief was, and who directed those marching bands. We knew the scout leaders, the firemen, and the guy who drove the local tow truck. This post is dedicated to those who share the joys of growing up in a small town, putting down roots, and calling it “home.”>

 

 

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Legacy

The kids were toddlers, and money was tight. The TV ad promised hours of holiday fun with the “Disney Christmas” LP; I must have seen the ad a dozen times before I dared to give it much thought. With shipping, that album was going to come in at about $17. I had to think twice about spending that much, and Christmas was still months away. Finally, on a September afternoon, I picked up the phone and dialed the 800 number.

 

The package arrived just before Halloween.

 

Starting that year, I resolved that my children would learn the Christmas carols that I loved. They would learn all the words to all the verses of all the songs. The best way to accomplish that goal was to play Christmas music – and only Christmas music – from Halloween right through the big day.

 

“Disney Christmas” got us started, with 30 songs sung in familiar cartoon character voices. For back-up, I had Bing Crosby and The Ray Conniff Singers.

 

And so we listened and we sang. Jingle Bells. Up On The Housetop. Away In A Manger. From the time that my children could speak, they learned to sing the songs of Christmas.

 

“Christmas music only” became a post-Halloween tradition in our house. I never really told anyone, never announced it at the dinner table, never made it a decree. But my collection of Christmas music expanded to include medieval chants, Percy Faith instrumentals, and Fat Bob The Singing Plumber. On November 1, those albums took a place of honor next to the turntable and the rest of our music collection was tucked away until January. Eric Clapton, Carly Simon, and The Who took a break, so to speak.

 

The collection of LPs gave way to cassettes, then to CDs. Hallmark rolled out a collection of Christmas music, and Julie Andrews and Harry Belafonte joined our lineup. I pushed the “play” button as soon as we got home every afternoon; somehow, Christmas songs weren’t a distraction as the kids grew and we tackled homework after dinner. We sang in the car on the way to the grocery store, the mall, or a doctor’s appointment. We knew all Twelve Days of Christmas and never ever confused the pipers piping with the lords a leaping.

 

My children did, indeed, learn all the words. Granted, it’s probably not the most important lesson they learned by virtue of being mine. But I believe to this day that they could pull up the second verse of “Silent Night” or the chorus of “Do You Hear What I Hear” almost instinctively.

 

There’s a certain satisfaction in that, and more than a little sentimentality too.

 

Posted in Holidays, Learning, Memoir, Obsessions, Parents and children, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Turkey Mummy

Yesterday I went to three different grocery stores.

Thanksgiving is next week, and my shopping list was ready to go. For everyday shopping, I almost always keep a skeletal grocery list on my cell phone, and browse just a few aisles for the items that catch my eye. Mostly, I’m a simple cook.

But at the holiday season, tradition knocks at the door and I open my recipe file. For some of the classics, I barely need to look at the recipes; but then again, I don’t want to risk being caught without any chopped pecans, or sailing right past the fresh cranberries or sage.  So this week, there was a real grocery list, and I spent most of the day with it.

I’m not the only one thinking of Thanksgiving. Later in the day, a Facebook friend posted  a new twist on one of those Thanksgiving classics: a turkey blanketed in a meticulously woven lattice of bacon. My friend – and a slew of commenters – remarked on the magical blend of flavors and speculated that brining the turkey, or even salting it, would be optional. The cook could remove the bacon for the last hour or so, to insure that the skin got brown and crispy, the way we all like it.

My reaction was different.

I imagined myself bursting into tears as I struggled to create that perfect bacon lattice.  I imagined the feel of slippery fat on my hands and under my nails, defying me to lift the next piece into a tidy over-under-over pattern. Would it be easier to work on a flat surface, then lift the lattice like a blanket onto the pale turkey in my roasting pan? Or would the whole thing come undone when i tried to lift it? Still, weaving bacon over the curved surface of the bird seemed like a formidable task. I noticed then that the wings and legs were simply wrapped, mummy style, in bacon strips. I knew in my heart that even getting the bacon to stay in place on a  turkey mummy in my own kitchen was well beyond my skill.

And I know my limits. I have wept over culinary tasks more times than I can count. Pie crust that stuck to the rolling pin. Bread dough that refused to rise. I’ve never mastered the art of peeling a potato, so my family only knew baked, not mashed. I ordered most of my children’s birthday cakes from the Home Bakery on Main Street.

I’ve carried a particular grudge against jello. I remember the day in our tiny apartment in married student housing when I tried to make a molded jello salad. The aluminum mold had a fluted design, and when I flipped it over so the green concoction would let go, it stuck firm. I had followed the directions in the Betty Crocker cookbook to a T. There was no way to go around the edge with a knife; the fluting was too narrow and the knife blade wouldn’t fit. I immersed the whole thing in warm water a second time, just for a few seconds. No luck.

It was then that my failure launched a full assault against my good intentions. I retaliated with a fork. I tore into the jello, the chopped celery, the bits of pineapple, with a fury that I’ve hardly experienced since. Jello took flight. It landed on the tiny kitchen table, it leapt into the sink, it hit the ceiling. Droplets scattered across the brown and white rug.

Jello became something like volleyball – that thing that seemed easy to everyone but me. My anger burned white hot. How dare the jello cry “failure” when I was trying so hard?

The jello, of course, was not labeling me a failure. It was a used aluminum mold, with a few spots inside where the finish had worn off. It may not have worked very well for anyone. My anger that day had nothing to do with jello, really. It was about other kinds of failings, other kinds of fear, the desperate frustration of trying to make everything important all at once. It was the desperate frustration of trying to make everything perfect.

So no, I won’t be weaving bacon over my turkey this holiday season. I’m sticking with the basics: that sweet potato recipe that I’ve made for about 30 years now, stuffing loaded with celery and fresh sage, and turkey made in a Reynolds roasting bag. There will be jello, but I make it in a crystal bowl and we scoop it right out with a serving spoon.

After a whole lot of Thanksgiving dinners,  I know what works for me. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Posted in Balance, Domesticity, Holidays, Memoir, Obsessions, Overwhelmed | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

News Weak

I’ve been traveling the last few days, and my route has taken me through a few airports. This morning, my flight taxied out into the queue at PHL before the crew gave their obligatory welcome. Including the fact that we were 18th in line for takeoff.

Normally, I am a pretty flexible traveler. But today we were already at the point where electronic devices had to be powered down. And – nightmare come true – my only reading material on this flight was stowed in my iPad. That’s right. No book in my purse. No journal to jot down writing notes; those are on the iPad too, these days. I’d already skimmed the in-flight magazine on the first leg of the journey. And there we were, 18th in line.

I choked down a wave of panic and reached for the Sky Mall catalog when I saw it: an abandoned copy of Newsweek stuck deep in the seat back pocket.

Back in my high school days, getting my own subscription to Newsweek was a self-proclaimed rite of passage. It was the era of Vietnam, Woodstock, Apollo astronauts, Kent State, and Charles Manson. The 72 Olympics were in Munich; the Israeli athletes were murdered., and Mark Spitz clinched a handful of gold medals.

I read about it all in Newsweek.

I was surprised today at how thin the magazine was.  Not just in heft, but in content. I skimmed an article or two, but became more interested in exactly what Newsweek has become. It looks something like this:

A catchy title, for sure, and Newsweek is good at that. This week it was ‘Hit the Road, Barack.”

After a few letters to the editor, Newsweek held about ten pages of “Newsbeast.” Short articles, including  the “World on a Page.” Until this morning I never wondered if India could get to Mars without electricity, or what the French First Lady’s position was on being photographed in a bikini. There was something about a cricket team in Australia too.

Not a word about Afghanistan, terrorism, the nuclear threat, energy costs, fracking, or the economy.

Features come next. Here, Newsweek offered up the reasons that things are they way they are. Why Obama must go. Why we love being conned. A piece on Syria that ran six pages – probably more than the average reader will bother with. The real Indiana Jones, who does indeed wear a hat. I got to read about Richard Gere’s upcoming role as a “hedge fund magnate.” (In which he fell just short of saying, “I am not a tycoon but I play one in a movie.”) And interestingly enough, I found the term “hedge fund” three times in this single issue, without really looking for it.

The last ten pages, called “Omnivore,” comprised the entertainment section. Ten pages of movies, TV, and a piece about the late David Foster Wallace, which implies that of course the erudite reader can recite everything Wallace wrote.

I can’t. Can you?

Turns out that the entire Newsweek organization was sold for $1 back in 2010. The purchaser got the magazine plus $47 million in liabilities. Today, I’m glad I didn’t plunk down $5 or so for a copy of Newsweek at the airport news stand. I’m a thrifty sort, and there wasn’t even a buck fifty worth of information behind that cover. I felt a twinge of sadness, though, as I thought back on Newsweek’s glory days. I learned a lot from Newsweek back then.

Today?

Not even close.

Photo: Carolyn Caster, AP,  for Newsweek

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Just Waiting

 

 

Waiting is the hardest part, they say. And there is certainly some truth to that.

 

I’ve never been particularly patient in situations that involved a lot of waiting.

 

At 15, waiting for the drivers’ ed roster to be posted to be sure my name was on it.

 

At 17, waiting for my college admission letters.

 

In my 20‘s, waiting to hear the results of a job interview.

 

Later, waiting for the birth of my daughter; her due date was Christmas Eve, so it’s just as well that she didn’t arrive for another week or so.

 

This weekend, I’m waiting for a hurricane. Isaac is still technically a tropical storm, but he’s gaining strength down in the Caribbean, and bearing northwest. It’s not my first hurricane experience, really; in Pennsylvania, the edge of Ivan took out our flowering plum tree in 2003, and last year Philadelphia felt the brunt of Irene.

 

But Isaac will be different. I’m in southwest Florida this year. Naples has a pretty good track record as far as hurricanes go – we checked. And our house is situated a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, so no risk of storm surge here. Of course, there’s plenty of time for Isaac to make a slight right turn and head toward Miami, or to veer west out over the Gulf. You can’t really tell, because Isaac is a “disorganized” storm at this point. It’s a pretty sure bet, though, that we’ll get a piece of the action.

 

Anyway, I’m prepared.

 

Water supply. Check.

 

Pantry stocked. Check.

 

Flashlights – check.

 

Lots of batteries. Check.

 

Propane stove. Check.

 

Cash on hand. Check.

 

Cars full of gas. Check.

 

72 hour kit. Check.

 

It’s a little like packing for Girl Scout camp, to tell the truth. Make a list, check it twice, all that stuff.

 

The news media is all over Isaac, not because he is an unusual storm but because of the Republican Convention in Tampa next week. Huh? You plan a major convention in Florida in August and then act surprised that you might run into some bad weather?

 

If…just if…Isaac became a major storm and Tampa took a direct hit, the issue wouldn’t be whether the GOP would come up with a nominee for November’s ballot. No, the challenge would be what to do with thousands of politicians and media hounds who have probably had way too much to drink the night before.

 

But that’s a different issue.

 

Today, the sky is brilliant blue. Not a cloud to be seen. Golfers are teeing up on the 12th hole just past the palm trees in my back yard. It’s my day off.

 

I think I”ll head over to the pool and just wait a while.

 

 

 

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The 95th Summer: A Tribute

My mom was born at the peak of the first World War. I learned in high school that the war was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand; I’m not sure how…or even if…my mom’s family got word of that assassination, what with living in the mountains, and having a family and a farm to take care of.  News came by word of mouth during daily trips to the post office. I imagine that July 1 was a hot day that year, and that tending the farm and a new baby in the house gave her parents plenty to do without worrying a whole lot about world affairs.

Mom came of age during the time known as the Great Depression. She often says that, “We didn’t really know about the depression. My mom always made do with what we had, and she had a way of making it all work out even with a big family. That’s how it always was for us, living on a farm. Other people were poor but we never were, not really.”  Mom and her brothers and sisters made their own fun, wading in the creek on hot days and playing in the fields of daisies. Every evening, my grandfather Liberty gathered his brood around him to impart “counsel.” The kids listened; they didn’t dare not.

Liberty and LouAnn Bowman ran a loving but strict household. “We never played a card game in our lives,” mom says now, “and a set of dice was an evil to our family.” I remember once Aunt Eileen reminisced about the girls stealing away and, out of sight of their parents, dancing the Charleston as best they could, hoping they wouldn’t get caught.

Country doctors didn’t know yet  of vaccinations, and mom recalls the time when smallpox raged through her family. Families infected by the disease were quarantined, but there was little that Grandma Bowman could do to prevent contagion among her own children.  She hung sheets between their beds in a vain attempt to separate those that were sickest. Mom was a small child, but remembers losing her older brother and sister Carl and Ethel in that epidemic.

Even as a girl, mom was always the one who looked for ways to make her surroundings a little more beautiful. She tells of taking the household scissors outside to trim away weeds that no one else seemed to notice. From an early age she couldn’t tolerate disorder and to  this day she won’t rest if something is out of order or a little chore remains undone.

By her college days, mom was a young beauty, trim and petite with auburn hair and delicate features. She was chosen May Queen, but worried about what she would wear; Her older brother Vernon checked the National Bella Hess catalogue and sent her a stylish grey dress with a snug waist and flared skirt for the occasion. Mom was popular during her college years despite being younger than most of her classmates. She knew how to cut and style hair and could help her friends design and sew dresses without using a pattern. For fun, she  combined a few spare pennies with friends and head to the local soda fountain where they would share a single Coca Cola.

As the years passed mom began teaching at the Spencer School, a one-room rural school. There were sixty children under her care; the Superintendent was Sam Taylor, a “good Republican” and friend of her dad. One day Mr. Taylor visited her school and pointed out that she was keeping her students too long. The school day was to end at 3:30, but mom didn’t dismiss her students until 4:00. She still talks about the boys who finished her 8th grade class and kept coming back year after year. Those boys were far bigger than she was, and almost as old. Their families didn’t have the means to send them the miles to attend high school; mom’s door was always open for as long as they chose to attend. I imagine that she kept more than a few of them out of trouble. No doubt she learned a thing or two about keeping an orderly classroom!

Mom has always managed her money well. She saved during those first years of teaching and bought her family the first radio to be found for miles. It was a large, battery powered contraption, and all the neighbors gathered at the Bowman’s to listen to country music “of an evening.” It didn’t take long for the group to begin clapping and singing along with Mother Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe.

At 22, Mom married, and bore her first child in the midst of another great war, with her soldier husband on the other side of the world.  Later, she saw his blurry black and white pictures of the liberated concentration camps. She has spoken only rarely of how the experience of  war changed her husband. For mom’s generation – known now as the greatest generation – the world had revealed its darkest underbelly.  She recalls hearing the news of Pearl Harbor while folding men’s shirts at a Montgomery Ward store in Ohio, and leading her students in singing “God Bless America” when the news of VE Day reached the door of her classroom at the Oliver School. Mom’s generation earned the prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, but they learned some hard lessons first hand. I don’t think mom has ever spoken in support of war during my lifetime. Instead, she shook her head in regret as television images and newspapers blared headlines of Vietnam…Cambodia… Iraq…Somalia…Afghanistan…and occasionally comments about the American boys who face unspeakable horrors on foreign soil.

95 years of living bears witness to countless changes in our world. In 1917, the average annual income was $750 per year. Model T’s rolled off the line in Highland Park.  As a young woman, Mom couldn’t have imagined a time when there was a cell phone in everyone’s pocket. She still loves radio, even though television has gone from a novelty to a necessity. Air travel is simply how we get around; she was the bold one of her sisters when it came to travel, venturing to the Bahamas, Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) during the Apollo era, the Pacific Northwest, and embarking on a European tour. She has seen the growth of sprawling developments where cattle once grazed, and malls on every corner have long since replaced her dad’s general store. While she’s not fully embraced the digital age, she checks with Dee and me regularly to see what family news has popped up on Facebook.

But she holds a few traditions dear. She writes letters the old fashioned way, with a pen.  Ditto, Christmas cards; I get that tradition from her. She loves to shop in small, local stores when she can, rather than the super centers. Better yet, a farmers market or good garage sale can make her day.

Mom has always been a teacher, by profession and by example, and over the years she has gained a level of wisdom that is unmatched in any other person I know.  There is never a day – that’s right, never – when I don’t hear her words and her lessons running through my mind.

Mom has taught me that family matters. A lot. I have seen her take care of the generation that came before her, and the ones that followed.

Value your privacy. Or, as she puts it, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Take your time. Be patient.  Theres no need to rush. Take time to smell the flowers, and as you do that, exercise a little caution. Size people up carefully.

Keep busy. We’ve all heard Mom say, “I can’t stand idleness!”

Learn something new. Every day if you can. Keep your mind active and sharp.

Behave yourself. Don’t talk too much, carry on too loudly, or complain about your station in life. Listen more than you talk.

Women are not to be “tough.” They are not to smoke or drink, and are never to use profanity (except maybe when muttered quietly under the breath.) Women are cut out to be strong, but there is a difference between strength and toughness. Learn that difference.

Spend time outdoors. Get your hands dirty. Plant flowers, and tend them well. People will notice when they approach your home. Mom’s philosophy is, “Your entry should be spectacular.”

Early to bed, early to rise. People who sleep late miss the best part of the day. Better to be up and around, and nap a little later.

Take care of yourself. Keep up with your doctor’s appointments, but remember — they are all in cahoots. Eat carefully, at least most of the time. Invest in a few nice clothes. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Use good moisturizer. Get your hair done.

Be informed. Read the newspaper. Don’t let those old politicians pull anything over on you.

Take time every day to do the things you love to do. Paint, sew, garden, cook, write a letter, talk with someone you love.

Keep a good attitude. It is the key to health, both physically and mentally. “The mind controls so much,” she commented the other day.

And so, as this July begins, we celebrate Mom’s 95th summer. Each and every one of her children. grandchildren, and great grandchildren know in our hearts that we are far better people living better lives because of her.

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You Just Can’t Have It All

Beautiful loser

Where you gonna fall

When you realize

You just cant have it all….

Bob Seger

Women are in the news again today, making the cover of The Atlantic. A few weeks ago, the buzz was all about Time’s “attachment parenting” cover story, featuring a young mom breast feeding her almost four-year-old son. This time, Anne-Marie Slaughter weighs in on the challenges of balancing family with a powerful position at the US State Department. And Slaughter concludes, based on her experience, that women still face tough, tough choices when it comes to career advancement balanced off against family life. Choices that just aren’t the same for fathers.

I grew up in the feminist era of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. I can still hum the ad for Enjoli, which claimed to be the 24-hour fragrance for the woman who could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a man.” Helen Reddy sang “I Am Woman” to my college friends and me. My roommates and I bought tickets to hear Betty Friedan speak on campus. My friends were smart women – doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and musicians.

When I married, there was never a question that I would work full time. So I headed out every day by 6:30, to teach a captive audience of high schoolers. Summers and a few nights a week, I worked on my graduate degrees. I was president of a professional organization. I spoke at conferences. Eventually I wrote and published professional articles. Moved into a consulting job, then administration. Built a decent resume.

But here’s the part the resume doesn’t talk about. My son Bryce was born in June. I planned to be at home for the summer with him and his 17-month-old sister Sarah, and return to teaching in the fall. I even had the option to return on a part-time basis for a while. My sister in law took care of the kids and loved them as her own. Ideal, right?

But two children in diapers is a lot of work. And Bryce wasn’t sleeping through the night by the time back-to-school season rolled around. He wasn’t sleeping by Christmas either, or by the following Easter. Bryce was one of those kids that didn’t need much sleep; I sat in shocked silence as friends described babies who took two naps a day and were down for the night by 7 p.m. Bryce might drift off by 10, but was ready to rock and roll a new day sometime around 3:30 am.

So while Slaughter writes of redefining the value of face time in the office and revaluing family values, the elephant in the room is this: Being a mom is a lot of work, and working moms get tired. Even in the ideal circumstance outlined by Slaughter,  by the time we work a full day, eat with the family, watch a basketball game or drive the carpool, and oversee baths, bedtime stories, snuggles, and goodnight….guess what? The prospect of a few hours of work related e mail may lose out to putting your feet up for fifteen minutes or so and turning in early.

Returning to work for an evening meeting, or dialing in to a teleconference?

Well, you decide.

Photo: Phillip Toledano for The Atlantic

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Meeting Aira

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Yesterday was a domestic kind of day. I cleaned my kitchen. Paid bills. Organized a stack of paperwork and resolved again to scan it all one of these days and get rid of the clutter. Cooked up some Swiss steak, using my all -time favorite recipe. The house smelled great by dinnertime.

I didn’t eat the Swiss steak though. Instead, I packed slices of meat and thick tomato sauce into a container, along with rice and fresh sliced zucchini. I loaded  everything into a bag and headed out to Vicky’s house.

Vicky is about my age – just  a little younger. She is the second of eight children; her parents had four, adopted four, and have fostered 250. She has the kind of flawless skin I admire. Like me, she loves music, especially the blues and Etta James. She lives out in the country, and adores the backyard “critters,” as she calls them. (To be honest, I wondered if that included Florida bobcats and panthers.) She keeps track of where the cardinals are spotted each day. She has a sharp intellect and uses words thoughtfully, with precision.

I’d never met Vicky before.

In April, Vicky was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It started simply enough, with some vision problems, and migraines. Now, just eight weeks later, she has lost her sight almost completely and she can no longer feed herself. Her words sometimes slur. Sentences occasionally trail off before the end. She cannot walk on her own. When she wants a drink of water, her mom gently tips the bottle to her waiting lips.

I knew she was sick, and that things were moving fast. But when she entered the kitchen, I was shocked.

Not by her appearance. I know what a very sick person looks like.

What shocked me were the first words out of her mouth.

“Thank you, God, for this beautiful day.”

I knew then that I could learn a thing or two from Vicky. As her mom prepared her plate, Vicky asked that I call her Aira…the name she says God gave to her.

And I have no doubt in the world that He did.

Vicky’s mom said grace before she fed her, a tiny spoonful at a time. She gave thanks for the food, for Vicky, and for the tumor that was teaching their family some  important lessons.

For dessert, Vicky opted for four raspberries with banana slices. Ovaltine is her favorite beverage, but she only drank a sip or two.

After dinner, she helped her mom document her evening medications for the Hospice nurses. Vicky recalled what each medication was for (controlling swelling in her brain, controlling seizures, keeping on an “even keel”) and her dosage. She got most things right, but missed a few. Her mom knew, then, how her memory was doing that day.

We headed into the living room and talked for a while. Vicky and her mom spoke about the progression of her disease.  When Vicky said something that didn’t make sense, her mom said that the remark “came from the tumor, not from your heart.” Vicky sometimes talks with her Aunt Janet, who passed away years ago. She told me about the times that the separation between her earthly life and her eternal life is very thin, indeed. And she accepts that without a glimmer of fear or trepidation.

When it was time to leave, Vicky stretched out her arms to hug me. It was a big hug. She didn’t let go for a long time, and she whispered, “You are an angel of God.”  She kissed me. Twice.

And then she said, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

I hope she does, but the truth is that before that time, I’d like to sit with Vicky and listen to a little Etta James.

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