Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Newest Baby Dragon

Dear Andrew,

It will be many, many years before you read this, but I hope your Mom or Dad will read it to you at some point.  I wanted you to know that your birth was highly awaited from coast to coast!  This gift is something I specially picked out for you and I wanted to tell you why.

You were born in the Year of the Dragon, one of the twelve signs in the Chinese Zodiac.  Children born in the Year of the Dragon are considered to be born under the sign of luck and to be original, confident, enthusiastic and fearless in the face of a challenge (among other great and not-so-great things).   And, of the five universal elements in Chinese Astrology, you are tempered by the element of Water, and so am I.
These are two of the things we have in common.  Even though I am so much older than you are (that’s another thing we have in common—your Gramma—she and I have been the very best of friends since 1973!), I am a Water Dragon like you and 2012 is our year. 
I also happen to love art and so when I saw this, I immediately loved it for you.  It was a dragon.  It wasn’t too scary or too goofy.  It was a watercolor. Finally, most excitedly for me, it could be your first piece of art.  
However, there were downsides.
It wouldn’t be anything useful.  You couldn’t appreciate it for years. And—art is very subjective; maybe your parents wouldn’t like it, and worse, maybe you wouldn’t like it. 
Still it felt worth the risk.  If your parents didn’t like it they could stash it in a closet until you were older.  If you didn’t like it, well, let’s not go there.  But if you did like it—if it became an object you loved, then you would always have it with you through your life and then maybe one of your children would have it and so on and so on.
This brings us to another thing we have in common—your mom—your precious, terrific, beautiful and loving mom.  I love your dad but my special bond is with your mom because I was there the day she was born—it was a gift and a treasure for me and one of the most important days in my life.
So, on another special day in my life sometime in the future, we will see one another and you will share what you feel about this dragon, but whatever you feel, you can tell me because I'll want to know, and even if you don't keep the art, please keep the love this gift was meant to bestow—from one dragon to another.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cheshire Cat

I opened an Easter card from my aunt and uncle and was confronted with a yellowed clipping from the June 27, 1970 Mirror-Spectator with the headline: "Coveted Award to Denise James." It had been a while since 1970, and the 'coveted award' didn't jump to mind until I read that it was The Eisenhower Award for Citizenship. Each high-school graduation featured the girl and boy voted by the entire student body and faculty to “best exemplify high standards of citizenship and the American Way.”

When my name was called, I was quite surprised. I had expected the girl sitting next to me to win; I had voted for her. Debbi Tonnessen was a perky, ever-positive, bubbly kid who was a candy-striper at the local hospital and was forever cheering people up. I thought she deserved the award. We were sitting next to one another because all the seating was done by height and she and I shared the misfortune of being short and solid.
Not my high school but certainly reminiscent!
 Credit:Eric Crump/Marshall Democrat-News  

Debbi nudged me a few times amid the thunderous applause. "Get up," she insisted, "Get up! They called your name!" I looked at her blankly but then rose and made my way to the podium, garbed in cap and gown and smiling at the irony of it all. It was just one of those high-school things.

Earlier in the year, I had been called down to my gym teacher's office, Miss Lankenau (lank-ken-NOW). Miss Lankenau (Teachers were called "Miss" and "Mrs." back then.) was also the coach of my Varsity Cheerleading Squad. It was odd to be called out of class to go down to the gym, and when I got there, she looked kind of uncomfortable.

"What is it, Miss Lankenau? What's wrong?"

"Well," she said slowly, "I've been asked to speak to you about a problem we have."

"What's that?"

"The office has noticed that during assemblies you aren't saying the pledge of allegiance. That concerns some of the staff"

"Because you're not setting a good example, because as a cheerleader

"Not setting a good example!" I exploded, "How is not saying the pledge of allegiance, not setting a good example???" I was fuming inside.

"Well, people feel that you're not being patriot..." From the way she said, 'people' I felt clearly she wasn't one of those 'people.'

I can't believe you're talking to me about this! If anything I'm being MORE patriotic! I actually thought this over and realized that I didn't agree with saying the pledge-of-allegiance! "

She pushed back in her chair and relaxed while I fumed. 
"Why don't you tell me why you don't want to say it?" 

"Well, I don't know much about this war in Viet Nam and I certainly don't read the papers enough, but it seems to me that it's kinda weird that we're in a war that no one's declared. I mean, kids are going to fight in a war that not everyone feels we should be fighting. Leslie Herndon's brother is there and he doesn't even know WHY! I just felt that saying the pledge was saying that I agree with and whole-heartedly support everything my country is doing, and right now, I don't feel that way. I don't feel the government is doing the right thing."

"You should know this stand may cause you some problems..." she trailed off.

"What stand? What problems?"

"Well, you're a member of the Varsity cheerleaders and the Girls' Varsity Club." 

"Well what's that got to do with this?" I asked confused.

"Some people feel you may not deserve to be on the squad if you continue to act this way."

"I can't believe this. I can't BELIEVE this!  So I take this seriously and DON'T say the pledge because I don't want to be BLINDLY following along and I get in trouble for it?  Isn't that what the Pledge of allegiance is all about?  Am I not living in a free country??" It took me a moment to let the steam escape.

I exhaled slowly and looked her in the eye.  "Listen, Miss Lankenau, you do what you have to do. If they want to kick me off the cheerleading squad for this, let them. I'm not changing my mind. I stand when the pledge is being said and I'm perfectly respectful, but it's my business whether I say the words or not. And if that's a problem, then it's somebody else's problem

My flurry seemed to leave her with not much to say. And though I was outwardly upset, inside I felt a sudden calm.

"Why don't you go back to class now and we'll see what happens." 

"Should I come to practice today?"

"Yes, come to practice. I'll see you later."

As I left her office and headed down the hall, on some level I knew she felt I was right.

When I returned to class (classes had changed and someone had taken my stuff on to the next room for me) I was so beet-red in the face that notes kept getting passed to me to find out what was wrong. Needless to say, I lost no opportunity to vent my anger. Before long, it was throughout the halls and the subject of conversation around various lockers.

At practice that day, Miss Lankenau didn't say much, she just said not to worry about it and let's work on that new formation for the basketball game Friday night.

Cheshire Cat by Ron Glive 

It was never mentioned again, but there at the end of the year and the end of my high-school days, as I stepped up to the podium and shook hands with the principal, I took the Eisenhower Award for Citizenship in the crook of my arm and thought about the “exemplary standards of citizenship and the American Way.”  

I had this big grin spread all over my face.        

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Cousin Dindoe

Linda lighting up a room
On October 18, 2001, we buried my beautiful, vivacious, always smiling and laughing cousin Linda. It was ironic that in a city surrounded by the sadness and loss of 3000, Linda would be mourned in much the same way as those fallen firefighters — a senseless death that came too soon. To her family, to her friends, and to her community, she too was a hero — not only in the way she lived her life, but in the way she managed her dying.

When I was maybe nine or so, we were playing “doctor” behind my Gramma’s house in the shed where we took our outdoor showers after coming back all salty and sandy from the beach.  That day down at the seashore, Linda told me about the facts of life, such as they were to a twelve-year-old! I don’t remember the details, but I do remember it was about sex, and your period, and how a penis and a vagina came together.  While the conversation was scary, I was so grateful that somebody thought to clue me in — Linda did that for me.  She always remembered to tell me what was going on just out of reach in the grown-up world around me.

Most of my childhood we spent every holiday together, a gaggle of cousins — Linda’s brother Bobby, the oldest; next oldest, my sister, Donna, then Linda, followed by my brother, and last, me.  On big holidays — Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter —  we traveled from home to home, father’s side to mother’s side or vice-versa, but on the other holidays — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Fourth of July —  often Linda’s other first cousins, Johnny and Paulie (from her father’s side of the family), would be with us, too.  Years later, Uncle Charley (our mothers’ younger brother) got married and had two boys who joined the pack as well, but by then, our family had moved a bit further away, the older cousins started dating and going off to college, and those big gatherings were spread thin.

One time, everyone was getting together again because Linda was getting engaged.  I hadn’t met her fiancĂ© yet, but while the aunts were scurrying to and fro in the kitchen, I remember everyone talking about what a “catch” Greg was.  I was puzzled by this talk because I was thinking that she was the real catch.  That night the family celebrated and we slept over.  I stayed in Bobby’s room because he’d gone home to an apartment of his own.  I woke up  to go to the bathroom but moved very quietly so none of the early-rising grown-ups would notice.  It was around 7 am. 

“Lin?”  I whispered insistently as I crept into her bedroom with its big  canopied bed and the frilly pillows.  “Can I get in with you?”  
“What’s wrong?” she said sleepily as she pulled the covers back and moved over to make way for me.  
“I just went to the bathroom for ONE minute and when I came back  my bed was made!”  

She smiled and we both snuggled under, giggling about the insane efficiencies of her mother and mine.

Under the canopy at the cemetery, as person after person passed by her casket, placed a flower on top, and came to hug and cry their grief with the immediate family, I squeezed her brother’s arm tightly.  “Bob, picture this — Linda gets there and the first one she sees is Gramma.  ‘Ho-kee-see (my soul), honey, sweetheart I love you, what are you doing here?  You don’t be here! I love you so much honey sweetie my honey Linda go, yahvroom (little one) —  don’t come yet!’  Gramma in her trademark three-paragraphs-all-in-one-sentence.”  Bob smiled and squeezed me back.  It wasn't until much later at the restaurant that Linda’s youngest daughter said to me, “Auntie?  Did you hear that a few days ago Mommy said to Gramma (Linda’s mom), “What’s Gramma doing on your head?”  At the time, my Aunt Maddy probably thought it was the morphine speaking and dismissed the notion of her dead mother sitting atop her head, but in hindsight, I like to believe that it was our Gramma, come to usher Linda to the next stop on her journey — that Gramma came for Linda because she knew her time had come. 

There was terrible irony in the fact that as another in our family who struggled with weight most of her life (just like me and my sister), Linda died wasting away from a series of cruel cancers.  It was more irony that of all the awful marriages and dysfunctional families out there, hers was a happy, tight-knit, loving family of five, whose three girls had matured into the kind of young women any parent would be proud to call their own.  None yet married — all just at the brink of real adulthood.  The time when, as a kid, you first begin to feel you’re finally on the same playing field as your parents and things even level out more as you become parents and join their once-exclusive club.  Sadly, it’s a time her children will never know.

My father called her “Din-doe.” I don’t know why.  “Dindoe — come over here so I can hit you,” he’d say — his way of teasing.  I have an old black and white Polaroid square shot of Linda, with those white edges framing the picture.  She must be five or six years old in a smocked bathing suit with the thinnest spaghetti straps and buckled shoes on her feet.  She is standing with her fists perched on her hips — this absolute scowl on her face as she stares down the photographer. It’s how I picture her entering heaven and greeting our Gramma, her dad, and mine.

It's Linda's birthday today. I hope she's up there given'um hell.

[PS I just learned that "Dindoe" came from me not being able to say "Linda"!]

Thursday, March 22, 2012


On March 26 it will be seven years since my mother passed away.

Passed away...I’ve come to hate this gentle term that is meant to kindly refer to the loss of those we love. There is no “kindly” nor “gentle” about these losses. They rip and hurt and scar and damage and deplete and sometimes deaden. The death of one we love is often a partial death of ours as well. And while the departed is gone and so is their death, for those remaining, the death continues dying within us. The dying is referenced by the loss of things past, present and future. 

Every time you access a memory, remember something this person shared, you feel the loss. The loss of the one person who would’ve been the reality-check on what actually happened. The person who could serve to triangulate the memory — “Was this how it really was?”

Every time something happens — something good or something bad — you really feel the loss of the one you want to call and tell it to and get the response you were looking for — the “I’m SO sorry.” or “What the f#!@k ??” or “OH-that is so GREAT!!” or "What was she/he THINKING?"

Every time some milestone is approaching or the dream of a milestone filters into your brain — a graduation, a birthday, an anniversary, a wedding, a birth — you sadden at the knowledge that you will never be able to share this future with the one you loved. They won't be present and you feel the death a little bit more.

Some things help. Some do not. It’s hard to say what can make someone feel better about the loss, but in truth, it’s completely subjective. It matters not whether the departed was loved or hated. Both extremes lead to an inner dying. The death of one we hated is often worse as we never get to resolve what was not right; what wasn't fair; what has been left unsaid.

It’s only indifference that lets you off this hook.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cuppa Joe

I hadn’t been to Seattle since the late 70s and I was looking forward to seeing it again.  Despite the almost ever-present rain, there were snow-capped mountains, water, or trees every which way you looked.  A city where you could be in an asphalt parking lot and yet there was a spectacular view in any direction.  Hilly and beautiful even in the rain.

That first morning Linda told me we were headed out on errands, "but first we'll stop and get coffee.”  As she drove around, it surprised me to see coffee places on three out of every four corners. Every block! [This was before the advent of Starbucks in every city and state.]  Starbuck’s was certainly a presence, but another brand I hadn’t heard of, Tully’s, was also prominent, along with lots of other little nondescript coffee places, street after street.  [From Wikipedia: “There's a running joke in Seattle that the easiest way to find a Tully's is to stand in front of a Starbucks and turn around.” See what I mean?]

After a bit, Lin pulled the car over and we got out in front of what could best be called a storefront shack.  Sandwiched between two buildings this place had been built astride the alley between.  With two people furiously working the "counter," there were about nine or ten people ahead of us on line.  Most were dressed in business suits and had briefcases (this was before laptop cases were de rigueur), in their morning hustle, singing out their orders:
    "Tall caramel macchiato with a double"
    "Venti Americanos with half caf and whole"   
    "Short mocha latte stirred"

I was trying to think what language were they talking in. I never drank much coffee and usually filled half the mug with milk. 

“You should get a latte,” Lin said, and then placed her order, “Grande skim latte, please” and turned to me.

“I’ll have a latte, but could you make it half what you usually do?” I asked.

“What do you mean half?” the guy queried. His partner stopped to stare.

“Well. I don’t like strong coffee and I add a lot of milk so maybe you should just give me half the amount of coffee you give everyone else and then the rest milk,” I answered meekly.

“Oh. You don’t like coffee,” he said knowingly, “Well, I’ll give you a latte and you taste it 
and let me know how to adjust.”

“Please don’t do that,“ I protested.

“Why not?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“I don’t want you to waste it and besides, there’re all these people waiting.” I was embarrassed.

“Well,” he said to me in an slightly exasperated voice, “we HAVE to get a baseline!”  

Coffee was everywhere.  In drugstores, in take-out windows cut out of the side of supermarket buildings, and in cozy, comfortable shops with back rooms set up like living rooms  complete with oversized club chairs and blazing fireplaces.  We entered one of these another afternoon  a dark wood paneled place with dark wood floors and black wrought iron details and a beautiful nickel countertop with lovely pastries and cookies and assorted mugs for sale.  It was a Tully’s and it was quiet and inviting.

“Shannon’s got soccer today,” she told me, “so after we have a cup, we’ll need to pick her up from school and drive her to practice.”

“But it’s raining Lin, won’t they cancel?”

“Are you kidding?” she laughed, “If they called things here because of rain, these kids would never play a single game!”  Lin went to put her things down on a coffee table while I ordered.

“I’ll have a light latte please.” I told the smiling young girl at the counter.

She looked uncomfortable with the request.  “A light latte?” she asked in a questioning voice with a bit of a furrow crinkling her brow.

“I just want a lot of room for milk, so just make it light,” I explained, trying not to sound like an alien in this world of coffee aficionados.

“Heather,” she called toward the back of the shop, avoiding eye contact with me, “Can you come out here?”

“Listen,” I said, trying to put her at ease, “it’s OK  you can just make it any way you usually do and that’s okay. Honest.  I can always pour out some of the coffee to add more milk,” I pleaded.

Ignoring me she turned to her manager and said in a blank way, “She wants a light latte.”

Heather turned to me, “What’s the matter?  You don’t like coffee?”

“Well, not very much,”  I said sheepishly, “and  ” I added trying to make my case,  "I have an ulcer, so I really need to watch the coffee.”  I wanted her to know that I wasn't a complete oddball, that I had a good excuse.

“You want a ristretto.” she said confidently and barked to her assistant, “Make her a ristretto.”

This cup is from Crate & Barrel
“A ris-STREH-toe?” I echoed, “What is that?”

“It’s a restrained latte.  Less espresso.” she deadpanned. “Sorry, she’s new.”

Now, years later when gourmet beans, blends, brews, and fair trade coffee permeate every facet of our lives, I wondered back to what made Seattle a place where coffee first reigned supreme in the United States.  

In a region where the weather is described by newscasters as “light gray” or “...medium gray out there today!”  maybe these folks need a continuous jolt of caffeine to propel them through their gray rainy days.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

See How They Grow

Everyone said NOT to do it.

    “It never works out when friends work together.”

    “It’ll be the end of the friendship…”

    “I wouldn’t risk it.”

    “Well, you can kiss that friendship goodbye!”  

were some of the things people said to me, trying to be helpful, but I couldn't imagine that Barbara and I couldn’t work together.  In many ways we were opposite in terms of skillset:
  • She was detailed-oriented and while I certainly cared about the details, I wanted to worry about the big picture. 
  • She was methodical, organized and extremely self-disciplined; I was scattered and would hopscotch my way through tasks. 
  • She was level and controlled while I was an emotional roller coaster.
We seemed a perfect match.
I was tackling a huge project I’d never done before, creating a textbook from scratch and though the concept, editorial plan and table of contents were all created and approved by experts in the field, still it was going to be almost two years from plan to product.  I’d been bold in fighting to create and control this product; didn't want to be saddled with an outside company (again) that I couldn't control and would spend more time cleaning up after than I would developing. And my concept had been well-received  by the outside team of authorities they’d brought in to be questioned for two days by a market-research team the division had hired.  I’d only been in the company for 18 months and it was only the second textbook they were attempting.  So while I’d convinced the higher-ups, now that push was coming to shove, I was scared.  Barbara was a known quantity; she made me feel secure and most important, I couldn't imagine anyone I could trust more to follow-through and get the job done.  

I couldn't find a logo since
the company is now defunct
It was the first time anyone was attempting a managed textbook in the high school child development market. Normally textbooks were written by one author, someone who was a known expert in the field. But a managed text was one where you created the book through market research (What were the up and coming trends? New topics?) and a competitive analysis (How were the existing books weak?  What did the book have to have to beat the competition? ) and then you hired writers to write the copy. Not the “experts” because while they might be expert in the field, it didn't mean they were great writers, had the time to write an entire book, or had a sense of how to write a book with national appeal.  Our book was going to have consulting editors  known names in the field who would review the manuscript for accuracy  but they wouldn't write a word.  That was up to us.

We dove in full steam ahead.  Barbara made lists of everyone we’d need to hire freelance, wrote job descriptions, interviewed and reviewed writing samples of the writers.  We interviewed designer after designer until we found Leon, a guy older than we were who seemed like a good fit.  She plotted out timelines with delivery dates and deadlines from manuscript to galleys to proofs to finished product. Her meticulously hand-drawn color-coded charts on graph paper were taped around her office like an eye=level border of geometric wallpaper.  She drove me and the team of 21 by those charts.

There were glitches of course. One night we had to get hundreds of pages of manuscript out to readers and the copier wouldn't work; it was after 5 pm and no hope of getting it repaired until morning. I went riding the elevator until I found someone going up to their office and begged to use their copy machine  the guy laughed, let me in, and we met our deadline.  

A more serious glitch came earlier when we started getting copy from the team of writers and realized that the different chapters didn’t sound as if they were written by the same person  and of course they weren't! While we’d carefully chosen our team of writers based on the samples they’d submitted, we never thought to test them by asking them to rewrite their material to the style we'd finally settled on.  It was a mistake of huge proportions.  The entire timeline of the book was in jeopardy.  From every wall in Barbara’s office, those multicolored charts with their carefully drawn lines stared down at us disapprovingly.

We solved the terrible problem by hiring a master copyeditor, Kendra Crossen, who  in addition to copyediting (checking the grammar, spelling, consistency of formatting), had to rewrite the copy to make it flow as if from one voice. And she did.

During that year and a half, we did have one huge fight. I don’t remember what it was about but to Barbara’s credit, she insisted we face the conflict head on until it was resolved.  That was another great thing about her personal style and how she conducted herself in business  she never let anything fester.

When it came time to find a title we were up against a host of books that had been in the market for decades; in fact they were so popular that teachers referred to them not by the title, but by the author's name:  “I use the Hurlock.” or “We use Draper and Draper.”

But all the titles: Understanding Child Growth and Development, Caring for Children, Child Development, Understanding and Guiding Young Children   sounded alike and boring.

It was Barbara who said, “What about See How They Grow?” and her words sailed into the room like a breath of fresh air.

The marketing and sales folks argued vociferously against it. The title didn't say what the book was about and it didn’t sound like anything else on the market  but that was precisely what made it perfect.  We weren't a text like any other at the time: our book went beyond the school-age child (8-12) to include adolescent development (the age of the audience who would be reading it); our book coupled the typical ages and stages of growth & development with caregiving  not just the physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development of the child but what was it like to take care of a two-year old who was fighting, biting and saying “no.”  We had parenting pages which made the reader think about caring for, guiding, and disciplining a child  not an easy job as any parent knows.  We were going into a market where everybody already had the product and we didn't have "name" authors!  It would take a lot to get educators to buy this book. Standing out, sounding different was exactly what was needed.

We added a subtitle: Concepts in Child Development and ParentingWhen the book finally was published, two years after its start, seeing that book was exhilarating. Against all odds, with no actual experience in producing a book from concept to finish, together we’d done it. But management in the company had changed and I was on the way out, of the company and eventually educational publishing.

After moving south I returned to K-12 education and was in someone’s office at the state Department of Public Instruction when I saw our book on the shelf. With a big grin erupting on my face I reached for that smooth white volume, loving the feel of it in my hands. In the passing years, See How They Grow had been bought and sold from one now-defunct company to another. As I leafed through to the copyright page I saw that our names were gone.  Even though we’d given birth (to what always felt like my first child), we were no longer identified.

Never earning a penny in royalties, in some ways I felt rich. Thirty-one years after See How They Grow made its presence in the world, we not only had tangible evidence of what we'd created together, mother and midwife Barbara are still great and loving friends. [Happy Birthday Barbara!]

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My Definitive Daughter

I wrote this many years ago but I reread it to remind me of how much we can learn from the mouths of babes.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Many years ago, when my daughter was just in kindergarten, I asked a school counselor to assess how she was adjusting to life in a big school without the security of her twin brother in the same class. The only thing I really remember her saying in her thick Austrian accent is this: “CHEW-lee is a girl who likes to set her own agenda. As the parent, you will have to decide when to allow her to set the ahCHEN-da and when to draw the line.” At the time, the advice startled me. It seemed so amazing that my little girl was already showing such power and strength. From that point on, I saw her differently.

Long before her conception, somewhere in my personal dreamland, I envisioned any daughter of mine a little version of myself  dark and impish  but she (already defining herself as different) started life light and angelic.  Her coloring and build are very unlike mine, and for that I am both grateful and frustrated.  I continue to be surprised that she looks nothing like me. 

Also unlike me, she was not an adventurous child.  She stayed close to us, seemed a bit shy around strangers, and wasn’t exploratory about much, even food.  She ate it if and only if it was white: bread, rice, pasta, potatoes.  Unlike her brother  who would try every cuisine, condiment, and sauce  she was pleased with plain.

At the age of six she asked, “Mommy, why don’t you like my Barbies?”  I was taken aback because I hadn’t outright said anything about her dolls, but it was true; I didn’t like them.  I worried about the silent message they were sending and even at this young age, she already had acquired twelve.  “Well,” I answered carefully, “it’s not that I don’t like your Barbie dolls, it’s just that no one really looks like Barbie — in fact, no one can look like her because they’d have to have legs seven feet long.  I just worry that if you grow up thinking that that’s what ‘pretty’ looks like, then you’ll always be disappointed.” 

“I don’t think that,” she informed me. “You don’t look anything like my Barbies and I think you’re pretty.”  Aaahhhh, thank you honey.

Still, early in her life she began to draw these incredibly voluptuous girls, complete with clothing of her own design.  These figures always had an “I-Dream-of-Jeannie” look  bare midriff and ponytail on top of the head  and yet I don’t know that she ever saw the show!  Her preoccupation with these drawings of femme fatales and their clothes continued as she got older, though she had little regard for her own dress and appearance.  Day after day, I’d complain in frustration about her dirty jeans, stained top, and mismatched socks; she’d state in an equally exasperated way, “What’s the big deal, Mom?  No one looks at your feet!”

Lately, she’s been annoyed at her girlfriends and their newfound interest in boys.  She doesn’t think she’ll be interested in the opposite sex anytime soon. I pray that lasts, though the outside pressures are enormous on kids to act grown-up.  After a sleepover during elementary school, she asked, “Mom? What does ‘My boyfriend made me do it’ mean?”  She was only eight or nine! We’d worked hard to protect her from the sexually charged overtones in media everywhere, so where did this come from?  I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that some of her friends had teenage siblings. In their families, music, movies, and magazines were shared, regardless of the content.  Though ill-prepared at that moment to completely explain, whatever brief explanation I choked up seemed to satisfy her. 

“Well, that’s stupid,” she reasoned. “ I’m not going to let anyone force me to do anything I don’t want to.”  Good for her! I cheered.

My life with my daughter is an ever-changing terrain. It took me years to figure out that while she wanted my opinion, it didn’t mean she was going to adopt it; and though she didn’t necessarily agree with what I thought, what I thought was important to her.  Try as I might, I no longer know what mood she’ll be in and can rarely predict her needs.  She can go from a sweet, smiling, loving child to a crying, screaming “I-hate-you!” horror  all within a moment.  I try to defuse my husband’s anger at such behavior.  “Honey, she’s just being emotional.  We should be glad that she has the strength of self to show her feelings — neither of us would have dared vent our anger at our parents.  It won’t last   think of it as a sign that she’s healthy and strong and stands up for herself.”  At least that’s what I hope.

As the parent, I’d always imagined that I’d be the teacher and she’d be the student. But even that was never always the case.  I will never forget the night at the dinner table when I was yet again complaining about one thing or another being wrong with the meal I’d cooked. 

Apologies: my photos don't do her or her artwork, justice.
“Mommy?  Do you want my dinner?” she offered in her sweet seven-year-old voice. 

“Why would I want your dinner?”  I snapped, “I’m eating the same thing you are.” 

“Well, mine always comes out right and yours never does,” she said with a simple clarity that stopped my heart.

My child, my pre-adolescent daughter  with her well-defined agenda  will continue to educate me as I struggle with the ever-challenging role of being her mother.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Remembering Jess

I first met Ann in 1979 when she participated in a focus group in New York City sponsored by Butterick Publishing; she was one of a group assessing a proposal I developed for a new textbook.  After that session,  I liked her so much that when my next project involved her field of expertise, I promptly suggested to my boss that I spend a week with Ann in Oklahoma learning about childcare workers and daycare centers. Lucky for me, Ann said yes and we soon spent a week traveling the region, meeting her colleagues and friends, and, as a bonus, shopping the antique and thrift stores and eating, eating, eating (including the pickled okra). For those of you who know Ann, no surprise that this was high on her agenda (and mine, too) which is in some part one of the reasons I got along so well with her. That week-long visit was the beginning of a life-long friendship and when I first met her husband Jess.  When I was introduced to the handsome, fun-loving sweetheart of a guy (who all those years ago swept Ann off her feet and out of Brooklyn), I remember thinking  this must be some guy.  This guy got independent, strong-willed, family-oriented, Italian-to-her-bones Ann to move to the middle of the country where the only dark-complected folks like Ann were Native Americans. 

I liked Jess but in the beginning saw him more of an appendage of Ann’s; someone I had to “go through” to get to her whenever I called on the phone. But year after year, whenever I called, there was Jess.

“Well how-DEE!” he’d sing into the receiver, “How ARE you girl? And how’s that husband of yours and those twins?” and I’d be engaged in conversation reluctantly (at first), filling him in, before speaking to Ann. And as was Jesse’s way
  he’d listen carefully, offer his down-home reassurances that whatever I was worried about would be fine, and then he’d start to tell me — you guessed it — a story. 

Jess was a storyteller at heart which probably made him so good at the insurance business. Fundamentally he just wanted to connect with his fellow human beings on this planet through stories. Stories were his way of reaching out to touch someone. And that was how we connected. He wanted to tell you his stories and he wanted you to tell him yours. Years went by in this way
  cards, occasional visits, phone conversations and Ann would be at a meeting, or at the store, or shopping and Jess would carry on. But in 2008, when I decided I wanted to surprise Ann for her birthday in March, Jesse and I were bound in a conspiracy, and oh, what fun he had. 

For weeks we would have secret phone calls strategizing how to put one over on Ann. Jess would say, “Now why don’t we...” do this or that and I’d say, “No, that won’t work...what if she...?” and we’d plan to talk again and figure out more next time. All along Jesse kept saying, “Now if I don’t tell Ann SUM-ONE is coming, she’s going to KEEL-me.”

I tried to tell him that I didn’t want her to go on a cleaning frenzy; that I didn’t care about any mess; that I could just move whatever piles were on the guest room bed ---but he was adamant.

“She’s gonna KEEL-me if I don’t give her some notice.”

So, I became a decades-old friend they hadn’t seen in a lifetime, Barry Yellin who was coming to Oklahoma to visit his grandson and spend the night with his old buddy Jesse. (Just now I wanted to call Jess, to check with him about whether or not Barry was a friend from his back-East insurance days, but then I remembered I can’t call him; he’s gone.)

I swore Jess to secrecy, made him promise not to tell a soul because I was afraid he’d slip and over the course of the month of phone calls he was mixing up details and such. But when the time came., there he was to pick me up from the airport and to head on back to Chickasha and lo and behold, when he called out to Ann to “com’on out and say hell-lo to Barry!”

Ann took a look at me and went totally blank. Jess and I couldn’t stop laughing at her startled face, “Ann, it’s me!” I said, afraid she hadn’t recognized me, but from that moment on, we were all smiles. We had a lovely weekend and true to his word, Jesse hadn’t told a soul. Everyone I met was floored and amazed that Jesse hadn’t spilled the beans to anyone.

After I left that weekend, pleased to have pulled off the surprise and had such a terrific time, from that moment on, whenever I called Jess would sing out, “Well, HELL-lo BEAR-REE!” into the phone; it was our special joke and he spent the next year re-telling the saga of how we fooled Ann and surprised her.

Jesse O’Bar Jr was a stubborn cuss and when his health issues with his shoulders began to seriously worry Ann, I did my best to argue, plead, coax, and cajole him into seeing the doctor, consider the surgery and more, but he wouldn’t budge. When I saw him I was shocked at how tilted his head was and how limited his use of his arms seemed to be, but he was cheerful as ever and adamant as ever. He worried that “letting those doctors mess-around” was going to make things worse. Just as he’d adjusted to his retirement; adjusted to giving up golf; he’d adjusted to these physical limitations.

Selfishly, I’m glad I wasn’t there to witness his passing. I’m happy to keep the memories of that last visit to Chickasha to celebrate Ann. 

I will miss Jess  the joy of his voice singing out “HEY GIRL!” whenever I called and I will miss his stories and I will miss the love that he spread to every living soul he encountered.


Saturday, March 3, 2012


I love thrift stores  you never know what treasures lie in wait. While visiting New York I was with Susan and Mark in Housing Works down on Crosbie St in New York. It was the first time I was in that particular store and I wasn't finding much to catch my eye, but then I spotted a Magritte-like image on the cover of a small box that turned out to be a set of cards. Marked $2.00 (with a red 50%-off slash I didn't know what they were but I thought  for a dollar I couldn't go wrong.

When I got back to my hotel room I opened the box and read the first card: "How does ep!phany work?" The images on the cards (49 of them) were meant to be used individually or in a group,  "outloud or in silence," to unblock your creative juices.  There were suggested ways to “play” them  "hit the wall," "brainstorm," or "the lone ranger," but I chose "constellation." 

Select three cards, assign them each a meaning (Past, Present, and Future) and then flip them over to reveal the connection between the assigned meaning and the symbol on the card.    
Here is what I drew from the deck:

Past = Ascent

This made sense to me. I had long pictured myself trapped in the slippery white bathtub of our family life with me (tiny as a Borrower) trying to escape the fast-draining, swirling water, scared and frantically clawing at the walls of the tub, no traction possible, continually fighting not to be sucked down.  While “ascent” didn't picture my white tub-nightmare, all through my past, I was always seeking a way up and out.

Present = Envy

I’m ashamed to say that lately, I do have feelings of envy. I envy people who don’t have to work.  I envy people who have enough money to travel.  I envy people who can do what they want to do.  When you're middle-class in this country, it’s frustrating and hard to be more than halfway through your life and still watching every dollar.  I envy people who have their mother and sister.  I envy people who put themselves first! I know, I know.  I have so much more than so many people.  We have all our needs and so many of our wants.  We have our kids.  We have our house.  We have jobs.  We have our health.  [I don't want to sound selfishly ungrateful, but the card surfaced and I felt I needed to say what it said to me.]

                                         Future = Answer  

Well, this image really just up and smacked me in the face.  Right there staring at me was this KEY; an image of something that I could hold in my own hands.  All those years and years of waiting for some one or some thing to make my future great  but this card was telling me: I could take that key and open the door to everything. It would unlock EVERYTHING.  These cards were speaking to me. 
I had the answer to my future. 

It was an ep!phany.  

OR could anyone interpret those same three cards to fit their past, present, future?