Room for One More

Father walking in sunset with kids
life keeps changing

In my blog post on the last Monday in January, I recounted how turning the year I turned thirteen my life turned, if not full circle, then at least by 180 degrees. My vision of what my future could hold had expanded at the very time my family had left behind Detroit, Michigan, the city of my birth, to move to a much smaller city in central Indiana.

1050s car in front of frame home
Photo from Boston Public Library

One unexpected change, however, may have happened whether we had moved or not. In the summer of 1956 when we piled our station wagon with items too precious to entrust to the movers, we then squeezed in a family of six. Dad drove and Mom navigated. Between on a booster sat my four-year old brother Terrence. My brother John, twenty months my junior, and I commanded the window seats in the back. Despite her loud laments, we crowded the eight-year-old “princess.” Nanette, into the middle. Two girls. Two boys. A dad and a mom. A nice round number – a family of six.

an anniversary surprise
Baby drinking from a bottle
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

By the time the kids entered school in September, however, the numbers were not quite so even. When we had sat down for a celebratory dinner for my parents’ fifteenth wedding anniversary, Dad had announced with tears in his eyes that by spring a new sister or brother would be joining us. A new baby for the new abode. Everyone of us cheered.  At least, I think Nanette did.  I don’t remember checking.

The gap between the new baby and me would be almost fifteen years. Mom’s pregnancy helped to make me a celebrity at school.  Few of my freshman year high school classmates were expecting a baby into their family. For many of us, our other siblings had been born before we knew “where babies came from.” So, it was exciting to skirt around the issue that someone’s parents had actually “done it at their age.” Although my mom and dad were only in their forties, many of us knew grandparents who were not much older than that.

an anxious father
Man staring off into woods
Photo by Madalyn Cox

The closer the time came for the birth of the new baby, the more anxious and nervous my father became.  He found it hard to go off to work in the morning. He lost his temper quite easily with us for the slightest infraction and spent lots of time in his woodworking shop producing nothing.  Excitement and happiness about the new baby so filled my heart that I couldn’t figure out what was causing him so much grief. Mom was healthy. She was just pregnant. Had I not been so absorbed in fitting in to my new school environment to which I’d basically taken like a duck to water, I might have been able to discern why Dad was so tense all the time.

home birth emergency

His trauma had its root cause in my sister Nanette’s birth. Because my mother’s labor with her had proceeded so quickly, there was no opportunity to head for the hospital. John and I, only three and five at the time, had not been told we’d be having a new sibling. Rather, that Sunday morning in February, 1948, we had been awakened by our mother’s screams and had run to her room.  Dad turned us away, ordering us to go downstairs and keep still.  We sat clinging to one another in the big gold chair by the victrola, still in our pajamas when our grandmother rushed into the front door in her housecoat shortly and ran upstairs without looking our way.

Doctor with his bag -vintage photo
Photo from Shutterstock

Then we heard only muffled sounds for what seemed forever until our dad’s footsteps pounded down the steps and to the door. The doctor, black bag in hand hurried across the room.  Just as he passed us, a baby cried out. (For a very long time I was totally convinced that new babies were delivered by doctors in their black bags.) Then we heard sirens as an ambulance pulled up out front. Our grandmother came downstairs and hustled us into the kitchen. We heard a lot of commotion on the other side of the door and then the sirens again. Still, no one told us anything except when I asked to see my mom, grandma said she was sick and had gone to the hospital.

five people in the family
Tiny baby girl
Photo by Jenean Newcomb

Our father didn’t come home that night, but he was in the dining room the next morning and his smile lit up the space. “You have a new little sister,” he told us. Now we’ve lived on a block in the city where new babies showed up at friends houses all the time.  The big mystery, of course, was where did they come from.  But come they did.  So, John and I were not all that surprised. He asked when would Mom be home and I asked what the baby’s name was. “Mary Antoinette,” Dad said.

“I’ll never be able to spell that,” I told him.

Mom, despite her unexpected home birth was fine and so was the new little one.  They came home the next day. I started calling the baby “Nanette” almost immediately – but never when my mom could hear me.

another birth trauma
Delivery room birth
Photo by Amit Gaur

Life returned to a normal rhythm until four years later when my brother Terrence’s birth shook the family to its core.  In mid-twentieth century America only hospital deliveries were considered safe.  The fact that my sister had been born at home without any problem and that both mother and child had been healthy carried no weight.  When Mom became pregnant for the fourth time, the doctor was determined that the child would be delivered at the hospital.  He decided, therefore, to induce the birth around the time of the baby’s due date.

Because I was only ten at the time, I never knew exactly what went wrong just that it did go bizarrely off track.  For one thing, the doctor misjudged the due date. When my brother was born, it became clear that he was premature. He needed neo-natal intensive care immediately and couldn’t leave the hospital for a month.  For some reason, delivery did not go well for mother either. She also was hospitalized following the birth becoming ill enough that my dad feared for her life. My grandmother led the three children at home in daily rosaries praying for our new baby brother and our Mom.

Baby in isolette incubator
Photo by Sharon Mc Cutcheon

What I recall most about that time was a sense of dread.  Although no adult had ever shared with me the dangers of childbirth, I had experienced death intimately twice that year.  My best friend, Patti, had died four days after being diagnosed with polio.  And my grandfather had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  I did my best to be a “little mother” to my brother and sister, but I knew how inadequate I was.  I cried myself to sleep while keeping a brave face for my dad during the day. What a relief when Dad announced that Mom and Terrence were coming home.

at home at last
Children on step
Photo by Mallory Di Maio

It was a lovely May day and we waited on the front steps as Dad helped Mom, holding the blanket-clad baby out of the car. John held the front door.  I ran ahead to stand by the h bassinet so I could have a first peek at the baby. But when Mom laid him down, horror gripped me. He was red and wrinkled like a prune.  His little arms and legs were stick-like not the chubby baby limbs I expected. Was he really okay to come home?  Mom saw my look. “He’s fine.  We just have to fattened him up a bit.”

just as it should be

Now with the unexpected home birth and the disastrous induced birth ever in his radar, my dad couldn’t help but be a nervous wreck the closer the fifth baby’s due date got. But when it came, it went just the way it was supposed to go.  Mom awoke with mild contractions. There was plenty of time for Dad to take her to the hospital.  I was old enough to care for home and hearth while he

Blonde newborn
Photo by Yves Scheuber

went.  A robust, healthy baby girl came into the world without any complications. Three days later, we welcomed home a chubby, big-eyed cherub with a wisp of blonde curls – a true Gerber baby.  My happiness at welcoming this new family member knew no bounds.  I called everyone I knew to say that “Mary Elizabeth” had joined the family and they should come and see the most beautiful baby in the world.

What, even in all my happiness at the time, I couldn’t know was this precious child would continue to be a blessing to me throughout my life. I’ll have to tell you about that in another blog post.

Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.
Sam Levenson

I would love to hear any stories you have about welcoming new brothers or sisters into the family.

 

Sisters – A Bond Like No Other

Sisters on a couch
weird sisters

In the delightful novel, The Weird Sisters, three women in their early thirties land back at their parents’ home for a summer. The twists of fate converge to bring them together when each is facing a life-changing crisis. The author Eleanor Brown transforms these ordinary moments of everyday life into a narrative so engrossing that it’s almost impossible to put down. She does this in no small measure through her vivid portrayal of each sister and of their complex relationship.

3 sisters circa 1890
Photo from Boston Public Library

A dear friend recommended I read the book because I also am one of three sisters. She thought I might find similarity between my family and the one in the book.  On the surface, the family of this novel and my own family of origin have little in common. The heroines of the book grow up in a small mid-western town where life centers around a prestigious liberal arts college. Their father is a literature professor. My sisters and I grew up in large urban centers where manufacturing was the lifeblood of the community. Our father, as intelligent as he was, had no college degree. Popular mechanics were his passion.

first, middle, last – it makes a difference
Three Nepalese sisters
Photo by Terry Boynton

Despite these differences, from the first page the story resonated with me at a deep level. What struck me right away was the influence of birth order not just on the sisters’ place within the family, but also on the choices they had made as they left the family. I could see a parallel structure in my own family.

In the past, some psychologists like Alfred Adler, a 19th- and early 20th-century Austrian psychotherapist and founder of individual psychology, suspect that birth order leads to differences in siblings. Broader twenty-first century studies have questioned this theory,   Other studies based on Myers/Briggs theory have confirmed it.

excellent writer’s tool

Psychology aside, however, this theory works well for writers as they develop their characters. As we read, we believe. When an author weaves a fine tale in which a character’s birth order influences importance aspects of the self, readers not only accept the reality on the page, they begin to look for similarities in their own life.

Like the oldest sister in The Weird Sisters, I always had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the family. I didn’t always like that role, but I knew my parents expected me to help my mother with household tasks, caring for my younger siblings, and running errand when needed.

caught in the middle
3 Sisters from Logan, Utah
Photo by Adam Winger

In the book, Bianca, the middle sister shrugs off the responsibilities of home and narrowness of small-town life.  She is the beauty of the family and she uses that beauty as a commodity. My middle sister was also the beauty of our family – a beauty with a prickly rose bush grown around her, keeping her separate from the rest of us – somehow living in another plain.

Her given name was Mary Antoinette. My mother never called her anything else. We siblings had trouble spilling that out all at once. At first, we called her “Marnette.” Later that phased in “Nanette,” the name we still use.  She herself insisted on being called “Mary.”  This was problematic because our youngest sister, the baby of the family, was Mary Elizabeth. Mom shorted that to Mary Beth, but then us older kids shortened it to simply “Beth,” which might have worked except that when she went to high school, she told all her new friends to simply call her “Mary.”

Consequently, if someone phoned our home and asked for “Mary,” we always had to ask, “Which one?” A little flustered, the caller would say “Mary De Jager,” to which we again answered “Which one?” My brothers and I were loud in our protests over the confusion that the two “Mary’s” were causing, but neither sister would give way.  Each hold her claim to “her” name.

the favored child
3 Sisters in Carterville IL
Photo by Blake Cheek

In The Weird Sisters, each of the young women is certain that she is actually her father’s favorite.  No such mistaken notion occurred in my household. Nanette was far and away the “favored child.” Her delicate features, huge blue eyes, and very curly flaxen hair mesmerized adults. More than that, she very early learned to be what she herself termed “a lady.”  And I talking about when she was just a kindergartener. For one thing, she would only wear dresses or skirts never jeans or shorts. My mother complied and dressed her like a favorite doll. Mom also spent a great deal of time fashioning Nanette’s curls into perfect spirals with some of them piled charmingly on top of her head.

My maternal grandmother doted on this beautiful granddaughter.  Our family, as a rule, never ate in restaurants unless we were traveling, but my grandmother and “Grandpa Ed,” her second husband loved eating out. They often took Nanette with them because they enjoyed the admiration and attention that other diners showered on her and because my sister had learned at a very young age that “children should be seen and not heard.”

As we grew Nanette became ever more attractive. When we got to our teens, she spent most of the day at the neighbor pool. She was the only one in the family who could tan. Her skin turned the color of honey in the summer and her hair bleached to an even lighter shade of blonde.

unanticipated metamorphosis
3 sisters in a rural area
Photo by Fabio Centeno

When she turned seventeen, a metamorphosis took us all by surprise. The Barbie Doll caterpillar spun a cocoon and disappeared, becoming uncommunicative and unsocial.  Nanette went to school, watched the television news, and read for hours. When the butterfly emerged, she was a socially conscious advocate, determined to make a difference in a world she deemed was falling apart. After high school graduation, she joined a group of lay missionaries. Their work took them to schools in Appalachia. She returned at the end of the summer and enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study social work.

briefly royal

She had, however, one more turn as the family beauty.  During Nanette’s sophomore year, our mother became very ill. She expressed to her middle child that she had been harboring high hopes for years that Nanette might someday be Miss America. When Nanette tried to laugh it off, Mom begged her to consider trying.  Seeing Mom’s desperation, my sister applied for the Miss St. Paul pageant – and won. My mother was in seventh heaven.  The next step, getting ready for the Miss Minnesota pageant meant taking time off from studies, but Nanette didn’t know how to refuse. In that contest, she became one of ten finalists.

Goth sisterss
Photo by Angello Pro

Then in an interview with the judges, each young woman was asked what she wanted to do with her life. Nanette laid out for them her plan to get a Master’s in Social Work and to then go to areas of the country that were under served to help those struggling with poverty and lack of supportive services.  One of the judges nodded. Then he said, “You have the talent to win this contest, but most of the girls either have no concrete plan for their life or want to go into show business.  Being Miss Minnesota would take a year out of your life.  You have a great vision. We don’t think you should waste a year of your life being a beauty queen. Go follow your dream.”

the rainbow ends here

Nanette not only understood she was relived.  She had done her best. It wasn’t meant to be.  Our mom still had her photos to display with Nanette wearing the Miss St. Paul crown.  Her daughter had done her duty as the “favored child.”

Mary Antoinette followed her own yellow brick road and became a high school counselor, devoted to helping young teens find a way to transform their most authentic dreams into reality.

“And I felt closer to you. Because you knew me so much better than I’d realized – and still loved me.”
Rosamund lupton, Sister

Three Sisters Peaks Oregon

Like a Rainbow

Rainbow over Waverly

Over the last several post, I’ve been sharing memories with my readers.  Some have been stories from my childhood. Others are tales shared with me about my parents’ or my grandparents’ lives.

Today, I return to my earliest post. This one was published over two years ago. It asks readers to join me, to share their stories and to share photographs that illustrate those stories.  It’s a BIG ASK. But, boldly, I do it again.

somewhere over the rainbow

Yellow brickroad to OzLike a rainbow, families begin and end in misty places we never actually see.  Some of its colors we perceive quite clearly. Others are not so easily defined. But together all these hues represent who we are and what we can be.

Every known human society has had distinctive ways of constructing family relationships.  All have recognized this web of intimate inter-connection as essential to human survival.

Our own contemporary Western culture is no different.  The turmoil of immigration and mobility has severed our links to our ancestors. Feeling uprooted, yearning for connection, we turn to genealogists to find out who our great-grandparents were and where they came from.

That only gets us names and dates.  It doesn’t connect people to one another.  Even if I unearth some photos to go with the names,  I mostly find myself staring at …..strangers.

Back to the Future

Old photosI cannot undo the past. But there’s another impossibility I may be able to pull off. I can travel “Back to the Future.”  Before you start calling in the guys with the straight jackets, let me assure you that I am not planning on building a Time Machine.

Rather through memory and imagination, I will visit the past as I knew it and bring back stories of those times and those people, preserving them for today’s children and also for the children at the other end of the rainbow.

I invite you to companion me on my quest.  Share your stories of our families’ past adventures and everyday events. Send me photos that illustrate those tales. Don’t limit yourself to the past. Today will soon be yesterday. So let’s hear what’s happening in the family right now, especially the funny stories that will tickle the ribs of future grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews as well.

sundays at nana’s house

Jay having dinner with Terrence's familyMany of us remember a time when almost every Sunday, the extended family gathered at a grandmother’s or great-aunt’s home for Sunday dinner.  It takes events of great joy or deep sadness to bring us all together today.  This blog will be a virtual “Dinner at Nana’s House,” a place and time to celebrate that in some way everyone here is family.

I am reaching out to everyone I have been fortunate enough to call “family.” Here we’ll ask real questions, not fill in some fantasy quiz. We ask because we truly want to know the answers.

Asking is not probing.  There will still be secrets.  Every family has them. But we will so much more about each other than we do now. Day by day we’ll be more and more connected. Knowing will enable caring. Caring will engender a tradition of support. This will be our legacy.

abundance of connection
At my father's Wisconsin cabin
John DeJager’s Lake Cabin

My life’s journey began in the midst of abundant family. On the day I was born my four grandparents lived nearby, my two uncles were fighting in World War II, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. As the first child of two oldest children, I did not, as yet, have any aunts, siblings, or cousins.  Those would come later. I was, however, blessed with an abundance of great-aunts and  great-uncles, a slew of second and third cousins, and best of all, two lovely great-grandmothers.  It is my great hope that all these wonderful folks will star somewhere in the dramas to appear on these pages.

No more photos without names. No more names without faces. Future children of the clans will inherit the rich narrative of their origins.  knowing where they come from will give them true direction as to where they can go.

“Families are like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.” https://www.treasurequotes.com/quotes/families-are-like-branches-on-a-tree-we-grow

Might Southern Oak
Photo by Andrew Shelley

Let the Clan Gathering Begin.

 

In the Driver’s Seat

Young girl adjusts car mirror

On the February day I turned fifteen years and six months, “Let’s get Jule driving,” became a rallying cry of my family.

a family project
Cowboy boots
Photo by Jon Siler

My mother and all my siblings had a stake in the endeavor. Mom wanted to delegate some of the responsibility for errand running. She also planned that I would help to ferry the other kids to and from their many activities. My brother John, just twenty months my junior, knew if I had a little more freedom to come and go from our far-flung ex-urban ranch house than he could hitch a ride on those forays.

My grade-school age brother and sister plotted visits to our small- town cinema for the Saturday cowboy matinees. They went so far as to hope to swing through the drive-in for a milkshake after the movie. If Mom didn’t have to drive us herself, she might be less reluctant to watch our allowance go for such frivolities. My toddler sister caught the enthusiasm from the rest of us.  She knew from experience that Mom expected me to take her with me wherever I went.

a nervous dad
Little girl crosses river on a log
Photo by Morgan de Lossy

The only one not wholeheartedly cheering on the project was my dad.  And with good reason. Between the fifteen and a half-year old who didn’t know the first thing about piloting an automobile and a sixteen year old, who could pass her driver’s test, was a gigantic void. It would be his job to fill that void, if not with expertise, then with enough skills that I could get around without killing myself or anyone else. He didn’t relish the opportunity.

Dad himself was a self-taught driver. Neither his parents nor my mother’s drove. Dad had lived on a farm as a teen during the Great Depression.  He learned to drive, starting with farm vehicles before moving on to cars. At first, he had mostly driven around the farm or just as far as a neighbor’s place. By the time his family moved to Detroit, he had several years of driving under his belt and didn’t find the city quite as daunting as it might have been.  That is, until he had to teach his new wife to drive.  Memories of those harrowing weeks haunted him as he contemplated teaching his eldest daughter the rudiments of the road.

here we go
Vintage Station Wagon
Photo by Tyler Nix

On the plus side, he had moved his family to a small Indiana city two years before. I would not have to learn to drive in Detroit.  He had also built a home for us at the far edges of that city, Muncie. So, there were relatively quiet roads for me to practice driving.

That didn’t make it a piece of cake.  For one thing, my mom refused to let him to use the family station wagon as my learning vehicle. A beautiful scarlet model with wooden paneling and tons of chrome, it was only slightly less fragile than a china tea set. Jeopardizing its sleek looks by letting a young teen get behind the wheel wasn’t happening on her watch.

built to take it
1940s car
Photo by Brett Jordan

Instead, I learned to drive behind the gigantic wheel of a 1948 Chevrolet four-door sedan. The color of an Army tank, it highly resembled a military vehicle with its blunt lines and no-nonsense massive proportions. I felt like a midget as I crawled behind the wheel for the first time as my dad slid into the passenger seat.

A serious problem presented immediately. I couldn’t see over the wheel. There was no way to adjust the height of the seat. So, Dad got an old guilder cushion from the garage and propped it under me.  Okay, now I could see out the windshield, but I could barely reach the accelerator.  Another cushion wedged behind me somewhat corrected that difficulty.  And we were off to the races.

hours spent going nowhere
Vintage dashboard
Photo by Eric Marty

Not literally, of course, because that first afternoon we never left the driveway. For hours, I simply practiced turning on the lights and windshield wipers, learning the correct signals for a right turn or a left turn, and learning to read the many gauges on the dashboard. The whole time my siblings formed a semi-circle around the hood of the car as though I was a circus act. After a long two hours, I thankfully ended the show, ran into our house, and flung myself across my bed in tears. I felt certain I’d never learn to drive such a complicated machine.

Bit by bit, however, I mastered the basics of driving although the other lessons weren’t burnt into my memory like that one. I do remember the struggle with shifting gears. Because he was a pretty smart guy, my dad had backed into the driveway so I could drive out. After all, backing out before I knew how to go forward would have been a formula for disaster.  At first, I couldn’t even get out of the driveway because coordinating the shifting of the gears with alternating my feet between pedals felt like juggling on a unicycle – impossible for someone with so little synergy. When I did make it out of the driveway, it took several days’ practice before I could drive around our sparsely- populated block without stalling.

uphill and down
Curvy country roads
Photo by Apollo Photography

The elation I felt when I finally achieved it was short lived.  Now, pointed out, I needed to learn how to change gears going up and down hills.  Is there anything scarier than feeling the car you are driving start to roll inexorably backwards because you can’t get it into gear?  At almost sixteen, I didn’t think so.  Fortunately, my father knew a lot of the less-trafficked hills in the area.

After the longest six months of my life came my sixteenth birthday.  I had already completely memorized the state driving manual.  Dad felt he’d taught me all he could. It was time for the test.  Despite a wildly beating heart and sweating hands, I passed! When we returned home and I held up my license for all to behold, my brother John gave a wild cheer and the little kids clapped. My dad collapsed into an easy chair and Mom brought him a ginger ale.

maiden voyage
Statue of Education
Photo by Adam Bouse

The next morning, Mom suggested I drive John to church with me because she wanted to go to a later Mass.  I almost didn’t understand her, but my brother did.  He grabbed the keys off the mantle where my Dad had flung them the night before, “Let’s go before she changes her mind,” he called. We were late for service because I couldn’t quite get myself to go over thirty miles an hour even on the rural roads, but we got there in one piece. Thus, when we headed home, I was feeling pretty confident that I’d turned a new corner in my life. We rode past Ball State College on our way to home.  My eyes were on the road straight ahead as I maneuvered between the cars parked at the curb and the oncoming traffic.

I felt and heard the sickening crunch at the same time. I had sideswiped a parked car. My brother let out a string of words I didn’t realize that a fourteen year old knew. We both jumped, leaving our doors wide open. Horns started to blare. John slammed his door.  I jumped back in and tried to pull forward. More loud crunching of steel on steel. I stopped. Leaving the keys in the ignition, I turned off the engine and slid out once more, closing the door behind me as I sidled along the driver’s side of the Chevy.

beginner’s misfortune
Pink vintage car tail fins
Photo by Sergei Wing

John stood gaping at a long-slung, gleaming white and pink auto with huge tail fins. The lines of burnished chrome that minutes before had detailed its classy styling, were now scrunched, torn and tattered in front of my car’s front wheel bumper.

My head whirled, my mind blanked, for a moment the world was silent. Then suddenly a string of profanity erupted behind me. The college student, into whose car I had plowed, had been dragged from his bed by friends to come survey the wreckage.

unforeseen rescue

I shrank back against the protection of our Chevy and started sobbing. A police siren cut through the shouts of the college student and his friends as a cruiser pulled alongside us. An older uniformed officer jumped out. When he saw the big guy towering over me and shaking his fist, the policeman strode over grabbed the college guy by his shoulder and pulled him away from me. He patted my shoulder, “It’s okay. Calm down. We’ll figure this out.”

“So, what happened?” He addressed the crowd at large.

My brother, never at a loss for words, piped right up and gave his version. “My sister was driving very slowly and carefully, but this is a pretty narrow street and there was a lot of traffic coming at her and just a little bit of room between them and the parked cars. I guess she misjudged it a little bit. It’s her first time driving by herself.”

The officer surveyed the scene and scowled. Then he took out his ticket book Policeman writing ticketsand scribbled furiously, tore off the ticket and shoved it at the irate college student.

“What the…!” the kid yelled.

town over gown

“You students have been told time again to park in the school parking lots. This street is a no parking after 6 p.m. Looks like you got what was coming to you for flaunting the law.” He turned to me. “I’ll get in and maneuver your car so we can get it unhooked and you can be on your way.

Once he’d freed the Chevy, we could see it had a couple of scratches, nothing more. The Impala was a disaster. “I’m going to drive you and your brother home,” he told me. “My partner will pick me up after I get things straight with your folks. These college frat boys come to town with money and fancy cars and think they own the place.  Maybe this will make them think twice.”

University in a medieval city
Photo by Sidharth Bhatia

I had just been introduced to the town-and-gown rivalry that goes back to the middle ages. Town and gown rivalries have existed ever since formal institutions of higher education were formed, and they continue to be a very serious issue in some communities.

My first encounter with the phenomenon left me somewhat bewildered, but mostly relieved. It didn’t hurt at all to have an officer of the law assuring my parents that the accident was totally the fault of “those irresponsible frat boys.”

“Academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”
Werner Herzog

I would love to hear about your first forays into driving.

NOT ALL UGLY DUCKLINGS ARE IN FAIRY TALES

Ducklings
coming of age
1960s teenage girl holding school books
Photo by Alamy

As I turned thirteen on September 8, 1955, I was still pretty much a child, taller and heavier than I had been at ten, but with much the same perspective on life, a proverbial “late-bloomer.” Within twelve months, my life would be turned upside down, but I had no hint of such a transformation on my birthday. As far back as my memory could take me, my life had followed a set pattern.

The way I lived mirrored the lives of my peers, the children of my neighborhood and my grade school.  Ours was a working-class neighborhood of Detroit during a time of relative prosperity and rigid roles. Every father I knew had a job. Every mother remained at home keeping house and watching over the children. The only diversity in our community was religious. Some families were Catholic; others were Protestant, but everyone attended one Christian church or another.

life under a shadow

This life, I had been taught to believe, was one of great fortune. As long as I could remember, my parents’ and my grandparents told my sibling and me stories about life during the Great Depression and World War II. Both my parents’ fathers had lost their jobs at one point. Each family had struggled to afford even the basic necessities.

Each of my parents saw a younger brother join the armed forces during World

Devestation of WW II
Photo from National Geographic Archives

War II. My mother’s brother was killed in Belgium. Scarred as they were by the traumas of their own youth, my mom and dad felt it imperative that their own children realize how privileged they were. We were lucky, they said, to carry lunch boxes filled with food and come home to a full dinner every night. Even when we weren’t hungry, we were expected to eat because it was a “sin” to pass up good food.

The one glitch in these secure lives were the regular school drills in which we practiced crouching beneath our desks in case of an enemy bombing. While we know now that such precautions would have been little protection against a nuclear attack, in the mid-1950s our true sense of security came from living in Detroit, Michigan. We felt far away from the range of Russian bombers. If anything, we worried more about invasions from Mars.

That autumn, however, I was about to experience three turning points much more unsettling than mere Martian landings.

out of the shadows

Girls in the 1960s dress upFirst, my acne began to clear up, to gradually fade away without leaving any scars. At the time I firmly believed that this wonderful development resulted from the strict diet my dermatologist has prescribed. This diet forbid chocolate, “fried foods,” gravy and butter. I followed it religiously. Believing as I did that it had cured my acne, I stuck to that food regime all through high school. As a result, not only did my skin clear up, but I slimmed down.  I didn’t actually lose any weight, but I grew several inches without gaining a single pound.

Following this physical transformation came a social one. The upper-grade girls of my school, St. Brigid’s, elected me President of the Sodality of Our Lady. This school organization, composed of all the girls from grades five through eight, met regularly to say the Rosary and dedicate our lives to the service of Mary. The election had no campaign. On a given day, all the eligible girls wrote the name of a girl they thought to be the model of a good Catholic, on a ballot. The nuns, our teachers, collected the ballots and counted them that night. In the morning they announced the new President.  I had not known that many girls knew my name, let alone that they would vote for me. The election caused me to reframe my understanding of my own potential.

crowning achievement
May crowning
Photo by Marites Allen

The best part of being elected to this presidency came in May. It meant I would crown the statue of Mary with roses at the end of the Marian Procession. For that occasion, my mother tailored her wedding dress so that it fit me. I felt truly beautiful as I marched solemnly down the aisle behind a double row of choir boys. But my trip up the ladder to place Our Lady’s crown over her carved stone veil was absolutely terrifying.

Soon after the May crowning, a third event set my whole life on a different course.  My father asked me, my sister, and my two brothers to remain at the dinner table after dessert one night in April. This was highly unprecedented since ordinarily I would have been expected to immediately start clearing plates and begin doing the dishes. Dad announced that we were going to be moving as soon as I graduated from the eighth grade in June. He had accepted a new job in Indiana.

mixed emotions
Quiet residential street
Photo by Juvnsky Maksimov

The announcement left us first in shock and then full of questions. My mother, we quickly learned, was deeply unhappy about the move. Her widowed mother lived across the street from us, and she didn’t want to leave her behind. Mom had moved to Detroit from Pittsburgh with her family and remembered how hard it was to settle into a new city. But my father’s opportunity was a chance to move up in his career beyond anything he had ever expected.  He couldn’t fathom turning the opportunity down.

dreams of enchantment

For me, the whole idea of leaving Detroit and starting life in a new state was

Basketball area
Photo by Hannah Gibbs

beyond exciting.  I had expected to attend a nearby Catholic all-girls school. Indiana sounded much more adventurous. We were leaving a neighborhood where over half the families were Catholic and moving a small city with no Catholic high school and only one Catholic church. I had begun to change internally. This move would allow me to try out my new wings away from my old roots.

Swan with wing spin
Photo by Gabriel Miklos

 

Dreams of becoming a nun slipped away as visions of enchanted evenings and tall dark strangers took their  place.

 

Dear Readers, Share a time when your life changed abruptly and for the better.

“Don’t worry if people think you’re crazy. You are crazy. You have that kind of intoxicating insanity that lets other people dream outside of the lines and become who they’re destined to be.”
Jennifer Elisabeth, Born Ready: Unleash Your Inner Dream Girl

Back Country Cure

Banff, Canada
permission to disconnect
Man riding horse in wilderness
Photo by Hector Perez

I recently discovered an article in the National Geographic that warmed my heart and spun my memory back three-quarters of a century.

Ray Knell, a Green Beret and a ten-year Afghanistan combat veteran undertook a 1,000-mile wilderness ride from Colorado to Montana along North America’s Continental Divide. He completed his trek using wild mustangs because the horse gave him focus and allowed him to disconnect. This he needed to do to heal his own PTSD. He also hoped to set an example that other traumatized veterans could follow.

an ancient syndrome – a new guise
WW I - Men in trenches
Photo from British Library

The term PTSD didn’t enter my vocabulary until the early 1980s. Many of my classmates, men and women, had served in the armed forces in the Vietnam Conflict. They returned home suffering from a disabling array of mental disturbances. Due to the controversial nature of the war, their suffering may have been worse than that experienced in the past. But it was not a new syndrome. Ancient documents describe post-combat symptoms similar to the high levels of stress and anxiety the young combatants of the 1970s experienced.

One evening after my children were in bed, a close friend from college, now decommissioned and on his way home to St. Paul, stopped to spend the night at our home. He arrived at ten at night, hungry and tired.  I fixed him a B. L.T. “Ah,” he said, “this is the kind of food we dreamed about in ‘Nam.” He and I sat up long past midnight. I tried not to cry as I listened to the horror stories he had to tell. I prayed there would be a source of solace for him once he stepped again on Minnesota soil.

And I finally understood the full meaning of a journey I had taken when I was not quite four years old.

detour on the way home

1946 ChevroletEarly in the morning of the Memorial Day weekend, 1946, my dad John De Jager, slid behind the enormous wheel of his family’s retooled 1942, four-door, Chevy sedan. His right arm across the wide front seat, he checked to make sure all was set in back. His brother, my Uncle Jimmy, sat in the passenger seat, resting a brawny arm along the open car window. In the back I commanded one window seat and my grandmother, the other. My brother John, who was almost two years old, sat on a booster chair between us. The trunk of the car had been piled high with suitcases, and we still had some containers under our feet. As my Dad turned the key and started the big engine, I knelt up and leaned my arms on the back ledge to wave a wild good-bye to family we left standing in the drive-way.

WW II Sailor kissing girl
Photo by Jorge Gardner

World War II had officially ended the September before when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.  Sometime during the winter my uncle had been discharged from the Navy. Throughout the war, he had served on ships in the Pacific as a radar specialist and seldom saw the light of day. On the evening he had returned to us, he swooped in and grabbed me and swung me around the room. Then he plopped his navy cap on my head.  “Here, Judy,” he said. “It’s all yours. I’m done fighting.”

to be whole again
Ranch in Canada
Photo by Jon Phillips

It seemed that we had my dad’s happy-go-lucky brother back. But we didn’t. What I wouldn’t know until later was that Jimmy wasn’t able to concentrate at the job that was waiting for him. He joined his family on Sunday at church, but no longer joined in the hymns. Worst of all nightmares caused him to wake the family in the middle of the night with his screams. The family doctor advised a “rest cure.”

Because his mother had grown-up on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, the family decided what Jimmy needed was time away from Detroit, its crowds and its demand. He needed the wide-open spaces and the down-to-earth labor of the ranch to help him regain his equilibrium.

Jimmy wasn’t the only one suffering from the aftermath of the conflict that had taken the lives of millions, leaving the survivors reeling in shock.  My mother’s only brother, John, had died in combat in Belgium, shortly after her father had succumbed to a heart attack. Deep in mourning herself, she struggled to stay strong for her mother.

Grieving older woman
Photo by Christian Newman

My grandmother sat in darkened rooms staring at old photos and shunning society. She had been a woman who loved dancing, singing, cooking and entertaining. She had given the reception for my mother’s wedding in her backyard, doing all the decorations and food preparation on her own. But now, nothing interested her. My mother fear for her mental health. Her concerns for her mother distracted her from caring for my brother and me. She did not, of course, neglect us, but could get no real joy from being a mother.

What I understand today is that my entire family lived under the pall of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, they had no name to give it. They only knew the world was at peace, but that peace eluded them.

follow the sun
Yellowstone National Park
Photo by Paula Hayes

The little girl happily waving goodbye from the backseat of the Chevy only knew she was off on an adventure. For my Dad who would be returning to Detroit and my mother, this was his vacation. Everything about it looms in my memory like scenes from a fantasy or a fairy tale. The geysers at Yellowstone National Park both frightened and delighted me. The mountains in Glacier National Park suggested hidden homes of giants and elves. I was certain that the hotel on Lake Louise as we neared our destination was actually a palace.

Our last stop before the ranch was my Great-Grandmother Koopman’s home in Banff. I’ve never forgotten that since wasn’t at home when we arrived. So, my father hoisted me on his shoulders to crawl in through the open kitchen window.  I landed in the sink and scrambled down to the linoleum. It was getting dark and I didn’t know which way to go in the strange house, but my father was shouting, “Find the front door.”

I tentatively peered through a door. No ghosts.  Just a gigantic dining room table and chairs.  I crept around it, holding onto the backs of the chairs as though I needed to be anchored to the floor.  Through an archway, I saw a living room full of plastic-covered heavy furniture, and, thankfully, a big white paneled door. I let go of a chair and ran to the door, twisted the lock and let my family in.  My Great-Gran was quite surprised to find us all sitting in her living room when she arrived home. It was late at night when we turned off the gravel highway onto the rutted, dirt driveway into the ranch, but my Great-Aunt Elsa waited with a lantern on the back porch as we drove up. She engulfed me in a giant bear hug that felt just right.

living with heroes
Cowboy on ranch
Photo by Flo P

From that moment on the whole summer was one magical adventure for me. I trailed my great-aunt wherever she went. Together we fed chickens, milked cows, baked bread, and tended her kitchen garden.  I suppose my little brother was there somewhere, but in my memory, it’s just my great-aunt and me.  I do remember we had a second birthday party for my brother and all the cowhands attended.  The cowhands lent a great deal of mystique to that summer. Their worn, wide-brimmed leather hats and the leather chaps that protected their Levi’s transformed them into mythical creatures for me. I loved getting up at the crack of dawn so I could share their breakfast hour.

daring deeds
Soaring hawk
Phot by Ezequiel Garridao

My other favorite ranch characters were my teenage cousins, who worked the ranch, but took particular pride in protecting the chickens from the hawks. This entailed getting behind the wheel of an enormous pre-War auto and careening around the ranch.  One cousin would drive while the others clung to the running boards, rifles in hand.  They let me ride on the back window ledge for these excursions.  As we hurtled along back and forth, the boys would take aim and more often than not bring down a hawk. Why my great-aunt let me go on such outings I have no idea, but child raising practices were different back then.

some happy endings
Child hugging older woman
Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova

At the end of the summer Dad brought my mother with him to pick us up.  After a summer on the ranch, my uncle felt better able to resume civilian life. had been just what he needed. My parents stayed a few days to rest for the return trip to Detroit. But when it was time to go, I clung to my great-aunt and begged to stay.  I told her, “I want you to be my mommy.” The look of betrayal on my mother’s face is one I’ll never forget.  Yet, I persisted. Instinct warned me perhaps that life with my traumatized mother would never be easy.  But four-year old don’t get to decide their fate. I had to give my great-aunt one last hug and climb in the car.  It was the last time I visited Alberta. Maybe my mother didn’t dare take me back.

“We were not allowed to speak of the unseen wounds of war. We were not allowed to prepare for them.” Thank You For Your Service Brig. General Loree Sutton,

What are your earliest memories of human warfare?

Fate Plays Cupid

Cupid and Psyche
Abstract, couple with childwinning the lottery

In the summer of 2018, I wrote a blog post which I titled, “You Won the Lottery, but You Didn’t Know It.” “The chance,” I wrote, “that you would not be is so far greater than the chance that you would have come into being as the unique person you are is almost incalculable. Literally millions of events in human history needed to occur just the way they did for the moment to arise when your father’s sperm successfully penetrated your mother’s egg. Once this miracle happened, the layers of environments surrounding the tiny zygote from the womb to the universe formed a coherent protective whole that assured you would be born.”

To dwell on this reality can be mind boggling. Just ask yourself, “What if my mom never met my dad?” or “What if my parents met, but never loved?”

That very thing almost happened to me.

dreams can be complicated

In 1935 twenty-year old Peggy Luger, the girl who would be my mother,

Workers during Great Depression
Photo by Sonder Quest

achieved her life-long dream. She graduated from nursing school. Unfortunately, she emerged from the cocoon of nursing school into a chaotic economic crisis. The Great Depression, the severe economic downturn that lasted from 1929 to 1939, affected the whole world.  In the United States, industrial production declined by 47 percent. Mass unemployment increased the rates of poverty and homelessness.

Pittsburg, PA
Photo by Jonathan Rivera

Yet, for Peggy, the immediate future glimmered with hope. Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she had trained, could offer her a position as a ward nurse. Another bright light in Peggy’s life, Frank O’Donnell, had proposed to her the evening of her graduation. She had worked over the past year with Frank, an intern at the hospital. A stocky, personable Irishman with a thick head of black hair and merry grey eyes, Frank had captured a lot of nurses’ hearts. Peggy liked him and she was flattered. She did not, however, feel she knew him well enough to accept his proposal.  Nursing students were not allowed to date. Now that she had graduated, she wanted to get to know him better outside the hospital setting. With supreme confidence that he knew the way to a girl’s heart, Frank agreed to wait for an answer.

first comes family – maybe
Downtown Detroit, MI
Photo by Alex Brisbey

Peggy struggled with another concern. She was considering leaving Pittsburgh because her parents had moved to Detroit, Michigan. Her father had been out of work for three long years, most of the time she had studied nursing. Her mom had kept food on the table by selling cleaning products door-to-door.  Neither of them would listen to Peggy’s pleas that she leave nursing school and help out.  She could help best, they insisted, by becoming a nurse. Last year her father finally found employment. But his new job as a draftsman for a construction company meant he had to move. Peggy’s young brother John had gone with them. Although she had aunts, uncles and cousins in Pittsburgh, her parent’s absence left a huge hole in her heart. She didn’t want to live so far away from them.

Romance must wait

Vintage photo -nurse treating boyShe decided to apply for a position at Providence Hospital in Detroit just to see what happened. Because her grades had been stellar and her recommendations were glowing, the Detroit hospital hired her immediately. A young woman of deep faith, she took this a sign from heaven and moved into her parents’ home on Cherrylawn Avenue on the city’s westside. She promised Frank that it wasn’t the end of their relationship. They could write, she said, and visit each other.  If by the time he graduated, if their love for one another remained steadfast, they could marry and she would move to Pittsburgh.

a father’s friendship

John Luger, Peggy’s dad, enjoyed his new position. He especially found the

Drafting tools
Photo by Lucas Kepner

men he worked with easy-going and cooperative. One of the younger men, who was also named John, he took a particular shine to because that co-worker produced such meticulous work and offered to help others with snags.  Yet, he never pushed himself forward. “Luger,” as the guys at work called him like this tall, well-built, blonde kid’s humble attitude.  He decided to invite him home to meet his family.

“D.J.” as the other John was known, readily accepted.  Because Mrs. Luger (another Peggy) like to impress visitors, she set the table with fine linens and her best china. D.J., used to eating in his family’s farm kitchen, worried he’d use the wrong utensil for something, but more than the setting made him nervous. Luger’s daughter sat across the table from him. Her animated conversation about her patients at the hospital mesmerized him as did her soft, curly light brown hair and huge deep-blue eyes.

enter the rival
1930s soda fountain
https://blog.retroplanet.com/

At work the next day, he asked Luger would it be all right if he asked Peggy to go out for some ice-cream the following Sunday.  The older man thought about the doctor back in Pittsburgh, but didn’t mention him. Instead, he gave D. J. their phone number. When she got the call, Peggy thought about Frank.  He wouldn’t be able to come to Detroit for three more weeks and lately his letters contained fewer and fewer expressions of affection.  It couldn’t hurt to just have ice-cream with another guy.

For the next six months, Peggy held her conscience at bay as she enjoyed the company and the attention of both young men.  D. J. had learned about Frank from her dad, but since she wore no engagement ring, he put faith in being “the bird in the hand.”  But, whenever Frank did come, he stayed in the family home and his dynamism and his plans for his future made it clear that he was the suitor that could offer Peggy the more secure and comfortable life.

love creates a quandary
Leaves, floating in water, form heart
Photo by Roman Kraft

With no real end to the Depression in sight, making a good financial choice couldn’t be just shoved aside.  Besides Peggy really liked Frank.  Mrs. Luger also like Frank and wanted her daughter to marry him, not just because he would be a doctor but because he was Catholic. D.J. had been brought up Presbyterian. Mrs. Luger didn’t hold by “mixed-marriages.”  They always caused trouble she said.  Love wasn’t enough to see a couple through deep religious differences.

Couple walking hand in hand
Photo by Eugenivy

Her mother’s words penetrated her soul, but weren’t proof against the growing chemistry she felt whenever she spent time with D.J. When he laced his strong fingers through hers as the walked in the park, as he traced a finger down her cheek, and when she couldn’t help lay her head on his shoulders at the movies, she felt an electric fissure of pleasure.  When Frank kissed her good-bye before leaving for Pittsburgh every other week, she sensed a solid warmth and security, but there was no zing to it.

She could imagine life without Frank. She tried to picture what it would be like if D.J. dropped out of her life.  No, that wasn’t a possibility she could entertain.

Thus, began the chain of events that led to my conception and that of my siblings – and consequently, any potential children of Peggy Luger and Frank O’Connell were relegated to oblivion.

“if you love two people at the same time, choose the second. Because if you really loved the first one, you wouldn’t have fallen for the second.”

Johnny Depp

Did you ever have to choose between two loves?  How did you make it work?

Learning to Love Unconditionally

Couple looking over horizon
From one generation to the next
Grandmother in kitchen w grandson
Photo by CDC

Almost from our first meeting, my husband Jay and I recognized each other as steadfast, loyal people who held deep affection for family members and friends.  We both enjoyed sharing stories with one another about our families. We could not help but admire the authentic fondness we each felt toward our parents, our siblings, and the many members of our extended families. One of our favorite ways to spend time then and now is to reminiscence about our grandparents.

Our grandparents had helped to mold the persons we had become. We treasured them individually. Yet, we didn’t realize how fortunate we were that between us, we had six living grandparents, all of whom attended our wedding. They had just always been there for us. So, it seemed perfectly natural that they should share this important moment.  I regret that neither we nor anyone else took a photo of all six of them together that day.  We do, however, love the various shots of all of them joyfully celebrating the marriage of their oldest grandchildren.

a legacy of great worth
Couple grasping arms
Photo by Elahe Motamed

Now, a grandmother myself, I fondly reflect upon the hours and days I spent with my grandparents as I grew up. I realize now that our grandparents’ lives taught Jay and me the very traits that drew us together – steadfast loyalty and devoted affection. When Jay and I lost our grandparents to death, they left no monetary inheritance, but the legacy they left us was far richer than any financial gain. They left their stamp on our character.

The deep affection we received from our grandparents, we quite naturally pass along to our grandchildren.  Through sharing their stories in my writing, I also hope to leave a legacy not only for our grandchildren but also for their children. I want them to know how greatly they were loved even before they existed.

leaving an old world for a new one
Cattle Ranch
Photo by Lukas Gachter

In planning my blog post for the next year, I chose as a theme, “Leave a Legacy.” I begin today with one of my favorite memories of my Grandmother Wilhelmina DeJager. I know only the vaguest outlines of my Grandma Minnie’s life before she became my grandmother. What I do know is fascinating enough to make me wish I could uncover more. As a teenager, she migrated from The Netherlands with her parents and siblings to Alberta, Canada, in the early 20th century. They left behind city life in Amsterdam to settle on a cattle ranch.  It sounds so much like the “Little House on the Prairie” stories that fairly breaks my heart that the story of those days is nowhere recorded.

Minnie met my grandfather, Ted, also a Dutch immigrant, when he was working on building the trans-Canadian railroad. They fell so deeply in love that when Ted migrated to the Detroit, Michigan, and wrote to ask her to come and marry him, she did. Imagine trusting love that much!

a twentieth century dutch homemaker
Braided rug
Photo by Viktor Fopgacs

Only twenty years old when she gave birth to my father John, Minnie had every skill needed to be an accomplished homemaker and mother. She could sew clothes for her whole family. The braided rugs for the floors, the curtains on the windows, and all the bed linens were also her creations.

Grandma planted a garden. At the beginning of every winter, she canned fruits and vegetables to last until spring. When I was a child, she canned enough for our family as well. And, of course, she cooked. I loved sitting in her kitchen and dreamed of having one that would look just like it someday because the white cabinets with red trim entranced me and the smells of stews and roasts made my mouth water.

a favored grandchild

Patterns for little girls' dresses in the 1950sAbove and beyond all else, Grandma Minnie loved me unconditionally. She had only had sons and thrilled to the fact that her first grandchild was a girl.  She’d been waiting twenty-five years to make like girl clothes! The lovely thing was since she was a grandmother, there was no subtle rule that kept her from making me her favorite. Those restrictions apply to parents, but grandparents needn’t abide by them. Thus, many times during the year I had the chance to skip out on my role of “mother’s helper” in my family of five siblings and become the “one and only” pet child of my grandmother.

These opportunities would usually begin following Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ home. Instead of going home with my parents, brothers and sisters, I would stay at Grandma’s house until the next Sunday. Those weeks were truly magical. My grandmother never gave me chores to do. Although she kept busy all day long with gardening, cooking and sewing, I was free to either tag along and chat or I could entertain myself however I chose.  Both alternatives were heavenly.

a magically ordinary household
Bright kitchen
Photo by Douglas Bagg

I loved watching her feet pumping the wheel on the sewing machine and marveled at the garments that arose from under the needles. My imagination took me back in time when she covered my head with a sunbonnet and gave me a basket to hold strawberries from the garden.  She didn’t mind at all if I became bored and dug for worms instead. If she was canning, I stood on a kitchen chair right at the stove – something my mother never allowed.

Carpentry shop
Photo by Adam Patterson

My grandfather had an enormous workshop in their garage.  Despite working all day as a ship builder, he still loved crafting with his tools once he was home. For me, he created a dollhouse with four rooms of furniture. He also built a child-size hutch to house my doll dishes and doll clothes.  I had a full wardrobe of clothes for my two favorite dolls because every time my grandmother made an outfit for me, she would make identical ones for my dolls.  Grandpa also crafted a dolls’ bunk bed for them for which my grandmother made mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, and quilts.

total belonging
Furnished dollhouse
Photo by Krysztof Kowalik

Often, I would wander away from my grandmother’s activity to curl up on her cushy sofa to read a book.  Sometimes, I’d turn her whole living room into a stage for my paper dolls. At home, my play was relegated to a basement playroom.  Children were not allowed in the living room. Most weekdays, at five-thirty, I’d walk to the end of their block to wait for the city bus that brought my grandfather home from work. Neither of my grandparents drove a car. Then, as we headed home, he’d tell me stories about the ships he was building. How I wish I could have written those stories down! At home, he strode into the kitchen and encircled Grandma’s waist and kissed the back of her neck.  She always said, “Oh, go on with you, Ted. Mind the child.” He would turn to me and wink.

On Sunday morning, although my grandmother was a staunch Presbyterian, she would walk me to St. Peter’s Catholic church several blocks away to attend Mass. My father had converted to Catholicism when he married my mother.  A stipulation of allowing my grandmother to have me at her home was that she promised to take me to Mass on Sunday.  My grandfather would pick me up when services were over. As a child, I often sought solitude and actually loved being able to attend church all on my own.

being loved for being you

I have no memories of anxiously awaiting my family at dinner time.  Mostly I felt sad that I was leaving my grandmother.  These visits stretched out from the time I was five until I was thirteen. Even when I was little, I suffered pangs of guilt at being so happy to be away from home and felt bad that I got my grandparents all to myself so often.  But the joy I experienced in my grandmother’s home more than compensated for any remorse I felt over my lack of homesickness.

Not for one moment of my childhood did I doubt that I was the light of my grandmother’s life. As sure I was of this truth, I realized that she loved my siblings and my cousins very deeply as well.  It didn’t diminish our relationship in the least.  At home my parents tried to be even-handed in their treatment of five very different children. I didn’t feel cherished as “Jule,” someone unique. My parents, I felt, most valued me as the oldest, the one who could help.

John and Jule at Latrouelle FallsMy grandmother’s unconditional love had no strings attached. I did not have to earn it. Experiencing such love taught be to be openly affectionate without fear. This is a trait my husband recognized early and treasures still.

“Grandparents hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever.”

Please share a favorite memory of your grandparents?

 

Seasonal Ambiguity

Snowy December Night
advent dilemma
Advent Wreath
Photo by Grant Whitty

In my heart of hearts, if I could wish away the season of Advent, I would.  I have never been able to “make it work.” Within my faith tradition, Christianity, Advent is one of the holiest seasons of the year. During the month before Christmas, our church calls us to fast and pray, to give alms and burn candles as we await the coming of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Although Jesus came into human history over 2,000 years ago, every year on the date, designated to celebrated his birth, Christians all over the world prepare to welcome him into their lives once again.

So, why would I vanquish such a sacred time? Because I live in a time and place where my culture overwhelms the spiritual meaning of the season with rampant worldly festivities, ones that lift me up and carry me through the dark, cold days of winter. Sadly, although most of this merrymaking has a tentative connection to the Nativity of Jesus, it has lost its solemn mode of quiet reflective waiting. And in truth, I don’t want to go back. As guilty as it makes me feel, I revel in our modern Christmas celebrations.

believe in santa claus

Toy department Marshall Field's

When I was a child, guilt about secular tradition never bothered me at all. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself, that the remorse set in and dogged my footsteps, taking little nibbles out of my joy, as I followed the traditions of my culture. Early in December, my husband Jay and I trekked through the snow-filled alleys of our Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago to the Fullerton “L” stop with all four children in tow. We rode the train to Randolph Avenue, getting off right in the basement of Marshall Field’s Department Store. We squeezed into a crowded elevator with other families and sped up to the sixth floor, a veritable children’s paradise, a square block of toys for sale.

The line to see Santa Claus usually stretched all the way back to the elevators themselves. My job, whether I cared to take it or not, was to hold a place in that slowly inching river of people. Jay had the equally challenging task of weaving with the children through the various display aisles as they concocted Christmas wish lists. Finally, it would be their turn to march up to “Santa” and sit on his (or one year her) lap and recite this list while a bored young photographer captured the less than memorable moment.

fine dining with kids!
Tree in Walnut Room
Photo by Claudio Schwarz

Next, we paraded up the escalator to the eighth floor so that we could admire the gigantic tree that stood in the center of the store’s premier restaurant, the Walnut Room, a carpeted, paneled space, reminiscent of the Victorian era.    The height of the tree always loomed far over our heads, and each year it had a different theme. By now almost exhausted and very hungry, we happily took our reserved place in the restaurant.  This experience tended to be a bit on the stressful side because fine dining and multiple children under the age of ten don’t make for a good mix.

Ringing the Salvation Army bellThe day’s rituals were not, however, quite complete.  After lunch, we joined the throng outside Field’s, sometimes in absolutely frigid weather, to circle around the store and admire that year’s Christmas windows, which most often depicted a favorite children’s story. Always, the children loved this part of the day best.  Before descending to the subway station, we performed the only authentically Advent action of the day, we each dropped several coins in the bucket of the Salvation Army bell ringer. When the children were older, we all volunteered bell ringers ourselves.

choosing the perfect tree

Christmas tree in a Victorian House

Most families have their specific ways of doing a Christmas tree. Jay had grown up with a flocked one.  To me that wasn’t quite authentic, but we weren’t die-hard enough to drive out to the country to cut down our own tree.  Rather we had our favorite close by our house, where all six of us milled around the lot, each choosing a different tree and then the negotiations began. Once we brought it home, of course, everyone agreed that we found the perfect tree.  Then the rest of us got out of the way while Jay with much under his breath cussing put up the lights.

There was one bad year. The kids had moved out of the house for college or residential living. I decided that we had decorated long enough with the ornaments that the children had made in preschool. I boxed these up and got rid of them. Then I proceeded to decorate the tree in shiny new ornaments. When the kids came home for Christmas, there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth. As far as they were concerned, I might as well have given away the family cat.

what does christmas truly mean?
Holy Family with Mary nursing and Joseph sleeping
Photo from Birmingham Museums Trust

If all this sounds to you like delightful, if exhausting celebration of annual traditions, your response is natural.  Why then did every step of the way drive virtual, yet painful, stones into my soul? There was always some part of me, that famous Catholic guilt, that chided me that I shouldn’t be giving into these materialistic rituals.  Why, I would ask myself, couldn’t I focus my children’s attention more explicitly on the religious meaning of the season.

Clip art nativity scene

We did attend Mass each Sunday, but that was no more than we did the rest of the year. I always put out an Advent Wreath, but we didn’t always remember to light the candles. Somehow writing dozens of Christmas cards seemed more important. On Christmas Eve, when the children were in grade school, they took part in the enactment of the birth of Jesus, usually as an angel or shepherd.  None of them ever quite made it to Mary or Joseph.  But our family, like many other families, gathered at the Christmas Eve afternoon Mass because Christmas morning would be completely given over to discovering what “Santa” had left under the tree – always more than there “should” have been.

let it go
Lit-up JOY
Photo by Tai Captures

Finally, however, as I matured and the children grew, I let go of my guilt and brought a sense of humor to the season. Humor is not only a necessary ingredient of any successful committed partnership, it is a great asset for all of family life. Sure this season gets a little out of control at times, a lot over the top, but at the same time, it can be so much fun! When I can take a more relaxed approach to this “happiest time of the year,” it has a better chance of fulfilling its promise.

How do you balance the sacred and the secular aspect of the winter holidays?

“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.” – Dave Barry

Surviving the Holidays

Dog in a gift box
pulling it all together
Cupcakes and candy
Photo by Brooke Lark

The holiday season is a time of abundance, a time of more of everything. And one of the things there tends to be more of around our household at this time of year is conflict. This is not a new experience, but one that descended upon us the first time we set out to celebrate a major holiday together. It took us completely by surprise.

Familiar as we were with the biblical verse, “And the two shall become one flesh’ so then they are no longer two, but one flesh,” its full meaning didn’t reveal itself until the Easter Sunday just three months after we married.

who is the family?
Gathering before dinner
Photo by Antenna

For both of us, holidays were first and foremost about spending the day with our family and secondarily about the actual feast that the day commemorated. But in our first year of marriage, the meaning of the words, “our family,” became confused. Who were “our family?” What John Gottman has named the “we-ness of us,” meaning the solidarity of husband and wife, was still so new that neither of us considered our married partnership a “family” per se. My husband and I were both the eldest children in large families. Although we never voiced it aloud, we assumed that a couple without children wasn’t a family.

A couple of idiosyncrasies in our family backgrounds also left us unprepared for a holiday battle.  Jay’s family had simply always celebrated holidays and every occasion of note with his mother’s family.  No questions asked. His father’s family history stayed shrouded in mystery. During my own childhood, my extended family was small enough that we all gathered, my mother’s and my father’s family, together for not only holidays but vacations as well.

reasonable versus fair
Couple holding tightly and tensely
Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk

Then that Easter rolled around and a decision had to be made, one neither of us had ever faced before. With which family would we spend the day? Jay assumed we would do the “reasonable” thing and join his family at his grandparents’ home, which was only a half hour from our apartment on the northside of Chicago.   I maintained that we saw plenty of his family in any given week. It was only “fair” I declared that we drive to St. Paul to spend Easter with my family.  When the lines are drawn between “reasonable” and “fair,” even Supreme Court Justices have their hands full. The decision process overwhelmed two young people in their early twenties.

at odds and out of kilter
Hands letting go
Photo by Toa Heftiba

Conflict between committed partners is inevitable.  As true as I know those words to be, whenever I find myself at odds with my husband, life feels out of kilter. Thus, when a rancorous debate drove Jay and I apart for days and seemed to have no possible solutions, it convinced me I had married the wrong man.

Experts tell us that it isn’t fighting that drives couples apart, but the nature of their arguments. That early clash followed none of the experts’ rules. We were so shocked to be enraged with one another, words of contempt and distrust flew threw the air like knives in a circus act. And just as miraculously none of them resulted in a fatal wound. What won the day finally were tears. I broke down sobbing about how much I missed my parents and siblings even though before our fight I hadn’t been conscious of that longing. That won Jay’s heart.

healing as we journey

Toast a feastOur trip through Wisconsin affected a sweet healing.  The countryside was bursting with new life in the happiest of yellow-greens. Roadside stands sold daffodils by the dozens. It rained much of the way, but just past Eau Claire, a rainbow broke through the clouds.  By that time, our seven-hour conversation had led us to our own pot of gold.  We had worked out a way to alternate with whom we would spend our future holidays.

Jay and I not only resolved that conflict, but more profoundly we learned that we could engage in even deeply rancorous disagreements, but our solidarity was stronger than we had known and would see us through such troubled times. Since that time, this stalwart sense of “we-ness” has gotten us through hazards much difficult to negotiate than that first major confrontation.

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength. While loving someone deeply, gives you courage. Lao Tzu

Have the holidays raised a conflict for your family?  How did you find your way through?