Have Wedding Invitation, Will Travel

Proposal on a signpost
Hooray for happily ever after!
Wedding with balloons
Photo by Alvaro CvG

Everyone, it is often claimed, loves a wedding. What’s not to love?! Marriage celebrations are the culmination of a real-life fairy tale. For a brief, few shining hours, a whole community of randomly gathered folks fervently believe in “happily ever after.”

It is, my contention, therefore, that as wedding plans sweep the country in a veritable flood in the coming months, they will lift high the spirits of not only hundreds of brides and grooms, but of thousands of excited invitees. I, alas, have not received any wedding invitations for the coming season, but listening to the plans of others evokes delightful memories of my own. Sharing the blessed moment when a young couple pledges to love one another “until death do us part,” has taken me to about every state in the U.S.A. The farthest and most adventurous wedding journey my family and I ever took, however, led us to a small town in southern Poland.

one girl’s american adventure

The bride, a former nanny for our grandson Bryce, honored us with this invitation. Mariola had come to New England, as a young college student, to strengthen her English language skills. She supported herself by helping our daughter Betsy care for two-year old Bryce. My husband Jay and I visited Boston frequently in those days so that our grandson would know us as he grew up. That year we also came to know and love Mariola.

Bridal bouquetTwice Mariola brought Bryce to Chicago to visit us. On one of those occasions, she accompanied us to a friend’s wedding. On the way to the wedding, she insisted that we stop to buy flowers for the bride. She was quite flabbergasted to find out that guests did not shower American brides with flowers. Nevertheless, we stopped at a florist and as we greeted the happy couple following the ceremony, Mariola thrust a huge bouquet of golden roses into the bride’s arms. That young woman opened her eyes in wide surprise, but graciously smiled and gave a tentative thank you.

Bryce and Mariola, 2003
Bryce and Mariola, NYE 2003

Another time Mariola joined us when we vacationed with Bryce over the New Year’s holiday in Florida. In a very poignant moment, she telephoned her boyfriend back in Poland as we stood on a Florida rooftop.  The sun was just slipping into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but over the phone we could hear midnight fireworks in Poland. Now five years later, Betsy, an eight-year-old Bryce, Jay, and I were traveling to her home country to witness her marriage to the young man who had been at the other end of the telephone line.

as long as we’re going, why not?

Our daughter Betsy was born a party girl. (She is the one that was delivered at six PM on a Saturday night by a doctor in a tuxedo.) She decided to turn our trip to Mariola’s wedding into an adventure on a grand scale. We were to begin with a cruise on the Mediterranean.

Monkey on Gilbraltar Island
Photo by Lucas Cleutjens

The cruise added a host of enchanting destinations to our journey. We found every stop even more amusing because Bryce found unique ways to enjoy the famous sights. He mimicked a street performer in Barcelona. In Morocco, he played hide and seek in an ancient mosque with a crowd of local boys. On Gilbralter, a monkey stole his ice-cream cone. He also managed to charm many of the ship’s personnel, some of whom remembered him from a cruise we had taken three years before. (Yes, that’s another story I’ll have to share.)

a long dark ride into unknown territory

Our most risky venture was to come, however, after our plane landed in Warsaw. The late September sun was just setting as we picked up our rental car. We went through the usual anxious moments while Jay figured out the workings of the unfamiliar vehicle. Betsy rode in the front passenger seat with the GPS device she had acquired back home. Its program gave directions to the Polish roadways in English. As enlightened as this sounds, the results were not always what one would hope for and the Polish roadway system seemed (to us, at least) convoluted at best. I became incredibly grateful that at least we were dealing with the Roman alphabet in our attempts to discern street names.

Australian Shepherd
Photo by Yas Duchesene

Upfront you could cut the tension with a knife as father and daughter struggled to remain civil through one missed turn after another. In the back my eight-year-old grandson squirmed and twisted as he tried to find a way to get comfortable. It was a lost cause. Listening to me read would catch his attention and calm his restlessness, but it was too dark in the car to see the words on the page. Instead, I made stories up. For five hours, I spun one “Super-Bryce” story after another. Bryce’s dog Ranger, his beloved Australian Shepherd, played a key role in every tale. Each yarn featured one of the locales, which we had visited on our cruise. I do so wish I had been able to record the stories. They were crazy. Still, they would be fun to hear again.

we made it!

Periodically, Betsy would reach Mariola on her cell to assure her that although the trip from Warsaw was taking much longer than it should, we were coming. Finally, after many miles along a gravel road, a sign loomed up. Dukla it read. Mariola in a bathrobe with her hair in rollers stood beside the sign. Fog swirled around her legs. I felt like a character from Brigadoon had come to greet us. She was so relieved to see us she was in tears. We were too exhausted even for that.

Fortunately, comfortable beds awaited us at a quaint inn. We were asleep almost before we could undress because the festivities started at nine in the morning. It was already past midnight.  We were grateful for the sleep we managed to get. A Polish wedding, we found out, is a twenty-four-hour affair.

a beautiful beginning
Church wedding
Photo by Jeremy Wong

Bright and early, we joined Mariola, her finance, her family, and her godparents for breakfast at their family home. From there, the family solemnly processed through the village streets to a small but ornately decorated Catholic church. We sat, stood, and kneeled for two hours during the long religious rite the accompanied the exchange of the wedding vow. It was beautiful, but because it was in Polish it felt even longer than it was.

A marthon party
Drummer
Photo by Music HG

We weren’t the only ones getting antsy at the church. When I entered the reception hall, the guests appeared to me like a large group of oversized children just let out of school. Voices echoes loudly as people fought to be heard over the thundering of a brass band. Glasses clinked in toast after toast to the new couple. Dozens of people danced foot-stomping folk dances and laughed loudly as they gamboled.

 

 

fun for the whole family
Dancing at wedding
Photo by Mitchell Orr

And the children! All the village families had been invited and while it wasn’t a large village, every family had lots of kids. They ran and weaved among the dancers and around the long tables where guests sat enjoying the mounds of food on their plates. The hall sometimes served as an auditorium.

At one end was raised, curtained stage. At least fifty boys between the ages of six and eleven had a game going. They would run up the steps on the side of the stage, slip behind the curtain, burst from between the drapes, and launch themselves off the platform. Picking themselves up, they ran off and repeated the cycle. Bryce caught on to that right away and raced off to join them. When they finally tire of that game, he joined them for the rest of the evening. The fact that they spoke no English and he didn’t know Polish was no barrier at all.

one guest, one bottle
Bottles of Vodka on a table
Photo by Jacalyn Beales

Mariola made certain that her American guests did not suffer from a language barrier. She was now studying to become an English teacher. So, she seated us at a table with her university colleagues, all of whom spoke excellent English. That made it extremely comfortable for us and the girls were excited to learn about the U.S. Most of them were married. None of the husbands spoke English, but they chatted among themselves. Then as the evening wore on, we all drank deeper into the bottle of Vodka provided for each guest. It began to feel as though we did speak the same language.

feast without finish
Chafing dishes on buffet
Photo by Jonathan Borba

There was no official beginning and ending to the buffet. The food just kept coming. We filled our plates and ate our fill. Then we chatted, danced, and watched the children for a couple of hours. More food arrived. We helped ourselves to that and the band played on.

Mariola and her husband spend plenty of time with each guest and spent much of the evening in the center of the dance floor. By midnight we had been there for ten hours, and the crowd was not all diminished. If anything, more people who had had to come from farther away showed up. Around two in the morning, the nature of the food changed. Breakfast was served. Voices quieted. Some guests left. Children were taken home to bed.

goodnight, sleep very tight

That was our signal. Bryce had been asleep under the table for several hours by that time. Jay slung him over his shoulders. We hugged the bride and groom. As the sun rose over the Catra Mountains, we pulled the shades in our room and fell asleep.  It had certainly been a wedding to remember!

Does one wedding you attended stand out for you?  I’d love it if you write a bit about that in the comments.

Sunrise over mountains
Photo by Francis Gunn

 

California, Here We Come!

Jellyfish in the Monterey Aquarium
we’re out of here!
Airstream at night
Photo by Stefan Widu

“We’re out of here” is most definitely the buzz phrase of the day right now.  After eighteen month or more of calling a trip to the backyard an excursion, literally thousands of Americans are taking to the road again. Among these excited travelers are a myriad of motorhome enthusiasts. Watching neighbors hitch up mobile abodes to their trucks and SUVs evokes poignant memories.

almost too good to be true
Airplane in flight
Photo by Nick Morales

One of our best motor-home escapades began in February, 1979 when an airline’s TV offer jumped out at me between segments of whatever program engrossed my four kids under age eight.  It seemed so unbelievable that I had to call the airline immediately to be certain my ears weren’t deceiving me. The airline rep assured me, however, that I had heard correctly. They were offering roundtrip tickets from Chicago to San Francisco for $189 – and for each full-fare adult tickets, a child under twelve could fly free.

I took a deep breath, “And are babies under two free as usual.”

“They are,” he told me.

“I’m buying,” answered and proceeded to acquire seven roundtrip tickets for $550.

“Wow!” the agent said, “You really milked this offer for all it was worth.”

you did what?!
Happy woman on the phone
Photo by Piero Nigro

I hung up the phone with a shaking hand. I stared at the receiver for a full five minutes before I had the courage to pick it up again. Then, I called my husband Jay. “Hi,” I said, trying my best to sound very casual, “I just booked us on a flight to San Francisco. We leave in two weeks.”

“What? A flight to California!  What about the kids? I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving them with Bodil all that time. She’s a great au paire, but she’s only nineteen.”

“We’re not leaving them. They’re coming, and so is Bodil.”

“We can’t afford that.”

“Yes, we can.  There was this great deal and I called right away to take advantage of it.”

Jay would have been well within his rights to tell me I was crazy at that point, but instead he simply said, “Cool. See you tonight.”

we really need the break!
Little boy with squirting hose
Photo by Phil Goodwin

Maybe Jay didn’t accuse me of being insane to make such a plan, but the truth was that at the moment I made the call I was over-the-wall stir crazy.  It had been an awful winter of frigid temperatures and snow storm after snow storm. Most days Bodil and I had been cooped up in the house from morning to tonight with three rambunctious little girls and one extremely adventurous toddler. My son Johnny spent his whole day turning the house into a jungle gym.  He climbed the fireplace mantles, the upright piano, the outside of staircases, and up on to kitchen counters to get into the cabinets.  By evening, Bodil and I barely had enough energy left to climb the stairs to our bedrooms.

oh, no, can we still go?

We needed a break, and sunny California sounded like paradise. Then, the day before our flight Kristy, our eight-year-old, came down with a fever. Was our trip off? I explained our dilemma to her pediatrician.

“Well,” he intoned, “She can recover in California as easily as here.  I wouldn’t give up the family vacation for a cold.”

San Franciso
Even in a hotel, I was happy to be in California.

As a result, Kristy and I spent the first three days of our trip in a San Francisco hotel while the rest of the family explored the city. But it was worth it. We had salvaged the vacation and I loved hearing the other children’s excited tales of spotting jellyfish and otters at the Monterey Aquarium.  On day three Kristy was fully recovered. Time to start trekking.

 

the adventure begins
California Redwoods
Photo by Martha Bergmann

We picked up our rented GMC motorhome and turned its nose south on the fabled Highway 101. Our first day, it rained so hard, we could barely see the way in front of us. Any moment, we thought, we’re going to pitch into the Pacific Ocean, but we pressed on. Just as night fell, we spotted a blinking neon arrow pointing to a campground. Jay swerved off the road and into an invisible driveway. Because we could barely see the other trailers and couldn’t discern any anyone assigning spots, we simply pulled into an empty slot.  The children were already sound asleep. We gratefully crawled into the couch bed. Bright sunshine woke us the next day. Gigantic redwoods surrounded us. They took our breath away.

as dreamers do
Pacific Coast
Photo by Eric Muhr

The rest of the journey felt like a dream come true. Any scenic viewpoint with a parking spot big enough for our giant vehicle compelled us to stop.   We had no schedule. At every stop, the kids got out and played. When it was possible, we walked down to the beach and searched for shells and driftwood or took off our shoes and wades in the shallows. At some of the beaches, we were treated with the sight of seals resting on rocks so close we felt we could reach out and touch them.  Other stops offered plummeting waterfalls just a short hike from the parking lot. Every day the ocean breezes were warm and enticing. Taking each day as it came, we were continually surprised by the unfamiliar beauty of the ocean and the shore – so different in every way from our ordinary stomping ground – Lake Michigan.

one minute, one hour, one day at a time

It took us ten days to drive to San Diego. Theoretically, because it is 500 miles between these cities, we could have driven it in eight hours.  That gives you an idea of what a slow pace we had set for ourselves.

California wine countryWith four little kids along, touring wine country wasn’t a top priority, but we wanted Bodil to get the full flavor of California so we did stop at Buena Vista winery, a very quaint and charming place, which had been a winery since 1856, except during American Prohibition. There we enjoyed a picnic lunch while we drank in the view along with the wine. We didn’t know we were sipping a beverage that had been judged the top wine in the 1976 World Class Judgment of Paris. For us it was just part of a very pleasant family outing.

oceans and windmills

Monterey PenninsulaAlthough I was the only member of our troupe who enjoyed seafood, I did convince everyone to eat at a beautiful bay-side restaurant in Morro Bay.  There I treated myself to the oysters. Six weeks later when I became very ill with Hepatitis A, which the doctors traced to an outbreak in Morro Bay, I could only be very grateful that the rest of my family had shunned seafood and, thus, remained well.

Street in Solvang CAJust south of Morro, we veered inland to the Santa Inez Valley so that we could visit the town of Solvang, a town founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants that has clung to its culture and language. We had heard it was like visiting a little bit of Denmark right here in the USA. Stopping there was a must for us because Bodil, our au paire, was from Denmark. The town thrilled her – especially being able to hold a conversation in Danish with a total stranger!

Solvang’s authenticity made Disneyland, our next stop, all the more glaringly artificial.  At least that’s how it felt to me.  To my children it was magical realism come alive and they loved the entire day we spent there. The amusement park was plenty of La-La Land for me. The next day we head out of Los Angeles.

to top it off – a safari!

Elephants at the San Diego ZooWe got no argument from the little ones because we told them our next adventure would be an African safari.  This was not too far from the truth. Once we boarded our vehicle in the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) and headed out into the 1600-acre reserve, we were about as close to being on safari as most people ever get. Once we saw how vast the exhibit was, we wished we had saved more days. We and our children could have spent many more hours in that awesome location.

But time was running out. Our return flight was the next morning. Over dinner that evening on the San Diego Pier, Bodil and I tried to talk Jay into the idea that he could fly back to Chicago while we stayed in California with the children for another week.  He wasn’t buying!

I promised myself I’d be back. But I never returned.  Life is short.  And the world is very big.  Even more distant shores lured me from home on future journeys.

The Stealth Kid

Child in mask
When you least expected it
Boy flying high on a swing
Photo by Vika Strawberrika

Our fourth child and only son had a way of quietly disappearing just when you least expected it. So, maybe his unexpected death at age thirty shouldn’t have taken us so much by surprise. But it did and in my dreams, I keep looking for him, certain I’ll find him just as we did those many other times.

The secret to Johnny’s ability to disappear so quickly was he never gave himself away. He was simply there one minute and poof! Gone the next.

a more typical runaway
Little boy in raincoat and backpack
Photo by Daiga Ellaby

His same age cousin Danny was just the opposite. When presented with a new baby brother, Danny had told his parents he didn’t want a brother. They would have to take this squalling infant back to the hospital where they had got him.  When his parents insisted that Jamie was there to stay, his six-year-old brother proclaimed, “Okay, I’m running away from home.”

His distracted, tired mom Amy replied, “Go ahead.” Danny then packed his Spiderman backpack full of food and slammed out the back door. Fifteen minutes later their phone rang.  A neighboring mom, who lived three houses away, told Amy, “Danny is at our house, and he says that you told him it was okay to run away.  He wants to know if he can live with us.”

wandering to, not from

Johnny never announced his intention to leave.  He wasn’t running away. He was wandering to … albeit he didn’t know where. The first time I couldn’t find him he was barely six months old. I had run to kitchen to check on a stew on the stove and left him with his big sister playing on the floor in the den while she watched TV. Less than three minutes later, I returned to find him gone. A very agile baby, Johnny had been crawling since he turned five months old and lately had begun to pull himself up on pieces of furniture. But I was sure that wouldn’t take him very far.

StaircaseI ransacked the first floor, checking under tables and behind sofas and chairs seeking my baby. No luck. Suddenly, I heard thud, thud, thud, and a shrill cry from the direction of the stairs to the second floor. Betsy who had been helping me hunt raced up the steps and found her brother wailing on the second-floor landing.  He had climbed to the top of the stairs, but hadn’t known how to negotiate the downward trip. It was time to get some baby gates up – something his sisters hadn’t need until they were at least one year old.

where to now?

I learned from then on to keep a close eye on my adventurous preschooler, but there were still times he could slip out of sight if I were distracted by a phone call or engaged in making dinner.  One such evening, realizing I hadn’t caught sight of the four-year Johnny in a while, I left whatever I was preparing simmer while I did a house-wide search.

By now we had moved into a Victorian era, three-story row house on Belden 832 BeldenAvenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The home had five staircases and twelve rooms, not including the basement playroom. I made a whirlwind quest through all four floors of the house. No Johnny. Beginning to panic – just a little – after all, this wasn’t the first time he had done this. I pulled his sisters from whatever they were doing and sent them out into the immediate neighborhood to look for him, all the while telling myself I would surely have noticed if he had gone out the door.

an ingenuous perch
Upright piano with music
Photo by Sven Brandsma

Setting about a more thorough search of the house from top to bottom, I checked closets and corners of bedrooms between beds and window walls. No sign of Johnny in any nook or cranny. Just as I came down the front staircase to the first floor, Carrie and Betsy rushed in the door, saying they hadn’t been able to locate him in anyone’s yard and none of the neighbors had spotted him.

When I got halfway down the stairs, a slight movement fluttered at the corner of my eye. I turned sideways and looked down into the large, square foyer. There on the top of our enormous, upright piano sprawled my little boy, sound asleep. Laughter gurgled up from my belly and a grin tugged at the corners of my mouth.  I looked back at the girls and pointed to their brother.

“Johnny,” Betsy exclaimed.  But he didn’t stir an inch. Still, I had to wake him. It had been a miracle he hadn’t tumbled off in his sleep. Did he climb up there with a purpose in mind? We would never know. Maybe it simply looked like a nice quiet place to lay his tired head.

a challenger with challenges

Johnny plays dress-upJohnny had to overcome serious barriers in his struggle to lead a normal life. To help him cope in the best way possible, we enrolled him at age twelve at Misericordia, a residential school for children with development challenges

We felt grateful that Johnny remained ambulatory and coordinated.  His independence of spirit, however, continued to work at cross purposes to his poor grasp of reality. He had a way of going very quietly about doing his own thing whenever the adults responsible for his care let down their guard. His Misericordia caretakers gave him the nickname, “the stealth kid.” One May morning, he gave everyone involved in his care a genuine scare.

really gone this time?

Jay and I both took the “L” train to the Loop, Jay to his office and me to the DePaul downtown campus. When Jay arrived at his office, his secretary greeted him saying Johnny’s school needed him to call right away. He phoned the administrator of Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia.  She was extremely anxious. That morning at Misericordia, Johnny had gotten on his school bus as usual, but his teacher called his apartment to ask why they hadn’t reported that he would be absent. Johnny’s house mother told them, “Because he got on the bus this morning.”

“That’s very strange,” the teacher replied. “He didn’t arrive here.”

Johnny’s bus would have ordinarily dropped him at school at nine o’clock. By now it was nine-thirty and no one knew where Johnny might be.  When I later heard the story, I thanked my lucky stars that for once it wasn’t my heart being twisted in knots. By the time Jay was able to reach me later in the day, Johnny had been found and was on the school bus on his way back to Misericordia.

found again
Parked school buses
Photo by Robert Bunabandi

He had been discovered asleep on the back seat of the bus in the parking lot in which the bus driver stationed it in during the day. Thankfully the day was mild neither hot nor cold. It seemed that as the bus aide had lowered the lift from the bus’s side door to allow the children in wheelchairs to exit, the ambulatory kids usually went out the front door. That day, however, Johnny slipped to the back of the bus earlier. When the driver and the aide looked over the bus, it appeared empty. The aide went into school and the driver parked the bus and went home.

Once again Johnny was fine, but the people that cared most about him felt like they’d been put through a wringer. Sadly, the bus driver, a woman I really loved for her kindness to the special kids she worked with every day was suspended from her job. While in some way, I knew that she and the aide weren’t as responsible as they should have been, I could personally testify that the “stealth kid” could act in ways that were very hard to anticipate. Because he stayed so quiet, it could be hard to catch him when he chose to go his own way.

with gratitude to angels
Angles against a dark sky
Photo by James Handley

Through the years I could only accept that angels walked with Johnny. He so easily could have wandered into certain danger and never did. Even though a sudden expected brain bleed took him from us shortly before his thirtieth birthday, he slipped away quickly. He was in no pain. He wasn’t afraid.  Nothing would ever fill the empty place he left in my heart. I was grateful, though, for the deep assurance that he was as safe now as he’d always been, guided home by angels.

“But where do you live mostly now?”
With the lost boys.”
Who are they?”
They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expanses. I’m captain.”
What fun it must be!”
Yes,” said cunning Peter, “but we are rather lonely. You see we have no female companionship.”
Are none of the others girls?”
Oh no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/lost-boys

 

Messy or Neat: Is It a Matter of Genetics?

Tulips - alike but different
sharing dna, but little else
Three sisters
Photo by Samet Gezer

In my last blog post, I pondered the question, how my children people sharing so much DNA and raised by the same parents in the same household could be so different from one another? I particularly tackled the question of why my oldest daughter, Kristy, should be so innately friendly, truly a child who never met a stranger while her younger by 18 months sister, Carrie, clung tenaciously to me whenever an even slightly unfamiliar person approached her.

messy or neat: is one better?

Another striking dissimilarity that popped up as my children grew were the

Neat bedroom
Photo by Kim Schouten

antithetic attitudes that Carrie and our youngest daughter Betsy took toward orderliness. Carrie’s sense of order was inborn, almost God-given. By the time she was six weeks old, she had developed a completely set pattern of eating and sleeping. By her second birthday, she had already established a place in her small room for all her clothes, toys, and books. Everything went back in place after she used it.

Messy room
Photo by Johnathan Borba

Betsy, however, was an infant who though sleep was for wimps. She seemed to be afraid that if she slept for more than twenty minutes at a time, she’d miss out on the something good. From an early age, she took the same attitude toward tidying up. As far as she could tell, it was a waste of time better spent having fun. No pleading, no rewards could entice her to put a toy back on a shelf or a dirty shirt in a hamper. She didn’t say she wouldn’t do it – she “just forgot.” At one point, in desperation, I placed a sign on her bedroom door that read, “If you have a heart condition, enter at your own risk.”

age old question: nature versus nurture

When I researched the topic of sibling differences for last week’s blog, I discovered that scientist have found that we are born with tendencies toward being an extravert or an introvert.  Could the same be true about our sense of order? Are some people just born with personalities that prefer order while others thrive on chaos?

It has been established that people react differently to order versus clutter, “For some people, a tidy room can be soothing. An orderly retreat in an often-disorderly world. For others, such rooms can be sterile, bland, and uninspiring. Some people feel anxious in a cluttered room while others feel their most creative amid the squalor.

Exuberant play
Photo by Artem Kniaz
one answer: personality types

Some psychologists consider that the tendency to be orderly or messy follow personality types. They tend to see Type A personalities as more orderly and Type B people as messy creatives.  But while Betsy slips fairly easily into Type B categories such as enthusiastic, persuasive, friendly fun-lover, Carrie more closely resembles the Type C personality, creative, detailed, organized, thoughtful and concerned about quality control.

Somber room
Photo by Erica Hugnh

And we are left asking are personality types themselves inherited or created by a child’s environment? The straightforward answer to that question, according to most research, is the personality traits of humans and animals are determined in large part by their genetic makeup. But genetics does not determine everything.

what can parents do?

Such conclusions leave me pondering.  Could I have possibly been able to influence Betsy to keep her room more orderly and be more helpful about household chores in general? I’m not at all certain about that.

Little girl twins
Photo by Tim Bish

And the researchers back me up. Studies in the field of behavioral genetics focus on three main factors: heritability, shared environment and nonshared environment. While all three sources of influence act simultaneously, psychological research collects data from studies of identical twins raised together, non-identical twins raised together, and identical twins raised separately.  The findings from these studies help them determine how much influence each factor has on the personality traits of individuals.

Twins in a field
Photo by Keisha Montfleury

One intriguing discovery that came out of these studies is that while environment, for the most part, plays a greater part than genetics in determining adult behavior, the effects of parents and other caretakers plays a very small role in determining our ultimate adult personality.

 

it’s complicated

There are simply too many other factors in every child’s life that also influence his/her development.  And these other influencers grow in number and importance at every developmental step.  One of the first influencers is other siblings.  And I’m not courageous enough to attempt to unravel what affect Carrie’s love of order may have had on Betsy’s carefree attitude toward clutter.

By the time Betsy was ready for nursery school at age three and a half, I had pretty much learned to let her live in the chaos she found fit her creative spirit. In filling out her application for the Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School, I indicated that the teachers would have some problems with Betsy when it came to picking up after herself and following other rigid rules of order.  Shortly after the school received the application, the head teacher and the teacher for Betsy’s potential class called me in to speak with them.  Kristy and Carrie had both attended the school.  So, the staff was familiar with our family.

mom did know best

They were concerned they told me about my negative attitude toward my third child.  The applications for my first two daughters had included no warnings, just glowing descriptions, but here was this gloomy assessment of Betsy.  They wondered what they problem was.  I had to reassured them that I loved my outgoing, sunny, exuberant baby girl every bit as much as I loved her sisters.  Honesty had compelled to include what might prove a challenge for them.  They seemed only half convinced of my sincerity.

Six weeks into the school year, however, they called me back into school to apologize. Betsy was, they conceded, delightful in all the ways I said she would be, but every school day when the “clean-up” song began, she disappeared.  She had discovered a wonderful, cozy hideaway on some soft beanbag chairs in a closet. These became her instinctive retreat the minute the song’s first note rang out.

we’ll know more later

No surprise there. As individuals, as a couple, and as parents, Jay and I tended to take things as they came to us.  Close friends of ours and fellow travelers in the parenthood adventure, the Vander Voorts had a family motto, “We’ll know more later.”  We like their motto so much, we adopted, but with a caveat, “We’ll know more later – maybe.” We wanted Betsy and all our children to develop into unique individuals. Letting character flaws as well as strengths emerge as they grew allowed them the best chance to be exactly who they were meant to be. Over the course of their lives, each of them amazed us beyond our wildest expectations.

(Sibling differences is theme I also explore in the children’s story, “Becky Birch,” which I will be posting this week on the Stories That Chose Me segment of this website. Be sure to check it out.)

Ocean at sunset
Photo by Joshua Earle

 

Siblings: Our Most Familiar Mystery

DNA chain
dna: 50% the same; 100% different!

How is it, I wondered over and over, as my children grew from tiny infants to full-fledged adults, that two people sharing so much DNA and raised by the same parents in the same household could be so different from one another? How much were the differences innate? Had I contributed to making each child unique?  Had other factors played a part?

sisters, yes. the same, no.
Pink booties on a bench
Photo by Janko Ferrlic

The issue came up very soon after we became a family of four. Our oldest child, Kristy, never met a stranger. She happily greeted all human persons, willingly went to any open arms, and settled comfortably onto any warm lap. Kristy’s friendliness served as a strong contrast to the stranger anxiety exhibited by her sister Carrie, born when Kristy was eighteen months old.

stranger anxiety

Newborn babies normally are happy to be held, fed and kept warm by just about anyone. But a normal developmental pattern, stranger anxiety, can cause a formerly easy-going baby to become fearful at being passed to

Crying toddler
Photo by Zachary Kadolph

unfamiliar arms. Instead, he or she turn into a sobbing, clingy mess. As stressful as this is for parents, it’s all perfectly normal. It demonstrates that the baby is beginning to order her world. One of his tasks is to distinguish the familiar from the unfamiliar. Ordinarily, adverse reactions to those perceived as “strange” begin when the baby is about six months old. By the time he is fifteen months old, they may hit their peak and then gradually wane away.

an extreme example
Shy baby
Photo by Michal Bar Hain

Well, Carrie hadn’t read any developmental charts before she came into our life. She was barely six weeks old before she greeted anyone but me with loud wails of protest. Well past her third birthday, she clung to me when Jay and I headed out for an evening, begging me not to go. Her separation anxiety was so extreme I felt that something in our environment must have reinforced it. Could her fears connect in some way to her older sister’s seizure disorder, a factor that had disrupted her life from early infancy?

Let me share a story that demonstrates that reality. One day in February, 1971, brands itself on my memory, but it was not so different than other like occasions.

sweet awakening
Kitten
Photo by Kote Puerto

At five that morning, I awoke to the sounds of Carrie stirring restlessly in her bassinet, next to my side of our bed. Within a few seconds, there followed little mewing sounds, not unlike those made by kittens. I pushed up against my pillows and reached over to scoop up the baby, swaddled in a flannel blanket. Her soft lips rooted for my nipple and she soon suckled quietly. Jay slept. I switched Carrie to my other breast. A few minutes later, satiated, she let go and her head slipped against the crook of my arm, her dark curls damp and tight. In slow deliberate motion, I slid toward the bassinet and slipped her against the Winnie the Pooh wedged in the corner. I could pretty much count on her sleeping until nine o’clock.  I could manage an hour’s rest before Kristy woke.

duplicate trauma

A piercing cry shattered the quiet. Kristy. I reached over and shook Jay’s shoulder and whispered so as not to wake the baby, “Kristy’s having a seizure.

I darted out the bedroom doorway, across the hall and saw that her tiny form was arching so wildly in convulsions that her crib banged against her bedroom wall. Unclasping the side of her crib, I reached in and cautiously turned her on her side. Her small body felt on fire. “Get a cool cloth,” I commanded. I took it from Jay’s hands and wiped her forehead. I tried to slip her out of her nightgown, but her arms were thrashing too strongly for me to slip the sleeves down. The convulsions should have stopped by now.  The fever must be making them worse than usual.”

Within a minute Jay was back, without socks, but otherwise dressed. His feet will freeze I thought, but ran to our room, my heart pumping so hard I could hardly breathe.  You have to calm down I told myself. For just a few second, I stopped and gazed at the peacefully slumbering Carrie. I pulled some sweat clothes from a dresser drawer. I so wanted to leave the baby right there. Let her sleep. But I couldn’t.  I hurried back across the hall. Kristy’s seizure had stopped, but she was still burning and limp as a wet dish rag, completely knocked out rather than asleep.

Houses at dawn
Photo by Eilis Garvey

Jay had picked her up and was cradling her against his chest. “Can you wrap her up?” I asked. “I’m going to take the baby over to Lucy’s house.” He nodded. With a heart as heavy as lead, I lifted Carrie. She woke and began to whimper as I took her downstairs and struggled her into her tiny snowsuit, whispering, “You’ll be okay” again and again. Was I soothing her or me?

A few minutes later, my neighbor Lucy opened her door.

Before she could say anything, I blurted out, “I need you to take Carrie. Kristy is really sick.  We’re taking her to the hospital.”

Without another word, Lucy reached for the baby, but I held tight for a few more seconds. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to her.

better – sort of

It was late afternoon before we returned from the hospital. Kristy’s fever had resulted from a bronchial infection. Acetaminophen had reduced her fever. The doctor prescribed an antibiotic for the infection. She’d recovered he assured us, but also expressed concerns about the length and intensity of her seizure.

Winnie the Pooh book
Photo by Annie Spratt

At home, I carried the exhausted, but now smiling Kristy up to bed while Jay walked down the block to retrieve Carrie. I collapsed into the rocker in the corner of Kristy’s tiny bedroom.  Keeping her on my lap, I took a large illustrated Winnie the Pooh from the shelf built into the wall, and began to read her favorite rhyme, “Hush, little baby.” While I read, I listened for the sound of the front door. Was Carrie, okay? She had never been away from me before.  The bottle of formula I’d handed Lucy that morning would be Carrie’s first bottle feeding. Had she accepted it or gone hungry?  My breasts ached where Kristy’s delicate body slumped into mine.

know more next time

As the front door opened, I heard the wind knock it against the foyer wall with a resounding thud.  Louder yet was the baby’s wail. Oh, Carrie, my heart called. Kristy’s eyes were drooping.  Trying to be careful, I slid her into the crib.  “Mama,” she pleaded and reached a little hand toward me. The baby’s cries became louder. Jay was probably at the bottom of the steps. “It’s okay, sweetie. Time to sleep.” I turned.  Was I forever going to be telling my children “It’s okay” when it wasn’t?

Sure enough, Jay stood at the foot of our front staircase. His hair swiped back from his forehead, stood on edge. In one hand, he held out the full bottle of milk and his head was shaking slowly. My gut churned. I went down so fast I had to grab the rail to keep from careening into him. I scooped Carrie out of his arms, shook her little snow suit off of her, and carried her to the living room. Within seconds she was under my sweater, nursing her little heart out. “I’m so sorry.” I whispered, resolving never to disappear on her again.

It was a promise I couldn’t keep, but she did accompany me to the hospital as often as possible after that. But even that wasn’t an optimal environment for a baby inclined to be shy and fearful.  Recent behavioral scientific theory that my instinctive concerns might have been on target.

A case of emergenesis
Multi color fish in aquarium
Photo by Maksym Sirman

Genetically siblings share 50 percent of their genes, but “just one gene in a sequence of genes can change the outcome entirely.

This phenomenon, emergenesis, occurs “when a trait is determined by a particular configuration of many genes. That specific combination of genes then leads a person to display a particular characteristic.”  Intriguingly, that characteristic may not be exhibited by anyone else in the person’s family.  Further research has indicated that extraversion and introversion are commonly emergenic traits.  Thus, it’s not at all unusual that Kristy would have been such a total extravert while her little sister clung to the other end of the social arc.

we’re so lucky!

For Jay and me, letting Carrie go at her own pace turned out to be the best parenting answer. Despite her initial shyness and fear of the unfamiliar, Carrie grew into a strong, intelligent, beautiful, competent woman who climbs mountains, rafts rapids, makes loyal friends for life, and is a wonderful wife and mother.

Carrie, Evelyn and David

“I think as women, we have to stop being scared to be the women we want to be and we have to raise our daughters to be the women they want to be — not the women we think they should be.”
Jada Pinkett Smith

 

 

 

Learning to Live with the Unknown

Jule and Kristy early Spring 1970
off kilter
Blue Globe
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo

If your whole world suddenly shifts off its axis, you remember that moment in time for the rest of your life.

By the time my first child, Kristin Margaret was nine months old, she filled my days with delight and my heart with pride. Her wispy baby hair deepened into a shimmering gold blonde and curved naturally around her cheeks. When she smiled her wide blue eyes lit up like stars and deep dimples creased her cheeks.  And she smiled most of the time. Kristy loved the whole, wide world. Unlike most babies, she had never heard of “stranger anxiety.” Fearless and friendly, she allowed just about anyone to take her from my arms and give her a big hug.

a shattering scream

Just before Kristy's first seizureOne placid February Tuesday I slid a sleeping Kristy out of my arms and into her porta-crib for her afternoon nap.  Secure of some quiet time, I picked up the phone to call a Mom friend. Ten minutes into our conversation a high-pitched, piercing cry vibrated through the whole house. What? I stopped talking. There it was again. The baby! “Something’s wrong with Kristy,” I cried and dropped the phone into its cradle.

Taking the stairs two at a time, I burst into the nursery and froze in place. Kristy writhed in the middle of her crib, her back arched, her head thrown back, her arms and legs jerking. Foam dribbled from her lips. Oh, dear Jesus, I thought, she’s having a seizure. a vision of my younger sister Nanette in the midst of fever convulsions flashed through my memory.

men in helmets

I scooped Kristy into my arms. The jerking vibrations of her little body sent shudders through me. I should know what to do, I’d watched my parents dozens of times, but I couldn’t think. Kristin continued to convulse.  I needed help. Holding Kristy tightly for fear she’d thrash right out of my arms, I ran downstairs. I yanked the telephone receiver off the hook and pushed the “O” button.  As the ringing began, tears began streaming down my cheeks.  When I heard “Operator,” I babbled something incoherent into the phone, but she understood and assured me the fire department was on its way. Fire department? But…She was gone.

I heard a siren screaming down the quiet suburban street. Men in uniforms pounded at the door. They took one look at the baby seizing in my arms and rushed her to the waiting ambulance. I tried to run after her. A strong hand grabbed my upper arm, “Wait, we’ll see you get to the hospital. I need some information first.” I stared at him. My baby might be dying and he wanted to fill out a form!

“I can’t,” I croaked.

He nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”

forgetting to pray

I climbed into the back of the ambulance, but I couldn’t get near Kristy. Three huge men hulked over my tiny girl.   One had inserted a needle in her thigh, another held an oxygen mask over her face. I couldn’t see what the third one was doing. Abruptly her convulsing body went completely limp.

“Kristy,” I cried.

“It’s okay.  We just gave her a tranquilizer to stop the seizures.”

Hospital lobby
Photo by Mar Ko

Then the siren drowned out his words. At the hospital, Kristy was wheeled away from me and rushed to an examining room. When I tried to follow the cart, a nurse barred the way.

“Mrs. Ward, you’ll have to wait in the waiting room until the doctors finish.”

“No. I can’t. You have to let me go in. She’s going to be scared. She needs me.”

“I’m sorry, but you’d just be in the way. Listen, I’ll get you a glass of water and you can calm down a bit.” She headed to the nurses’ station.

I stationed myself outside the examining room door, slumped against the wall.  When she returned, the nurse urged me once again to take a seat in the waiting room. I shook my head. After that, the doctors, nurses, and techs came and went from the room. Everyone ignored me. After an eternity, I straightened up and crossed to the nurses’ station.

“What’s happening to my baby?” I begged. Tears choked my words.

“We can’t release any information until you see the doctor,” the woman in white at the counter told me.

“But she’s my baby.  I need to know.”

“Please sit down. The doctor will be out soon.”

what can a dad Do?
Kristy and her father
Kristy with Jay at 13 months

Just then I saw my husband Jay push through the double doors at the end of the corridor. I ran down the hall.  “Where’s Kristy? Is she going to be alright?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  They won’t tell me anything.” I laid my head on his shoulder and sobbed. He held me tight as we stood there, letting people detour around us.

Hours dragged on. a doctor approached us, insisted we take a seat, sat down himself, and began, “Your daughter has a very high fever.  That’s what probably brought on the convulsions.  We’re doing everything we can to bring her fever down.”

“What’s causing the fever,” Jay wanted to know.

“We’re uncertain, but she’s been transferred to our pediatric ward for observation.” And he got up and left.

The nurse told us how to find the room where they’d taken Kristy. In the midst of whirring machines and draping tubes, Kristy slept peacefully. A nursing nun sat in a rocking chair beside her enormous steel crib.

only questions. no answers
Rocking chair at
Photo by Anabela De Sousa

“I can take over now, Sister,” I told her, but the floor doctor who had walked in behind us said to Jay, “You have to take your wife home. She’s been hysterical.  She needs to rest.”

I wanted to resist.  Kristy needed me.  She had only just weaned from the breast a couple weeks before.  We’d never been apart. But even Sister urged me to go. Torn and guilty, but too tired to resist, I left my baby in their hands.

But sleep elude me that night. I stared at our bedroom ceiling. Was something seriously wrong with our daughter?  I could be just a worry wort.  Do stars have a dark side?

when you wish upon a star…
Kristy's bright smile
Photo by John Ward

On the average, babies to speak their first words between ten and fourteen months and have a vocabulary of about three words by their first birthday. Kristy, however, was a natural communicator. She smiled by the time she was three weeks old, waved bye-bye at three months and blew kisses at six months. She had pronounced, “Dada,” before turning six months old. Since then she had picked up more than a dozen understandable words, which she had begun to string together into small sentences.  And she didn’t only say the words she knew, she often babbled to us, her friends, and her toys in strings of sounds that had the cadence of real speech.  We were convinced that she knew exactly what she was saying even if no one else did. Right at that moment, however, Kristy’s singular brightness felt blurred by the worry I felt.

our same sweet girl, but . ?

We weren’t supposed to visit until ten in the morning, but by eight o’clock, I had slipped into Kristy room. Sunlight streamed from the tall window and lit the gold in her hair where she sat huddled into a corner of her crib, “reading” a picture book on her lap.   My heart lifted.  She looked healthy and well.  “Kristy,” I whispered.

Kristy and Jule
Photo by John Ward

“Mommy,” she yelled, crawled to the side of the bed, pulled herself up by the slats, and reached her arms for me.  I could only lean over and give a hug.  If I had lifted her, it would have dislodged her intravenous feed.

“Up, up,” she insisted, giving me her biggest smile. I couldn’t say “no;” I couldn’t say “yes.” That trapped feeling would forever shadow my interactions with this beloved child.

A nurse had seen me go in and come to tell me that visiting hours hadn’t started, but assessing the situation, she chose instead to unhook the feed and allow me to take Kristy in my arms.  I sat rocking her in the comfy rocker until the doctor appeared. “Well?” I asked.

He looked at the chart rather than at me, “Kristin’s fever is back to normal.  She has no other symptoms.  All the tests have come back negative.”

What Now? sign
Photo by Tim Mossholder

Confused, I asked, “Then what’s wrong with her? What cause her convulsions”

“Nothing as far as we can tell. She just spiked a fever in response to some low-grade infection.  It was part of her body’s response. She’s over the hump and on the mend.”

It didn’t sound like much of an answer. “Will it happen again?”

He actually shrugged his shoulder – as though it didn’t matter.  “We have no way of knowing. It could be a one-time occurrence.  It could be a pattern.  We have to wait and see. In the meantime, it doesn’t help her at all for you to become overly anxious.”

starting over

We returned home, puzzled and wary, but with no choice but simply resume our life, hoping the whole episode would become a distant memory. Returning to normalcy is easier said than done.  For three weeks I slept on the floor next to Kristy crib.  She was fine – healthy as a young filly, learning new words and skills almost every day, and remaining a sunny, friendly baby about to celebrate her first birthday.

Easter, the first Sunday in April, I woke up to two happy realizations.  It had been two months since our frantic trip to the hospital and Kristy had remained seizure-free the whole time.  Also, I hadn’t had a menstrual period since that fateful day.  My missed periods could be due to stress. My anxiety level over Kristy had remained high despite her apparent good health. But there was also a chance I might be pregnant.  That seemed a wild card. It had taken four years to conceive Kristy and she was not yet one year old.

life: joy all tangled up with anxiety

Kristy and baby CarrieA month passed before I could get to see the gynecologist because two days after Easter, Kristy had another seizure.  It wasn’t long.  It didn’t necessitate a trip to the emergency room, but it did us send back to the pediatrician asking more questions for which there seemed to be no answers.  When in early May I made it into the gynecologist, the news was wonderful, a balm against our worries about Kristin.  Our daughter would be a big sister by Christmas. Infertility ceased to be a concern.  But one every bit as frightening took its place.  What was wrong with Kristy?  And what could we do to make her better? Those became the two central questions of our life for the next 40 years.

 

Little girl follows big cat pawprints
Photo by Hugues de Buyer-Mimeure

 

Creating Galatea

Pygmalion Creates Galatea
Pygmalion Myth

In a much-loved Greek myth, the sculptor Pygmalion, unattracted to the frivolous women of his city, creates a statue that represents his ideal of the perfect woman. He endows her with exquisite features and a graceful figure, but more than that he projects onto the sculpture every possible virtue. As he works, he falls so completely in love with his creation, who he names Galatea, that he can love no living woman. This ancient tale ends happily. Pygmalion appeals to Aphrodite the goddess of love who uses her power to bring the statue to life. Galatea and Pygmalion marry and raise a son who founds the city of Cyprus.

changing dreams
Line drawing -hanging from a heart
Photo by Nick Fewings

On the day, shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday, when my obstetrician informed me that it would be very difficult for me to conceive a child, I transformed into a Pygmalion figure. For over ten years, I had cherished the dream that once I finished school, I would become a journalist. That hope had informed a multitude of choices I made, including courses I took, part-time jobs I accepted and extracurricular activities to which I devoted my time. When I married, I fully intended to continue in that life protectory. Financial necessity forced me to accept other work when my search for a spot in journalism ran dry.  As soon as my husband finished law school and started working full time, I promised myself I would again seek a career in journalism and not give up this time.

a new avocation
Pregnant woman
Photo by Jan Canty

My doctor’s diagnosis, however, tilted my psyche off its axis. After that my choices altered. My ambitions wavered. Motherhood, which had once seemed inevitable, now became elusive, and therefore, the preferred goal. The determination to become pregnant drove away all other aspirations. Could the stress of my work helping abandoned, abused and neglected children adjust to life in foster care be contributing to my infertility? It was a possibility the doctor admitted. Ironically, when I quit my job, I took a job with a magazine publisher – but as a secretary, a mundane position with very little pressure.

My real work, my true avocation at that time, consisted of following the advice of infertility specialists.  I was both Pygmalion and Galatea, sculptor and creation. I molded myself into a woman dedicated to becoming a mother.  Through that endeavor, I transformed myself into a person who desired children more than any other treasure life could offer. Other parts of me fell, chipped away, to the studio floor.

escape the long wait
Road in Door County
Photo by Alisa Anton

In October, 1968, the brilliant fall colors enticed Jay and I to take our Fiat for a spin up to Door County, Wisconsin. We sped north out of the city through the vast farm fields of northern Illinois. Just over the border in Milwaukee we stopped at a favorite restaurant we had discovered on one of trips to visit my family in St. Paul. The Brat House served several tasty versions of that traditional German sausage.  Stepping into the wood-paneled space, we spotted an empty booth and slid in.

“Lucky we got here early or there’d be a long line at the counter,” Jay noted.

Beer taps
Photo by Gonzalo Remy

“I feel like I haven’t eaten in days.  I think I’ll have two brats,” I told him.

He smirked. “Keep that up and you won’t keep your girlish figure you know. Didn’t you have three donuts for breakfast.”

“So, I did,” I admitted. “But I’m famished and we have five more hours before we get to the motel tonight.”

“Can’t have you starving to death before midnight.  What kind do you want?”

anxiety – an unwelcome passenger
Milwaukee, WI skyline
Photo by Tom Barrett

After lunch, we decided to chance driving straight through Milwaukee.  The traffic might be heavy, but it cut several miles off the route. Negotiating the city freeway system took all of Jay’s concentration. I watched the grimy, old city neighborhood whiz by, allowing myself to think about how unusually hungry I’d been lately. It had actually been going on for about a month, but I hadn’t gained any weight. Even more worrisome, my menstrual period had been very light last month. Could the tumors have returned? I wouldn’t bring it up now.  This was going to be a great weekend.

“Hey, Yulsey, wake up. We’re there.”

I’d slept all the way to Elks Bay in Door County. “Geez, I’m sorry. I should have been keeping you company.”

“Nah, you really zonked. It’s funny you being so tired.  You’re always asleep when I get home if I have to stay late at the office.”

“It’s a good thing we took this break then.” I touched his arm.  “You must be the exhausted one now.  “Let’s get our stuff into our room.  We have some serious antiquing to do tomorrow.”

a brief respite
Fire in fireplace
Photo by Clay Banks

The knotty-pine paneled motel room had a wood-burning fireplace with a very big, deep leather chair and ottoman pulled up to it. Heavy wool blankets and flannel sheets covered the double bed. Yes, we needed this. But as I curled up in Jay’s arms, listening to his soft snore that night, anxiety about my hunger and fatigue nagged me. First thing Monday, I had to call the doctor.

It took three weeks before I could get in to see Dr. Grimes.  My concerns mounted. A small voice of hope suggested that maybe I could be pregnant. Perhaps that explained my symptoms, but they didn’t match anything my sister-in-law or my friends had told me about early pregnancy. I felt no nausea, none of the infamous morning sickness. I realized I didn’t know much about what it felt like to be pregnant. Although determined to have a baby, I avoided being with friends who were mothers. Being in their company sharpened my sense of incompleteness.

the verdict
Doctor with stethescope
Photo by Online Marketing

In the doctor’s office, I lay on my back, sheet draped over my spread legs and tried taking deep breaths. Would I ever get used to this ignominious position? I doubted it. “You can sit up now,” he said.

I pushed up with my elbows and clamped my knees tightly together. He was smiling. Smiling! “I’m okay?” my voice quivered. I’d come in scared, prepared to hear I needed another surgery, but he was grinning.

“You’re more than okay, Mrs. Ward,” he beamed. “You are expecting a baby.”

“I’m pregnant?” All the air in my lungs rushed out those words. The room spun.

Dr. Grimes reached a steadying hand to my shoulder, “Most definitely.”

“But, but I haven’t been sick or anything.”

“That’s not exactly the case, is it?  Didn’t you say you’d been very tired and that your appetite had increased?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“Those symptoms can signal pregnancy as often as nausea. About a third of pregnant women never suffer. Check with your mom. I get you find she didn’t have it. It seems to run in families.”

But his voice had faded away. Talk about symptoms and genetics were just a bunch of fluff. The real substance of our exchange, “You’re expecting a baby,” became a star glimmering so brightly that all other words faded into obscurity. Five years of anticipation and hope, despair and doubt had ended.

answered prayers
Pygmalion, Venus and Statue
Painting by Raoux

Pygmalion so fell in love with his own creation, he begged Venus, the goddess of love, to make her real. His prayers were answered. My prayers were also answered.

Even though I know that most, if not all, parents think their babies are the most beautiful ever born, when I look at photographs of the tiny Kristin Margaret, her astonishing beauty still haunts me. Kristin and I settled into a dream-like daily rhythm completely ruled by her needs. To be the best possible mother became my single most important ambition.Kristy at 6 months

In that dream state, a young woman’s sense of a separate self faded away. For fifteen years, being a mother encompassed me in a bubble. How I would wonder did I let myself get so lost? Could I have possibly juggled a career in journalism with motherhood? I have no way of knowing. It’s time to let go of the question.

It’s intriguing, however, how many times it gets asked?

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/12/motherhood-television-news-difficult/576913/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/anushayhossain/2016/07/20/day-in-the-life-being-a-journalist-and-mother-from-home/?sh=6a26a86b39d1

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/insider/working-parent-mom-journalist-juggle.html

Mom and baby at computer
Photo by Standsome worklifestyles

‘I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.’ – Gloria Steinem, feminist and writer

 

 

 

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.