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.

 

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?

Distinctly Gifted

Distinct but together
Complementarity Beyond Gender Roles
Sharing distinct talents
Photo by Alvin Mahvudov

Complementarity in marriage, the idea that the spouses bring unique gifts to the union, which work to create a cohesive whole, has often signified specific, rigid gender roles. Our complementary experience, has been, however, much more dynamic and distinctive.

Pope Francis expressed our lived truth well when he addressed the Humanum Conference in November, 2017. He told the gathering, “Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children —his or her personal richness, personal charisma.” https://www.foryourmarriage.org/blogs/complementarity-is-at-the-root-of-marriage/

Drawing on Our Distinct Gifts

The need for Jay and I to call on our distinct gifts in our roles as parents, while active from the moment our oldest child Kristin drew her first breath, became increasingly apparent as we sought the best possible classroom setting for her education.

At her birth, we welcomed Kristy into our life and our hearts with great joy and

Distinct parenting skills
Photo by Wes Hicks

with every intention of giving her everything she would need to grow into a happy, healthy adult. Because we were distinct persons, our ways of fulfilling those needs would be different in some ways. Yet, the intensity of the devotion was evenly shared.

Our Family Reality Shifts

Caring for Kristy was easy in many ways.  She was a loving, affectionate child with a happy nature. Easy to please herself, she also tried to please others. But her natural inclinations were undercut by an insidious disorder, the nature of which we would not fully comprehend until she was in her twenties. This disorder, neurodegenerative encephalopathy, https://www.neurodegenerationresearch.eu/what/first presented relatively mildly in the form of myoclonic seizures.  Many small children have fever convulsions. I had had them myself when younger. So, at first, we were not overly concerned. Except for the occasional epileptic seizure, Kristy’s physical and intellectual development followed a typical pattern.

A distinct child with distinct needs
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

By the time Kristy was ready for kindergarten in 1974, however, it was clear her ways of learning didn’t fit well with the normal classroom pattern. She needed a learning environment more freely structured to encourage her to learn according to her strengths while giving more intense concentration to skills with which she struggled. Imperative also were teachers prepared to cope with her seizures, which occurred without warning. We were totally unprepared for what a difficult task this would be.

An Appalling Situation

A congressional investigation into special education in 1972 had discovered that within the United States, “of the more than 8 million children . . . with handicapping conditions requiring special education and related services, only 3.9 million such children are receiving an appropriate education. 1.75 million handicapped children are receiving no educational services at all, and 2.5 million handicapped children are receiving an inappropriate education.” In response to these appalling numbers, in 1975, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142 in 1975, also known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Congress intended that all children with disabilities would ‘have a right to education, and to establish a process by which State and local educational agencies may be held accountable for providing educational services for all handicapped children.’” https://www.wrightslaw.com/law/art/history.spec.ed.law.htm

Seeking the needle in the haystack

Mandating and acting are, of course, not the same reality. State legislatures

Seeking solutions
Photo by Debby Hudson

and public-school systems struggled to find or sadly to avoid implementing this law during the years that our daughter’s needs became increasingly complex. No school in our immediate Lincoln Park neighborhood offered any special education classes. In the 1970s the Chicago public schools had no system in place to aid parents in finding the appropriate classroom setting for their child with special needs. Jay and I would have to do this for ourselves.https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/marriage/new-year-new-beginnings

complementarity in action

The unique gifts that Jay and I brought to our committed partnership came very much to play in the ensuing search. Jay’s talents and training as an attorney would be called into play over and over. The law included an elaborate system of legal checks and balances to assure that the funds for special education were properly allocated. Were a child denied the appropriate education, a due process of law gave the family a way to pursue their child’s established rights. The parents could take the school system to court to demand the proper placement.

A complex search
Photo by Jason Leun

While Jay could fight in the courts for Kristy, we had to first find the right place for her. For this task, my professional experience working to supervise the placement of children in foster care proved invaluable.  I became my own caseworker, dusting off my old skills and bringing them to bear on our present situation, making dozens of phone calls, reading reams of records, and making field trips to visit schools and interview teachers. The vast difference was I was driven by a desperation I’d never felt as a social worker. And my mistakes were all the more heartbreaking.

a possible solution

Before Kristy turned ten, she had attended special education classes in four different public schools. None of the placements had worked out.  She was losing rather than gaining ground. (We would later learn that, for the most part, these loses were causes by the disease itself, but we didn’t know this at the time.) In 1979, I discovered a Catholic school for girls with developmental disabilities, St. Mary’s of Providence. This school had multiple classrooms, each very uniquely structured, none with more than eight students. One of these seemed to be ideally suited to Kristy.  https://www.smopchicago.org/index.php?page=about-st-mary-of-providence

But we had to go to court to have the funds for Kristy’s state-mandated education applied to a private school. As Jay prepared for our day in court, he

Evoking the law
Photo by Tingey Injury Law firm

read every word of the law, talked to experts in the field, and scoured records of past cases. He wrote and rewrote his brief over and over until he felt he “made his case.”

our day in court

On the day of hearing, Jay and I all filed into the cavernous room lined with wooden-benches. Each of held one of Kristy’s small hands in our own. How, I wondered, had it come to this? Fear and anger warred within me, but I kept my expression placid and ushered Kristy onto a bench at the front of the courtroom. When our case was called, I listened with pride to Jay’s calmly argued, yet impassioned, plea. He basically told a story, something he was very good at.  He even managed to bring a smile to the judge’s lips.

Kristy just colors
Photo by Aaron Burden

Kristy sat silently at my side, coloring a picture of a small pony, giving it a pink tail and mane. I kept my eyes on the judge’s face, watching his expression, trying to discern how his decision would go. When Jay finished, the judge looked over at me, “I need to speak with Kristy,” he said.

I bent over her shoulder, “Let’s put the book down, Honey.” Compliant as usual, Kristy followed me to stand with Jay in front of the bench.  But the judge couldn’t see her so he came down around the clerk. “Can you tell me your name?” he asked.

“Kristy Ward,” the slur caused by medication apparent in her speech.

“And who are these people?” he continued.

“My mommy and my daddy,” she beamed.

“How old are you, Kristy?”

Her eyes got big. She looked at me and then at Jay.  I wasn’t sure if she didn’t understand the question or why she was being queried, but instead of answering, she burrowed her head against my side and didn’t answer.

The judge nodded slowly. He went back up on the bench. “Your petition for special funding is granted,” he intoned and then he smiled.

finding our village

What a relief and how grateful we were that this was a time our different talents, our unique gifts had dovetailed so well to form a cohesive whole. Kristy blossomed at St. Mary’s. Until she was eighteen, it provided the best possible educational environment for her. It didn’t solve all her problems, but it provided loving, knowledgeable people with whom we could share her care.  It gave us a village.

“To reflect upon ‘complementarity’ is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation.” Pope Francis I

Please share a time when being complementary to one another was a bonus for your committed relationship.

 

Back to School’s a Mess This Year: Tackle It Together

Being Together at library
tackling hard decision together
Bacl-packed children going to school
Photo by Note Thanun

Making decisions about your children’s schooling is never cut and dry, but in this year of the pandemic parents are scrambling with so many options, their heads are swimming. Warnings rather than encouragements swarm in from the CDC as well as from many other authorities. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/prepare-safe-return.html

Although my days of choosing schools for my children are over, I can easily relate to what parents are experiencing this year.

While completely buying into the proposition that you cannot expect to “complete” your spouse, Jay and I made a point over the years to do as many things together as possible. https://julewardwrites.com/radicalpromises-2/old-questions-new-answers This was as true of little things like running errands together on Saturday mornings as it was of really important concerns like choosing our children’s schools together.  Just because we did these things together didn’t necessarily mean we did them well.  Sometimes we really messed up, but at least we didn’t end up pointing fingers at one another.

for better, for worse, we’re in this together

We showed so much poor judgment when we chose the schools for our three

Couple together on swinging bridge
Photo by Daniel Schwartz

daughters and our son, it is amazing that they became as well educated as they were by the time, they reached their twenties. Granted our choices were often limited by circumstances beyond our control, but we added to that our own tendency to indecisiveness. The truth is we had no real educational plan for our children.

Jay and I were both products of the Catholic school system. We had been enrolled in parish schools by our parents who believed that there was no alternative. Sending children to the public schools was pretty much forbidden to faithful, practicing Catholics. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/06/education/the-changing-face-of-catholic-education.html  He and I had both also attended Catholic colleges. Thus, the closest we came to having any kind of plan was an assumption that when we had children old enough for school, they would attend the local parish school. In the meantime, life, as they say, was making other plans.

we plan together – then life happens

Our first child, Kristy, first began having epileptic seizures when she was nine

Ready for kindergarten
Photo by Joseph Chan

months old. While these did not at first seem to affect her development, by the time she was old enough for kindergarten, she was clearly experiencing learning difficulties. Also, our parish school, St. Clement’s did not have a kindergarten, and we needed to enroll her at the nearby public elementary school. After she had been in kindergarten only a few weeks, the principal called us in to say that Kristy wasn’t “mature” enough for kindergarten and we should try again the next year. Kristy’s expulsion from Lincoln Elementary initiated a series of school placements, none of which worked for her.

Over the next five years, she attended a Waldorf Kindergarten https://www.waldorfeducation.org/waldorf-education and special

School bus
Photo by Kenturo Toma

education classrooms at three different public schools, one of which was in Indiana when we were living there for nine months. Finally, with the help of friends of Jay’s mother we found a Catholic school for girls with learning disabilities, St. Mary’s of Providence. It was a perfect school for Kristy, but it was an hour from our home. Fortunately, school bus transport to St. Mary’s was available, but this limited our choices for our next daughter Carrie. Since being at home to wait for the school bus was not something we could do together as Jay had to catch the train to work, the task fell to me.

prioritizing options: location versus caliber

Waiting for the bus locked me out of walking Carrie to school. To circumvent this barrier, we chose St. James Lutheran School, located just three short blocks from our home. Carrie could walk there with several of the neighboring children. It seemed the better option than St. Clement School, which was several blocks away and required crossing three very busy city streets. We pushed aside our concerns about religious differences because the logistics worked so well. Carrie loved St. James.  The caliber of her education was

At school with strangers but a good teacher
Photo by Leonardo Okubo

excellent. The solution held until it didn’t because we moved to Indiana for nine months in Indiana. Carrie attended first grade there. It was a good program with a superb teacher, but she had to go to school with strangers – and take a school bus to get there.

Jay and I had made the decision – to move to Indiana together, but there were so many disasters that year, only the fact that we had jointly agree kept the Home in Chicagochaos from taking over. By spring we were back in Chicago. Kristy was back at St. Mary’s. Carrie was thrilled to join the first grade for the rest of the year at St. James.  The following fall, she and her younger sister Betsy both went to St. James.  Betsy now got the benefit of one of the best kindergarten teachers in the whole city, Inge Teske, and Carrie sailed happily in second grade. Our son Johnny was still too young for us to be worrying about school for him – or so we thought.  It was more ad hoc thinking on our part – the go-with-the-flow rhythm of our life that tended to paint us into corners.

a faith crisis faced together

For one year the pattern held, and then the stitches started to unravel yet again. While St. Mary’s continued, at that point, to be a good place for Kristy, John and I had begun to have our doubts about keeping Carrie and Betsy at St. James.  We had been approached by church members about joining the congregation, something as active Catholics we couldn’t consider doing. Then the girls started coming home with questions that demonstrated that, young as they were, they were confused by the differences between what they learned in religious education classes on Sunday mornings at St. Clement or what they heard in their classrooms. Because they were only seven and nine years old, we didn’t feel they should have to deal with those issues. https://qz.com/1301084/should-you-raise-your-kids-religious-heres-what-the-science-says/

a brave experiment
School for the Arts
Photo by Van Tay Media

Then we heard that the city was opening a magnet school for the arts at a grade school that was on Jay’s way to the office.  After visiting the impressive new school and interviewing both the principal and the teachers, we became excited about the program. Betsy was already a budding actress and Carrie loved all the arts. In September, both girls enrolled at Franklin School for the Arts.  But by mid-October, it became clear that although the art program was stellar, the academic program was very substandard to the learning environment at St. James.  Neither of our daughters was learning anything new.  We worried that they’d begin to fall behind. We revisited St. Clement Elementary. Maybe it’s where we should have simply started in the first place, but we didn’t. Now it appeared to be the best option for the girls.  We pulled them out of Franklin and enrolled them at St. Clement.https://www.waldenu.edu/programs/education/resource/what-is-a-magnet-school-and-does-it-offer-a-better-education

 

When I look back, it is with amazement that neither of them protested the changes that year, but simply accepted our explanations and took the transfers on the chin without complaint. Both Carrie and Betsy remained at St. Clement through eighth grade. They thrived there. Carrie went on to an International Baccalaureate Program in high school.  Sounds like a happy ending, right?  Well, actually that didn’t work out for her.

when the going gets tough, the tough stay together

In the meantime, Johnny’s entry into pre-school went very badly. Johnny, like

Pre-school goes badly
Photo by Marcus Spiske

Kristy, had a serious seizure disorder. But unlike Kristy, Johnny developed serious behavior problems that made adjusting to the classroom situation very difficult for him at first.  When pre-school didn’t work out, he and I together enrolled in a special education program that ran five mornings a week. It was run under the auspices of Children’s Hospital and required a parent’s attendance with their child. Johnny made great strides in the program, but it wasn’t easy for him or for me. It did heighten our already intense bond.

By the time he was five, he was able to attend a special education kindergarten, but following that year, it took three schools before we could find a program that combined behavioral management and learning skills in the right combination for our son. The school was in Skokie, a northern suburb, quite a distance from our Lincoln Park home, but Johnny loved the bus ride. He remained there until he “graduated” at age 18.  That’s the age that funding for special education ceased.

being together in hard times makes good times better

We did it together, Jay and I. Somehow the family held. The marriage held.  And our children learned what they were capable of learning.  What did we learn from all those mistakes?  What love lessons? Don’t beat yourself up too much for what you do wrong because what you do right and you will do so very much wonderfully, will far outweigh your errors.

“Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” – Albert Schweitzer

What big mistakes have you made and still come out intact on the other side?

Racoon goes to school

Journey to Another Time

Mackinac Bridge
Any time but this one

Life can be a grind. That has always been the case, but it’s even more true as the entire world lives through a pandemic. At a time like this, simply fleeing the boundaries of our own place may not feel like enough of a respite. Why not, we might ask ourselves, abscond to another time?

Somewhere in Time PosterThe protagonists of such books as Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson(https://www.abebooks.com/BID-TIME-RETURN/30207059856/bd?cm_ ),which may ring more bells for you as the film, Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, and The Lake House by David Auburn ( Remember Keanna Reeves and Sandra Bullock?) actually break the time barrier.

the real brigadoon

This is what my family and I did for fifteen summers. Well, we didn’t leave the twentieth century.  We vacationed on Mackinac Island. At the point where the two peninsula that make up the state of Michigan meet, sits a 4.5-acre island, which rises steeply on all sides to a 900-foot

Mackinac Island
Photo by Aaron Burden

pinnacle. It is also entirely car-free, and has been since 1898 — only horses and bicycles are allowed, giving the place a laid-back vibe. And for me, living without gas-engine traffic of any kind, turned my stay on Mackinac into a trip to another time. It slowed everything down. https://www.mymichiganbeach.com/mackinac

The island can only be reached by boat. For my family that meant taking the ferry that ran almost continuously during the days and evenings. A valet drove our minivan to storage while we wheeled our bikes and dragged our suitcases aboard. Also, loaded for us were the boxes of groceries we had purchased in Mackinac City. Island groceries were expensive and sparse. Settled aboard, I climbed to the third deck and stood at the bow. As the boat sped across the strait the cool north winds played havoc with my hair and my spirits lifted. I squinted my eyes to catch a minuscule glimpse of Gallery House, the cottage that would be our home for the next three weeks. And then the ferry rounded the island and the harbor jam-packed with sailboats appeared. Behind them white-frame buildings, set in higher and higher rows, formed a gleaming welcome on three sides.Harbor with sailboats

brave old world

From the moment I wheeled my bike down the ramp, I was forced to accept that the blueprint for how I usually planned my days could not structure my next three weeks.  Rather, I literally lived the pace of another time, a time before my grandmothers had been born.

Just to start, the ‘cottage’ (on Mackinac Island even very grand mansions are referred to as “cottages.”) where we would be living was near the top of the island and a couple miles beyond the harbor town. Getting our suitcases and groceries to the house meant hiring a horse drawn wagon. I stood guard over our belongings and our kids while Jay headed to the street to hail a wagon driver.  If we were lucky, it didn’t take too long.  But it always seemed to take long enough for the children to spot the ice-cream vendor. Mackinac like many other American tourist destination is “famous” for its fudge, but it’s extremely creamy ice-cream is every bit as delicious.

a friend of a friend is a friend indeed

The first year we arrived we had had no idea what to expect in terms of our accommodations.  One of Jay’s business associates, Len’s wife worked with a woman who had recently inherited her uncle’s place on the island. She rented it out for most of the summer. Len and his wife Sue couldn’t afford the rent on their own and asked if we’d consider sharing. We decided to give it a chance.

From the directions, I originally thought we’d be staying close to the town. Sue said to let the lorry driver know we were staying at the Gallery House in the Annex.  He would know where that was. I pictured a house somehow attached to one of the many art galleries in town.  But once we were all seated on the benches at the front of the wagon, our horses clip-clopped right past all the Front Street buildings and turned to go up the hill.  They trotted past a beautiful golf course. As we arrived at the entrance to the Grand Hotel with its 660-foot porch, a guard stopped us.  The driver explained we were on our way to the Gallery House and the guard waved us through.  Jay and I looked at one another and shrugged our shoulders.  This was interesting.Grand Hotel Mackinac Island

beyond grandeur

The kids loved the hotel and spotted its swimming pool.  I disappointed them. “No, we’re not staying here.” I didn’t know at that point that passes to the hotel pool came with our cottage. Just past the porch of the hotel, the road rose steeply. To the left a sheer drop to Lake Huron far below and on the left stately gleaming white Victorian mansions with wide-sweeping verandas sat on spacious lawns – the cottages of the West Bluff, summer homes of wealthy Detroit and Chicago families. When we turned away from the bluff, we could see that each cottage had not a garage, but a stable and the horsey smell that had assaulted our nostrils the minute we stepped off the ferry became stronger yet. Another left turn took us down a gravel road between more lovely homes, though not as grand as those on the West Bluff. Many of these were half-hidden by tall oaks. Then the driver swung the wagon to the right once more and stopped.

In the middle of an enormous expanse of deep green grass stood a yellow clapboard house. Its proportions were more modest than those of most of the abodes we had gone by, but its lines were charming. A screened-in porch, scattered with wicker furniture, ran around three sides of the house. Rising narrowly from the porch roof, four deep eaves defined the second story. “Here you are,” the driver said. “The Gallery House on MackinacHouse.”

The children scrambled down from the wagon and ran across the lawn. As Jay, the driver and I unloaded box after suitcase after bag onto the ground, I could hear the sound of the children’s footsteps pounding on wooden floor boards. Shouts of, “This one’s mine,” alert me to bedroom claims. I felt like my whole body was smiling. I stopped unloading and gave Jay a hug. “Looks like we’re home,” I said.

time for everything

Our days fell into a restorative rhythm. Family members rose anytime they wished in the mornings and fetched their own breakfast from the large pantry just off the kitchen. Always a lark, I was the first one out of bed, settled happily on the front porch with a book and a cup of coffee at least an hour before the stairs creaked with the sounds of anyone else’s footsteps. Jay alternated between sleeping through breakfast and rising quite early to meet friends at the Grand Hotel golf course for an early game. Having discovered the passes to the swimming pool, the kids most often biked down to the hotel in the morning. Sometimes, however, they biked into town to the stables to rent horses to ride the back roads of the island. I spread my time out over biking, shopping and exploring the museums.

By ordinance, no Mackinac restaurants or shops could be franchises of chains, so eating out was a pleasurable adventure.  Whether we ate lunch or dinner at the cottage or at one of the dozens of “eating places,” as Kristy had called restaurants since toddler days, depended on whether the fleet was in or not.

yo ho ho

The three weeks, which we spent on Mackinac each summer, coincided

Spinnackers flying
Photo by seaknoting.com

with the “Mac”. “The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac … is one of the world’s largest annual offshore races, drawing top-notch sailing talent from around America and the world. Known as ‘The Mac’ to everyone in the region, the 333-statute mile (289 nautical mile) the race typically starts each July just off Chicago’s Navy Pier and finishes at Mackinac Island, Michigan.” (https://www.cycracetomackinac.com/news/article/chicago-yacht-club-announces-cancellation-of-2020-race-to-mackinac) {The race was called off this year for the first time in one hundred years.  The last time it was called off was 1920 due to pressures of World War I.)

It was a glorious time to be on the island. The last of the race, we gathered in town in front of the yacht club tent, where the race was

being monitored. Watching the boats come flying in for the final stretch of the race was heart-thumping. Almost always, the yachts unfurled

their spinnakers, the large three-cornered sail, set forward of the mainsail, bulging and full, running before the wind as they passed under the Mackinac Bridge. The harbor filled with boat after boat. Hundreds of weary, but elated, sailors filled the streets and taverns of the town. Walking down Front Street was a stroll through the dioramas of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.

Guys in a bar
Photo by Emery Meyer

Most decisively it was a time to eat “at home.” We saved our dinners out for the quieter days when the sailors took their boats to other harbors.

nothing lasts forever

When our three weeks on the island came to an end, we packed reluctantly. Thoroughly accustomed to “island time,” we envied the wealthy families for whom this was a summer-long experience. We never adjusted easily to being home again.  The sounds and pace of the twentieth century are jarring when encountered overnight. We did, of course, acclimate to automobile traffic, alarm clocks, and work timetables. We could fine-tune our sensibilities by comforting ourselves with the promise that next summer would come.  And next summer would bring a return to another time.

If you could travel to any time you chose, when would it be?

Time travel
Photo by Andy Beales

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”
Steven Moffat

https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2020-02-15/steven-moffat-time-travellers-wife-doctor-who/

Normal Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Castel in tropics
Just an intermission?
Marque re. CoVid
Photo by Nick Bolton

When impact of the present pandemic hit home, the “new normal” became the big new buzz phrase.  Way back in February, many anticipated a couple of weeks of “shelter at home” and then back to “normal.” But here it is summer. And normal still eludes us.

If we are honest, we admit that even when social distancing loosens up and most businesses are no longer shuttered, our day-to-day reality will be significantly altered.  “Normal” will evade definition. We began 2020 in a place to which we can never return. Hence – the “New Normal.”

unsettling times

The cataclysmic sweep of CoVid-19 across our entire world has caused the idea of normal to appear to be an illusion of sorts. It may be that this is the year in which the word “normal” disappears from our vocabulary.

This is my second go round with a norm-shattering communal hurricane. It comes almost exactly fifty years after the first one, the year 1969.

My personal life altered overnight when, without medical rhyme or reason, five years of infertility ended. I conceived a child and gave birth to a baby girl. But my return to a traditional trajectory of womanhood played out against a backdrop of political and cultural turmoil that packed into a single year enough counter-cultural phenomena to fill a century.

Photo by Jay Wennington

The world in which my daughter celebrated her first birthday was not the world into which she had been born. The earthquake that was 1969 produced a “new normal” that meant she and I grew up in the same geographic location, but in alien lands.

Because of my youth, I welcomed the changes with open arms. The brave new world excited me. Throwing off the shackles of centuries of prejudice liberated my soul. I rejoiced for my children. At the same time, I celebrated at a distance. Being the mother of an infant daughter meant my immediate struggles were of a more mundane nature.

every kind of revolution

While David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask shocked many, it became an instant best seller, which made it possible for the next generation to have a healthier and more realistic attitude toward sexual intimacy. For Jay and I, it provided a guide to a subject forbidden to Catholics – birth control. It took family planning out of the murky shadows into the clear light of reason. We could not know at the time that in making “more rational” decisions about when to have our children, we had also paved the way to interior religious freedom, a more profound transformation.

This clash of conservative and liberal ideologies resounded in multiple assemblies in 1969. Jay and I, mired in domesticity, became armchair activists. The summer before Jay had joined the protesters as they marched from Lincoln Park to the Democratic Convention. Two years before I had walked the street as a striker, demanding better more equitable pay for country employees. In 1969, we watched as others took up the pickets. Live television coverage of the tumultuous events of that year brought war, protest, and riot into our living room.

out in space

We witnessed inspiring moments such as when we jammed into a

Amstrong on the moon
Photo by History HD

neighbor’s tiny apartment living room with about twenty young parents and almost as many babies, all eyes glued to the fourteen-inch screen as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of moon. There was absolute silence in the room.  Even the little ones hushed their voices as he recited, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”  And we believed it too. We grew up listening to space adventures on the radio and following space heroes in the comic books.  In some ways it’s hard to believe that “Star Wars” is still a fantasy.

playing to the herds and the nerds

With less pride, but no less excitement, we tuned into Woodstock, that glorious fiasco that ripped the curtain off any hope that the old order

crowds at Woodstock
Photo by Markus Spiske

could stand. We tuned in to hear the music, but stayed glued to the tube by scenes of “debauchery.” It would take months before the full story of what happened when 300,000 music fanatics showed up instead of the expected 50,000.  But one of the inevitable results was the same as one being anticipated in our present predicament – more babies.

The cultural shift did not limit itself to the “hippies” milling around on a dairy farm in upstate New York. Right in the heart of New York City itself earlier that summer, Oh, Calcutta had opened on Broadway. Since

Live Nude Marque
Photo by Alex Haney

full-frontal nudity was central to this production, it did not appear on our television screens, but we read about it in the Chicago Tribune, and discussed it with friends over beers on the common patio of our apartment complex.  In those days of “never trust anyone over thirty,” the general consensus among us was that censoring the play was an abuse of power. On the other hand, none of us was quite ready to shell out for the tickets when it came to Chicago.

waging peace

Of all the grand events that took place that year, the one that moved me the most was the Moratorium against the Vietnam War that swelled up in the Autumn. Sitting home while the protestors marched in cities around the world tore at our souls. Two million Americans of all ages and backgrounds took to the streets and assembled in churches, schools and meeting halls. Dr. Spock broke out of his persona as the optimistic childcare expert to address the rally in Washington. That more than anything made me realize that all those people were marching, protesting, demonstrating to protest the sweet baby in my arms. But I couldn’t bring myself to take her into the streets.

I couldn’t convince Jay to go. He held that as an Assistant State’s Attorney he was an official representative of law and order. That status forbade his participation. So, even at the domestic level skirmishes between the old order and the new played out. I feel certain ours was not the only household to witness such a divide. Love for us triumphed over political difference. We refocused even more intently on building a good life for our daughter.

Rob Kilpatrick’s enlightening and entertaining book, 1969:The Year Everything Changed, http://(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6139711-1969) cover the immense scope of the  sweeping changes that zipped through every aspect of human life that year. Then as now committed, however, loving relationships thrived, families grew and prospered, hearts broke, elders passed on, and in a thousand other ways everyday life moved steadfast as the rising and setting of the sun.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

Whatever is has already been,
    and what will be has been before;

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV

Flowers at sunrise
Photo by Olga Filonenko

There are many important events from that year that I haven’t room to include.  What do you remember about 1969?  How did it influence your life? Or was there another year that changed “everything” for you?

 

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Careful What You Wish For

Slightly pregnant belly
Great expectations
Man in darkly lit office
Photo by Armeer Basheer

“That shakes things up a bit, doesn’t it?” Antoine Vilar, editor of Building Design & Construction magazine and my boss, smoothed his striped silk tie with nervous fingers. I had just told him I was expecting a baby in six months in May, 1969.

Earlier that month, when I shared the news of my pregnancy with family and friends, it had been received with unalloyed delight. After four years of trying to conceive without success, Jay and I had pretty much given up hope of becoming parents. So, of course, the people who loved us best were joyful to hear we crashed through that barrier.

Loving my job

Ironically just six months before, I drove the fear of infertility into a dark corner of my psyche, and channeled my energies and dreams into work. For the first time, I had a job I loved. True, only an associate editor, I wrote mostly small, short one-page articles, mostly about new products. Nonetheless, I envisaged writing longer, more important stories once I showed what I could do. In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the overall process of producing the journal, the gathering hundreds of different bits and pieces together and creating a beautiful, coherent whole.

Antoine’s words could have been mine. As pleased and relieved as I was to be pregnant at last, I didn’t want to leave the magazine. But I didn’t see any way out of it. Every single woman I knew had left the workplace following the birth of her first child.

The Feminine Ironique

Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, five years before,

1970 Suffragette march
Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

claiming that the societal assumption that women could find fulfillment through housework and child rearing alone had given rise to a pervasive dissatisfaction among women in mainstream American society. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Feminine-Mystique(Her book sparked the second wave of feminism, but the twenty-something women I knew had one-by-one abandoned outside employment in favor of staying at home with their new babies. Nannies were the prerogative of the very rich. Daycare centers didn’t exist. Our mothers would have been horrified if asked to care for their grandchildren. I didn’t process any of these facts as rational at the time. I simply knew I would be staying at home with my baby and that would mean leaving the magazine. The second wave of feminism washed ashore on distant beaches, but I didn’t feel its surge.

The allure of suburbia
Suburban landscape
Photo by Kruse Collins

Swept up in the allure of another mystique, Jay and I began to search for a place to live in the suburbs. We never considered remaining in the city to raise our family. On a sunny April Sunday, in far flung Palos Heights a forty-five minute drive from Chicago Loop, we found what seemed the perfect place. Thorton Meadows, set in a landscape of woods and rolling hills, offered two-bedroom units at a very reasonable price. Although somewhat dark and featureless, the apartments were twice the size of our place in the city. Best of all, the lawns behind the complex teemed with young parents, toddlers, and babies in bassinets. We signed a lease for May first.

On Monday, I took extra time with my hair and make-up and wore my chicest maternity dress to work.  By noon I’d completed several pieces and took them to the assistant editor to review.  I didn’t need to hand carry them to him, but I did have to talk with him. “Bill, Jay and I are moving to Palos Heights at the end of the month. I’ve decided it would work best if I resigned on the fifteenth.”

The unexpected opportunity

He spun in his chair. “Sit down.” It wasn’t a request. I sat.

“Tony and I have been talking about this.” He spoke slowly as though working things out while he spoke. “It looks bad for the magazine to have added new staff less than a year ago only to drop the name now. Not only that, you’re turning in good solid work. We hate to see you go.”

I tried smiling but ended up sighing. “I don’t want to leave, but having a baby doesn’t give me a choice. There’s really no one else to take care of it.  And even if there was, I can’t imagine not taking care of my own child.”

Mom working at home
Photo by Charles Deluvio

He nodded. “I get it, but what if you could do both?”

Visions of installing a baby bed next to my desk filled my imagination and I giggled. “I don’t think a baby exactly fits in here at the office.”

He got the picture and laughed. “No.  But you could do this work at home.  You have a typewriter, right?”

“Yes, but …I’ll be taking care of the baby. I won’t be able to write.”

“Trust me,” Bill said. “I’ve got two kids. When they are little, they sleep a lot and even when they aren’t asleep, you don’t necessarily have to be doing stuff with them. You’re going to have time on your hands you don’t know what to do with.”

He expressed concepts I’d already considered, but I’d always understood the motherhood role to be an all or nothing proposition. That I could be a mother and something else at the same time didn’t compute for me. But now that my colleague had put the proposition in front of me, mixing childcare and some other work didn’t sound so preposterous. There were sixteen hours in a day.  Surely caring for my baby couldn’t consume that much time.

“How would it work?” I asked.

“Good girl.” He was elated. “Let’s go tell Tony.” The plan they laid out for me was decades ahead of its time, but none of us thought of it that way. It was simply the answer to a thorny problem for them and a way for me to continue doing work I loved. On a regular basis, Bill would mail me all the new product information that the manufacturers sent to the magazine. At home I would hone this myriad of information into short, informative articles, which I would mail back by the monthly deadline. Rather than the set wage I had been receiving, I would be paid by the hour. I’d be my own time keeper.

murphy’s law in the nursery

What could go wrong? We had come up with a dream solution.

By mid-May, Jay and I were settled in our suburb apartment. We had met several couples in the building, many of whom would remain friends long after we moved away from Thorton Meadows. My agreement with Building Design and Construction was not nearly so long term. That was because we failed to take into account the needs and desires of the third party to our agreement, my newborn little daughter, Kristin Margaret.

Breastfeeding mom
Photo by Ksenia Makagonenova

Breastfeeding had all but disappeared from the American infant care, but resurged in the 1960s as a part of the counterculture. Although a fairly mainstream sort of person, I decided to nurse my baby, having no idea what that entailed. No other mothers I knew breastfed their babies. Neither Jay’s mother nor mine had breastfed. I made my choice in knowledge void that took two children to overcome.  Kristy was the experiment.  Her sister Carrie born nineteen months later benefited greatly from what Kristy taught me.

Thus, I tried two innovative endeavors at the same moment in time – all on my own. I chose to breastfeed my baby and work from home.

The standard advice at that time had been developed for bottle-fed babies. It held that infants should be fed every four hours. No one could warn me that breastfed babies on the other hand nursed every two to three hours and fed on the average twelve times a day. https://www.romper.com/p/how-many-hours-per-day-does-a-baby-breastfeed-no-need-to-watch-the-clock-2957091

I learned that all by myself. Learned it as over and over again I left thought half-finished on the page. Learned it with deadlines looming over my head when I couldn’t bear to let my baby “cry it out,” another standard of the time.

murky answers

I found myself rewriting articles over and over because I got so little sleep that coherent thinking evaded my consciousness. Jay came home expecting a peacefully sleeping baby, a smiling wife and a hot meal.  He got chaos. He would take the baby from my arms and walk the floor with her while I fixed dinner, a meal I ate as I fed Kristy. By the time the dinner dishes were cleared up, my brain was too frozen for creative thinking.

By the end of the summer, even though Kristy was feeding less often, she slept less and sought attention in other ways.  She was so charming, a smiley baby with big blue eyes who responded with ward delight to being picked up and sang to, who loved to be outdoors and who was entranced by other children. Putting her in her bed to stare at a wind-up mobile while I sat at a typewriter began to feel like criminal neglect. I dreaded the arrival of the thick envelope from the magazine. I had too often been up past midnight to meet my deadlines.

Jay’s income covered our expenses. We had almost saved the $2500 we would need as a down payment on a house. If I continued to write, I would be doing it for my own fulfillment, but it had become a stress not a joy.  I convinced myself I’d become a lousy writer, that the magazine deserved better. If I kept up in that way, Kristy would miss out on key parental attention she required for healthy development. I was nothing but an imposter – neither real journalist nor true mother. Something had to go and it couldn’t be the baby! I made the dreaded call to Antoine and Bill. I pulled off the career track just in time to avoid a wreck.  The relief was immense.

Office desk
Photo by Aashish A

My choice may have been a terrible mistake. My opportunity to work from home came way ahead of the curve. The workplace mores I knew would shortly be nullified. Had I continued to work part-time from home, I might have been able to parlay that into a full-time job in journalism at some future point.

Instead, I devoted the next fifteen years to being the best mother that I could be. Did I simply cave to the feminine mystique? Perhaps. But maybe I simply chose an alternative freedom.

Girls marching "Future is Female"

 

A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.                                

Bill Watterson

Despite the fact that it’s been over fifty years since The Feminine Mystique became a sensation, we’re still asking, “Should mothers stay home with their children?”  Why do you think the question won’t go away?

 

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Graduating, Again and Again

Grad caps in air
no singing no dancing no toasts

“What do you miss the most?” a friend recently asked. Living through the CoVid-19 pandemic robs us of so much normalcy that it can be hard to pinpoint just what our hearts yearn for most. Yet, it took me only a few moments to answer, “Celebration.”

Weddings, baptisms, bar and bah mitzvahs, and even funerals have been thrust aside as impossible under present conditions. It’s heartrending to witness people we care about either put off a major transition in their life for which they had long prepared. Equally discouraging is to become married, to confirm one’s place in a community of faith, or to say final good-byes to a friend or family member, but do so alone or with as few others as possible quietly and efficiently before moving back into the rhythm of quarantine living. No singing. No dancing. No toasts.

june, 2020, slips away before it even comes

This particular spring the missed celebration that is hitting our family the hardest is that my grandson Bryce will not “officially” graduate from high school.  He’ll simply move on. Hopefully, he’ll begin college next year. No one Bryce's Middle School Graduationcan know for sure this week what September will bring.  But he will do so without the celebratory hoopla that usually accompanies graduations – the caps and gowns, the marches, the parties, the gifts, the hi gh spirits. He’s not alone. You can read about the other 3.6 million here:

https://www.quora.com/How-will-COVID-19-impact-the-2020-2021-school-year

 

Bryce himself is fairly complacent, but the elders of his family really wanted to celebrate this major transition with him. Perhaps, we yearned for festivity as way to relive the memories of our own graduations and the changes they brought.

https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/8/21246487/college-high-school-graudation-virtual-ceremony-online-school

I’ve graduated more than the usual amount of times, piling up diplomas and degrees like a stack of tarot cards I used to try to tell my future.

just six years old & a whole new world
Kindergarten table
Photo by Gautam Arora

The idea of graduating kindergarten brings on a sense of the ridiculous, but for me the change was profound, making as it did, a life path that would forever follow twists and turns rather than the straight, narrow way. When I left kindergarten, I transitioned from the public to the Catholic school system in Detroit, Michigan, an abrupt change of direction and not a little disorientating for one so young. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Moody had been pretty, sweet and young – much like a favorite aunt. The nun who ruled my first-grade classroom believed that no learning could happen without strict discipline.

I buckled under. Any natural free spirit squelched. All my energies directed into being a “good student,” a designation that never left me. I clung to that as a core sense of identity, my one quality that remained true and firm even when other endeavors failed. The problem with this identification is I couldn’t be a student forever.  Graduations were inevitable.

middle school mystic

After attending grade school for eight solid years, I graduated from both eighth grade in 1956 and ninth grade in 1957, because a family move once again propelled out of one school system into another. My father took a big leap into a management level position with another company in another state the week after my eighth-grade graduation. In our new home town, Muncie, Indiana, elementary school concluded with sixth grade. The next three years students attended junior high and then graduated at the end of ninth grade. In September, 1956, instead of enrolling in my first year of high school as I would have in Detroit, I entered a final year of junior high.

New student in class
Photo by Javier Trueba

Once again a member of a “graduating” class, this time of St. Lawrence Catholic School, I thoroughly enjoyed all its attendant perks plus one important status I had not had at St. Brigid’s.  Because the thirty ninth-grade students had been together since kindergarten, the arrival of a “new girl” triggered a wave of excited interest. Luckily it played out well for me. By graduation, I celebrated as joyously as if I had actually journeyed with these same kids for the last decade.

the road less traveled
1960 High School Yearbook
Our high school yearbook

Just three years later, we were all graduating once again.  This time with a diploma from Muncie Central High School. For most of my classmates, it would be their last graduation. Only ten percent of my high school graduating class went to college.  For the others it was time to take on the adult responsibility of a full-time job. Many celebrated their weddings shortly after graduation and were parents within a year. Among the lucky few who had the opportunity to continue my education, I moved to the campus of St. Mary’s College in South Bend at the end of the summer. Over the summer, my family moved as well. Back to Detroit and shortly thereafter to St. Paul, Minnesota.

I expected to spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree. It took seven. I accumulated course credits not only at St. Mary’s but also at De Paul, Roosevelt, and Loyola Universities as well as at the University of Minnesota. Yet, I did finally receive a degree from St. Mary’s in the rather nebulous field of English Writing, the rather vague designation under which my hodgepodge of course work was gathered. I had long since moved away from St. Mary’s, but, because then as now I loved celebrations of any kind, even ones that acknowledged somewhat dubious achievements, I returned to campus for graduation in August, 1967. I partied with my family after certain that I had finally finished graduating.

deja vu, all over again
Martin Marty
Martin Marty, teacher extraordinaire

Thirteen years later, however, the irrepressible student at my core, found a space for herself in my consciousness once again. By that time in 1980, the world and I had both experienced cataclysmic changes. The woman on the cusp of middle age barely resembled the girl of twenty-two. I had compressed a lifetime into those thirteen years. As I became a student once more, that experience informed all that I heard in the classroom, read in the library, and wrote at my computer.  One thing, however, had not changed. I took my time achieving my goal. Twelve years passed and I had two master’s degrees before I accepted my Ph.D. in Theology from my mentor Martin Marty at the University of Chicago.  Now, beyond a doubt I had finished graduating. But, I did so much more aware than I had ever been that I had hardly begun to learn.

graduates in a sunset
Photo by Baim Hanif

“The real ceremony begins where the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and hearts filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with our world.”
Linda Hogan

 

As a child, I wasn’t happy with my transfer from public school to Catholic school, but there’s some fairly decent argues as to why that can still be a good decision for parents to make. ttps://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/22/weekinreview/parochial-school-mystique.html

Catholic schools – good or bad?  What do you think?