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.

 

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?