Life Is What Happens . . .

Dogwood Blossoms
the artist’s way
Stacks of books
Photo by Ajda ATZ

A certain romantic mythology often draws young people to the artist’s life.  Estelle Ford- Williamson was no exception. As a teen, growing up in Chattanooga, TN, she dreamed of being a writer so that she could live her life as Hemingway had. Like him, she would be a journalist who traveled the world reporting on major crises, all the while writing terse, fascinating novels and stories (although her Catholic school girl self wasn’t sure about having multiple love affairs as he did). Her dream focused on the excitement and the adventure of his life.

The Right to Know the Truth
Typewritten Truth
Photo by Marcus Winkler

Her perspective changed when she had the opportunity to meet The Chattanooga Times managing editor, John Popham, who as a journalist in the 50s covered the Southern United States for The New York Times. His impassioned words extolling the obligation of the reporter to bring the truth to the people no matter what the difficulties nor who opposed them moved her to tears.  She had a whole new vision of what her life could mean. This compelling notion of a responsibility to the truth took full steam as she attended college during the turbulent 1960s.

life in the “real world”
Chicago blizzard
Photo by Max Bender

It was so powerful, in fact, that she left Saint Mary’s, the women-only college she attended, before she graduated. She had a plan to take her elective courses in Chicago so that she could live in the “real world.”  Working during the day and taking night classes at Northwestern University, a school renowned for its journalism program, she completed her degree requirements and graduated from Saint Mary’s College the next year. During the Chicago blizzard of 1967, two events undermined her determination to live and work in the north.  A friend’s car, which had been buried by the historic two-foot snow, was plowed away.  And a letter arrived from her mother with a dogwood blossom folded in the pages.  She headed back to her beloved South.

a tricky work/life balance
Newspaper collage from 1968
Photo by Arno Senoner

Almost by a fluke she landed a job with the global news agency, United Press International, in Atlanta. Her boss mistakenly interpreted the credits she had earned at Northwestern to mean she had graduated from that prestigious journalism school. Over a beer, the man learned he’d read the application wrong, but as she had been reporting for a while, she kept the job. Two years with the agency taught her to synthesize information quickly and to view events from a broad perspective.

Wanting to start a family, she left the agency.  While her daughter grew, she worked for several government agencies and non-profit groups, writing newsletters and research papers. Working for the city of Atlanta brought her in contact with several leaders in the Civil Rights movement and led Estelle into an active role in equal rights advocacy.

past & present coalesce

Estelle returned to school and earned a master’s degree in Psychology. Her coursework served not only to deepen her writer’s perspective, but also led to new work experiences as a management trainer and career development specialist. She performed workshops, helping people learn to communicate with one another within corporations and assisting people transitioning from one job to another. On the side, she kept up her interest in writing by editing and publishing three of her aunts’ memoirs about their lives in North Georgia.

what she least expected
Memorabilia
Photo by Ireland Rose

Then a cloud with a silver lining blew over her horizon. Felled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she lacked the energy to work full time. But because it wasn’t her nature to simply sit around, she began reading from her grandmother’s trunk, which contained memorabilia and family writings from that woman’s family. She also came across a detailed genealogy constructed by a great aunt that covered multiple generations of family. She began writing a story of fictitious characters who lived in the same period. Sometimes she wrote with her eyes closed due to the persistent fatigue.

always questing
Man making rifles
Photo by Carter Yocha

Writing was a quest for Estelle. There were years of research. She hunted in schools, libraries, archives, and museums around the South. She collected not only data but information on valuable material culture—house furnishings, clothing, blacksmithing, rifle making.

Abbeville FarewellResearch was interwoven with writing. Several short courses in creative writing and many years of writing in groups helped her develop chapters of a historical novel. An excerpt won a top novel award at Sand Hills Writers Conference. Published as Abbeville Farewell, the story is a saga about family and moral conflicts in pre-Civil War Atlanta and North Georgia, but it also examines the state of the nation’s conscience in the mid-nineteenth century. It was nominated for the 2002 Townsend Fiction Prize.

an unusual collaboration
Boys in a refugee camp
Photo by

Time to begin working on a second novel. But no.  A friend insisted that she meet a young man who was struggling to write his memoir and could use her help. His name was Majok Maier. As a child, he had escaped from Sudan during its bloody civil war. Of course, Estelle was intrigued. Four years later, MacFarland and Company published the book, Seed of Sudan: Memoir of a ‘Lost Boy’ Refugee co-authored by Ford-Williamson and Maier.

Its gripping narrative reveals how tens of thousands of boys like Majok fled from the Sudanese Army. They survived on grasses, grains, and help from villagers along the way. They had to  walk nearly a thousand miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before immigrating to the United States.

a mission as much as a book

The research for the book took Estelle all over the US to interview the young men. Research also took her to multiple libraries to gather and verify the book’s necessary background information. After publication, they held book readings in New York, Ohio, and D.C.  In all those place they met with other Lost Boys who’d settled across the US.

Water well in South Sudan
Photo by Mohamed Tohami

Majok and the other boys’ stories are very poignant and disturbing. These young men felt the need to help change conditions in their new home country, South Sudan.  So, Majok, Estelle, and valuable supporters formed a non-profit organization. It raised funds to build clean water wells in rural villages in South Sudan. (http://www.wellsforhope.org).

a quiet place

After the intensity of getting these under way, Estelle Lockwood Folly Wetlandneeded a place to quiet herself. She found it in the wetlands along the South Carolina coast. At a home she and her husband purchased, they retreated far from crowds of people, perched on a coastal river.  Her fellow citizens are many species of wildlife that inhabit the area.  Now, at last, she has written the novel she dreamed of, a contemporary narrative.  Rising Fawn not only gives us a twenty-first century protagonist, we also find in its pages a confluence of the many streams of Estelle’s life–faith, natural wonder, and a family’s past–merging together to form a powerful narrative for our ever-changing future.

 good dreaming

Rising FawnEstelle’s girlhood dreams of becoming a second Hemingway didn’t pan out. Her multidimensional achievements are, however, a unique outstanding contribution to the literary world. She’s been awarded fellowships to arts residency programs.  Her teaching accomplishments include readings and workshops for Poets and Writers, Inc. and the Pat Conroy Literary Center. In addition, Estelle enjoys teaching writing to at-risk youth as well as retired adults. A special delight for her is that as her books received critical acclaim, they continued to find new readers.  Those readers have proved to be a faithful and engaged group with whom she communicates regularly.

Among them may very well be a young girl, who dreams of growing up to be a writer like Estelle Ford-Williams.

“Is there a place you can go to break away for a little while? If you haven’t yet built your tree house, it’s never too late to start.”
Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments on the Road

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

 

 

 

Louisiana’s Very Own Peter Pan

Peter Pan
An Interview with Timothy Miller
Timothy Miller and his book, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle
Timothy Miller

Tim Miller, author of The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, writes so he doesn’t have to grow up.  I am convinced that one of the reasons that James Barry’s Peter Pan is an enduring hero is that no one really wants to grow up. We all have our little ways of hanging on to the delicious state of being children. For instance, I have a favorite pillow with which I’ve traveled the world.  I can’t sleep without it.  If I (horror of horrors) forget it, I pay good money to get it back from wherever it wandered off to.

a fantastical superpower
Guy pretending to be superhero
Photo by Craig Whitehead

Timothy, however, goes way beyond a favorite pillow. As a child, he found the world a wondrous place.  He gazed at all the marvelous things that big people did with their time and pondered what he might do when he grew up. He could be an actor, an artist, or a director of films. But what he really hoped to be was a superhero.  That dream came true when he discovered that his mutant super power — he could lie really well!

The bigger the lie he told, the more easily someone else believed it. It was just an easy slippery slope from telling lies to making up stories. Telling these “stories” was great fun, but when at six years old he learned to print, he began to move the tales out of his head and onto paper. Thus, as he began elementary school, he began his career as a writer.

writer, actor, and director
Stuffed Pandas in a Mexican Restaurant
Photo by Zach Rowlandson

 

 

 

He found it was a way to hold onto a favorite childhood pastime – playing with his stuffed animals. This menagerie had been the actors in the plays Tim wrote. He wrote the scripts, often only in his head as elaborate daydreams, assigned characters to each toy animal, and then directed them in their roles. With them as companions, Timothy entered a world every bit as fantastic as Never-never  Land itself. But the teasing of five older siblings pressured him into giving up the “baby” toys.  It could not, however, end the daydreams. His imagination continued to work on overdrive as he captured more and more narratives on paper.

i will never grow up
Little boy reflection in mirror
Photo by Johnny Cohen

 

 

 

 

 

To all outward appearances, Timothy grew up.  He finished school, took on various jobs, and lived an independent life.  His real world, however, opened when he returned home to his typewriter or later his computer.  Sitting there, he became the child Timothy again, making up stories. He became one of the Lost Boys.

While Timothy’s lively imagination is his greatest gift, it also can place obstacles in his path as a published writer.

walking a tight rope

Tim’s brain races. Images fly through his head. He has to remember to slow down as he writes because his reader doesn’t yet know what he knows.  He has to fill in the spaces – just enough, maybe just a hint. He doesn’t want to give away too much. Writing, he finds, is a balancing act.

It is also a struggle against boredom. Sometimes a story will bog down. Timothy finds he’d like to veer off.  At that point, he figures the reader must be bored as well. For both their sakes, he throws in a Molotov cocktail, knocking things off balance again.

 

Taking a new approach with each writing project, Timothy believes, keeps his writing lively. He doesn’t want to stay dependent on what he learned from the last thing he wrote as he begins a new piece. Good writing remains continually original, a childlike imagination knows no bounds.

imagination takes no vacation

Despite keeping the freshness of a child’s perspective, Timothy has a very adult work ethic. Right now, he has his first book newly published, his second book with his editor, and under contract, he’s working on a third book. He’s experiencing for the first time what it’s like to be involved in all aspects of publishing.

He finds it just a bit daunting but certainly never boring. He’s learning to step nimbly because the publishing business is changing so rapidly that no one really knows where it’s headed. He thinks we might see either a consolidation in one or two giant corporations or an evolution into the complete anarchy of self-publishing. “A writer,” Timothy warns, “has to be  ready to jump.”

Masked mystic
Photo by H. Rustall

So where is this boy ready to jump? Tim hopes to have the freedom to switch between genres and mix genres while still retaining his readership. He wants to avoid falling into what he call the Blue Dog trap—where you happen upon a money-making idea and then you’re shackled to that idea the rest of your life. “Why,” he asks, “did you become an artist if not to recreate yourself every time you turn around?” But he recognizes audiences are very resistant to change. That reality is like a reoccurring dream. It’s a problem that has to be worked on.

a thousand possibilities
Popcorn machine against muraled wall
Photo by Mark Wieder

When it comes to writing, however, he likens his mind to a popcorn machine. “I can take a scenario and play a thousand different variations on that. It’s hell for solving real-life problems, but it works pretty well for fiction.”

Follow Tim on his website: https://www.thestrangecasesofsherlock.com/

If you’re not running out to buy Timothy’s book already, this short intro should do the trick:

London is in flux. The clop of the hansom cab has given way to the madness of the motorcar. And Sherlock Holmes, safe in the bee-loud glades of the Sussex downs, is lured back to London when a problem is posed to him by Dr. Watson and Watson’s friend, Col. Higgins. Is the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from girl of the streets to duchess more than it seems?

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54303610-the-strange-case-of-eliza-doolittle

River Thames
Photo by David Monaghan

The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle is available from Seventh Street Books at https://www.seventhstreetbooks.com/

 

 

Too Old to Sing Rock ‘n Roll?

Woman hiking in wilderness
“Old age is not for wimps”

Man on exercise bikeThe woman in the photo was slender with clearly defined muscles rippling along her arms, torso and legs. Her eyes squinted fiercely, staring directly at the camera, in a face lined with wrinkles. Long grey hair pulled haphazardly into a bun at the nape of her wiry neck escaped in strands caught in the sweat pouring off her furrowed brow. Scrawled across the bottom of the poster, bold letters read, “Old Age Is Not for Wimps.”

Every time I exited my gym locker room, dragging my thirty-something self toward the weight machines, I paused mesmerized by that woman.  I was determined to be her, to be fit and ready for anything in my elder years.

“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” 
― 
Jean-Paul Sartre

Then and Now

I’m so glad she’s not here to judge me now. I bear no resemblance to my ideal. There have been times over the last thirty years when I approached my goal. There was that year I went to the gym three times a week.  And a different year when I woke in the dark to run three miles every weekday morning.  For almost five years I met a friend at 6 a.m. to walk two miles almost every morning. When my younger daughter was getting married, I hired a personal trainer and joined Weight Watchers for eight months.  I love those mother-of-the bride pictures!

More recently, I spent a spring and summer, working out three days a week, and building up my walking until I could walk 20 miles in a day. By October, I trekked 30 miles in one day as a participant in CureSearch’s Ultimate Hike program, a cause that has raised over 5 million dollars in the battle against childhood cancer.

Drinking by the fireplace
Photo by Sergio Solo

And it’s ageism, far more than the passage of time, that makes growing older harder for all of us.” 
― 
Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

But after the hike, just as before, I slipped into my old couch potato ways.

There Comes a Time

Now, I’m beginning to pay the price. I don’t stroll as quickly as I once did. I’m out of breath if I climb more than one flight of stairs. I fall more easily. And all this scares me.  Am I becoming an elder wimp?

The time when my motivation for losing weight and getting in shape was mostly to appear more attractive has come and gone. It’s become more a matter of life and death.  Not death in the absolute sense, but the death of the freedom to be myself, to be a person who choses what she can and cannot participate in.

I’m not alone in recognizing the now or never of this proposition. The authors of “Aging with Freedom,” a fantastic website that explores multiple aspects of transitioning into the “golden years,” studied the supposed connection between early retirement and early death.  The literature clearly indicated that it’s what you do in retirement, not when you retire that makes the difference.

If you use early-retirement to exercise more and replace or improve work with other social connections and purpose, early-retirement is good for you. It can dramatically improve both longevity and quality-of-life. https://agingwithfreedom.com/2018/03/27/early-retirement-health-odds-good-or-bad/

Women doing yogaThere go my hopes that exercise doesn’t matter anymore!

I’m looking for motivators and “tricks” and best practices to pull myself away from this computer and out onto the sidewalk or into the gym.  If you know of any, please take a minute to share them in the contact box.

I promise to let you know if I try your ideas and how they work out.

Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. Billy Graham

 

 

A Special Place in My Heart

Young couple kissing
first love

Do you remember the first person you fell in love with? I bet you do.  And maybe, like me, the place in your heart that person occupied has remained theirs for years after. It will most likely never be given to anyone even though you will have greater loves, more endearing loves, maybe even permanent loves.

Even to this day, I can never scramble eggs without feeling my first love, hovering behind me. It was he who taught me how to make them “just right.” The sight of the yellow whirls in the frying pan evokes his presence like incense burning in a lamp.

high school sweethearts
Vintage classroom scene
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton

Mike and I were sweethearts in high school. We never actually met one another. Rather we slowly came into one another’s radar. I cannot pinpoint the moment when we realized that we were “together.”

I felt like I knew Mike long before I actually came face to face with him. By the time I was in junior high, I had determined that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew. When a ninth-grade English teacher required our class to interview an adult working in our hoped-for future career, I called Dorothea Bump, who wrote a weekly column for our local newspaper. Ms. Bump and I had a delightful conversation. She didn’t pull any punches about how challenging it was for a woman to succeed in the world of journalism, but she encouraged me to pursue my dream.  While we talked, I learned that she had a son my age.

different spheres
Basketball game
Photo by Klara Kulikova

My curiosity piqued, when I started high school the next year, I paid attention in classes and at school events to see if his name showed up.  And it did. Although it was a huge school and we didn’t have many classes in common, he was on the football team.  At a high school in central Indiana, this was not the big deal it is in many other places in the United States.  At our school, basketball was king.  Football games were not well attended.  In fact, girls, who wished to be cheerleaders for the basketball games, tried out at the football games.

More notably, Mike was very involved in student government and in speech and debate clubs. That meant he appeared on stage at student assemblies. A charming and persuasive speaker, he was a popular choice for campaign manager for kids who ran for office. At that time, however, I had an enormous crush on a guy from my junior high and Mike didn’t cause my heart to turn over.

enter drama
Actors on Stage
Photo by Kyle Head

Junior year brought us into the same circle. My best friend, Nancy, dreamed of a career in theater. She was involved at some level in every production our school put on.  Usually, she played a lead role as she was (and is to this day) a fine actor.  I had no theater ambitions, but I liked being where Nancy was. So, I signed on to build sets, procure props, and help actors learn their lines.

Mike’s closest friend Kelley was another young actor.  Kelley’s involvement with the school theater drew Mike in.  Mike had no desire to act, but he had a fine voice and got “volunteered” for the chorus for musicals – not just to sing, but to lend his strong back to scene construction.

backstage romance
Backstage of a theater
Photo by Jonny Rothwell

This convergence of interests put Mike and me backstage on the sidelines with the rest of the support crew for long periods of time. Most of us tried to get some homework done as we curled in whatever comfortable corner we could find, but with all the comings and goings of the rehearsals, concentration was pretty hard.  We couldn’t distract the actors, so we would converse in notes. Finally, Mike got frustrated enough by this abbreviated way of communicating that he asked me to go for a coke one evening.

meant to be

The rapport that began backstage blossomed at the diner. I don’t remember that Mike actually asked me for a date after that. We simply started being together.  Anything he was involved in, I engaged in as well. He did the same for me.  We attended all the school dances as a couple for the next two years.

New York City neon
Photo by Florian Wehde

In senior year, he, for some reason, decided not to take the class trip to Washington D.C and New York City. But as soon as our bus pulled out of the station, he realized he had to share it with me.  He hitchhiked to New York. Washington had been fascinating, but lonely. What a wonderful surprise to find Mike sitting in my hotel lobby when my classmates and I arrived in New York.  I fell in love with New York with Mike.  It’s still my favorite American city.

Our romance unraveled when we graduated high school and attended different colleges. It wasn’t easy. We both ended up with broken hearts. Few people marry their high school sweethearts.  Those who do often don’t stay married to them.  It’s way too early for most young people to make a life-long decision. That doesn’t make the end of the relationship any less harsh or the memories any less poignant.

The love lesson of our romance, however, never faded.  Mike taught me that I could be loved wholeheartedly for exactly who I was.  Because he believed that, I could believe it.  The knowledge that I am worthy of unconditional love was his gift to me long after our young romance slipped away.

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.