A Memoir Is NOT about Me.

I almost quit blogging

When you write a blog you need to choose, according to the common wisdom, a topic about which you are passionate and upon which you have a great deal of expertise. For me, this narrows down to two subjects – one, my own life story, and two, love & committed relationships, my field of scholarly research and teaching.

A few years back I wrote a few sample blog posts upon the latter topic and submitted them for review to a small group of fellow writers. These colleagues, members of a Portland writer’s workshop strongly preferred the stories about my personal life to the essays on family life, love, romance, and marriage.

 everybody is an expert–at something

Other writers, they stressed, already commanded the stage on the topic of committed relationships. And, frankly, these commentators told me, those bloggers did a much better job of elucidating that field than I did. On the other hand, many of my short tales about my life as a wife, student, teacher, and mother were quirky, warm, and captivating.  Upon that subject, I was clearly the one and only expert.

So, following their advice, for two years I’ve devoted my blog, here on my website, “JuleWardWrites,” to vignettes of various moments in my life. Most of these stories focused on my time as a wife and mother, but a few reached back into my childhood. None have, however, examined my life since my daughter Kristy died in 2015.

blog posts as the “trailer”

That’s because while I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve also been working on a memoir. Through the memoir, I am trying to share with others the struggles, the failures, the mystery, and the moments of great joy that filled the forty-five years of my life I shared with Kristy. She was only nine months old when she experienced the first symptoms of what would prove to be an unpredictable, devastating neurological disorder. The scientists called it “Progressive myoclonic epilepsies/neurodegenerative encephalopathy,” but that is simply a description of what the patient suffers and not really an explanation of what causes the disorder. The known causes are many, but most of the time the cause is unknown. The disorder strikes like unseen, unheard lightning.

it just wasn’t working

I have submitted drafts of the memoir to writing colleagues for critique. And I hear familiar comments, not unlike those leveled against some of my blog essays. The blog posts, a friend claims, isn’t honest. “It only tells the good stuff.”  The memoir, fellow writers tell me, doesn’t dig deep enough into the narrator’s emotions.  It portrays a protagonist who always seems to be in control despite the complex challenges she faces.  And they don’t believe that could have been true. And they are right.

Last week, I read an interview with Rebekah Taussig, author of the new memoir new book, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body. Rebekah, paralyzed since toddlerhood, has already gained audience for her book through her Instagram account, Sitting_Pretty. The interviewer praised both the Instagram account and the book, a collection of essays, for the way they were able to create an intimacy with the reader.  One felt, she wrote, as though the memoirist had “hooked elbows” with you to walk you through her life.

come, walk with me

Reading the interview affirmed a resolve I had made earlier this week. Just nine days ago, one of the people I hold most dear in this world, my brother-in-law, Marty Ward, succumbed to Covid 19, despite being fully vaccinated. Marty had been quite healthy and had a long bucket list of grand adventures planned. People in his family usually have long lives. His totally unexpected death cracked my heart. It also jolted me awake to the fact that I could no longer dilly dally about writing my memoir.  Kristy deserves to be remembered.  Only I can tell her story.  I must get going.

Like Rebekah, I plan to take you with me. For the next year, the blog will take a new turn. It becomes the story of my journey into the depths of my heart and soul as I struggle to give an honest account of my years as Kristy’s mother.  This means it will include the challenges any writer faces such as dealing with critique, the hard work of rewriting, again and again, the difficult task of finding an agent, and the search for a publisher.

lots of questions, but also some answers

The blog will be full of questions that I’m hoping you’ll be willing to answer.  I am open to critique as well.  I don’t write simply for the positive feedback. Let me know what engages you and what leaves you cold. In return, I promise to share with you everything I learn about writing a memoir.  I believe you probably have a story to share.  Taking this walk with me might be the inspiration you need to sit down and begin that book you were always “going to write.”

September, the start of the school year and the month of my birthday, has always been a time of new beginnings for me. Next week, my first post of September will bring you up to date on where I am at this point. I’ll share examples of wisdom  I’ve culled and how that’s working out.

Let me know what you think about this new twist.

Jule and Kristy 1969
Kristy and Jule, Chicago, 1969
  1. You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. ~Anne Lamott

Winter of My Discontent

Winter beach
Delayed gratification
Children watch snow through window
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Well, at the end of my August 9 blog post I left you hanging. My husband Jay and I had moved our family to a beach house on the Indiana dunes in Michigan City, Indiana. We intended to spend the summer there while during the renovation of our Chicago Victorian rowhouse. At the end of the summer, however, months of restoration work remained. We extended our beach stay to Christmas.

As you might have guess, December came and our city home continued to be uninhabitable. We would be staying on the beach for the winter.

swimsuits to snowsuits

The eastern shore of Lake Michigan in summer is a sunny paradise of warm sandy shores lapped by cool rolling waves perfect for body surfing. Winter transforms it into a raging sea of surging, angry, crashing breakers eating away at the dunes. The blue skies turn metallic gray and the wind makes it difficult to stand upright. It’s a place of majestic beauty, but not a playground for small children. My kids and I confined ourselves to the four walls of the cottage for the duration. The few desperate forays that we took to explore the dune in front of our house began slowly.

Children building snowman
Photo by Ethan Hu

It takes quite a long time to bundle four young children into snowsuits, winter hats, mittens, and boots. Usually by the time, I finished gearing up the last child, the first one was unzipping her jacket, complaining, “I’m too hot!”

When we got outside, we trudged to the top of the dune and surveyed the fierce power of the winter lake. By the time, we trekked back to the house, everyone, including me was ready for hot chocolate. The house that had seemed quite spacious when we had first viewed it the previous spring came to feel very cramped as the five spent hours after hour indoors. One blessing of those months was that Johnny was a breast-feeding baby. The oxytocin that flowed into my blood stream during our long sessions of nursing helped me keep my sanity.

Jule and the children, Christmas, 1977We had been promised Christmas in our renovated Chicago home.  Instead, we celebrated it on the dunes, which turned out to be as warm and traditional as we could wish for – right down to the photo of the children and myself coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. Jay took the Christmas break off from work and we had a hilarious New Year’s Eve with the children. I concocted a Chinese dinner. I even baked fortune cookies with handwritten fortunes inside. Unfortunately, they were rock hard and we needed a hammer to get our fortunes out! The break refreshed both Jay and me. Just three more months, the architect promised. We crossed our fingers.

a storm like no other

Then the snows came. Our cottage stood less than ten miles from the Michigan state border and we were swept up in the great Michigan blizzard of 1978.  No one could remember a storm quite like it, but anyone who lived through it remembers it to this day. Massive and powerful, it turned deadly before it was over. In the midst of it, I didn’t feel at all sure my children and I would survive.

Blizzard
Photo by Christian Spueller

Carrie and Kristy were home from school when the January 26 sky turned dark grey.  The National Weather Service had been warning of impending storm, but even they had no idea how big it would be. Within hours blowing snow pummeled our house and the dune, accumulating so quickly it obliterated the children’s play climber within two hours. And it just kept coming.

The South Shore trains stopped running so Jay could not get home. He tried calling us, but the lines were down and while our phone rang, no voice came over.  The snow didn’t stop until Friday afternoon. By then thirty inches had accumulated. The snow covered our ground floor windows and the cottage was eerily dark. Television reception had disappeared, but the radio kept broadcasting.  This connection to the outside world saved my sanity.  The broadcaster was snowed into the station for 48 hours.  At one point, he offered $100 to anyone with a snow mobile who would bring him a six-pack.

Beer was the last thing on my mind. We didn’t lose electricity.  I don’t know why, but simply felt grateful. It was a week before Jay could get home. Even then he had to bribe a taxi driver to bring him to the cottage since the beach road remained dangerous.  The blizzard was over, but not the snows.  Both in Indiana and in Chicago the next few winters would prove to be extremely snowy, but that’s the one that is seared on my memory.

escape from the beach
appalachian Mountains
Photo by Ben Bracken

At the end of February, we knew we needed to get away from winter. We rented a motor and drove south. It was tricky going because the snows followed us all the way over the Appalachian Mountains. After one twisting, turning miles-long drive down a steep mountain side, we pulled into a truck stop for a break.  We piled into the diner for lunch.

One of the truckers ambled over to Jay, “Did you just drive that rig down the highway?” he queried.

“Yep,” my husband said, “And it was damn frightening.”

“My, god, man” the trucker said, “No one’s been on that road all day.  You’re luck you’re alive.”

“Oh,” Jay replied. “I thought it was odd we didn’t run into any other traffic.”

much needed magic
Little girl at Disney World
Photo by Joel Sutherland

Overall, however, the trip was a great success.  The girls reveled in their first trip to Disney World although after coming out of the Haunted Mansion, Betsy chided Jay, “You shouldn’t have taken me in there.  I’m just a little girl and I was really scared!”

We continued on to Delray Beach to visit Jay’s mother at her condo.  It was great to get out of the trailer and into real digs for a few days before heading back up north.  By that time, there were some signs of spring.

spring revival
Easter cookies
Photo by Jennifer Burk

With spring comes hope. On Mar 20, we moved back to the city in time to celebrate Easter in our new home.  The house shone with gleaming new woodwork and freshly painted walls. The stained-glass windows now not only sparkled but no longer rattled.  The kitchen appliances were not in working order yet, but our neighbors brought us meals for a week.

 

I fell in love with 832 Belden the moment I first stepped inside two years before. It had been very dusty and rather dilapidated, but I imagined how love and polish would bring out its true beauty.  It had taken a lot of love and much more than polish to bring it to its present splendid condition, but now its warm, welcoming presence made my heart sing.  My children radiated joy as they claimed their new bedrooms.  Undoubtedly, I would have adored this house under any circumstances, but after our year on the dunes, my appreciation for this wonderful place overwhelmed me with the shear joy of being home at last.

“Life takes you unexpected places. Love brings you home.

 

832 Belden, Chicago, IL

Dream of the Beach – Plan for Reality

Beach with sunglasses
summer dream
Wasp
Photo by Duncan Sanchez

What could be better? A whole summer living on the beach. Days ruled only by the ebb and flow of our appetites for food, sleep and pleasure – just my children and me for three idyllic months. Well, of course, there were glitches.  There always are. But things held together pretty well. The worst trauma of the summer was a swarming wasp attack on my six-year-old daughter that nearly sent her into anaphylactic shock. Other than that, the weeks passed without grand drama.

back ‘n forth, up ‘n down

The hardest part for me was I couldn’t leave any of my three daughters at the beach on their own. Every time one of them needed to pee or poop, I had to sling their infant brother across my hip and parade with all three up and over the sand dune and back to our beach house. Plus side – between breastfeeding a lusty baby boy and climbing that dune a dozen times a day, I easily dropped back to my pre-pregnancy weight.

Mon and kids at beach
Photo by Dylan nolte

Late afternoons were a bit of a see-saw. Most relaxing was just staying at the beach until the kids were so bushed, I could feed them a simple dinner followed by a quick rinse in the tub and into bed just as the sunset. Time to pour a glass of wine and enjoy a good book. Down side – that meant my husband Jay was staying in the city for the night.  Because we were brand new to the beach community, I didn’t know any close-by families. After a long, adult-free day, I yearned for some grown-up interaction, but Jay’s long hours at the office often meant he missed the last commuter train out to our distant community.

yay! dad’s home
Commuter train
Photo by Redd

On the other hand, the children and I got excited if we knew he’d be home, but that meant getting everybody off the beach by three, up to the house, properly bathed and nicely dressed so that we could meet his train. Pulling this ritual off was touch and go. We too often found Jay waiting at the station for us, hot, sweaty, and feeling deserted. Still, whether we made it on time or not, the reward was dinner at Swingbelly’s, a boisterous sandwich shop that catered to beach families. For me, at that time, it was as good as, if not better than any fine Chicago Loop restaurant.

the end of good enough

Unrenovated houseAll in all, the summer plan worked until it didn’t. By the end of August, we found ourselves mired in disaster. Our Victorian row house in Chicago needed far more renovation than we had anticipated.  We had expected the work to be completed by Labor Day in time for the new school year. On the third weekend of August, we drove with the children into the city for a tour. Many of the rooms were still down to the studs. None of the bathrooms had been plumbed. The kitchen was an empty square. True, we had new windows, repaired flooring, and a cleaned-out basement, but we didn’t have a living space. To ice the cake of disaster, our architect informed us there was no money left in the renovation budget.

now what?

“But we can’t live here!” I needlessly told him.

“Well, we could throw something together for about $10,000 more and you could move in next month,” he offered. “But it wouldn’t be the restoration you were hoping for.”

“What,” Jay asked, “wouldn’t get done?”

“The woodwork and staircases would remain unfinished. We could board up and cover the fireplaces. The kitchen cabinets and the new breakfast room would have to go.”

“In other words,” I confronted him. “We would be worse off than if we had never tried to fix the house up in the first place.”

House renovation
Photo by Nolan Issac

“Not exactly true,” he said. “You have a new heating system instead of the old coal burner and the house is now much better insulated. And we’ve shored up the wall that had bent partially burnt away by that old fire.”

I didn’t find much consolation in his words.  “If instead we go ahead and do what we planned, when could we finish?”

“You’d be in your new home for Christmas,” he assured me.

I looked at Jay with pleading eyes. “We need to talk about this.”

The situation had muted him and he only nodded. Johnny has thankfully slept out this encounter in his carrier on my chest, but now we rounded up our daughters from their risky romp through the half-finished house.

two steps back, one step forward

Montessori schoolAs the children slept on the way back to Indiana, Jay and I grumbled and muttered, half in conversation and half in self-talk. We were too numb for a real discussion.  That took place the next day. Neither of us felt ready to let go of the restoration plan we had put our heart and soul into for months.  This would be our forever house. If we could, we would complete the project. Two main issues took priority. Could we afford to proceed with the remodeling? What would we do about school for Kristy and Carrie? It was divide-and-conquer time. Jay would approach the bank about increasing our renovation loan. I took on the school situation.

the new us
Carrie, 1977
Carrie, 1977

As soon as Jay possible on Monday morning, I phoned the Michigan City school district. For Carrie, there was a straightforward schooling solution. The local public school ran a bus which would pick her up right in front of our house. I really like the open, Montessori-type structure of the school Carrie would attend, and her teacher, a twenty-year veteran first grade instructor, struck me as both competent and extremely caring. For Carrie, our shy child, it wouldn’t be easy to start at any new school, but this one, at least seemed would ease her in.

Child's painting
Photo by Dragos Gontarium

Kristy’s special challenges meant she would need testing before placement. Setting up an appointment for this meant Jay would have to stay home from work for a day, but in the scheme of things that was a small adjustment to make. As things turned out, the class into which Kristy was accepted was considerably better formulated to meet her needs than the one she had been attending in Chicago.

Betsy and Johnny, 1977With Carrie and Kristy’s school issues settled, I began to look into a pre-school which Betsy, age four, could attend. But she put her foot down and refused to go. “I’ve gone to nursery school already,” she said, “but I’ve never had a baby brother before. I want to stay home.”

Pre-school isn’t mandatory and the truth was her company during my long days would be lovely.  I didn’t press the matter.  In the meantime, we did receive the loan extension from the bank.  The restoration work would proceed as intended. We hunkered down to spend another four months on the beach.

commuting becomes a dilemma

Because we now had to wait until Kristy and Carrie got on their school buses before I could take Jay to the train, it meant he wasn’t getting to the office until eleven in the morning. He then had to leave by five to catch a train back to the beach. It was impossible for him to complete his work in such a short day. We had to consider that he stayed in the city for part of the week, but he couldn’t live at our wreck of a house.  Could we afford a studio in town for him?  That would really stretch our budget beyond control.

Chicago apartment buildings
Photo by Chris Dickens

Then the blessings of having a large extended family kicked in.  Jay’s aunt Florence worked for the city, which meant she had to live in the city to keep her job. But her elderly father lived in his home in the suburbs and she was responsible for overseeing his care. Her solution had been to rent a one-bedroom in the city as her official address, but actually live in River Forest with her dad.  This apartment was just off Michigan Avenue not far from Jay’s office.

She offered it to him to use whenever he needed. Gratefully we accepted. Now, I took Jay to the late train on Monday morning and picked him up from a post-dinner train on Thursday night. He spent long weekends with us.  This was our plan.  Very often, however, he had stay in the office through Friday as well. Autumn at the beach was spectacularly beautiful. I was lonelier than ever.

no end in sight

And autumn extended into winter with no end in sight for our renovation project.  What happened next will be the story of my next blog post.

Beach in autumn
Photo by Aaron Burden

“Send your dreams to places you can’t reach; they will go there and they will pull you up there!”
Mehmet Murat ildan

Forever Our Favorite House

Indiana Dunes
a sense of deja vu
Beach house interior
Photo by Hutoo Abrianto

“Here it is,” my young friend Sarah Forsythe gleefully announces as she moves aside to usher us into her newly acquired cottage on Highway 30 along the Florida Gulf Coast.

I duck into the tiny light-filled living room. Something feels strangely familiar although I’ve never been here before.

Sarah chats away about how there was no kitchen before so she had to carve it out of a corner of the front room.  I agree it’s charmingly done, glancing around with chills of déjà vu running up and down my arms. We move into the bedroom hall. Sarah continues her merry monologue about the effort it had taken to transform what had been a hoarder’s shack into the exquisite beach cottage we now admire profusely. The hallway ends in a wonderful surprise. The entire back half of the house is one enormous master bedroom looking out over a small lake. Our friend has bought a house no one wanted because it was in such bad shape, and now she owns a home set between the ocean and a lake.

ah, it’s the paneling!
Southern lake
Photo by Jo Valery

“It’s incredible, Sarah,” I say. “And somehow it feels familiar.”

She smiles. “It’s the paneling.” She points to the ceiling, which is covered in knotty pine.

“Of course,” I reply. “It reminds me of our beach house in Indiana.”

“I felt the same way the first time I saw it,” she tells us. “It was one of the reasons I knew I just had to have even though Bill (her finance) thought I was crazy to take it on. The Indiana house was my favorite home ever!”

My daughters, I knew, feel the same way she does. “Carrie and Betsy often say they really wish we could have held onto it.”

“Why did you and my parents give it up? We all loved it so much?” she asks.

“There just came a time when holding on didn’t make sense any more, but that didn’t make it easy to let go.  The weird thing is none of us set out to buy a beach house in the first place. Yet, it was one of our best moves ever. One we never regretted.”

unexpected acquistion

Almost half a century had passed since Sarah’s family, the Forsythes and we had purchased the ramshackle house in Michigan City on the Indiana Dunes. Eventually we fondly dubbed the place, “1618,” its mailing address even though we never received mail there. Desperation drove us to buy it in the first place.

832 Belden Chicago, ILIn the autumn of 1976, Jay and I undertook the renovation of the 1895 Chicago row house we had bought the year before. What started as a fairly simple project ballooned into a blueprint for a major restoration. We originally envisioned updating the electric and plumbing throughout the house while remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms. By mid-October and after multiple sessions with our architect, John Drummond, we had a very different design. It now included restoring all six fireplaces to working order, reducing the four bedrooms on the third floor to two, stripping and staining every bit of woodwork throughout the 5200 square-foot house, and installing a new heating/air-conditioning system.

In the same week we committed to this major makeover, we realized I was pregnant with our fourth child. The new baby was due in May. Caring for an infant while surrounded with workmen sounded horrendous to me. I pressured Jay and our architect to get the project going.  Finalizing the design work, getting work permits, and lining up contractors, however, proved to be a long-drawn out process. By January we knew that the beginning deconstruction would not happen until May.  Our baby’s due date was May 15.  John, the architect, thought the renovation would take about four months.

close to drowning

Jule and the children, Christmas, 1977How, I wondered, was I going to get through a summer with four children under the age of eight with our home literally being torn down around us? The answer came to me as I waited to pick up my youngest daughter Betsy from preschool.  On the bulletin board, an index card offered a four-bedroom cottage on the dunes in Michigan City, Indiana, for rent.  Maybe we could live there for the summer.  Jay liked the idea.  I called the cottage owner.

tiny cottage
Photo by Clay Banks

We drove out to see her place, but knew as soon as we stepped in the front door that we couldn’t possibly live there for four months. Yes, it had four bedrooms, but each was minuscule and the common room was just as small. The miniature kitchen appliances were at least forty years old. This little cottage was meant to be a two-week summer refuge for a family who would “live” at the beach the whole time. A family of six, however, would be crawling all over each other by the end of less than two weeks.  By the end of a whole summer here, we’d be at our wit’s end.  Yet, as much as that house disappointed us, the idea of living at the beach for the summer still sounded like a good plan.

disappointing search
Lake Michigan Cottage
Photo by Josh Hild

At first, we read classified ads in our search for a summer place, but not full-summer rentals turned up. So, we hired a real estate agent who did rentals as well as sales.  For several weekends in a row, Jay and I drove over to Michigan City to look at possible rentals.  We stuck with Michigan City because the South Shore Electric train rail ran from that town into Chicago’s Loop and provide an excellent way for Jay to get to work.  For a thousand reasons I no longer recall, none of the houses that the agent showed us seemed feasible.  February was almost gone. Panic took over.

“Let’s consider buying,” I told Jay. “If we hate it, we can sell next year. But we might love it. The beaches are lovely and it’s close enough to have a permanent summer house there.”

risky choice
Lake Michigan from beach
Photo by Jeff DeWitt

“Are you kidding me?” Jay exclaimed.  “We barely know how we’re going to finance this renovation of our house and you’re talking about buying a second one?”

I pushed back. “We have to come up with a solution for the summer.  We can’t stay here. It’s not like we’ve never talked about a cottage on the dunes. Whenever we go up to Michigan to rent a place for a couple of weeks, we talk about buying a place someday.  So do Bill and Mary Florence.  They’d love it if we found a place on Lake Michigan.”

“We’ll look, but I’m not committing to anything,” he said.

The next weekend I felt certain we’d find a lovely spot just right for us, but the homes we loved were way beyond our price range and ones we could afford were too far from the beach to make the purchase worthwhile for us. By mid-March, our whole scheme looked like it would go down the tubes.

a crazy idea
Mailboxes
Photo by Mathyas Kurmann

“Maybe there are families who are ready to sell but haven’t contacted a real estate agent yet,” I said.

“That could be true, but how would it help?” Jay asked.

“Well, we could put letters in the mailboxes of all the houses we like. We tell them we’re interested in buying or in renting for four months.  If they are open to an offer, please contact us.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Maybe. But what can it hurt?”

The following weekend we slipped our letter into fifty mailboxes up and down Michigan City’s Lake Shore Drive.  On Wednesday, we got a call.  When we arrived at 1618 Lake Shore Drive on Friday evening, we immediately fell in love with the location.  The house sat several steps down from the road and away from what little traffic noise there was on that quiet street. A small sand dune sat between the house and the lake, protection the home from Lake Michigan’s winter storms. Up and over the dune was a two-minute walk to a deep beach lapped by lake waves.  At this point the lake offered enough shallow waters for children to play safely.

Knotty pine
Photo by Abby Anaday

The house took our breath away quite differently. It was jammed full of furniture and people and appeared to not have been cleaned in some time. Still, it had a long, spacious living/dining room, a good-sized if badly furnished kitchen, and five good-sized bedrooms. From the front bedrooms, you could see the blue-grey lake turning scarlet under the setting sun. Best of all, every wall and all the ceilings were glowing knotty-pine despite the poor upkeep of the rest of the house.  We both knew we wanted this house.  The asking price of $52,000 was, however, way beyond what we could swing.

The owner agreed to wait a week to hear from us.  The minute we arrived home, Jay called Bill Forsythe, “I’ve got a deal you can’t pass up,” he said.

cross your fingers.

The next weekend, the Forsythes drove out to the beach with us. They walked slowly around the house with us and the down to the beach, where we could see a faint outline of the Chicago skyline at the edge of the horizon.  As we mounted the steps back to our car, Mary Florence said, “It’s one of the ugliest houses I’ve ever seen, but, of course, we’ll buy it!”

So, we did. Over the years, Mary Florence transformed the “ugly” house into a beautiful home for all of us – the home that became everyone’s “favorite house of all.”

Of all the places you have lived, do you have a favorite? It would be great to hear about it right in this space?

1618 Lake Shore Drive
1618 Lake Shore Drive

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

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.

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Sisters – A Bond Like No Other

Sisters on a couch
weird sisters

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

3 sisters circa 1890
Photo from Boston Public Library

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

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

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

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

excellent writer’s tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

briefly royal

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

Goth sisterss
Photo by Angello Pro

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

the rainbow ends here

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

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

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

Three Sisters Peaks Oregon

Erin Donley: Hidden Force

book, glasses, computer

With this first post of March, 2021, I add a new feature to my website. From today forward, each month, I’ll be offering a story about a contemporary authors — how they came to this avocation and what it means to them. We begin with Erin Donley of Portland, Oregon.

brand new graduate
Radio station
Photo by Fringer Cat

Erin Donley (contact Erin at erin@erindonley.com), the force behind fourteen non-fiction books, did not set out to be a writer. Following college graduation, Erin felt unsure what field to pursue. Then, out of the blue, she landed a position at an advertising agency, which created radio commercials. Her job – sell the commercials to local businesses. Almost from the first day she began, Erin noticed an interesting discrepancy. She had much better success selling through email than in person. She went over her presentations, looking for an answer. Two facts jumped out. One, as a young, blonde, woman, she didn’t have the same credibility as her peers. And, two, on the more positive side, she excelled at written communication. This new understanding of her own potential planted a tiny seed, the one that would later lead her to seek a career as a writer.

self discovery
Girl at bookstore
Photo by John Michael Thomson

Unfortunately, it felt to her like her job demanded that she pretend to be someone not quite her true self. As much as she enjoyed business and sales, her most abiding interests were personal and professional development.  To pursue these interests, she left marketing and began working for a bookstore, where the titles focused on personal growth and self-help.

Soon after she began her new position, Erin approached the owners. “I believe,” she told them, “that I can make a positive impact on your sales and your reputation through writing a column in your newsletter.” She laid out for them her writing credentials and proposed a weekly feature, which reviewed books and interviewed authors.

a project takes off
Girl with lots of books
Photo by Annie Spratt

They accepted her proposal.  Erin let her own personality shine through in those weekly columns. She reviewed books on controversial topics.  She drew authors out about the most fascinating aspects of their lives and careers. Every week, her column had a high open rate, the response to the reviews and the interviews were numerous, and the books she featured flew off the shelves.

The writer’s seed sprouted and pushed out of the depth of Erin’s soul and discovered the sun of a satisfied audience. Erin came to know that audience intimately and to recognize that no occupation gave her as much personal satisfaction as writing.

Questions about how she could possible support herself as a writer cropped up even as she continued to enjoy her work at the bookstore. She could, she knew, write her own book, but the topics about which she was passionate were, she suspected, too controversial to attract the corporate sponsorship she might need to be successful.  In the field of personal growth literature, an author’s true income comes from teaching courses in their topic and speaking engagements before large audiences.

to be or not to be . . . a personality
Grafitti about Social media
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

Erin also had to face that publishers in the 21th century are seldom willing to take a chance on any author who does not already have a huge social media following.  They prefer writers who are “personalities.”  “Being a personality” was at odds with her true goal.  She didn’t want to be “on stage.” Earning a living and contributing to society and culture through writing were her dreams. Having a readership for Erin was quite different than having a “following.”

a happy medium

The more she pondered her quandary, the clearer it became that the best way for her to do work that satisfied her and make a living doing it was to become a ghostwriter in the field she knew best, personal-growth books. She already knew the readers, what they were seeking, what they wanted more of, what topics were getting tired, what would hit home again. The authors were close to her heart. She had seen the heartbreak and disappointment of too many when their books would be published, but wouldn’t sell. Erin knew with certainty that she could help such authors write better books.

Collaborators
Photo by Kraken Images

Fortunately, she had built up a plethora of contacts, colleagues in other bookstores and people in the book selling industry, and marketing and design experts. Also, in the seventeen years since college graduation, Erin had met industry experts and leaders in many different fields of business. Within an amazing short time, she landed a first contract. (Erin cannot reveal the names of books she ghost-writes; nondisclosure agreements are built into all her contracts.)

Her first author/client, a wealthy, impulsive individual, actually bailed while they were writing the final chapter of the book! But the process convinced her that she could keep find-tuning not only her writing, but her interaction with aspiring authors, that she was, indeed, on the road to earning a living as a writer.

where was erin?
Erin with her book
Finally she had to write her own book.

After a while, however, she sensed a “problem” in her work with her clients. She found herself saying things like, “What about this idea? Or “How about including…?” Erin realized she had to write her own book and get her passions, beliefs, and ideas into the world and out of her system. In January, 2019, she published, Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down: Face Your Power and Find Your Peace.

Being an author, she found was a much more arduous journey than being a ghost writer. It was emotionally, intellectually, and financially taxing. She felt humbled by all the help she needed to bring the book to completion. It’s not a process she wants to repeat, but in the end, it was exciting to hold in her hand the book that was truly hers, that took her own ideas out into the world. She does not, however, feel any need to “scream from the rooftops” about it.  The ideas and causes she advocates are valuable and she will continue working for them.  In the meantime, she’s more than happy to return to the anonymity of ghost writing, where she can be the hidden force behind her client’s message.

a voyage of discovery

She loves her work. Through her writing she gets to dig deep into many different subjects, becoming a mini-expert at those topics, but she’s not hemmed in by any one field. Every new book is an adventure into an exciting new area of discovery.

Although she’s completed fourteen books, Erin still feels every completed manuscript is like a small miracle. She loves the way the whole publishing team works together to bring a new work into the world. She compares it to having a child. “The moment when you first hold the book in your hands is like the moment when they first place your baby in your arms.”  All the hard work and long weeks of waiting has produced this thing of beauty!

Girl reading in sunset
Photo by Max

Knowing that the book changes the author’s life and the lives of its readers feels “absolutely wonderful.”  She knows with conviction that she is on the right path for her.  Presently, along with working on her ghost-writing projects, Erin edits work for other writers and coaches aspiring authors.  She is, however, building toward a time when instead of ghostwriting two to three books per year, she can be hired for one single, lucrative project per year. That’s her dream, and I’m convinced she’ll make it come true.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and you’ve been dreaming for a long time of writing your own non-fiction book, but just don’t know where to start, reach out to Erin.  She has co-authored memoirs, personal growth books, how-to books in fields of business, activism and other fields.  And she would love to hear from you at erin@erindonley.com.Erin with her book