Dwell Deeply in the Only Life We Have

Old diary and photo with flowers

Memoirists enter into an agreement with readers: I will tell you an emotionally true story in a skillful way. I will make it worth your while. And while my memory is imperfect, I haven’t invented memories. I haven’t invented facts. If I compress timelines, combine characters, or conflate events, I will tell you. The other people in my book would tell the story differently; this is my own, true version.” — Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers

Being honest isn’t easy

Truth is slippery. It sounds so easy. Just be honest. Tell it like it was. Memory, however, is a living, breathing power and like all living beings, it changes constantly. Every day, I experience thousands of moments. Each one of them crowds itself into its own little corner of my brain. None of them are forgotten, but all are transformed by the space they share with the memories that were there before they arrived. And as new memories burrow in, they modify those that came before them.

It leaves me wondering how I keep my implicit agreement with my readers as I write my memoir.

craft is a given

The “skillful” part I get. I stay with my craft, writing, editing, and rewriting. I submit excerpts to writers’ critique groups and to mentors. Time to rewrite once again taking to heart the insights these wise counselors have shared with me – over and over until my writing clearly communicates my voice and shares my vision. Skill alone, however, will not make my story worth your while.  Only if you sense right from the beginning that what I tell you is emotionally true will you stick around to hear the end.

and so is imperfection

It’s a given that as a reader, you understand that my memory is imperfect. You know I must compress timelines. You’re not expecting to read a day-to-day diary. You may, indeed, accept that I combine some characters. Over the course of Kristy and Johnny’s lifetimes, I consulted with so many doctors and educational specialists that it is inevitable that these people run together in my mind.  As to conflating events, there were so many emergency room trips in our lives, it is only natural that some of them blur together while others stand out in vivid detail. This is true also of the multiple bittersweet and funny moments I shared with my two extraordinarily special children.

but lying is unacceptable

At the same time, you fully expect that I won’t make up a memory just so it fits the narrative.  Also, my story happens in a particular time and place. Therefore, the backdrop against which our lives played out, Chicago, Illinois, during the last quarter of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, must be portrayed with the greatest possible accuracy. For that I cannot just rely on memory. Research might not be the “fun” part of writing, but without it the memoir will lack luster and solidity.

digging deep is essential

There are no external references or resources, however, in which I can find my own emotional truth.  That vital nugget, that essential core, of a memoir exists in one place only, deep inside my very self. I’ve buried it so deep, I’m not certain that I can dig down far enough to reach it. There was a day almost fifty years ago when I sat on my kitchen floor and sobbed. I held in my lap, my four-year old daughter, unconscious and limp in my arms. She had just had had a wrenching grand mal seizure. I wept in frustration that none of the seizure-control medications were working. I wept in relief that I had caught her before she fell, and she hadn’t been injured this time. I wept in helplessness because I couldn’t make my little girl’s life better.

yet unbelievably difficult

Then Kristy’s breathing slowly became more regular. Her two-year old sister, Carrie, came up to me and patted my shoulder, “Be okay, Mommy,” she pleaded. At that very moment I heard their infant sister, Betsy wail from her crib.  I smiled at Carrie and wiped away my tears. I got up, lifting Kristy, and carrying her to a couch to sleep off the aftereffects of her convulsion and went to get my hungry baby.  Carrie trailed along behind me and stood beside us as I put her sister to the breast.  Her eyes were still wide with consternation.  I smoothed her dark curls back from her forehead. “It will be okay,” I promised. It was the last time I cried over a seizure and maybe the last time I accessed my own emotional truth.

can I do it?

Because I now want to tell Kristy’s story because I believe she deserves it and my grandchildren should know this part of their heritage, I must unbury almost fifty years of hidden emotions. Discerning which are the true ones and which are only the ones I wanted to feel will not be easy.  But if I don’t do this, you won’t read the memoir. It won’t be worth your while.

But how will I reach emotional truth as honest and raw as Anne Roiphe attains in her essay, “A Child Has Died,” published in Tablet, an online magazine about Jewish life?  Read it and see what I mean.

I can only try

Of course, my language cannot be Roiphe’s language.  I don’t have her voice. Still, I want you to feel my loss the way I feel hers. That’s the task I’ve set for myself. Almost everyone else in my story would tell it differently because they lived it differently. All I can promise is to do my best to tell my own true version.

Jule reads the Christmas story to Kristy, Betsy and Carrie
Note the net on the spiral staircase. We lived every day with the illusion that it kept our daughters safe.

 

 

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

The Future Comes Soon Enough

Child watching fireworks
ordinary wonder

This year we celebrated the Fourth of July in very traditional ways. Because this is 2021, and we are just beginning to transition out of the pandemic mode,  the commemoration felt extraordinary. Freed at last from months of isolation, we rejoiced to be able to gather with friends and with strangers in merrymaking and festivities. It was a true Independence Day.  Like celebrations often do, it brought to mind other times when we commemorated this particular holiday differently than usual.

Last July, this blog featured one of those occasions, the year Jay and I spend the Fourth of July in the Ukraine. This year my mind spins back to July 4, 1976. That year we had chosen to spend our holiday on Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine.

Maine village by ocean
Photo by Carl Newton
up north & down east

A one-week layover in a small cottage along the island’s southwestern coast, near Tremont, had been our first visit to Mount Desert. My husband, our three-year old daughter Kristy, our eighteen-month-old daughter Carrie, my sixteen-year-old sister Beth, and I had already journeyed north from our home in Chicago to Montreal and Quebec City. We had then headed south toward New England. After a week on the road, we took a break and met up with friends from Chicago, the Forsythe family They knew about the island because the mom, Mary Florence, had a brother who lived near there.

Maine lighthouse
Photo by Daniel Vargas

Being on Mount Desert swept us into an entirely other culture. Both Maine and Illinois were part of the USA, but there the similarity ended.  It didn’t even sound to us like the folks spoke the same language. The little fishing villages of Tremont formed the “quiet” side of the island.  For us that was quiet, indeed, since even “busy” Bar Harbor was a far cry from the noise and hustle of Chicago. The entire island is only 54 square miles (Chicago covers 234 square miles) yet every mile of it offered a fascinating new discovery.

nonstop views and vistas

Most breathtaking is Somes Sound, a fjord-like body of water that runs five miles inland and divided the east and west sides of the island. When we stood at the inlet and stared up at the soaring cliff, towering over the water like sentinel giants, even the little children were awed into silence.

Jordan Pond
Photo by Alexa

At the other end of the pleasure spectrum was Jordan Pond. The “pond” is a glacier-formed tarn with exceptionally clear water, but swimming isn’t allowed there.  And although we could have rented a canoe, that didn’t sound like a safe decision with two such young children in tow.  What we did learn to love was tea on the lawn of the Jordon Pond House. We could almost feel we had been transported to England, but the delicacy to which we became instantly addicted were popover so light they melted in your mouth.

true land’s end

Of all the places on the island, the one that intrigued me the most was the summit of Cadillac Mountain because, while there are twenty mountains on the island, this one at 1,530 feet (466 meters), is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. That makes it the first place in the United States to view the sunrise.

To celebrate this phenomenon, every year on July 4, many of the citizens of Mount Desert Island as well as hundreds of visitors make it a point to be on the summit at the crack of dawn on Independence Day.  Our visit was a long after this momentous event, but with the wind blowing so fiercely that I held my daughters very tightly as I took in the great expanse before me, I vowed to return for July 4, 1976, the 200th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

return to eden
Mt. Desert Island coast
Photo by Alexandra Fisher

Our return trip turned out to be the first vacation that Jay and I took alone since our first child had been born. With great excitement I planned the romantic getaway to one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited.  This time instead of ram-shackle cottage among the sea grasses, a lovely old inn, high above Somes Sound would be our home for the week. I had planned the trip with great exhilaration. Yet, when it came time to actually hug and kiss our children goodbye, I almost couldn’t get into the taxi that would take us to the airport.  We were leaving them with two trusted, known caretakers, but, at the last minute, it felt very scary to walk away from them.

a difference in perspective

My anxiety was not much allayed when after checking into our room at the venerable Asticou Inn, we went down to enjoy dinner in the dining room. Dinner was included in the American Plan price of the hotel. The maître stepped up as we entered. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but a suit jacket and tie are required for the evening meal.”

“But I am formally dressed,” asserted my husband. He wore a “leisure suit,” a new evening apparel for men that had become all the rage that year.

“Your outfit does not meet our dining standards,” the host insisted.  And we were not allowed to dine there.

Grey Rock InnWe had to find another place to eat that evening.  We checked out the following morning. Gypsies that we were, we were very fortunate to find an opening at the charming Grey Rock Inn, a much less formally run Bed and Breakfast quite close to Somes Sound. After enjoying a lovely cup of tea with the inn’s proprietress, I finally began to de-stress. It began to look like our quest for a romantic getaway but work out after all.

fogged in, but not bogged down

On our first trip to Maine, the skies were bright and clear. The sunshine was brilliant. That didn’t happen this time. But fog and rain didn’t stop our fun. We took several long hikes. On the one day the fog lifted, we went sailing on the Sound. Finally, the focus of our trip came up.

Folk dancers
Photo by Ardian Lumi

The next day would be July 4.  We took a long afternoon nap, ate dinner and headed up the dark mountain where the festivities started at midnight.  The fog became increasingly dense, but we found a parking spot and good seat. We watched the islanders perform folk dances around the bonfire. A bevy of local bands belted out enjoyable patriotic tunes.

Scottish bagpiper
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos

Throughout the night the fog hung low over our heads.  By quarter to four in the morning, it began to lighten up.  We became hopeful that the fog would clear and the sun would burst across the horizon in glorious color. For seventy-five long minutes, the crowds peered into the gloom.  Every once in awhile someone would claim to have seen a light, but it was never confirmed.  Finally, a stalwart guy, dressed in full Scottish regalia, came to the microphone.  It’s five a.m., folks,” he announced, “the sun has risen.” He began to play the bagpipes on his shoulder.

the sun does not rise

We looked at one another in disbelief.  Nothing had changed.  It wasn’t even a little bit lighter than it had been at four a.m.

Guns and balls
Photo by Ben Iwara

“My Lord,” I said to Jay. “We came over a thousand miles to see the sun rise on the third century of the American Experience – and it never rose.  This does not bode well for the next one hundred years.”

I now look back at the almost half century that has come and gone since we stood on that mountain. I feel a bit like my words were tainted with prophecy.

Protest signs
Photo by Jason Leung

“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”Gifford Pinchot

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

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

 

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

 

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.

Sisters – A Bond Like No Other

Sisters on a couch
weird sisters

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

3 sisters circa 1890
Photo from Boston Public Library

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

first, middle, last – it makes a difference

Three Nepalese sisters
Photo by Terry Boynton

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

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

excellent writer’s tool

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

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

caught in the middle

3 Sisters from Logan, Utah
Photo by Adam Winger

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

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

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

the favored child

3 Sisters in Carterville IL
Photo by Blake Cheek

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

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

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

unanticipated metamorphosis

3 sisters in a rural area
Photo by Fabio Centeno

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

briefly royal

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

Goth sisterss
Photo by Angello Pro

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

the rainbow ends here

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

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

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

Three Sisters Peaks Oregon

Like a Rainbow

Rainbow over Waverly

Over the last several post, I’ve been sharing memories with my readers.  Some have been stories from my childhood. Others are tales shared with me about my parents’ or my grandparents’ lives.

Today, I return to my earliest post. This one was published over two years ago. It asks readers to join me, to share their stories and to share photographs that illustrate those stories.  It’s a BIG ASK. But, boldly, I do it again.

somewhere over the rainbow

Yellow brickroad to OzLike a rainbow, families begin and end in misty places we never actually see.  Some of its colors we perceive quite clearly. Others are not so easily defined. But together all these hues represent who we are and what we can be.

Every known human society has had distinctive ways of constructing family relationships.  All have recognized this web of intimate inter-connection as essential to human survival.

Our own contemporary Western culture is no different.  The turmoil of immigration and mobility has severed our links to our ancestors. Feeling uprooted, yearning for connection, we turn to genealogists to find out who our great-grandparents were and where they came from.

That only gets us names and dates.  It doesn’t connect people to one another.  Even if I unearth some photos to go with the names,  I mostly find myself staring at …..strangers.

Back to the Future

Old photosI cannot undo the past. But there’s another impossibility I may be able to pull off. I can travel “Back to the Future.”  Before you start calling in the guys with the straight jackets, let me assure you that I am not planning on building a Time Machine.

Rather through memory and imagination, I will visit the past as I knew it and bring back stories of those times and those people, preserving them for today’s children and also for the children at the other end of the rainbow.

I invite you to companion me on my quest.  Share your stories of our families’ past adventures and everyday events. Send me photos that illustrate those tales. Don’t limit yourself to the past. Today will soon be yesterday. So let’s hear what’s happening in the family right now, especially the funny stories that will tickle the ribs of future grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews as well.

sundays at nana’s house

Jay having dinner with Terrence's familyMany of us remember a time when almost every Sunday, the extended family gathered at a grandmother’s or great-aunt’s home for Sunday dinner.  It takes events of great joy or deep sadness to bring us all together today.  This blog will be a virtual “Dinner at Nana’s House,” a place and time to celebrate that in some way everyone here is family.

I am reaching out to everyone I have been fortunate enough to call “family.” Here we’ll ask real questions, not fill in some fantasy quiz. We ask because we truly want to know the answers.

Asking is not probing.  There will still be secrets.  Every family has them. But we will so much more about each other than we do now. Day by day we’ll be more and more connected. Knowing will enable caring. Caring will engender a tradition of support. This will be our legacy.

abundance of connection

At my father's Wisconsin cabin
John DeJager’s Lake Cabin

My life’s journey began in the midst of abundant family. On the day I was born my four grandparents lived nearby, my two uncles were fighting in World War II, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. As the first child of two oldest children, I did not, as yet, have any aunts, siblings, or cousins.  Those would come later. I was, however, blessed with an abundance of great-aunts and  great-uncles, a slew of second and third cousins, and best of all, two lovely great-grandmothers.  It is my great hope that all these wonderful folks will star somewhere in the dramas to appear on these pages.

No more photos without names. No more names without faces. Future children of the clans will inherit the rich narrative of their origins.  knowing where they come from will give them true direction as to where they can go.

“Families are like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.” https://www.treasurequotes.com/quotes/families-are-like-branches-on-a-tree-we-grow

Might Southern Oak
Photo by Andrew Shelley

Let the Clan Gathering Begin.

 

NOT ALL UGLY DUCKLINGS ARE IN FAIRY TALES

Ducklings
coming of age

1960s teenage girl holding school books
Photo by Alamy

As I turned thirteen on September 8, 1955, I was still pretty much a child, taller and heavier than I had been at ten, but with much the same perspective on life, a proverbial “late-bloomer.” Within twelve months, my life would be turned upside down, but I had no hint of such a transformation on my birthday. As far back as my memory could take me, my life had followed a set pattern.

The way I lived mirrored the lives of my peers, the children of my neighborhood and my grade school.  Ours was a working-class neighborhood of Detroit during a time of relative prosperity and rigid roles. Every father I knew had a job. Every mother remained at home keeping house and watching over the children. The only diversity in our community was religious. Some families were Catholic; others were Protestant, but everyone attended one Christian church or another.

life under a shadow

This life, I had been taught to believe, was one of great fortune. As long as I could remember, my parents’ and my grandparents told my sibling and me stories about life during the Great Depression and World War II. Both my parents’ fathers had lost their jobs at one point. Each family had struggled to afford even the basic necessities.

Each of my parents saw a younger brother join the armed forces during World

Devestation of WW II
Photo from National Geographic Archives

War II. My mother’s brother was killed in Belgium. Scarred as they were by the traumas of their own youth, my mom and dad felt it imperative that their own children realize how privileged they were. We were lucky, they said, to carry lunch boxes filled with food and come home to a full dinner every night. Even when we weren’t hungry, we were expected to eat because it was a “sin” to pass up good food.

The one glitch in these secure lives were the regular school drills in which we practiced crouching beneath our desks in case of an enemy bombing. While we know now that such precautions would have been little protection against a nuclear attack, in the mid-1950s our true sense of security came from living in Detroit, Michigan. We felt far away from the range of Russian bombers. If anything, we worried more about invasions from Mars.

That autumn, however, I was about to experience three turning points much more unsettling than mere Martian landings.

out of the shadows

Girls in the 1960s dress upFirst, my acne began to clear up, to gradually fade away without leaving any scars. At the time I firmly believed that this wonderful development resulted from the strict diet my dermatologist has prescribed. This diet forbid chocolate, “fried foods,” gravy and butter. I followed it religiously. Believing as I did that it had cured my acne, I stuck to that food regime all through high school. As a result, not only did my skin clear up, but I slimmed down.  I didn’t actually lose any weight, but I grew several inches without gaining a single pound.

Following this physical transformation came a social one. The upper-grade girls of my school, St. Brigid’s, elected me President of the Sodality of Our Lady. This school organization, composed of all the girls from grades five through eight, met regularly to say the Rosary and dedicate our lives to the service of Mary. The election had no campaign. On a given day, all the eligible girls wrote the name of a girl they thought to be the model of a good Catholic, on a ballot. The nuns, our teachers, collected the ballots and counted them that night. In the morning they announced the new President.  I had not known that many girls knew my name, let alone that they would vote for me. The election caused me to reframe my understanding of my own potential.

crowning achievement

May crowning
Photo by Marites Allen

The best part of being elected to this presidency came in May. It meant I would crown the statue of Mary with roses at the end of the Marian Procession. For that occasion, my mother tailored her wedding dress so that it fit me. I felt truly beautiful as I marched solemnly down the aisle behind a double row of choir boys. But my trip up the ladder to place Our Lady’s crown over her carved stone veil was absolutely terrifying.

Soon after the May crowning, a third event set my whole life on a different course.  My father asked me, my sister, and my two brothers to remain at the dinner table after dessert one night in April. This was highly unprecedented since ordinarily I would have been expected to immediately start clearing plates and begin doing the dishes. Dad announced that we were going to be moving as soon as I graduated from the eighth grade in June. He had accepted a new job in Indiana.

mixed emotions

Quiet residential street
Photo by Juvnsky Maksimov

The announcement left us first in shock and then full of questions. My mother, we quickly learned, was deeply unhappy about the move. Her widowed mother lived across the street from us, and she didn’t want to leave her behind. Mom had moved to Detroit from Pittsburgh with her family and remembered how hard it was to settle into a new city. But my father’s opportunity was a chance to move up in his career beyond anything he had ever expected.  He couldn’t fathom turning the opportunity down.

dreams of enchantment

For me, the whole idea of leaving Detroit and starting life in a new state was

Basketball area
Photo by Hannah Gibbs

beyond exciting.  I had expected to attend a nearby Catholic all-girls school. Indiana sounded much more adventurous. We were leaving a neighborhood where over half the families were Catholic and moving a small city with no Catholic high school and only one Catholic church. I had begun to change internally. This move would allow me to try out my new wings away from my old roots.

Swan with wing spin
Photo by Gabriel Miklos

 

Dreams of becoming a nun slipped away as visions of enchanted evenings and tall dark strangers took their  place.

 

Dear Readers, Share a time when your life changed abruptly and for the better.

“Don’t worry if people think you’re crazy. You are crazy. You have that kind of intoxicating insanity that lets other people dream outside of the lines and become who they’re destined to be.”
Jennifer Elisabeth, Born Ready: Unleash Your Inner Dream Girl