Monday, September 10, 2012

What Happens In School, Stays In School

It was the week before my elementary school’s Open House and I was in first grade.  We were well into the school year and I was just about used to sitting still in my desk all day versus the carefree days of Kindergarten when we got up and ran around frequently.  The culture of my Catholic school was driven home by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who were generally gentle souls (and surprisingly young, in retrospect) with a few exceptions.  Our class had obviously drawn the short straw and received for the entire school year the terrifying Sister Mary Alice—a short woman who of course wore the habit of the order so that just her face showed.  That face reminded me of the dried apple project done in my Brownie troop’s meeting prior to Halloween, where we were instructed to bring a peeled but not cut-up apple, and press whole cloves into it to create eyes and mouth while the troop leader carefully carved a primitive nose in the appropriate spot on our apples with a paring knife.  We then dutifully took this browning peeled apple back home with us and placed it in the sun for about three days—and viola: the perfect witch head that we could place on a stick and clothe at the next Brownie meeting!   Sister Mary Alice had this exact face, so I was a bit wary of her.

We were busy at work on an art project Sister had chosen for us to do that would end up on display in one week’s time for all the parents to ooh and awe over on the night of Open House.  We were instructed, with no doubts remaining, that total silence must prevail while we sat bent over our projects in order to complete them with as much perfection as we were able. 

I do not recall the details, but because I sat in the back of the room (I had earned that right by being generally obedient, the goal of every good girl and boy at St. Matthew’s School) I had access to the narrow tray along the back wall that held the eraser for the classroom’s secondary blackboard that was placed parallel to and just above this long tray.  I was at the end of the first row and my new best friend (name long ago forgotten) was at the end of the last row.  I had mastered smaller-sized printing, so during a brief lull in doing my project I decided to send her a little note (I believe the entire note said “Hi”) by inserting it between the soft material of the felt eraser and shooting the eraser across the tray all the way to the other end.  Of course, to gain her attention I had to give a loud stage whisper, which was my undoing.

“Gretchen!” Sister Mary Alice screeched.  “Come up here and bring that eraser with you NOW!”  I stood up and, not wanting my friend to be left out, asked if she should come up too.  Of course, my little friend suddenly appeared to be sitting ramrod straight in her chair with hands folded.  The only thing missing was a halo on her head. 

 “Bring your project with you,” Sister added.  Sister was obviously favorably impressed by the one I considered to be my accomplice and rejected my suggestion to include her in this exercise.

I remember putting two and two together as I walked to the front of the room, eraser in one hand and project in the other.  I was mortified that I had been discovered being “bad” and I pretty much wrote myself off as being hopeless for the remainder of my time in this classroom.  Tears were welling up as I approached her desk.

“Give me the eraser and give me your project,” Sister Mary Alice loudly announced, holding out her hand (which strangely did not match her rotten-apple face).

Well, let’s just get this whole thing out of the way and shorten my agony, I recall reasoning to myself.  I handed Sister the eraser, and then grabbing my art project in both hands I began to tear it up—deliberately and loudly shredding the thing until the pieces fell onto the floor.  I bent over, tears by now streaming down my face, scooped up the pieces and threw them into the wastebasket just to the right of her desk.  I then looked at her, distorted by my tears, and took a ragged, defiant breath.

Her mouth was open in shock.  She was holding that eraser and staring back at me with such surprise that I would destroy my work (which, she appeared to be reminding herself, she had not ordered me to do).

“When the recess bell rings,” she said quietly, “Remain in here with me.  Now, go and sit down.”

I endured the inevitable staring by my fellow classmates as I returned to my seat, but my friend never looked my way.  Eventually, the bell rang and everyone left to go outside.  Sister looked very far away up there at the front of the room.  She got up and walked to the back of the room to my seat, replaced the eraser onto the tray and opened my note.  I thought I caught a smile, but it quickly vanished.

She was probably about 40 years old.  I don’t know how long she had taught school, but at the time I thought she probably started soon after Christ had died on the cross.  She stood at the edge of my desk and spoke to me quietly, asking me if I was sorry (oh, I was!).  I just nodded, wiping away the last few tears my eyes could still squeeze out.

“You know, there is still time for you to do your project.  I want you to be able to show it to your mother at Open House.  Every afternoon after lunch I am giving everyone a few minutes’ time to either finish their project or draw and color.  I still have plenty of construction paper near my desk.  Do you think you can do that?”  It sounded like a veiled order, but it was also clearly another chance.  I took it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Living, Part II

This post definitely has an upbeat theme, compared to its predecessor (see Living, dated June 13), so do lean in and take note: His aunt did not die. Each time we visited her in the hospital, over a period of weeks, she showed gradual but steady improvement. She even survived the second part of the surgical procedure, where they replaced the leaky heart valve. And then there was the birthday party, attended by family and nursing staff in the hospital. Even though someone else blew out the candles and she deferred sampling the cake, she smiled in appreciation. I watched, clearly dumbstruck.

Now dramatically launched into her 96th year, Riki is back to getting her hair done once a week and last time added a manicure. Rather comfortably lodged in a rehab facility a week ago, she is currently on a more intense physical therapy regimen than I have—including riding a stationary bike, lifting light weights, and walking…every day. Now a member of the Clean Plate Club, she eats everything she is served. She is frustrated by being easily exhausted, however, and longs for her life to return to better days. To keep up her spirits, we discuss fun things we’ll do together once she goes home. She will need someone with her, as she lives alone, and she’s not thrilled about that. But while her life has changed, she is getting back to a level at which she can happily live. Amazing to me, the one who had her respectfully dead and buried one month ago!

I clearly need to rethink my views and while these results aren’t necessarily the average, perhaps adapted surgery for the elderly is not out of the question—in my mind at least (let’s leave the health care issue and its funding dilemma aside for the moment). Within the same month, another 90-something quietly left this earth in relative peace surrounded by loved ones in her home. Like snowflakes, comparisons cannot be made for the many wrinkles of aging. But when I get a phone call from a 95 year-old woman who has taken a step back from death’s door, telling me she is feeling better all the time and is looking forward to luncheons with friends and attending church once again, I see myself in the much-later (ha!) future hopefully in the same frame of mind.

And should my journey into my nineties turn out to be a climb up the face of a mountain, I now think I would have the courage to go for it. Each day truly is a gift, even when you have to work very hard to accent the positive. Besides, there is always someone younger who is watching and learning.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Note to Self

Having just celebrated my birthday, July marks the start of a new year for me and with it comes the resolve to lose those 25 pounds that I think only show in the shower and in photographs.  These extra pounds that I have added to my body while doing the only exercise to which I am unfailingly faithful--that of lifting the fork or spoon from the plate to my mouth--and which never, ever show in everyday activities (of course they don't).  Once I "suck it in," while scrutinizing myself in my full-length wardrobe mirror, I am good to go for the entire day.  My wardrobe mirror may be a bit warped, however, because other mirrors--especially in department stores' dressing rooms--seem to show my mid-section in three sections, and my behind to be a bit wider and to segue into my generous thighs.  And this of course would explain the tightness of the outfit I currently have tried on.  And how much longer can I blame the dryer for the problems I have with the clothes already in my closet?!

So, I am doing a total reality check this morning.  I've written a note to myself and as an underscore, I'm posting it:

Self, you are fatYes, you are happy and yes, you deserve to be wined and dined; also, yes, you have worked hard all your life--as a wife, as a mother, as a working woman, as a divorcé trying to make ends
meet, as someone who survived bad times and who has finally emerged financially comfortable with few needs and wants and unlimited gifts that money cannot buy.  However!  Get over the cuisine reward-time!  Over-feeding yourself is not good for you, girlfriend!  And not putting exercise up there with the twice-daily ritual of brushing your teeth is not only foolish, but it will shorten your life!  Get off the couch, step away from the computer--and don't go back there unless you first set a timer to less than 30 minutes.

Today is truly the first day of the rest of your life, so change for a better you!  Give yourself the best reward--looking and feeling good--because you deserve it.  If you can accomplish all that you have these past years, you can certainly do thisDo

How's that for a birthday gift?!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


How can it get any darker, and it is already in the morning!  The so-called marine layer must be at least a mile high because the sun’s warm beams have not pierced through as they should have by now.  I need the lamp on, next to my morning recliner chair and above my steaming cup of wake-up coffee, as I sit next to a full wall of glass doors that allow the redwood-decked patio to blend seamlessly with my living room.  It is the only room in my small condo with a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window, giving me the extended space I need but cannot afford.  But this morning it allows the gloom of outside to reach inside—my head.  I succumb to it, rather than finding comfort in knowing this overcast morning in June will not last.

I only have one item on today’s schedule, and that is part of the problem. Not enough to do and too much time to over-think it.

I am in the last quarter of my life—that is safe to say.  I am not ready to break it up into remaining decades because most of the time I am convinced I will be a centenarian, and unrealistically I imagine looking the way I do today for the rest of my life.  Anyway, I allow myself this fantasy, although lately I am less satisfied with photos of myself than I was just a year ago.  But on these dark old days, reality tends to seep in under the front door not unlike the ominous threads of smoke coming from an out-of-control blaze on the other side.  And I don’t have to be anywhere for several hours.  Damn.

His aunt is dying.  And everyone is caught off guard, even though this lovely woman is ten days away from her 95th birthday.  Riki was moments away from undergoing heart surgery but collapsed into unconsciousness just as she was being prepped.  They were able to restart her ailing, aged heart.  And now she is packed in ice, with her body wrapped from head to toe like a mummy.  I prepared him to let her go yesterday because let us face it, her time has obviously come.  And then she awoke last evening, to the delight and surprise of her niece who was sitting by her side at the time.  She cannot speak, but seems to be aware of who is looking at her—at least this is her niece’s impression.  So, everyone in the family is rejuvenated because she is such a fighter, so strong. 

Well.  All I can think about are two members of my own family, my aunt and my mother, who, in their mid-eighties, saw the writing on the wall and wanted no one to resuscitate them at the brink of eternity.  So, separately but identically, they both slipped away without tubes and beeps and teams of medical personnel pounding away on their aged bodies.  I realize now that they each could have been “saved” to live a few more years.  When I heard that his aunt had rallied, I had pangs of regret about what both my mother and aunt had decided.  I pictured Riki, looking smart and fashionable even in her hospital gown, suddenly stirring in her bed; her red hair, which just the other day been coifed to perfection, framing flushed cheeks, as she opens her eyes and smiles up at her niece.  Oh, Mom, why couldn’t you have done that?  But this is fantasy.  Cruelly, Riki is now in a holding room for who knows how long.  She cannot go, and she will never be the same.

He sits in the other room adjacent to me, almost silent except for occasional sniffling; planning a long drive to her hospital bedside this afternoon so that hopefully she can see how much he cares—even though the two of them had a wonderful telephone conversation two evenings ago.  He wants me to go with him, for support, he says.  How can I explain to him why I absolutely do not want to?  But of course I will go with him and I will reach out and take her hand, even though my heart and soul beg me to refuse. 

Oh, how I wish the sun would break through this morning gloom.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Whisperers Aren’t Necessarily Deaf

When I awoke yesterday, I had no voice. “Good morning,” did not sound the way I had intended and I was shocked. Of course, the head cold and cough were red flags-but in the past my vocal cords had always escaped even the broadest scope of my sinus infections.

Yet there it was, no sound-or, more accurately, there was no recognizably human sound-coming from my open mouth.

So, of course, I began to tick off my week’s “to do” list involving any sort of gathering with my peers and friends. And right off the bat, some four hours into the future of the day was a board meeting with a report by me on the agenda.

I felt fairly good, so I really saw no reason to skip it just because I would have to whisper my brief report. We were meeting in a nearby house, just about twelve women and me, so the meeting would be on the casual side. I decided to go forward and attend.

The room was noisy as I entered, so smiling my hello went unnoticed and I found my seat. The meeting was soon called to order, with little chatter in my corner of the room. All too soon it was my turn, and I immediately stated that I was sorry to have lost my voice and asked everyone to bear with me.

“Oh, my God!” “You’ve lost your voice?” “Are you alright?” “She can’t talk!” Everyone commented on my dilemma at once. But I was able to whisper, and I felt my three sentences wouldn’t suffer too much from my decision to address them anyway.

It was later that I witnessed a phenomenon that I had seen only once before. Those sitting close to me were talking to me very loudly and slowly, while I gave them a puzzled look and tried to deal with this behavior. “Why are they doing this?” I asked myself—I can hear them, and I certainly can comprehend what they are saying; although they are taking too long to get to the point!

I was transported back to a time nearly twenty years ago in the local drug store where I stood next to my mother, who was suffering from the advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease (which, among many other things, ultimately robs you of your voice), as the local pharmacist attempted to answer her rather simple question by practically shouting in her ear words that a five year old would understand. My mother’s faculties were probably sharper than his, and I stood there amazed and surprised by what he was doing.

And now, I get it. Somehow, when another displays a weakness (such as whispering implies), human nature connects all sorts of other abnormalities to it and makes an immediate and incorrect conclusion that other things aren’t working right as well. So when you whisper, people incredibly assume you cannot hear—and, worse, that you cannot make sense of what is being said to you!

Try whispering your conversation sometime. And then understand what a person feels like who has permanently lost his ability to speak in a regular fashion, as others go out of their way to enunciate and volumize their own speech to “compensate.”

My regular voice is slowly returning, but I won’t soon forget the little life lesson I’ve learned in the process.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting Rid of My Stuff

I’ve got to get rid of a lot of my stuff. I am a far cry from those hoarders you see on television, where family members and caring neighbors have to crawl over trash and clothing from the 1970s to get through the living room to the cockroach-infested, garbage-filled kitchen, but whenever I do my weekly “straightening up” it seems there’s more of it to move out of sight in order for the place to look good.

I get rid of unwanted mail right away, no problem. And magazines and newspapers go to the recycle bin on a regular basis. I’ve greatly improved on my closets, using the rule that if I buy a new outfit/pair of shoes/purse, etc., the older version must be donated to charity. What I do not yet have under my control are the things I collect from club meetings ~ notebooks containing meeting minutes, reports and attachments to agendas that have been generated from elsewhere (hence the hard copies); general memorabilia that I pull out while I’m working on my genealogy (three large binders contain my ancestors’ stories); and the constant regurgitation of my computer printer which produces hard copies of emails or web site articles that I absolutely must have at hand should I need to prove that I indeed do have total recall. But all of this can no longer be hidden away for lack of room and my questionable memory of where I put them. Things are getting ‘way out of control.

When my dear mother came to live with me at the age 80, everything she possessed was condensed down to several pieces of furniture, her clothes, and personal mementos. As I was newly divorced at the time and without a dining room table, chairs, her bedroom set and a few knickknacks, the furniture was immediately put to good use. Her clothes fit right into the closet in her new bedroom down the hall from mine. Her memorabilia fit neatly above her clothes in several boxes on a shelf in the same closet. Oh, and she brought me some of my stuff that I had left behind when I got married years before. At the time, I didn’t appreciate that at some point she got rid of her stuff before the movers transported her possessions to her new home and me. In just a little more than 10 years from now, I will be approaching the age my mother was when she tackled her stuff, and I fear there is not enough time for me to reach that same point of perfection ~ definitely, the clock is loudly ticking and I’m getting a bit nervous.

I recently spent the morning in the home of a fellow club member during a board meeting. All of us sat with our three-inch thick binders precariously balanced on our laps. I could not see that she had any stuff, other than about three pages of papers in her hand as she conducted the meeting. Surely somewhere in her home has got to be a room sequestered behind closed doors at all times for fear that the stuff within will spill out into the house that looks like a model home ~ because my spare bedroom would have to be the depository in my home should I hold a meeting with 15 clubwomen in my living room. But then, when I toss my stuff into that bedroom to prepare for guests, it takes me several days to sort everything back into order once again. It’s a problem, and of course after every meeting I attend I get more stuff to bring home ~ and I usually receive a certain email that I must command my printer to do its magic and produce for me in order for me to place it in one of my many important “To-Do” folders on my desk (because out of sight for me is out of mind). If I collected all the pages I’ve printed in the last two months, I’d have back an entire ream of paper ~ this time covered with thousands of little black letters of the alphabet that help keep me on top of things.

Then there is the all-important genealogy information that my children ~ actually, more than likely my grandchildren ~ will treasure for years to come just knowing that I was able to go back a couple of hundred years, or in some cases four centuries, to discover their ancestors. There are three large binders, as I said earlier, containing hundreds of pages each ~ which I believe multiply like rabbits when I’m not watching and some of their offspring are identical twins and even triplets. Whenever I break through a brick wall (a common genealogy term meaning finally finding a new or heretofore missing link in the family chain of events that leads to even more ancestors), more pages are generated by the Old Faithful printer and get placed in one of the binders.

The high school reunion I attended this past year had me going to the boxes in the attic where my four high school yearbooks and a multitude of memories had been slumbering. The reunion committee thoughtfully provided each of us a very thick and very valuable memory book that shows pictures of nearly everyone I ever knew from childhood as they once were and as they are now, along with their (sometimes extensive) biographies. There are now five books that barely need a narrative from me to explain my life in the late 1950s. They have yet to make their way back to the box in the attic. Perhaps one reason is that when I get up there I’ll find more of my stuff.

All the slides I took in the 50s through the 70s along with about 10 photo albums I consider my memorabilia and I think they are expected to survive me ~ certainly they are of some interest to my descendants? Agreed, the club stuff can go one day. But as far as the contents of my computer ~ oh, I do not want to go there! It takes me a whole morning, every few weeks, just to delete old emails. Please do not ask me about all those computer files that are each packed with a burgeoning number of documents that were at least once upon a time so very important to me. Did I mention the 2000 photos also lodged in My Pictures file that include documentation of many wonderful trips as well as my five grandchildren and how they grew?

I like to think that some of this stuff is worthy of saving. But it’s probably not. My grandparents didn’t leave much in the way of documentation of their lives, save the family bibles, and definitely never gave a thought to saving anything of their parents either (if they had, I wouldn’t have to spend untold hours unearthing so very little that barely suggests what their lives were like). Those people came in and left this world, barely documented. Why can’t I do the same?

I start to look around at friends and acquaintences and I see that I am not alone with this dilemma, which is misleadingly comforting.

Safe to say, in a mere 20 years I will be nearly 90 years old and ready for “the home.” At the very least, “What To Do About Mom?” will be a topic of conversation in my daughters’ households. What they are not aware of now ~ and perhaps, if I get going with my resolution, they won’t ever need to know ~ is that they may have to additionally wonder about “What To Do With Mom’s Stuff?” and the moving van they might be required to hire to come and cart it all away.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Spirit of Christmas

There are seven more days until Christmas morning, and for the first time in years my shopping is done! I am still writing cards, but otherwise I am just going about my normal routine while everyone else seems to be frantic (as I used to be in years gone by). At this point in my life I’ve had enough Christmases to know how to find my way through the craziness that seems to always come with the first carole you hear on the radio ~ the day after Thanksgiving.

It’s all about buying just the right gifts for everyone on your list and, whether you can afford it or not, don’t forget yourself ~ something really hot, like the latest (this week) in technology or maybe even that new car you’ve been thinking about. Go on, charge it ~ the bill will come next month, next year! Everyone is in debt ~ it’s no longer a shame, but part of life. Eventually everything will get better, but now there’s nothing like something new and snappy to make you ~ and your loved ones ~ feel good!

I don’t decorate as much as I used to ~ my children are grown and have families and homes of their own. I do have outdoor lights, but once inside there is only a small artificial tree and an occasional holiday garland creatively wrapped around a battery-operated candle.

Here in California, the weather doesn’t exactly put me in a holiday mood so it is easy to go about my normal routine amidst the crowds and not once feel like it is Christmas. This was how I felt this morning as I drove to my neighborhood Costco to purchase just three items I had forgotten to get last weekend. There’s a radio station I listen to that plays a variety of my favorite songs, and during December they throw in a Christmas song or two. Didn’t hear anything special as I guided my car cautiously through the Costco parking lot, finally finding a spot quite a ways from the store. Oh, well, the walk will do me good ~ I need the exercise ~ I said to myself as I parked and headed toward the front door. I was not prepared for what was inside.

I think everyone had the same schedule this morning ~ head for Costco! I had to slow down at the entrance because of all the people walking in. I wasn’t looking forward to the aisle traffic ~ people carelessly pushing their carts into other people or stopping dead in their tracks right in the middle of the aisle, oblivious to others. But today was different. Today, rudeness took the day off. So did thoughtlessness. Hard to believe that in Costco on the last weekend before Christmas! It was, however, almost magical ~ considering the fact that the place was packed and carts were overflowing ~ that there were smiles and manners and such friendliness that was until now practically unknown within those walls.

People were saying “Excuse me!” Strangers were chatting with strangers! I stepped over to pick up a 36-pack of green tea bottles and a man from out of nowhere rushed over and lifted it out of my hands into my cart. I smiled and thanked him; he smiled back. I got through the store in no time, and even sampled some goodies as I guided my cart through the crowd. Arriving at the front check-out counters, I noticed that every one of them was open, and employees were helping customers load their items onto the belts that carried them toward the checkout clerks. The man who helped me was friendly and chatty, as though I was the only one there. He didn’t seem to mind that hundreds of other customers were heading toward the counters, and without rushing he was efficient and I breezed through in no time. Everyone was happy!

This just never happens. Costco is a great place to shop, but usually when customers get inside they forget others. They usually don’t smile. And they certainly don’t pay attention to others needing help!

As I left the store, the last person I encountered was a gentleman checking my receipt against what I had in my cart. He looked up and smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “Merry Christmas,” I replied. “Oh! Yes! Merry Christmas to you too!” he answered. All the way to the car I noticed how nice everyone was being to one another. And when I finally backed my car out of my parking place and headed toward the lot exit, an oncoming car stopped and motioned me to go ahead.

A Christmas song suddenly came on the radio as I pulled my car onto the busy street. Maybe I never paid such attention to my trips to buy groceries before; what caused me to notice this nice experience? And then it occurred to me. The spirit of Christmas had just paid me a visit!