In Order To Keep Them…

As the eighty year old woman standing in front of me related the problems she had with her fifty-six year old daughter, I bet myself this woman didn’t think of herself as an interfering parent. The woman lamented her daughter’s two marriages and subsequent divorces, her dead-end (in her eyes) job and the daughter’s lack of regular communication with her.

“If she would just do what I tell her,” the woman complained, “I know she’d be a lot better off than she is. But she doesn’t even answer my calls.”

I looked at the woman and said, “In order to keep them, you have to let them go.”

“What? I don’t know what you mean.”

I repeated. “In order to keep them, you have to let them go.”

Even after delivering a lengthy explanation of what I meant, the woman refused to believe she was _ you guessed it _ an interfering parent. At eighty, still trying to tell a fifty-six year old how to live her life, one might think she is an aberration. But, frankly, she reminded me of my mother, who was still trying to parent me at eighty and thought I should still be parenting my then twenty-seven year old daughter.

As the mother of two adult daughters I came up with my saying of “in order to keep them, you have to let them go” in answer to my mother’s over reach as a parent. While I love my daughters, sometimes worry about my daughters and give advice if asked, I decided that once they were adults, I was letting them go. And, while I loved my mother, our relationship was strained and that was on the good days. When she died at ninety, she was still criticizing my adult decisions. I did not want that kind of relationship with my daughters.

It was, and still is, my experience that parents who insist on continuing to tell their offspring how to live their lives often ended up with a strained relationship. And, sometimes the well-meaning parent helped create the very mess of a life their offspring lives.

I remember one mother bragging warmly about how she spoiled her seventeen year old son, making him a sandwich while he continued to lay on the sofa watching sports. She did his laundry and picked up his room. She and her husband provided him with a nice allowance and a car even though he did no chores around the house or held a job. “We want him to enjoy being young,” she said. Six years later she couldn’t understand why he dropped out of college, made no effort to find a job and laid around on the sofa watching TV all day while bumming money off his parents to go out with his buddies at night. Protecting your child from life’s responsibilities and hard knocks does not prepare them for a life of independence.

Perhaps worse yet is the parent who continues treating their child like a child long after the child has successfully flown the nest. I’ve known many parents who decide their adult children are all going to be best friends throughout life, even expecting daughter or son-in-laws to all be on best friend terms. While I’ve heard of this happening, most families may continue to get along but the idea that your sons or daughters spouses are all going to mesh to the point of best friends forever, is a pressure few relationships can withstand. After all, we come from different family cultures with different life views. Your children’s spouses came with their own set of friends and family. Respecting that boundary will go a long way in nourishing a healthy relationship with your children, not to mention your in-laws.

I’ve watched as these same parents expect every holiday to be held at their house, totally dismissing the fact that their children’s spouses also have families. When I questioned one mother about the wisdom of this need on her part, she said, “I want all my children with me just like it was when they were kids.”

Well, they are no longer kids. Adults work out their own holiday schedule. This is about recognizing that your children now have boundaries like any other adult in your life. This is about respecting their boundaries. This is about treating them like adults instead of like children. This is about transitioning to an adult relationship.

My dear mother’s over reach with parenting left her bemoaning the fact that Martin and I were moving to South Carolina and not taking our twenty-seven year old with us. “How can you go and leave her behind?” She asked in an incredulous tone.

Your children do not belong to you like a piece of property. They’re not furniture or accessories. The idea of uprooting a mature woman with an independent life was absurd. But, my ever protective, ever shouldering any burden you may have mother always saw her over reach as just part of being a caring mother. She thought I was a derelict in that role. One of the reasons for our strained relationship, which brings me to another point. Foisting your beliefs about anything, parenting included, onto your adult children is nothing short of trying to continue to control their lives, albeit, perhaps, with good intentions.

I’m not a sociologist or psychologist so all the above is just my view from my experience over a lifetime _ way too many stories of mothers and fathers continuing to parent adult children. That said, I believe the best way to parent adult children is to let them fly the nest, set up their own shop and leave them to their own devices unless, of course, your opinion on their life decisions is asked. In order to keep them, you have to let them go.

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WHERE THERE’S A WILL

As a young woman I worked for a bank in a branch office. Prior to opening each morning, the teller assigned to the task, went through the newspaper obituaries. If any of our customers was reported deceased, the teller placed a hold on their accounts, including joint accounts, and sealed their safe deposit box. Sometimes, even people with a Last Will and Testament, left their relatives in a bind when the only place that held a copy of the will was the sealed safe deposit box. Waiting for a probate judge’s order to open the box takes time and costs money. Anytime you have to go to court for anything, you should see dollar signs. However, many people did no planning at all, dying intestate, meaning without a will. We had a saying at the bank, “If you don’t have a will, the state has one for you.” You may intend for all your worldly possessions to go to your spouse but, depending on the state where you live, without a will, state law may dictate your estate is split evenly among your spouse and children, no matter what the age of the children. Don’t assume your children will do the right thing by mom or dad and give the money back to the surviving spouse. And with probate courts inundated with cases, an attorney recently told me it can take up to a year for an estate with a will to get through probate. This is reality, folks.

We all know someone who died suddenly, perhaps from a heart attack or car accident. Yet, most of us put off estate planning thinking, “We’ll get to it later.” Yes, we all do it. Even me. Despite all the life lessons from my banking days, until recently, I had not updated my will for years. No one wants to think about dying. We are a frail type, we humans, who don’t want to face our mortality. We like to think we always have more time. We fool ourselves into thinking, ‘later’ will always be there for us. The heart attack or car accident isn’t the way we will go. Oh no, not us. The truth is we have no idea the day, the hour, the minute or the how. My dad used to joke about it saying, “Something’s gonna get ya. Nobody gets out alive.” Then, he’d laugh at his own joke. Fortunately, both he and my mother left a plan, allowing we children to grieve instead of wending our way through the overwhelming task of trying to figure out what they wanted in the way of funeral arrangements or how to pay for them. There’s enough to decide even with a will. Without a road map, it’s really stressful. That’s how family squabbles happen. And, who wants that to be their legacy?

Give the gift of a will

Give the gift of a will

End of life planning is complicated these days. In South Carolina, where I live, probate court can be avoided by having a trust agreement, rather than just a will. Then, there are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. And, just in case you forgot some old account someplace or another, a will can be embedded into the trust. This isn’t an ad for attorneys, but, the truth of the matter is, you probably need one to advise you on what is best for your circumstance in the state in which you live. Just in case that isn’t enough to think about, matters are further complicated by the need for Powers of Attorney for both health care and financial management. These documents cover any eventuality where you become unable to make your own decisions regarding your health and money management. Since each document is separate from the other, the health care attorney-in-fact doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person as the financial attorney-in-fact. Before naming someone to either of these positions, be sure to discuss your decision with that person asking them for their agreement to accept the task. Nobody likes surprises. This is serious business, so cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. You may also be asked to name alternates because, as we know, stuff happens, and your primary may become deceased or incapacitated themselves, rendering them incapable of carrying out the task. Your attorney will most likely ask you to name a runner up, or two. Whew!

Although this is a serious subject requiring serious consideration, action and, let’s not forget, money, it is the best gift you can give to your survivors. Despite my feet dragging on the matter of updating my planning, the big lesson – well one of them – I learned in life is this. If you don’t make a decision and take action, time and circumstance will make the decision for you and you may not like the outcome. To that, someone said to me about making a will, “What do I care? I’ll be gone!” If you care about your survivors, whether spouse, children, siblings, significant others or grandchildren, give them the gift of not having to squabble over your health care, funeral arrangements and money. Give them the gift of being able to just grieve without worry about the details because you left a detailed plan. And, one last thing – no excuses – dreary as it is, there’s no time like the present to create your plan.

FORTY YEARS DOWN

A couple of weeks ago, Martin and I celebrated our fortieth anniversary. What does one say about such a milestone? I thought hard about this one. All the things we did. All the things we learned. Forty years of better and some worse. Not much sickness yet; mainly good health. As for richer or poorer, we scraped the bottom of the barrel some years and rode the wave of plenty in others. We certainly experienced the ups and downs of life and a committed relationship. Having read lots of ‘what I learned in forty years of marriage’ type posts, I decided against listing all the lessons. Mainly because I didn’t want to bore my readers but, also, because, to me, there is one big lesson. And, the big lesson covers a lot of territory.

We are nowhere near the same people we were in 1975, young, idealistic, starry-eyed about our future and each other. 1975 was, by all accounts, a year when our societal norms were different from even ten years before. Wannabe hippies, we married in a meadow, mowed, of course, on my parents 125 acres in a tiny hamlet in upstate New York. Cow country, I call it. Escaping the normal retirement trends of the day, my parents sold their suburban New Jersey home, bought the acreage with a barn and built a log cabin on a hillside overlooking Columbus, NY. For Martin and me, this setting appealed to our hippie tendencies of matching beads, long hair and a tad bit new age. This is where we chose to be married. Our nuptials were performed by an Episcopalian priest, H. Alan Smith, who, much to our liking, walked around town in a white t-shirt and blue jean overalls, sporting a beard and mustache. John Ludington, who worked with me and moonlighted weekends as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, performed songs like ‘Time In A Bottle’, ‘Annie’s Song’ and ‘The Wedding Song’. Our oldest daughter, three at the time, filled the role of flower girl. What I envisioned as a warm, sunny June day, was, instead, cold, with light rain misting on the meadow. Stuck in traffic getting out of Syracuse, H. Alan was twenty minutes late in arriving. Thinking my minister stood me up at the altar, my tear stained face stayed that way as I cried throughout my own wedding. After a reception of family and close friends, Martin and I went to our apartment. We took the week off from work, bought bicycles with the cash wedding gifts and that was our honeymoon.

Our Wedding Invitation

Our Wedding Invitation

From this rather unconventional start to our marriage, we developed a rather unconventional relationship. No, no, no. Get your mind out of the gutter. We didn’t become swingers or open marriage or anything really out there. It goes something like this. The only one in the family with a stable job on that cold, rainy day was me. Martin worked a temporary full-time job with the county. Did I mention I worked in banking, as a teller? Yes, I worked in a conservative industry. It was not long before I ditched my short skirts, beads and crazy shoes for a more conservative look as I applied for the bank’s management training program. I was the last person without a four year degree to land a slot in the program. Martin eventually shaved off his mustache, got a proper haircut and a permanent job before going on to earn a four year degree. We built our first house, acting as the general contractor, as well as putting up drywall after stuffing in insulation, laying the hardwood floors after putting in the subfloor and doing whatever else we could do with our four hands. Eventually, I got a bachelors myself. I was the main breadwinner for half our marriage and Martin took over for the second half. As a result of all our maneuvering in life, the relationship we developed is more of a mutual support system with both of us pitching in with the kids, cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work and repairs. As the years went on and on and on, we figured out who carried which strength and let that person run with that particular ball.

Matching Beads

Matching Beads

Recently, in a class at Furman University OLLI, the instructor mentioned how women are more attached to the house and home, while men are drawn to the yard and spaces outside the home. Of course, me, with my chainsaw and all, begged to differ. This idea was further discussed when one of my classmates came for dinner at our house. As Martin cooked a scrumptious shrimp scampi, she and I sat in the kitchen sipping wine after a tour of my garden. We talked about how Martin and I both have specialties around the house, including meals we make. While Martin’s Mr. Fix-It, changing out the kitchen faucet or working on our tractor, he is also likely to paint a pair of side tables for the great room or want to change out drapes in the dining room. As the one who plans, plants and maintains the gardens, I care less about interior decor. Knick knacks bring on hyperventilation as I think about all the dusting. I do most of the clearing of the underbrush on our property, Martin following with the bush hog to grind it down. Like I said, we each have our strengths. Since most people seem curious about how we came to this arrangement, I guess we operate differently from most couples.

After forty years, we just do what we do, naturally, without question, as a team. That didn’t come easy. We grew at different rates, at different paces, at different times. We experienced our share of wrangling. It was years into our marriage before I realized I married a renaissance man and just how fortunate that made me. Forty years of pinnacles and peaks, along with long days and nights in the valleys. Somehow we made it. And, that’s where the real lesson lies. Only one in my book. Not forty. Not a string of I learned this and that. As with everything else in our lives, we learned to accept change. We learned to accept change and growth in each other. We learned we are not the same people we were in 1975 but a matured, developed, personally stretched version of those people. We learned to roll with the punches, taking flexibility and sometimes patience to a new level, at least for us. Difficult at times, we each learned to adapt to the person, our partner, friend, lover, who came out on the other side of individual growth spurts. And, through it all, we stuck by each other with love and commitment and faith that we, us, our union would prevail. And, it did.

In true Merlino tradition, we celebrated our forty years, not with a trip to Italy or any other far off destination. Not with a big party with all the hoopla and family and friends. Not with any of that. Instead, we went an hour up the road to Asheville, NC, wandered through the River Arts District looking at good, great and bad art (my opinion), ate really cheap but really good fish tacos at The White Duck Taco Shop and spent the night in a cushy boutique hotel, where we ate a really expensive but really amazing dinner at The Red Stag Restaurant. There we lifted our glasses and toasted, just the two of us, as we wanted it, to another forty years.

LIFE IS STRANGE

After writing the last blog on technology, which garnered lots of comments (thank you!), a life is strange experience occurred a couple of days ago prompting more thoughts on technology. But, the real story is the part about humans, not machines. Working in the garden, cell phone clipped to my jeans, I receive a text from a friend on the other side of the country. “Kathy, are you free right now? I need a favor.” Since I’m rarely free from activity these days but always willing to drop whatever to help out a friend in need, I text back, “What do you need?” The story is a friend of my friend has passed away. The woman was estranged from her family and children. My friend is trying to locate the children to inform them of their mother’s passing. And, she needs a favor from me? How can I possibly help? My friend thinks she found her friend’s daughter on Facebook. Since my friend does not have a FB account (yes, I have friends who are not totally tied into the world of technology), can I send a message to her friend’s daughter asking the daughter to call my friend so my friend can impart the news of the mother’s passing (whew…are you still with me?…hope I’m writing this well enough to understand). Of course, I say, “Yes.”

Still standing in a sea of coreopsis and sunlight, I use my smart phone to pull up my Facebook account and plug in the daughter’s name. Glancing at her photo, she looks happy, not someone who is estranged from her mother, years and years of estrangement to the point of no one knowing where she is in the world. I try not to dwell too much on the photo. After all, I’m on a mission. But, my imagination and the tragedy of this situation tug at the edges of my mind. I imagine what may have broken their relationship to such extremes. Imagine a daughter, who is coming of age but still immature. Imagine she wants to be free of her mother’s supervision. Imagine a mother, worried her daughter might make mistakes, so she holds tighter and tighter while the daughter struggles harder and harder to be free. Imagine the mother, in desperation, becomes more controlling. Imagine the daughter does make mistakes and the mother can’t resist an “I told you so.” Imagine the daughter runs away, severs the relationship forever. There are probably a hundred more scenarios I can imagine. But, back to my mission. Right now I have to write a simple message. Not much information, one line should do it. I imagine how strange it will be for this daughter to receive my message, a message from a complete stranger in another state, asking her to call another complete stranger in yet another state who is a friend of her mother. I look at the picture again. She looks intelligent. She’ll read between the lines. But, will she care? Will she call? As I stand in my sea of flowers poking one letter at a time on the small screen of my phone, it occurs to me how strange and even wonderful it is that within minutes this daughter is found (hopefully it’s the daughter), my friend and I have communicated across thousands of miles and I am now sending a message to this woman. Life is strangely wonderful and at the same time, often cruel and unjust. There is a certain poignancy to this unfolding story.

Coreopsis At My Feet

Coreopsis At My Feet

After texting “Done” to my friend, I continue working and wondering if the daughter will call. How hard it must be for my friend to deliver such sad news, not knowing how it will be received. Or, if it will be received, waiting to see if the daughter ever calls at all. And, how tragic for this family torn apart for whatever reason to hear the news of a mother’s death, having no way now of making amends, if there is any regret. Within minutes, my friend sends another text announcing the daughter’s call to her. The daughter jumped right on it. She cared. Although I never met my friend’s friend or her daughter, I say a little prayer for these two women. They have unexpectedly touched my life, reminding me of what is important in my little world. I pray for inner peace and self-forgiveness for the daughter. I hope the mother’s spirit is at rest. Surely, there were times when each wanted to reach out to the other, to close the gap of silence, to speak and forgive. And, I say a prayer for my friend, for taking on the role of family and caring. As for me, my heart is heavy yet at the same time, very light. I smile at the sunny day and the sea of coreopsis at my feet. Somehow, I feel like I played a larger role in the universe today. Life is, indeed, strange.

Technology

Why people assume certain attitudes always intrigues me. That, of course, is one of the reasons I chronicle the impact mindset has on aging and, in particular, aging well. Following that thought, about a year ago I read an article from the Pew Research Center on “Older Adults and Technology Use” (http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/). While the article cites a lot of statistical information about how older adults (categorized as 65 and older) use technology, the brief paragraph about attitude stands out for me. According to the article, aside from physical challenges like reading small print, and learning to use the technology, some older adults don’t believe there is a benefit to using it. Well, of course, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know I’m not so sure that’s the entire story.

Doing a little informal research of my own, I began paying close attention when I heard an older adult say, “Oh, I hate technology!” I did my usual eavesdropping on complete strangers. And, sometimes I inserted myself in the conversation, asking a few questions to satisfy my mental inquiry on the subject. I was probably a real pain to some of those people, especially when I asked them if they liked their car or their washer or their TV. I got a lot of blank stares. You see, people don’t think of those things as technology or even new technology. Because they have had lots of gadgets in their lives for so many decades, they expect to continue using them and expect to continue learning how to use the new versions when the old ones wear out. But, when it comes to computers, smart phones, social networking, email, texting, downloading music or books, or…enter the sci-fi of yesterday…Skyping, there is resistance from a certain segment of older adults. Like most people, when there’s something I really don’t want to do, even when I know I should do it, I become exceedingly proficient at finding excuses not to do whatever it is. My imagination can conjure up the best of them. That is just human nature. We can create obstacles where there really aren’t any hurdles at all. Hurdles like small print, when using a tablet like the iPad with zoom out technology will instantly make the print larger. Hurdles like learning how to use the new technology when classes, most of them free of charge, are offered by the vendors and manufacturers of the new technology, not to mention senior centers and local colleges and technology clubs.

Technology

Technology

Then, there’s the catchall of ‘no benefit’ to using new technology. That’s the attitude, the mindset shunning the entire package of new gadgets, no further questions or comments necessary, thank you. That’s also the part, which does not compute with me. How can something, which has so transformed our very way of life on this entire planet, have no-o-o-o benefit for a segment of our aging population? And, if they have shunned it, never immersed themselves in its use, how can they determine it has no benefit? It reminds me of the authoritarian Dad who, when confronted with a child wanting to try something new, spouts, “No!” to the poor kid before the request fully leaves their lips. If the child dares to query, “Why?”, Dad then blurts out, “Cause I said so, that’s why!”. Based on my non-scientific research, it seems like those who think all this new tech stuff has no benefit, probably never gave it a proper chance. For example, when I hear grandparents say they have no use for Facebook or Skype or text messaging, I wonder if they realize they are depriving themselves of a closer relationship with their grandchildren, especially if said grandchildren are miles away. No grandchildren? Well, then, children, siblings, aging parents, cousins, nieces, nephews or old friends. Even if no other benefit existed for immersing myself in new technology, the benefit of being able to engage with my grandkids nearly 800 miles north is benefit enough for me to put forth the effort necessary to figure out the technology. My two daughters do a superb job of posting videos and pictures of their children so I don’t miss football, softball or volleyball games or track meets or birthday parties or holidays. And, I can share my daily happenings with them. We Skype or FaceTime for special occasions. Amazing! It sure beats just sending a card or gift or saying, “Happy birthday” over the phone. How can you not love that?!!! And, it’s great to text a grandchild with a sentiment or attaboy but it is even better to get an “I love you, too” in return.

Speaking of kids, young people today are no different, than we were at a young age. Why, when we were young, we embraced new ideas and things to do every single day of every single week. We learned to use the technology of the day with anticipation and excitement. We didn’t think twice about benefits. It was simply what our world was doing and we wanted to be part of our world. Remember learning to drive? Was it a stick shift or an automatic? Remember the first TV at your house? How about when more than a few TV stations joined the lineup and you got a remote with the TV? You were older then, but you figured it out. Yet, as we age, we decide to play ‘old dog can’t be taught new tricks’. Well, old dog, here’s why you absolutely must keep learning new technology. The biggest benefit to learning about and using new technology is it helps keep your mind younger, sharper, more supple so you’ll be around to see even more technological advances and learn to use them. Remember, a few posts back I said learning new things opens new neural pathways in the brain. New neural pathways are necessary for maintaining brain health. You cannot find a more significant benefit than maintaining your brain health. So, don’t go closing your mind to using new technology. Who knows? Maybe you’ll stay sharp enough to see your extended family extend even further into the future. And, that’s a real benefit.

ON DEATH AND DYING

Yesterday morning at 3 a.m. my father-in-law passed away in a hospice house. Having already experienced this profound loss with both my parents, I seem better prepared to support my husband through the grief and feelings of loss. The night before, as we made the hour plus drive down I-85 to the hospice house, for his sake, I tried to stay mindful and centered in the now. There was little traffic considering it was only 9 o’clock on a Monday evening. Rain continued to gently spatter the windshield as I watched the wipers swish it away every couple of seconds. My husband drove through the dark, rain soaked night as I navigated. Neither of us had much to say beyond the perfunctory directions I gave.

Dying of bone cancer, my father-in-law was transferred from the hospital to the hospice house only a few days before. In contrast to the institutionalized look of the hospital, the hospice house met us with a warm, craftsman style facade of huge stacked stone columns and pecan stained wooden windows. I remember thinking, “What a beautiful place to die.” This time of night the door was locked. So, I pushed the intercom button and heard the buzzing sound as the security guard unlocked it for us. At the front desk, I signed us in, hesitating over the question, “Are you spending the night?”. I looked at the guard and said, “He’s not expected to make it through the night.” The guard nodded and told me to check whichever box I wanted, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I thought, “If I could, I would choose ‘No’ as in no, he would not die.” But, we are mortal. We all die. This was to be the end of a life.

As we walked down the hall, I looked at the chapel room to our left and then, ahead at a couple lounging together on one of the large sofas in front of the stone fireplace. They could have been any couple snuggled together in their living room, enjoying a cozy fire on a drizzly winter night. But, this was a couple also in grief, waiting for a life to end. They half lay on the sofa with stocking feet resting on the coffee table before them, her head on his shoulder, whispering to each other in the quiet of the night. She gave me a small, weak smile as we passed. I returned the smile and wondered if the grief in her eyes was also reflected in my own. As we turned the corner, I could see the nurses’ station down the hall. Three of the angels of hospice sat at the station talking in hushed tones as they went over the charts of the dying. I did not know how anyone could work day after day, night after night, helping someone die but, I knew I was exceptionally grateful these courageous women were here tonight.

We slipped into the room just before the nurses’ station. My mother-in-law and youngest daughter were already there by my father-in-law’s side. We all hugged as he lay in morphine-induced unconsciousness, struggling for each breath with a sort of snoring sound. If he hesitated a breath, my mother-in-law would lightly rest a hand on his chest as if feeling for his aliveness until he took a breath. We talked about other visitors and the flowers in the room and how much longer it might be before he passed and was free of pain and struggle. There were phone calls to and from other family members and close friends, who were scheduled to arrive by car or air to say their goodbyes but, who were obviously not going to make it in time. We walked down the hall for drinks or restroom stops. I noticed the couple lounging in the outer room was gone, perhaps to sit by the bed of their loved one, waiting for death to come.

As I watched my father-in-law struggle for each breath, I could see why assistance in dying is gaining support. This was hard to watch. I hoped the morphine masked the pain enough that he truly was not suffering too much. I felt small and helpless. And, I couldn’t help wondering how my own passing would be. I often heard people say they wished for a peaceful death and also wondered if they might consider this peaceful. When he finally gave up his struggle and left this earthly place, it was a relief to know he was no longer suffering. While life is important and we cherish and make the most of each day, how a life ends is also important.

John Merlino at Age 2

John Merlino at Age 2

In memory of my father-in-law, John Merlino

DEFINING MOMENTS

We all have them throughout our lives. Defining moments. Events which teach us life lessons, expose us to something as never before. Moments of joy, happiness, or sorrow and pain. Fifty years ago I was an eleven year old in Mrs. Gipe’s English class when my Dad opened the classroom door and said, “The Principal asked me to tell you the President’s been shot. He died. We’ve called for the buses to take the children home. I’ll let you know when they’re here.” You see, my Dad was the elementary school janitor. In the days before classroom phones and intercoms, he was often given the added job of spreading news from room to room. As I watched his face, I realized how heavy this particular news was for him. I also realized it was perhaps even more heavy a burden because this week marked the fourth anniversary of my brother Leon’s death in a car accident. Sadness already filled our house.

Mrs. Gipe, being an English teacher and loving poetry, took out a book and started reading “O Captain, My Captain” by Walt Whitman. As she read the poem about Abraham Lincoln’s death, her voice faltered now and again, but she never broke down in front of us kids. Other than her voice, the room was so quiet it was hard to believe there were about 30 eleven year olds sitting there. She never had time to finish reading the poem to us as my Dad opened the door a few minutes later to announce the arrival of the school buses.

As we filed out to the sidewalk, I saw my Mom on the corner waiting to cross the kids, who walked home, safely to the other side of the street. You see my Mom was the crossing guard. She always looked very professional and in charge in her police uniform but she always smiled as she greeted the kids. Today, her face looked sad. I knew she had looked that way all week, often standing in front of the piano in our living room just staring at my brother’s photos. And, although Thanksgiving was just a week away, there was a lull over our house hushing down any anticipation of the holiday season to come.

On the bus, Ginnie, a girl in my class broke down and started crying. There were others crying, too. But, I sat in the seat across from Ginnie and we lived near each other and played together and were in Girl Scouts together and had been in the same class since kindergarten. I knew her pretty well. So, it was she who I told it would be O.K. “But, what’s going to happen to us?” she wailed. I heard myself tell her, “Nothing. Everything’s going to be O.K.” I didn’t know if everything was really going to be O.K. But, when my brother was killed, people told me everything was going to be O.K. so I repeated it to Ginnie. Nothing seemed to be the same since his death but I still had a family, my Dad still worked at the school I attended and my Mom now stood on the school corner every morning and afternoon making sure kids crossed the street in safety. Our family still did most of the things we always did. There was just a piece missing. It wasn’t the same, but, it was O.K.

At the time I was too young to realize it, but Kennedy’s assassination intertwined with the experience of my brother’s death was a defining moment for me. As I look back fifty years, I recognize there were many kids on that school bus who had never experienced the death of anyone. They were afraid, confused, saddened. While the thought of the President being murdered was scary to me, I was one of the kids who was able to remain calm and offer comfort to my friends and classmates. I knew life would change but it would also go on. In that moment, a defining moment, I grew up just a little bit more.

LETTERS TO MY MOTHER

Letters To My Mother was originally posted in February. In honor of my mother and mothers everywhere, I’m re-posting it for Mothers’ Day.

A year ago my older brother and his wife visited. They brought with them a shoe box full of memories. Our mother passed away in 2008 shortly after her 90th birthday celebration. There were, of course, a lifetime of photos and memorabilia left behind. My brother and sister-in-law sorted through it all making a shoe box for each of us siblings. While I dutifully looked through my assortment of photos upon their arrival last year, I didn’t really look at the contents carefully until just now.

Finding the emotional will to take a close look at what was inside the box, I lifted the lid. There is an ornament, which my mother intended to give me at Christmas the year she died. I love Christmas time and beautiful ornaments as did she. Part of her legacy to me. Then, there are all the photos, many of which I had given to my parents over the years. Photos of my daughters as babies, as girls, as young women. Photos of my parents on their trip to visit us in Seattle. My Dad died two years after that visit, in 1989. Photos of our family as we lived in different parts of the country, in different houses with different pets, clothing and hair styles. Beneath all of the photos were letters.

I pulled out the letters, opening them one by one, reading them through and reliving that moment in my personal history. Most were chatty letters, detailing the normalcy of our lives to my parents and then, just my mother. They were letters about my daughters’ schools and activities, basketball, softball, ballet and piano. They were letters about our jobs and travel. My weekly trips to cities throughout the country closing multi-million dollar real estate deals. Trips which frequently enabled me to visit my younger brother and his family in Dallas. They were letters about our vacations to the desert of Washington state, the San Juan Islands and Canada, when you could easily cross into that country without a passport. They were just letters about an every day life.

Then there is the letter I wrote in the spring of 2007, one year before my mother died. The letter is one I had totally forgotten until now. I unfolded the letter, remembering the special paper I’d chosen with the pink flowered border. Teal, yellow and pink colored butterflies hover around the flowers as if sipping nectar. Instead of hand writing the letter I had typed it. Looking back and considering the content of the letter, a hand-written letter would have been more personal. But, we had entered the computer age so even letters to my mother had become typed and printed in recent years. This letter was not so chatty, not so everyday but, rather, a diary of what I had accomplished so far in my life. This letter was a thank you letter to my mother for my life. With tears streaming down my cheeks and a pile of used tissues in my lap, I read the final line. “So, on my 55th birthday, Thank You Mom for my wonderful life. I love you.” I signed my name after that last line, the only handwritten addition from me. Although I had typed the date on this particular letter, my mother’s handwritten date of receipt appears in the upper corner of the first page, her writing shaky and uneven.

As I fold the letter and place it back in the shoe box, I have a lot of thoughts. We don’t send letters anymore handwritten or otherwise. We email. We Facebook. We text message. Like the news everything is said in blips. We don’t often say the things to people we should say when they are alive. For all the times I told my mother I loved her, I’m glad I took the time to actually articulate my gratitude for all the things she did for me. My only regret is I didn’t do the same for my Dad. So, today, wherever you are, tell the people who mean the most to you exactly that. Even better, put it in writing so they can touch it and feel it and read it again and again. Tell them how much you appreciate having them in your life, your wonderful life.

THE GREAT ZEN MASTER

When I was working and had a particularly stressful day, I used to joke about running away in my retirement to Tibet or Nepal or someplace very exotic and becoming a Zen Master. There, I would scrub floors and meditate all day as I attained a relaxed state of calm and enlightenment, peace and tranquility. For starters, this idea was far-fetched because the monks are all men. Women need not apply. Although they might let me scrub the floors. And, though the scenery may be spectacular, living in the Himalayas or under China’s rule isn’t my idea of a fun retirement. Lastly, being a child of the ’60s, my exposure to Zen was the U.S. version, which first appeared on my radar, well, in the ’60’s. So, I wasn’t even sure if Tibet and Nepal is where Zen Masters really resided. But, when stress came knocking, it was fun to think of living in a meditative state of mind in some far off land.

Then, one day, as I watched one of my cats stretch into a yoga-like pose with paws way out front and her back elongated in a sort of exaggerated arch, I realized I live with Zen Masters. Seven of them to be exact. They spend their days either sleeping or meditating, especially if the warmth of the sun is involved. They wake slowly from their long naps, pulling themselves upright to a sitting position as they look about blink-eyed before they start their meditation. Sometimes, a little cleaning of the face is in order post meditation and before they slowly stroll toward their food dishes, tails held high in a slow dance. Yes, cats are masters at the art of Zen.

To find out how we acquired seven, you’ll have to read “The Story of Cats”, which I have yet to write. But, the very short version is this. Four of them actually acquired us. Ferals who arrived as kittens, they took us in with their tiny furry faces filled up by big, curious eyes. Three of them are part of the original Snacky Rudy Baker Project started seven years ago. Trapped one by one in January 2007, they were “fixed” and received first vaccinations at a low cost spay/neuter clinic, which willingly took feral cats. Now, once a year, we upset their Zen days of sunning themselves on the banks behind our house to take them one by one to our vet for a yearly check-up and booster shots.

This morning it’s the turn of Zen Master Grady, aka Mr. Gray, affectionately called Grady Bear by me. A beautiful soft gray with tabby stripes, white feet and big green eyes, he weighs in at about 18 pounds. So, although the Masters now trust us to a point, it’s no easy feat to get Grady into a carrier. Martin and I are both tense as he goes out onto the veranda to set out their breakfast while I hide at the kitchen door holding an open carrier. As Grady and the others gather around Martin in anticipation of their morning meal, purring and rubbing against his legs in their Zen-like morning prayer, Martin reaches down and picks Grady up, petting as he walks hurriedly toward the door. As I come through the door frame, suddenly Grady realizes what’s happening, stiffens his body, but to no avail, as Martin drops him through the top of the carrier and closes the door. This part of the trauma is over. Zen no more, Master Grady puts out tiny, frightened mews for the next hour and a half before his appointment.

Our vet is our vet because she welcomes all the Zen Masters. We fired the last guy as feral cats need not show up at his office. Too snooty for the downtrodden, we looked for a more Zen-like vet. So, today, Dr. Silver sits cross-legged on the floor, gently coaxing Grady from his hiding place between Martin, also sitting on the floor, and the bright orange wall splashed with cat paw prints. As Grady slowly emerges from his hiding place, Martin slides off to the side so Dr. Silver can exam Grady. She coos softly to him as she checks his vital signs, talks to us about his condition and expertly delivers his shots. Whew! All done for another year.

Back home after a short ten minute ride, Martin releases Grady from the carrier. He quickly meets up with one of the other Masters, happily butts heads in a “Hey, I’m back!” motion and runs off into the woods. A few minutes later, as we look through the trees to a sunlit spot, we see three of the cats walking slowly, one behind the other. As they look for meditation nooks among the rocks, Grady is in the lead. Finding just the right place to soak up some rays, Grady settles down into the leaves and blinks his green eyes at the sunlight sifting through the trees. Ahhh…calm and enlightenment. The relaxed state of peace and tranquility has returned to the great Zen Master Grady Bear.

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LETTERS TO MY MOTHER

A year ago my older brother and his wife visited. They brought with them a shoe box full of memories. Our mother passed away in 2008 shortly after her 90th birthday celebration. There were, of course, a lifetime of photos and memorabilia left behind. My brother and sister-in-law sorted through it all making a shoe box for each of us siblings. While I dutifully looked through my assortment of photos upon their arrival last year, I didn’t really look at the contents carefully until just now.

Finding the emotional will to take a close look at what was inside the box, I lifted the lid. There is an ornament, which my mother intended to give me at Christmas the year she died. I love Christmas time and beautiful ornaments as did she. Part of her legacy to me. Then, there are all the photos, many of which I had given to my parents over the years. Photos of my daughters as babies, as girls, as young women. Photos of my parents on their trip to visit us in Seattle. My Dad died two years after that visit, in 1989. Photos of our family as we lived in different parts of the country, in different houses with different pets, clothing and hair styles. Beneath all the photos were letters.

I pulled out the letters, opening them one by one, reading them through and reliving that moment in my personal history. Most were chatty letters, detailing the normalcy of our lives to my parents and then, just my mother. They were letters about my daughters’ schools and activities, basketball, softball, ballet and piano. They were letters about our jobs and travel. My weekly trips to cities throughout the country closing multi-million dollar real estate deals. Trips which often enabled me to visit my younger brother and his family in Dallas. They were letters about our vacations to the desert of Washington state, the San Juan Islands and Canada, when you could easily cross into that country without a passport. They were just letters about an everyday life.

Then there is the letter I wrote in the spring of 2007, one year before my mother died. The letter is one I had totally forgotten until now. I unfolded the letter, remembering the special paper I’d chosen with the pink flowered border. Teal, yellow and pink colored butterflies hover around the flowers as if sipping nectar. Instead of hand writing the letter I had typed it. Looking back and considering the content of the letter, a hand-written letter would have been more personal. But, we had entered the computer age so even letters to my mother had become typed and printed in recent years. This letter was not so chatty, not so everyday but, rather, a diary of what I had accomplished so far in my life. This letter was a thank you letter to my mother for my life. With tears streaming down my cheeks and a pile of used tissues in my lap, I read the last line. “So, on my 55th birthday, Thank You Mom for my wonderful life. I love you.” I signed my name after that last line, the only handwritten addition from me. Although I had typed the date on this particular letter, my mother’s handwritten date of receipt appears in the upper corner of the first page, her writing shaky and uneven.

As I fold the letter and place it back in the shoe box, I have a lot of thoughts. We don’t send letters anymore handwritten or otherwise. We email. We Facebook. We text message. Like the news everything is said in blips. We don’t often say the things to people we should say when they are alive. For all the times I told my mother I loved her, I’m glad I took the time to actually articulate my gratitude for all the things she did for me. My only regret is I didn’t do the same for my Dad. So, today, wherever you are, tell the people who mean the most to you exactly that. Even better, put it in writing so they can touch it and feel it and read it again and again. Tell them how much you appreciate having them in your life, your wonderful life.