In 1974 at the age of 15, I started working for 75 cents an hour grading papers for a high school teacher.
“Be a secretary, you’ll always have something to fall back on,” my father told me. His advice bit me in the butt a few years later when as an Army Reservist 1976, I applied to be in the first class of women to be admitted to West Point. I missed the age cut-off by one year because I needed a year of prep school.
I’ve lost track of the number of jobs I’ve had over the years: medical clerk typist, pharmacy tech, “Officer Friendly” in military police community relations, C-130 cargo plane loader, publishing manager, small business owner, production control analyst, realtor…and secretary.
Sometimes I felt sentenced to being a secretary because I’d boomerang back yet again. Now, after all these years and perspective, it was an awesome way to get my foot in the door of some solid, well-respected companies. I’ve made the most of that opportunity the last 11 years and am grateful to have been able to bookend my career with the Army, first as a 19-year-old reservist and now as a retired civil servant.
I retired from my day job today. It’s going to take some time for that reality to sink in…but it definitely feels good.
Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet for me. I became a mother to the daughter I always wanted at 30…and my mother passed three months later. She never got to see and hold her granddaughter, and I was motherless on my first Mother’s Day.
Mother/daughter relationships are complicated.
Five and a half weeks ago I had bicep and rotator cuff surgery. I had heard the recovery was difficult and I can definitely affirm that, but I was unprepared for how helpless I was to do routine tasks…and how much we take for granted having two functional hands.
Knowing I had surgery scheduled in a week, I started using my non-dominant hand to get used to doing daily tasks. I’m very right-handed so the awkwardness of brushing my teeth with my left hand continues to this day.
I reported to surgery at 5:30 AM where I had a pain block with anesthesia for my arthroscopic surgery. My daughter Daisy took me home just after Noon. She had arranged to work from home that first week and I was to recuperate in her big, beefy recliner. I was feeling no pain in my pain block fog so I went upstairs to do a couple of laps around the kitchen and dining room. Then I had a brilliant idea! I need a few things while I’m in the recliner so I’ll just put them in a bag and carry them downstairs with my left hand. Oh, and I need to eat something. Daisy heard the microwave door open and came rushing up the stairs.
“What are you doing Mom? I’m supposed to be getting things for you.”
In my pain block induced stupor, I looked at her indignantly and blurted, “I. Am. Independent. As. Fuck!”
“I’ll make you whatever you want. Please go sit down. You had surgery today.”
I took up my position on her recliner, she put a pillow under my legs, and tucked the blanket around me snug as a bug in a rug as my mom used to say. Not long afterward, she left the room to answer a phone call.
I started getting too warm so I tried kicking the pillow out from under the blanket. When that didn’t work, I scooted down a little and reached with my left hand to grab the pillow and push…and suddenly the reclined chair tipped forward and touched the floor, with the back end in the air. I couldn’t scoot up into it and I definitely couldn’t get out of it.
I was just getting ready to text Daisy to say, “I think I have an issue…” when she came back into the room to find me at the bottom of the topsy turvy recliner. She didn’t skip a beat.
“So how’s that independence working for you now, Mom?”
“Well, I may have been a little hasty after all.”
I spent the rest of that week in a pain coma, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep in my recliner. With my useless right arm hanging like a limp noodle, Daisy and I confronted personal care-taking that I hadn’t imagined. The helplessness I felt was mortifying. The second week was pain coma round two getting off the narcotics and alternating acetaminophen and and ibuprofen. With my elbow and right wrist immobilized, there was little I could do for myself. I needed help dressing, showering, removing bottle caps, and the smallest of tasks that I wouldn’t have thought twice about before the surgery.
Near the end of the second recovery week, the funeral of a beloved aunt, my Mother’s sister, was to take place. My Aunt June was the closest thing I had to a career mentor in the family who was a registered nurse. My Mother looked up to her older sister and one year for my birthday Mom gave me an engraved bent-handle nurse’s scissors hoping I would follow in her sister’s footsteps. When I was raising my daughter out of state, Aunt June kept me in contact with the family and always tried to visit us when she was nearby. When she took the train to see me in Michigan, I surprised her with a bus trip to Niagara Falls. When the bus arrived earlier than planned, we had just enough time to make the last Maid of the Mist tour if we ran. So we did, with fashionable Aunt June running in her platform heels.
The trip was one of my fondest memories and Aunt June meant the world to me. As the weekend of her memorial got closer, the realization that I may not be able to make it was crushing. I took it day by day and tried to regain some strength. My cousin Shane said he would help me so I could go and he picked up me, my suitcase, my ice machine, a cooler filled with more frozen bottles of water and ice packs, and off we went with his mom, my Aunt Myrt.
The weekend spent in the company of my Mother’s extended family and 14 cousins did more to help my healing than any amount of rest could. Their stabilizing presence in my life during my formative years when my mother was hospitalized helped make me the person I am today.
Daughters are always hardest on their mothers and I’ve spent my life trying to understand my Mother and myself as her daughter. Many times when growing up, the last thing we want to to be like our mothers. I’ve spent countless hours in thought, writing, and therapy about mother/daughter relationships. I wrote this poem in the late 1990s.
Healing My Mother Wounds
I will never be the mother my daughter needs me to be
Just as my Mother was not the mom I thought I needed.
I can only love, protect, and comfort her to the best of my ability
knowing that I'll somehow fall short of her expectations...
and that's okay, because as a daughter my greatest fear
was to become like my mother with her worrisome ways.
Until I became one.
Then I understood with crystal clarity...
She did the best she could.
Mother/daughter relationships are complicated.
The challenge is even greater when as a mother, you’ve always been in control even though your daughter is an adult. This recovery has been a humbling experience, but I’m thankful to have had Daisy’s loving help and guidance through it. I’m nearing the six week mark when I can start driving and become independent again. To say I’ve been a compliant patient is an overstatement, but I have learned to relinquish control in small doses.
On this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful to my Mother and all the Aunts and women in my life who have mothered me. And to my daughter, ten years ago when I came out, you tucked me under your wing like a mother hen. During this pandemic year we’ve survived break-ups, moves, and surgeries…and if we can get through this, we can get through anything. I am forever grateful that I am your mother, and I’m proud of the woman you’ve become.
For the past two years, I’ve dreaded February with its deep Winter chill and memories of loved ones passed. This year will be different, I thought as a booked a Corporeal Writing workshop in Portland, Oregon. I’d never been to Portland, my memoir was in a stuck place, and the workshop was being facilitated by two memoir writers I admire, Pam Houston and Stephanie Land.
I signed up for the workshop, booked a flight to arrive two days early to allow for sightseeing, and reserved a room at a hotel in Downtown Portland. I was ready for an adventure and to take the month back from grief’s grip.
The flight left Detroit later than scheduled, so when we landed in Seattle, I had to run from one end of the terminal, catch a tube, then run to the other. Breathless, I caught my connecting flight just before the doors closed. Once I arrived in Portland, I could hail a Lyft for around $30 or take public transportation (the MAX) for $2.50 directly from the airport to Downtown. I figured the trip cost enough and I’d taken public transport in DC, so surely I could navigate the MAX.
The ride to Downtown Portland was about 35 minutes. Sitting directly across from me was a middle-aged couple that looked uncomfortable with public transportation and distrustful of any characters they might run into. They tried to appear casual but her body was pressed up against the wall and her husband sat with his hand on her thigh. As people walked by, she would tense and his grip would tighten. They never met my eyes, keeping them averted to the floor. I recognized that tension, that stress, that woman…I used to be her, afraid to venture out of my comfort zone.
Upon arriving downtown, I checked into The Society Hotel room, dropped my bag, then took the MAX to meet my cousin. Tim has lived in Portland for 30 years, and we couldn’t remember the last time we saw each other. It was great to catch up and re-connect again.
First thing Friday, I had to see the massive bookstore I’d read so much about. Powell’s City of Books didn’t disappoint with three stories, nine different levels arranged by topic, and one million books under the roof. It was cool to see my story Semper Fi, Sister on the shelf and representing in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Running For Good.
When talking to a staff member, I commented that I had traveled with a small suitcase and had no room for more books.
“Well, if you buy 10 books, we’ll ship them home to you for a flat rate.”
“That would be great, but I don’t have time to look at everything I want now.” This was sightseeing day and my Powell’s visit was a recon mission. I had places to go and things to see.
“We’ll hold your books for three days. When are you leaving?”
“Monday. So wait. You can hold these two books, I can come back and add to stack…then Sunday I can pay and you’ll ship them home for me?”
It was a brilliant marketing strategy that I eagerly took advantage of over the next three days. I gave them my books to hold then spent the rest of Friday roaming Downtown Portland. In my research of things to do, I was excited to see the “Walk of Heroines: Honoring the Women Who Have Illuminated Our Lives…”at Oregon State University. Although the garden was underwhelming (not surprising this time of year), my favorite quote was from Dorothy Allison in 1992 who said, “Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you there is magic in it.” So I’m finding out.
On the way back to the hotel that evening, I came across “Voodoo Doughnuts”, known for their crazy combinations and decadent pasteries. Though I didn’t try Maple Bacon, Voodoo Bubble, or Oreo-topped Dirt, the apple fritter was delectable. The lines out their door are a testament to Voodoo’s popularity.
Finally, workshop time with Pam and Stephanie arrived. Among the many things I learned is that my memoir doesn’t have to be linear, it doesn’t have to follow the traditional hero’s journey, and it can be written in any form I damn well want it to be. That felt liberating.
My long weekend adventure was over all too quickly. I’m still processing what I learned at the workshop as well as my affinity to The Society Hotel.
What I remember most about the trip were the connections I made with my classmates and the serendipitous conversations I had with the people during my travels: Christian, the Army officer traveling home for his sister’s wedding; Domi, co-founder of Corporeal Writing who witnessed my embarrasing faceplant on my recon visit; the couple from Sacramento I met in the Voodoo Doughnut line who commented they’d visited Powell’s but didn’t personally know a writer until me; Tom, the pony-tailed nightshift history buff and dayshift manger Anthony who filled me in on the fascinating history of The Society Hotel; Doug, the Portland Airport blues guitarist who soothes frazzled traveler nerves; and the Michigan organic seed growing couple traveling to a conference. Each and every person I met helped heal my February funk.
I thought my Portland trip was about reclaiming the month from grief, but in the end it was a reminder to live a connected life with those around me. And to celebrate my parents…I am their living legacy.
The first weekend in the new year, my daughter and I opened the time capsule we had buried at the dawn of the new millenium.
It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves. In a previous post about the time capsule, I described going to the cabin to bury it on New Year’s Eve. When we opened the time capsule, taped to the cover was a baggie with the letters we had written ourselves and a four page cover spread from the San Luis Obispo Tribune dated January 1, 2000. Unless they published early, we hadn’t gone to the cabin until New Year’s Day.
So what else was inside? Just as we remembered it, an old Sony cell phone we used for emergencies only. Note the handy quick reference card tucked inside the zippered case. But why didn’t we include the charger?
In a little box marked “Open Me First” was a whole lot of nothing, insignificant trinkets.
“Mom, why did we pack all this junk?”
“I have no idea. What were we thinking?”
There were some old CDs, a cassette tape, a program from a middle school play my daughter stage managed, our custom goth Christmas card, keychains, and Gidget the stuffed dog who was the ‘Yo Quiero Taco Bell’ mascot back in the day.
Most interesting were the letters we each wrote to our future selves. The past two months I’ve struggled with the reality that 20 years have gone by in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to wrap my head around all the changes that have occurred in the span of those years. Changes we could never have guessed would happen to us.
Then, there were the two poems that were published in Unity Magazine in 1999, the first sales of my fledgling writing career. My letter talked about finally knowing what I want to do with my life…be a writer. Eight months later we would move from California to Michigan. Then life got in the way. Finally, 19 years after I wrote that letter, I reconnected with my writer self and last year I had my marathon story published.
It’s taken me over a month to write this post because the reality that I may not be here in another 20 years has rendered me mute. The mean spirit of our current reality makes me ponder whether that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m not going down without a fight.
When writing about my life at age 25 for an English 101 class at Mira Costa College, I wrote, “I want to pass hot-dogging down a ski slope when I’m in my 90s.” I thought maybe I could will my body to ignore the inevitable decline of aging. My arthritic joints tell me I’ve not been so lucky.
My letter included the following poem I wrote to my future self about aging:
Yield to the seasons of life.
Gracefully embrace the wisdom
of passing years, while ignoring
disappointments and regrets
in the past.
Be thankful and grateful
for all that you have
and all that you are.
For in the end,
memories are all
you have left.
A memorable moment ~
a memorable millenium ~
a wonderful life.
Some words from my letter have never been more true. My letter ended with “I’ve always been a late bloomer and only now am I coming into my own…I hope this finds you happy, healthy, and living your dream.”
Last week I listened to Srinivas Rao interview Rich Karlgaard on the The Unmistakable Creative podcast about Rich’s new book Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Rich and I grew up in the same hometown, we graduated high school one year apart, and my step-brother ran track with him. Listening to Rich talk about his dad and growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota brought back a lot of memories.
I’ve always identified as a late bloomer, so Rich’s message really resonated with me. Whether it was getting my Bachelor’s degree when I was nearly 30, running a marathon at 60, or writing the memoir I’m currently working on, I’ve always bushwacked my own path.
This month it’s been a challenge getting back to my memoir after writing fiction for NaNoWriMo. To get in the mood, this weekend I dug out old journals trying to mine some of that material. I came across a writing assignent I had submitted on November 23, 1999 in response to a writing prompt called the Book of Life by Eldonna Edwards, who was teaching an online writing class. (This was written a little more than a month before we buried the time capsule mentioned in my previous post.)
Our assignment was to imagine our lives as a book, picturing who would play our characters in a movie, then writing the chapter headings relating to the story. This is what I wrote:
The book of my life would be creative nonfiction. A well-crafted piece of work with dashes of poetic verse, sprinkled liberally with humor, the story would open on the Dakota plains. If made into a movie, my parents would be played by an earnest Ben Affleck and a troubled Claire Danes. My traumatized teen would be played by Drew Barrymore (remember, this is 1999), up through my searching 20s, where the story would move to Southern California. I would be played in mid-life and later years by Meryl Streep. My husband would be played by Kevin Costner and my daughter would play herself.
Title: Late Bloomer, A Coming of Age Tale
Fun, Frolic, and Carefree Days
The Isolated Early Years
Searching for Answers Outside Myself
Military Missions and a Failed Marriage
Believing in Myself
The Wonders of a Blind Date
Life is Good at 30
A Decade of Family Fun
Hope, Dreams, and Unexpected Emptiness
Life Sucks at 40
Climbing Out of the Pit
Moving and Other Chaotic Choices
The Phoenix Rises
Timeless Mother – The Crone Years
I have no recollection of this assignment and others written during that email class, but I’m glad I kept them (and thank you Eldonna!). When I wrote this, I was at the beginning of Chapter 13…and seven months later I would move to Michigan with my family where other chaotic choices ensued.
Late Bloomers. It’s a way of life.
Blessed are the late bloomers, who believe in themselves, follow their intuition, and trust that the journey of life will take them where they need to be.
It’s hard to believe there is only one month left in this decade. My wife tried to tell me 2020 belongs with the 20teens, but I’m not buying it. Remember the chaos of the pre-Y2K days and the impending doom of the new millenium? Again, hard to believe it’s been 20 years because it’s been largely forgotten, overshadowed by what happened 1 year, 9 months, and 11 days later.
At The Rally of Writers conference I attended in April, Jan Shoemaker, the workshop facilitator, gave us prompts and we had about 5-10 minutes to write our response. The topic was: Waiting for it to explode. We also had to include the following words “wherever there is life, there is a twist and mess.” In response, I wrote this:
Y2K, New Year’s Eve. We escaped to our off the grid cabin unsure whether the world we left would survive. We each wrote letters to our future selves imagining what our lives would be like in a couple of decades; I wrote of my writerly dreams. With a circa 1999 cell phone, we buried a time capsule, sure that we nailed the future. But wherever there is life, there is a twist and a mess.
I’d forgotten about the time capsule, a 18″ x 12″, 6″ deep plastic tote sealed with duct tape. We had unearthed it from it’s hiding place in the California Central Coast when we sold the cabin. We hauled it to Michigan and from one place to another, then I got custody in the divorce.
The tote is heavy and it rattles. My daughter and ex remember what’s in the time capsule. I only remember the three letters we wrote, and the cell phone.
Our lives today look nothing like we could have imagined. And what did we think we would need to preserve to show what life was like at the dawn of the new millenium? I look forward to finding out soon.
I tried writing a post for Thanksgiving yesterday, but I finally gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to be thankful for, yet I was filled with a sense of melancholy that I found hard to express.
This is that time of year when my thoughts inevitably turn to days gone by and those no longer with us at the Thanksgiving table. The memories surround me. I ate the Thanksgiving dinner my wife prepared at the sturdy ball and claw oak table that was my paternal grandmother’s. The same table where she changed my diapers, taught me to play Crazy 8s and Go Fish. The table that bears the dice dimples from countless games of 6-5-4 with my father.
I know I’m blessed to have had so many happy memories of holidays spent with loved ones. Lots of people are not so lucky, which I was reminded of when I saw a blog post from Sark called Happy Thanks~Grieving While Wildly Living. She beautifully captures the complex emotions many of us feel and shares her “love and transcendent wishes for people to be able to deeply grieve while wildly living.” Thank you Sark for helping put into words what I could not.
So on this, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m filled with gratitude for all that has happened over the last year and memories of past Thanksgivings. I also recognize that grief will sometimes sit beside me at the table and I’m okay with that…it reminds me of those who have loved me. I live wildly as their legacy.
My heart is in North Dakota today as they lay my Uncle Lester to rest at the Veteran’s Cemetary.
My mom’s youngest brother, his handsome military photo and those of his brothers in uniform graced a wall of honor at the home of my grandparents. It was that wall and their service that inspired me to join the military.
Rest in Peace Uncle Lester, and give Mom a hug from me. ❤️