How I Spent My Summer Vacation, 1966

summer vacation

The summer of 1966 I was nearly 16. My sister Barbara gave me the gift of a vacation that was an amazingly big deal to me; I had never been on a real vacation.

Our family of eight (six kids within a twelve-year span) from a small PA town didn’t have the money for vacations.

In fact, the first time I left the state was when I was ten and made a road trip with my grandmother, great-aunt and uncle to visit relatives in Michigan. That trip consisted mostly of staying at my aunt’s home, eating, talking, and playing with my cousin. I do recall being mesmerized by all the traffic AND it was the first time I had pizza. (But not the last!)

Although the Mary Tyler Moore show would not air until 1970, her Mary Richards character is how I pictured my sister Barbara: the small-town girl who leaves for the big city (Chicago) to become a successful career girl. And (at least as compared to our family) I imagined her to be rich. She had her OWN car and her OWN apartment after all! Of course, I was naïve. Barbara was just 23, and I had no idea of the high cost of living in Des Plaines, a suburb of Chicago.

So what I didn’t know until just a few years ago was that my sister borrowed the money to take me on a proper vacation. There was a bank on the first floor of the Chicago building where she worked for the Service Bureau Corporation, then a division of IBM.

She applied for a $300 loan at that bank. While that may not seem like much, $300 in 1966 would translate to approximately $2400 in today’s dollars. The loan officer asked Barbara what she intended to use as collateral. After he explained what “collateral” meant, she gave him a blank stare.

He prompted, “Do you own a car?” When she provided the car’s information, he looked skeptical. “Where do you work?” was his next question. She responded, “Upstairs in this building.” Barbara assumes now that having a borrower who worked for IBM in the bank’s building would be a satisfactory risk; she got the loan.

While I don’t recall all of the details from that long-ago vacation, two portions stand out. One frightening but exhilarating experience was a ride in a helicopter from O’Hare Airport. The second was our stay in Baraboo, WI, about 4 hours from Chicago. From there we took a short drive to Wisconsin Dells where we attended the Tommy Bartlett Water Show (founded in 1952 and still going strong!). Think Cirque du Soleil on water skis and speed boats.

This vacation opened my eyes from a limited world view to a world full of possibilities and for that I remain thankful.

PS – Stay tuned for next Friday’s post that relates to the horrific goings-on in Illinois during the time that this trip took place.

Motherly Advice

motherly advice

This will be a strange Mother’s Day across our land. Typically, two places are full on the day when we honor our moms (churches and restaurants), but not this year. I have had several people tell me that they even forgot that Mother’s Day is this Sunday.

I’ve compiled some motherly advice after asking Facebook friends for their best-remembered advice from their moms OR what they felt was their most commonly offered advice to their own children.

My high school friend Jan Loughner Devlin (who is fortunate to still have her mom with her) gives us this: Never tell a lie. Mom always finds out the truth. You know, I believe I can hear Mrs. Loughner saying those words!

Church friend (and a wonderful mother) Amber Kiffney says, “When I became a mother, my own mother told me, regarding the advice a new mother gets from everyone, heed the advice that makes sense in your heart and ignore the rest.”

Nancy Duggan, another church friend, says her mom was fond of saying, ”Nothing changes unless something changes.” Short but profound advice.

“Never let on that you know how to or are capable of painting a wall, or you will be doing all the painting for the rest of your life!” Sound advice from Mrs. Reed, mom of my high school best friend, Linda Solich.

Friend, artist, and marketing advisor Michelle Coe has parenting advice for those walking-on-eggs-teenage-days: “When dealing with teenagers, pick your battles and keep the long game in mind.”

From my friend Judy Jones (one of the most giving and beautiful souls on earth) is this: “Very often I would print out the lyrics to a beautiful song that meant something to me and give it to Russell and Andy.” One of those songs is linked at the end of this post.

Toni Shreve (wow, I’m fortunate to have many church friends) says as her children were growing up and pushing boundaries, she tried to instill in them the rule of asking for permission if they wanted to do something, rather than just doing it and getting in trouble afterward.

Surprising advice from my sister Bev because she’s been happily married for 50+ years: “Never argue in front of your children because it scares them.”

From my own mom (and something that my daughter Laura follows as well) I learned the value of being on time. Never having learned to drive a car and having a husband who worked shift work, LaVerda Shingler had to depend on friends to pick her up to go places. I can still see her being 100% ready, purse in hand, waiting at the window for a girlfriend’s car to pull in the driveway.

None of this is life-changing advice, of course. But collectively, we’d do well to still follow the sage wisdom of those who have come before us.

~~~~~~~~~

Rascal Flatts singing “My Wish”

 

Empty Chairs

Empty Chairs

Don McLean is most well-known for his iconic “American Pie” folk-rock song from 1971. (I’ll wait for a bit while you sing a few lines because you know that you want to.) But I prefer his hauntingly, beautifully sad song “Empty Chairs.” There’s a link at the end so you can listen to it. You might want to grab a hankie first.

The song is about him living alone after the love of his life left him. Apparently she had given fair warning that she wouldn’t be staying, but he didn’t believe she meant it. Here are the last two stanzas, courtesy of LyricFind.

Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can’t forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs

And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did I never thought you would.

There are many empty chairs around the world during this isolation the pandemic forced on us. Church pews, baseball bleachers, office chairs, concert venue seating, classroom seating of all types, restaurant booths, park benches, seats in movie theaters, hairstylist chairs, waiting room chairs, and even the chair your dentist’s assistant places you in while telling you to relax.

And maybe most importantly, our own chairs. You know…the ones around the dining room table where friends and family sit when we gather to share a meal. Or maybe it’s the front porch chairs we sit in to visit with people who drop by. Or the picnic table in the backyard where we play games. Or the chairs around the fire pit or the seating in our family room…all empty of the people we love.

It stinks.

I happen to really like chairs. My mother-in-law Rosalie gave me the one I’m sitting in right now; it belonged to her mother so it holds special meaning to me. And when I was getting ready to retire from my office job, I asked the company’s president to just let me take home a side chair from my office instead of buying me a gift.

And during the two years when our family was in transition house-wise, most of our household furniture and belongings were in a storage unit. We’d occasionally stop by to pick up one thing or another, and each time, I’d pull out the rocking chair where I had lulled my babies to sleep. I just wanted to sit in it for a few minutes and feel my sense of home.

As beautiful and meaningful as chairs are to me just as they are, I am impatient to fill them with people. My guess is that I’m hearing a chorus of AMENS! out there!

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don McLean and Empty Chairs

 

The Circle of Family

CIrcle of Family

A child dying before a parent is something that no mom or dad should ever face. Whether that child is six months, six years, or fifty-six years, the agonizing heartbreak is the same.

My nephew Greg died recently. He was born when I was fifteen. I left home at nineteen, and Greg also moved out of state as a young man. So my only recollection of him was as of a little boy.

Seeing my brother Gene’s son lying in a casket, no longer a little boy but a man of middle age, brought forth feelings of deep regret for not having kept in touch with him across the many years and miles.

But deep-seated feelings of contentment and peace outweighed my regret. Because from his mother’s side of the family, Greg’s brother, many cousins, aunts and uncles and friends came and stayed for the two viewings and the funeral service in Pennsylvania. Greg’s two grown daughters drove from Ohio to attend as well. The girls, now with young families of their own, cried when they saw the outpouring of love for their dad.

His daughters hadn’t even known about their aunts, uncles, and cousins from their paternal grandfather’s side of the family. When I held open my arms and said, “I’m your Aunt Norma,” together they fell into my embrace. My sisters and others shared that they had similar encounters over the two days.

Yes, I know there are schmaltzy Hallmark movies about “instant families,” but this was the real deal! It was a perfectly lovely experience shared by many in the midst of a tragedy.

The day I returned home I took the dog for a walk at a local park. I happened upon this view of three trees in a triangle shape about twenty feet from each other. As you can see, one tree branched into two trunks, another into three, and the third into many. I knew it was a perfect metaphor for the funeral experience.

The trees are separate, yes, but joining them together are their roots which have reached out across the expanse almost like hands extending out to reach another’s hands. At first glance, they may appear gnarly. But look closely and admire the beauty of their endurance.

Our individual families may consist of a few members or many. But joining our individual families together are our roots…our family ties. Our family roots run so deep. Sometimes they are deep underground. Other times they reach the surface for all to see. Our roots are strong. They are resilient, withstanding neglect, and years, and miles. Our family roots help us carry one another through sorrowful times.

There is a print that hangs over my son’s bed that says this:

Our family is a circle of strength and love.

With every birth and every union, the circle grows.

Every joy shared adds more love.

Every crisis faced together makes the circle stronger.

 

 

Rock, Scissors, Paper

Paper matters

Photo courtesy of Freestocks.org on Unsplash.com

The television show featured a young woman having an argument with her dad. The father was urging her to write down some important information. Her reply was something like this, “My generation doesn’t write stuff down. By posting photos and videos, we SHOW what we’re doing, where we’re going, what we like.”

Okay, I get it, but only in a small way. They’re young, have active and busy lives, so if they can make a statement by snapping a picture and posting it, then they’re done, ready to move on to something else.

But it just feels so fleeting. Some postings, such as Facebook’s My Story, disappear into the ether after 24 hours. Gone, baby, gone.

This is so different than the advice from Joan Didion, journalist and screenplay writer. She advised aspiring writers to carry around notebooks to record moments of inspiration.

Marina Keegan, a young journalist who at 22 died in a car accident just days after college graduation, kept notebooks of what she termed “interesting stuff.” These were things she noticed that would likely have found their way into a story had she lived.

Thoughts and ideas are so fleeting. And there’s a permanence to paper that gives me comfort.

This point was driven home in the last few weeks when I finished a scrapbook of the life story of my son Tim who died ten years ago, also at the age of 22.

From paper calendars, I’ve been able to chronicle the everydayness of his life from birth up through middle school. How could I have ever simply recalled so many details?

By reading his elementary school writing assignments, I can tell you that his typical pattern was to write about four aspects:

a) what he was wearing (“Today I have on a camoflog shirt. It’s cool.”)

b) what he was doing (“My frend Daniel is coming to my house to play games.”)

c) something relating to super heroes or action figures or comic books

d) a snippet of what was happening at home (“My mom is away on a bizniss trip.”)

Because they were captured on paper, I’m reminded of words and phrases he mispronounced. For years he referred to last night as “yesterdaynight.”

And yes, the album contains many printed photos too, because pictures DO tell a story. But scrolling through photos on a phone’s small screen shot by shot is NOT the same as really looking at a spread of photographs on a page that you can hold as you read the notations I’ve added.

And in case you think I’m contradicting the recent advice I gave on clearing out stuff, I’m not and here’s why: The album contains a half dozen of the school writing assignments—just enough to paint a picture of the moment. And the rest I respectfully parted with. That’s how I worked my way through three boxes of papers, pictures, cards, and mementos: evaluating and choosing just enough to include and then parting with the rest.

It was not easy. And I’ll admit to retrieving two pieces from the floral trash can at my feet and finding a place for them in the book.

I have a meaningful end product that fulfills the mom-mission I set out to accomplish: joyously documenting the story of my son’s life.

Had I NOT kept paper records, would I have remembered that at age 3, Tim called bubblegum buddlebum? Or that at four he told an uncle, “Unk Bill, you have a ball head.”

Those are memories too sweet not to remember. We need to take action to preserve our memories because it’s human nature to forget stuff.

Write that down.

A Cutest Pet, By Any Other Name

Cutest Pet

Riley Thatcher, October 2018

If we’re personal Facebook friends, you saw my posts in early December soliciting votes to elect my dog Riley as Warrenton’s Cutest Pet. Sadly, he did not win.

I misrepresented him. He’s not actually cute. Cute dogs snuggle up, lick your face, nestle their heads in your lap to be petted, hog the bed, and curl up in front of the fireplace while you read a book.

Riley does none of that. Having had basically no physical contact during his formative first eighteen months of life, he’s pretty much a loner. He stays very much glued to my side at the dog park, and he’ll actually get up and move to the floor with a huff if you try to snuggle with him in the bed. I’ve gotten exactly two kisses from him in the five years he’s been part of our family, and they both occurred on an Easter Sunday. I’m not sure what that means.

So no, “cute” is not the right word to describe Riley. But he is the most handsome boy dog ever. “Tall, dark, and handsome” sums him up nicely. Or “gentle giant” is a good fit as well. And the “oldest soul” in a middle-aged dog would work too.

At the park today was a family with a passel of kids running and playing. When Riley and I passed three of them, they stared wide-eyed at my dog. One of the little girls asked, “What’s wrong with his face?”

Because my sweet dog, who was misdiagnosed for two months as having an upper palate injury affecting his eye, is fighting an aggressive oral mast cell tumor. The tumor pushes out as an egg shape on the right side of his face, causing that side to be swollen. The swelling has forced his third eyelid to stick out, rolling his eye back in his head.

I understand how a child might be frightened by his looks. It breaks my heart.

While mast cell tumors are one of the most common tumors in dogs, to have one inside the mouth is uncommon. Most canine mast cell tumors are found on the trunk or the limbs and are usually easier to treat. Riley is on two types of chemotherapy treatment with an excellent oncologist in a nearby city. He is not a candidate for either radiation or surgery due to the size as well as the location of the tumor. Frankly, there is just a tiny bit of hope that he can beat this.

We live on that tiny bit of hope.

My good friend Patti had also entered her little dog London in the cutest pet contest, and we had a friendly “big dog/little dog” rivalry going on. When I called Patti the other day to update her on Riley, I remembered to inquire if London had won the contest. She said no, but then she gave me a gift. She shared that when I told her about Riley’s diagnosis, she decided that moment that if London were to win, they would relinquish the title to Riley.

Really, with friends like that, bad times can be made a little more bearable.

Riley’s good looks as the world views him may be gone, but he still is and always will be my sweet handsome dog.

“Believe me, if all those endearing young charms…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My original post about the “Endearing Young Charms” song

 

Just Whose Children Are They, Anyhow?

Sad child

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

The #1 marker of a superb speaker is not in the eloquence presented.  It’s not how smart she sounds or the effective body language he displays. It’s not in how many times she makes us laugh.

Nope. In my opinion, the #1 marker is how effectively the speaker can get you to think about an issue that you weren’t even fully aware was an issue.

I spent this evening at a live presentation by Robert Putnam, best-selling author of Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis. What we have believed for years to be true (work hard and you can do anything) turns out NOT to be true for more and more children. Putnam refers to it as a “disturbing opportunity gap” between children from families that are financially secure and those that are not.

While I love stories in presentations (and he had some of those), I’m not usually fond of too many statistics, charts, or graphs. But his science was both captivating and compelling.

Using a study by the National Academy of Sciences, he reminded us that we continue to learn about ourselves and what powerful and long-lasting aspects affect us. It turns out that children are primarily shaped in the prenatal period through the early childhood years.

So for those children who don’t have a great beginning, they are already too far behind to catch up before they hit fourth grade.

In the clip I’ve attached at the end, he talks about the scissor-type discrepancies in how the “haves” and “have-nots” raise their children. In everything from the amount of money spent on a child, time used eating dinner as a family, a child’s participation in school-based extracurricular activities, the amount of social trust a child feels, involvement with church…the gap gets wider and wider as time goes on.

I was especially taken with the gap shown involving the time spent by both parents in developmental child care. He referred to it as the “Goodnight Moon” time, based on the beloved children’s book by that title. Developmental time is time spent reading to a child, talking and playing with them, teaching them how to do something.

This time is absolutely vital to a child’s well-being. But just consider the lack of time with which a single parent working two jobs might have to contend.

So Putnam inspired me to read his book and continue to think deeply and broadly about what or where my part in the effort to fix this crisis is exactly.

And, of course, he influenced me to tell you about it so you can do the same.

He ended the program by saying we’re all in this together and that we will fix this. It’s not “my” children or “your” children. It’s OUR children.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Interview clip of Putnam

 

This Much I Know

Tim at 18

Today is the tenth anniversary of my son Tim’s death at the age of 22. I’m sharing that with you because ten years is a milestone. It’s a time of reflection, a time to look back over a decade to see what I’ve learned that might help someone else.

I spent last Saturday with a mom new to the grief of losing a child. She’s just six months into her new life where one less person on earth calls her Mom.

Every person’s process of grief and mourning is unique. Even if you’ve lost a child yourself, you don’t truly understand what another person is feeling.

That being said, I’ve listened to enough personal sharings from grieving moms to know that there ARE strong similarities in our stories, regardless of how young or old our children were when they died or by how they died.

Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in your thoughts and feelings and reactions can ease the pain just a little. And that’s what most of us are seeking initially. So I’m sharing three thoughts.

And if you’re on the outside looking in, wanting to help someone else who has lost a child, these ideas may help you be more truly empathic.

1) The first year of grief is the hardest. There are so many “anniversaries” to get through: the first birthday that your child isn’t alive to celebrate, the first Christmas, the annual family vacation, other holidays your child especially enjoyed, and of course, the anniversary of their death.

Believe me—it’s a flat-out horrendous first year filled with landmines. And it doesn’t even have to be a special day. It can be anything that reminds you of your child. For instance, hearing a song on the radio that your daughter was crazy for or scrolling though the tv menu and seeing your son’s favorite movie pop up…little instances like this can send you reeling.

I remember once in the first year driving behind a pickup truck with its windows down. Just the way the young man driving had his left arm resting on the sill with his fingers extended upward reminded me of Tim’s hairy arm and the long fingers on his hands. I dissolved into tears.

2) People mean well and they may be trying their best to show empathy, but you can count on some to say stupid, hurtful things. Just try to forget what they say because it will drive you crazy otherwise. Here’s a true sampling of what grieving moms have been told:

“I know how you feel about losing your son. My cat just died.”

“I feel sad like you; my 98-year-old grandmother died last week.”

“It’s been four months. Are you feeling better now?”

Some people will say nothing at. You may even have friends drift away from you because they don’t know how to be with you anymore. And that’s OK. The friends who stay are the true friends anyhow.

3) You may be angry. In fact, you may be furious. You may keep a list of people with whom you’re angry. Here was my list from ten years ago: God, Tim, my husband, the “friends” who helped propel Tim down a worsening spiral, and myself. Yes, the person I felt the most loathing towards was, in fact, myself.

My first and constant thought each day for several months was this: I was Tim’s mom. I should have been able to save him. If only I had done this or not said that or made a different decision anywhere along the road, things might have turned out differently.

No one else said those things; it was just me shaming myself. That is a terrible burden to carry. So if you are holding on to any thoughts like that now, please…just set them down and walk away. Because it’s just not true.

I know I just wrote about forgiveness, but I have to talk about it again here because it plays a huge role in my own story. Forgiveness was one of four savings graces on the lifeboat that buoyed me above the waters of despair and hopelessness and carried me to the shores of grief recovery.

Forgiveness may take some time. Again, situations are unique and I understand emotions run deep. If you can’t forgive right now, how about if, just once a day for five minutes, you pretend to forgive. Imagine how your life would be if you could forgive.

Take that tiny first step.

And know that many others have walked that path before you.

This post is dedicated to Tim’s memory and in honor of all the courageous moms who have entrusted me with their stories.

 

 

 

 

Remembering Peaches

Peaches

Peaches and Tim

Peaches. Not the sweet fruit, mind you, but the sweet woman who blessed our family’s life for nearly ten years.

Her real name was Teresa Sharp, but everybody called her Peaches. Our paths crossed when she was working in the nursery of St. James’ Episcopal Preschool. Peaches had been hired to watch over the teachers’ children in the church’s nursery.

We were relative newcomers to Warrenton and when I enrolled my daughter in the preschool, I was ecstatic to learn I could add one-year-old Tim to Miss Peaches’ nursery class.

The following year the nursery class option was discontinued due to insurance reasons. One door closes, another one opens. Peaches became Tim’s daycare provider when I went back to work and Laura started full-day kindergarten.

It was a relationship made in Heaven. She stayed on with our family for years, transitioning from full-time daycare to after-school care.

We all loved Peaches. She was gentle in spirit and strong in her convictions. That sweet smile could melt butter. She was a hard-working, courageous, Christian woman whom I trusted completely.

My favorite story about her is this: Tim had a favorite blankie that he took everywhere. Peaches wasn’t aware that Tim had set his blankie on top of the pile of old sheets and towels that she was cutting up into window-washing cloths. Yep, blankie was suddenly several mini-blankies. Peaches was more upset than any of us was, including Tim. A piece of that blankie rests in my writing room, so that story is never far from my mind.

Peaches’ life ended abruptly on December 13, 1998, when her ex-boyfriend shot her five times as she sat in a car with her children. He shot her teenage daughter and grown son several times as well, but both of them recovered physically.

My husband, a paramedic on duty at the time, responded to the 911 call, but our beloved Peaches was beyond any life-saving help.

The ex-boyfriend fled the scene as well as the state. Of course, the children could identify him as the person who killed their mother, so we were all hoping he would be quickly captured. America’s Most Wanted included his photo and the story in a show that month.

But it wasn’t until mid-February 2001 that Michael Reese was arrested in Daytona, Florida, on another charge and his fingerprints tied him to the Virginia charge.

At the trial, the jury found him guilty and Reese was sentenced to life imprisonment in the charge of Peaches’ murder and an additional 23 years for shooting and wounding the children.

The twenty-year mark of Peaches’ death will roll around in two months. She was one of the most remarkably kind and compassionate people I have ever known. I will never forget her.

People live on in the stories that we tell about them. We have a responsibility to be good storytellers.

Loneliness Isn’t Just About Being Alone

Loneliness

Photo courtesy of Sam Austin on Unsplash

My mother-in-law Rosalie once told me, “I wish I had learned how to drive. That way I could go visit the lonely people at the nursing home.”

She was around 90 when she made that statement.

Until she took her last breath, Rosalie had a full life with plenty of loving family nearby, neighbors she cherished, and a church family to support her. But she recognized that many people, especially as they grow older, do not have that supportive circle.

Loneliness isn’t just an aging problem though. It affects us at any age and any stage of life. Researchers now consider loneliness a disease and warn that we are smack dab in the middle of a loneliness epidemic.

Loneliness can creep up on us slowly or be brought about more swiftly by a life change such as divorce, the death of a loved one, a move, a change of jobs, unemployment, retirement, a different school, or an alteration of a relationship (such as drifting away from a spouse or a breakup of a friendship).

A common misconception is that loneliness happens just because we’re alone…living in isolation. While being alone can be lonely, new research studies have demonstrated that a feeling of rejection or disconnection that we internalize is the core of the problem. So we can be lonely even when we’re with other people.

What’s so bad about loneliness that we should talk about it? Because the silence is killing us. According to a recent article in Psychology Today, loneliness is directly connected with:

  • A high-risk factor of premature death from many causes. It’s a higher risk of early death than obesity is.
  • A higher susceptibility to viruses
  • Depression
  • Increased risk for Alzheimer’s, dementia, and depression
  • More frequent bouts of stress, anger, and anxiety
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Inflammation
  • Suicide

That is a scary list.

In a world overrun by social media where it often seems like everybody is connected to everyone else, we need to consider what that means really. Loving someone’s post on Facebook does not replace sitting down with that friend just to talk. An emoji does not feel like a hug or a high five. Ten tweets a day about where you are, who you’re with, and what you’re doing is not a solid basis for a real connection with another person.

I worry about our world…our lack of empathy, our seeming inability to really talk to each other, our focus on shallow issues when we do talk.

I’m asking myself tonight, “I wonder how many people with whom I’ve had brief contact this past week were lonely?”

And if they were lonely, I wonder if they would have told me.