Long and Winding Decision

“No single decision you ever made has led in a straight line to where you find yourself now.”………..Deepak Chopra

Follow to a tee, the recommended decision making steps outlined in all the magazines. Still, there’s no sure-fire way of knowing the true consequences of a decision until it’s been lived with for a while. Such was the series of choices that engulfed eight years of my life (2005-2013)  beginning with my move to a rural, small town with my husband.

This was where he’d always wanted to live. Memories of childhood camping experiences with his father and uncles outweighed the tenuous nature of our marriage that we never talked about. Being newly retired, it seemed the right time for his dream to finally come true. While it was happening, the move was exciting and I looked forward to a new beginning. Now we’ll finally be happy, I thought. Having lived in another rural, small town many years ago, I knew what we were getting into.

“It’ll be hard,” I told him. He was born and raised in a small town and longed to return to that familiarity. “Growing up in a small town is one thing. You automatically belong. But it’s completely different when you move to a small town,” I warned.

The sentiments, eloquently expressed by John Mellencamp in his song, Small Town, don’t apply to interlopers: “Yeah, I can be myself in a small town.”………“People let me be just what I want to be.”………..“Had myself a ball in a small town.”

Those are feelings reserved only for “natives” and “locals.” Where Mellencamp felt accepted and comfortable, newcomers can’t shake being considered outsiders. For a long time, maybe forever, there’s little trust and your innocent remarks or actions are looked on with suspicion. Breaking into the well-established social structure is a formidable task, often replete with failure.

My husband brushed all that off. He wanted what he wanted. And I was doing what I thought a good wife would do. I was being supportive. The only stipulation I had was that I’d move only if I found a job in my profession. When I did, I took that as a sign. We started packing.

Or, I should say, I started packing. As that’s the way things worked in our marriage. I did everything. So for this move he so wanted, I did all the calling, all the arranging, making appointments and worrying. The move went well and we settled into our new home. We’d left behind a long history with friends and nearness to family for a solitary existence in the woods. Good thing we had each other because it was, as I’d predicted, lonely. This seemed to bring us closer. For a while.

I started my new job as the first and only supervisor in a small government agency, glad to have someplace to go each day. Within weeks, I’d be slapped in the face with the reality that I was a foreigner. The long established power structure was determined to keep all the doors bolted. Who did I think I was, telling them what to do?

As time progressed, the job only got worse with a relentless jockeying of passive aggressive mind games designed to undo anything I wanted to accomplish. The goal of my do-nothing boss was to avoid any confrontation and he was certain of only one thing: he didn’t want to rock the boat. I had no support.

I’d leave work after dealing all day with these dismal dynamics, only to arrive home to a disappointed and unhappy husband. It finally occurred to me that this move hadn’t been the best decision. Actually, I didn’t really think I’d made a decision; it was just something that had happened to me. It would take a long time to see my part in our convoluted dance of mismatched desires and expectations.

It was hard to accept the folly of thinking the move would save my marriage. Silly me. Everyone knows the geographic cure, moving to save a marriage, doesn’t work any better than having a baby to save the marriage. Or buying a bigger house. Or getting oh so busy with home improvement projects. None of these cures work. As I found, when we arrived at our new destination, I was still me. He was still he. The marriage was still what it was.

After five years in our new home it became clear we had no future. I moved to an apartment and filed for divorce. This improved things, since I could now come home to peace and quiet, then decide what I wanted to do instead of trying to please an unhappy man. I luckily had followed my usual pattern of establishing friendships with women and pursuing my own interests. So, I wasn’t completely alone.

Three years after the divorce, along came another crossroad. Here I was, hundreds of miles away from family and friends, stuck in a job that was difficult to the max every day, isolated in a small town where I didn’t belong. The long road trips to see family and friends became more frequent. I braced myself for the next decisions I knew were coming. Retire? Yes or no. Move? Yes or no. For quite a while, I avoided thoughts of the future and just plowed ahead with my life, making the best of things. Then the letter arrived.

It was the annual report of my status at this job from hell. According to the report, I was now eligible for a pension. I’d never had a government job before so a pension wasn’t something I’d expected. Also, I didn’t think I’d be at this job long enough to even qualify. I was already two years beyond full retirement age and for the first time, it looked appealing.

I requested a retirement estimate. If I worked until such and such date, what would the size of this pension be?  It wasn’t large but enough to supplement my other resources and make retirement a real option. I’d long ago accepted that the job’s toxic undercurrents were so engrained it would take a tsunami to bring about even minuscule change. Eight years was enough. I set a date, cleaned out my desk and walked out with relief. My true feelings of glee were hidden behind my usual stoic demeanor; I’d learned to play their office games quite well.

But, getting past the negative feelings was another story. I’d always prided myself on being successful in my work; so why did I fail so miserably at this? The failed marriage only added to that burden. I finally had to realize I did everything I could to make the marriage work and to improve the agency. Sometimes that’s the best you can do. I started looking forward.

Moving is always a challenge but especially hard when it’s done all alone. Reeling from this move and the bad decision it turned out be, I was especially cautious about what to do next. No repeat of the geographic cure. This move would be for the right reasons. Let’s call it a geographic relocation, moving to a place where I could fashion the life I wanted.

Friends warned that all the retirement articles say you shouldn’t make big changes or decisions the first year of retirement. Only change 8% of your life at a time, they warned, But I’d lived here alone for three years already and this dead end country road was no longer appealing. Time to go. Six months after retirement, I broke all the rules.

So far, I’m doing well. But just let me say, everyday isn’t all sunshine and roses. Though my comfort grows daily, feelings of not belonging and even boredom creep in at times. That’s to be expected since I’m managing three big adjustments at the same time. Building a new single life. Finding satisfaction in retirement. Adjusting from a rural to urban community.

Any one of these would be enough; all three together are daunting. I’ve made up my mind to take things slow. It would be just my style to get overinvolved and fill up my schedule. After all, when you’re busy, there’s little time to think. This time, I really want to think.

I’m no longer afraid of making a bad decision because that move wasn’t the end of the world. I came through a difficult time with just a few bruises, didn’t sell out and even learned a lot about myself. More importantly, had I not endured the dark days at that small, government agency, I’d never have earned that pension. What a fluke! Or, is that one of those unintended consequences you always hear about?

Friends now say I seem happy and they praise me for going with my gut and being decisive. Some have called me brave. I’m proud that I survived that decision, living eight years in an unfriendly, lonely place where the trajectory of my life took a path I couldn’t have predicted. Actually, I’ve more than survived. I’m thriving.

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Book Group Heaven and Hell

Moving to a small town and hungry for social connections, high on my to-do list was finding a book group. After fruitless searching, I joined a group at the local library consisting of eight members including two married couples. Previously I’d always belonged to groups formed among my friends. This was the first time among strangers and the experience would be enlightening.

Books had been picked for the rest of the year when I’d joined, so I’d read each of the selections, all either science, history, political philosophy or other non-fiction. I’d enjoyed most of them but was hankering for some variety. When the next book picking session came around I asked why we couldn’t read some fiction. Carol jumped in.

“I will not read romance,” she huffed and puffed. “I want to learn and I will not read trash that doesn’t teach me something.”

“That’s not at all what I had in mind,” I quickly defended myself. “I don’t read romance either. I was thinking more of some classic literature.”

Dave and his wife Marge ran the group. Dave looked puzzled, then thoughtful, as he looked hard at the list of next year’s possible selections. Then he passed the list to me.

“Which one from this list would you like to pick?” he asked.

“None,” I said softly, expecting another firestorm. Instead, Dave quietly encouraged me to name a book, any book, to my liking. I jumped at the chance.

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers,” I ventured. No one had read it so I gave a short synopsis and due to Dave’s diligence, it was added to the list for January. I would be the moderator.

As I approached the library that January evening, I was apprehensive, recalling the whispered, off-hand comments made when my selection had been put on the list. Was the storm outside a harbinger of was in store for me inside?

The meeting began with Marge reporting results of the recent press release she’d submitted to the local newspaper; this had not generated any new members. I was hesitant but offered a comment.

“When I moved to town and was looking for a book group, the word in the community was that the library book club was a ‘hard group.’ ”

“That’s how it should be,” growled Tom. “Most people are too lazy and stupid to read what we’ve been reading. And that’s just fine with me. I don’t want people who aren’t serious in the group.” Interesting. This group should be prepared to remain small.

Then I was given the floor and began with my profile of the author. We’d then go around, giving thoughts about the book followed by a discussion of questions from my prepared list. Kathy was sitting on my left and she jumped in right away.

“I thought this book was one of the worst I’ve ever read,” she snarled. “It was a total waste of my time. The characters were awful and I didn’t care about any of them. In fact, they didn’t seem like real people to me. And they didn’t change at all! They just wanted to wallow in their pathetic lives.”

With this much passion, you’d have thought she was speaking out against world hunger or global warming; she went on and on, repeating her thoughts, each time a little louder. Beet red face. Hands going up and down in a chopping gesture. Yes, I m sure she wanted to chop my head off for infecting this pristine group with, oh my god, fiction!   As we went around the room, my heart began to sink as Tom echoed Kathy’s thoughts.

“This book was stupid. Stupid and boring.” At least he only said it once and didn’t yell. Pat sat quietly, the dutiful wife, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. Not sure if she’s actually agreeing with him or if this is her usual way of handling his blusters. Then Dave spoke thoughtfully.

“I’m going to do a 180 from what’s been said so far. I really liked this book and I disagree with you, Kathy. I think the characters were very real, the most real I’ve read about in a long time.”

“Oh no,” Kathy rebutted. “I’ve never seen anyone like these losers in this town. And I wouldn’t have anything to do with them if I did.”

“I really have to disagree. There are real people like this in our town. They’re some of the nicest and smartest people I’ve ever known. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at them because they’re just regular folks. Like carpenters or bartenders. I think everyone struggles with life like these characters do.” Wow! Dave. That was great, even though what you said wasn’t heard. Carol jumped in.

“That’s why I’m glad I didn’t read this book. When I saw it was written in 1940, I said ‘no way.’   What can a book that was written that long ago teach me? Dave perked up.

“Gee,” he laughed as he grinned and looked around the table. “Seems to me, there are lots of books that were written long ago that people think have great value. Like, what about the Bible? It’s pretty old.”

“And what about the Illiad?” chimed in Marge. “It’s centuries old and its read all the time. Speaking of this book we’re talking about, Dave read it after I did. As he’s reading, I kept asking him ‘aren’t you done yet’? Because I wanted to ask him ‘what did you think of this or that.’ I really enjoyed it.”

Then, Katrina said her mother had given her the book a long time ago, saying ‘you really should read this.’ “Thanks for picking this book,” said to me as she teared up. “I finally know what my mother meant.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t have a chance to expand that thought since the book haters took over. Loudly. Kathy returned to her rant and Dave continued to challenge her in a taunting and teasing way.

“I think maybe you really like this book, Kathy,” he said. “After all, you have these strong opinions and look how much discussion has come from it.” Kathy shook her head in disgust. I just had to see if I could steer things in another direction.

“I have such respect for the writing process,” I said. “I don’t know how any book can be called ‘awful’ or ‘bad.’ It’s what the author wanted to write and it’s their story to tell. Isn’t it more a case of not enjoying a certain book? What is a ‘good book’ to one person might not be that for someone else. Just because you didn’t relate to it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a ‘bad book.’ ” There was a second or two of silence. Are these people actually thinking about what I’ve said?

I then tried to return to my outline, but to no avail. The feeding frenzy of negativity prevailed since these were the strongest people in the room. Was each one trying to convince the others they were the most discerning reader? Were they in a competition to finally determine who was the most intellectual? I was having an out of body experience and wondered if I’d ever punish myself like this again.

Remembering other book groups I’d belonged to, I knew the richness of the book group experience. That’s what’s missing here. Finally, I just sat back and watched the discussion spin out of control. But Katrina, bless her heart, tried again.

“Getting back to the book, what do you think about how these people treated Mr. Singer? Why did they all talk only to a deaf man? Someone who can’t hear them? ” she asked. After one inconsequential comment, the discussion again went off into outer space.

“We tried,” I whispered across the table to Katrina. She shook her head with a slight shrug. The meeting is set up for an hour and a half and we actually talked about the book for 20 minutes. That was more than I’d expected but still a disappointment. I was not relaxed or energized after this meeting but frazzled. Imagining myself as the frustrated straight man in an imaginary TV sit- com helped me laugh it off.

Envisioning next year’s book picking session, I saw myself devilishly insisting we read a memoir. Wouldn’t that cause a sensation! While that seemed like fun at first, I really had to think. Was this battle worth fighting? And what was the controversy really about anyway? All I wanted to do was enjoy books and talk about them.

Katrina never showed up again. Dave continued accommodating me as much as he could. The atmosphere of the group continued in the same vein. I hung on for a few months but starting asking around among new acquaintances. I found a wonderful book group and I haven’t looked back.

A Heads Up on Being Head Down

In January , 2007, after some slight vision changes and an eye exam, I got troubling news that I had a macular hole in the retina of my left eye and would need surgery. This was especially frightening since I have low vision and no color in my right (non operative) eye due to an optic nerve injury many years ago. I’ve functioned, pretty well, using my left eye only. Now, what?

After multiple scans on amazingly high tech equipment, the retinal specialist I’d been referred to, informed me it could be fixed. Whew! Like most specialists, this man clearly loved his work; he does about fifty of these operations a year and said the surgery was easy but the recovery, which is totally in the hands of the patient, would be hard. The hole was at the back of the eye, on the macula, where the eye focuses. If I didn’t have this surgery, I wouldn’t go blind, but I’d slowly lose all focus. No reading. No driving. So, I really had no choice.

The procedure involved filling the hole with vitreous fluid from another area of the eye, then injecting a gas bubble into the eye. Here’s where the patient comes in. For the gas bubble to float to the back of the eye, the head must be held down. This ingenious use of gravity helps put pressure on the retina to close and heal the hole.

The Patient must maintain a constant 24/7 head down position for fourteen days.  when they say “head down” it’s not just tilting your head down a little. It means holding the eye perfectly parallel with the floor. When they say 24/7 that’s pretty much what they mean too. Only an hour a day but not all at the same time is allowed; this was used to take the eye drops four times a day, shower and occasional moves from one position to the other. That’s it!

I had eleven days to get ready. I put in for sick leave and ordered a bed support that helps maintain the sleep position. It was comforting to know so many people are going through this that a company like the one I called in Pennsylvania exists exclusively to meet this need.

I went to the library and got as many audio books as I could carry. I stocked up on straws, Ensure, yogurt and lots of soups because I’d be limited to food easy to swallow. I gave my husband a quick run-down of what I’d need from him.

After reading, for the fourth time, the materials the doctor gave me, it began to sink in how little I’d be able to do for fourteen days. With my head always positioned down, I could sit in a chair or the couch, at the kitchen table or my desk, or in the bed support. And that was it! Fourteen days have never seemed so long. Though glad everything had been had been scheduled so fast, I realized I had entered an unknown world.

On January 16, I reported to the outpatient department and I made my final decision about taking the two week or the eight week bubble. The eight week bubble would cover more of the eye, take more time to dissolve but with the healing being more complete. Alas, that also meant a longer time with clouded vision and longer dependence on my right eye only. I chose the eight week bubble knowing it was going to be especially difficult but might produce a better result.

I was rolled into the surgery room and the anesthesiologist put me under so the eye could be frozen; then the surgeon used tiny instruments to put vitreous fluid in the hole, tamp it down and inject the gas bubble.

As I woke up, I became aware of the surgeon and his assistant talking about my surgery, which was still going on. He was saying I had the most beautiful macular hole. Funny, how he and I looked at the same thing so differently. As a surgeon, he thought my hole was beautiful. To me it was a terrible defect and a threat to my vision and quality of life.

He said something to me and I responded; then he said he needed to “get out of here” since I was regaining consciousness. I came to quickly, was cleared for discharge and out of the door in three hours. We went to a local motel for the night so I could see the doctor the next morning. I got into the bed support and tried to sleep. While I had no eye pain, my body was totally uncomfortable. Next day, the doctor expressed his happiness with the results and sent me home with an appointment in nine days. Driving the two hours home, bent over with my head as close to my lap as possible, was excruciating. I was stretching muscles I didn’t even know I had.

What relief to finally get home but the next days were a blur. No pun intended! I wondered if I’d really be able to use this eye again. What if, no matter how well I adhered to the head position, it didn’t work? What if the vision I have now is all I’ll have for the rest of my life. What would I do? How would I manage? I guess it’s common to think of the worst-case scenario. Especially a born worrier like me.

Each day was like the next with constant vertigo and balance issues. I spent the first few days in bed and in the bed support, to be sure to get it right. The boredom was hard to take. I’d move from the bed to the couch then to the desk, just to have a change of position. I felt trapped in my body. After a few days I began to listen to the audio books and that helped pass the time.

Sleep was another issue. The on-your-stomach position was unnatural and I’d wake in the middle of the night with aching legs and back and had to get up and do stretching exercises. With my head down, of course. I’m glad I didn’t know at the beginning that I wouldn’t have a full night sleep for the duration.

The second trip to the doctor occurred on January 24. The surgeon was happy to see me with my head down when he came into the examination room. This told him I’m taking my assignment seriously. He knew I’d been doing a great job because both of my eyes were swollen; that assured him of my diligence.

After his examination, he announced I would be liberated at noon on Friday. That meant I’d only had to maintain the position for 10½ days instead of fourteen! Hard work pays! Only two more nights on my bed of nails! He also said I could return to work the following Monday, January 29. That seemed unbelievable but I couldn’t wait to be active again. There was a dim light at the end of the tunnel! Another pun. Sorry.

Friday January 26 at noon, I’m up in a flash, in the shower and dressed. Just to stand up and look out the window. What a treat! Errands were difficult but I wanted to do as much as possible. I wore sunglasses, used a magnifying glass, hung onto husband’s arm and managed without a fall. I also slept all afternoon once I got back home.

I went back to work on January 29, half days for one week, then full time. Some at work, concerned I know, thought I shouldn’t be there. I explained that physically I was fine; all I had was a bubble in my eye. I didn’t think it was good to be home worrying. I’d be unable to drive until the color and focus returned in my operative eye. The recovery time was eight weeks so I should be back to normal by March 15.

Getting up each morning was like a new beginning since my vision changed daily. As the bubble dissolved, it sat lower in my eye and looking over it, things were clear. Looking through the bubble, everything was blurry. Talk about a split personality! The magnifying glass helped but it was amazing how much time it took to do small tasks that had taken minutes before.

Each day I checked to see the changes. One day I couldn’t see anything on the computer screen without the magnifying glass. Then I could see an inch of the blue box across the top. The most beautiful words in the world: “Microsoft Internet Explorer.” Bright and clear!

One day, I couldn’t see the TV screen and then the next day the top ¼ of the screen was focused and in color. A week later, the whole screen was in color. While riding to work and back, at first, I couldn’t see the traffic lights and then in a few days, I could! But the brake lights of the cars in front of me were still obscured by that awful bubble. Then in a few days, there were the brake lights! It was like a miracle. I could soon read without the magnifying glass.

February 15, I walked with my head high into the surgeon’s office. He announced that the hole was closed. Healing was complete. Recovery is half finished. I have my last appointment in April. I asked about driving and he said “you are legal to drive but use common sense.” I decided I’d begin driving to work on Monday, February 19. No night or highway driving yet. Common sense.

The bubble continued to recede and when I held my head up I could hardly see it as it sat on the bottom of my eye. It got smaller each day, until March 15, eight weeks to the day, the bubble was gone.

My routine is now routine. What a joy! My life has returned to what it was. Except now I never take for granted the beautiful sights and colors that surround me each day. I never lose appreciation for the simplest things.

No Going Back

While reminiscing with my mother, she told how I made one of the most important decisions of my life. Though I have no memory of this, it sounds like something I’d do.

“I’m never doing this!” I’d said in exasperation as I threw down a diaper, stomped off to my room and escaped into whatever book I was reading. And that was my teenage salvation. I’d sit on the floor in my closet to read. Anything to have some peace and quiet, away from my busy family. The “this” that I’m not doing was not having children. Even as a child, I wasn’t into dolls and the usual let’s-play-house kind of activities. I did like paper dolls though. But they were grown up people, not needy, fussy babies.

I’m the oldest of six children; Mom had three followed by a ten year break and then three more. That put me precisely in the eye of the storm. I was old enough to be the main helper, the built-in baby sitter and the one who had to do without when there wasn’t enough to go around. Miss Responsibility. And that’s exactly who I became. The incident she was talking about probably occurred after a stressful day of high school, followed by diaper changing, feeding and general baby care. I was a typical sixteen year-old.

That early, haphazard decision was validated as a young adult when, in college, I took a class in population problems. It was the early1960’s and here was my professor saying the world’s over populated. What would he think if he saw the state of the world today. The result of that class was certainty. I’m not bringing children into this already crowded world.

But don’t judge me harshly. I love other people’s children. I’m the only one of my siblings who is childless. That is: “voluntarily childless.” There’s actually a label for this condition. I can’t tell you what a relief that was to see I belonged to a cohort.

My parent’s plea to become grandparents was satisfied by my brothers and sisters. Thankfully. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a part to play. To my ten nieces and nephews, I’ve been their special auntie for years. This goes back to my niece, Kristin’s off-hand comment when she received yet another book in the mail from me.

“Auntie Karin is such a nice lady,” she said as she excitedly ripped open the envelope.

From that innocent remark, I became “Auntie Karin the Nice Lady” and am greeted in sing-song fashion whenever I arrive at a family gathering. Though my nieces and nephews are now young adults they still use this same refrain. And I love it.

I’ve revisited this monumental decision many times throughout my life. Perhaps, I reason, if I’d had children I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my career, dealing with troubled families all day. I‘d go home to a childless house and reenergize. Maybe I’m truly an example of how you can’t have it all. Or perhaps I’m exemplifying that it’s okay not to want it all.

Now with my recent retirement, I’m looking back yet again. Retirement has opened up a world I didn’t know existed. No deadlines, projects or meetings. No appointments or responsibilities. This is a world where the definitive question is: what do I want to do?

Having the extra time that comes with retirement, has given me a different perspective. Having no children means having no grandchildren and I see the joy many friends are experiencing. But there’s another side to that. Like my friend, Diana, who struggles, urging her twenty three year old son to become the responsible single parent of a two year old. A parent’s work is truly never done. I listen and offer her support. That’s all I have to do.

Turns out, I’m still okay with that. In the end, I’ve made the right decision and feel pretty smug that I had so much wisdom at such an early age. No man is an island. Someone smart said that and it’s true. I’m not an island in my crowded family or active social circle and I don’t want to be.

For example, today is my weekly phone call to Mom. Tomorrow I’m meeting my niece, Julie, for coffee. I need to RSVP to my friend, Betty, about our long weekend in Door County. I also have to mail the pledge to my nephew Mark for his soccer team’s run for charity. Then finish that book for book group. Pardon the cliché: But, I have the best of both worlds.

Minnie The Mole

Reading is a life-long habit, one of my greatest joys and something I just took for granted until my dad and I happened to be talking one day about how this passion of mine developed.

“I remember when you were just a little tyke,” he laughed. “You’d get up really early in the morning. Ma and I were still asleep. You’d take your pile of books out into the living room and sit there on the couch and ‘read.’ You knew every word, every line in all your books. Ma and I would lay in bed and listen.”

“Then later, when I’d read to you,” he continued, “I’d try to fool you. I’d change a word and you’d get so upset. ‘No daddy,’ you’d say, ‘that’s Billy the Bunny not Bobby the Bunny.’ You never let me get away with anything. So then I’d try something else. I’d skip a page; you were wise to that and you really gave me hell.” Dad loved telling this story and seemed to get a real kick out of our times together.

But as we were talking, I had another memory. When I grew older and more children arrived in our family, privacy, peace and quiet were at a premium. Especially, once I was in junior high and high school, with six kids in the family, it got pretty boisterous. After supper, I couldn’t wait to get the dishes done so I could go up to my room to read. I’m not sure if I just didn’t want to get away from the busy noise of my large family or if I really loved to read that much. Maybe reading started out as a way to hide from things and have some peace.

I have this very strong memory. One evening, just as I was making my escape, just as I was grabbing the doorknob to head upstairs, Dad commented loudly, for all to hear, in a kind of sing-song voice.

“There she goes. Minnie the Mole, up to her hole.”

At first, I didn’t think too much of it. Dad was kind of a teaser who liked to challenge people. But as I grew older and especially once I became an uncertain, gangly teenager, it wore on me. I started to wonder, each time it happened, what’s wrong with me? What’s he really saying? Is this something I shouldn’t be doing? In spite of it all, I continued to go up to my room every chance I could and reading became both an escape and a comfort.

Finally, I went to college and left my crowded home behind. But I always remembered how Dad teased me. Now on this day, as an adult who no longer needed his approval, I had the nerve to ask.

“I remember when you always called me Minnie the Mole up in her hole.” I said it innocently, with a bit of a laugh, not expecting much of a response.

“Yeh, I remember that, too. Kiddo, I was worried about you! You always seemed to want to be by yourself, not with us. I wondered what was wrong. I even asked Ma, ‘do you think Karin is okay?’ She said not to worry but I always wondered about that.”

I was astounded. I thought he was making fun of me when all the time he was worried! Outspoken man that my dad is, why couldn’t he just have asked me that? Why couldn’t he have been direct? Here was my dad, the scary police officer with his uniform, that badge and his gun. But when it comes to telling his daughter how he feels, he’s unable.

As we talked further, I never mentioned what doubts his teasing caused me. I simply said I’d really wanted to read. Instead of hurting his feelings and making him feel worse, I just let it go at that. But I had a different perspective on my dad.

I’m still Minnie the mole. I read every chance I get and love it. Now I know the value of having time to yourself. Maybe I’ve also learned not to jump to conclusions. Had I had the nerve to ask, Dad would have told me what he was thinking and feeling. I wonder in what other ways this could have changed my so often strained relationship with him.

Nerd Wedding

Originally published in Milwaukee Journal, Lifestyle Section, June 7, 1992

Isn’t the dress a woman wears on her wedding day something that she keeps and treasures throughout her life? Isn’t it taken out of the box every decade or so when memories are rekindled, and a few tears are shed? Not so for me.

Although the husband associated with it was long gone, I wasn’t even aware I’d lost track of that dress until I saw the picture. My niece, Julie, was looking high and low and in a box of my old clothes stored in her parent’s basement, she’d found perfection. The picture was proof: my 17-year-old niece, wearing the dress I was married in. She’d worn it to school for Nerd Day!

I hadn’t thought about that dress for a long time and wasn’t even aware I still possessed it. Second, I couldn’t believe how memories flooded back of the day I’d worn it. Just when you think you have things all sorted out, it comes back and slaps you right in the face.

Although not the traditional wedding dress, it was really nice. A sun dress, plain and simple in style, it was white with bunches of little flowers—red, yellow and purple flowers—sleeveless, featuring a sash that tied in the front. It was very short and stylish for its time. That was spring, 1975.

I remember having such high hopes. We’d stopped at the clerk’s office for the license on our way to visit Helen and Jack in Minneapolis. We’d never mentioned anything until the night before.

“We’re getting married tomorrow, have a noon appointment with a judge at the courthouse. Would you be our witnesses?” All this secrecy prevented any planning that surely would have resulted in a fuss being made.

Heaven forbid that a fuss should be made. He was the epitome of the reluctant groom, a child of the 60’s, insisting we didn’t need a piece of paper. My ultimatum had paid off. Or so I thought.

The next day, as we waited outside the judge’s chambers, Helen took me aside and whispered “do you really want to do this?” What does she know that I don’t, I naively wondered. Much later I’d realize the secrecy was just the start of a cruel pattern to preserve his playboy reputation. At the time, I looked into Helen’s eyes and thought, but did not say: “oh well, if it doesn’t work I can always get a divorce.” What a beginning!

We stood before the judge during noon recess in his court. The whole thing took ten minutes. And now I wonder. Is it poetic justice that my wedding dress had its greatest day being worn by a high school senior to Nerd Day? What does it all mean?

maybe it means that life is just a joke or that we need to laugh at the past and learn from it. And I have done both of those things. The marriage was never good, but I sure learned a lot. And on a good day I can even say I have no regrets.

Or maybe it means that nothing is as serious as we first think. Marriages and many other things come and go. We adjust the best we can and go on. I’ve learned over the years, from the marriage and relationships since, that there are no guarantees, and worrying doesn’t make things turn our differently.

Or maybe it means beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My niece thought that dress was beautiful because it was nerdy. I thought it was beautiful but for different reasons. That husband I thought was right for me I now know was a poor choice. Interesting how, over time, our view of beauty changes.

So, my wedding dress became for a brief moment that day, a symbol of my past and also of the progress I’ve made in my life. Or maybe it meant nothing at all.

I can’t help but wonder where that dress is now. I’m sure Julie discarded it after that day. It probably ended up in a box designated for Salvation Army. From there, who knows? Perhaps, it was snatched up by a young girl with limited funds, proudly worn to an interview for her first real job. Or maybe it was used to fashion a colorful square for a new baby’s treasured quilt. I can only hope and imagine it has gone on to a new and better life. As have I.

We had lots of fun that afternoon talking and laughing about Nerd Day. I smile when I recall Julie’s face, beaming and proud of her ability to create an impressive nerd look. I feel proud too.

see the whole thing in its proper perspective and feel all the feelings usually involved in such an event.            But most importantly, I know I’ll be able to navigate whatever potholes lie ahead and make the best of whatever comes my way. That is life, after all.

Encore! Encore!

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The bulletin board in the hallway at St. Joseph’s School in Fond du Lac Wisconsin announced the first ever, all school amateur talent show. It encouraged anyone, everyone, to sign up and show their hidden gift to the world.

I was a ninth grade student, tall, gangly and shy. My best friend, Ruth Ann, insisted we enter. I don’t know why she was so insistent since she was equally tall, gangly and shy. But she was determined and though I was stubborn, she wore me down. Then came the real challenge. What kind of “talent’ did we have.

Ruth Ann played the piano beautifully and I was her attentive, eager audience whenever we went to her house after school. She’d open up the stool in front of her piano and from this treasure trove of sheet music, I’d pick the pieces and she’d play them for me. My very own private concert anytime I wanted!

For the talent show, I thought Ruth Ann should play one of her wonderful pieces but she wanted to do something different. She always played the piano, she lamented. It was boring and she wanted to branch out in a new direction.

We’d recently seen the movie South Pacific and Ruth Ann had learned several selections from the score. I remember how excited she was to show me her new found mastery.

South Pacific is the adaptation of a James Michener novel about a Navy nurse named Nellie Forbush, played by Mitzi Gaynor. Nellie falls in love with an officer. Then she becomes friends with Bloody Mary, the island’s native philosopher, played by Juanita Hall. When Nellie is disappointed in love, she and Bloody Mary console each other in song. It seemed natural for us to go from enjoying this wonderful music to wanting to perform one of these songs at the first ever all school talent show!

After considering several pieces, we finally decided the one that had the best music and simplest choreography was “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair.” We practiced our moves, mimicking the movie routine to a tee. After many hours of rehearsal, our confidence had blown up like a balloon. We just knew we could do it.

Next was costuming. In the movie, Nellie Forbush wore an oversized sailor uniform. I borrowed my dad’s. It was big and floppy just like Nellie’s. Her friend, Bloody Mary, wore a muumuu. Perhaps this movie had made muumuus popular; they could be worn as a dress or sometimes as a nightgown. My mom, the master seamstress, had sewn one for Ruth Ann. We made paper lei’s that we wore around our necks. We were ready!

Finally, as the show began, we saw we were at the end of the program, which only added to our anxiety. As the show progressed, we could see it wasn’t going very well. The audience had become restless with lots of chatting and laughing; soon they were hardly even paying attention to whoever was on stage.

The heightened nervousness of most of the performers made their presentations seem amateurish and stilted. It was a relief to see we weren’t the only ones experiencing stage fright. When the emcee finally called our names and, as the curtain parted, I hoped for the best, put the needle on the record at just the right place and the music started.

Our pantomime performance (called lip-syncing today) was clearly different. It was light and up-tempo. Pretty soon, everyone in the audience was clapping along and having a great time. The thunder of applause as we ended seemed deafening. Then the audience started yelling “encore, encore.”

Ruth Ann and I were surprised and pleased. We smiled broadly at each other and thought quickly. We had, in our long rehearsals, considered and practiced several songs from the album. I said to Ruth Ann that we could do “The Cockeyed Optimist” which had been our second choice. I went to the record player and found the right place. I signaled the boy operating the curtain to pull it open once again. We started the next song amid cheers from the audience.

But as soon as we’d started, Sister Patrice came up onto the stage. She waved her hands to stop us and roughly pulled the curtain shut. Once the music was turned off she said to the audience that the program was over and everyone should return to their classrooms. She then came behind the curtain and faced us. She said in a low voice that our performance was shameful. She said, with absolute distain, we should get out of those costumes and return to our classrooms. Then she stomped away.

Ruth Ann and I were shocked. What could be wrong with singing a song and dancing? We weren’t dressed in anything immodest or revealing. We hadn’t been “suggestive” in any way! We felt ashamed. But by the end of the day after being regaled with compliments from fellow students as we passed through the hallways in between classes, we held our heads high and enjoyed the attention.

Later I described to my mother what had happened. She looked sad and just shook her head. Mother had been our test audience. Devout Catholic that she was, Mother had seen nothing wrong with our song or choreography. Then even more so, I felt reassured. As far as I can remember, at school nothing more was said about our “sin.” It was like it had never happened.

While that was the beginning and end of my performance career, it was perhaps also the beginning of my questioning of religious authority. As a young girl, I was puzzled by what now seems clearer. Perhaps Sister Patrice saw our skit as an example of the sins that lie ahead for this prepubescent audience. From this, we‘d experiment and think about love, relationships and, heaven forbid, sex! How could Ruth Ann and I know what we had unleashed?

Or was it the words of the song? Washing a man out of your hair sounds like a woman being independent, not needing a man, taking charge of her own destiny. How revolutionary. How feminist. Perhaps, without knowing it, Ruth Ann and I were ahead of our time. Making a statement. Violating society’s rules, Or, starting a revolution. But wait. Perhaps I’m giving Sister Patrice too much credit.

Memories of my parochial school education are sprinkled with many examples of how guilt and shame were the overriding theme. I could have written any one of the many books published about the trials and tribulations of Catholic school. I lived them. Not being able to express myself creatively in the all school talent show has little to do with my being a “recovering catholic” today. But, that’s another story.

The older and wiser person I’ve now become has learned to consider the source when challenged and to look at all sides of an issue before forming an opinion. When I recall what happened to me and Ruth Ann, oh so many years ago, I have to laugh. And while Sister Patrice may see us as one of her failures, I think the whole thing has paid off big time and I have no regrets.

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Unknowns Add to Haunting History of Baby Quilt

Originally published in Senior Style July/August, 2008

quilt 001Lost or unknown family keepsakes show up in the most unexpected ways and in the most unlikely places. The baby quilt made especially for me kept reappearing, begging for attention until l I finally had to give it the consideration it deserved.

It first came into my life in the 1970’s, after my college years. Mom, in a fit of cleaning, gave me what looked like an old bedspread, haphazardly folded up in a ball. She nonchalantly pushed it toward me, waving it out of her sight as though it were a tattered old rag that had outlived its usefulness. When she said it was my baby quilt, I looked it over and then without much thought, probably added it to my box of unfinished sewing projects.

In the early 1980’s, while living in Upper Michigan., I belonged to a sewing and craft group. While looking for a new project, I’d pulled out my storage box and there was the quilt, still patiently waiting. With the help of my craft group, I launched an ambitious restoration plan and got as far as taking it apart and discarding the frayed batting.

Then life got in the way and back into storage it went. I left the UP to go to graduate school and this started a long series of moves. It’s a marvel that since leaving the UP, I’d had eight different residences and with each move I hauled that box along.

My 2005 move to Eagle River felt permanent, so I wanted to finally sort things out for good. While going through my storage closet, there was a box I hardly recognized. Once opened, in the bottom I found a lump of material. At first, I thought, with distain, it’s just another useless old thing I’d saved much too long. Unfolding it, I rediscovered my quilt.

It was haunting me and wouldn’t give up until I’d completed this bit of unfinished business. It’s often only with maturity and the passage of time, that the young finally begin to value treasures from the past. This time I looked at it quite differently and realized it was suddenly precious to me. I guess that means I’ve finally matured!

I approached a woman in my office with a passion for quilting for some sound advice on restoration. Beth had some good ideas and when I asked, said she’d be honored to do the work. I had it dry-cleaned and delivered my crippled relic to Beth, joking that I was entrusting her with my baby. “Do your magic,” I laughed.

Several months later, Beth proudly returned the quilt to me. She’d used every piece of the original material and also had added some intricate stitching around the border. The worn and stained parts had also been preserved. My ragged and tattered quilt, now beautiful, would plague me no more!

While draping it over a chair in my office (drawing many ooh’s and aah’s), Sue, another co-worker, remarked that her aunt had once had those very same squares of baby’s faces. We discussed many possibilities in trying to figure out their origin and surmised the squares could’ve been part of a product giveaway. We chuckled that we were old enough to remember the days when cups and plates came in soap and oatmeal boxes.

But what kind of giveaway could this have been? Since the pictures seemed to resemble the old Gerber baby food labels, we thought it could’ve been a promotion by them. This discussion only intensified my need for more information. So much for getting business finished. Instead it was the beginning of the next phase.

I showed the quilt to my mother, then 88 years old, hoping she could fill in the blanks. But she barely remembered it, let alone who’d sewn it or where the squares had come from. My dim recollection of Mom giving me the quilt so many years ago included her saying she’d made it. But now she’s not sure. I e-mailed, a picture of the quilt to my aunts and uncle, her siblings, but with no luck.

I searched the Internet. My first google (Gerber Baby Food Quilt Squares) located 58,000 items, none of which helped much. Gerber, who’ve been around since the 1920’s, now have a parenting information and help line on their website. What did I have to lose? I typed an e-mail inquiry and waited.

That led to a phone call and the very young sounding woman I spoke to tried to be helpful, with no success. So the details of my quilt’s history are lost to the passage of time. My quilt now hangs in my bedroom and that’s enough for me! I accept this as one of life’s many unknowns.

More important is what I do know. I know this precious quilt was made especially for me by my mother or one of my aunts. Or maybe several of my aunts. I cherish their labor of love. I know it’s as old as I am. I know I treasure it.

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