The Question

He was a typical UP local who either worked in the copper mine or in the woods. He wore the signature sorrels, a bulging, buttoned flannel shirt and red timberjack cap with ear flaps askew. I can’t imagine how we’d come to be in the same place, but there we were. His question was not delivered aggressively but wasn’t exactly friendly either.

“So, what are you anyway?” My puzzled look gave away that I had no idea what he was asking and I told him so. After he humphed and rolled his eyes he gave it another try.

“So, are you Finlander, Italian, or what?”  Still puzzled, I hesitated a minute and then gave what was to me a logical reply. I’m an American. 

“No, really, what are you?” His impatience was growing. I fumbled around with what I knew of my parent’s background, that Mother was German and French and Dad was Swedish and Norwegian but I ended the conversation still insisting I was an American.

I saw what he was trying to do. Put me in a box that would make him comfortable and would also firm up his expectations of me. He wanted me to fit into his cultural stereotypes. Finlanders are stoic. Italians are emotional. So, what was I with my German/French/Scandinavian background? A puzzle he couldn’t figure out.

I could also see what he was thinking. Here’s another one of those big city people who come up here and think they know everything and that they have a better way of doing things. They come with their money and big cars and think they’re better than everybody else.

And yes, I guess we were some of that.  We had come to the UP for an opportunity. My husband had started a construction company and built chalets at the local ski resorts. I heard it was being said around town that I shouldn’t be working because we were rich. If they only knew how our fly by the seat of your pants operation really was worked.

That was just one of the ways there was a disconnect between them and us. I learned to watch what I said and to whom since everyone was related. I made it a point to not pick up the local dialect filled with ‘you betcha’ s and ‘der you go’ s. I picked my battles regarding a woman’s place in the world.

Being an eternal interloper made me strong. I found others who were from someplace else and we banded together. Turned out I’d live in this unforgiving place for fifteen years, tolerating the social limitations as well as the overabundance of snow. It was a challenging time but one thing I learned was how to answer the question of what I was.

 

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Note To Self

Inspired by Note to Self,  Collected and Introduced by Gayle King, Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Such a small book; but so inspiring; only one hour to read.
Visionaries, authors, celebrities write a letter to their younger self.
What is it you wish you had known at the beginning.
An intriguing thought; let me give it a try.

Dear Younger Me,
Lighten up;
don’t worry so much;
enjoy the ride.
Be comfortable not fitting in because in many ways you won’t.
And that’s okay.

The most important thing learned from your parents was what not to do.
That sounds harsh but wasn’t meant that way; let me explain.
They did their best having come from difficult upbringings themselves.
Negative messages meant to prop you up that dragged you down.
It was the times.

”You never finish anything.”
You are headed for a rewarding and challenging career.

”College is a waste for girls; you’re on your own.”
You’ll be the only one of six kids with an advanced degree.

“Maybe if you listened better, that boy would like you.”
Your two divorces aren’t failures. You listened to yourself.

I’m proud you forged ahead with so little support.
Your decision not to have children was wise.
You’ll thrive on friendships both in and out of family.
You’ll have a rewarding life for yourself.
On your own terms.

Love,
Older Me

German Potato Dumplings

Major pleading was necessary to get Mom to make my favorite childhood meal: German potato dumplings (knuedel), pork chops with gravy and green peas. To this day, when I think of this meal, my mouth waters. I also recall that it was an all-day affair, a time intensive assembly line production.

My busy mother with six kids and a husband to take care of had to be cajoled to put in the time needed to produce this meal. Of course, this automatically made me the mother’s helper, promising to do a few extra chores.

Grandma had made what she called knuedels and that’s where I first got hooked. Then I begged Mom to get the recipe. Preparation of the potatoes started early in the day: boiling, cooling, peeling the skins, mashing, kneading with flour, making snowball-like globes and ending with more boiling.

It was also most important to make too many. Leftovers became a great addition to another meal the next day. The leftover dumplings were sliced and fried in a pan; then a beaten egg was added at the end. Great with lots of butter. I recall me and my siblings rushing to get to the table before they were gone.

When I came home while in college, Mom always grinned as she asked what I’d like for supper, knowing what my answer would be. I don’t think I’ve had this meal since then. But the memory is clear.

In this electronic age, knuedels are all over the internet. They’re on Wikipedia and a half dozen You Tube videos depict the fine points of knuedal creation. Klas, a chef from Munich, has an interesting variation, using half raw potatoes; he adds even more time to the process since its necessary to squeeze the water out of the raw potatoes.

There are many names for this delicacy: knuedel, knodel, kloesse, kartoffelkloesse, schupfnudeln. Versions of recipes and names can be found in most countries in Europe and its noted this was an important staple that stretched the meal for poor and hard-working families.

Though my family wasn’t poor, I recall how Mom stretched our meals with casseroles and knuedels.  And I appreciate, now more than ever, how Mom made, just for me, this rather simple meal that made me feel special.

Can You See Me Now

Published in anthology: Corners: Voices on Change; Jack Walker Press, June, 2018
Bo Carter Memorial Writing Contest; 2nd place, non-fiction; May, 2018

 

In 1988 I decided to hide. I’d learned the hard reality of being dispensable from my employer; when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they wanted to cut me out of the company health insurance plan. That was before the Americans with Disability Act and from that I fully grasped the value of staying hidden.

Before I quit that job, I did some research and the literature was divided on the if, how and when to disclose. There were clearly two schools of thought and I decided since my condition was nearly invisible, with few obvious symptoms, I’d take a shot at non-disclosure.

Moving on to each new job created a dilemma until the ADA became law. Then, I was only required to disclose if I wanted accommodations. MS remissions can be complete and mine were nearly so. There were days I even fooled myself that maybe there’d been a mistake. Still, I always worried I’d be blind-sided by a sudden flare-up. Memories of those days in the hospital, confined to a wheel chair, were only too vivid.  Once in remission, my flare-ups were minor and short.

I was fortunate to have good jobs that allowed me to take a sick day when symptoms arose. I could close my office door and rest my head on my desk for ten minutes. I’d arrive early at meetings to avoid notice if my pace was too slow and always checked the seating situation ahead of time.

Working in highly competitive environments, I didn’t want anyone thinking I couldn’t do the job. I spent many years working in a medical education setting; they above anyone should have been empathetic. And they might have been if I’d been more open. But I couldn’t take the chance of being seen as inadequate. Better to hide.

Next were several supervisory and management positions best described as sedentary, desk jobs. I’m proud that I managed my working life after diagnosis, all twenty-five years of it, without disclosing. My initial goal to remain ambulatory, employable and invisible had been achieved.  Then came retirement.

I smoothly adjusted to a slower lifestyle and went on looking and feeling healthy. But then along came the deterioration so natural with the passage of time. In 2016, a serious MS attack resulted in permanent loss of balance and leg strength; the dreaded moment had arrived. It was like being outed, unmasked. After decades of maintaining my façade of near perfect health, I was suddenly visible.

I’d bought the cane long before I needed it and stored it in the back of my closet. I knew the day would come and I wanted to be ready. I prefer to call it a walking stick. That makes it seem like it’s a fashion accessory. It’s a pretty little thing, with a dark colored paisley-like floral print and a wooden handle. It’s clear that it wasn’t purchased for $7.00 at the local pharmacy.

I was forced to go back to the time when I was first diagnosed, remembering how lucky I’d felt. A chronic illness is better than a life threatening one, I’d told myself. The whole diagnosis/recovery experience had put my life in perspective.

You can’t fight a chronic illness. At least, not successfully. It needs nurturing.  Care. This may sound silly, but I had to think of my disease almost as a friend. And taking care of it has been the strangest relationship I’ve ever been involved in. Then I realized I had another friend.

These days I love my cane. Well, not actually love, but I do appreciate that pretty little thing with the dark colored paisley-like floral print. What would I do without this indispensable tool? And there are some unexpected benefits.

Showing up with a cane does clear the way to your seat in a theater or restaurant. Strangers scurry to open doors, offer an arm or hover around to be sure I’m navigating okay. While attending a Broadway play in New York, I’d dropped my cane under the seats in this crowded theater. A stranger a few seats away jumped up and got down on his knees to get it for me. There are so many nice people the world.

And I’m happy to say thank you. Though most of the time, its thank you for asking but I’m okay. That’s another challenging thing about MS. I have to do as much as I can, be as active as possible; but I walk that fine line between being active and not over-doing.

When I was forced to be visible, my cane became a symbol of my disability, a signal of my decline. It broadcast my limitations to the world; it’s taken quite some time to become comfortable with no longer being hidden. It’s only in looking back that I realized the emotional energy it took to maintain that false self.

My biggest relief was to leave behind the heavy burden of secrets. Today, I’m clear and straightforward about what I’m able to do. For example, a recent lunch with girlfriends included a garden walk. I’d checked ahead to be sure there were sitting areas along the route. I have a new appreciation for railings, automatic doors and ramps.

I get lots of comments on my cane. When someone says how nice it is, I usually respond that if you have to have one, it ought to be nice. Then we knowingly smile. My cane gives me a sense of safety and I do more with it than I ever did without it.

I look back on my work life, satisfied that I made the right decision not disclosing my condition. But what a relief to no longer have to search out places to sit or make lame excuses for why I can’t perform certain tasks. These days, my trusty cane and I are as busy as I want to be. I’ve joined the human race and have become better and stronger, having accepted my limitations. What you see is what you get. That’s my new mantra. And it feels so good.

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