Third Grade Wisdom

The building where I live has arranged a reading program where third graders from two local schools visit us each month throughout the school year. We grandparent-types are assigned children who read to us; once we get started the room is abuzz as we work hard for nearly an hour.

This gives the kids an opportunity to read out loud and us a chance for some quality time with someone outside of our usual social circle. My job, other than being an alert and supportive listener, is to help with word pronunciation and meaning. Each year, I’ve met some delightful children and marvel at their demeanor and quickly developing personalities. I’m often surprised at how much they already know.

Sam loves maps. Instead of showing up with the usual third grade story books, he brought an atlas. It’s a kid-sized atlas given to him by his father. When I asked him where he’d most like to visit, without hesitation, he said Madagascar, then quickly flipped the pages to show me where that was. I could see right away this was a very unique child.

He was puzzled that Scotland wasn’t in the atlas. Ah, a teaching moment, I thought. I asked if the United Kingdom was on the list of maps at the front of the book. He knew right where it was and pointed.  I then said that Scotland was part of the United Kingdom, so it wasn’t an independent country and therefore not listed as such. It made my day to see this piece of news registering in his alert little mind.

At Christmas, Sam’s mother dropped off a plant for me. The card thanked me for spending time with her son. She also wrote that whenever Sam talked about me, he smiled. So, who’s getting the most out of this?

First time, each child brings a personalized letter they’ve written to introduce themselves. Sam’s letter told me he liked to play twenty questions and assured me we’re going to have “a really good time.” Samantha’s letter focused on reading and asked what my favorite genre was when I was her age. The fact that “genre” was even in an eight-year old’s vocabulary was surprising. But she had no idea what my childhood favorites, Nancy Drew Mysteries were.

Samantha was most excited about the reading program because she’d heard that on the last day, we’d have a party. I recalled how, the year before, Jada had made a very big deal about waiting on me. I had too many cookies and glasses of punch that day. I didn’t have the heart to say no to her diligent efforts. Her determination confirmed my assumption that she was a child lost in the rush of a large, blended family.

When fewer and fewer volunteers were signing up for the program, we had to double up. So, with two children, issues of fairness and splitting the time evenly had to be addressed. Though Teddy and Mick were friends, they couldn’t have been more different. Teddy was clearly from a family of means and talked, quite matter-of-factly about his many vacations in far off places.

Mick was his own person, informing me that his name was Michaël but he insisted on being called Mick. For all their differences, they worked out their own method of sharing time and helping each other with problem words. My job was easy.

My most recent pair were Max and Emma. Again, different as can be. Emma is a quiet and thoughtful girl. She gets out a lot to movies and travel with her family. But I have to work to be sure she gets attention and doesn’t get lost in the bushes. When a character in the book she was reading had a tattoo, she told me her father has tattoos.  Curious and jumping to conclusions, I asked what they looked like. She said they were of her name. Admittedly, I was relieved.

Then there’s Max. A ball of energy and oh so smart.  This third grader can list all the US Presidents. In order and even giving their number. He also does a spot-on impersonation of Kevin Hart. He’s often stood up in the middle of reading to do some tai chi that he learned from a video. Oh, and no surprise, he’s an excellent reader.

I have no children. I decided quite young that being a mother was not very interesting. Being in a reading program with third graders is totally interesting. I get more out of this than they do, I’m sure. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that children are very smart and I’ll never underestimate what I can learn from them.

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Mystery Tour

April 3-4, 2019 – Hart Park Senior Center Mystery Tour
Cuneo Mansion and Gardens, Loyola University, Vernon Hills, Ill.
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Skokie, Ill.
Holiday Inn Skokie, Dinner, Bingo, overnight
Halim Glass and Clock Museum, Evanston, Ill.
Lunch at Trattoria, Evanston, Ill.
Tea and scones at Curt’s Café, Evanston, Ill.
Bahai Temple, Wilmette, Ill.

I’ve officially joined the ranks of senior citizen bus trip mavens. I. along with twenty-one (including tour guide) women and our token man, set out for a two-day, one overnight, mystery tour to parts unknown. Barb, the tour guide, kept things a secret throughout. She’d announce where we were as the bus was being parked.  Then give us a time estimate when we’d reach our next destination but didn’t announce where we were going until we’d arrived.

Docent tours had been arranged for each stop which meant we learned a lot. At the Cuneo Mansion I wondered how a family could live comfortably in such opulence. The many shelves of shoes stored in the bathroom made me wonder if Imelda Marcos had given lesson to the mistress of the house.

The Holocaust museum was sobering. The Glass and Clock Museum broadened my knowledge about Tiffany who I’d thought only made lamp shades.  Silly me. And now I know, after seeing one thousand clocks from many time periods and countries, how important the pendulum was to modern day time keeping. We all felt wonderful to contribute our business to Curt’s Café that provides job training and jobs for unemployable youth. The scones were to die for. The Bahai Temple was a mystery or a well-kept secret.

Barb says she’s learned to always have shopping time in the schedule.  So, for our noon time in Evanston, the option was shop or lunch, or both; most of us didn’t shop. Instead we had lunch at a lovely Italian restaurant that included some day drinking. Why not because we had a designated driver.

I’d signed on alone and was fine with the quiet on the bus and had brought my Kindle to fill the down time. I don’t remember the names of my fellow travelers though a few were familiar from earlier trips. There was a lot of talking and laughing going on.

Most memorable was our lengthy breakfast discussion of Oscar movies with our declaration that Bohemian Rhapsody should have won it all. The bar at the hotel had bingo night and we won a few shots and scratch-off tickets. No one won the $1000 for a full card. But we tried.

All in all, it was a great trip. Not too long. Just long enough. And plenty to do but not be rushed. What can be better than the comfort of a bus and a driver who knows just where to go and gets you there. Another was having someone else driving through these enchanting north shore cities and being able to take in the architecture. I’m checking the schedule for future travel opportunities.

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The Men in my Life

Two of my most wonderful friends, Carolyn and Julie, think I should find a man. A male companion, or boyfriend, perhaps a husband is what they have in mind. I say, what are you thinking? Two divorces aren’t enough! But that got me thinking.

Actually, I have lots of men in my life. All right in the building where I live. Some live there and a few work there. The library is our central meeting place where we chat while waiting for the mail. And then I run into others by chance throughout the day.

There’s Dave (oops he likes to be called David) who does maintenance. When I had to put new license plates on my car, I went to his office and asked David for a screwdriver. He gave me a puzzled look, then asked what it was for. When I explained, he said he thought he should do it. We then spent a half hour in the parking garage talking cars while he worked his magic. We both agreed that Buicks are the best.

Tom lives in the building and also does housekeeping. At nine o-clock on Mondays I can hear the hum of his vacuum cleaner coming down the hall. He also manages the in-house grocery store and is open to suggestions on new items.  I think he knows everyone by name and offers a friendly greeting to everyone, all day.

John of John and Alice (I call him that to keep him separate from all the other John’s in the building) is part of our Rummikub game. John of John and Alice is meticulous, some would say obsessive, about how the tiles should be laid out on the table. John says he has nicknames for some of the more colorful characters in the building but only chuckles to himself, not telling me any of them. Or if he has a nickname for me.

Dave (he doesn’t mind being called Dave) is volunteer manager of the in-house library. I help him with the magazines. Dave does woodworking at one of the senior centers and just built a new bookcase for our library. He has a master plan for culling the old, tattered books that no one has read in years

Tom (a different Tom, this one wears a hat) never sits. He just hovers in the library doorway, drops a comment or two and then moves on. He always makes sure he gives me his latest copy of Harper’s and tells me what are the best articles. Some insist Tom with the hat is shy which he covers with a gruff exterior. I’m not so sure.

Sy who loves to tease and joke must have been feeling pensive one day when he joined me alone in the library. He’s eighty-six and seemed to be wondering how much time he has left. Quite different from his usual quick and pithy comments.

Dennis is quiet. We laugh that we can always tell when Dennis has been in the library because the daily newspapers are lined up in perfect order on the table. Dennis can tell which grandchild is calling for pick-up by their ring tone. And off he goes.

Jay works at the front desk. He helped me when the wi-fi connection in the coffee shop wasn’t working. He was pretty nervous, relating how some residents expect him to solve complicated software problems. He solved my very simple problem in a flash and I let him know how thankful I was.

I think I have the best situation with the company of some pretty nice guys. We laugh and joke. We talk about the latest news and generally philosophize about life and any other important issues. Then I go back to my apartment. I have men in my life but only as much as I want. This is the best place and best situation for me, for now.

 

 

Angie Makes Another One

Angie and Vern were a colorful couple in their nineties who I first got to know at the weekly dinner at Hawthorne.  I admired Vern and Angie. They were very active and I’d most often see them returning from their daily outing: lunch and shopping. That’s how I became accustomed to that friendly greeting.

“Well, we made another one,” Vern would say in a jovial, sing-song fashion as they ambled down the hallway holding plastic bags of groceries and restaurant left-overs. And then we’d laugh about the grim alternatives. Hardly a day would pass that we didn’t exchange this affable refrain.

But as time passed, attendance at the weekly dinner declined until the building administration canceled it. Our hallway encounters dwindled even more when I heard Vern had a car accident and gave up driving. Finally, Vern was hospitalized and died.

Angie grieved mightily and her own health declined.  It was sad to watch this vibrant woman fade. I lost track of Angie until one day I saw her at the mailboxes. She smiled and asked how I was. I wasn’t sure I should say it. What if this brings up sad memories or makes her feel bad. But I took the chance.

“Well, we made another one,“  I said in my best Vern-like style.  Angie’s silence was only for a few seconds. Then for a short moment I saw that old Angie spark as she repeated the refrain with a laugh and shake of the head.  Most things change but some things never do.

Then I heard Angie had fallen and had to go to rehab. I was sure I’d never see her again. But I was wrong. Such a surprise to see her at the in-house beauty salon where she still gets her hair done each week.  She’s dressed up as though her next stop is lunch or the theater. When Angie celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday, Hawthorne had a party and provided a cake ordered from Simma’s.

I still run into Angie near the mailboxes or when she shops in the in-house grocery store. Always smiling as she navigates her walker down the hallway.  And though she often doesn’t remember my name, now she’s the one who always greets me with Vern’s old salutation: “Well, we made another one. “

 

 

Betty

Sid’s wife, Betty, died today.
Betty, the superlative caregiver
of Sid who has Parkinson’s.

Over the years,
Betty seen guiding Sid through the hall in his walker.
Then Betty pushing Sid in his wheelchair.

Then Betty walking alone.
Sid was now bedridden, she explained.
And family so helpful.

Betty always smiling,
always saying hello,
always including your name in her greeting.

Stopping for a short chat about the weather.
Introducing Sid’s twenty-four-hour caregiver,
saying what a good job is being done.

Sid’s world turned upside down.
A reminder.
All we have is today.

 

 

 

The Phantom Librarian

“Someone’s been moving books around,” Dave said with a puzzled look. He went on to explain that a set of books he’d moved to the new non-fiction shelf had been put back in the old place. Then he continued, the children’s books he’d stood up for easy access had been closed and turned down.  “Why would someone do that,” he wondered.

I was equally puzzled and joked that we had a phantom librarian. What to do? I offered a solution. He could put up a sign on the library door that the library committee, though there hadn’t ever been one, was having a meeting, inviting anyone interested to come. This might flesh out the culprit.  We both said it was nice that someone wanted to help and that this way the person could have an assignment instead of undoing the work of others.

Last year, Dave had taken over managing the library in our building. First thing he did was clear out some of the old and tattered books. Pat who’d managed the library before him would never have done that. She’d kept absolutely everything and kept it in very specific order. Which was why she fired me as a volunteer. But that’s another story. Once Dave took over, I offered him my services to maintain the magazine table. We laughed about my dismissal and he accepted my offer with no unrealistic expectations.

The second thing he did was move the romance novels out of the library but into other book shelves throughout the building; he was nice enough to put up a sign so romance readers could find them.  Actually, he’d originally wanted to just get rid of them. That was until I convinced him we had many residents who really liked romance and mysteries.

But before we could call a library committee meeting, the mystery was solved. You know the urban myth that hair dressers know everything. Not so much a myth. I visit the in-house beauty shop once a month and always chatted with Myleen about what’s new in the building. And she always knows.  All it took was my comment about our dilemma of the books. Myleen grinned and spilled the beans.

Myleen takes her towels down to the laundry room very early in the morning which takes her past the library. She often sees the same resident in the library. Once she stopped to say hello and was regaled with a story of how much this resident was doing to keep the library in good shape.  According to Myleen, she made it sound like this was her job.

It was with great pleasure, the next time I saw Dave, to report that I knew who the phantom librarian was. Sad thing was that this resident has huge memory issues and our problem would not be solved with reason and cooperation.

Once I knew who it was, it seemed so obvious. Why hadn’t I guessed. This resident has been a problem since she moved in last year. She incessantly knocks on her neighbors’ doors, frantically asking if they have seen or heard the noises and people that only she hears and sees. She’s thrown something at our maintenance man when he came to fix an imaginary out of order item. She’s also accused him of stealing. He’s quite beside himself since she retells this story to anyone who will listen.

I have it from a reliable source (rumors run wild here) that she would turn off all the circuit breakers in her apartment and then call the health department to report that the landlord refused to turn on her air conditioning. When most planned social events happen in the dining room, she’ll stand at the entrance and look lost until some kind soul invites her in.

Some believe that her inadequate memory and poor me attitude is for show. I got nervous when a few weeks ago she began to call me by my name. If her memory is so bad why does she always know who I am. And does this mean one of these days she’ll be knocking on my door. And if her memory is so bad why does she constantly repeat the imaginary theft story.

I feel really bad for this woman. But not so bad that I engage with her. I know someday I may be like her and be as lonely as she seems to be. She’s a lesson in patience and understanding. Empathy too.

Back to the library issue. AlI I told Dave was that she had memory problems so we’d have to work around that. The other news was that her family was looking for another place, a higher level of care. Which she certainly needs. Rumor tells me her family has the money but are dragging their feet. So, we continue to make the best of things. Just last week, I found a pile of magazines in the waste basket. I pulled them out and put them back on the magazine table. It’s all we can do, I thought, while shaking my head in dismay.

 

 

 

 

We Made Another One

Angie and Vern were a colorful couple in their late eighties who I first got to know at the weekly dinner in my building.

I admired Vern and Angie. They were very active and I’d most often see them as they were returning from their daily outing: lunch and shopping. That’s how I became accustomed to their familiar greeting.

“Well, we made another one,” Vern would say in a jovial, sing-song fashion as they ambled down the hallway holding their plastic bags of groceries and left overs. And then we’d laugh about the grim alternatives. Hardly a day would pass that we didn’t exchange this affable refrain.

But as time passed, attendance at the weekly meal declined until the building administration canceled the dinner. Our hallway encounters dwindled. Then, I heard Vern had a car accident and gave up driving. Finally, Vern was hospitalized and died.

Angie grieved mightily and her own health declined.  It was sad to watch this vibrant woman fade. I lost track of Angie until one day I saw her at the mailboxes. She smiled and asked how I was. I wasn’t sure I should say it. What if this brings up sad memories or makes her feel bad. But I took the chance.

“Well, we made another one,“  I said in my best Vern-like style.  Angie’s silence was only for a few seconds. Then for a short moment I saw that old Angie spark as she repeated the refrain with a laugh and shake of the head.  Most things change but some things never do.

 

 

Retirement in Stages

Retirement isn’t something that’s done in a day. One day you’re working, the next day you’re not and that’s all there is to it. I’d always said, quite defiantly: I’m not the retiring type; I’m going to work as long as I can. So, when I finally did it five years ago, the adjustment was rough. For me, it’s been a process and as I look back, I see that  it’s something I had to do in stages.

Adding to my angst was the fact I’d gotten divorced, moved and retired all in a short span of time. Even though I fully agree with the advice articles saying it isn’t good to make more than one change at a time, I did it anyway.But once moved, every day was like a slap in the face. I had nowhere I had to be. No one expecting me somewhere. No one needing anything from me. The pull to feel useful was strong. And I succumbed.

I’d been a volunteer board member of a small non-profit writing organization for several years. The organization had helped me build a strong writing community for myself and now I had the time to give back, get more involved. So, I volunteered to be the secretary of this organization that was in disarray.

My goal was to update the infrastructure. That included those tedious activities that are put off until   “we have the time.” I dove in and it felt good to have a to-do list once again. Then, on top of all that, the organization was experiencing change and needed a new president. With hardly any board members to draw from, I took the job and became both secretary and president for a three-year term.

I think I let the whole thing get the best of me. Before I knew it, I was busy everyday with various organization details. In addition to the usual duties, I received a stockpile of archival materials a member had stored in his garage. Fourteen boxes of decades old items that took over a year to organize and decide what to keep, what to shred or dispose of.  My penchant of stepping in to help out was tested to the max but my list of completed projects grew.

We now have a complete operations manual that includes current bylaws, policies and procedures, job descriptions and program guidelines. I’ve rebuilt the board of directors to full capacity. The important information from those fourteen boxes have been taken to the Wisconsin Historical Society for permanent storage. Our history is in good hands.

I’m proud that the organization is being left in better shape than when I started. So, as the three-year stint comes to an end, I’ve learned a great deal about myself. I always knew I was most comfortable as a middle manager. I like having a project and reporting to someone. I’m definitely not boss material. So, I’ll never take on such a task again. If I’ve learned anything it’s to curb my impulse to help out.

Anyone who has volunteered knows what I’m talking about. There’s always more to do than there are people to get the job done. And while most are happy to make suggestions, point out what isn’t being done or offer other sage advice, there are so few willing to jump in to help.

This three-year commitment was a stage in my adjustment to retirement. It filled a gap, made me feel useful and now I’m ready to be completely retired. So, gone now are the days of waking up with my first thought being what volunteer duties need to get done today.

In these last five years, I’ve reconnected with old friends, found a book group, two writing groups and a theater group. Not to mention the out to lunch and movie occasions with various friends. The need to be useful has slipped away to be replaced by enjoyment of each day. The relief I’m feeling as the end-date approaches is a sign I’m doing the right thing.

 

doing the right thing.

Nothing Wrong With Nothing New

Asking “what’s new” is common when talking to someone we haven’t seen for a while; what generally follows is an excited exchange of the latest activities, family events or accomplishments.  But lately I’ve noticed I often answer this question with a pause and have to think for a minute before responding.

Not much is new or exciting, I realize; my tepid reply might give the impression that I’m unhappy or bored when nothing could be farther from the truth. But I feel sad when I don’t have much to report even though I’m busy every day. As I look in my appointment book, next week is quite usual.

Yoga on Monday. Lunch with a friend on Tuesday. Tutoring with grade school students on Wednesday. Friday off to a birthday party with girlfriends. Thursday is the only day I have nothing scheduled. These activities take up only an hour or two a day and that’s just enough. So, how did I manage when I had to work a full day and also attend to my private life? How did I get everything done!

That’s probably why adjusting to retirement was so difficult. I was accustomed to the frenzy of always searching weeks ahead for an open slot in my appointment book. Then once retired, it made me nervous when I had nothing to do and the blanks in my appointment book seemed like a failure.

So I was going out just to go out. A trip to the mall, though I had nothing to buy. A trip to the coffee shop, though I’d already had three cups that day. A trip to the library, though I had a pile of unread books stacked up at home. Soon, going out so much turned into a chore. So I stopped.

Now, I’ve become more comfortable with the knowledge that each day there is only one question: what do I want to do today?  I still have a to-do list. I still rely on my appointment book; some habits die hard. But this also helps me stay organized and those are things I don’t want to let go of.

My pace has slowed. It’s okay to stay home. I can even put off getting dressed until noon if I feel like it. The uncomplicated life is the one I really want. The one everyone says I earned and should enjoy.

So, now when anyone asks what’s new, I begin by saying that things are good. That’s really what people want to know anyway. I follow that with appreciation that my life is calm and quiet, that I’m as busy as I want to be. Then I can share the latest details of my not very important but delightful news. Nothing new and exciting is a good thing.

I Love Other People’s Kids

Sam is eight years old. He loves maps. Instead of showing up with the usual third grade story books, he brought an atlas. When I asked him where he’d most like to visit, without hesitation, he said Madagascar, then quickly flipped the pages to show me where that was. I could see right away this was a very unique child.

He picked out several of his favorite countries and excitedly talked about them. Each page included a detailed map and then short readings about the country along with interesting sidebars that pointed out their unique features. An atlas designed perfectly for someone his age.

He was puzzled that Scotland wasn’t in the atlas. Ah, a teaching moment, I thought. I asked if the United Kingdom was on the list of maps at the front of the book. He knew right where it was and pointed.

I then said that Scotland was part of the United Kingdom. In fact, England, Scotland and Wales made up the United Kingdom and Scotland wasn’t an independent country. Just as this important piece of news was registering in his alert little mind, we were told the session was ending and he had to leave.

He’s a third grader from a nearby school and arrived with his class for the reading/tutoring program in the building where I live.   On an alternating week, I’m also assigned to a student from another nearby school.

Samantha was most excited because she’d heard that on the last day of the semester we’d have a party. I recalled how last year, the kids made a very big deal about waiting on us. I had too many cookies and glasses of punch that day; I didn’t have the heart to say no to their diligent efforts to please me.

First time, each child writes and brings a personalized letter to introduce themselves and help us get acquainted. Sam’s letter told me he liked to play twenty questions and assured me were going to have “a really good time.” Samantha’s letter focused on reading and asked what my favorite genre was when I was her age. The fact that “genre” was even in an eight year old’s vocabulary was surprising. She had no idea what Nancy Drew Mysteries were.

We grandparent types who live in the building are assigned children for the semester. There are about fifteen children in each class and once we get started the room is abuzz as each pair of reader/listeners works hard for a half hour. This gives them an opportunity to read out loud and us a chance for some quality time with someone from outside our usual social milieu.

My job, other than being an alert and supportive listener, is to help with word pronunciation and meaning. Then off they go back to school. This is short and sweet; just enough and I love it. Sam and Samantha are a delight. Last year, Jada and Julia were equally charming.

I have no children. I decided quite young that being a mother was not very interesting. Probably because being the oldest of six, I’d helped my mother raise my younger siblings. I’ve gone through all my life never regretting this decision. I’ve said many times in many circumstances that I love kids, as long as they belong to someone else.

Whether its children of my friends and family or it’s that sad and lonely foster child I worked with when I was a social worker, I find children of all ages to be fun and interesting. I don’t mind being a parent figure. Just not a parent.

In my family I’m “Auntie Karin the Nice Lady” who spoils my nieces and nephews but is happy to send them home. I totally enjoy a short conversation with my girlfriend’s young daughters, catching up about school and life. But then let’s get back to the real reason for my visit, adult social time with their mother.

Raising kids is hard. I respect and feel empathy for everyone brave enough to do it. I’ve said it often, that I love other people’s kids. Maybe that’s why this tutoring experience is so right for me. Just enough of the pleasures of children and then back to my book. Back to my writing. Or my phone call to a friend. Or whatever.

 

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