Forever Family

familyMy daughter got engaged last summer, and her wedding is coming up fast.  Even though we’ve spent the past few months booking a venue, reserving a church, selecting her wedding dress and making all the hundreds of other decisions that seem to be required for a wedding these days, it has only recently begun to sink in that she’s actually getting married.  And soon.

I still remember the first day I brought her home from the hospital, and how everything single thing in my world suddenly felt so different.  The house my husband and I had lived in happily for a couple of years had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate a baby, a good night’s sleep became nothing more than a distant memory, and even the shortest outing required careful planning as we either had to find and hire a reliable baby sitter or pack a diaper bag with more provisions than I normally packed for a week’s vacation back in my childless days.  My husband and I had shifted from being a couple to being a family, and life was never the same again.

Later, as we were raising both my daughter and her younger brother, I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like when they grew up and moved out to start their own lives.  The four of us were a complete and happy family unit, and the thought of us not living together anymore was almost frightening.  At the time, I had a friend whose youngest daughter had recently moved out and I asked her how she could possibly cope with that loss.  She told me that in her opinion, the teenage years were God’s little way of making it a bit less painful to see them go.  And as the years went by, I understood that she was right.

When our turn came to have an empty nest, it wasn’t the horrible adjustment I thought it would be, because I realized that I hadn’t really lost my kids at all.  They had grown up, but we were still a family and our relationship was simply different than it was when they were children.  Now I could see the young woman and the young man they had become, and I liked what I saw.  And the little bonuses of having an empty nest, such as the extra closet space, much smaller grocery bills and not having to listen to either country or rap music in my house helped, too.

MarthaIn a few short weeks, our family is going to change again, and in a big way.  My daughter will be married, which means her first priority will be her new husband, and not us.  She’ll even have a new last name.  But, once again, this is just a change that means our family will be different, and that’s not a bad thing.  We’re gaining a terrific son-in-law who already feels like a member of our family.  It’s reassuring to see my daughter in love with someone who makes her happy and to know that they are choosing to spend their lives together.  And I know she is marrying into a wonderful family whose love and support will only enrich her life.

I have come to believe that family is something that is both constant and constantly changing.  And that change isn’t always a bad thing.  In the case of this particular change that is coming to our family, I believe it’s a very good thing indeed.

Where The Heart Is

IMG_3566I admit that I spend way too much time watching HGTV’s “House Hunters International.”  I think there’s something so intriguing about the idea of moving to a whole new country and getting to change my life in such a dramatic and profound way.  Leaving the Midwest behind to live near a Caribbean beach, in a charming apartment in Paris, or in a house among the vineyards of Tuscany sounds like a wonderful way to jolt me out of my middle-age routine.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to wake up each morning to a view of the Mediterranean Sea or the Swiss Alps?

But no matter how attractive it sounds,  I’ll never actually make the move.  As much as I would like to live somewhere new and exotic, I know I am far too attached to the life I have created for myself in St. Louis to be able to pick up and leave it all behind.  My husband’s job is here, my kids have both settled in this area and most of my relatives (on both sides of our family) live within a five-hour’s drive.  Almost all of my friends are here, or at least close enough to visit easily without having to hop on a plane.  The simple truth is that I have put down roots here that are so deep that they can’t be pulled up without a profound sense of loss and more than a little pain.

And I’m not complaining, because I know that this is a situation that I’ve created by the choices I’ve made in my life up to this point.  When I was growing up, my family moved every few years, which meant that I was lucky enough to experience living in several different types of communities, from large cities to small towns.  But the downside was that I also didn’t have one place that ever truly felt like home.  I don’t think it was an accident that right after graduating from college, I moved back to St. Louis, the community in which I was born.  I think I wanted to have that sense of living in my “home town,” and the chance to feel that I really belonged somewhere.  My husband and I have lived here ever since, and honestly, we don’t have any regrets about it.

I think that we each have to choose what kind of life suits us best, and there is no right or wrong in either the choice to move to different places and get the chance to experience different cultures first-hand, or the choice to stay put in the community that feels the most like home.  For me, I like knowing that most of the people I love are close by, and living in a city that I know so well.  So I think I will just have to keep “living vicariously” through the people who do have the ability to pull up stakes and move to another continent, and a small part of me will always understand why they want to do that.

But if I ever win the lottery, you can bet that I’m buying a vacation home in the English countryside.  Or Provence. Or maybe even somewhere along the Spanish coast……IMG_5619

Portrait Of A Father

Dad 2It’s a little hard to write a post about my father, because I know some of my readers also knew him and have their own thoughts about who he was.  Some knew him as their father, too, and others as a family friend, or as the father of their friend (me.)  Some thought of him as an outstanding minister, which he was.  But all I can do is write about him from my own perspective, and trust that people understand that my perspective is both unique and personal.

Like most men of his generation, my dad thought of himself as the absolute head of the family, and he expected to be treated as such.  He did have a temper, which meant I always tried my best not to make him angry.  Now I realize that his angry outbursts were probably a result of his struggle with depression, but that’s a perspective I didn’t have as a child.

I know I inherited his creativity, his sense of humor, his love of reading and writing, and his love of all animals, but particularly for dogs and horses.  Sadly, I also inherited his love for sweets and his tendency to carry extra weight around the midsection.

My father showed me by example how to live according to your principles.  Growing up, I knew of very few other fathers who had given up a successful and well-paying business career to enroll in seminary and become a chronically over-worked and under-paid minister.  And I noticed how he always donated generously to anyone who asked, even when he couldn’t really afford to do so.  I remember that he always did and said what he thought was right, even when his opinions weren’t particularly popular.

Like all of us, my dad was a complicated person, and far from perfect.  I know I never completely understood him, partly because we can’t ever see our parents (or children) truly objectively, and partly because I think it’s impossible to ever fully understand anyone else.

But I choose to remember the father who was always there, who bought me the horse I so desperately wanted when I was twelve, who stood patiently outside in the freezing rain while I decided exactly which Christmas tree we should buy, who always listened when I needed to talk, and who I knew I could trust.  I remember the father who regularly cooked for us back in the days when most men stayed out of the kitchen, dyed the mashed potatoes pink when we asked him to, and who made me hot tea with lemon and honey when I was sick with a bad cold.

Coleman Application_page 3 1Ultimately, there were two things that I always knew, and still know, about my father:  that I loved him, and that he loved me. And that is more than enough.

Girls’ Weekend

Several years ago, a couple of “old” friends and I decided to meet for the weekend in Kansas City, since it’s approximately halfway between our homes and an easy drive for all of us.  We wanted to get the chance to spend some time together without anyone having to be the hostess, and without any distractions from our families, jobs and everyday responsibilities.  I don’t think we knew we were beginning an annual tradition, as up until that point, we often went a few years without seeing each other and probably just assumed that wouldn’t change.

girls weekendWe stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, and spent the weekend just hanging out, shopping, talking, drinking a little wine and beer, and eating huge amounts of food with very little nutritional value.  In short, we had a wonderful time and couldn’t wait to do it again.  So our girls’ weekend became an annual event, and I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that it did.

It is such a gift to be able to step out of my everyday life and spend a couple of days with two good friends I have known since sixth grade.  We may not all live near each other, but we have managed to remain connected for almost five decades, even during the crazy hectic years when our children were small and we had to rely on letters (remember them?) and expensive, long-distance phone calls to stay in touch.  And that means that there is very little we don’t know about each other, very little we can’t talk about, and that we can be completely and absolutely ourselves in each other’s company.

We can discuss something as trivial as my need to “do something” with my eyebrows (or so they assure me), and as serious as what our wishes are when we are old and unable to care for ourselves.  We talk about family issues without any sugar-coating because we know there will be no judgement, only support.  We laugh at our silly mistakes, confess things that we wouldn’t dare tell many others and ask questions that are completely inappropriate, knowing that we will get nothing more than a simple and honest answer in response.

I know a weekend spent in a Drury Inn in a suburb of Kansas City, eating at chain restaurants and shopping at the same type of mall that can be found all across the country doesn’t sound like such a big deal.  Most people think of a trip to Kansas City and immediately think of the Crown Center, Country Club Plaza, the terrific clubs and unique restaurants, the first-rate museums, etc.  And I’m sure I’ll get around to visiting all those someday.  But for now, I’d much rather have a weekend with two of my closest friends, the laughter at inside jokes, the support and understanding we give each other, and the realization that I am so very lucky to have this kind of friendship in my life.

What Did You Say?

DSC00076Right after we bought our house, my husband and I discussed the remodeling that needed to be done first:  paint the magenta bedroom a nicer color, replace the leaky windows, install new kitchen counters and a deeper sink, etc.  And I distinctly remember hearing him say that he planned to take down the doorway and wall that enclosed the stairs to the second story. We didn’t want to have to open a door to go upstairs, and thought that an open staircase would look very nice.  The next day, my parents and I were trying to carry our mattresses upstairs, and we couldn’t fit the box springs through the doorway.  I said, “No problem, we’re going to take this wall out anyway,” and got a crowbar and knocked a big hole above the doorway so that the box springs fit through.  Honestly, I was proud of myself for fixing the problem on my own, without my husband’s help.

But it turns out that while I thought he meant “We’re going to take that doorway out right away,” what he actually meant was, “Someday we’re going to take that doorway out.”  So he was more than a little surprised to come home from work that night and find a huge, gaping hole above the doorway.  Not happy, but definitely surprised.

I also remember when my son was in kindergarten and had to get to school especially early one morning.  In an effort to save time, I asked him to lay out his clothes the night before, so we wouldn’t have to go through the ritual of deciding what he was going to wear (he had strong opinions about that when he was young) in the morning.  When I went in his room that night, I saw that he did indeed have his clothes “laid out.”  His t-shirt was spread carefully on the floor, and his jeans were placed just below them, with the shirt overlapping about an inch or so.  Sticking out from the bottom of each jean leg was a single sock, and when I looked underneath the top of the jeans, sure enough, there was a pair of underwear.  I thought I had told him simply to select his outfit for the next morning, he thought I wanted him to arrange his clothes exactly as if he was wearing them.

The older I get, the more I realize that there is often a big difference between what one person means to say and what another person actually hears.  It might be because different people assign different meanings to words, or it might be because we all tend to filter what we hear through our own, unique perspective.  I really don’t know.  But I strongly suspect that a lot of the hurt feelings and conflict we experience in our life stems from simple misunderstandings about what exactly we mean when we communicate with each other.

For my part, I’m trying to remember to make more of an effort to make myself as clear as I possibly can when I speak to others, and to take the extra time to make sure I truly understand what others mean when they speak to me, even by asking silly-sounding questions when necessary.  It isn’t always easy, and I’m certainly not always successful, but I do think it’s worth the time and effort.  I know my husband wishes I had done that all those years ago, before I started swinging away with my trusty crowbar.  Because we didn’t open up that staircase for another ten years, and plaster walls are a real hassle to patch.

Go Your Own Way

IMG_0237A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to join my neighborhood book club.  The women, who are mostly middle aged like me, are friendly and the discussion is lively and interesting.  But I have to admit that, while I enjoy being with this group, I don’t really feel as if I fit in.  We’re never going to read any of my favorite books because they aren’t popular, which means there aren’t enough available copies at the library.  (Most of my favorite books are also out of print.)  I almost always have a different opinion about the books we read than the rest of the group; I’m one of the few women who can’t easily and quickly look up potential book selections on her phone; I am often the only one in the room not wearing comfort shoes (my feet are too big), and I don’t have any grandchildren yet.  But I don’t care.  I don’t need to “fit in” to enjoy my book club; I enjoy it because it gives me the chance to read books I’ve never heard of, to get to know my neighbors a bit better and to hear new and interesting points of view.

Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my life paying very careful attention to what the other women in my age group were doing, what they were wearing, what they thought, etc.  It started in grade school, when fitting in was extremely important, and I remember the distinct and rigid groups of my high school years, and how it seemed that everyone tried to belong to at least one of them.  When I was a younger adult, I know I tried to fit in with my co-workers, with the other mothers, with my neighbors, etc.   Of course I had my own tastes and ideas, but they were always tempered with what I thought was expected of me, and what was the “right thing” to be doing and thinking.

Then I hit middle age, and gradually the old rules of conformity just slipped away, and not just for me. The issues of middle age may be universal:  the physical decline, the changing family dynamics, knowing that retirement and the “golden years” are just around the corner. But from what I’ve seen, the way we cope with those issues are as unique as they are varied. I know middle aged women who are happy to let their hair go grey, and I know others who dye their hair every three weeks just to make sure they don’t have grey roots.  (I’m in the second category.)  I know women who feel their sags and wrinkles are a sign of a life fully lived, and others who have had plastic surgery to smooth the wrinkles away.  I know people who are reveling in the freedom of the “empty nest,” and others who are spending their days helping to raise their grandchildren.  Some people are using their middle years as a time to slow down from the hectic pace of their lives, while others are busier than ever as they juggle the demands of a career, their children and caring for aging parents.

And I think that is exactly as it should be, because  there is no right or wrong way to live out our middle years.  Each of us gets to make the choices that work best for our unique situation and our unique personalities, and the pressure to conform seems to be over and done with.  Personally, I love the freedom to follow my own path, and the diversity that I see in my middle age contemporaries.  I’m just sorry that it took us so long to realize that it really is okay to be different, and wish that we had all figured this out a long time ago.  Just think how much easier high school would have been…..

You Mean It’s Not All About Me?

IMG_0323One of my many faults is that I can be a little too sensitive at times, a little too quick to take offense, and a little too quick to feel snubbed or excluded.  I try to fight this by taking the time to step back whenever I feel hurt and analyze the situation objectively.  I ask myself, “Did he really mean to say something hurtful?”  Or “Did she really mean to exclude me?”  The rational answer is usually no, so I just move on.  And I sincerely hope that’s how my friends and family are handling it when I say and do something that hurts their feelings.

Although I never try to hurt other people, I know for a fact that I have.  The other day I was hurrying out of a store in a strip mall when I ran into my old hair stylist standing on the sidewalk, chatting to a client.  Although I really liked the man and had gone to him for years, I had grown tired of the way he cut my hair and couldn’t seem to convince him to cut it differently.  I liked the way another friend’s hair looked, so I switched to her stylist a couple of years ago.  That day I had been caught in heavy rain without an umbrella twice, so I new for a fact that my hair looked horrible, and that my old stylist would be sure to notice. Which is why I responded to his enthusiastic greeting with just a quick wave and veered away from him, crossing the parking lot at an awkward angle, in a painfully obvious attempt to avoid him.  As I got in my car, I glanced back and saw him staring at me with a look of surprised hurt on his face.  I had snubbed him horribly, and it had nothing to do with him at all.  It was me not wanting to let my old stylist get a good look at me when I was having a very bad hair day.

That’s what I try to remember when I’m on the receiving end of someone else’s bad behavior.  Chances are, the other person’s behavior has nothing to do with me and everything to do with whatever is going on in their life at that particular point in time.  I like to think that if I had been having a better day when I ran into my old stylist, I would have approached him and said hello, nasty hair and all.  But I’d been having a truly horrible day, and at the time I just didn’t have the strength to be gracious (or even polite), as much as I’m ashamed to admit it.

So when I’m the one who feels hurt or snubbed, I try to remember that the negativity probably has nothing more to do with me than my bad behavior had to do with my old stylist.  That day, I was acting out of my own weakness, not out of any desire to hurt his feelings.  And that’s usually the case when I’m the one whose feelings are hurt, too.  Because, as hard as it can be for me to accept this truth, it really isn’t all about me.

Hidden Gifts

Personally, I have always found it hard to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” and that our lives are pre-ordained.  There’s a randomness to the universe that I just can’t ignore, and more loss, violence and cruelty than I could ever attribute to a loving God.  But what I do believe is that even the darkest of times can bring gifts if we just allow ourselves to look for them.

I was sick last week, which meant I had to miss a fun social event and was also not able to do my usual shifts down at the Humane Society.  I was very disappointed to miss the special luncheon, and also worried that, without my help, not all the shelter dogs would get walked.  But several of the other volunteers went out of their way to tell me that I should stay home until I was well, and assured me that they would stay at the shelter until all the dogs were taken care of, no matter what.  I was surprised and touched by this show of support, and my illness was the reason I got to see just how wonderful these friends really are.

My mother-in-law suffered a series of strokes and spent the last couple years of her life wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, which I thought was a horrible thing for a woman who had always been so vibrant and active.  But every day that she was there, my father-in-law made the fifteen mile trip over country roads to visit her, missing only if he was sick or the roads were not safe.  He spent hours by her side, talking to her (even though she couldn’t always answer him), chatting to the staff, and generally making sure she was well cared for.  My father-in-law had not been a man who showed his emotions easily, so seeing his obvious devotion to his wife was a gift that I will always treasure.  And I wouldn’t have seen it so clearly if she hadn’t spent her last years in a care home.

Coleman Application_page 3 8Our dog Sandy’s fatal heart episodes started the night before my husband and I were scheduled to go on a long weekend trip to Charleston.  We were all packed, airline tickets bought, hotel reservations paid for in advance, and we scrambled to cancel it all last minute. At first it seemed like bad timing, but we soon realized how much worse it would have been if Sandy’s heart had started failing after we were already in Charleston.  There’s no way we would have made it home in time, and I am so glad that we were there to take her on that sad, final trip to the vet.  She needed us, not our dog sitter, to be with her at the end.

In the same way, any disappointment and pain I’ve endured in life have made me much more compassionate towards other people when they are suffering.  Because I know what it’s like to worry about paying the bills, I’m more generous to others who are struggling financially.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, to feel rejected by a good friend, to have career hopes dashed.  And while I wouldn’t have chosen to experience any of that, the fact that I have makes me a more sympathetic person than I would otherwise be, and that’s a good thing.

I may not like it when bad stuff happens to me, or anyone else for that matter, but I have learned to realize that that I can use the bad times to learn and grow.  I have come to believe there is always some good in almost every situation; I just have to remember to look for it.

When Did Everyone Become So Young?

I remember the first time I went to a new doctor’s office, and the doctor who came in to treat me looked as though he had graduated from high school last week.  I actually thought, “Who let this teenager in here?  And where’s my doctor?” before it sunk in that the young man standing in front of me was a real doctor.  But I couldn’t get past the fact that he was obviously at least a decade younger than I was at the time.  It just didn’t seem right.  Doctors had always been at least my age, and most of them much older.

That was many years ago, and since then it’s only gotten worse.  Now I deal with all sorts of professionals who are younger than me, and who rarely look old enough to be doing their job:  dentists, repairmen, pharmacists, salespeople, you name it.  The other day I saw a neighbor out watering his lawn, and thought, “Why is that kid messing with my neighbor’s sprinkler?” Then I took a closer look and realized that wasn’t some kid, that was my neighbor, who is a grown man with a wife, a baby, and a full-time job.  But he looked like a teenager to me.

I know, especially after reading so many other blogs about middle age that are written by people in their early forties, that I am, at age 57, on the “upper end” of middle age.  Which means that the kids I used to babysit are now grown up and have kids of their own…and some of those kids are also grown up.  Ditto for most of my nieces and nephews. (Thank you, Chris, for at least still being in college!  Please do me a favor, and stay there a few more years, and never mind the tuition.)

The problem is that I still feel young.  Not teenage or twenty-something young, but definitely younger than I actually am.  As long as I can avoid a magnifying mirror (fading eyesight is both a curse and a blessing), I can cling to a mental self image of myself as I used to be.  So it still isn’t pleasant to have to be jolted back to reality by walking into a doctor’s office, as I did last Monday, and seeing someone who looks as if she can’t be over twenty introducing herself as my doctor.  Because then I have to admit that she probably isn’t a genius whom managed to get her medical degree at age eighteen, she is simply what a young doctor looks like these days.  And I haven’t looked like that for years.

I think being surprised that we have become old is a universal life experience.  Maybe our own aging is like the concept of our own mortality; something that we just naturally avoid thinking about.  I remember when I was young and my then middle-aged parents told me that they still felt young on the inside.  At the time, I wondered how they could be so out of touch with their reality.  But now that I’m middle age, I have discovered exactly what they were talking about.   It’s just like the sign a co-worker used to have on her office wall that said, “Inside every old person, there’s young person wondering what the hell happened.”  And that’s the truth.