Category Archives: Family

Gratitude

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Ah, gratitude. I’ve written about this before. Often, and – I think – recently. So recently, that I’ve wondered if I should bypass this word, this time. But, I just recently finished my A to Z blog-writing challenge, and returned to my long list based on the Table of Contents in David Whyte’s book, Consolations. It’s too early to start changing the plan. So, gratitude.

I have, finally, thoroughly embraced a daily gratitude practice. I write, every single day, a list of things that I am thankful for. The habit alone makes me happy. I have, for most of my life, traveled through my days by the seat of my pants, ad-libbing everything from waking and sleeping times to whether the dishes would get done, or pile up in the sink. I’ve lately embraced habit as a way to make life easier.

I used to smoke. When I decided to quit that habit, about twenty or so years ago, it was really hard. In addition to the addiction, which is real, I had the habit of smoking, Now that I am a non-smoker, I don’t wonder, after a big meal or when I pick up the telephone, whether I should light a cigarette or not. It doesn’t even cross my mind. My life is easier as a non-smoker for many reasons, but one important one is that I don’t have those decisions to make all through the day.

Because I was giving up rather than adding a habit, it didn’t occur to me right away just how much habits make life easier. We all have daily habits that are such a natural part of our lives that we don’t even think about them. Forming a habit takes time. Some studies say two weeks; others suggest thirty days or even longer. Once it’s there, though, it comes easily. With this awareness, I’ve incorporated quite a few new and helpful habits into my life in recent years. I’m proud of every one of them.

So, writing down things that I’m thankful for is a good thing, all on its own. I know it would please my mother, and it adds another bit of discipline into my disorganized life. Beyond that, the gratitude habit has opened my eyes. It would be easy to write a simple, rote list of blessings in my life: my family, a roof over my head, and food to eat are always things I’m grateful for. Repetitive, but true. Since I try to write sincerely about things that please me, I am more observant, and more aware.

When I’m forced out of bed at two in the morning to let a dog outside, and the moon is bright, or the sky is full of stars, I think, “thank you,” and the next day, “last night’s bright moon,” or “that beautiful sky full of stars” will show up in my gratitude-writing. If it rains when we need rain, or the sunshine raises my spirits, I take note. A phone call or a message from a loved one will surely make the list. I’ve become more appreciative of the small pleasures in my life, as I pay more attention to them. Gratitude is a habit. A simple, eye-opening, life-enhancing, happiness-inducing habit. I highly recommend it!

Giving

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I enjoy giving much more than receiving.

I think that’s how most people are. Giving opens my heart; receiving intimidates me.

I can hand out compliments all day. I try, in every single interaction, to find something honestly positive to say. I’m good at it. When I’m given a compliment, however, I freeze. My first instinct is to deny it. No, I don’t look nice, I’m not that talented, and I’m not so smart. I worry that the compliment-giver is just being patronizing, that their words aren’t sincere, or that they are speaking out of pity. I have to force myself to accept their words, and to voice a simple “Thank you.” The same dichotomy is present in gift-giving and gift receiving

In The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbra Streisand says, “I want someone to know me…to really know me!” Choosing thoughtful gifts for others based on their interests is a way to show them that they are known, and understood. It can be as simple as remembering a favorite color or a hobby.

Shared interests make giving even more fun. My daughter Kate and I are both avid readers, and we often share similar taste in reading material. Lately, we’ve both been working to expand our knowledge and awareness about race relations in this country. We have lively discussions about books we’ve found, and give each other suggestions about what to read next. She told me about The New Jim Crow; I sent her a copy of Caste.

Even when I limit myself to buying books as gifts (because shopping for and shipping out other things can be hard to do from this location, and because I love getting books as gifts, so I assume everyone else feels that way, too!), I work hard to match the book to the recipient. I know that both of my daughters share an appreciation for the works of Stephen King, and that my grandson Michael always appreciates a book about Beaver Island. It’s more of a struggle to find the “perfect” book for my other grandchildren, but I’m always up for the challenge.

Gifts that are given to me are, first of all, just too much. Too generous. Either too big and too expensive, or too many small, thoughtful things. They are so thoughtful! So timely! Immediately, I feel shame that I have not met the gift-giving standard. Did I even send a card? What measly or cheap gift did I give, to now be receiving this wondrous thing? What did I ever do to deserve such kindness?

Of course, if I voice these doubts and concerns out loud, I am generally reassured with compliments…which are equally difficult to accept. Receiving is just plain hard. Giving, on the other hand, is easy!

Vaccine

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“I got my first one!”

“Have you gotten your vaccination?”

“You’re going to get vaccinated, aren’t you?”

“Which vaccine did you get?”

“We’re all vaccinated up.”

Never in my lifetime, until now, has there been such a preponderance of talk about vaccines, and vaccination status.

As a young child, I knew what vaccinations were. I grew up in a time when death or disfigurement from childhood diseases was a real fear. Though I hated getting shots, and would run to close myself in the bathroom to hide when Doctor McBride came to the house, I knew they were for my own good. I watched the progress of the blister caused by the Small Pox vaccine, and was proud of the scar it left behind.

When the polio vaccine came out, the doctor handed the paper cups, each holding a sugar cube that held the vaccine dose, to my mother, so that she could do the honors. “This won’t hurt,” she told her three or four children gathered around, “It tastes sweet!” And each of us put the cube on our tongue, and let it dissolve there, as my mother nodded approval, and the doctor and my father grinned.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize how important that moment was. I didn’t think of it much at all. Even later when I went to school, always with one or two children who, it was pointed out, “had polio when they were little.” It was just normal life, that there were children who limped and wore braces on their legs, or who had a withered arm, or who were wheelchair bound, because they’d had polio. Even in high school, when we learned about the polio wards, and iron lungs, and the devastation the disease had wrought, I didn’t think much about it.

It was only much later, when I had my own children, that I realized the importance of that event. When I knew, first-hand, the overpowering urge to keep my children safe, and the constant, underlying fear that something beyond my control could happen to them, I understood the smiles and nods that accompanied the dispensing of those sugar cubes. During that time in my life, vaccination talk was a thing: appointments had to be scheduled, paperwork filled out, and boosters given on time. Still, they were small asides, not major conversations.

When my children were getting their vaccines, for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and other childhood diseases, Small Pox vaccines were no longer given. The danger – which was miniscule – of dying from side effects of the vaccine was greater than the danger of contracting the disease! That’s how successful it was! So, when the controversial possibility that vaccines contributed to autism started making the news, I was unwavering in my position.

I felt then, as I do now, that the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks. So, now that Covid-19 has made vaccination a major talking point, I’m happy to join the crowds in announcing: I got my first vaccination; mine was the Pfizer vaccine; I’m scheduled for my second; side effects were minor; and it’s a big relief!

Trouble

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Twenty letters into the alphabet in this A to Z writing challenge, and I find myself…challenged. Even after paging through the T section of the dictionary while drinking coffee this morning, I cannot seem to find a single topic! Coming up with a subject that I can write more than a sentence or two about about is proving difficult. T is not even a difficult letter. Those hard, end of the alphabet letters are still coming up!

Yes, I’m in trouble. “In the weeds,” we called it, in the restaurant business, when we found ourselves overwhelmed by circumstances beyond out control. “Buried,” I’ve called it, when I find myself in a situation I cannot find a way out of. “You’ve bitten off more than you could chew,” is how my mother would discuss the how and why of my predicament. It’s clear, I’ve run out of inspiration.

When that happens, the only way forward is step-by-step.

  • Choose a word, any word. I toyed with using “the” as my T word, opening up a word of possibilities for what followed. It seemed like a cheat, so I set it aside. I have a grandson named Tommy, my ex-husband is Terry, and my maternal grandmother was Thelma. Still nothing. Deciding to talk about my running-on-empty problem opened up several possibilities. My topic could be Talk, or Topic, or Trouble. I settled on Trouble.
  • Next, remember the basic rules of essay writing: use the first paragraph to introduce the subject; expound on it a little in the second paragraph; add a list, for filler; use the last paragraph to sum up.
  • Don’t neglect the format. When you’re in trouble, rules are your friends. Every sentence, of course, needs a noun and a verb. Throw in a few adjectives, if possible, but don’t go overboard with them. Every paragraph should have an introductory sentence, two or three sentences to go into more detail, then a sentence to sum up.
  • If you find the essay pathetically short on word count, go back step-by-step through each aspect. Could you add an amusing anecdote? Can you find another comparison to make? Is there another, better example to toss in?

Those are the rules I’ve learned to depend on. They have proved immensely helpful to me, when I’ve been trying to hammer out a term paper at the last minute, or flesh out an essay question on a test. So, now that I’ve divulged all of my secrets for putting a blog out when I actually have nothing to say, you’ll be able to see right through me. Now, I’m really in trouble!

Rest

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When my “To-Do” list is long and overwhelming, I have to remind myself to rest.

When deadlines loom, and time seems short, it’s not easy to take time out, but that’s when it is most necessary.

Sometimes a few minutes is enough. I step out the door, breathe in fresh air, and take a moment to admire what’s budding or sprouting or blossoming. Or, I sit down in the comfortable armchair, where I almost never sit, beside whichever small dog has settled there, and open a book. I might make a cup of tea and page through a magazine. Sometimes, I just allow myself a few moments of stillness.

Other days, a longer break is in order. The dogs are always up for a walk, no matter the weather, and it is a welcome break for me, too. Or, I might call a daughter, a sister or a friend for a few minutes of conversation. Or, I gather a book, a beer, my camera and my sketchbook. I load everything – plus three dogs – into the car for a run to Fox Lake. There, I’ll sit at the picnic table while the dogs enjoy the brand new smells, and change of scenery.

Sometimes, simply changing from one activity to another is enough. When I’m struggling with tax documents, writing a blog can seem restful. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a blogging challenge, shaking out the rugs gives me a break. As a master procrastinator, I recognize these things for the diversionary tactics that they are. Still, if something productive is getting done, seriously, what the hell.

Then there are times when the only thing to do is come to a full stop, I can feel the agitation of too much to do and not enough time. Nerves are getting in the way of any progress. I know that panic, or tears, are close. No break, whether long or short, and no alternate activity will cut it. Then, I just have to respect my need for rest. I have to be bravely careless enough to let all forward motion stop. Make soup. Watch a movie. Read something mindless. Take a nap. Save shame and judgment for another day. Just rest.

Quick!

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It’s that time of year, again. Deadlines fly at me from every front. I have too much to do!

There is a narrow window, before summer’s craziness, to get things done. Soon, tourists and the summer projects of home-owners will make my job at the hardware store more exhausting then ever. In June, I add a second job. In July, there will be a third. Family and friends, who come to visit in the warm season, are a welcome but time-consuming diversion. Soon, the yard and garden will add to the number of home maintenance chores to be accomplished each week. Time is short! The time is now!

When cold weather comes, and the boat stops running, the pace is slow on Beaver Island. When the island slows, so do I. When January arrives, with all of the promise a new year brings, I look ahead at future obligations and deadlines with calm. I allow distractions; I lose sight of priorities; I am too quick to take on new commitments. It seems like I have all the time in the world. Until, without warning, I don’t. Suddenly, April is here. Our ferry boat has started it’s regular schedule of runs back and forth to the mainland, bringing supplies, and people. Memorial Day, which marks the start of our busy season, is right around the corner.

A phone call the other day reminded me of a looming deadline. I have to complete a chapter on my family history for the latest Journal of Beaver Island History before the end of May. Yikes! I’ve done a little research, and compiled some notes. I’ve had communication with several cousins who have offered to review my pages before submission, to check for accuracy. I’ve put a few sentences together in my head. Still, I have not yet put a single thing on paper. That needs to be done immediately.

I have completed a dozen new works for the Beaver Island Gallery, a half-dozen pieces for the Museum Week Art Show, and thirty new collages for my up-coming art show in October. That sounds like a big accomplishment, but I know how much is yet to be done! All of the frames for the completed works have been ordered, as have mat boards, plexiglas and backer boards where necessary. Some have arrived; some have not. When everything gets here, the studio has to be given over to “clean work,” while I mount work, assemble frames, and put everything together.

I intend to have about 75 new pieces for the October art show, to fill the gallery space provided to me. With 30 pieces completed (though not yet mounted, matted and framed!), that leaves lots more to be done! The unfinished works are collagraph prints. The printmaking process is long, multi-faceted and time-consuming. There are lots of things that can go wrong. At this point, I have left myself very little room for error. Barely enough time.

The snow is gone, opening up a world of things to do in the yard and garden. My seeds are here, and plants are ordered, yet I haven’t done a single thing to get the garden ready. The list of chores is long. Snow and ice have once again pulled down the deer fence that surrounds my garden. The compost bin needs to be emptied. The soil has to be turned over and enriched, the beds laid out and, before long, planted. The flower beds need to be cleared of leaves. Spring transplanting has to be done. Winds have left plenty of branches to be gathered throughout the yard before I can mow, and the time for mowing is coming fast.

What happened to all those long, slow days of fall and winter? How did that time, that seemed, at its start, to stretch out forever in front of me, disappear so abruptly? Where has the time gone? And where will I find the time to do everything I need to do? Swiftly, the deadlines approach. Quick, has to be my response!

Potato Soup

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My method for making potato soup has evolved drastically over the years, but it continues to be a favored recipe.

As a young adult with a husband, two young daughters, and an extremely small grocery allowance, potato soup was a weekly dinner. My recipe was simple: Combine 1 diced potato, 1 chopped onion, and 1 hotdog, sliced thin into a saucepan with 1 cup of water. Simmer until everything is tender. In a larger saucepan, make a thin white sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter, melted, 2 tablespoons of flour, salt, pepper, and 3 cups of milk. Cook and stir until the sauce just starts to boil, and thickens slightly. Add the cooked potato, onion and hotdog, as well as enough of the cooking water to give it the right consistency. Serve hot, with homemade bread.

It was simple, cheap, and filling. Not, however, the most popular meal in my household. Once, my daughter Jen, then about four years old, asked what was for dinner. When I told her “Potato Soup,” she burst into tears, cried, “I can’t stand it,” and ran to her room!

By the time my daughters were teen-agers, I was divorced. We were living on campus while I finished a degree, and we were once again on a very tight budget. Luckily, my girls had warmed to the idea of potato soup. Then, we often didn’t have meat to add to the soup, but we usually added tiny egg dumplings. We always called them “glompkies,” though I can find no evidence that this is a real word, or that they are an actual thing. “Golumpki,” though similar-sounding, is stuffed cabbage. My glomkies were more like spaetzl, though rather than pushing the noodle dough through a sieve, we just dropped it by small bits into the soup. They cooked in the milky white sauce. I don’t remember where the word, or the idea came to me from, but the little pillows of noodle dough were a lovely addition to the buttery soup.

Now, being slightly more carb-conscious, I don’t add glompkies when I make potato soup. Now, my recipe has evolved to combine many types of cream soup. I may make potato-broccoli soup or cauliflower-potato soup. Chopped kale or spinach adds interesting flavors. I have added red pepper and fresh corn kernels to my basic recipe. If I have a bit of ham or bacon, I’ll throw it in. Usually, I add cheese to my white sauce for a little extra flavor.

No matter what mixture I put together, and what recipe I end up with, potato soup is still a simple, cheap and filling meal. And it comes wrapped with lots of memories!

Listen!

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I always have plenty of complaints. It seems like I’m always playing “Devil’s Advocate” to whatever is going well in my life. No matter what wonderful things are going on, I can always name what’s wrong, too. I’ve learned to, mainly, keep it to myself. I know that when folks hand out a “how are you,” what they want, in return, is a “fine!” I’m happy to give it to them. It’s not hard. I usually am, in fact, fine, and happy with my life. Give me an opening, though, and I can also espouse on everything that is not going well.

My sister, Brenda, is a very good conversationalist. I’ve watched her, over the years, draw people out, encouraging them to talk. I fall into it every time. No matter how much good news I have to tell, a few minutes on the telephone with Brenda’s sympathetic encouragement, and I am reporting on everything that is frustrating me. Sometimes I hang up the phone, and wonder if I’ve even given her a chance to speak, for all the time I spent complaining!

Brenda is a good listener, too. Though she’s one of the most positive people I know, she is always willing to lend an ear to my problems. She hears, and sympathizes, but doesn’t try to “fix” me. There are those who, when they hear me complain, want to tell me how to solve the problem. Rarely am I looking for a solution.

I live alone, and often just internalize things. When I voice my feelings, it is simply to share. I’m not trying to show off, when things are going well – and, when I’m frustrated, upset or mad – I’m not looking for answers. I just want to commiserate.

Remember the feeling you get when, as a mother of a two year old, or of a teen-ager, you meet another mother with a child of the same age? Or when you’re buried in a remodeling project, overwhelmed with holiday preparation or underappreciated at work, and you run into a friend in the same situation? That feeling? It’s joyous relief. That’s what I’m looking for, when I share my complaints.

I’m hoping for assurance that I’m not alone in this world, in my situation. I want to know that there is no judgment, no feeling of superiority, no chastisement for the the problems I’ve amassed, or for my weakness for wanting to talk about them. Simple understanding. Empathy. A little righteous anger. That’s what makes a good listener.

Keeping it Fair

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Yesterday, I wrote about my oldest daughter, Jennifer, so I must, of course, today write about my second daughter, Katherine. This is not a stipulation they put upon me. They may not even notice. No, this is self-imposed craziness.

I have always been obsessed with fairness. As one small child in a very large family, I kept a close eye on the distribution of every single thing. I’d notice if someone got an extra dinner roll, or got to stay up beyond their bedtime. If one child managed to skip their turn at doing dishes, I knew it, and it rankled me. Life should be fair!

When I had children, I strove for equity in all things. Never mind that my daughters were three years apart, with decidedly different personalities, things had to be fair. If Jennifer had an eight o’clock bedtime until she was eight years old, then Kate should have to adhere to that rule, too. There was a time when I actually counted out green beans, to make sure they had equal portions! Christmas gifts were spread-sheeted and matched, taking into consideration their different ages and interests, as well as the size, cost and value of each gift. It all had to balance. It still does!

So, I worried. What if my memories of Kate’s birth are not as vivid? What if I have more to say about Kate, since she and I have, lately, had many more opportunities to chat? What if I am – accidentally – NOT FAIR?? I almost scrapped the entire idea, and went back to J being about the junk drawer! But, I love both of my daughters, and I’m so proud of each of them…and they happen to have names that begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet…so I have thrown caution to the wind.

Kate was born on a cold December night, surprising us by arriving almost two weeks early. She was the tiniest little girl, with a full head of wild, dark hair. If she had been a boy, we’d planned to use the Daniel Adrian boy’s name that we’d picked out before Jen was born. My sister-in-law had her first son one week before Kate was born. She liked the name Daniel, and asked if I was really attached to it. “Go ahead,” I told her, “I am sure this baby is going to be a girl.” I don’t know why I was so sure, but I was, and I was right.

For our second child, we needed a name that would, again, have a long, dignified version befitting a president or some other high official. It also needed to be one I could shorten. We came upon Katherine because of Katherine Hepburn, who I loved for her independent character. Katherine was also a name with some history in my family. Aunt Katie, my Dad’s sister, was very dear to me. She was named Katherine Elizabeth, after her two grandmothers. So, we went with Katherine Elizabeth, shortened to Katey.

It was important to me that there be lots of syllables in each of their names, helpful (like counting to ten) when I was angrily trying to get their attention. It was a lucky accident that both girls have the same number of syllables in their names. Also nice that the first letters of their names are side by side in the alphabet. Had I decided to have a large family, I could have continued that pattern right through to Xavier, Yolanda and Zeke! Like her older sister, Jen, my youngest daughter has reduced her name to just one syllable. Now, we call her Kate.

Kate has seemed to pick up characteristics from her namesakes, too. Though I never knew the grandmothers that Aunt Katie was named for, I have seen photographs…and I have seen that same angry glare on my daughter’s face! Aunt Katie was a lover of books, travel, kids and dogs; my Kate has similar interests. Like Katherine Hepburn, my daughter is strong-willed, feisty and determined, with a big heart and a wonderful sense of humor. She’s a blessing in my life!

Joy!

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Today, the letter is J, and I am going to write about Jennifer.

Actually, I had just about settled on “Junk Drawer” for a topic, until it dawned on me that my oldest daughter’s name begins with J. This would be a perfect opportunity to write about her!

First, our drive to the hospital the night Jennifer was born. Her father started out driving very fast, until I asked him not to speed. Without an argument, he slowed down to precisely the speed limit and, maintaining that pace, drove through every single red light along the way. Our first child was born in the wintertime, just after midnight, early on a Sunday morning,

If she had been a boy, the name we had selected was Daniel Adrian. For our daughter, Jennifer Marietta. My husband and I had seen a movie titled “Jenny,” starring Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda, about young lovers and the war in Vietnam. That influenced our name choice. Jennifer was not an unusual name, but not overly common, either. I only knew two other girls with that name. It could be shortened to Jenny when she was small, but if our daughter grew up to be a doctor or lawyer, or president, for heaven’s sake, Jennifer would be a dignified moniker. Marietta was for Sister Marietta, the beautiful and kind Dominican nun who taught me in the fourth grade.

I held her, first, in the middle of the night, introduced myself, and counted her fingers and toes. There were many days and nights after that, that I held her, and watched her, and thought how blessed I was to be her mother. Then, there were a million cute things she did as a child, and special moments we shared, and ways she made me laugh, or cry, or feel proud. There are stories – some of my best anecdotes, in fact – that I am forbidden to tell. There are others that are simply too precious to share.

I believe the name you give a child plays a part in the person they become. In Jennifer, I see both Marlo Thomas and Sister Marietta reflected in Jennifer’s beauty, wit, kindness, and sense of humor. Jennifer became a much more common name, though, than I had anticipated. Along with the marginally popular movie, “Jenny,” “Love Story” came out in the months before my first child was born. It was a wildly popular, Oscar-nominated film starring Ryan O’Neil and Ali McGraw. McGraw’s character was named Jenny, and that name quickly became the most girl’s name in America! When my second daughter was little, she could not pronounce the “J” sound, so her sister’s name came out, “Nenny,” or “Nen,” as by that time we had gone to often just calling her Jen. Jen is what she still goes by now.

As with all children, and children-grown-into-adults, Jen has been the cause of many worries and concerns, and we’ve had our differences over the years. Mostly, though, being her mother has been a pleasure. The telephone rang just as I was getting out of bed the other day. Jennifer’s voice, when I picked up, instantly put a good spin on my morning. For all of the mixed blessings of motherhood, Jennifer mostly brings me joy!