“Stop the car! I want to get out!” Yes, I’ve said this with one of my children at the wheel. Well, in my head anyway. What I have said is, “Stop the car! I’m going to drive!” but that’s just not the same, is it? Because then you have to get back in the car with the teenager who is mad at you, mad at herself, or both. Helen claims I always unlocked my door when she was driving so I could bail at any time but that is NOT true. Gripping the door handle so tightly that I sometimes wonder if it’s what caused this pain in my right hand and not arthritis, yes. Stomping the imaginary brake, yes. Never, ever taking my eyes off the road, yes. Well, except the one time in Colorado, going up the winding gravel road to the dude ranch, when I looked down at a red, itchy spot on my arm and wondered about poison ivy and there was almost a head on collision. But in all fairness to Helen, the too-old-not-to-know-better male driver in the other car also wasn’t taking precautions with that curve and therefore blind stop. By the way, more about blind spots needs be on the test, and not how many feet you should stay behind an emergency vehicle that is a minimum of 10 seconds at 30 mph and a minimum of 6 seconds at speeds of 60 mph (answer 500).
When I learned to drive we practiced first on large simulation machines in the darkened annex of Topeka High School. With screens where every possible obstacle would jump out in front of you. With the teacher saying, “Eric, you just ran over an old lady and a kid on a bicycle.” That teacher was Willie, the basketball coach, who had us take him on errands and once had us drive him to his house where he stayed inside 30 minutes while we waited in the car. I imagine he was telling his wife tales about us, or taking a short nap, or maybe having a much needed shot of whiskey. But at the time we decided he and his wife were up to no good, as in funny business, because, well, we were teenagers. I remember how I kept speeding up instead of slowing down around corners as my foot couldn’t decide which pedal was which and how he said, “Annie,” (a nickname I liked but was seldom called) “please don’t do that anymore—you’re scaring me.” And there was none of this “50 hours of recorded time with a licensed adult in the front passenger seat with at least 10 hours after dark” business. No, I would try to get my parents to go out driving with me but they always seemed suddenly very busy when I asked. They probably didn’t like the way I killed the car in the middle of intersections, the big green Plymouth with the manual transmission and heavy-duty clutch. I didn’t either and I wasn’t going to get a car anyway so was in no great hurry to practice. I caught a ride to school with my friend Kathy. Her windshield wipers didn’t work and when it rained I stuck my hand out the window and moved them manually. Were there seat belts back then? When did that begin? But this is starting to sound like one of those stories old people tell.
Rose just completed her driver’s education class and now has things to say about all this. Things like, “You drive slow, Helen drives fast, Wayne drives crazy—I have no good role models.” Although I wisely chose not to respond to this remark at the time, I will state here that I drive at the speed limit or even slightly above unless it’s rainy or snowy or dark or dusk when the deer are out or when the sun is in my eyes or when driving on unfamiliar roads or when I don’t seem to be focusing well or am drinking tea from my thermos with the leaky lid. Helen and Wayne’s driving I won’t comment on, except to say that two out of three times the young among us speak the truth.
Each time we go out driving, I am supposed to record the time (seems like an eternity), driving conditions (abundant anxiety), weather (windy of course–it is Kansas), and skills practiced. Skills practiced?? I thought that should be obvious. Driving so as not to have an accident and thereby raising the parent’s already high auto insurance. But I wrote down “staying on the right side of the road”, even in downtown Riley where there are no yellow lines and hardly any other cars, come to think of it. How do people learn to drive in big cities? This question has puzzled me for years.
We really should list the skills to be practiced by the parent in the car. Things like trying to remember what it’s like to be fifteen. Things like keeping in mind that this is a huge step toward adulthood and it’s our job to help. That, however hard it seems, we need to calmly and patiently talk through the stop signs, the lane changes and merging traffic, the parking (oh, God, the parking), and yes, staying in the right lane, even when it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to someone who’s driven, what, 50 years, and knows how to manually work the windshield wipers.
It’s all a far cry from easy, no matter which side of the car you’re on. But it’s something that has to be gotten through, a kind of rite of passage. In the end there’s a license with a photo that admittedly (no matter what you tell her) should have been retaken. And there’s a young person ready to be more independent. We need to be happy about this, even though a part of us still wants to be in the driver’s seat, where we think we have some control over things. Where we think we can keep everyone safe. When really, all we can do is smile and hang on for dear life. And keep the doors locked. Jumping out just isn’t an option.
Several years ago I felt quite pleased with myself for overcoming a sensitivity to annoying noises. I decided it must be from having children around. Like getting allergy shots, all the exposure made me immune. It sounded logical but then I started to get irritated with the opposite problem. Why did my children have to turn the TV volume so low? It was ridiculous and yet they kept doing it.
When I was in my mid 40’s, I was at a small indoor concert in winter, feeling very warm, while all those around me hadn’t bothered to shed sweaters and jackets. The concert was well underway before it occurred to me that the others must be reasonable people (after all, it was bluegrass music) and so maybe, just maybe, the odd person out was me. Having my first hot flash was almost as bad as being told I needed bifocals, when I remember thinking, “Tell me I’m going blind but, dear God, not this!”
I now accept that my hearing isn’t that great and try to find humor in my odd interpretations of what is really said, though I seem to be the only one in the family laughing. It also comes in handy, as in, “You told me this morning I need to drive you and Winona to the mall after school? I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear that and now I’ve made other plans.” In all fairness to myself, I try not to take advantage of this and many more times than not (call it selective hearing if you want), I really didn’t catch what was said.
Aside from the hearing loss, there are the knees that hurt and the heartburn and the test results that show bone loss. And with each new sign of aging there is at first shock. We know it happens but we don’t expect it yet. All this leads to what I call “late middle-aged” crisis (“elderly” should apply to only those past 90 and “mature” unfortunately doesn’t work for all the over 60’s). If mid-life crisis is about frustration and disappointment at where one is at 40, this later crisis is more about a grieving process. It’s the recognition that there are things you always dreamed about that really aren’t going to happen—as in really aren’t going to happen. At 40, the likelihood that I would gallop a pinto pony over the hills of Kansas was very remote but still, one never knows, right? Now the idea of falling and breaking a bone becomes much more of a real possibility, and I have to recognize that it’s not to be. And the loss of that dream I have had since childhood goes deep. Very deep.
We of a certain age are told to compensate these losses by enjoying “the little things”, which my 101 year old uncle, once a missionary in Africa, certainly knows how to do. He is still able to write a very coherent longhand letter. In the most recent one, the words a bit wobbly since his stroke, he states, “I still enjoy the good food Krista prepares for me each day and I seem to have adjusted to the medicine I take for a daily bowel movement, for which I praise the Lord.”
One can laugh at this—I certainly did—but it doesn’t mean my Uncle John’s life is only about such things or that it no longer has meaning. He certainly still affects my life by his thoughtful and detailed letters. I send a small check when I write back, telling him to buy a treat. He always lets me know what he bought (usually ice cream) and I am touched by this communication. Like all of us, at any age, he has a story to tell. And it’s important to listen.
What is not funny is the way so many things just aren’t easy. If I have to conduct business on-line I steel myself for a hike in blood pressure and hope the dogs are outside when I throw whatever is handy across the room. I don’t know why my smart phone keeps telling me I have “important” upgrades which apparently aren’t important at all, and I pray that at some point in a call about a health insurance claim I can get a real person to talk to me. Aside from feeling outdated by all this, there’s a sense of being pushed to a state of decline before we want it, even if well intentioned. Rose, at 14, associates the name Via Christi with a nursing home where we visited an elderly woman (yes, in her 90’s) and where her middle school choir sang holiday carols. She didn’t know it is also the name of other health services, one of which sent me a notice about needing to schedule an appointment. She saw it, open on the kitchen table with the letter head showing, looked at me, and quite sincerely said, “Oh, Mom, congratulations! You’ve been accepted into Via Christi!”
I have recently added closed captions to some of the shows I watch and figure it can’t hurt my reading skills. My children seem to be more tolerant of my need for repetition, though is there really any good reason for them to mumble? I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I won’t be bungee jumping (though bless those, like a friend’s aunt, who celebrated her 80th birthday by getting a tattoo and skydiving), but I do expect my life to continue to have adventures and challenges and all those emotions that make us know we are alive. Fortunately, life doesn’t end with the final goodbye to Flicka. And I think I can still hear her whinnying as she gallops off.
My Uncle John as a young man and then in his late 90’s. Below is his father on a dairy run. John helped on the farm and later delivered milk in Kansas City by truck. He was known to be rather wild behind the wheel. This is a just a part of his story.
It’s August 7th and my yard wouldn’t qualify for one of those garden tours you can sign up to take. No, it wouldn’t even be on a runner up list. Unless it’s a different kind of tour—“Wild and Free” or as a promotion tour “See Why You Need Us”.
This hasn’t been the case all summer. The larkspur were lovely and lush in June, their pink and lavender blossoms making a great color combination with blue flax and yellow lilies. But it would appear that all that larkspur, which has now gone to seed, crowded out others and what I have left are large patches with little but weeds (interesting that the term “weeds” refers to any plant in the wrong place at the wrong time). Meanwhile, the wildflower beds by the road are bedraggled from the extended heat wave. And the vegetables in the three raised beds don’t look much better. One tomato plant has that “failure to thrive” appearance and the only cucumber plant even thinking about producing is a volunteer from last year. At least I have a good crop of green peppers on the way and have harvested three (!) zucchini. I used one to make two loaves of bread, quite good toasted with butter or cream cheese and that reminds me that I still have a loaf in the freezer. It was my mother’s recipe and I always hope the benefit of the zucchini might cancel out all the oil.
But back to the flowers, an area I like to think I’m good at. This morning I took my tea and sat down on the bench by the decorated tree stump. Fat cat Noel joined me and tried to distract me from my assessment of the situation. The black-eyed Susans are on their last legs. The dianthus are trying to make a late summer come back without much success. The straggly petunias I put in last week in the hope of adding some color (end of year half price clearance) are not likely to spread at this point. And the six foot tall dill plant is badly bent over from a storm and hasn’t managed to straighten up. I didn’t cut it back as it feeds caterpillars in late summer. As I sat there, stroking Noel, feeling quite deflated, I noticed something on one of the few petunia blossoms. It stood out with dark wings and blue, white and orange spots—a western black tailed butterfly and that would mean….I searched the dill and there, carefully camouflaged, I found one, then two, then three caterpillars. Suddenly my efforts seemed more worthwhile. I enjoy sharing all these plants and since nobody is coming for a garden tour…
…though perhaps if I advertised having a fairy garden, and I could even expand it next year—maybe a little pagoda and a labyrinth, though someone suggested that fairies are not really in need of meditation devices.
The fairy garden has been a plan of mine for some time and this June it seemed like the perfect excuse to postpone checking off items on the “to do this summer as I didn’t get it done for the last five summers” list. I knew exactly where I wanted it—a sheltered spot under some juniper bushes in front of the porch. And so I set out.
First came a pebble road lined with a twig fence (Rose helped me find the right sized flat stones and sticks), then two wading pools, very cleverly placed under a hanging plant to catch the run off from watering. A little arched branch ended the road which would lead to a house…a house. Huh….a house. If I was trying to follow the idea of using only natural materials, then little sticks seemed appropriate but several attempts at making the house actually stand on its own had me looking on-line for Joann’s coupons. Helen told me all I needed was a hot glue gun and she was right. I found one that I’d bought for all the craft projects she used to beg for, noting that I had another comeback to those popular articles about decluttering. And I found that a glass of red wine seemed to help, especially if working in the evening.
Helen also suggested using Popsicle sticks and for a person who NEVER finished ANY of her craft projects, she does have some good ideas. Those made the frame and really can’t be seen from the outside and, dear fairies, forgive me, if when you enter in, you are offended by these man-made sticks—well, also the twine and the pottery parts and all that glue. But somehow I can’t picture fairies being easily offended.
I had my setbacks, as with the swing, which still stays twisted. And whenever I go to straighten it out I step on some of the fencing. The last addition was a picnic area and it seems a mole has burrowed underneath, perhaps searching for a few leftover crumbs. Then there’s the wading pools where roly poly bugs have some kind of suicide pact about drowning. I know it may not last through the winter and I’ve thought of bringing in the house, but I love the idea of seeing snow on the roof. I do wish the dill plant was nearby. I can picture those caterpillars meandering down the pebble path. The fairies wouldn’t mind sharing. They are that kind of folk.
I will admit to sometimes having a little envy of those carefully mulched and weed free gardens, but I wouldn’t trade mine for them. I love the wildness and all the variety, the way every summer something different gets to have its glory days. I love the caterpillars that will eat the dill plant and the fairy garden already in need of restoration, the way those patches of bare earth give me reason to plan for next year. I won’t likely be on any tour that I’ve ever known about. That’s O.K., but I would like to share my garden, with whoever wants to come and visit. I want to be that kind of folk.
To see more about fairy gardens:
I have big horned cows in my pasture. They’re not mine and I don’t know their breed but they have big horns—really big horns—so I just call them big horned cows. A farmer brought them over to chop down the grass and weeds in the pasture. He’s done this several years in a row and we call it an even deal. His cows get some grazing for a month and I keep the usually unused pasture maintained. Last year he brought what he called “ugly” cows but I found them rather cute. The young ones had curly bangs over their eyes and they liked to come to the gate and stare at me. Perhaps they even thought of me as the cute little old lady. The current ones are interesting in their own way, and the mama manages to give her baby a bath without spearing him, proving once again that animals are often smarter than we give them credit for.
I thought it was the farmer’s job to make sure there was always water for them and that the electric fence was working. So when I went out several days ago to find the tank almost dry and the fence not “hot” (I certainly didn’t touch it but one of the cats did with no sign of discomfort and cats are not known to let such feelings go unmentioned), I decided I’d better do a daily check. I walked up to the hydrant and turned it on then walked back and placed the hose in the metal tank. It takes a while to fill up and for some reason if I walk away the hose mysteriously is back on the ground (do the cows pull it out as some kind of bovine humor?), so you have to stand there and watch the water slowly inch up the side. The baby approached the tank and took a gulp then came toward me. The big guys were nearby and I thought of walking over to them. There is one bull and the farmer had told me not to worry as “He’s very tame,” but I have memories of being chased by a bull on my grandmother’s farm.
As I stood there I thought about the horses we used to have and how much I missed the sight of them in that pasture, the sound of their hoofs crossing the wooden bridge at dinner time, the way I would go look for Penrod (quite elderly and terribly thin in spite of much grain and every possible supplement available) when he didn’t come in after dark, thinking I’d be relieved to see him lying dead, instead filled with joy when he came crashing out of the trees toward me and my flashlight. Winter night feedings were something I’d dread with all the clothes to put on and getting up off the warm couch, but then as I stood there, listening to their contented munching, seeing the frozen mist from their breath glistening on their muzzles, walking back to the house and looking up at the stars—well, sometimes it seemed it just couldn’t get any better than that.
My parents let me have dogs as a child (they drew the line at cats) and of all the things I am thankful for about their parenting, that one is high on the list. The rules were strict with few exceptions—the dog got walked twice a day, rain or shine. I still do that (O.K., once a day) even when the prairie wind is like a blast furnace or something resembling a trek across Antarctica. Even when the woods are full of ticks and later spiders that love to make their webs at head level (my head) across the path. It’s a job I do because it is my responsibility, but the truth is I get back much more than I give. I’m not sure how often I’d get out on our country road or down into the little woods without them. And who else shows me that kind of appreciation, and don’t suggest it’s teenage children.
That’s what I told myself as I looked at those cows. They give me a little time each day to be still and take in the land I live on, the cats that gather around me, the creek bed now dry but still beautiful. As it turns out, I’m glad the farmer doesn’t always get around to checking on things. I like standing with the cows. I like making sure they always have water.
“Do you think you could make this? I need them for my science project at school.” Alex stood beside me with an origami book opened to a page showing a diagram of an airplane. I was finishing dinner at a gathering of Circles, an organization with a goal of moving families out of the cycle of poverty. I and some college aged women (I gladly take the role of grandmother to the grade school aged kids) do childcare while their parents attend meetings on Tuesday evenings.
I was more than a little flattered that he’s asked me over those college girls (Who wouldn’t be?) and quickly agreed that I would try. I can’t see an origami book without thinking of my dad and the hours we used to spend together when I was young. Once I wrote a children’s story based on those times with him:
Some People Call Me Daddy’s Girl.
On Saturday mornings my daddy and me go to the bakery where they sell day old bread but my mommy and my brother call it used bread. I wear overalls and my daddy wears his brown jacket that’s too tight when he zips it up. The man there always gives me something free, like cupcakes. Daddy says it’s because I smile at him. He says I could get anything with that smile. He says it like I do that way on purpose but I just smile at that man when he smiles at me.
Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons we walk to the drugstore. We’re supposed to be on “errands” but we like to sit at the counter and have root beers. When we’re walking home my daddy says, “Now if your mother asks if you had something, you tell her, but you don’t have to tell her if she doesn’t ask.” He always says that but my mommy never asks.
I got an origami paper folding set for my birthday and my daddy and me sit at the kitchen table and try to make something. I read the directions and we do what it says. Sometimes it makes you fold up the paper and then unfold it. It says, “Now return to your basic shape.” My daddy always acts mad when it says that, like the book is silly. We’ve made a basket and a bird, and the polar bear up to step four.
Sometimes we paint with my watercolors. I painted three horses while my daddy did one giraffe. He had to paint it with hundreds of tiny brown and yellow dots– for “shading” he said. He still hasn’t finished it and keeps saying, “Where is that giraffe? I’m going to finish it one day.”
When a new catalog comes in the mail, me and my daddy look at it, page by page. We have a game that on each page you get to pick out one thing you want. Even if it’s just towels, you get to pick out the color. My favorite is the flower catalog because sometimes we really order things. We never order the towels.
When I make doll clothes I take them to my Daddy. I say, “What grade does this get?” Then he looks at my doll clothes real careful, first on the outside and then on the inside. If there’s a loose string hanging, he points to it and looks at me with his mouth turned down. Then I say, “Oh, Daddy, that’s just a little string.” And then he gives me an A minus and says, “Pretty good,” and I sigh like I wish I would get a plain A, just once.
Three times my daddy and me went to the dog pound to get a dog. We didn’t see any dogs in the cages that were right but I was sad about all of them anyway. On the third time the lady there said she had a special dog and she had it at her house. She said she was waiting for just the right people to get it. We went to her house and the dog whined and shivered when I petted him, but the lady said he was just happy. We named him Sandy. The first day he wet on the carpet but then he never did again so maybe he was nervous. My mommy says she doesn’t know who loves that dog more, my daddy or me.
Every night at bedtime my daddy and me plan our farm. My daddy wants a big garden and I want a horse. Sometimes we talk about how big the pasture will be. Sometimes we talk about if we want any cats or only Sandy and one other dog, to keep him company when I’m at school. Sometimes we talk about how we have to trick my mommy and my brother to go out there cause they say they don’t like farms. We whisper when we talk about that part.
In the summer I help my daddy water the plants. I put my finger over the hose nozzle so it sprays like rain. My mommy says why don’t we buy a sprayer attachment cause they’re cheap and her friend Vera says they work real good. My daddy says this works better. When his begonia puts out little buds he says she’s pregnant and then in a few days he says, “The mother and babies are doing find but I’ve put them in the intensive care unit.” That means he’s put them near the house where they won’t get too much wind or rain.
When it gets cold again we play games at night. My daddy is smart but he’s not very quick at games. When I win he says he owes me a candy bar and do I want to play for double or nothing. Now he owes me 256 candy bars but I don’t think I’m going to get them.
Once in a while my brother and I do get candy bars at the grocery store. He eats his right away but I save mine. I take it out later and eat it real slow. If my daddy sees me he says, “Now I know this is hard to believe, but once there was a little girl who was so selfish she wouldn’t share her candy bar with her nice daddy.” My mommy says, “Ignore him,” but I give him a little bit anyway. Every time I do that.
Sometimes my daddy says when he gets old I’ll trade him in for a new model, like you do with a car. I don’t like it when he says that, but he says it all the time, anyway. I tell him not to say such things, but then I kiss him and tell him never.
Never will I trade my daddy in for a new model.
He died on this day, sixteen years ago. He gave me his time and attention and a model of what it is to be a good father. But more than that, he gave me something that seems rare in this world: I can’t remember a single time when he wasn’t glad to see me or hear my voice or when he acted like he’d rather be somewhere else. And although I felt this way about him as a little girl, later I was often impatient to be finished with his company, eager to be somewhere else.
Alex and I sat on the floor and made airplanes. The only paper we could find was thick and bulky and we had trouble figuring out the directions (Though it never said “Now return to your basic shape.”). My knees hurt and other boys kept interrupting. But we managed two planes that stayed aloft and seemed to please Alex. From what I know, he has no father at home.
With ten minutes left before the session was over, he asked if he could go out in the hall and test his science project. Halfway to the door he turned back and looked at me. “Can you come too?” I just hope, as we stood at the two ends of the hallway, with him sending the airplanes off and me marking the landing sites, that he could tell there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
“So what was the day you adopted me,” Helen asked me recently. Not unlike many things children ask their parents, or indeed parents ask their children, it was a trick question. She thought I’d forgotten the day she officially became my daughter. And I sort of had, which sounds terrible. February, 1998, and the 26th—no wait, maybe the 22nd or the 24th? Luckily for me, she asked this over the phone and I happened to have my calendar handy, where I’ve penciled in all important dates. “It’s February 24,” I replied with that tone of why-would-you-ever-doubt-me and I couldn’t tell if she was happy I’d remembered or sorry she hadn’t once again caught me out.
It’s very common for American adoptive parents to have a yearly celebration for their children’s adoption days. It’s certainly a nice tradition and when Helen was young we would go out to dinner, sharing a grownup meal between the two of us, then maybe a trip to the park or to get ice cream. But after Rose came along, four years later, it was harder to manage the birthday parties and holidays and two adoption day celebrations and so this nice tradition somehow got lost along the way.
But there’s something else going on here. I don’t think a lot about the exact date when those papers were signed. It all began so much sooner, as it does with all parents who have gone on this journey to find their sons and daughters. My journey started in the spring of 1996, when I first researched overseas adoption. In the late summer of that year, very soon after Helen was born as it turned out, I knew that China was my destination. And with each passing day, the good ones and those not so good as well, my child’s presence grew stronger.
August 14, 1996
Dear Camille, I’m out weeding and mowing—have a garden group coming over for a potluck tonight. With all the recent rain my flowers look pretty darn good, if I do say so. My best success story is a small bed of wildflowers, grown from seed—I think watering them twice a day at first made the difference. Also my goldfish in the backyard pond had babies and I’ve trained them all to come when I slap the water. Perhaps if teaching ESL at K-State gets too much I’ll get a job at Sea World!
I’ve been trying to sort out adoption papers and what I need to do next in this process….still have doubts and it doesn’t help when I hear negative things about adoption—from people who don’t know I’m thinking of doing it. Makes me want to mention the high rate of divorce and DOES THAT STOP ANYONE FROM GETTING MARRIED? Anyway, sometimes I think maybe these bad stories are a sign that I shouldn’t go ahead….then I think, but maybe by having to climb over obstacles, my resolve is just getting stronger.
Yes, I too wish we could be neighbors. Then we could share plantings—remember the “monster plants” I brought back on the plane from Chicago? They’re about ready to bloom. Hope to see you again soon. Ann
October 12, 1996
This morning I was reading something about a side trip. Side trip made me think of side car and suddenly I had an image. I was on a big motorcycle, buzzing down a country road, and in a little red seat beside me sat Helen. Her black, straight hair was streaming out from behind. And we were both screaming with joy.
January 3, 1997
Seems like I can wake up and breathe easier once it’s the first of the year. I had recorded the documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and watched it late into the night. I can’t seem to look at a picture of the Viet Nam War Memorial without getting teary eyed. I didn’t know anyone who died there, and very few men who served, yet it seems so much a part of who I am, that terrible war. I remember, as a teenager, trying to cover my ears, walking past the living room TV, filled with shots of bombings and bodies returning, of demonstrations with the old against the young, like a civil war. But here was a 21 year old Chinese American woman who had a remarkable design for healing. And she stood up in her hat, like a young Eleanor Roosevelt with a round face, and spoke to those who hated her idea, who hated the fact that she was a woman, and Asian descent at that. I believe Helen knows what courage is. And I thought about my little Chinese girl as I watched this other strong young woman.
February 9, 1997
It’s about time to have some lunch. At 2:00 some of the teachers are coming over for a “garden sharing tea” but really I want them to come over here so I can demonstrate my Taiwanese tea and so I can show them Helen’s little Chinese outfit with the red dragon shoes. And the blue, green, and white sweater that I just finished. And the bookshelf filled with things supposedly for her but as much for me—to make it all seem more real. Sometimes there’s the panic. But other times, now, there’s a feeling that’s similar to being in love. It gives me a happy feeling, deep inside, knowing there’s something to look forward to. Something that’s beyond the ordinary kind of thing to look forward to. And, like being in love, I feel open to share others’ happiness. Without so much envy, without wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t have what they have. But I think now in preparation for the garden get together I’ll lay out the Chinese tea things. And I think I’ll lay out all of Helen’s things on my bed. They’ll be easier to see that way.
August 25, 1997
Tonight I came home and watched Mr. Rogers. I always found him insipid but today I saw Helen watching him and she liked him. I saw her turn to me and laugh, while I read the paper and my mail. I think Mr. Rogers might be O.K. Then I ate my corn on the cob and homegrown tomatoes and tofu pups fried in a little olive oil and salsa sauce (from Costa Rica via Carlo and his wife). And I thought about Helen and how she shouldn’t be a picky eater and I would get her started out right. Then I imagined her plate of food, with the tofu pups cut up small so she wouldn’t choke.
I keep thinking I’m not ready, that I never can be ready. But maybe I’m getting about as ready as I can get.
December 31, 1997
I am looking at a colored printout, downloaded from email, first viewed on a computer screen. She is a child of the 21st century, my little Ying. “Ying” meaning clever or bright, “Helen” meaning the bright one. She is Bright Bright. Did I mention she is beautiful?
I came back from my visit with Marsha and Tony and saw the blinking light on the answering machine. “Maybe this is it,” I thought. But I’ve thought that so many times. But it was, a message from Linda, that congratulations were in order, that she is gorgeous and that she is a little younger than I wanted.
She is 18 months, 30 pounds. I thought I must have heard wrong. That must be big for an American child of that age. 18 months? I listened again. I crouched by the phone and cried, from shock and joy. This was my child. I knew that.
How funny things are. I have spent months worrying that she would be older than I had asked for. And here she is, hardly older than the infants coming out. Her birthday is July 2, 1996. She was abandoned at seven months. She is a little Chinese warrior staring out of the picture, boyish with her short hair. When I first saw her on the screen, I said, “Her hair is black!” and then realized what a silly thing that was to say.
I practice saying her name with a touch of sternness. “Helen Ying, that’s enough.” And what I have of her is a piece of paper from an email:
Date: Mon, 29 Dec 1997
Subject: Ann Carter’s baby.
January 3, 1998
Another quote from Journey of the Heart by Melody Beattie:
Remember the words you were told when this last adventure began, the words
whispered quietly to your heart: Let the journey unfold. Let it be magical.
The way has been prepared. People will be expecting you.
Friends are planning showers. I don’t like showers of any kind but I must admit it’s more exciting and fun to be on the receiving end. Is it possible that I’m almost 46 and this will be my first?
I got a phone message from Linda wanting me to fax my acceptance of Ying (I just wrote her name without thinking.) When I heard the message and couldn’t reach my agent, I thought maybe my fax wouldn’t get there in time, maybe they would give her to someone else. But finally I convinced myself to calm down. Why would they give away my child? She just didn’t belong to anyone else. She never has.
Helen Ying Carter will be expecting me.
February 22, 1998
I’ve thought of some things Helen and I can do. We can walk down to the lobby and look at the whirling ball in the water. And surely we can take a walk outside. And she can look out the window. And play with balloons in the room. I can give her a bath and try on her clothes. Maybe I’m not ready because I see her as some wild angry child, out of my control, kicking the door and maybe me. But when she calms down I wash her little face. I can change her diaper. I can keep her hands away from dangerous things. I can hold her on my lap and comb her hair. And after I comb her hair, she can comb mine. When I looked in the mirror tonight, my hair seemed ugly and thin, but maybe Helen won’t think so. Maybe she will find my hair beautiful. Maybe she will even like me.
February 23, 1998
I sit here in the hotel room waiting, sipping green tea made from a bag I brought, thinking I should stop worrying about how expensive this place is. I went out wandering, looking for a place to buy cheap snacks and juice. I didn’t find a juice place, but instead a department store with wonderful little shoes and so inexpensive—felt like buying five pairs. Maybe I can buy one (or two) for now and several she will grow into.
This seems like a very lonely thing to go through alone—like being in the delivery room without anyone else there. No one to yell at, no one to pat me. No one to say, “You know, it’s normal to feel this way.” But hey, whiners aren’t really very likable people. I’ll have to remember to tell Helen that.
Sitting here reminds me a little of waiting for a blind date or first date to appear—the nervousness about the unknown. It seems strange to compare the two, except when I think that I often held to the idea that “this guy” could be “the one,” therefore changing my life forever. Poor Helen has no choice in this, however, and I guess I don’t either—not at this point. We’re going to have to get along. But God, let this turn out better than those blind dates.
February 23, 1998
Well, Helen isn’t combing my hair—yet. I guess she’s too young for that. When they brought her in (the director and assistant director and driver from the orphanage) I can’t say that I felt an instant bond. She looked so big and so boyish. I continued to think she was indeed very fat until I began to take off layers—four tops and four pants in all, many padded. I haven’t weighed her yet, maybe tomorrow, but I’m betting about 26 pounds. Now she is calmly sitting in her crib, eating a cracker. Before that she fell asleep in my arms, looking out at the lights of Nanjing. But let me say this, no matter how much you can intellectualize about a toddler’s reaction, it just doesn’t bond you to someone when they reject you. You like someone because they like and need you. Well, that doesn’t sound like a good mother’s view. She stayed calm about five minutes after they left (people who obviously loved children) but then there was a look on her face that I will never forget. It was a look of someone happy who suddenly realizes a terrible thing is happening to them. And she cried, her face screwing up and big tears rolling down two of the roundest cheeks I’ve ever seen. She let me wipe her hot face with a cool cloth and almost seemed to welcome it, but then just cried harder. Then she fell asleep, standing up, leaning against the bed, where I lifted her and where she slept an hour. “That wasn’t so bad,” I told myself. But when she woke up she started again, standing by the door, great howling cries, enough to make me wonder if the neighbors would complain. And I did feel helpless, not knowing what she’d eat and one look at me making her cry even harder.
But I must say this, in all her grief and outrage, she never kicked or struck out at me and somehow, through the worst moments, I sensed she knew I had her best interest at heart. There was a sweetness and yes, even appreciation, behind the outrage. Once when she was a little calmer she let me feed her Cheerios, one by one, and the soft feel of her little lips reminded me of how I feel when Turtle, my cat, eats grass out of my hand.
And I just went over and did the mother thing. I checked to see if my baby was breathing. And yes, thank you God, for I believe Helen has what I wanted most in a child, in my daughter. I believe that little Ying Ying has a good heart. And indeed, she has courage. And tonight, as we sat looking out at the lights of Nanjing, I told her that.
February 28, 1998
Was I a little bored at times in the company of a more demanding but happier child today? Sometimes. Do I want to go back home and pretend this was all an interesting trial? That life as a single parent is going to be too much? I can’t imagine thinking that. There is no choice now. Because strange and unknown little lives have joined forces, never to be the same again. Did getting Turtle and adjusting to her help? Very much, for it takes experience to know that only rarely and perhaps never does it not take time to love others and to not be afraid of them, of what they might be. When Helen is restless or loud or gives me a funny look, I catch myself thinking, “What if she really is a monster child in hiding?” I know she is not. But it’s also O.K. to think that sometimes. It is the way I am. Maybe it is some need in me to imagine the worst and get through it in my mind, only to come out on the other side to face the lesser evils of reality. For if orphanages can produce these beautiful children, maybe there is hope for this world. And today, day six of knowing Helen, I had fun dressing her up (she’s very proud of her new shoes). And we went down to the lobby and admired the water fountain. And once, when sitting in my lap, she stroked my hair, and I swear she thought it was beautiful.
You see, Helen, I do remember, but not so much the date I signed the stack of papers. That was just a formality. It all started when I set out to find you. But for the record, it’s February 24th. We should go out to dinner. Maybe get some ice cream later. And not just on adoption day.
Note: Excerpts taken from the book “Spiders from Heaven”. To learn more, visit annlcarter.com and www.facebook.com/AnnLCarterAuthor
The mice have returned and it’s no surprise after Thanksgiving’s ice storm. Who wouldn’t want to seek shelter from that? These mice don’t likely remember the terrible ice storm of 2007, but I do. I remember the chill down in the bones that wouldn’t go away, the dirty dishes that got set out in the snow as there was no water to wash them, the horse tank frozen solid. What seemed like the kind of adventure a pioneer gal should experience became a reminder of how little I know of what it takes to be a real pioneer. In fact, I don’t expect to ever know that. These days, in this country, we assume the utility companies will restore the light and warmth and water—hot water, of course. The dishes will be brought in and washed, the thermostat will climb up to a comfortable level, and I will go back to being able to do all those things that require light, even after the sun goes down. During that great ice storm of 2007, my not-so-fun-adventure had an end in sight.
And speaking of ends and in this case not so pleasant ones, the cats got two of the mice, leaving one on the kitchen floor for me to nearly step on first thing in the morning, and the other under the couch where it was causing quite a stink before I figured out where it was. Another especially clever one got in my live trap, ate the glob of peanut butter, left plenty of those little black dropping they are known for, and went his merry way. I had already decided that I didn’t really want to catch any of these sweet creatures (I do find them sweet) until the ice was gone, until the temperatures had warmed a bit. When I would feel better about releasing them into a field. I want them to have a chance to find a good winter home.
Let Them Come In
The new snow so white,
white as the down on the Canadian geese
searching for an uncovered field,
white as the pompom on the stocking cap
worn by my daughter.
The snowman finished,
damp mittens spread out on newspaper
alongside boots and soaked pants,
the soup simmering on the stove.
I want to have a room for the birds,
the cardinals and sparrows and crows—
yes, the crows.
I would invite them in
to roost in small trees grown in red clay pots,
to eat from feeders
painted flower yellow and sky blue
and hung from the branches,
newspaper underneath to catch the droppings,
for droppings there would be.
They would eat their fill
then go back out
into that bright white
in search of those still needing
to be brought in.
The ice and cold have been replaced with a stretch of almost spring-like weather with thunderstorms due tonight. But winter will return. I thought the mice had left, perhaps after seeing what the cats had in mind for them, but yesterday I found Bella staring under a bookshelf with that look of patient anticipation—so no, I don’t think they’re gone. I know they belong outside, as do the birds. But there are others out there who are not meant to survive in the wild. Who would love a place where their children’s damp clothes can dry. Where they can cook soup for dinner. Where they can watch the birds outside their windows. Where someone says to them, “Welcome home.”
December is here. The shortest day is drawing near. The bright white of winter’s sun won’t linger for anyone. It is time to let them come in.
# Kansas writer #refugees
There are a number of ways to look at Halloween from an adult point of view. One is to be worried that our young children will be demonic on that day, but thinking how my daughters sometimes behaved at four or five, who could tell? Another way is to solve the issue of too much sugar, and not just with the kids. My mother thought she had a solution when she put the candy treats in the very top kitchen cupboard. Of course that meant climbing on a step stool (she was still doing this in her 90’s) to “hide” them around the 22nd of October and then climbing up again on the 23th, 24th, 25th, 26th…………sometimes it meant another trip to the store on the 31st. I’d like to suggest a third way, which is a chance to get out of a stuck role. It’s a night of mini improv for young and old where anything goes, with the only rehearsed line of “Trick or Treat”. I did some theater years ago and had different parts to play: an owl, a ditsy secretary, a gypsy, and a sergeant nurse at an army recruiting station (that one was a stretch for me, I’ll admit). These roles were fun partly because they were very different from the character I played in real life.
My parents saw me as an easy child—quiet, obedient, happy most of the time, and not demanding. And as an easy child, I decided that meant I shouldn’t say no. When I first heard the story of the Little Red Hen who didn’t give her bread to those who hadn’t helped, I was both shocked and excited. Could you really refuse and still be a good person? It seemed so and yet I couldn’t quite figure out how to make that work for me. Later, I assumed my own children would have at least some of my qualities, even when they came by way of adoption: soft spoken, eager to please, not prone to causing any trouble…..I had quite a list. But as the case so often is, I didn’t get what I thought I wanted but instead what I needed—more lessons that there are things to consider besides pleasing others. I first saw this clearly when Helen was almost three. She stood in the middle of the park, in the middle of a mud puddle, and jumped up and down. My first reaction was anger at the way she’d likely ruined her clothes and cost me the time to try and clean them and her. And I took it personally as well—here she was acting out against me—ME—the person who took her to that park many evenings and built endless bridges and horse stables with Doplo blocks and let her bring her potty chair into the living room and…..again, the list goes on. But as I watched the look on her face my feelings changed. This was not the action of a child wanting to make work for me or show her power over me. She was jumping for the pure fun of it. And what I felt then was envy, envy that I couldn’t have done that at her age, at any age, for fear of causing others to be displeased with me.
I was an Angel on Halloween
from a sheet,
covered in gold foil
and almost as big as me,
a halo bobby pinned
At six and a half
I didn’t mind.
“Costumes that take that much time
should be worn more than once,”
my mother’s words,
“And besides, you look so sweet.”
And so at seven and a half
I was still an angel,
unable to say
that I did mind,
wanting instead to be
a witch or ghost
or anything of
But I’m sure I even managed to smile
for a second fitting.
“As perfect as any child could me,”
my teacher’s words,
written on a note to my mother.
And part of perfect meant quiet
with few no’s,
at least not spoken.
with Helen an owl
and Rose a cowgirl,
I put on tight black pants
over middle aged thighs,
a favorite orange printed vest,
boots and hat.
Wanting to wear nothing
to suggest an angel,
hooting and yipping
with the owl and cowgirl,
trying out my
less than perfect
Helen is long past trick or treating and Rose claims she is now also too old. It makes me sad and not just because there won’t be mini Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter cups to guilt them out of. I will miss marching up and down the streets of our former in-town neighborhood, the leaves crunching underfoot, pumpkins glowing, chatting with the other parents as we remind our ghosts and princesses and whatever that kid is to say thank you. And I will miss the opportunity to give myself a different role to play as well. I’m not sure what I was trying to be that night twelve years ago, but I know it was a lot more fun than being an angel. And there, that’s possibly the best way of looking at Halloween. It’s a day when our children remind us that sometimes they do things with no hidden agenda—they do things just to have fun. And now I’m thinking I need to find my own mud puddle and start jumping.
#Halloween, roles, children, adoption, Kansas writer, Spiders from Heaven
I just came in from dodging a spider web. I’d already accidentally knocked this particular one down twice and if I am to go by the most famous spider of all times, Charlotte herself, building these things is no easy job and therefore should not be taken lightly. Which is why I really didn’t want to make this spideress build for a forth time. It makes you wonder why something necessary for the survival of the species is so vulnerable. Rather like us, come to think of it, and certainly in the area of insecurities. And although I’m sure I could find examples in all of us to clearly show this, I guess I had just better use my own story.
After receiving a lovely rejection email (I’m rather fond of these now) to my application to attend the AROHO women writers’ retreat, I later got another email telling me a space had opened up and the group would be honored to have me. YES, I replied within minutes, and the honor was certainly mine to be able to join 120 other participants on the high desert of New Mexico this past August.
I was amazed that I didn’t have my usual trip anxiety when packing for this trip—layers of clothing for the hot days and cool nights, a couple of skirts and blouses for evening events and a possible day trip to Santa Fe (I picked bright colors with a bit of ex-hippie character), seven copies of Spiders from Heaven to put out on the for-sale book tables, my computer and, last but not least, 2 copies of what I planned to read aloud to the entire group.
Yes, everyone had the opportunity to read aloud something they had written, a maximum of three minutes in front of all 120 women, some of them well known writers and others big in the publishing industry. Three minutes turn out to be a very short time, especially if you allow for a few dramatic pauses, and I ended up picking one of my shorter but favorite blogs, “Sitting with the Dog vs. Going to the Dogs” (posted June 16, 2013). I arrived feeling pretty good about this selection, a short essay about how sitting with my lovely dog Jack on the back steps gave me a clearer and more positive perspective on the world.
Although I can’t say I was completely comfortable the first evening and following day, I started the retreat with an acceptance that I had enough to contribute and was worthy of being there. (I did, however, show early signs of overall insecurity when I met my roommate. I found it rather ironic that AROHO stands for “A Room of Her Own” and yet all the participants had a roommate. Mine was young, pretty, obviously very bright and witty, and my first worry was what she must be thinking—paired up with a much older woman and why couldn’t she have someone her own age, someone she surely had more in common with, maybe even someone who could stay out late with her and not complain about aching knees. I actually was thinking something along the same lines, as an older roommate and I could use the time together to figure out how to turn off roaming on our smart phones, in case Verizon tried to charge us extra. But more on roommates later.)
There were four nights of readings, over two hours each night with a wine and snack break in the middle. I was scheduled to read the last half of the last night, which seemed O.K. as that gave me plenty of time to get comfortable (silly me). I went the first night, sat down by yet another woman I’d never met before, and settled in to listen. And that’s when those carefully woven strands of web began to break apart and any anxiety I’d lacked pre-trip started up in full force.
Apart from a few very funny readings (how could my couple of witticisms possibly compare?) the main themes I was hearing had to do with very serious topics—rape, domestic abuse, slavery, the struggle of women in a man’s world, suicide. And I was going to reading about sitting with my dog???? What was I thinking?
As I went through the week, I had experiences that only get more valuable as I think back. A class that mapped the heroine’s journey taught by a woman whose richness of knowledge and experience astounds me and has led to a greater desire to finish my children’s story about a little girl on her own heroine’s journey. The beginning of friendships with women I wish could be my neighbors, as the time with them was far too short. A private consultation about promotion with a woman whose caring for others shone forth whenever I saw her (though my eyes still glaze over at the thought of updating websites and tweeting, which I have now done once). An atmosphere where the commonality of our femaleness seemed to break down other barriers. But as I had these wonderful experiences, I also became more and more obsessed with my reading. In the midst of all the good things, I was hanging by a slender thread.
In the end, when my turn came up, I felt O.K. about reading my piece about sitting with the dog. It helped that I had just had a glass of wine and it helped that somehow during that day I had lost my obsession. The retreat would soon be over, I could only read what I had brought to read, and that was that. As I sat down, I looked up to see faces smiling at me. And the next night, the last night of the retreat, a woman who I never noticed before approached me. “Are you the woman with the dog”, she asked. Thinking she meant the woman with the service dog, I pointed across the room. “Funny,” she replied, “because you look like that woman.” And then, when I realized she was talking about my reading, I heard how she had sat by herself that morning, doing nothing, and had noticed the birds around her. And she had made the effort to seek me out, to tell me about her own experience “sitting with the dog”.
That was the night when chairs were stacked against the walls, the room was darkened, and we danced. A night when I drank more than one glass of wine and when my knees didn’t ache. A night when lots of photos were taken, some with me and my “roomie” making funny faces. As it turned out, she and I quickly bonded and it wasn’t long before we were sitting on our single beds at night (she didn’t want to stay out late either) talking about ex-boyfriends and jobs and writing, children and travel, all sorts of things women of all ages talk about, at times even sharing confidences not easily or often told to others.
My short reading ended by saying that all we ever need at any given moment is something to appreciate and something to contribute (I think this came from Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years but google isn’t helping to confirm this). At the retreat, I had much to appreciate, including the trust these other women gave to me, believing I would really listen to their stories. What I had to contribute was very simple, but also worthwhile. It was my own story, told in my own voice, told in an attempt to be honest and authentic, the story I had to tell.
The women who read their stories of things much beyond my own experience had woven webs that had been knocked down innumerable times and in ways I cannot imagine. But they had rebuilt and rebuilt and the fact that they stood there before us showed the endurance they had. I don’t know if all that rebuilding made their webs stronger but I do know that we should be able to learn the techniques of rebuilding from each other, whatever we have to offer, whatever our differences may be.
The spiders seem to be extra busy right now, so take care where you walk. Remember how much effort is put into their webs. And don’t forget to take a moment to stop and look at them, to really see them. They are a reminder of how fragile we all are, and yet how strong and persistent we have the ability to be. And I do believe that somehow or other, more sitting with the dog will help as well.
#Women Writers, #AROHO, #Ghost Ranch
I have my very own crop circle, which is a mound of sand where we are NOT putting up the pool this year. Someone, not so politely, called it a very large litter box and indeed I have seen it being used for that. I am thinking about turning it into a Zen herb garden. I got this idea while visiting a friend whose husband made one. It is quite charming with white pebbles surrounding small round areas of herbs contained by black rubber tubing. My friend said it’s not so charming to her as she has a vivid memory of looking out her window and seeing her husband pull up what was her herb garden, the kind I tend to have, which means no white pebbles and certainly not properly contained. I suppose she could practice Zen by standing in the middle of this new garden while chanting, “Let it go…just let it go.”
I have to say I’m quite proud of my tree stump flower garden. With the cool spring and lots of rain, it has come close to what I lust for—an English cottage style garden. I suppose it’s a lust for lushness. You will find me there every morning and evening, along with several cats and several hundred mosquitoes. I have come to realize that whatever hasn’t appeared yet is my favorite, as in “But where are the cosmos? They are my favorites!” Or else what has just appeared, as in “Oh, the nasturtiums are blooming. They are my favorites!” This resembles my feelings for the cats, as the one that is missing is suddenly my favorite, or else the one sitting on me is, but only if the claws are nicely tucked in. It’s rather like a dog: WALKS, my favorite! FOOD, my favorite! YOU, my favorite!
Helen would love for me to be non-dog-like in this area and say that she is my favorite daughter. This came up again on Facebook when she turned 19:
Happy Birthday, my lovely Helen.
Am I your favorite yet?
Really? That question again?
I can’t seem to get her to stop this badgering and even asked her friend, “Surely your parents never name a favorite, do they?” to which she replied, “Oh, yes, they tell me all the time that I’m their favorite. But my brother is usually in jail.”
I know my father had many favorite flowers that he grew in our small Topeka back yard. I know because he tended each one so carefully, putting the ones who weren’t doing well in an area that he called his “intensive care unit”. But he did have one special favorite that I never understood until much later in life.
My Father Loved Asters Best
He grew them from seed
ordered from a Burpee’s catalog
in early spring.
Late summer was when they bloomed
and as a child I anticipated with him,
then felt disappointment at their smallness,
the faintness of their colors.
Hoping to prove the wisdom of
a father gone from earth
seven years now,
I ordered aster seeds
from a Pinetree catalog
in not so early spring.
It seemed they’d never bloom
and I grew tired of waiting,
as we among the living do.
But then I saw some buds,
and just this week the blooming has begun,
in front of bachelor buttons
long past their prime,
behind browning yellow annuals
I bought but never learned the names of.
At this moment I love asters best,
their delicate petals
of pinks and lavenders,
their blossoms like the upturned skirts
of ballerinas on a heavenly stage,
as though from the faint breath of those
still bound to earth.
(August 28, 2007)
Yes, Helen, you are my favorite. Just as Rose is my favorite too. And yes, at times you may be the current most favorite because you’re in front of me or, at other times, because you’re not in front of me (readers, feel free to take that one of several ways). I count on you both for the joys that favorites bring. How could I chose between my two daughters when I can’t choose between the humble daisy or the glorious iris, between the blue flax that line my roadsides or the larkspur with their likeness of a bunny’s head? Why would I limit myself in such a needless way?
I don’t know if my crop circle will go back to grass before it ever becomes a Zen herb garden or something more my style, but I did notice a delicate white flower growing there in early spring that I’d never seen before and it certainly could become a favorite. As for now, the Black-eyed Susans are my favorite. I love their bright yellow petals and their willingness to shine in the mid-summer heat. But soon another will take center stage. Each one in turn will lift my spirits, reminding me that heaven and earth are more closely bound than we ever imagine.