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.
“How are you?” asked the grocery clerk as she took my Dillon’s card, cloth bags, then came around to scan two bags of cat food and a bag of litter.
“I’m fine. How are you?” I answered, trying to dislodge a bottle of generic aspirin from under some organic oranges that were on sale. .
As I continued stacking up the items on the moving belt, wondering why I gave in to my just-home-from-college-for-the-summer-daughter’s demand for flavored water, something a friend recently told me came to mind. Her cousin’s wife was checking out when she realized that the woman behind the counter, asking her how she was, had no idea that her husband had just committed suicide. And then it suddenly struck her that she also had no idea what this other woman might be going through.
Everyone has a story to tell. And those stories often go untold (unlike mine, which I seem compelled to make public). My mother recognized this. I recently submitted an essay for a Mother’s Day contest “What My Mother Taught Me About____________.” (No, it didn’t get accepted but I got a nice personal rejection email instead of a form one and, yes, I now can tell the difference.) Here’s the essay:
What My Mother Taught Me about the Difference One Friend Can Make
My mother was a friend to all our neighbors. Everyone knew Louise and could see her many a morning walking briskly to a garage sale. She liked to sit on the porch in the afternoon and watch the school children at recess across the street from our house. In the evening, she’d be out again, this time welcoming anyone who came along to join her for a chat. She was easy to like and liked everyone in return, even those neighbors who were not so likeable.
One such person was Florence who lived next door. She tended to keep her blinds closed, even during the day, and seldom was seen outside except to get in or out of her car. When the school children hit a ball into her yard, they weren’t sure they wanted to retrieve it from “that cranky old lady’s place”.
But my mother believed there weren’t any people alive who didn’t have some good in them and the trick was to find it. She made a point to say hello whenever Florence ventured out and then began giving her applesauce bread or a piece of homemade pie.
Gradually Florence began to change. I’d hear a hesitant knock on the door and she’d be standing there, a plate of peanut butter cookies in her hand. And she’d surprise me by waving from her backyard, where she was planting vegetables. As her garden grew, she started to walk across the driveway to discuss with my dad the progress of their tomatoes.
Florence gradually confided in my mother about her life. How her father beat her with a horse whip. How her mother told her she had never wanted another child after the favored older sister was born. How she always felt unattractive and unwanted. How she never made close friends, had never married. She had accepted a life with few pleasures, spent alone, from an early age. Knowing this, my mother made a point to tell her she looked nice in the color blue or that she must have a green thumb by the way her okra was already so tall.
Florence didn’t completely get over her difficult ways, but she started to talk with other neighbors and even sat out on her front porch on summer evenings. Sometimes her old habit of being cold and harsh came out and my mother would distance herself for a short time. But in a couple of days, Florence appeared back at our door, with a plate of fudge or a bag of ripe peppers. No apologies or explanations were ever given or needed. “She’s had a hard life,” my mother would say. “I think she’s doing the best she can.” And I came to understand that the best she could do seemed to be a lot better with the help of a neighbor who had the understanding and willingness to see beyond the surface.
When she died, she left my mother $3,000. Although there were plenty of things my mother could have enjoyed doing with that money, she gave it all to my brother and me. “I got my gift,” she told us. “On the will, it said: To my friend Louise.”
We don’t know what’s behind the face of that Dillon’s clerk. Maybe she is waiting for the results of a scan for a just discovered tumor. Or maybe she just found out that her husband wants a divorce. That she may have to take out a third job. As my mother would tell me, you just don’t know. All you do know is that there is someone behind those eyes, behind the mandatory “How are you?” with a story to tell.
It’s a rare time when a mother gets to say “I told you so!” to her daughter within minutes of giving some much needed advice. And perhaps ever rarer for that mother to only say it silently, which I did, and am still rather proud about that.
Helen, Rose and I were coming back from New Mexico after a spring break family trip. We were in one of those so-flat-you-can-see-forever (or at least the driver thought she could see forever) strips in the Oklahoma panhandle. I had just told Helen for the 7th time (I was counting, also silently) to slow down and she had then suggested that I take another nap when…..yes, a highway patrol pulled out of nowhere. He was polite, we were polite, and I have to admit when this kind of thing happens I’m glad I’m older, white, and a woman. But Helen still ended up with a $235 ticket and who knows what kind of increase on her car insurance.
Family Vacations aren’t known for bringing out the best behavior in anyone and this trip was no exception. Rose seemed more than usually skilled at finding ways to irritate Helen. For her part, Helen had a knee jerk reaction to anything her sister said, which was, “Shut up, Rose!” And I….well, let’s just say I didn’t get especially high marks either. At one point Helen purposely tripped Rose who then fell into a trash can, followed by accusations and threats from all sides, followed by the “Can’t you two get along for even a few minutes?” It didn’t help that one night at dinner we were seated next to a table with a mother and her two daughters who were having this lovely and loving conversation throughout their meal without any snide remarks and certainly no shut ups. What was wrong with us?
I found myself feeling more and more down by this when I heard Rose and Helen talking about the tripping and falling into the trash can incident and they were laughing—both of them, getting the biggest kick out of that story. It made me think of a time when my mother said to my older brother and me, “Why can’t you kids stop bickering?” I was so surprised at her lack of understanding. Didn’t she realize that was the way we found to connect with each other—even to somehow enjoy each other? When we watched TV together and a commercial came on, my brother would get up, grab the arm of my chair and shake it as hard as he could. Every commercial, he’d do that. And every time, I yelled, “Stop that!” which just made him laugh harder. And then there was the head thumping whenever he passed me, not to mention bargaining me out of all the good Halloween candy and never letting me win even ONE game of ping pong and…..the list is too long.
But as that little sister, I much preferred the chair arm shaking until my teeth rattled and the oh so irritating head thumping to no attention from him. And I also knew, as sure as I knew anything, that this older brother of mine would protect me in a heartbeat if need be. In today’s language, he had my back.
After the speeding ticket, I decided that a nap might indeed be a good idea and moved to the back seat while Rose joined Helen up front. I drifted in and out to loud music and bits of conversation. One was this:
“Do you like this song, Rose?”
“Yea, how do you get all those on your phone? And, Helen, can you show me how to curl my hair? And how do you get to be cool? I want to be cool like you.”
“Well, first off, you’d have to be Helen to be cool like me……………You know, Rose, if something happened to you, I’d be there in a minute.”
It took a family vacation for Helen to learn that sometimes she should take my advice. And it took five days in close company with her and Rose for me to be reminded of some very important things. That if you step back and let your kids work things out, then generally they will. That any time together, any time, is what makes a family. That sometimes what seems like the worst part of a journey turns out to be the best (not to mention all that material for good stories). That knowing your brother or sister has your back makes up for a lot of crappy behavior. That you should never, ever, compare your family with the one at the next table. And, most of all, that really, I think my kids are doing just fine.
I just googled the history of Daylight Savings Time and see that there’s good reason to be confused, what with all the starts and stops and changes—even Ben Franklin got involved in the idea. Our dear family friend, Avis, back in the 1960’s, said she didn’t like it at all because “that extra hour of sunlight will fade my living room drapes.” So I have my own recent story about it, and though I have been known to exaggerate ever so slightly from time to time, I swear that the following account is true and unadorned and I have Rose Carter as my witness. And she was as confused as I was—bless you, my child!
It was Sunday morning and I was feeling quite virtuous from all I’d done by 9:15—fed the animals, had a cup of tea, checked email, had another cup of tea, made out three new lists: things to do today, things to do this week, things to do the rest of the month (which included making a list of things to do for the rest of the year). It was while reaching for my third cup of tea that I glanced at my cell phone. Huh….10:15. I looked again at my watch. The battery must be dying and it wasn’t that long ago that I replaced it. But, wait, now this was odd. It was exactly one hour behind…..well, odd things do sometimes happen. I added getting a new battery to the things-to-do-this-week-list and reset the time.
My next clue should have been early evening when I noticed the time on the stove clock was also behind and, you guessed it, exactly one hour. I will blame distraction here, as no doubt I heard the beginning of a cat fight or else Rose was wanting me to help her with a new hairstyle and asking why I couldn’t work the curling iron as well as her no-longer-living-at-home sister. And besides, the day was so beautiful and warm and I needed to get out and check to see what plants were breaking through the too dry soil. I had to make big decisions such as whether I should reconnect the hoses. Carrying watering cans was not the best option anymore, as my darn knees seemed to have developed arthritis overnight. Weren’t the knees the first thing to go? I was feeling cheered by the tops of crocuses and hyacinths peeking up when I looked at my watch, looked up at the sky, and said to myself, “Wow, if it’s this light at 7 o’clock now, imagine how light it will be when Daylight Savings starts!” O.K., so perhaps the knees aren’t the first to go after all.
I woke up Monday morning with Rose standing over me in the dark–were her incoming molars bothering her again? No,it turned out her cell phone alarm went off and did I realize it was already 6:29 and why was it so dark? Huh, now my ancient bedside clock was wacko too and I’d been meaning to get another one for months. But I needed to hurry if I was going to get in at least one cup of tea. As I was feeding the outdoor cats (putting eight piles of dry food down in a row while trying not to trip over eight rather greedy cats), I did notice how dark it was. Actually, now that I thought about it, quite a bit darker than this time Friday, the last time I had to rise at such an uncivilized hour of the day. Maybe clouds over the moon? Maybe it was really foggy? Maybe…and then I remembered the Nova show I had recently watched when I’d run out of The Middle reruns. It was about volcanoes and the “catastrophic” results if there was a really big eruption. Things like whole towns wiped out and long term climate change (as if we don’t have enough of that) and the sun blocked out…..uh oh…..somewhere during the night there had been a massive eruption and now the sun was blocked and why hadn’t I heard, but how could I have, although someone could have called me, surely. As I hurried back inside to get to the computer to check out this disaster, an odd feeling came over me. The clocks, the evening lightness, the morning darkness….what if….and then I saw my calendar on the table, open to March. And March was the month of…..but surely not this early in March and if so, someone or something would have reminded me. I looked down at the square that marked off the day before and there it was—Daylight Savings had started.
Although I certainly felt a big relief regarding the volcano eruption or lack thereof, I naturally also felt a concern about my mind or lack thereof. Still, there must be many others out there with similar experiences–well, maybe not about the sun being blocked out, unless they’d also watched Nova. And if I may bring it up here, what about all the cows? How do they know they get milked at a different time? And if they’re out in the pasture, how do they know when to come home? I at least can set my watch forward, along with the answering machine on my home phone and the alarm clock and the stove clock, but not my computer or the car or my cell phone…is it any wonder???
I need to get my calendar and make a big red circle for the time change this fall—it’s mid October or maybe late October—but no, it was changed to early November a couple of years ago, I think. It’s “spring forward, fall back” so I will set the clocks back which means that in the morning, when it’s 5:45 a.m. and my alarm clock goes off (I hope I have a new one by then), it’s actually 4:45. Though not really, as 5:45 is back to the real time again, better known as standard time and that sounds more real…..sort of. Anyway, at least if Daylight Savings Time is over, I don’t have to worry about those drapes fading.
Several days ago Rose asked how soon before Valentine’s Day. “I guess we’ll spend it alone,” she sighed, looking at me with the same half serious/half joking way she uses when she says she likes to touch my wrinkles. I sat there thinking that she still had a few days to find someone in those hormone-filled halls of seventh grade, but I doubted that the free website Plenty of Fish was going to offer up much for me. My romantic experiences for this day in mid-February peaked at 16 and have been downhill since then.
I had two boyfriends at the same time that year, not that I admitted it, even to myself, and definitely not to them. My justification was that one was a boyfriend and the other just a friend and if the boy who was a friend didn’t realize that, then who was I to have to say it in so many words? It was all going well, the boyfriend taking me to football games and school dances, while the friend was driving me (dare I say here that he was older and had his own car?) to Sunday evening youth group while taking lots and lots of photos of me, telling me how beautiful and great I was….. I can see that you’re starting to think less of me now, but I was sixteen—sixteen!
And then Valentine’s Day came along. My boyfriend, a box of chocolates in hand, got a friend to drive us to my house. My mother opened the door and smiled like a prince had arrived (I seldom had a boyfriend that she didn’t like more than I did) but seemed oddly flustered. Come to find out, she had rushed to hide the dozen red and pink rose buds that my just-a-friend had sent. I spent the evening finding excuses to walk back and forth in front of the table where these two offerings were proudly displayed. Although the chocolates were from my “real” boyfriend, what I remember most clearly is how beautiful those rosebuds were, how lovely that combination of pink and red and green. And, no, in terms of romance for February 14th, it never again got as good as that.
Recently I was sorting through the boxes brought back from my mother’s house after her passing, now just over two years. Some were filled with things I had kept. I found a grade school valentine “mailbag”, the construction paper yellow and faded, my name written in cursive on part of a paper doily. Among the cards inside was one that had this:
DEAR ANN Yor are my girlfriend. I think you look good in those red pants that you war on Monday but I am not sure. Art liks you too. Love DOUGLAS
I guess maybe there was an earlier time that I managed to have two guys at once, but I have no memory of Douglas or Art, just a memory of carefully cutting out those red hearts to glue onto that extra-large paper envelope, a memory of that wonderfully innocent anticipation of what I would later find inside.
My mother had kept almost every card she ever received, as I discovered while digging through more boxes. There were Valentines from sisters, nieces and nephews, my brother and me, my father who loved to pick the ones that might be called sappy, yet I know he meant every word. In those many cards one caught my eye. It was an especially beautiful one, full of pink roses, some in full bloom, some still small buds. Then I remembered how my mother gave it to Rose, telling her to send it to someone special, but I had forgotten who she finally mailed it to. Inside, under a big lopsided heart, was written:
Dear grandma thank you
for the card did you
have a grat New Year?
I have made a display of some of these cards, and as I did all those years ago, I take great pleasure in looking at the offering in pinks and reds and greens. And I will not be alone on Valentines’ Day. I will send out my own cards, designed from an encaustic painting I did, a bird sitting on a branch among bright berries. I expect to receive some as well—from three friends who never fail to remember how much I like this day, my daughters (I’d better start dropping those necessary not-so-subtle hints), a cousin who always calls me Annie, perhaps even an e-card from an old boyfriend.
“Be My Valentine” may be a trite expression for an over commercialized day with a card designed for everyone. But there’s something of real value underneath those words, and the idea that it can be said to anyone holds a great truth. Love is not limited to some romantic idea. In fact, it’s not meant to be limited at all.
This is a photo of:
- A Christmas treat Helen made for college friends gone terribly wrong (the treat, not the friends).
- An attempt by Ann at a new mixed media art form.
- A model of an animal cell for Rose’s Life Science class.
I have a friend who used to make her Christmas letters like this—multiple choice questions that highlighted the year. A typical one went something like this:
Bill and Cindy and I took a trip to Detroit in May because
- Cindy wanted to spend time with her cousins and she thinks their neighbor boy is cute.
- Bill had a conference on mosquito reproduction and led a panel discussion on mating practices.
- We got really cheap airline tickets.
She only did this for two years and I miss them. They were funny and it was a nice variation to the usual Christmas form letter. These letters, typed on decorated paper with photos and summaries of the past year’s events, have gotten a bad rap, but they make a lot of sense. Who can write about what’s been happening more than ten times without a dulling of the brain and a cramping of the hand? So I mostly enjoy the letters I get. But there are a few that, well, when they arrive in the mail I put them aside until I feel more stable (this could be hours or days). They are the letters that make me wonder where I went wrong in my own life. One such letter used to come from a high school classmate. There was the successful doting husband, a beautiful house with just refinished kitchen, a son and daughter who seemed to excel in everything from academics to sports to social life, and to top it off, family trips with sailing and skiing and….you get the idea. It’s not that I wanted her life (well, just a little), but it sounded like things were so great, so easy for her. Then came a year when the letter didn’t arrive and months later I found out why. One Saturday morning her teenage son went out to their garage and shot himself in the head.
The answer to the multiple choice about the photo above is “c”. It’s what Rose will take to school on Monday and I just hope the hardboiled egg won’t be smelly by then. But it only shows part of the story. It doesn’t show the “I give up!” (Rose this time, not me) or the fighting over the computer to try and find one picture that lists the same cell-parts as on the worksheet. And it doesn’t show the fun bits either, where we were waiting for the orange Jello to get just right to stick in the green beans and red sprinkles and crunched up tissue paper. Or the way Rose wanted me to know where the endoplasmic reticulum went in relation to the nucleus.
We have a choice about what we include in our holiday letters, and we also have a choice whether to remind ourselves that there is more in the letters we receive than what the words and pictures show. It’s important to understand that the parts often not revealed are what we all have in common—the moments of joy from simple things and the times of great sorrow. The humanity and vulnerability we all share. When we ask what’s the real point of all we do during the holidays, the get-togethers and presents and cards and letters, I believe this should be part of the answer—simply to try and understand each other better. And you can make that into a multiple choice question on next year’s letter if you like.
I don’t have a microwave, or more correctly, the huge one someone gave me six years ago no longer works. When it first stopped I didn’t believe it and kept pushing the start button. But then I remembered that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. So there it sits, taking up space under the picture Helen and Rose made me last Valentine’s Day. It’s a stretched canvas with their hand prints in bright colors and a list of 10 things they love about me. I must say I like number seven the best: “We love that you adoted us”. The misspelling somehow turns the Pinterest crafty idea into something real from my daughters. And speaking of real gets me back to the microwave. Call me old (I don’t really mean that) but microwaves just don’t seem right to me. There’s something alien about them and they don’t keep things hot as long, and if you haven’t noticed this, then you’re in some kind of major modern denial.
It’s almost Thanksgiving and along with “my children and animals are alive” I’ve decided to be thankful that my microwave isn’t working. My mother never owned one. It was the same with a clothes dryer. Even when they became affordable she hung things outside or when bitterly cold down in the basement, claiming that going up and down the stairs kept her young. Hanging out the clothes was often my job when I was young and it was a chore I ranked way above the Saturday morning dusting. I liked putting things in groups—underwear, linen, shorts, blouses, and so on (my idea, not her rule). I liked planning ahead so I would run out of line and pins exactly when I had everything hung. And I liked to count how many tea towels and pillow cases I could overlap…..huh…I don’t remember if obsessive compulsive was a term back then. Of course, there were no microwaves or computers or cell phones—but we did have cars and I wish Rose would stop asking me that. Later, when it seemed that almost every American household did have a microwave, my mother still didn’t want one. There was a day when I understood where she was coming from:
Sometimes I forget
to put the butter out.
Too hard to spread
on toast for breakfast,
it can go for a quick melt
in my microwave.
My mother doesn’t have
“Never had one,
never want one.”
And sometimes she forgets
to put the butter out.
She takes a
blue and white saucer
and puts three thin pats on it,
cut from the hard stick,
then gently places
the saucer on top
of her just-poured cup of tea.
The steam slowly
softens the butter,
though not as slowly
as one might think.
And then my mother sits down,
carefully butters her bread,
adds her favorite jam
(homemade black raspberry),
and with tea
sweetened to perfection
( a tablespoon of honey),
quietly eats it.
She proudly showed me her technique
for butter softening one morning,
and together we had toast and tea.
Since then my microwave
My microwave hasn’t been so idle lately, prior to the breakdown (it, not me). There was always frozen meat that I forgot to put out the night before and horrible, horrible stuff that Helen insisted on eating for breakfast and then my tea to warm up.
Thanksgiving is in six days and when Helen gets home for her break she will no doubt complain about the non-working microwave and quote the price she paid for the one now in her dorm room. I, however, am doing just fine. If I forget to thaw out the meat then we go vegetarian. Rose, my good eater, can handle that I don’t buy the junkie stuff, and I reheat my tea by using a little metal saucepan on the stove. I did have to learn to put on the timer so I won’t need to turn around 10 miles from home to make sure the house isn’t on fire. And as for the butter on the Thanksgiving dinner rolls, I will likely take it out for softening around the time I run to change the hand towel in the downstairs bathroom. But if not, I’ll get a bowl of hot water and put some pats on top. It will seem quite quaint to my children (not the term they typically use to describe my behavior) but I can imagine a time when they might talk about it with fondness, just as not having a microwave reminds me of a morning of toast and tea with my mother. And I just decided to add that memory to what I’m thankful for.
Rose is learning how to sew on buttons in school. If you’re even close to my age, you’re wondering why this skill isn’t known by the age of 12. I had sewn on hundreds of buttons by then, including those teeny, tiny ones that for Barbie doll clothes. My mother got me started by giving me projects like burst buttons on my father’s shirts, first showing me the steps from how to thread a needle to…..huh…let’s just get past the part about why my daughter can’t do it yet. But at least I could give her a reason to practice at home last night. We had been looking at Halloween costumes in Marshalls and I might have been a little too eager to be done because I ripped off a button trying to get a glittery gold cape from the hanger. When Rose stated it was “the best costume ever” and she could wear Helen’s winter formal dress under it (I suggested she not mention this to her sister), I pocketed the button and checked out. It got reattached after three attempts and much frustration on Rose’s part and finally me saying, “Well, let me just do it if you’re going to get so upset about it.”
Later Rose pulled out a stack of school papers, including a yellow sheet labeled “Sewing on a Button Rubric”. I saw that she’d gotten 9 ½ out of ten, giving me hope that the cape experience was only due to adolescence grumpiness or knowing I’d do it for her in the end. I had almost deposited it with the rest of her school papers (to be sorted “later” which meant some time next summer) when a shock went through me. A rubric for sewing on buttons? Was this some kind of joke? Could it be one of those tricks to see if the parents really looked at their kids’ papers?
I wish I could say yes to that last question and then be so pleased that I had passed the good parenting test. But it was real—a rubric for sewing on buttons. To clarify, I’m not criticizing the teacher, who is no doubt following what’s expected of her and may be young enough to think this is perfectly normal. You get points from four to zero on things like “All stitches are neat and free of any loops. The needle consistently went in and out of the same holes”. My teacher in 7th grade home economics would have just looked over my shoulder and said, “You missed the hole. Try again!”
It seems that nothing can be taught now without it being assessed (and reassessed), often in the form of these crazy little boxes filled with text. I used to be the teacher trainer in an ESL program. One of my jobs was to observe new teachers and give them feedback. I would watch the class and take notes on what I thought worked and what didn’t work so well. Later we met to discuss it. We used our own words and I didn’t need to give numbers that placed her above or below her fellow workmates. The goal was to help make more effective teachers. But these days, following the national trend, observers in this program arrive with, you guessed it, a rubric. You can get a four, for example, if the lesson plan is “clear” and a three if the lesson plan is “obvious”. No, I’m not making this up.
When Rose was in the 4th grade, I wrote about something that happened in her classroom:
My younger daughter likes school but has problems with math, especially memorizing her times tables, and this fall that often seemed to her focus. A typical after-school-car-conversation went something like this:
A: How was school today?
A: What all did you do?
R: We had tacos for lunch.
A: Sounds good. How was math?
R: I’m terrible. I couldn’t do my 8’s.
Not the most inspiring conversation. But, recently the class has started on a board game version of the computer game The Oregon Trail. The class divides into families complete with b/w photos where they’re all looking quite sober and dressed in suitable 1800s attire. They draw cards to tell them the weather conditions and problems/successes they are having as they make their way westward. At the end of each daily session, the teacher switches off the lights, lowers the blinds, and turns on battery operated candles. All the “pioneers” then write in their journals.
Now our conversations go more like this:
A: So what happened today?
R: I had scarlet fever and three of our oxen died from drinking bad creek water.
A: Oh, no! How are you going to pull the wagon without the oxen??? (notice I wasn’t concerned about the illness—the teacher told me they keep everyone alive as long as possible).
R: Well….we still have one more ox and we bought another from the Smith family—because they were out of money. But we have 67 dollars left. Oh, and another family got bit by rattlesnakes and the next fort is soon but we’re hoping we don’t run out of flour before then.
There were never any rubrics for this but I suppose there could have been. For example, taking a spare axle along seemed to be essential. (Note: I couldn’t seem to get actual boxes into this post–maybe a sign?)
Spare axle work:
4 points–clearly showed the need to take along a spare axle
3 points–obviously showed the need to take along a spare axle
2 points–didn’t show any interest in a spare axle until stranded somewhere in western Nebraska
1 points–gave extra axle to that darn Smith family who never got anything right
n0 points–misspelled “axle” in journal
There were many other things she learned from this activity that never got boxed or numbered—-whether you can give or sell some of your flour to a family that used theirs up, while knowing you might be without before you get to the next fort, or taking on a stranger who’s lost his way, or figuring out what’s most important for the family to buy with limited funds—a dog or some extra rations (you know what I’d say—I remember Jack in Little House on the Prairie). And now that I look back at that axle rubric, I wonder if she might have learned more by getting stranded—the 2 point score. And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about? Learning?
Rose is learning how to sew on buttons and I sincerely appreciate her teacher for that–it’s really a pretty basic skill and I have to say one we all should have. But I don’t need a rubric about it. I’ll test her out on the next button I pull off. And she doesn’t need a rubric either. She really, really doesn’t need any formal assessment on how well she can sew on a button. She just needs a teacher (may she be blessed with more patience than me on this matter) to show her how to do it and then help her practice until she gets better. Like sewing on a button, it’s a pretty basic concept and one we desperately need to remember.
Text message: I’m so glad I realized I was in the wrong room. I love my teacher. He speaks English and is white. Not being racist. I’m so happy.
I’m not going to say who sent me this except that she’s a freshman at K-State, used to live with me until very recently, and is NOT white. And let’s just call her Helen. She got in the wrong section of business calculus because she went with a friend the first day and stayed there two weeks before figuring out it wasn’t her class. That first teacher was a new graduate student from India. From the imitation Helen did of the young woman asking questions that no one answered (well, to give her some credit, it was 7:30 in the morning), I could tell that she was trying hard to be a good teacher but was up against a triple whammy—a strong accent, lack of teaching experience, and little knowledge of the way American college undergraduates think. And they certainly aren’t very patient with any teacher, let alone one with the accent thing going on.
I asked Helen if she was really glad that her teacher was white and she said it was a joke. I want to believe it was. She seems to take a lighthearted approach to her Chinese American status in a mainly white family (Rose helps move the percentage a little). She loves to tell me that “white chicks don’t tan” and I only wish that my reflective skin was the only thing I didn’t like about my legs. When she got comments from classmates at her rural high school, such as “How do you see when you smile?” she accepted that it wasn’t said in a mean spirited way. I, on the other hand, felt more offended and suggested she use her hands to open up her eyes super wide while saying, “So how do YOU see when you smile?” Quite a clever comeback, right? And so mature.
I grew up in Topeka, home of the historic “Brown vs. the Board of Education” with parents of differing views on non-whites.When a friend of my mother’s called to tell her I had been seen dancing with a black guy at the 9th grade party, she simply replied, “Really? That’s nice.” But when a boy of Asian descent came to the door to collect me on a date one year later, it was my father who rushed to ask my mother if she knew about this. He came by his prejudice rather honestly. His mother, a quarter Cherokee herself, told my brother that he “should stone any nigger that came into his classroom”. My father was horrified at that advice, though not likely as much as my mother. I can clearly remember one morning as I was heading out the door to school. My parents were discussing Rosa Parks. In one of the few times I ever heard her raise her voice, my mother, waving a newspaper in the air, asked, “Why should she have to sit in the back of the bus?” My father didn’t answer but he was surprised to see how much passion she had over this matter.
Always a southern gentleman, my father never acted anything but polite to that boyfriend he had rushed to inform my mother about, and never suggested that I shouldn’t go out with him. But I know he was relieved when the next guy at the door had paler skin. So when I announced that I was going to China to adopt a daughter, he looked stunned but said nothing. In fact, he continued to say nothing, refusing to mention it for the nine months that I waited to get her, something that hurt and angered me. My mother tried to excuse him—he was worried about me having enough money to take on a child and also, remember that he was in WWII when Japan was the enemy—and China, well, it’s also Asian. So I didn’t quite know what to expect when I arrived home with Helen, a child I thought was the most wonderful 20 month old in the whole world, an opinion my mother and brother seemed to immediately agree with.
I don’t remember when things changed. It’s been a long time since I showed up at their door with Helen dressed in a red and black checked dress that I still keep in the closet. And it’s been a long time since my father died, two years later. I just remember certain things. Like the way he called her “my sweet little girl”, the same thing he called me at that age. Like the way they would sit together on the front porch, not doing much, just hanging out together. Like my mother’s favorite story about the two of them. It was in the last months of his life, when his feet were so swollen they couldn’t fit in his shoes. We were at their house for Sunday dinner and when he and Helen didn’t show up at the table, my mother went searching, fearing he had fallen. She found him sitting in his chair, smiling down at a little girl who was so gently putting his feet into slippers.
I have to say I feel relieved that Helen can now understand her teacher in a class that will be difficult in the best of circumstances. And I see how it’s what she wants (at some point she also said that he’s rather cute). It certainly is easier to stay with what we’ve known, and what she’s known is mainly white teachers born in this country. But how sad for her if she does what some students do, avoiding classes with teachers whose names don’t sound “American”. I think about what my father would have lost if he hadn’t had Helen as part of his family. At some point in the civil rights movement, he came to agree with my mother about Rosa Parks, but he never spoke out with any of her passion. Later, he was forced to view it much more closely. It was then that this passion showed as he looked down on his “sweet little girl” from China.