Saturday, August 18, 2012

Star Of The Day and The Suicide Fish

Every week in Ethan’s second-grade class, one student was named “Star Of The Day.”  As the Star, Ethan needed to create a poster about himself that would hang in the front of the classroom, and he would be the teacher’s special helper during class.  Lastly, the teacher wanted us to speak with Ethan in front of the class for 20 minutes about our family, our home and our jobs.

I immediately had a panic attack.  Professionally, I present in front of hundreds of people each week.   But a room of second-graders?  They are a tough crowd, especially when your job can’t be defined in one word.  Teacher, fireman, nurse - they understand these jobs, but Regional Vice President of an investment management firm?  Most adults don’t understand my job, let alone second-graders. 

The Saturday before my classroom gig, Ethan had a sleep-over with one of his friends.  While I was making pancakes for them on Sunday morning, the friend asked what kind of job I had and presented me the perfect opportunity to practice my spiel.

“Well, I work in investment management, which means I help people who have extra money in the bank make more money.”  I was pleased because it was simple but not dumbed down.

The boy nodded politely while I spoke, so I thought it went well.  “Wow, that’s really… BORING.  Let me tell you what my father does, because it is a lot of fun…”  I was deflated, but had to agree that his father had a much more exciting job, working as a display designer for museums.

The next Monday I showed up at Ethan’s classroom.  He clutched his favorite Percy Jackson book, eager to show everyone, as we went up to the front of the room.  All I could think was “please don’t ask me what I do”.

The kids kicked it off by asking Ethan about his favorite toys, what sports he played, and his favorite books.  They then proceeded to discuss which Percy Jackson book was the best, which characters were their favorites and the distinction between reading the books yourself and having your mom read them to you.  I checked the clock.  Ten minutes to go.

Someone asked Ethan about his pets.  “Well, I have two dogs, Pickle and Sweet Pea.  We used to have three cats but two died from old age and we gave the other one to my aunt.  Oh, yeah, and we had a fish that committed suicide.”

A little blond girl in the front row looked confused, “What is suicide?” 

My parental instincts went into overdrive, thinking how to handle this discussion delicately, but Ethan replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “Suicide is when someone kills themselves.”
Her face became pale and she looked sick. “How did the fish kill himself?”

Ethan warmed up to his topic. “It was so cool.  He jumped out of his bowl, and landed on the kitchen floor.  We didn’t even notice it until the next morning, when Dad almost stepped on him because he looked like a dried-up leaf.”

He hit a vein of interest with the other seven-year-old boys in the class, who responded in kind. “I had the same thing happen with my fish.” “It was a Beta fish, right?” “I had a baby turtle that someone stepped on by accident.  It was disgusting.  I really miss that turtle.”

The little blond girl in the front row looked like she was going to start crying, and I knew her mother was going to wonder what happened in class today.  Maybe I would get a call from the mom tonight but selfishly, I was relieved that my job was much less interesting than Percy Jackson or fish suicide.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Parent's Death

Two years ago today we got the call that you never want to receive.  My dad had a heart attack and was being flown by helicopter to a hospital two hours away from his home.  We didn’t know what was happening but my brothers and I immediately jumped on planes from our different corners of the country then drove a tortuous five hours to his hospital in a remote part of Kansas.   I remember that night, being forced to sit in the plane and then the car while wanting to do something, to see him, to help him.

Dad never liked doctors and trusted them even less when our mom died ten years before.  At 84, he was incredibly healthy for a man who smoked and liked to drink his beer and wine.   A case of polio when he was a young man gave him weakness in his leg, but he still got out in the yard every day to work on his lawn and garden.  When my son Ethan and I visited three months before, Dad happily participated in the Easter egg hunt albeit with a cane and we laughed together over the giant plate of ribs they served at the American Legion.  He seemed indestructible.

As we drove through that dark night, I thought about Mom.  Her death had been unexpected.  A routine procedure in the hospital was followed by negligent care, and ten days later she was gone.  It seemed so unreal that it was difficult to process emotionally.  My grief for Mom was like a gray blanket that enveloped everything I did over the following ten years.   When I got married and had a child, I longed for her to be there and felt myself reaching for the phone to call her with news.  She was my emotional anchor and I was lost without her.

When we reached the hospital in Kansas that night, we were able to see Dad before he went in for open-heart surgery.  The man who seemed indestructible was pale and shaken, but glad to see us.  After the operation, the surgeon gave us the good news that everything seemed to go well, but just as we finished making calls to other family members to share this, he called us back into the waiting room with bad news, that the damage was too severe.  By morning, Dad was gone.

The grief this time was not a gray blanket but a sharp knife to the heart. 

Two years later, I still feel its sting.  I keep the last picture I have of him, sitting at a picnic table counting Easter eggs with Ethan, on my desk at work.  It reminds me of the things we both loved – reading books, drinking wine while watching the sun set, playing cards until midnight, and engaging in conversations about politics, religion or culture.  You might not always agree with his opinion but he was a voracious reader and learner through all his years.

While Mom was my emotional anchor, Dad was my intellectual anchor and I will always be thankful for those memories of him.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Careful Mom

“Do you have any guns in the house?” the careful mom asked, as she stood in my doorway with her son.

This was not the typical get-to-know-you chat that starts a play date. I never met this mom before but when Ethan asked to play with his new classmate, a boy who recently transferred from another school, I thought it would be nice to invite him over on a Saturday and his mom would probably appreciate a friendly face in a new town.

“No, no guns,” I said, quizzically waiting for a punch line.

“How about pit bulls or other dangerous animals?” As if on cue, Pickle and Sweet Pea our two French Bulldogs trotted up to the door and the mom gave them a serious once-over.

“No, we have these two dopey dogs, and Frenchies are very friendly. Your son is more likely to be licked to death than bitten,” I joked but she did not look reassured.

“Do you or your husband smoke or do drugs?” At that point, I laughed out loud, startling her. My husband Shannon and I are not dope fiends or crack heads, but I imagined that if we were, would I really admit that to a woman I just met?

I felt sorry for Careful Mom, who didn’t know anyone and whose son had to make new friends in a new place. The desire to keep your child safe, especially when they are in the hands of another adult that you don’t know well, can be overwhelming. However, the “Twenty Questions” routine was a bit over zealous. She quickly departed with a lack of social interaction, but her son stayed for the afternoon so I guessed we passed inspection.

A few months later, I saw her dropping her son off in front of the school. I waved hello but she didn’t see me. Careful Mom was busy juggling her cell phone against her ear, while waving good-bye to her son, and then performing an illegal u-turn while other parents were dropping off their children on the same street. Obviously, the zealous child safety standards she displayed at my home did not extend to her own world or her driving.

Walking back to my car, I had another thought. Why did she need to ask me those questions in the first place? Questioning people I met about unattended weapons and drugs would never cross my mind, and the neighborhoods where I lived there were no vicious pit bulls lying in wait. The people I knew would care for my child with the same diligence that they would look after their own.

But not everyone comes from the same background or has the same security in their friends and family. Perhaps Careful Mom comes from a world where children are exposed to imminent dangers, or the adults caring for them would rather light up than feed their kids or change their diapers. It was a world I never wanted to see, and now that I gave it more thought, was likely the reason she moved here with her son.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Don't Judge A (Face)Book By Its Cover

It seems to be trendy to express contempt for Facebook. “I would never waste my time with that,” or “why would I care that someone is buying a sandwich?” are a few common retorts I heard recently. It fascinates me that socially liberal people who gladly accept anyone based on their race, gender or age quickly dismiss others based on their technology.
When I tell them I love Facebook, I am immediately downgraded in their opinion as someone whose mental age hovers around puberty.

I love Facebook because it becomes what you make of it. When I open my Live Feed every morning for a few minutes, I immediately feel connected to my friends, family and community.  Some of my favorites from this morning are:

• A new photo on Mila’s Daydreams, where a photographer mom on maternity leave posts photos of her napping baby posed in imaginary tableaus – aaawww!

• The mention of a great Italian restaurant on Sonoma County, CA that looks like a must-try for our family

• An article posted by on Proposition 8 and how the federal trial will provide a discourse on the subject of same-sex marriages that never happened during the election

• A webinar offered by Writer’s Digest later this week on getting your memoir noticed by agents and editors – great timing for me so I will definitely listen to this.

• A great photo of my niece who lives far away in Georgetown.

• And finally, The Pie Palace on 4th Street has fresh brown butter nectarine pies – make note, stop by the Pie Palace today!

The connection goes both ways. When I post photos of Ethan at a baseball game or my latest piece of writing, I am giving my family and friends a look at our lives today even though they are in Minnesota, Iowa, Florida or Kansas. We quickly make contact and then move on with our day - a very good thing in a world that moves so quickly.
So to all of the Facebook haters out there, try it first before dismissing it, or better yet, practice a little tolerance for those who are technologically different from you.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Family I Knew

Last month, my step-mother called from Kansas and made a simple request of me. In hushed tones, which said my dad was in the next room, she started, “Your father has all these old boxes – photos, files, documents – that have been in storage for years, and someone needs to clean them out. I would do it but George won’t let me throw out anything that was your mother’s.”

Dad at 83 is stubborn and thorny. This is nothing new, just aspects of his personality that expanded over the years. Cecilia, my step-mom, is a life saver. No, really, an honest-to-God life saver. A former RN, she saved Dad’s life when he had a heart attack in their living room two years ago. They married nine years ago when Mom died unexpectedly. Cecelia was my mother’s best friend in high school and married her cousin, who passed away the year before Mom, so my brothers and I had known her all our lives. Their marriage was a true blessing for everyone.

“Of course,” I said. “Ethan’s spring break is in two weeks and we will come out.” Terrible timing for my work, which I didn’t tell her, and Shannon my husband would not be coming due to his own work dramas. Ethan, our seven-year-old son, loved his grandparents and would be thrilled.  I would just make the trip work somehow.

As Ethan and I jumped in a rental car at the Denver airport and prepared for the five-hour drive, I thought of what we could expect to find in Kansas. Comfort food with lots of gravy cooked by Cecilia, glasses of wine poured by Dad, long games of Pinochle into the night, walks in the garden and around town, and Ethan getting too many toys to take home on the airplane. These things I know well and they never change.

The first morning after our arrival, Cecilia gave me a cup of coffee and took me to the basement. Fifteen boxes were stacked neatly in the corner. We pulled up two chairs and grabbed the first box. Slide trays – 17 trays with 40 slides each. A quick calculation in my head said 680 slides. I groaned. As a child, I loved these slides, sitting in the living room with the family, eating popcorn while Mom cringed at out-of-date hair and fashions, and the boys reminiscing about the Shetland pony my brother Eric won at a baseball game that proceeded to tear up our back lawn. As an adult, I saw only a huge project that would take many hours as I scanned these precious memories into digital files for the family. One more project on my list that would not be completed.

Next box we opened was old towels and sheet sets to beds long gone. With a Sharpie, I wrote “Goodwill” on the outside. Hopefully, the rest of the boxes would be this easy.

The third box was old photos and documents from my two grandmothers. Cecilia and I dusted this one off and took it upstairs to sort through at the dining room table, with fresh cups of coffee.

My dad wandered in the kitchen, walking slowly with his cane. His legs were beginning to betray him, not allowing him to stand for more than a few minutes unsupported. “What are you girls doing?” In addition to his legs betraying him, memory was also betraying him. “Remember, Dad, we are going through the old boxes this morning.”

I began to separate the photos into piles. My mother was in many of them. I miss her every day, and looking at these family pictures again made my heart hurt.

I laughed out loud when I saw a stack of old postcards, bundled neatly together with rubber bands. Grandma Lily, my father’s mother, kept every post card that my father and uncle sent her through the years. Our family trip to San Francisco when I was six was there, and our road trip through Utah was also represented by the colorful cards. Even more exotic were my cousins’ postcards from trips to Manchu Picchu and Brazil (they were always the more adventurous side.)

Toward the back of this pile was a small note card with a cute puppy on the front, colored bright yellow, circa 1974. It looked like something my mother would have bought for me to write thank you notes. As I opened it, the handwriting was definitely from a woman, with graceful loops and beautiful words, but it was not mine. “Dear Grandma,” it started. It had to be from my cousin Jodi, my only female cousin.

As I glanced at the bottom of the page, I was confused. “Love, Caroline.” Caroline? I flipped the note card and envelope over. It was addressed to Lily Brown, my grandmother. My stomach begin to feel nauseous, as it does when I start to do something I don’t want to do, like ride a roller coaster or get into an argument with my husband.

“Dad, who is Caroline?”

Cecilia turned heel and left the kitchen, informing Ethan that they were going for ice cream right now. He was thrilled, and I was still confused. After they left, I asked Dad again, “Who is Caroline?”

My dad always had an answer for everything, whether it was a quick joke or to wave you off when he thought something was unimportant. Instead he walked past me into the kitchen and slowly poured another cup of coffee.  He stared into the brown liquid for a few minutes, not looking at me. That nauseous feeling was getting worse in my stomach.

“I guess you need to know but there was never a good time to tell you kids,” he began. I sat with my mouth slightly open, want to say something but waiting. Something unexpected and perhaps unwanted was coming.

After a pause, I prompted again, “So… who is Caroline?”

“Well, she is… she is… let me think how to say this… well, she is… oh, what is the word?” he stumbled. Whether it was the Alzheimer’s which was beginning to show or simply a difficult conversation, his words were tearing me up. What seemed like ten minutes probably lasted ten seconds.

“She’s your half-sister.”

At 44, I thought I knew my family inside and out. I was finally comfortable with who I was, my relationships with my two brothers, my father’s distance and obstinance, losing my mother and dealing with a new step-mother at an advanced age. All the pieces were there, maybe they did not fit perfect but I knew where they went.

Four little words on a note card changed that. The family I thought I knew suddenly changed. My dad had another family before us, with two children. Now, I had a sister and another brother. Time to re-learn what I thought I knew.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zombie Attack!

Over my first cup of coffee on Saturday morning, my seven-year-old son Ethan informed me that he is starting his own business. Normally he asks me for waffles, so I was curious.

Ethan planned to call it The Comic Company, and they will create custom comic books for kids at school. On the handwritten order form he created, ten kids signed up for comic books and indicated themes from Pokemon to Star Wars. Ethan said he already has too much work so he is recruiting friends to work as graphic artists at The Comic Company. Overnight, my son became a combination of Stan Lee and Donald Trump. I needed another cup of coffee for this.
Ethan pulled out his first custom comic book titled Zombie Attack! Bright red lettering on the cover was only the start of this miniature gore-fest. Subsequent panels showed the bloody battle between the zombies, created predictably when the army spilled toxic waste over a graveyard, and the townspeople who lived nearby with an unending supply of machetes and power tools to fight them. “But there is only one gun, Mom, because I know you don’t like guns,” he said.

Listening to his enthusiastic narration and looking at the death and destruction on the pages, I could feel my lips pursing in disapproval. I imagined him delivering this comic to his client (another boy in his second grade class), and the subsequent call I would get from two angry parents. My own mother’s voice echoed in my head, saying, “Are you going to let him do this? Everyone will think that something is wrong with him!”

This was the same voice that chastised me for reading Stephen King novels. My favorite was Salem’s Lot, the story of a vampire moving into a small town and taking it over. When I was 12, we lived in a small town and had a creepy old man who lived down the street, so I was hooked. “What if Mr. Johnson was a vampire?” I asked my mom. “How would we protect ourselves - hiding in the house, driving out of town, or tracking down the vampire?”

My mom never enjoyed playing these “what if” games. She asked me not to read these books at all. But if I insisted on it, she said I couldn’t take them outside the house. The only “what if” my mom was concerned with was this: What if the neighbors saw me and wondered what kind of mom lets her daughter read these books?

Listening to my son’s excitement that morning, I took a big sip of my coffee and made a decision. He had created a comic book empire, after all. I took Zombie Attack! from him and asked, “What if the zombies were really space aliens…?”