584 Songs Later

My mother had seven brothers. She was the only girl. They all grew up in a small Minnesota farm town in the twenties and thirties of the last century, where Grandpa was one of the big cheeses in town. I grew up hearing about their antics as well as my Grandfather’s powerful presence at home, where he ruled with an iron hand. That was as well as in the community that kept his ego fed. I was lucky enough and tenacious enough (an inherited trait) to nag, cajole and wheedle my uncles and my mom into writing down their memories of growing up in the depression before they started to leave us.

These eight kids grew up as expected. They put their pennies in the church offering, passed “”whistle pants” down the line and passed the paper route from one to the next. They had some legendary antics such as stealing the undertaker’s hearse for a joy ride. Five brothers and one sister fought in World War II. My grandfather was proud to have five stars in his window and even tried to enlist himself; obligations be damned. Two more fought in Korea and the youngest went into the Navy during peacetime. As with millions of others from that era, when they came home, they put their official fighting experience behind them. Some fared better than others. Several dealt better with the memories than others. Three of the brothers married hometown honeys. All started having kids. My mom married a lawyer from Chicago, supposedly ringing the status bell of the time.

I am blessed with 29 first cousins; all maternal. My father had the good taste to be an only child.

Every few years, Gramps would convene a family reunion. I think it was every five years or so. The entire gang would of ever increasing cousins would reunite in Fairmont. There were picnics, sailing, canoeing. Many of us learned to swim in the lake where my uncle had built his home with his dad and his grandfather. I learned not to fish, thanks to one lone Bullhead. Uncle Pat always treated all of us to Dairy Queen at least once each visit.

I loved every minute of it.

Dad? He would brace himself by purchasing a case of Scotch. When my congregational relations declined to partake, he proceeded to kill it himself during the duration. There were enough cousins my age that I wasn’t faced with the usual evening routine involving Dad’s slurring and sarcasm. But, boy was my aunt pissed when there was an empty whiskey bottle outside the bedroom door every morning.

As with everything, time passed. Cousins got married. Cousins went off to war. Cousins went off to work. Grandpa died at the ripe old age of 90, the last major reunion having taken place in 1970.

From time to time, the family pipeline would yield news. There were the births of the children of the Uncles who had moved way out west to raise their kids. Our connection grew frail as we saw less and less of each other.

Two of my uncles and my mom died in the 1990s. I began to cherish the memoirs they had given me more and more. I also shook the family tree for interesting ancestors and discovered quite the cast of characters. Grandpa had also done this same thing in the fifties. He linked us to the Mayflower long before the World Wide Web existed.

Families weave their own webs, whether we know it or not. Through my research, I discovered the immigrants, the veterans of wars including the Revolutionary War, and the felons. Fortunately Mom left me a box of photos from the childhood of she and her brothers. I was able to identify and correlate them into their memoirs.

It was my version of fun. This may sound weird, but it was my joy. It was the jigsaw puzzle of my connection.
Then, through a series of life changes, my husband and I packed up the Conestoga wagon in the form of a Lincoln Navigator and headed to the Wild West ourselves. We began to have relatives who were passing through take the time to stop by.

With the advent of the Internet and social media, we cousins began to reconnect and catch up on our lives and adventures. There began to be rumblings of “wouldn’t it be nice to have a reunion”. No one had the time to take on the organization of a reunion single-handedly. The idea lay on the virtual table.

Enter spontaneous combustion.

The spark that started it happened in Idaho.

One cousin was loading up the RV and heading west to visit his mother, my aunt. All his sisters began talking about local cousins coming for lunch. Everyone signed on for that, which grew into, “hey the Uncle down the road is 91 and his wife is having her 90th birthday during this time”.

More cousins signed on. Enthusiasm fanned the flames.

It was a source of great indecision and even anxiety for me.

The past couple of years have been fraught with uncertainty, injustice and stress. When you are punch drunk and think you are coping, you are still punch drunk.

We had just returned from driving our twin sons to their respective colleges. My husband took a position and the necessary apartment in another state. I was exhausted and very hesitant to drive to Idaho.

This is not my usual character. Even as I age, I like to think that I am up for anything, especially if travel is involved. I used to think nothing of throwing a bag in the car and taking off for points known and unknown.

But that was then. Now I’m a woman travelling alone across the mountains in one long jaunt for lunch one day with relatives I hadn’t seen in years. There would be an overnight and dinner two hours away and then the trek would begin in reverse.

Two days of travel for two days of visiting Aunts, Uncles and cousins, a stop to visit my husband and finally home. A lot of mileage for what seemed a low return. That seemed to be a “no” in my book.

My intuition grabbed me by the throat. “DO IT”, it said.

My Uncle Bill is my favorite uncle. He is patient, kind, and was more of a father to me than my own was ever capable of. He helped me grow up and get a grip on what is real as opposed to the continuous chaos and adult drama I called family. If I missed this opportunity to see him, I might not have another. The sands of time in the hourglass of life do not flow upward.

I had to do it. A willing and eager dog sitter magically appeared to seal the decision.

I resurrected the girl that used to do this without blinking. But the experienced woman made sure the AAA® card was current. Off I went.

When I am driving for any extended period of time, I prefer to plug in my IPod.

I love my IPod. It is a classic and contains 13000 of the widest range of songs that anyone could conceive. I dare you. I’m proud of the eclectic diversity. There are show tunes, folk tunes from Chicago and beyond, roaring 20s, classical, rock, punk, comedy, and talking lectures I have attended, Broadway show tunes from four decades, as well as a helluva lot of Celtic music. There were the very obscure as well as the very, very obscure. I always hit random and take delight in whatever comes next. When I started my sojourn, I hit shuffle and started at number one.

As I headed west, and listened and smiled; and relived a route I hadn’t done in fifteen years, I relaxed. What is more, I began to understand that I had surrendered my personal power. Faced with being alone for longer times than I had experienced in years, I had become timid. This realization surprised me.

I am not a wimp; but I had become one. With each passing mile, a little bit of me came home to myself. I realized this was as much for me as reuniting with the people who knew my roots.

And then I arrived at my cousins’ territory…..

DSCN3086In the next three days, there was nothing but laughter, memories, both joyous and not, and teasing and camaraderie that I didn’t even know I had missed until I found it again. The teasing required the hide of a rhino. Tease hard, sack up, laugh or go home. I laughed a lot.

All of this brought out memories from fifteen different perspectives. My collective memory tome added fuel to the merriment. That was a huge honor for me. I had contributed. The different viewpoints and memories filled in the cracks.

It ended all too soon, as these things do. But we will all dine on it for months. There are new memories to add to the old.
The journey home was easy. It wasoyous, even. I sang along as the miles eastward flew by. Thank God there was no one else in the car.

When I pulled into my husband’s apartment, I had recaptured a part of myself I didn’t even know was missing. 1848 miles and 584 songs later, I had reclaimed my wholeness. Thanks, in no small part, to my clan.

But, Idaho drivers remain the worst in the nation. They are rated that way by national survey. It helped me realize I can still get my mojo back when needed. It was further empowerment to negotiate ex-patriot Californians crawling up my car’s rear end and not my own.

Thank you, dear cousins, one and all.

The connection continues and it is true magic. I cherish it.

Thank ye, me blood.

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The Clear View Behind

Just another round of errands driving around town.

Another check yet again.

Yes, it is still true. The back seat of my car is empty and we are heading home alone.

This time, however, confirms the permanence of the clear view behind us.

For over two decades, my rear view mirror was filled with the cultural detritus of everyday life.

It started with mobiles and dangling squeaking things designed to amuse, stimulate and developmentally enhance my babies’ road trip experience. This morphed into the proper classical music to raise their nubile intelligence quotients and prevent them from trying to steal the car keys for a spontaneous roadie.

The roadies would remain confined to hitching our sainted giant dog to the front of the Red Ryder© wagon for a ride up the driveway. This changed into the scenario of two little boys starting at the top of the gently sloped drive to gain Sir Isaac’s gravitational acceleration and cut cookies on the Big Wheels© with their older sister yelling “faster!” throughout…

The car seats and booster seats replaced the infant seat with alarming alacrity. The new models lifted everyone to their properly mandated federal safety standards and gave my husband and I the appropriate glimpse of what they were up to at any given moment. All the while, the dogs were busy licking faces clean of whatever fast food joy box food product that was serving to fill tummies and keep us all on schedule.

And there was the trip to the family fake reunion moment with two eighteen month olds who had had QUITE enough of the six hours in confinement, federally mandated or not. Their five-year-older sister could no longer cajole them through another round of “Ten Apples Up On Top”. We ended up sending back the Wall Street Journal for them to shred just to make that home stretch. By the time we arrived at my in-laws, the back of my SUV looked like a giant hamster ball.

The dogs eventually would never touch another French fry or cereal snack. Aversion therapy does work given enough time and effort…

And now, here we are, my husband and I. We are alone in the car having crossed five states and three time zones. I dubbed this “The Brady Bunch Tour”.  We would pretend to be Mike and Carol while we all happily sang camp songs ALL the way to our destination.

When my husband suggested this venture, (as opposed to shipping and flying and renting and stressing), I accused him of being nuts
But then I thought, “Maybe it’s the perfect way to transition through this change”.

There are no car seats anymore.

For the past five years, along with bouts of seriously malodorous sports gear, my rear view mirror has been gradually filled with boys morphing into men. It became a tool to view their increasingly fuzzy faces. Then nicked faces reeking of aftershave. Finally heads of men who could gaze back in that mirror at eye level.

What went unnoticed by me as the days of high school flew by, were the increasing number of times the back seat was empty. Rather than be seen in my rear view mirror, they would get to their practices, games, and gatherings by themselves.

But they would check to see that we were in the bleachers. They kept that smile to themselves. And, that was okay.

My sons have an amazing cadre of friends. Five had become eagle scouts together never letting anyone give up on this rigorous goal. All were good guys and honor roll members. College selections began to loom large on the horizon that had always been just around the next bend.

BAM! Senior year. Awards banquets, final track meet, final basketball game, senior night. Senior sports banquet. snowball dance, prom. These great guys were so very aware that the sands of time were running out on this phase of their lives.

I, on the other hand wasn’t aware at all.  I was too busy, as usual, to hear the clock ticking.  Too busy in the days of life; planning graduation open house, receptions, reminding them to send in their acceptance letters and trigger their scholarship awards?

“We’ve got it, Mom.”  And so they did.

Each time one of the guys turned eighteen; they were automatically indoctrinated into the “Society of Refined Gentlemen” of which they were all founding members. There would be a mass road trip to the local cigar store in our 1880s town.

“Got ID, son?”

“Yes sir.”

The “SRG” would then convene on our deck where Dad would grill burgers whilst classical music pervaded the forest behind them. Though I objected to the cigars, they were eighteen. They were men.

I’ll get the mustard….

When asked if I would miss them, my response was always the same: “This has been my job for the past two decades. Would I have them living in my basement at thirty? No! I have done my job”.

No one warned me a job could be too well done.

There was the last Ultimate Frisbee Tournament. The last pig roast. It’s time to pack, guys.

“One last barbecue at our house mom?”

“Yes.”  But ever the administrator with her eye on the agenda and a bribe and a threat for every occasion, “But you have to be packed and the car loaded for that to happen.  We need to get going in the morning.”

That morning we were leaving for our trek, there were still two extra guys crashed on our couches. That meant one more round of pancakes and bacon.

It’s time guys.

But mom had to take one last round of pictures. Of course. That’s what moms do — they document the moments that are so precious, so fleeting – even though there are probably some of those fast food fries still stuck in the back of the car for archaeological purposes.

The trip was fun. We had comedy CDs, visited friends from our hometown, laughter, wise cracks, and eagerness to get on with it. The last was from my twins. I was increasingly reluctant, though I did my best to hide it.

Somewhere in there, I, too, began to hear the drip of each grain of sand draining into the bottom of that hourglass.

And I realized I couldn’t stop it.

I had been commanded that I wouldn’t be “one of those moms” who would be clinging to her baby as she sobbed out her goodbyes.

“Not me. I promise.”

And I kept that promise. But randomly I look back in that empty rear view mirror. When no one is looking, I wipe away the tears.

Come home when you can. I love you more.

Me?  I’ll keep my eyes on the road ahead.

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Small Town Sports

Connor on ShouldersMaybe it’s just me. Perhaps this happens in every town where there is a high school and high school sports teams.

Helicopter parents aside, high school sports can make the political arena in Washington look like pikers.

I have a character flaw. I take people at face value. For a very long time, I operated on WYSIWYG.

Okay I was naive. No matter where you are in this world, there is always someone willing to step over you to forward their agenda and to hell with yours.

There was a salient moment when my sons were eight and on a basketball team. I actually watched one of their teammates try and knee another child in the groin. THEY WERE EIGHT AND IT WAS A SATURDAY MORNING GAME! A GAME!
We continued to emphasize fun and sportsmanship but clearly other people had other ideas for their eight year olds. Winning was everything.
Flash forward to now. One of my sons is six foot four. He loves basketball despite the fact that Michael Jordan retired and it has been years since we recovering Chicagoans relished the glory of seven rings. Nonetheless, he (who would sleep twenty three hours a day if he could), sucked it up for his entire high school career when two-a-day practices were mandatory, as was summer basketball camp.
Even with all his efforts, my husband and I spent most of every season watching him support his teammates and warm the bench. There were others in the same position. Each season, the coach would have a parent meeting. To stave off any psychosis, he would announce that he would be happy to talk about anything EXCEPT playing time.
The coach also played his varsity squad on the junior varsity games. And my son sat and sat and sat, along with three of his teammates. Finally, one of the moms in the same situation sent the devil be damned and called a meeting. In that meeting, she talked about rewarding effort. What is wrong with letting your bench warmers have some play time if we are down by twenty points with three minutes left? Her son, God Bless, said, “I’ll give up my time if you play the other three.” We both cried when I heard that. Integrity trumps court time every time.
This is their senior year and final season. No difference. Except that we got to witness how much their classmates went wild when these four fine men were introduced on senior night. Add to that fact that my son had to offer me his arm and you have a golden moment.
But better than that, THESE FOUR GOT PLAY TIME! We were down by 20. The crowd went wild! But that is not the end, not by a yard.
After the game was over, my son was lifted by his brother and a good friend and carried off on their shoulders (no easy task).
Ah, the magic of life.Stretch for Blog

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Small Town Sports

DSC_0037Connor on ShouldersMaybe it’s just me. Perhaps this happens in every town where there is a high school and high school sports teams.

Helicopter parents aside, high school sports can make the political arena in Washington look like pikers.

I have a character flaw. I take people at face value. For a very long time, I operated on WYSIWYG.

Okay I was naive. No matter where you are in this world, there is always someone willing to step over you to forward their agenda and to hell with yours.

There was a salient moment when my sons were eight and on a basketball team. I actually watched one of their teammates try and knee another child in the groin. THEY WERE EIGHT AND IT WAS A SATURDAY MORNING GAME! A GAME!

We continued to emphasize fun and sportsmanship but clearly other people had other ideas for their eight year olds. Winning was everything.

Flash forward to now. One of my sons is six foot four. He loves basketball despite the fact that Michael Jordan retired and it has been years since we recovering Chicagoans relished the glory of seven rings. Nonetheless, he (who would sleep twenty three hours a day if he could), sucked it up for his entire high school career when two-a-day practices were mandatory, as was summer basketball camp.

Even with all his efforts, my husband and I spent most of every season watching him support his teammates and warm the bench.  There were others in the same position.  Each season, the coach would have a parent meeting.  To stave off any psychosis, he would announce that he would be happy to talk about anything EXCEPT playing time.

The coach also played his varsity squad on the junior varsity games.  And my son sat and sat and sat, along with three of his teammates.  Finally, one of the moms in the same situation sent the devil be damned and called a meeting.  In that meeting, she talked about rewarding effort.  What is wrong with letting your bench warmers have some play time if we are down by twenty points with three minutes left?  Her son, God Bless, said, “I’ll give up my time if you play the other three.”  We both cried when I heard that.  Integrity trumps court time every time.

This is their senior year and final season.  No difference.  Except that we got to witness how much their classmates went wild when these four fine men were introduced on senior night.  Add to that fact that my son had to offer me his arm and you have a golden moment.

But better than that, THESE FOUR GOT PLAY TIME!  We were down by 20.  The crowd went wild!  But that is not the best moment.  Not by a yard.

After the game was over, my son was lifted by his brother and a good friend and carried off on their shoulders (no easy task).

Ah, the magic of life.

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Getting the Picture

In a moment of reflection and a struggle to get organized (really?), I spent most of the day going through my dropbox and reorienting my photos.  2013 was fraught with tension, politics, injustice and stress.  It seems that bad guys were winning and the inmates were running the asylum.  Some of it was just life in a small town, but the rest was bad behavior that originated in greed.  It reached a point where I didn’t even want to look at the photos I had taken.

I can procrastinate with the best of them.  Detail work is at the top of the list of things to be put off.  An example would be going through photos on a computer and renaming them one by one when you always carry your camera, have three kids and two dogs who are always willing to ham it up for dear old mom.

So, left with no more excuses, I went to my “cloud” and started digging in.  There were no angels with harps on this cloud.  Click on open, rename and move on to the next photo.

And that’s where the magic occurred.

The glass is not half empty and filled with toxic waste.  It is full to overflowing.  Overflowing with captured moments of joy and we continue down this path called life.  Overflowing with the bubbly water of life, clear and vibrant.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” as Mr. Frost said.  A reluctant traveller though long I stood, we kept moving forward.  There were moments of insight and remembering that life’s deck of card can be shuffled endless ways and many times.

The glimpses were there and I finally found them.  The college reunion.  The graduation of my daughter with honors and acceptance to graduate school.  My husband and son walking down the street from that ceremony with my son now towering over the old man.  The Boy Scout Eagle court of honor giving homage to five great young men. Birthdays, barbecues, friends and relatives visiting  from all over the country.  Even the more mundane snaps held nothing but smiles and memories for the keeping.  It was an important insight for me and a reminder to continue to look on the bright side.  Everything else will sort itself out.

I get the picture now.

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Landing the Chopper

I have just returned from a whirlwind trip to visit colleges with one of my sons.   He wants to return to his birth state and always has.  It is not that he hasn’t found happiness and friends here; he was just imprinted with a reluctance to change.  It will be up to him to come to understand that change is inevitable.  How you deal with it is optional.  Like me, his childhood friends are the ones he holds most dear and a great many of them still keep in touch.

We toured two schools.  Both are well respected.  Both have accepted him so he is in a no lose situation.  It will be his decision and his alone as to which one will get the present of his presence.

Prior to the trip, I fell into my daily mom mode. It is a mode I have embraced in a knee jerk reaction to parenthood for twenty two years.  Did he have a good pair of pants?  Did he pack a couple of collared shirts? Do you have your ID?  I have the boarding passes.

“Mom, I’ve GOT it.”

Honest to God, I didn’t start out as a helicopter parent.  I am not a “tiger mom”, but I do have adequate teeth.  I hide them behind my smile.

Everyone who accosted me while I was pregnant told me, “Oh, you will love them instantly and feel something like you have never felt before.”

How do you love someone you have just met?  I was very smitten from the moment I met my husband but it wasn’t Hollywood love at first sight.  I was smitten with my daughter in many layered levels, including relief that pregnancy was over.  And, in this case, there were two of them!  Unknown strangers who had possessed my body for eight and a half months.  Further, I had been on bed rest for most of that time and looked like the “Queen Mary”; or at least the “Cotton Blossom”.  They had possessed my body and made me look like a side show attraction at a carnival. I did not glow during my pregnancy.  The rampaging tummy patters knew not to come too close.  My husband blocked the rest of those who were inured to my growls of warning.

Helicopter parenting is a skill that is bestowed, probably via a magic wand, and maybe some pixie dust, when we squirt the little puppies out.  For the first time in months, I could draw a deep breath. They were so feisty yet helpless. As with our daughter, we instinctively begin ministering to their every need.  This time, I had experience under my belt.  But stereophonic wailing can be so much more intimidating.  And there was still no shop manual. I checked, believe me.

So we jump off the cliff and attempt to be better parents than ours were.  Instead of a three channel television, 45s and LPs, we battled the Wii and the x-b0x, homework, and fast food.

Needs change. Often times very subtly.

But somewhere along the path, we became a more intense version of our parents.  Or most parents.  Every child became perfect, special and destined for greatness.

Thus, it became our duty to protect that magic spell we bestowed upon them by bringing them to the planet.

I’m snack mom, I have to bake and do it gluten free?  The cookies have to have smiley faces or I get points off my mom record?  (Whatever that is.)  I’m reading mom.  Is Tolstoy okay? Why not, they need to know this stuff to get into the Ivies.  Why is it too early? Can we make a musical out of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream”?  We could stage it with a Barney theme.

Do you have your field trip permission slip?  What do you mean you forgot to tell me that your lunch account ran out two weeks ago and you are hungry?  What do you mean my child isn’t qualified for gifted art?  Where have you had a gallery showing?

But the little buggers keep growing and separating.  And, I for one, lost track that the goal was independence. I fell into hoverers anonymous.  Because you really want to minimize the misery and maximize the goals.  We have every reason to be incredibly proud of our children. They take the checklist away from me.  They won’t even hear me when I am working my invisible checklist.

They’ve got it.

“I’ve got it, Mom.”

Yes you do.  I’ll resew the buttons on.

Maybe I can work on that memoir.

Hugs.

I have landed the chopper.

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Don’t Drink the Kool Aid

It has been “the best of times and the worst of times”.

It has brought many important life lessons to our world. Honesty, integrity, and trusting in God, however you may perceive that source, have been the prevailing theme of the past several months. Keeping one’s hand on the tiller is the other half of the same lesson.

Justice comes in its own form and in its own time.

During this arduous period we questioned just about everything. This included “Why did we do this?”

Why? Because, it is what was meant to be. That’s why.

During this time, I ended up watching “Doc Hollywood” several times. Okay, pure escapism. Then I realized that I watched it several times before we moved from the big City to the Wild West. Sometimes I get the message immediately. Sometimes it takes a while. This was one of the latter.

For the fifteen of you who have not seen this sweet movie (definitely a “date” movie, gentlemen) Michael J. Fox plays a hotshot doctor specializing in plastic surgery. He is heading to Beverly Hills still operating under the delusion that he will be doing this in order to also help cleft palates. If there were a cleft palate in Beverly Hills, it would make the headline of the National Enquirer. If Elvis had been that child’s illegitimate father, it would make the evening news.

On the way to the dream job, Michael’s character, Ben Stone, takes an accidental detour and ends up having to execute community service in exchange for inadvertent property damage. This not only endangers his shiny future; ruining his hot car; but, also, leaves him in a very small town. The town is filled with many people who have been there since Jesus was a small child. What’s more, they have been in the queue to see a “real” doctor for almost as long. The old and beloved curmudgeonly Doc is nearing retirement.

We intentionally left the big city, Chicago. That was almost a decade ago. I have come to broaden my horizons and perspective about people. Oh, there are the usual suspects in the character spectrum in this town. They bring a unique individuality and flavor to the mix. And there is a great deal of value in the amusing diversity and tolerance for “quirks”.

But by and large, you take care of your own and they’ll take care of theirs. In a pinch I can put money in the bank that they will be there to help out if there is an emergency. Otherwise, it’s laissez faire.

Due to the greed and desires of two or three people, we have been dealing with the fallout. However, I found myself beginning to drink the Kool Aid. What happened was because of the narrow vision and immoral behavior.

But I began, after swallowing the fruit drink, to believe that it was all-pervasive. And that is simply not true.

Then, one Friday night, during the weekly block party on Main Street, I bumped into a series of friends and acquaintances, each of which expressed their dismay and anger at the turn of events. They offered prayers and support. Each one gave me the universal message I needed.

“Don’t give up on this town.”

I flashed to a similar scene in the movie and realized that to give into that stinking thinking is to let the black hatted varmints win. I saw the magic that this small town has when the good times and people far outweigh the bad.

We’re not giving up.

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