Snow Reverie

Two days ago it snowed, a light fluffy, non sticky snow, the stuff of bitter cold weather and bright clear skies.  Yesterday it blew, and the crisp edges of the driveway were blurred into little duney drifts.  Around town, those stretches of road with no windbreaks were heaped up with snow.  It was just the like snow on the stretch of County A starting just in front of my parents’ old house and heading east. It was a Bermuda Triangle-esque stretch of country road, where any bit of wind would sweep the snow off of the flat, plowed fields and send it racing across the prairie, to be caught and heaped up on the roadway.  We kids always thought that those swirling eddies of snow across the two lane road looked like the action of hockey players, racing and jostling across the ice.  Every winter, people heading east out of Janesville would be caught unawares by the treacherous stretch of windswept road just past the farmhouse, and they’d end up in the ditch.  Ours was the nearest house, and the drivers would inevitably end up at our back door, asking to use the phone, back in the day when cell phones weren’t a thing.  The kitchen phone was wall-mounted with a curly white cord that cold easily stretch into the unheated “back room” as we called it;  I know because perched on the washing machine was the only place that anyone could have a private conversation in the house. If mom was home alone with us kids, she’d make any single men make the call from the back room, with the door shut firmly between us and them, the white coil of cord mashed in the door jamb.  If there was a woman or kids however, a spot was generally cleared for them at the kitchen table.  One time, dad even gave the mom and kids donuts.  But that was a time that the mom was crying because she’d hit a farm dog in the road further up the way, not because of snow.

 

That swirly, windy, country snow would sometimes appear pink, as the debris from the silos filled with drying soybeans at the farm across the road would dust the top layers of it pink.  One winter the snow heaped up dirty  brown on the bottom, clean white next, and a pinkish layer on the top that looked for all the world like a cross section of the Neopolitan ice cream in the half-gallon box container in the freezer compartment of the house on County A.

A Flame in a Manger

 

For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1

I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.

manger scene 2

Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my door room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.

 

Halloween Do’s and Don’ts

I love Halloween.  It’s the beginning of that frantic roller coaster ride that starts mid-October-ish with the need to turn on the furnace and burn apple spice scented things and continues through January 1.  While there are plenty of lists out there about how to make Halloween safer / more nutritious / more crafty / less sexy-costumified, I’m going to focus on how to do Trick or Treating right.  (This is a completely subjective list.  I’m married to someone whose idea of the right way to Trick or Treat involves getting back with the kids ASAP and changing into sweats to watch football).

  • DO yield to your children’s wishes in terms of costume complexity.  Did I really want to make a “tree” costume two weeks before my due date with the second child?  Absolutely not.  Did I do it?  Yes, because Halloween should be associated with fatigue, hot glue gun burns, and insanely cute pictures–not guilt.
    Peri-Evelyn birth 030

    You want to be a tree you say?  No problem.

    Now, the following year she wanted a $9.99 costume from Walgreens and I had to bite my tongue and let it happen.  The kid gets to drive the boat on the costume issue.  Here are a couple more of my greatest hits:

     

    Where did this ridiculous standard come from?  As with most things (at least according to my therapist) the blame lies squarely and wholly on my mother’s shoulders.  While I can sew straight lines from a pattern reasonable well, she can just make stuff up and it comes out looking great.  Mom would routinely wait until a couple of days before Halloween and begin taking requests from the five of us–and she delivered on ANYTHING. Between her mountains of scrap fabric, the refrigerator box housing previous years’ dance and Halloween costumes, and sheer ingenuity she created costumes including:  Minnie Mouse including padded shoe covers, Robin Hood, The Man in Black, Little Bo Peep, and Pepe Le Pew in addition to scores of witches, vampires and ghosts.  So whenever people suggest that I’m creative with costumes, I just roll my eyes.

  • DO dress your infant to toddler age child as a doll.  The caveat to the “kids drive the costume boat” rule outlined above is that this only applies once they are able to form really good full sentences.  Before that–they’re yours!  And kids as dolls are just too cute to pass up.  Their cheeks are so round and translucent for such a short period, that highlighting the fact through a well-timed doll costume is just too deliciously irresistible. 

    Like my mother, I went for Raggedy Ann.  Unlike my mother, I did NOT handmake my own yard wig in the days before You-tube tutorials were a thing.  Guys, she MADE UP her OWN version of a yarn wig.  I remember that she used leftover denim scraps for the underside skeleton of that red yarn wig I’m wearing above.  The woman is a technical genius.

  • If the baby is bald, DO take advantage of this with a costume highlighting the baldness.  We chose Shaolin Monk. 

    There are plenty of options however.  How about a Bruce Willis baby?  Mr. Clean?  Larry David?  Steve Harvey?  Rough time in her life Britney Spears?

  • DO NOT let Wisconsin weather be an excuse for staying inside.  Layer, layer, layer, and make sure that the headpiece at least gives a clue to the costume because chances are good that the rest won’t be seen at all.2011 November 035
  • DO let them trick or treat for as long as they want to.  This applies both to the day (a rule I find easier to apply since Jimmy is inevitably the one traversing the neighborhood in Wisconsin Halloweens) and over the years.  I will give out candy to anyone as long as they say “trick or treat” and are willing to let me identify their costume as “disaffected teenager.”
  • DO encourage a healthy sense of competition by opening a trading floor for the neighborhood children after trick or treating.

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    Cordani House Trading Floor after the opening bell, Halloween 2017

  • DO NOT insert yourself into this floor.  Despite the fact that my children will literally bicker about anything (example from today’s backseat:  does the “beginning of time” mean the beginning of the universe or when humans started keeping track of time?  Because this affects the argument about “most awesome since the beginning of time.), they will manage to both create and enforce their own set of rules and norms in this bartering system.  DO NOT be tempted to suggest that their trade of 6 fun size Butterfingers for a full size Hershey is dumb because nobody really likes Hershey.  You will be met with a look of utter disdain and exasperation.  Stay upstairs with the adult beverages.
  • DO dress up yourself.  DO NOT worry about how silly you look.  I find great delight in dressing up for Halloween, and  I think I come by this honestly, given my family history.  Check out this snapshot of my Grandma on the right from 1946:
    Halloween 1946

    Ann (Recchia) Yench, Philip Yench, Nell (Yench) Cousin, a.k.a., “Grandma”

    I’m fairly certain that whatever is happening to her right is completely inappropriate by modern standards, but it certainly lends a certain devil-may-care attitude to the whole scene.  My mother also still enjoys dressing up, and 10 points for whoever can name her spirit-animal as whom she dresses every Halloween.  Hint:  she is a teacher, and it’s a book character…

    october-31-2016_untitled_041.jpg

    For those curious, yes, I believe she made this yarn wig too.  If you could see her stockings, they’re striped…

fall 2014-13

Grandma and the girls before getting lost on the way to the school Fall Festival and having to wait for help outside the car in this getup.

  • DO NOT let work keep you from dressing up.  Now, as pediatrician, it was perhaps somewhat easier for me to justify wearing a full costume to work.  However, I did not let concern for my patients’ literary fears affect my choices, as evidenced as two favorites that, yes, I wore to work:  Evil Queen and Dolores Umbridge.

 

Christmas 008

The year that I was senior resident during Halloween and “encouraged” the team to dress up as characters from Grease.  I can’t figure out why the reviews from my students were never higher…

  • DO let them eat the candy til they puke on Trick or Treat night.  It’s one night a year and provides a real sensory lesson on the notion of gluttony.   That whole consume-til-you-puke phenomenon is why I can no longer partake of either banana chips or Bailey’s.

    halloween 2007 029

    Natalie, Halloween 2007.  FYI, no evidence of candy desensitization as of yet

Anatomy: Part II

The second in a continuing series of potentially awkward anatomical conversations while driving.

—-

She was about five when my cut-and-dried eldest asked, “Mom, whose body has more parts, boys or girls?”

As usual, I wondered just where this was going.  She could easily be wondering about ponytails and accessory nipples, right?  Or, she could be talking about who wears more jewelry or generally has more piercings?  Fingers crossed…”What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know, you have a nose, two eyes, two ears…parts,” she replied, verbally rolling her eyes.  I took a quick glance in the rear view mirror and confirmed that the eye-roll was more than just verbal.

“Oh, are you wondering about potty parts?” I asked, once again chastising myself for adopting this non-progressive naming convention.  She nodded, giving me a look usually seen when I attempted to explain something painfully obvious to Jimmy.  I needed to adjust that rear view mirror.   “OK, how about I get a book that has drawings of all of the body parts, boys and girls, with labels and diagrams?”  I asked.

Jan 2008 037

She’s shown a preference for dense, medical texts from a surprisingly early age.

My practical, level-headed eldest replied, “Oh, yes, that would be very helpful.  Thank you,” and returned to her drawing.  Lucky for me, such a nicely line-drawn book of Just The Facts does in fact exist and was quickly reserved at the library.  A couple of days later, attempting to sensitively and privately go through said book, she caught sight of her 3 year old sister down the hall.  Despite my admonitions to keep this “just between us,” the book was clearly too good not to share.  “Hey, get in here!  You love this kind of stuff!” she hollered.

So, yeah, we own our own copy now.

 

They say you can’t go back

The following is written as a birthday gift to my dear friend, Sara (Juni) Vacek.  She hates this picture, but it’s one of my favorites.

Sara

Sara, future biologist for the DNR, honing her craft summer of 1997

Earlier this month I was, happily, forced to examine the question:  Can you go back?  It all began when my college friend, Sara, arrived on the train from St. Paul.  As I pulled up to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, my palms were  quite sweaty.

Milwaukee Intermodal

Milwaukee Intermodal Station looking far more photogenic than I’ve ever seen in real life.

Sara and I had been thoroughly and completely besotted with each other those last few years at Lawrence University, and while we’ve stayed in touch, neither of us could claim that our friendship is a day-to-day reality anymore.  While we have spent time together in the 20 years since graduation, it has not been nearly enough.  Further and perhaps more importantly, we haven’t actually been alone together for any length of time in that past 20 years!

I know in my heart of hearts that my best girlfriends are those for which time and separation aren’t an impediment.  Still–a whole week just the two of us?  What if our ease of rapport had vanished?  This could have the potential for disaster writ in the form of awkward silences.

Ang Sara 98

Ang & Sara joined at the hip, c. 1998

Question #1:  Can you really go back to an intense friendship, set down for a time?

 

The first five minutes were, at least for me, a little bit awkward.  Fortunately, however, I guess that enough of each of us is still the same that the skills, attitudes, and knack of the friendship resurfaced in no time.  Fortunately for us, in the case of a true friendship, not based on selfish need, you can go back.  The silences were the comfortable kind, not awkward at all.  I was in charge of guest relations, Sara was in charge of explaining the world to me.  We did a jigsaw puzzle.  We listened to the sound of each other’s breathing at night–and then put in earplugs.  It was all good.

I’m trying to find some tangible reasons for why this was so–why we were so quickly able to revert to old comforts and patterns?  I think that partly it was due to the fact that our friendship was forged during a time of deep intensity, the fires of young adult optimism and exuberance.  My clan of this type of friends almost all share that in common–solidifying under the stress of a time of high emotion.  New motherhood, residency, education, death.  And the other bit?  It’s the mysterious question of how two people are cut to fit eachother, despite coming from a different bolt of cloth.  I don’t know.  If you figure out the magic formula, please let me know, because making friends as an adult is tough!

Great Friends

Perfect platitude for the occasion

Answer #1:  If it’s the right friendship, you can go back and just pick up where you left off.  

 

Sara came to town so that we could spend time taking a seminar at Bjorklunden, a halcyon place in Door County (more on this later).  On the three hour drive up north,we made a detour through our college town, Appleton, Wisconsin and wandered a bit around campus.  It was a Sunday, relatively early, so the student community was just starting to come to life.  We made a loop, littered it with remembrances and recognitions, grabbed a bite to eat and were on our way.

LawrenceUniversity-MapSM

Oh, you need a map you say????

Question #2:  Can you ever go back to a an important place in your past, like college?

 

LU 94

My version of Lawrence University, fall 1994.  

We pulled up to campus and parked in a visitor’s space.  As we walked around, actual memories mingled with anxiety dreams that featured Lawrence.  (My favorite is that I’m walking into my dorm and realize that I haven’t checked my mail for the entire term and don’t know my mailbox code.   These are the things that really eat at my subconscious, apparently.  Also the dream where I forgot to put on a top.)  The buildings were the same for the most part, as was the landscaping and, believe it or not, the smell of the place–some combination of fall mulch and youthful vigor.  But the actual life of the place?  The young adults wandering the campus?  Cut from a different cloth entirely.  Here’s a brief highlighting of some of the key differences we observed:

  • I didn’t notice any piles of forlorn Ice House cans outside of any of the buildings on the quad.  This is due, likely, to the fact that at this moment, only one of the houses around the quadrangle is occupied by a fraternity.  Other occupants include a house dedicated to the theme of swing dancing and another, Gaming.  This fact is thus far the only piece of Lawrence that has struck any sort of a chord of familiarity with my Big 10 -worshiping spouse.
  • The student union is a new glassy building dedicated to the memory of Rik Warch.  He was President during Sara and my tenure and, in fact, 25 years of Lawrence’s 200+ year history.  His figure looms large in our and many’s memory.  He had a way of making my awkward, 22-year-old self feel important and worthwhile.  And he was so. damn. smart.
    Rik Warch

    Rik Warch-Lawrence University president 1979-2004

    I imagine that for most current students, it’s mostly the oversized oil painting of the man in ceremonial garb that looms large.  Hey kids!  Why aren’t you talking about Rik?

  • Inside said Union, we stopped at the cafe for a quick bite.  While Mozzie Sticks are, in fact, still on the menu, there is no aggressive middle aged townie screaming out their readiness to waiting customers.  Instead, a sedate backlit sign displays orders that are ready.
  • Menu items included a variety of associated icons, and the tables displayed their key.  Among the 20 or so icons were the usual vegan, lactose free, gluten free.  They also, if memory serves, included commentary on the grazing experience of sourced pigs, type of music played for the dairy producing cows, and whether or not fisherpeople sang shanties during their voyages.  But as Sara so patiently explained, it’s so that these mysterious millennials can curate every decision and action in their lives.  Not a bad thing, probably a good thing, just different.
  • Finally, one difference that’s almost a similarity.  We were confused to find that a former small cafeteria space in Colman Hall had been converted into large apartment-style places for 18 students to live, with the unifying factor being that they prepare their own three squares a day.  Two of Sara’s collegiate causes were represented therein:  The environmental group Greenfire maintained the space and students who transferred their board their to dine with the group were members of the McCarthy House Co-op.  We begged a peek inside.  They were her people, but man alive was that space a lot neater than I remember the former Co-Op House, sprawled unceremoniously behind the Chapel.

    LU tree

    Best maple ever, c. 1997

  • The heartbrakingly gorgeous maple between the library and the art center is gone, gone, gone.  Sigh.

Answer #2:  So, in the case of college, nope you can’t go back.  

Lawrence the Place is still the same, but it’s just not ours anymore.  What an interesting characteristic of colleges and universities.  The students who pass through them fiercely lay claim to the institution, but really they are laying claim to the memory of their brief four years of the place.

Reflecting on this made it so apparent to me how difficult it must be for alumni directors of any short-term type place to create a sense of unity across decades of alumni.  Maybe that’s why there’s so much clinging to landmarks and mascots and, at some larger places, teams.  They are truly the few constants across time.  And almost everyone’s four years are completely separated in time, with very little overlap.  It’s almost like the question of how your body can really still be your body despite the fact that the individual cells that constitute it are continually dying and being replaced, (except for the central nervous system and, interestingly, lens of the eye).  So, the place was still our Lawrence University, but completely different;  it is a the same body, but made up of almost completely new parts.

So, for these two examples, the answer to “Can you go back?” is different.  But what of Bjorklunden and other such places?

 

If this entry left you reminiscent for those years at Lawrence, or Lawrence in general, check out a recent podcast put together by 2 students in 2016 on the mysterious disappearance of The Rock.  In it, people of my vintage are referred to as “somewhat old alums.”

First Date

Author’s note:  I kept trying to write this story, and there’s too many little detours that need to be mentioned.  So, I’m just going to write it as I’d tell it.  During the asides you have to imagine me holding up one hand, frozen, as if sustaining the main thread of the story, while the other hand provides colorful gestures.  Trust me it works and people love it.  I think.

 

I took the girls out to dinner the other night.  It was early, so the restaurant hadn’t really filled up yet.  We were seated in the back room, empty save for only one other family with kids;  we were in “kid wasteland.”  The other family consisted of what were clearly a new mother, her mom, and her babies.  They were tiny and new, curled up sleeping against the women’s as they quickly, anxiously finished a one-handed dinner.  Clearly this was a first “time out with the baby” experience, which they confirmed.  I was  immediately taken back;  except for the fact that there were two babies instead of one, it might as well have been me and my mom with a relatively new Natalie.

Aside 1:  The girls wondered how I knew that they were twins.  I pointed out that unless the grandmother had simultaneously had a baby (she heard that and guffawed) or that the family’s baby had already made a best friend of the same age, the best bet were that these babies OF THE SAME AGE UNDER THE CARE OF THE SAME PEOPLE were, in fact, twins.  I hear that parents of twins get asked stupid questions all the time.  “Are they twins?” is merely a variant of my 7 and 11-year-olds’ question.  Another favorite has to be when parents of a boy/girl twin pairing are asked if they’re identical.

 

. . . I would imagine that Natalie was quite a bit older than these little ones, maybe closer to a month, when we had or first date.  It took me quite some time to rally to the idea of actually facing the terrors of dining out with an infant.  That’s a realistic concern. However, heaping helping of postpartum depression added to my hermetic state.  Luckily, my mother is a professional “propper up of people,” and she spurred me on to a lunch at the nearest sit-down place:  On The Border.

Aside 2:  Natalie was born in Arizona in June.  This was fortunate for me, as my mother was still teaching school and could stay indefinitely over the summer break.  Lucky for me she did, as I really am not sure how else we would have survived.  Two of my most vivid memories of the time were staring out this one particular window, and setting a daily goal of emptying the dishwasher.  Postpartum depression is no joke, and my mom’s a winner.

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Mom and baby Natalie.  Note the St. Norbert College shirt;  I think she probably missed a lot of Pat’s stuff that summer.  Sorry about that one, Pat.

 

. . . On the Border is a chain Mexican restaurant, with the attendant loud decor and music.  It was the perfect place in which the cries of a baby would be lost in the shuffle.  I don’t remember what I ate, just the overwhelming desire to get to the part where they bring us the check!  My diaper bag bulged with enough supplies to sustain us for up to a month;  we never needed them.  She slept in her little carrier the entire time.  Thank you, On the Border!

Aside 3:  There are no On the Border restaurants in the immediate Milwaukee area, however there’s a strip joint a little ways off that bears the same name.  You really couldn’t mistake the two.  The different approaches to signage alone make this impossible (busty lady vs. cactus and lime).  Despite this, one of Jimmy’s coworkers once took her sister to the wrong On the Border for lunch.  Interestingly, they weren’t put off by the sign, the fact that all the cars were parked around back, the lack of windows, or the darkness of the entryway.  It wasn’t until they were asked to pay their cover that things finally clicked.  An honest mistake, I guess…

Image result for on the border

This is a family blog.  No comparison sign will be posted!

 

. . . The memory so fresh and real, I asked if the girls and I could come over and look at the babies.  They were sweet and gorgeous, and their mother really looked fabulous.  Before I even realized that the words were there, I was asking if they’d had to spend time in the NICU?  Luckily the mother provided me with an out, replying that “yes, they’re pretty small aren’t they.”

Aside 4:  Despite truly being small, they really just had that slightly NICU-ish look about them.   I have a problem digressing medical, as I have all of this information in my head rattling around that’s not being used any more.

 

. . . The mom and grandma didn’t seem taken aback, though, and my girls hovered over them making all the appropriate cooing noises.

Aside 5:  My medical colleagues can attest to the fact that any babies that spend more than a brief time in the NICU tend to take on a characteristic look.  Part of it is the charmingly nicknamed toaster head, which develops when these little ones spend long periods of time lying very, very still on cribs instead of floating in a nice buoyant belly.  But the other part is my observation that they always seem just a little more tense, even in sleep, as if awaiting the next interruption as they go about the tricky task of sustaining life.

 

. . . It was no more than a minute or two, but the exchange was important to me.  For the new mom, it will either be lost in the blessed forgetting fog of first few months, or it will be one of the sharp memories that comes back unbidden.  The moments of early motherhood are mostly snapshots for me, but I got to relive a vivid one:  the first date.

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Another great date night with Evie. Their manners may still be in process, but they’re generally quiet!

Sixth Grade

Natalie started sixth grade this year.  That feels weird.  Sixth grade is one of the first grades that I can remember with any narrative certainty.  Oh, I have memories before that, but they’re more like snapshots, or maybe little repeating GIF’s.  Sixth grade though, that’s where the narrative arc that continued for some time began.  Or should I say narrative arcs.  I could start any of a number of painful young adult novels with events that occurred in and around sixth grade.

St. Mary's School

St. Mary’s School, on the hill, Janesville, WI

It was the year of Mrs. Neumiller at St. Mary’s K-8 parochial school.  My class had a reputation for being “lively:”  fun for the teachers that still had the energy, hopelessly exhausting for those that didn’t.  Mrs. Neumiller fell into the latter camp, and if memory serves, she quickly retired after our sixth grade year.

st Mary 6th_1

1987, St. Mary’s 6th Grade

She wore a collection of chunky turquoise rings that hung loose on her fingers as she wrote on the board, held in place only by knuckles grown arthritic with age.  She wore a pen on a string around her neck that dangled forward as she distributed communion wine at weekly mass.  And she wore a look of harried concern most of the time.

 

Here’s a sampling of some of my story arcs that got their roots in sixth grade . . .

…Once, while demonstrating how one can perform the Heimlich Maneuver on oneself using the back of a chair, Mrs. Neumiller lost her footing, slipped, landed across the back of the chair and had the wind knocked out of her.  It probably hurt a lot.  I’m pretty sure that most of us either stared or laughed.  Theme:  kids are mean, and it takes awhile to have the human decency knocked into them.

…In sixth grade I started trying to look like other people.  Prior to this, I thought that looking unique was most important.  I sewed some clothes, made some interesting choices at the store for others.  I wore a sweater with sheep on it.  I had my mom put my damp hair in braids so that it would be wavy in the morning.  Then someone called me Tina Turner, and that was the end of that.  Conformity it was.  I tried to figure out how to make my bangs big.  I had a curling iron, but not any of the correct products or a mentor to teach me.  My mother had styled her hair by letting it air dry short for as long as I can remember.  My bangs never achieved the lofty heights of my classmates who had older sisters and ready access to mousse.  Theme:  even a desire to conform isn’t necessarily enough. 

 

Sixth Grade_1

Sixth Grade, before I started to experiment with big bangs.

…I got my period in sixth grade.  Shortly thereafter I was at a pool party at a classmate’s house and, newly menstruating girls being what they are, unpredictably had it arrive.  I had to use feminine hygiene products from her mom’s cupboard.  It was not OK.  Theme:  puberty sucks and I should really have been keeping track of things on a calendar.

…A classmate’s father died that year after a brief battle with brain cancer.  I remember her standing up to offer an intention during morning prayers one day.  She used the word “chemo” in such a familiar way that it still gives me chills.  It was the first funeral that I ever attended.  It rained.  I started to realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.  Theme:  life doesn’t come with any money back guarantees.  This is hard to learn.

…That year, we participated in a goal-planning activity.  It came with a green, shiny booklet that I’m sure was sponsored by a bank or something. It was the first time I had to answer the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?”  (I still hate that question).  The program also attempted to teach us basic financial skills and boiled money down to understandable facts.  I began to get the idea that maybe finances were a topic that could be discussed rationally and and without all sorts of emotion hanging onto them.   Theme:  there are ways to approach life other than your parents’ way;  this can feel like betrayal at first. 

…I longed to be noticed by boys, but I had absolutely no idea how best to go about it.  Apparently, showing off in class, dressing like a middle aged woman, and laughing painfully loudly was not the correct way.  Theme:  they’re really pretty easy to figure out once you stop trying so hard.

 

I wonder what narrative arcs Natalie will start this year?

I hope that her memories of me are of the patient moments.  I hope that she can avoid some of the embarrassments and that those that are inevitable are quickly blurred by memory.