Friday, May 19, 2017

How not to be a grouchy old person @Liz Flaherty

I'm not sure when I wrote this, but since the granddaughter I mentioned is--gasp--21, it's been a while. 

"The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." - James Taylor

In the seventies, Gail Sheehy wrote a book called Passages. Since it was a period of life for me that involved three children, one husband, a house, and a full-time job, I didn’t read the book. It didn’t sound very entertaining, and believe me, if I had the time to read in those days, I wanted the subject matter to be entertaining. 

Now, in the last decade of the century, I still haven’t read the book, but I do think more about passages these days. A death in our family of someone who left us too soon, before his life was even in full summer, caused some of this introspection. The births of my second, third, and fourth grandchildren in scarcely more than a year created more.
    
The passages make me sad.

I followed a school bus the other day and thought about all the years my kids rode a bus. For the entire 13 years I had students in this school system, they had the same driver. The bus I followed the other day didn’t even slow down when it passed our house and the driver who kept my children safe all those hundreds of days — not counting the ones my little darlings skipped — has passed away.

This morning, eating breakfast in a restaurant, I watched a father with his four children. He drank his coffee, ordered for the two youngest, kept the baby from taking unscheduled flights out of the high chair, talked with his kids, and chatted with people at other tables, all without blinking an eye.

Unless you’re a caregiver or a teacher, I suppose being able to keep up with a horde. Somewhere, somehow, the ability to think about all those different things and keep track of reaching fingers and kicking feet while still maintaining a grip on both a coffee cup and some semblance of reality passes you by. of kids isn’t a marketable skill when you’ve finished raising your family, and after a while you lose it.

For all of the at least 100 years that my kids were adolescents, I thought teenagers were the smartest, neatest, funniest people in the world. The times I spent with them were some of the most productive and memory-producing years of my life. I still think spectator entertainment doesn’t come any better than high school sports and that most clothing looks better on 17-year-olds than on anyone else on earth. But nowadays I catch myself thinking things like “why doesn’t he wash that hair?” or “I wonder if he can speak a complete sentence without using a four-letter-word” or, worst of all, “if that was my kid, I’d — 

I’d what? Who am I to criticize anyone’s parenting skills when I made every mistake there was to make at least once, more often two or three times? Is this what passages do? Do they turn you into a grouchy old person who forgets how things were once upon a time?
I guess, if you let them, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

But they can do other things, too.

I recently saw both of our sons dressed up at the same time. They wore suits, the one with a beard had it neatly trimmed, their shoes were freshly polished. While we sat, necessarily quiet, I didn’t have to tell either of them to stop kicking the chair in front of him, to stop whispering, to not smack his gum, to leave his brother alone. Their father did not have to point the finger that promised trouble later on or deliver on that promise. When we took them to lunch and they both ordered beer, I didn’t feel compelled to deliver the alcohol lecture I’d perfected over the years.

When we separated later in the day, I told them, “I love you. Be careful driving home,” just as I have told them since the first time they palmed a set of car keys, but the pressure was off. Although I love my children more and am prouder of them than I’ve ever been, they are no longer my responsibility.

And when I held my newest granddaughter and counted her fingers and toes as I counted my endless blessings, I looked at her wonderful, tired mother and thought about how she was just beginning.

I’m glad it’s her instead of me. I’m glad that when the baby stiffens up and her face turns red and she lets out a wail, I can hand her to one of her parents and say, “Here. Do something.” I’m glad that although she fits my arms like a warm and comfortable sweater, I’m not cold when I hand her back.

A few years ago, I had to drive my youngest son to his home an hour away during a snowstorm. It was black dark and the roads were getting nasty. When I let my son out of the car, he leaned back in before closing the door, looking at me in the glare of the interior light, and said, “I love you. Be careful driving home.”

Did I say passages made me sad? Maybe, sometimes. And sometimes not. Sometimes the discovery that things have indeed passed can brighten a gloomy day or brighten a dark night. It might even keep you from becoming a grouchy old person who forgets too much.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Deepening the dash @Liz Flaherty

Unlike the person I've quoted below, I do hate funerals. My faith tells me they are celebrations of beginnings, but the truth is they still feel like endings to me. That being said, I think things are different now--we laugh during funerals without trying to hide it, because the memories people leave behind are often both precious and funny; we really do celebrate the lives of those we've lost

Photo by Annette Wise

Some people hate funerals. I find them comforting. They hit the pause button on life and remind us that it has an end. Every eulogy reminds me to deepen my dash, that place on he tombstone between our birth and our death. - Regina Brett

Do you ever wonder what people will think and say about you after you've died? I never did, either, until today.

My aunt died this week at 97. She'd lived a full and happy life, working outside the home and remaining childless during a time when those just weren't the things to do. She loved and cherished her husband, but after he died, she carried on for over 30 years without him.

Today was her funeral, and the minister who officiated there had never met her. She wasn't a churchgoer, and since she came from out of state, the man who spoke the usual words of comfort and parting was a stranger both to her and to most of us who attended. I thought he did a great job. But the one who did the best job was the one who signed the card accompanying a floral arrangement with the words, "For the best friend I ever had."

On the way home from the cemetery, while the mud dried on my high heels and I tried to keep the hem of my dress coat off the not-very-clean floor of my car, I thought about those words. And, since I've spent the last 24 years of my life, since the day my first child was born, feeling either guilty or worried or both, I got worried about the whole situation.

Would my sons remember that I drove them to at least 10,000 games and practices or would they remember that sometimes I yelled at them because I was just too tired to cope one more minute?

Would my daughter remember all the fun we had shopping and talking and being together or would she only recall the times I'd grounded her "for life, not one minute less"?

Would they remember the movies I took them to or the ones I didn't?

Would my husband mourn me forever, which I wouldn't want him to do, or forget me in the space of time it took him to learn how to buy his own socks, which I wouldn't want him to do, either?

Would my mother-in-law remember how much I loved her or would she remember my hit and miss (mostly miss) housekeeping, so opposite of hers?

Would people say, "she tried hard," or would they say, "she never could get anything quite right"?

Fortunately, it's only about six miles from the cemetery to my house, so that was all the time I had for worrying about things like that. But I thought about them all evening, as I thought about my aunt. I thought about the eulogies I've heard--both the ones that moved me to tears and the ones that left me cold and wondering who or what on earth the officiant was talking about.

It's nothing you can control. You just do the best you can and hope it's enough. You don't, or at least you shouldn't, worry about things like the ones I fretted about today in the car. You should worry about what you do while you're alive.

And if you have a best friend, maybe you should send them some flowers or a card and tell them how you feel about them. Soon. Because while it was a lovely eulogy to my aunt, they are words that should be spoken among the living, too.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Such are the dreams... @Liz Flaherty

This was written for Mother's Day of 1991. It wasn't my last Mother's Day column, but it was my first. It's kind of nice to know I still like it, although I'm not sure I remember the original dreams--the reality was so much better. What do you think?




"She looks in the mirror and stares at the wrinkles that weren't there yesterday..." - Chris Gantry

When she was young, before she had formula stains on her clothes or stretch marks or crows feet, your mother had dreams. In those dreams, she was a singer or dancer or writer or CEO. She wore designer clothes and her hair was always perfect and she had the kind of checkbook balance that dreams are made of. Her plans for vacation never included McDonald's or Motel 6.

For many mothers, there was a man in those dreams. He was always strong and handsome and intelligent and sensitive. He never forgot important dates, never left dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, never for one moment considered anything in life to be as important as the woman whose dreams he was inhibiting.


Sometimes there were children in the dreams, children who behaved well and wore miniature designer clothes that stayed clean. Children who ate their vegetables without complaint and did their homework without fail and who never watched tasteless television or hid dirty magazines under their beds. Even after your mother gave birth to these children (painlessly--we're dreaming here) she maintained her figure and her perfect hair and flawless skin that defied crows feet to appear.

Her home was a portrait of good taste and comfort. In her dreams its plumbing was never iffy, its windows never leaky, its floors never sloped and scarred with the passage of time. The furniture shone with the patina of quality and good wax. The beds were made each morning and the pillows arranged in the artful disarray the magazines make look easy. The house was even paid for.

It is said that dreams die hard.

Not for most of us. For most of us, they change rather than die. We wear what is comfortable and what we can afford, we have bad hair days and not-so-bad hair days, and time leaves its obvious footprints on our skin. Instead of glamorous careers, most of us have jobs we may or may not like but which help keep the checkbook balance in the black. Not the very black, maybe, but close enough to keep the wolves from the door.

The men in our lives are different from what we dreamed, as fallible and faulty as we ourselves are. Although on any given day, they will probably have some of the characteristics of the men of our dreams, chances are good they'll never have all of them at once.

Which brings us to the children of our dreams. Speaking for myself only, I must say that mine were not. If one of them happened to be behaving well, the other two probably weren't. They dressed okay, but were seldom clean at any point in time previous to their 12th birthdays, when they suddenly started taking two showers a day and setting up housekeeping in front of the bathroom mirror. They did homework spasmodically and subsisted on diets that even now the memory of makes my stomach clench. They watched, read, and listened to every single thing I ever didn't want them to.

They turned the house of my dreams into what seemed at times like a three-ring circus. There was no single day in which every bed in the house was made or every dish clean at the same time. The house has leaky windows and iffy plumbing and a few floors that would feel right at home on a ski lift. The patina on the furniture is marred by marks from compasses and baseball cleats and the rubber soles of size 12 basketball shoes.

There is nothing I would change. Nothing.

When I was young, I had dreams. Somewhere in the passage of time, those dreams underwent changes, but they all--every one of them--came true. I hope yours did, too.

Happy Mother's Day to us all, and thanks, Mom. Both of you.

My mom, Evelyn Shafer
Duane's mom, my other mom, Mary Farrell



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

...let's keep dancing... @Liz Flaherty

This is from 2005, I think--Duane and I were both still working. I thought my writing days were winding down (that was about 10 books ago) and I was on the reinvention wheel once again. I'm not sure I've ever gotten off. Anyone else been on that ride?

"If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing..." 

from "Is That All There Is?" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, sung by Peggy Lee.

There are times — long, achy days of a bad knee and raging sinuses and throbbing finger joints — when I resent that I’m 50some and tumbling inexorably down the wrong side of the middle age slope. Is this all there is? I whine, channeling Peggy Lee. Have I worked all these years so I could afford to go more places and see and do more things just to learn I’m too old, too sore, and too damn tired?

I have time, now that I no longer preside over carpools, hold down bleachers, or operate a short-order kitchen and 24-hour laundry, to read all I want to. I have stacks of books and magazines beside my chair, along with a strong reading lamp, a spot for my coffee cup, and a blanket to cover my cold feet. However, if I sit in one spot for more than 15 minutes, I fall asleep. Most of my reading these days is done in the car, where I feed CDs of my to-be-read list into the player and “read” all the way to work and back. I love audio books, and listening to them makes my commute downright enjoyable, but there’s something lacking without the reading lamp, the cup, and the blanket.

Now that tuition, six-boxes-of-cereal weeks, and expensive shoes and jeans are in my past, I could, if I was interested, buy much nicer clothing for myself. But gravity and years of eating too much and exercising too little have made buying clothes a nightmare instead of a pleasure.

At this stage of the game, we could spend our vacations in exotic places, where my husband could play golf as often as he wanted and I could lie in the sun reading and sipping drinks that come with straws, spoons, and umbrellas. Except my skin is already dry and taking on a leathery consistency and reading in the sunlight gives me a headache. Right before I fall asleep, that is.

There is time to write nowadays, especially in the lengthening evenings of spring. But I’m no longer sure I have anything to say. I used to think — only to myself, thank goodness — that I’d never have writer’s block because I was way too full of hot air to ever run out of words. But the hot air has flattened and stilled and, in full panic mode now, I’m afraid I’ll never get it back.

And then there are other times.

I spent a week in Vermont with my son’s family. While my year-old grandson’s parents worked, I got to spend my days with him. We crawled around on the floor, played with noisy toys, and squealed with laughter at nothing and everything. I read to him and he listened and watched my face with his father’s bright blue eyes before falling asleep in my arms.  I’d push back the recliner and pull the quilt his mother had made over us both and we’d nap together in warm and sweet contentment.

Another of my grandsons comes here on Thursday evenings while his brothers have Cub Scout meetings. He’s newly housebroken and toddler-verbal and has his grandfather and me firmly wrapped around his sticky little finger. The half bath in our house is now his, since it’s small and so is he, and the full bath is mine, which leaves grandpa without one. This is okay, though. Grandpa can use Nana’s. If he asks first.

Each day for the last week I have walked my couple of miles and my knee has not protested. My hands, though stiff and a little swollen, have not ached. The roar of my sinuses has quieted to a dull murmur. The finches are putting on their bright yellow summer coats as they jabber at the feeders. Everywhere I look, lilies and crocuses and spiky green shoots are lightening the landscape. They’re brighter now than they were in my 20s, when I was too busy to look at them properly.

This morning, as I drove to work, the quarter moon hung huge and orange in the eastern sky. God’s thumbnail. Beautiful. I opened the car window and breathed deep of the soft pre-dawn air.

I’m grateful one more time that I no longer smoke. It’s been three and a half years, though I hardly ever count anymore, and there is an almost spiritual joy in having beaten it.

It’s not so bad after all, this wrong side of the slope, where the colors are brighter and sharper and scents are sweeter and laughter is like music and grandchildren — anyone’s; they don’t have to be yours — are your reward for the difficult climb up the other side. Sometimes it’s almost … yes, it really is … better than it used to be. Yeah, Peggy, that’s all there is, and sometimes … most times … it’s enough.  

Friday, May 5, 2017

Bathroom wars

This was written in December of 1992, I think, but I'm not sure. The numbers don't always add up right. We've gone up a half-bath since then and I've given up combing my hair in front of the toaster, but it's good to know it's still there for back-up when the kids come home to visit.


For the past 14 years, we've lived in a big old farmhouse back a bumpy lane. It is the perfect house for us, with plenty of bedroom space, a laundry room that doesn't require me to climb steps with the 15 or so loads of clothes I wash each week, and a kitchen where people like to congregate. It also has one teensy, tiny, hole-in-the-wall bathroom.

When a house contains three teenagers and two adults, which this one did for a number of years, that one bathroom makes for a lot of ugliness.

Regardless of groundless rumors and old wives' tales, men rather than women are bathroom hogs. After all this time of brushing my teeth at the kitchen sink and combing my hair in front of the four-slice toaster, I feel qualified to make such a dramatic statement. In the time it takes for my husband or one of my sons to wash his feet, my daughter and I can both take a shower; shave our legs; wash, dry, and style our hair; and read a chapter in the book that always lies on the back of the john.

The men of the house, naturally enough, deny this. It is easy for them to do so, as they have not spent entire days of their lives sitting on the stairs outside the bathroom door praying for the little room's occupant to come out on a wave of steam and Irish Spring so that they can make a mad dash for it before their father or son or brother appears to take up residence for the next 45 minutes. (Yes, that's really one sentence. My writing's come along some since then.)

It was terrible in the days when none of the kids drove and we all actually went places together. The scenario went something like this.

4:00 PM. I say, "I'd better take my shower and get ready to go."

My husband looks at his watch. "We don't have to be there for three hours."

Like any other idiot, I agree and decide to wait.

4:01 PM. First son takes shower.

4:46 PM. Second son takes shower.

5:31 PM. Husband takes shower.

6:16 PM. Daughter takes shower.

6:30 PM. First son goes into bathroom to comb hair. He is joined by second son and their father.

6:45 PM. Family gets into car to leave. Mother is still dirty and isn't wearing any makeup. Daughter is combing her hair in the car. She smacks a brother in the eye with a brush-driven elbow and third world war ensues. Husband and sons look very nice. Mother is ticked off. Big deal. What else is new?

It's not so bad anymore, with one of the sons grown and with a bathroom of his own and the younger two away at college. Since I get up at 3:30 in the morning, it's usually no problem if I stay in the bathroom for a whole 20 minutes if I want.

But then Christmas break came along. I got up the other morning and stumbled in my usual way into the living room, trying to get my glasses on straight and find my way to the coffeepot.

And there is my younger son, on the couch in front of the television. When he saw me, he flinched, never having realized people really looked like that in the morning, then he got up, turned off the TV, and greeted me.

And went into the bathroom.

I brushed my teeth at the kitchen sink, combed my hair in front of the toaster, and dressed in the laundry room. Sometimes there's no sense in fighting the battle when losing the war is a sure thing.