My Dad Stopped Driving Yesterday

Dad handed me the keys to the car yesterday.  I remember the first time he did this.  I was 16.  It meant the start of independence for me, and in retrospect it marked the beginning of the end for his time as an active, hands on parent of young children.  Over the next five years that same ritual was repeated twice more, and soon after that all three of us were gone.   That time, handing the keys to me was a sign of growth. It was celebrated. 

I’ve been taking them grocery shopping every week for the last few years.  It started as an easy way to spend some time together.  I notice how much slower they are; a 20 minute trip for me takes over an hour with them. I watch as mom, so much shorter than she was a few years ago, talks with the butcher about what cut of meat she wants.  He has to lean forward to hear her.  My dad spends an eternity picking out fruit, carefully checking pineapples and melons to determine which one is at the perfect stage of ripeness. 

The vibrant, strong people who raised me are mostly gone. I’m glad he and mom are still here, and I’m grateful they are mentally sound and able to continue being active participants in their own lives.  He and mom are in their late 80s.  She stopped driving a few years ago; he hung on, unwilling to give up, but hardly ever using the car.  It was his decision, made a few months ago.   

Steps taken during childhood and adulthood are celebrated because they mark an expansion of opportunities and expectations.  Each of those steps: getting a driver’s license, moving out, a first job, represent the start of a new phase of life.  Living long enough to become elderly is an accomplishment, but often one that brings a contraction of opportunities.  The steps my parents now take are not “firsts”, they are “lasts”.  The last trip they will ever take.  The last car they buy.  The last home they will live in.

Dad handed me the keys to the car yesterday.  Not for the first time, but for the last time.

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My dad could kick Don Draper’s ass

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I am the same age as Sally Draper.  We both grew up a long time ago, in a galaxy far away,  in a world that no longer exists. Beyond that simple sharing of age, we have nothing in common.  My family did not have anywhere near the money the Draper’s had.  I never went on a vacation that didn’t end up at a relative’s house.

More to the point, my father was nothing like Don Draper, and thank goodness for that.  In my suburban upbringing, Dad left the house early every morning and returned every evening just in time for dinner.   No one thought that was unusual; it was just the way things were.

What was unusual was the degree of involvement he had in our lives.  Many of my friends ate dinner early, with their parents eating a later, quiet adults-only meal.  Not in my house, despite the number of times my father mentioned it  (usually after one of us spilled a glass of milk, or a raging fight had just blown over).

When bedtime came, it was Dad’s turn to take over.  I have no memories of my mother ever putting us to bed; that was his job.  He was great storyteller, and bedtime was a chance to hear his range of voices and accents.  Many of his choices were adult classics; I can still hear him reading Rudyard Kipling, complete with British and Indian accents.

My mother slept like the dead; when I had a bad dream or woke up too late to make it to the bathroom, it was Dad who fixed everything and got me back to sleep.  Later, in my teen years, he was the one to greet me at the door when I tried to sneak in past curfew.

To me, as a child, my dad was amazing.  He’s a small man, but compactly built and strong (even today, in his mid-80s, he lifts weights every morning).  My father was into exercise and healthy living long before it became fashionable. During the same years when Don Draper was drinking a 3-martini lunch, my dad was running the track at the downtown Chicago YMCA (this was so long ago it that the term “jogging” hadn’t yet been invented).  He hung chin-up bars on the door frames of our bedrooms, and tried in vain to convince us to use them every time we went in or out of the door.

Visiting him at work was always fun.  There were the fish tanks filled with guppies, the desk drawer stuffed with candy bars Mom would never let us eat, and the great view of Chicago out the window.  I’d always surreptitiously look for the paperweight I made for him back in first grade; it was there prominently displayed on his desk for every visit from early childhood through adulthood and until his retirement.

My dad didn’t dress as well as Don, and certainly never earned that kind of money; but I knew that I could always depend on him to be there when I needed him.  And he always has been.   He took us fishing, brought us to museums, went on family picnics, and showed up for every single school event.

Dad’s older now, and my relationship with him, as with my mother, is shifting from receiving support to giving care.  I take them grocery shopping most weekends, and I’m getting a lot of phone calls asking for help on certain items.

Still, there are times when he remains my dad, the guy who can take care of anything scary and make the world safe.  When I was little, he made sure that my room was free of the monsters I was sure lived in the closet.  At Rick’s funeral, as I was getting ready to leave, my Dad walked up to me and asked if I needed help paying for it.  He’d brought his checkbook.  I loved him for doing this; for being ready to help out just in case it was needed.  He was there, just as he’s been there for my whole life.

 

Lessons from my mother

I wrote this last year, in tribute to my Mom.  Mom’s still going strong at 85; I realize now how lucky I am, not only because she’s still around, but because of what a great job she did in raising the three of us.

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My daughter is fully grown, so I’m at that stage of motherhood where I know everything and never had any problems. Yup, my memories of those years are crystal clear, and there were never any melt-down tantrums in the grocery store at 6pm, no rude behavior in front of people, no problems. At all.  Ever.  For 18 years I spoke to my daughter in a friendly, helpful manner. There were never any fights and she wouldn’t even recognize what my voice sounds like if I was yelling. Umm… yeah. Not really.

Whether because of me, or in spite of me, she’s happy with herself, has a knack for choosing good friends, and leads a decent life. That’s a win in my book. Being as there really is no way to determine how much of her success is due to me and how much is just her, I’m planning on taking full credit for it; after all, it is Mother’s Day.

Here are my sure-fire rules for parenting. And, by the way, these are the same rules that my mom used on the three of us, so these aren’t just my made up ideas – they are from my mom. And you better not be saying anything bad about her, because I think she’s pretty great.

1. Perfection, schmerfection. One of the hopes we all have for our children is that they do better and be better than we were. It’s a kind of ongoing evolution. If you struggled with school, you hope your child will be a better student. If you grew up in a poor family, you want your kids to have more. Make this easier for your kids by not being perfect. Let them grow up knowing there’s at least one area where they can be better than you.

2. Don’t make home too comfortable. I’m a boomer. When I was in high school, my parents and I didn’t listen to the same music or enjoy the same activities. Living at home was not fun, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was willing to live in dumpy, squalid apartments with roommates who came and went (often with my LPs) because it seemed to be an improvement over moving back home. Make your kids anxious to leave at 18 and feel that they are willing to put up with substandard housing just for the chance of being on their own.

3. Failures are good. Remember when your kids were learning to walk? They were short, already close to the ground, and their bones were pliant. It was the perfect design for gravity deficiencies. Most of the time, a toddler falls, looks surprised, and then starts right back up again. Imagine if you waited until your child was a full-grown adult to teach them to walk; how much more painful the falls would be. Let your kids learn from mistakes early, when the missteps are less harmful. If Junior didn’t turn in his work and isn’t being allowed to attend the school’s movie day, that’s great! He’ll cry and be upset and feel sad – and learn that not finishing work has consequences.

4. Pick your battles. I am always amazed when parents of teenagers get into heated battles over minor issues like hair styles. If you turn yourself into a perceived enemy on small things, you’ll never know about the big things.

5. The ability to make good choices may be the most important lesson to give your children. Let your kids practice making choices, and then see what happens.  Start early; toddlers can pick their own clothes from a pre-selected group. This one is tied closely with number 3, because part of learning how to make good choices is to find out what happens when you make bad choices.

6. Keep your eye on the prize. What’s the easiest kind of child to raise? The kid who dutifully does whatever he/she is asked to do, who never talks back, doesn’t question anything and can’t come up with an independent idea. Is that the kind of adult you want your child to become? If not, then let them practice early. On you. Yeah, it’s tough; but if you want your child to grow up and be the kind of person who is willing to stand up and point out when things are wrong, you can’t raise her/him to blindly accept authority. Even when that authority is yours.

7. Self-respect is earned, not given out on the end of a ribbon. Everyone knows when they are being patronized, even small children. If you want your little future adults to have a good sense of self-worth, then make sure they earn it. Constant praise for doing nothing just creates a sense of entitlement.

8. Ice cream is a fine dinner, once in a while. Look, being a kid is hard, and they have some horrible days just like you do, and sometimes it is good to break the rules. One of the best things about being an adult is that you get to choose a lot more. Sometimes do the crazy fun thing and take your kids out for banana splits instead of eating the balanced meal you were planning on making.

9. Teach your kids to think, and then respect their decisions. My Mom’s favorite saying as we grew up was that she was trying to teach us how to think. When we were older, she let us make a lot more decisions than many of my friends were allowed to make. By the time we were young adults, her mantra was “I tried to teach you how to think. I might not agree with your decision, but I respect how you got there”.

10. The days are endless, but the years go by in seconds. I was a single parent for most of my daughter’s childhood. It was grueling at times, and there were moments when I felt that I’d never have a chance to have time to myself. It seemed endless and exhausting and then, just like that, I was driving to a high school graduation. Somehow those long days of parenting were over, forever, and I had to say goodbye to that part of my life. My memories of small moments: looking out the window at 3am as I was nursing; waving goodbye on the first day of kindergarten; junior high dances;those harrowing driving lessons: all seem present and as clear as though they just happened; and yet, it was a generation ago.

Daily Prompt Person X Day – Ginger snaps and lowered expectations

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 She’s long gone from this world, having died almost 30 years ago.

Her two older sisters were born in Russia; she was born in Pittsburgh before the family moved to Chicago.  She was the first American born child, ending up as the 3rd oldest in a family of 7 girls and 1 boy.  The family lived on the West side of Chicago in an immigrant neighborhood.   They were fairly prosperous as her father, a carpenter, owned a small company that made trunks.   Her father developed work-related asthma from sawdust, probably a fairly common problem in those pre-OSHA days.  The family relocated to LA in a futile attempt to restore his health; he died there in 1921.

They returned to Chicago in sadder, poorer circumstances.  The memory of that train trip back East to bring her father’s body to Chicago stayed with my Grandmother throughout her long life.  My great-grandmother was in her late 30s, a widow with 8 children ranging in age from 15 to 2.  The older girls left school and went to work.  My grandmother waited until she was 14 and then left.  By now, it was the roaring twenties, and she was the wild one of the family, going out regularly with boys and dancing at speakeasies.

In later years, it was always hard to ascertain her exact age.  The official birth certificate was destroyed in a fire, and family needs caused the older children to add on a few years to make them eligible for better jobs.  The best I could figure is that she met my grandfather when she was 16 and got married when he was 19 and she was a few months shy of her 18th birthday.  They were a handsome couple, two blue-eyed blondes fond of stylish clothes and dancing.  Two years later, my mother, their first-born child, made an appearance.

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A few years later, in the midst of the depression, they made a move from the West side Chicago neighborhood where their friends and families were to a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  They lived there for 9 years, the only Jewish family in town.   By 1941 they’d moved to Wausau, a small city in Northern Wisconsin, where they lived for another 30 years.  I came into the world during those years.

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As a child, my grandmother seemed magical.  She was younger than my friend’s grandmothers, and more active.  She was an accomplished home cook and baker: in fact, she self-published a cookbook that sold quite well.  When we visited there was a cookie jar filled with freshly baked cookies handed to each of us kids; mine always had ginger snaps, my favorites then and now.   She was a great story teller and she and my grandfather remained fond of dancing and socializing throughout their lives.

My grandmother was a dynamo, the last one to bed and the first person up.  She didn’t participate in activities, she led them, and she was an active force in the women’s club world of the mid-twentieth century.  No matter how many activities she had going on, they all got completed, her house was spotless, and every meal was perfect.  In later years she went on publicity tours to promote her book and turned out to be a natural on camera.

I’ve often thought about what my grandmother’s life would have been like, had she been of my generation.   She was a natural for business and leadership positions, and could have been very successful in any field.  I wonder if she was ever frustrated at the boundaries that fenced in her in.  Had her family been upper class, she could have gone to college and perhaps even worked in one of the accepted women’s fields, but that wasn’t an option.  Instead, she had to apply her leadership and organizational skills to the realm of what was considered acceptable areas for women.     She didn’t just do well, she excelled at the limited opportunities she was given, and I still think it’s a damn shame that she couldn’t have done more.

I honor her memory every day by living my  life without the boundaries she had, and every time I bake a batch of ginger snaps I think of her.

Daily Prompt: Learning about choices in life

Tell us a moment or an incident that you treasure – not necessarily, because it brought you happiness, but because it taught you something about yourself.

She was wearing a cheap coat and clothes that were worn thin from wear.  She talked quietly with my mother, reminiscing about family members and discussing current events.  She seemed sad.

My parents had her over for dinner several times, but I never saw her at larger family events.  My father would pick her up and bring her back to her apartment, and when she left to go home my mother always packed her a bag of food and books.

This was my great-aunt Clara, the sister of my mother’s father. My mother was the oldest in her family, followed by twin brothers and a much younger sister.  Clara and her husband also had two boys.  Where my grandparents had moved to a rural area and lived the small town life, she and her husband stayed in Chicago, near the large, close-knit families on both sides.

Many years earlier, when her children were the same young age as I was, Clara’s husband had died.  This was devastating to her, and she was not able to cope.  She turned her 2 young sons over to an orphanage and walked away.   Years later, after both boys had grown up in that home for abandoned and orphaned children, she wanted back in their lives.  They were not interested.

We lived near one of her children, and I remember back yard cookouts with his family.  Coming from such a large family, I had learned that by sitting very quietly when the adults starting talking they often forgot I was present, and I was able to overhear a lot through that technique.  This was how I discovered the story of my Aunt Clara.

The idea of a parent abandoning their child was terrifying to me.  I thought about what she had done, and tried to reason out why.  The only answer that made sense was that she just didn’t care enough, that she was weak.  I knew my great-grandmother had been widowed at a young age and left with 8 children, and I knew that she had stayed, had made sure those children had a home and food and love.  She did not walk away.  My great-grandmother was strong and competent.  My great-aunt Clara was not.

I knew I could choose which way to be, how to live my life.  I knew that at 8 years old.  I chose to be strong .  I would never walk away from anything or anyone where I had given my word.   And I never have.

Daily Prompt: In good faith, or my one moment of spirituality. Ever.

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Describe a memory or encounter in which you considered your faith, religion, spirituality — or lack of — for the first time.

“One more push” said the doctor; “Hang on, you’re almost there.”

A few seconds later, I saw my daughter for the first time.  Her eyes were open, looking at me.  I could feel the pulse of blood that still moved through the umbilical cord to her body, and then back to me.  We were one; joined through the cord and placenta; we were separate people.

I’ve never forgotten that moment.  It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a spiritual epiphany.  I’m not religious or spiritual; I don’t believe in god, life after death or reincarnation.  I don’t think there are guardian angels, or woodland spirits.  While there are many, many good people in this world who use religion as a way to funnel their essential good to help others, I also believe that overall religion has done more harm than good.

But that moment – that one moment – I felt and experienced the greatest connection that can exist between two human beings.  The epiphany I had was that we are all connected, that we need to take care of each other, that the actions each of us take are not isolated, but affect everyone.

Happy birthday to my daughter, who started teaching me that very first moment back in 1982.

Daily Prompt: Ripped into the Headline – Wild Wisconsin weekend; dairy debauch and brew bash

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Dateline: Madison.

Sources report an outbreak of dairy and beer consumption occurring in and around the capitol city of Wisconsin over the weekend, with unconfirmed sausage sightings.

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The consumption incidents took place on the Memorial Union Terrace, along State Street, and at several privately owned brewpubs.  Witnesses stated seeing the alleged perpetrators at various locales throughout the weekend.

“I saw them eating cheese curds and cream puffs at 9am at the Farmer’s Market, and then later having ice cream at the Terrace.  My god, how much dairy can one person ingest,” said bystander Jon Jonson.

Nutritionist Ima Buzzkjill stated “A diet this high in dairy and alcohol is irresponsible and definitely not recommended.  I sincerely hope they can’t zip their jeans up; that’ll show them.”

An unnamed source claimed the incidents were triggered from a family visit, and that the only regrets voiced by the participants were that the brats didn’t have enough sauerkraut.

10 steps to being a great mom; what my Mom taught me

img070(me and my Mom)

My daughter is fully grown, so I’m at that stage of motherhood where I know everything and never had any problems. Yup, my memories of those years are crystal clear, and there were never any melt-down tantrums in the grocery store at 6pm, no rude behavior in front of people, no problems. At all. Ever. For 18 years I spoke to my daughter in a friendly, helpful manner. There were never any fights and she wouldn’t even recognize what my voice sounds like if I was yelling. Umm… yeah. Not really.

Whether because of me, or in spite of me, she’s happy with herself, has a knack for choosing good friends, and leads a decent life. That’s a win in my book. Being as there really is no way to determine how much of her success is due to me and how much is just her, I’m planning on taking full credit for it; after all, it is Mother’s Day.

Here are my sure-fire rules for parenting. And, by the way, these are the same rules that my mom used on the three of us, so these aren’t just my made up ideas – they are from my mom. And you better not be saying anything bad about her, because I think she’s pretty great.

1. Perfection, schmerfection. One of the hopes we all have for our children is that they do better and be better than we were. It’s a kind of ongoing evolution. If you struggled with school, you hope your child will be a better student. If you grew up in a poor family, you want your kids to have more. Make this easier for your kids by not being perfect. Let them grow up knowing there’s at least one area where they can be better than you.

2. Don’t make home too comfortable. I’m a boomer. When I was in high school, my parents and I didn’t listen to the same music or enjoy the same activities. Living at home was not fun, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was willing to live in dumpy, squalid apartments with roommates who came and went (often with my LPs) because it seemed to be an improvement over moving back home (note: I am not talking about people in financial straits, but those with a choice.) Make your kids anxious to leave at 18 and feel that they are willing to put up with substandard housing just for the chance of being on their own.

3. Failures are good. Remember when your kids were learning to walk? They were short, already close to the ground, and their bones were more pliant. It was the perfect design for gravity deficiencies. Most of the time, a toddler falls, looks surprised, and then starts right back up again. Imagine if you waited until your child was a full-grown adult to teach them to walk; how much more painful the falls would be. Let your kids learn from mistakes early, when the missteps are less harmful. If Junior didn’t turn in his work and isn’t being allowed to attend to the school’s movie day, that’s great! He’ll cry and be upset and feel sad – and learn that not finishing work has consequences.

4. Pick your battles. I am always amazed at how many parents of teenagers get into heated battles over minor issues like hair styles. If you turn yourself into a perceived enemy on small things, you’ll never know about the big things.

5. The ability to make good choices may be the most important lesson to give your children. Let your kids practice making choices, and then see what happens.  Start early; toddlers can pick their own clothes from a pre-selected group. This one is tied closely with number 3, because part of learning how to make good choices is to find out what happens when you make bad choices.

6. Keep your eye on the prize. What’s the easiest kind of child to raise? The kid who dutifully does whatever he/she is asked to do, who never talks back, doesn’t question anything and can’t come up with an independent idea. Is that the kind of adult you want your child to become? If not, then let them practice early. On you. Yeah, it’s tough; but if you want your child to grow up and be the kind of person who is willing to stand up and point out when things are wrong, you can’t raise her/him to blindly accept authority. Even when that authority is yours.

7. Self-respect is earned, not given out on the end of a ribbon. Everyone knows when they are being patronized, even small children. If you want your little future adults to have a good sense of self-worth, then make sure they earn it. Constant praise for doing nothing just creates a sense of entitlement.

8. Ice cream is a fine dinner, once in a while. Look, being a kid is hard, and they have some horrible days just like you do, and sometimes it is good to break the rules. One of the best things about being an adult is that you get to choose a lot more. Sometimes do the crazy fun thing and take your kids out for banana splits instead of eating the balanced meal you were planning on making.

9. Teach your kids to think, and then respect their decisions. My Mom’s favorite saying as we grew up was that she was trying to teach us how to think. When we were older, she let us make a lot more decisions than many of my friends were allowed to make. By the time we were young adults, her mantra was “I tried to teach you how to think. I might not agree with your decision, but I respect how you got there”.

10. The days are endless, but the years go by in seconds. I was a single parent for most of my daughter’s childhood. It was grueling at times, and there were moments when I felt that I’d never have a chance to have time to myself. It seemed endless and exhausting and then, just like that, I was driving to a high school graduation. Somehow those long days of parenting were over, forever, and I had to say goodbye to that part of my life. My memories of small moments: looking out the window at 3am as I was nursing; waving goodbye on the first day of kindergarten; junior high dances;those harrowing driving lessons: all seem present and as clear as though they just happened; and yet, it was a generation ago.