Sunday, December 29, 2013

Size 10-12

After the email exchange that I posted on Friday, Nick and I decided that what we really wanted to accomplish on Saturday was a partial basement overhaul.  This gave us each a task that was distinct (no bickering over how to progress or who does what!) yet in the same vicinity (togetherness!).  So yesterday morning, we charged our eleven-year-old with making waffles, gave strict instructions on how to treat each other while we were out of earshot, granted permission for a little Wii U time, and then headed downstairs.

Nick tackled the boxes of tools (hand and power) that his father used to have in a basement workshop before moving out of their home of 40 years.  This is a tough assignment, because every box has a memory within of something his dad no longer does -- either because he isn't physically capable or because he cannot find it within himself to try again.

As a professional artist, my father-in-law worked in two dimensions.  He began his career at a greeting card company (where he met my mother-in-law) and finished it as a freelance illustrator working for Disney, Random House, Golden Books, and others.  In his personal time, he worked in wood.  He would see something he liked on paper and attempt to recreated in 3D.  Every year he carved at least one Santa Claus, a few of which were featured in woodcarving magazines. In the non-holiday seasons, he dabbled everything from folk figures to bookends to fancy boxes.  Sometimes he would add a mechanical feature, like a magician's arm with a magnet that would reveal a different card when you moved it up than when you moved it down.

Eight years ago, when we moved his dad from New Jersey to live with us, we set up a workshop in our walk-in attic, but he never once used it.  Nick is still dealing with residual guilt.  (I've tried to tell him it's not his fault, but he was raised Catholic.  I'm Baptist.  We're stingy about things like guilt.)  Since then, his dad has moved to a retirement community, and all the wood shop stuff has moved into our basement.  So Nick sorted countless chisels and saws and sanders and clamps and brushes and drill bits, as well as three boxes worth of interesting scraps of wood for our 9-year-old who loves to build her own toyscapes.  (She created a skate park, complete with half-pipes, as a gift for our elf on the shelf, Annie.)  And he stoically pieced together the carvings that had been battered and bruised over the course of three moves, each one a memory from the days when his dad was a younger version of the man he is today.

On the other side of the basement, I had my own project: dozens of buckets of clothes and shoes -- outgrown and to-be-grown-into -- that had been thrown into a back corner when the previous wearer changed sizes.  Each needed to be gone through, sized, and sorted into piles for Goodwill, younger sister, or younger niece.  This is a permanent item on my to-do list.

Like the tools and carvings for Nick, so many of these items bring back very specific memories for me: outfits worn for school pictures (cute tops from when I remembered the day, t-shirts from when I didn't); an abundance of orange from B's second grade year because it was her teacher's favorite color; camp-logoed sweatpants she bought on day two because I didn't pack warm enough clothing for chilly mountain evenings; the last few sets of matching holiday dresses before they refused to wear them anymore.

I began to be overwhelmed with the transitions I could see, especially in the Size 10-12 stack that represents my older daughter's 3rd-4th grade years.  Although I cannot tell you the specific age or time of year that each of these transitions occurred (not only am I bad about keeping my basement organized, I'm also lousy at baby-book-esque recording), they were all there -- captured in the clothes I folded and stacked.

  • The Girls on the Run t-shirts, which indicate not only the beginning of a wonderful team and character-building experience but also when she started developing what can now only be described as an obsessive love of running shorts.  Seriously. She changes into them the moment she gets home, even when there's snow on the ground.  Apparently running shorts and shearling boots are an acceptable combination.
  • The end of soccer jerseys and the beginning of riding breeches.  She now rides at least five times per week and competes in the spring and summer seasons. #barnmom
  • The first pair of high heels, purchased for Halloween the year she decided to create her own costume and went as a "Sassy Witch."
  • The evolution from pink as an acceptable color, to pink only being acceptable if there was a horse-themed graphic, to pink being in no way acceptable in any amount.
  • An smattering of owls representing Athena and the year Annabeth replaced Hermione as her favorite literary heroine.
  • A few dresses with the tags still on from when she declared herself no longer a dress-wearer.  (Why would you when there are running shorts and shearling boots to be worn?)
The finished project
For the record, she's now eleven, in middle school, 5'3", and wears a women's size 4… and my shoes.

My younger daughter is now in 3rd grade, and although she still wears a size 7, I anticipate that this will be the year her clothes begin to tell the story about the young woman she will become.  Will paint and glue splatters from her countless art projects remain de rigueur?  Will the ballet leotards and tights be traded in for another, greater love?  Will she continue to love lime green, her older sister's favorite color, or will she branch out on her own and declare another hue to represent her truest self?

When the House Wren on my singing bird clock, a gift from my maternal grandmother, chirped 4:00, we came up for air and to locate our children.  B, in her running shorts, was curled up and reading about Annabeth's adventures in the latest Rick Riordan novel.  A, in a pink shirt, was digging through the boxes of wood scraps and imagining what she could create.  A kennel for American Girl pets seemed to be the frontrunner idea.  For the time being, the younger versions of themselves seem like they'll stay for a while.

Friday, December 27, 2013

An email exchange (or why I still love him after 20 years)

December 27, 2013 9:38am
To: NC
From: Nick
Subject: (No Subject)

Is there anything you would like to accomplish/do this week?

December 27, 2013 11:01am
To: Nick
From: NC
Subject: Re: (No Subject)

Lose 10 lbs. Become a better cook. Convince you to eat healthier. Find time to read aloud to A. Clean out every room in case we put the house on the market. Train the dog. Secure a few great post-vacation freelance projects to ensure January paycheck. Read 3-4 novels that I've been meaning to get to. See a couple of Golden Globe noms. Plan a fabulous vacation for just the two of us. Start working toward my PhD. Write Christmas thank you notes.

Or maybe just write thank you notes.

December 27, 2013 11:31am
To: NC
From: Nick
Subject: Re: Re: (No Subject)

Ambitious but doable. Might take longer than the week.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing Day: A short and trite poem about a short and trite crisis

'Twas the day after Christmas and all through our pad
Are the remnants of presents from mom and from dad.
The stockings, still hung by the chimney but slack,
Now emptied of stuffers 'til Santa comes back.

My nine-year-old curled up and green in my bed --
She's been puking since dawn in her jammies of red.
And I in my sock feet and Nick is... somewhere...
The barn, or the dog park? Just getting some air?

When from the back of my brain there arose such a clatter,
I sprang to my laptop to see what was the matter.
What had I forgotten in my mental lapse?
Would the delicate balance of family collapse?

The list and the calendar, both kept with such care,
In attempt to keep sane. (Well, those and much prayer.)
Though what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But an item that showed I was not in the clear.

I drew in my breath and re-checked the date,
Hoping and wishing it would not be too late
To get to the pharmacy and pick up a script
For my father-in-law -- 'twas on him I had slipped!

He lives by himself and does rather well,
But in matters of memory, he does not excel.
Nor will I, is my guess, when I'm eighty-two.
When it comes to prescriptions, he has quite a slew.

Parkinsonism and prostate inflated,
Peripheral neuropathy -- to these he is fated.
But still how we love him, and still how we hope
That he finds some relief and that we help him cope.

Now it is my job to keep his pills straight
And get them to him without any wait.
I sprang to my phone, to my hub gave a ring
And asked him, on his way home, by Costco to swing.

He said that he could, and my crisis was solved.
From my egg-noggy brain I would soon be absolved.
Poor dad would have his Tamsulosin, and still
I could stay with my child, so puny and ill.

Thank heavens for teamwork and pharmacist friends.
All's well once again as our panicking ends.
In truth we are lucky, despite all the hustling.
Gilda said it best:  It is just "always something."

We have access to drugs and for them we can pay;
That's a blessing we count on this Boxing Day.
Now you'll hear me exclaim, ere I take a vacation,
"Happy Christmas and peace to the Sandwich generation."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pick-a-Mix Memories

Brach's candies remind me of Bondy. And since I've been working my way through an entire bowl of the sticky, striped, tree-stamped peppermint taffy variety today, I thought I'd introduce you to her.

Bondy's full name was Vienna Joanna Tastula Oxford, but everyone called her Vee, and she signed official documents as Vienna T. Oxford.  Never the full Tastula unless forced to write it out.  She was born in 1908 in Ashtabula, Ohio, one of nine children of Finnish immigrants. I don't know how overt the anti-immigrant sentiment was when she was growing up, but she felt it deeply. She never overcame that sense of shame about her Finnish heritage.  Hence the T.

Once, I told her about a new girl in my school who was Finnish.  I had been excited to meet this girl since we had a common background.  Bondy asked, "How do you know she's Finnish?" "Because she told me," I answered. "Why would she do that?" she wondered, not rhetorically.

Nonetheless, Bondy still said "skål" when raising a drink -- usually a can of Old Milwaukee.  She also never overcame her Lutheran frugality.

The young Vienna skipped the 4th grade and snuck out on her older brother's bike when she wanted to see a double-feature at the cinema on Saturdays.  She attended the Women's College of Western Reserve University before its merger with Case.  There she studied library sciences and, upon graduation, earned highest marks on the state exam.  She applied for a librarian position at the Infantry School of Fort Benning, outside of Columbus, Georgia, and was hired by then-Lt. Col. George C. Marshall, assistant commandant of the post.  At age 20, she boarded a train from Ohio to Georgia, ready for a new life.

Clarence Edward Oxford (whom everyone called "Sleepy") was a traveling insurance salesman from Zebulon, Georgia, who called on the base as part of his territory.  When he laid eyes on the new librarian, the story goes, it was love at first sight.  Until the day she died, Vee referred to Sleepy as "the best thing in my life."  She loved him deeply, and the fact that he has such a WASPy name was icing on her cake.  She told us he was descended from the Mayflower Aldens, after whom she named her cat, Priscilla.

The Oxfords moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they had a son, Clarence Edward Oxford, Jr. ("Skip"), and then to Greenville, South Carolina, where they were surprised with a baby girl, Margaret Ann Oxford ("Peggy").  Vee was 40 when Peggy was born.  Sleepy was a Baptist, but they lived in a house with a Lutheran-red front door.

Skip's first child, born only 8 years after Peggy, christened Vee with the grandmother moniker "Bondy."  The rest of her grandchildren, myself included, never questioned the name, although it did earn some giggles during introductions at Grandparents' Day in elementary school.  Bondy suited her -- she was certainly no Granny.

It wasn't until her funeral that I learned some of my older cousins had had their first beer with Bondy.  My beverage experience with her was quite the opposite.  She forced me to consume a crystal goblet full of hot water from the kettle before bedtime "to help regulate bowel movements."  But even that disgusting routine didn't dampen the fun of spending the night with her.  Her condominium complex had a creek and a playground and lots of French-speaking children whose parents worked for Michelin.  We would pick up fried chicken from the grocery store across the street, where she let me pick out one generic soda (2 cans for $0.25) and a small helping of Brach's Pick-a-Mix candies (3 pieces for $0.05).  My favorite were the butter rum caramels.  We would watch the ultimate Saturday night lineup on TV: "Solid Gold," "Hee-Haw," "Love Boat," and "Fantasy Island."  She sat in a chipped, cream-colored rocking chair -- the same chair in which I nursed my daughters -- and I sat on the floor.  She taught me how to knit and told me one day she would take me on a cruise.  I dreamed of meeting Vicki, the captain's daughter, and Gopher, your yeoman purser.

Original Santa by my father-in-law.
Brach's candies in honor of Bondy.
Bondy had benign essential tremors, and her voice sounded like Katharine Hepburn's.  She knew one piano piece and played it every day to keep the shaking and the arthritis at bay.  She did the crossword puzzle in ink, as do I, and instructed me to marry a man who could cook, which I did. She loved golf and duplicate bridge.  Chocolate was her favorite fruit.

When she was older and suffering from mild dementia, Bondy saw people in the trees.  They were always watching her but generally weren't threatening.  My mom, Peggy, took her out to lunch every day.  She preferred the $0.99-cent menu at Wendy's and would often eat half of her soggy junior cheeseburger and wrap the other half up for my mom to take home to my brother.  (My brother never ate after other people.)  She didn't understand answering machines.  One day my mom came home, pressed the play button, and after the beep heard a long pause, followed by quiet, shaky, drawn-out "Daaaaaaaammmmmmmiiiiitttt."

Bondy waited until we all came by to say goodbye before she passed away on November 11, 2000.  She had planned to reach 100 but came up eight years short.

I think about Bondy, and my mom, whenever I pick up my father-in-law from his retirement community and take him out to lunch (or to the pharmacy or one of the countless -ologists we visit on a monthly basis).  Peggy had an octogenarian mother and kids under ten long before anyone coined the term "Sandwich generation."  She also had the patience of a saint, especially since by then it took Bondy almost an hour to eat that half cheeseburger (or two out of four chicken nuggets).

Even though Bondy's final decade was dominated by nursing homes, hospitals, and fast food, my strongest memories are those like the stories above.  It gives me hope that one day my children won't think of their grandfather, my father-in-law, as someone afflicted with chronic depression and Parkinsonism, but instead remember him as a quiet, smiling grandpa who taught them to draw at his drafting board, carved a Santa each year for Christmas, and gave them a butterscotch candy at the end of every visit.  Werther's, not Brach's, but the memories can be just as sweet.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Let's start at the very beginning...

Here is a partial list of things I cannot do:
  1. Host the office Christmas party AND keep up with the laundry
  2. Work from home when behind on said laundry
  3. Resist eating leftovers from said office Christmas party while pretending to work from home
  4. Train a dog
  5. Pack lunch boxes the night before in the hopes of getting kids to school on time
  6. Love my husband enough to feign interest in Alaska-based shows on Discovery and History channels
  7. Convince my father-in-law that he needs to add vegetables into his diet and go to a senior exercise class
  8. Drink caffeine (migraine trigger)
  9. Resist drinking just a little caffeine (1/3-caff Americano)
  10. Waterski
If we're going to be spending time together here, I just thought you should know this about me.  Especially when most blogs are based on things that people CAN do -- like prepare perfect paleo meals with backyard-grown, organic, Omega-3/6/9-packed foods that all kids everywhere will love; write with poignant humor about dysfunctional family moments that make the rest of us feel better and inferior at the same time; create creative creations for festive friend and family fellowship; or opine intelligently and persuasively on the most critical political issues of our day.  I read these blogs.  I love these blogs.  This is not one of those blogs.

The fact of the matter is that I don't consider myself to be particularly funny or insightful or inspirational.  And it's been about twenty-two years since I was the smartest person in the room.  (I peaked early.)  

But I am a writer, and writers write.  And we research, and we notice things, and we remember the things we notice and want to share them with others.  Or, as my husband says, we eavesdrop on the world and then share information that wasn't ours the first place.  Well, actually he just says that about me.

So when my nine-year-old lowers her brow and chastises me, "Mom! Mrs. O manages to review math facts with us WITHOUT bursting into song!," or when my father-in-law tries to sneak the expired food out of the trash bag after I clean out his fridge, or when I reach so great a state of frustration that I think occupational therapy might be in order for my 10-month-old yellow lab, I'll do my best to wrap it up in an appetizing way in this virtual lunchbox.  My hope is that you'll find something familiar and comforting in each bite of the baloney sandwich.