Quick blog post this morning. We spent five days at our son’s house in Illinois celebrating Memorial Day, his birthday and our granddaughter’s high school graduation. We drove back to Wisconsin for the weekend, and now, we are heading south again for another celebration—our grandson’s graduation from Middle School.
Graduation is Tuesday evening, but we will attend an award’s ceremony tonight. My son and his wife got a letter inviting the family, but no explanation which award our grandson will receive. We all suspect that it is for academic achievement, but there’s been speculation. My son said, “It could be for the kid most likely to have rats living in his locker.” Five sweatshirts have gone missing over the past year and it’s impossible to find anything in the tangled mess of papers and books. I reminded my son that I retrieved four coats and jackets from the Lost and Found when he graduated from Middle School.
Not all Middle Schools in the country honor the transition with a ceremony. I’m glad that our grandson’s does. In my book, you can’t have too many celebrations. I’d celebrate every ordinary day, if I could get someone to join me. For now, I’m celebrating that we are heading out to be with family again for a few days!
I’m reading an anthology of personal essays called What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate. I was drawn to the book because I was curious about what might be forbidden topics between mothers and daughters. I thought I could talk about everything with my mom and that I did. Some conversations took a while to surface, however.
I was my father’s firstborn and his namesake. To say that he was overprotective of me is an understatement. He shielded me from every threat—real or imagined. The intensity of his wariness increased when I was a teen. I wasn’t allowed to go to a restaurant where my friends congregated after school or to a hall where dances were held on weekend evenings. I wasn’t allowed to attend slumber parties like all the girls my age. My dad preferred that I have my friends over to our house where he could keep a watchful eye. I was a good girl, but was still interrogated any time that I was out of his sight.
After my dad died, my mom and I traveled together. One chilly night by the fire in an inn in Cape Cod where we sipped too much brandy, we both cried when my mom told me that she wished she had stood up to him so I could have had a normal adolescence. Her statement broke a dam of feelings in me and I was suddenly 16 again, but free to express the hurt that I carried for years. That topic passed quickly. Her statement validated my feelings and I let them go.
That evening we touched on the deeper conversation that I needed to have with my mom. My mom was smart, strong and capable. I asked her why she deferred so often to my dad, why she always let him have his way even when she knew his behavior was irrational. Her answer was simple: “It was easier that way.”
Ten essays into the anthology of fifteen that I’m reading, I realized that there were things I didn’t talk to my mom about. The conversation in Cape Cod was unfinished. I wish I had asked her what her deference to my dad cost her; what she thought it cost me besides the restrictions on my adolescent social life? Did she realize how much I feared my dad’s unpredictable rage? How I tiptoed around his moods? Did she know how confused I would always be about if I have a right to get my needs met within a relationship?
I realize now, too, how much our talks—which made me feel so close to her—we’re all about me. I wish I’d asked her about her unfulfilled needs, her regrets. She, like many women in her generation, didn’t dwell on those things. They just accepted reality and kept on doing what needed to be done. I suspect that her answer to me—if I had asked more about her life—would be: “It was easier that way.” And I wouldn’t have believed that answer either.
Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, said it well—“there’s no place like home.” I’ve called 27 different residences “home” from coast to coast over the course of my 76 years. That’s a lot of moving, settling in, finding comfort in a particular space. Right now, my husband and I own two homes and feel “at home” in several other places.
I lived in Chandler Arizona in our little house there from mid-December to mid-May. I was home in Wisconsin for a couple days and then went to our son’s house in Illinois for a long weekend to celebrate Mother’s Day. We were home for a few more days and then back to Illinois for Memorial Day, our granddaughter’s graduation and our son’s birthday. We got home last night and we both remarked that although we had a great visit, it was good to be home.
Our son’s house is very nice. We have our own suite there. We were made to feel welcome and we always feel “at home.” But, their life is busy. Our son and his wife work. They have two active teenagers. They live in a Chicago suburb close to an interstate. We live in the country in Wisconsin, a mile from Geneva Lake. There are no stop lights. It’s quiet and dark at night. Our home here fits who we are now. Our pace is slow; our life is simple.
There was a page circulating in Facebook for a while called “View From My Window.” People posted astoundingly diverse and beautiful views from their homes around the world. I dreamed of owning a post and beam house when I was a young girl. This house is my dream home. I can look in any direction from where I sit right now writing this and see huge oak posts and beams framing the green expanse beyond our house. I wonder a lot about how much longer it will make sense to maintain this big house and a small second home in Arizona. Sound decisions made a few years ago suddenly seem foolish as we age, but there’s no clear alternative. At this point, we are in it for the ride until something changes and forces our hand.
There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections.
Albert Brooks, The Atlantic
Twenty-seven residences and the homes of friends and family blend together to create my topophilia. It’s complex and hard to discern distinct features, but I understand that home isn’t stationary. It isn’t four walls, not even these that I love. It’s portable. I carry it in my heart. Wherever the next residence might be, I trust that it, too, will feel like home.
June is the traditional month of transition: graduations, weddings, retirements. Every transition requires a subtraction and addition of roles. Our roles define us and provide stability. Introduce yourself to a new acquaintance and notice how you resort to the shorthand of roles—I’m his wife, her mother, a waitress, a vegetarian, a lover of Country music. I’m visualizing a giant Jenga game where the object is to remove a lower level block from the stacked tower and place it on top. Life transitions mimic the game. Each time we remove a role, we risk shaking up our sense of who we are as we struggle to find our ground.
Some transitions are accompanied by positive feelings and a sense of hope for the future. I watched our granddaughter walk across the high school stage to receive her diploma the other night and could almost feel her shedding the protective walls of home and family that contained her for the last 18 years. She is looking forward to college and the freedom to define herself. Likewise, my sister-in-law recently retired after 25 years in a school system. She has time now to figure out who she is beyond her work routine and decide how she’d like to spend her time. I’m guessing that both transitions will require some trial and error.
Each individual shift in roles also impacts the network to which the person belongs. My granddaughter will leave home in August. Her absence will affect her parents and her brother the most. To a lesser extent, her old high school friends and the rest of her family will feel the loss. All the relationships will be in flux until they settle into a new pattern. My sister-in-law’s ex-colleagues will figure out how to get things done without her, how to work with her replacement and my brother will adjust to having her in the house as he works from home.
For most of my life, I’ve been a fan of change. I saw it as a chance for reinvention, for discovering new possibilities, for adventure. Each role shed seemed to have another waiting in the wings when you’re young, have energy and imagination. Even after retirement at age 65, I became a researcher, artist, writer, teacher. At 76, there are fewer natural transitions—except for the negative ones imposed by failing health. There’s a risk as I shed roles to having my life contract and to feel diminished. The key for me is in continuing to look for new interests, meeting new people and diving deeper into my creative pursuits. I’m not ready to forfeit the game.
Our granddaughter graduated from high school last night. My husband and I often remark about how different her adolescence is from ours was decades ago. For one, we felt relatively safe in our worlds. The scariest threat was anxiety about nuclear attack, which we fended off by schoolroom drills hiding under our desks. We’d never heard the phrase “active shooter” or imagined being afraid in school. My husband and I were encouraged to study, but kids these days are under lots of pressure to perform in school and in sports, having to build a resume for college applications. Technology, with all its pros and cons, is also a strong dynamic differentiating our generations. I failed to think, however, about the effect of COVID on her high school years until last night.
Is it even possible to separate out a single variable when you look at social trends? How do you discover what might be driving behavior? For the last few years, the close relationship with my granddaughter, changed. She spent her time in her room, not talking much when we were together, always rushing off to see friends, sulking and moody most of the time. I never had daughters, but friends who did, said this was a normal stage. I remained skeptical. I missed her and I worried. She seemed so sad. Last night we were planning a family dinner out before the ceremony. Plans changed at the last minute when her friends requested group photos before the event. We got takeout and ate together, but it wasn’t the same. I felt discounted and wondered if it really mattered to her if her grandfather and I were here.
There were there short speeches during last night’s ceremony. Two, delivered by students, referenced COVID. I listened to the student speeches and it hit me hard about what a disruptive force COVID was to all of the kids about ready to walk across that stage. We all struggled during and after the pandemic to find a sense of normal and get our needs met. I suddenly understood how the virus upended what is often a difficult life stage to navigate under the best circumstances.
The students talked about how they had barely found their way around the high school halls when COVID closed the doors. They talked about how difficult it was trying to feel present on ZOOM classes. They talked about lack of motivation and feeling alienated. When classrooms opened again, they hid behind masks, still feeling disconnected, literally without expression. And yet, last night’s graduating class excelled. Most of them will go off to college, trade schools and the armed services with hope for building a better future.
Maybe I am grasping for rationalization, but I see my granddaughter’s distance from me and her singular focus on her friends in a different light now. I believe that she was coping with forces outside her control the best way she knew—tethered to her friends via cell phones and time hanging out. She has a large group of friends with a core group of six girls. They are all going off to different colleges in the Fall. I see that as a healthy thing: they created a strong base together and are ready now to spread their wings. Isn’t that the goal of adolescence?
When we all met up on the high school field after the ceremony, she was glowing. The old smile was back. It didn’t matter to me anymore that I wasn’t the source. I loved seeing her happy and have every reason to believe that she will find her way in the world on a path so different from mine that I can’t even imagine it.
Memorial Day Weekend in my lake community in Wisconsin is the official start of Summer. I’ve been watching the crews each morning when I take my walk. They are busy putting in docks, striping parking spaces, painting cafe tables, washing restaurant windows, stocking pro shop shelves and raking the sand on the village beach. Soon the Summer People will arrive and it will be harder to score a parking spot in the municipal lot after 10AM. After a long Midwest Winter, people here are ready to be out on the water enjoying the sunshine.
I left the lakefront this morning and headed to the grocery, almost forgetting that it was the start of Memorial Day Weekend. The packed parking lot reminded me and I scolded myself for not shopping yesterday before the hordes descended. A tiny, white-haired lady sat in a folding chair by the front door with a card table by her side. A basket of red paper poppies sat on the table along with a donation jar and a sign thanking people for supporting the local VFW. Memorial Day is technically celebrated to remember our veterans who died defending our country, but many of us see it as a chance to remember all who served. I folded a few dollar bills and slid them in the jar. As she handed me a poppy, she said, “My husband served in Vietnam.” I smiled back at her and said, “Please tell him thanks for his service.” She lowered her eyes for a second and answered, “He passed away last September.” I told her that I was sorry just as another person approached the table. I made my way into the store.
She was a stranger and occupied with a task, but there was more that I wish I could have said to her. I counseled Vietnam veterans and their families in the 1990s. I know that the wives and children often served our country in their own way. I heard stories that stayed with me all these years: a newlywed who became a widow within months of her wedding, babies who didn’t meet their fathers until they were toddlers, teenagers whose normal adolescent moodiness crashed against their fathers’ debilitating depression. Marriages were strained. When the husbands let them in emotionally, the wives felt powerless to help. When they remained closed and distant, the wives were similarly powerless to reach them.
I saw a few veterans individually, but it was rare when any of them was willing to open up. There were stories of nightmares and unpredictable rage, alcoholism and obsessive gambling. There were men who startled with any loud noise or who avoided fireworks. They sat in my office facing the door, uncomfortable with having their back to it. There were fears beyond the battlefield. I listened as they talked about their exposure to Agent Orange and their worry about how it would effect their offspring or damage their own health as they aged. Much of their anxiety turned out to be warranted. They also talked about buddies that didn’t come home and how they felt guilty for surviving. Many said it would have been easier had they been killed while they were in country instead of returning home where they were expected to forget. Over the years I heard that the number of suicides exceeded battle casualties.
Two sentiments came to mind this morning as I roamed the grocery aisles. The first is the saying, “All soldiers are wounded.” We send our boys to fight before they can possibly be ready to deal with the horrors of war, and then they come home where there isn’t much help for making the transition. Generations bear the scars.
The second sentiment that crossed my mind is “the home of the free because of the brave.” As I watched people in the grocery filling their carts with cheese and crackers, burgers and bratwurst, beer and wine and quarts of ice cream, I hoped that they would stop on their way out the door and buy a poppy to honor the memory of a veteran. We all know them. We all owe them.
In my small town high school in the 1960s the prom was reserved for Juniors and Seniors, but you could attend as a Freshman or Sophomore if you dated an upperclassman. Some cool girls I knew attended the prom all four years. I went to the prom as a Sophomore and Junior, but almost missed my Senior prom. Senior prom should be a big deal—a special celebration that marks the end of high school years and the beginning of the graduation festivities. I was dating a guy two years younger than me in my Senior year. He wasn’t even old enough to drive. He had no interest in going to the prom if it meant my driving—or worse yet—my parents.
A friend suggested a solution: go to the prom with someone who was just a friend. That’s common now, but was rare then. She suggested the same to a guy who qualified and we agreed to go together. I didn’t even buy a new dress, but re-purposed one from two years before. The event didn’t seem as special as I hoped it would be. The only thing I remember about the night was his correcting my table manners. I was cutting my steak at dinner and he said loud enough for everyone at the table to hear, “Slice, don’t saw” and then he demonstrated. I think we danced to one song. He didn’t get a kiss on the cheek goodnight or even a handshake. Some friend!
Our granddaughter recently went to her Senior Prom—an evening reserved for only Seniors. What a difference between our generations. We wore opera length gloves and our dresses boasted yards of fabric. Her dress was a long backless satin sheath reminiscent of Jean Harlow, who she never heard of. The only thing we shared were the hours primping before the event. In my house growing up, fussing with my hair and makeup was seen as foolish vanity. I was indulged on Prom day, however, and took full advantage. My granddaughter spends hours in front of the mirror on a regular basis. The other night when we were going to dinner, she sat in the backseat with me and used her phone turned to selfie view while she curled her eyelashes!
She went to her Senior Prom last week with someone she’s been dating for a while. The school planned it well and kept the event as safe as possible: buses to the venue on Navy Pier, buffet dinner and dance there, post-prom cruise on Lake Michigan and buses home. I haven’t talked with her yet, but I’m hoping the evening was memorable for her and that her date had only positive things to say about her.
My son and his wife gave me an online subscription to The Atlantic for my birthday this year. Each morning I spend time reading a selection of their well-written articles. This morning I read The Puzzling Gap Between How Old You Are and How Old You Think You Are by Jennifer Senior. I shared the article on Facebook and posed the question of “how old do you think you are?” So far, I have two responses: one from my 51-year old niece who answered “35” and the second from a friend who just turned 70. He said, “30, before the aches and pains.” They are both young at heart with a spirit of adventure, so I’m buying their answers.
The Atlantic article cited multiple studies and proposed several theories. Most of the studies verified that people over 40, who are instructed to say how old they think they are, not how old they feel physically, will respond with a number about 20% lower than their chronological age. One of the interesting theories on why this phenomenon happens, is that people tend to focus on a developmental apex—an age when most of life’s options are sorted, yet there is still a sense of anticipation around future possibilities.
I often mull over what I’ve read and mentally compose an outline for a blog post when I’m on my morning walk. This morning, I thought about the article from The Atlantic and kept asking myself how old I thought I was and why. At one point I passed a playground and heard kids squealing with delight as they played—adrenaline and imagination soaring. Suddenly I was eight again, charging up a slide to escape the pirates. I always escaped and sometimes chased them back into the swamps where they belonged.
That’s the problem with my identifying an age. Aging has provided me with rose-colored glasses. I’m choosing these days to remember the good times and I can quickly conjure up images of myself at any stage in life. I also don’t fit the mold for the theory of why people choose a certain age. I’m not sure that my life options were ever sorted. I’ve changed directions frequently, living in 13 states, working across multiple careers, even marrying the same man twice. I’ve never felt “sorted.” I haven’t peaked yet. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.
Last night when my husband and I were enjoying a Wisconsin Friday Night Fish Fry with good friends in a packed restaurant by the lake, I couldn’t help to think about how anxious I would have been even a year ago in that environment, wondering who around me might be harboring COVID. The pandemic stole three years from my chronological life while I held my breath and hid from most of the things that I enjoyed. I’m back at full throttle again ready to chase pirates and be whatever age I want to imagine.
We were at our younger son’s house in Illinois this past weekend to celebrate Mother’s Day. My daughter-in-law and I sat down with calendars in hand so that I could add key dates to mine for this Summer. It’s going to be busy! Both grandkids graduate—our grandson from 8th grade and our granddaughter from high school. There’s also her senior prom, orientation at Ohio State and move in to campus. They have a Florida vacation with friends and my son and his wife will celebrate their 20th anniversary. So many milestones and celebrations.
The writer and politician, Victor Hugo, once asked: “The telescope or the microscope—which offers the better perspective?” After spending most of my life looking outward and ahead from the viewpoint of the telescope, I suddenly feel like someone handed me a microscope. I’m on the sidelines these days, an observer. As I watch the generations behind me look to the future with anticipation and promise, I’m content to focus on today, this moment, the subtle details of my slowed down life.
I recently read a beautiful passage by Roger Angell in his book, This Old Man. He was commenting on the classic Huckleberry Finn. He said:
[It] “invites rereading, but I find less sunshine in it each time around. Its cruel and oafish backwater crowds, and the itinerant grotesques who prey upon them, don’t feel all that funny or far away, and the bitter pains of Jim’s condition, on which Twain poured out his irony, are dated more in details than in substance. I notice, too, as I did not before, that Huck and Jim become older in the book, partly as a result of their comical and horrific experiences but really because they are riding that other stream whose insensible, one-way flow is felt perhaps even by children staring at distant sails and trains on a summer afternoon. In the end, the two run out of river, and so does their story, which becomes less when it must find a way to stop. Time has slid away, and we wish ourselves upstream again, beginning the voyage.”
Unlike Angell, I don’t wish to begin the journey again, nor do I feel that my story needs to become less because it will stop some day. I’m happy to be on the sidelines watching as the world continues to open to those I love. I’ve had a hell of a ride on this river. Meeting friends for dinner on Friday night—after a six-month hiatus—is a celebration worth noting on my calendar. This life looks pretty good through a microscope!
It’s Mother’s Day, early morning. My older son is 1,400 miles away in Arizona. My younger son is upstairs still asleep. I spent the last six months close to the son in Arizona with only an occasional conversation with the son here. They are 22 months apart in age, worlds apart in personality, yet as close as two brothers can ever be.
My mother used to tell the story that when I was nine someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation I said, “a mother.” Even then it wasn’t the sanitized version of rocking my baby doll and then discarding it in the cradle when other childhood diversions called to me, but a vision based on how I saw my mom care for my two younger siblings who were less than a year apart. I knew that being a mother was a full time job and often messy.
I was so young when my sons made me a mother. I made mistakes. We learned together. They taught me some of my greatest life lessons including how to believe in myself. They helped me find the strength inside me that said to the world, “no matter what, we are here for each other.” There’s nothing more affirming than the appreciation of your child. There was never a moment in my 54 years of being a mom that I regretted that choice, nor have I ever wavered in my dedication to doing whatever I could to make their lives better.
I know that not all mother-child relationships are easy, and I’m sure we had bumps, but I can’t imagine growing old without my sons. We laugh a lot. We confide in each other. There’s a slow shift in the dynamic of our relationship, however. They care for me now more often than I do things for them. It dawned on me recently after spending lots of good times with my older son in Arizona, that not only is he my son, he is my friend. Yesterday, I sat with my daughter-in-law here and we added things to my calendar for the Summer: celebrations, shared holidays, times I needed to babysit for my grandson while they situate their daughter at college—lots of opportunities to continue to deepen the friendship here.
Today we celebrate Mother’s Day. The day isn’t about me, but a celebration of my children, who made my nine-year-old wish come true. I am blessed to be a mother.