notquiteold

Nancy Roman

Dirt

A few days a go I was doing a little gardening.

Here is a totally gratuitous photo of my helper. Theo has nothing to do with this story, but I am addicted to taking pictures of his adorable self.

gardening help

 

So anyway, I am digging up weeds. I love pulling weeds – it is sort of a free association task for me. Sitting on the ground with the sun on my shoulders doing something so mindless – it allows my brain to travel to all sorts of interesting orbits.

I have new gardening gloves. I suffer from a severe allergy to poison ivy. My reaction is truly terrible, so my dermatologist told me to buy very cheap gloves and use them as disposable, since my gloves may come in contact with the satanic plants. But the problem is that I poke through the fingers of cheap gloves immediately. So this year I sprung for a really nice pair. I love them.

So in my wandering thoughts I returned to the dirt of my childhood.

As much as I hate getting dirt under my fingernails now (hence the better gloves), I hated it even more as a kid. I despised that gritty feeling – even though I loved playing in the dirt. My mother did not garden. She had four kids and a job. Tending flowers was WAY down on her list. So I didn’t even know there was such a thing as gardening gloves. However, I invented a pair.

What I mean is that I took my white Sunday gloves and put them on, grabbed a good soup-spoon from the kitchen drawer and went out to dig. Mom did not think this to be a creative solution.

So I learned to scrub my fingers with an old toothbrush, and get used to a little dirt.

I see the sandboxes that kids have today. So pristine. Hygienic, sterilized sand. Sand you buy.

Hahahahahahahahaha.

We didn’t have a sandbox. We had DIRT.

We had a little pit in the center of our backyard where no grass grew. My oldest sister thinks the bare spot was the result of a car up on blocks in that spot for a long while. I don’t remember that. I just remember that is was a nice convenient spot for digging.

But our digging ambitions grew larger than our little circle.

It was the end of the summer of 1960. For the first time, the Summer Olympics were televised. There was no such thing as satellite TV back then. No siree. Videotapes were sent from Rome to Paris to New York. And yet through this primitive, mostly manual technology, we still saw some events the same day they occurred. It was like a miracle.

These were the Rome Olympics that saw the likes of Cassius Clay (our beloved Muhammad Ali), Rafer Johnson, and Wilma Rudolph. I was mesmerized.

Through all this wonder, there was one event that captured the hearts of me and my cousins.

John and Arthur were brothers. They lived downstairs in our three-family home. Their mother was my father’s sister. My family lived on the second floor, and my grandmother lived in a little apartment on the third floor. If you are thinking this is a spectacularly nice way to grow up — you are right. People may refer to this as an “extended family.” But we weren’t extended at all. We were together.

Arthur was my age – nine in 1960. John was a year older. They were rough-and-tumble boys. I was a feminine skinny little girl. Every time we played together, I ended up with some minor injury. But that didn’t stop us. My mom just stocked up on Mercurochrome and Band-aids.

The event that so inspired John and Arthur and me on the grainy shadowing black-and-white TV was:

The Broad Jump.

 Also called the long jump, we watched men and woman hurling themselves down a stretch of runway, launching themselves spectacularly airborne – to land impossibly far away into the soft earth. The men jumped more than 25 feet. The women almost 20.

We had to do it.

We needed a long flat surface to gather speed. That would be our driveway. And at the far end of the driveway was a patch of yard not much used. It was sort of our secondary dirt hole. We often played with toy trucks in that stretch. There was not much grass. After that year, there was no grass.

We took shovels and rakes and loosened about 15 feet of earth. It took days on end. School began and so we worked after school. We built ourselves a landing pit.

And we jumped. We ran down that driveway and threw ourselves into the air. If there were cars in the driveway, we ran down the edge. We had no measuring tape. We used a couple of sticks to mark our best efforts.

We jumped and jumped. The following summer, we did it again.

It was exhilarating. It was euphoric. It was flying.

I remember my mother laughing as I got into the tub every night for my bath. I was solid dirt from my ankles to thighs. The outline of my socks was the dirt demarcation.

I don’t remember too much fall-out from digging up the yard. I only remember joy.

And I learned some good things during those summers of jumping:

* Dirt doesn’t hurt. It feels good and soft and it smells good.

* You don’t have to compete with people who are better than you. There will always be someone bigger and stronger. You can be glad for them, like I was glad when Johnny could move his stick to a new personal record. Work for your own personal best.

* You just have to be just a little bit better than you were before. Inches count. Small improvements each time yield big results after a while.

* Fun doesn’t have to cost anything.

* Keep lots of band-aids handy.

 

broad jump

Berserk

No story here – just thought I would show you my doggie, Theo, at his most berserk.

It was very hot last weekend, so we filled the dog’s little bathtub so he could stay cool while we were working in the yard.

First, Theo stepped into the tub and got wet.

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Then he scooted under the weeping cherry tree, which is a nice secret place to be naughty. He managed to dig a sizable hole before I realized what he was doing, and dragged him out.

Then Theo jumped back – all muddy – into the tub.

Here’s what followed:

 

Good Deeds

I just learned this morning that Muhammad Ali has died. He was a hero of mine.

Ten years ago, I wrote a short story (unpublished of course) based on my own experience with our neighbors. In it, I mention Ali. 

Today, I found the story on one of those hard “floppy” discs, and my husband was kind enough to find the old sidecar-like reader.

To set the stage, so to speak, the narrator’s husband Matt has befriended the neighbor, Brad, who has Multiple Sclerosis. Brad’s wife, Sherrie, is an alcoholic. The narrator (very much like me) is uncomfortable around disabled and troubled folks. She tries to cover it, but not successfully. 

Here is an excerpt – with my tribute to Muhammad Ali. Thank you, Mr. Ali, for showing the world how to live a life of kindness and principle.

***

On Tuesday, Brad had called just before dinner. Sherrie was “asleep”, and he had no food in the house. Would Matt take him to get groceries?

Matt said, “Just tell me what you need, and I’ll get it and bring it over.”

But Brad had been in the house for days, and he really wanted to get out. So Matt walked across the street and started Brad’s van. He got Brad down the rickety ramp, and maneuvered the wheelchair onto the lift. They got to the grocery store, and the lift got stuck with Brad halfway down. Brad laughed but looked very fearful, as Matt tried again and again. A passer-by stopped and they got the thing going with a start that almost dumped Brad on his head. In the grocery store, Brad insisted on managing the cart from his chair, and cereal boxes and spaghetti ended up in the aisle. Then the lift got stuck again bringing Brad back up in the van.

“We laughed ourselves silly, because it was just so awful,” Matt told me that night at dinner. “Poor bastard.”

“And you know,” he added, “most of what he bought was junk food. Tons of candy bars and chips. A few frozen dinners, but mostly candy. I tried to get him to buy some nice steaks, like these – and some vegetables, but he wouldn’t. And he bought cereal, but no milk. I think the cereal is snack food too.”

“Sherrie doesn’t really cook.”

“How do you know that?” Matt asked.

“The pizza boxes. They don’t fit in the trash… she leaves them on top of the barrel.”

“Pizza Palace delivers. Sherrie doesn’t have to drive.”

So he had noticed. Of course, the delivery van probably comes before I get home from work. Matt probably knows the pizza delivery guy. He’s probably looked under the hood of some little Volkswagen with a sign on the top, and laughed about the Red Sox.

I softened a little. “Well at least pizza is a little bit nutritious. And I know it must be hard for Sherrie to get out.”

“I just worry about them. They don’t look very healthy. Especially Brad lately. He’s getting really thin. And he’s so pale. Maybe we could have them over for dinner – a nice home cooked meal.”

“Sure,” I said.
On Thursday night, Sherrie called at 11:30. We had just gone to sleep. Brad had fallen in the transfer from the wheelchair to the bed. Sherrie couldn’t lift him.

“Sometimes I can do it,” Sherrie said on phone, “but this time, I just can’t get him up.”

So Matt put on his jeans and tee and slippers, and made the trip across the street. Brad was all bones and bedsores, and he now wore those awful adult diapers. Matt is so squeamish. Touching Brad made Matt feel faint. But he picked him up, like he’s done a dozen times since we moved here.

“I’m fine,” Brad said, embarrassed.

Matt walked back in the dark. I could hear him washing his hands in the bathroom. He came back to bed.
Sherrie came over on Friday.

I turned from the sink and Sherrie was standing outside the screen door. Just waiting. I opened the door and she stepped over the threshold with a high and slow exaggerated step, as if she had to step over a large obstacle to get in. She was dead drunk.

In her right hand was a can of Bud. In her left hand, she had somehow managed to hold onto a pack of Marlboros, a cigarette lighter, and an ashtray. I wondered irrelevantly how she had opened her own door.

Damn, I thought, looking at the ashtray. She plans to stay a while.

She was dressed in her usual cutoffs, and a tank top with no bra. I guess that was better than when she showed up last week at Connie and Ed’s, wearing her tank top with only her underpants. She sat on their porch for an hour, shooting the shit, apparently unaware that she had forgotten her pants. Connie and Ed pretended they didn’t notice.

“Sit down, Sherrie. I’ll go get Matt.”

I poked my head into the little spare bedroom that Matt used as an office. He was on the phone with his brother. He was a great phone talker, and I always knew with absolute accuracy who was on the line. He had different voices for everyone, voices that were as distinctive to me as kittens were to a mother cat. This was his brother-voice. He reeked big brotherly advice, with as many swear words as you could possibly work into a sentence. For his mother, there was always a strong current of exasperation. My favorite was the way he spoke to my mother. When he’d finally hand me the phone, saying, “It’s your mother”, I’d just smile. Of course it was my mother. There had been no doubt from the first hello. It was his sweetest voice, and I adored him for it.
I once saw this interview with Muhammad Ali. He said that God keeps count of every good act you perform. Ali wanted to make sure he had as many good acts for God to count as he possibly could. He never turned anyone down for a favor or a photograph or a hug. I don’t remember whether Muhammad Ali said this, or whether it is my own conception, but I have this image of all these good deeds written on little individual pieces of paper. God has millions of little papers for Ali. I know He has thousands for Matt. God has very few papers with my name on them.

I closed the door and went back to the kitchen.

***

muhammadali

Muhammad Ali, 1981. Talking to a young man who was contemplating suicide. Ali convinced him to live – to come down off the ledge. 

 

Infinite Monkey Theorem

I think just about all of us are familiar with the Infinite Monkey Theorem:

Given an infinite amount of time, a monkey randomly hitting the keys on a typewriter would eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare.

Blows my mind.

However.

What is more astounding astounding to me than an accidental but accurately typed copy of Hamlet is the fact that new stories are written every day.

Human literature seems to be wrapped around just a few themes:

  • Pursuit of Love
  • Coming of Age
  • Violence
  • Mystery

So with just a few universal themes, how is it we haven’t run out of ideas? Hasn’t every story already been told?

But no. There are new stories all the time. It amazes me. This year I have read stories about a scientist with Asperger’s seeking a wife, little girls watching their adored detective father fall apart as he fails to stop a serial killer, a chick-lit tale of a young woman trying to be braver, a reclusive writer in financial straits needing to write another novel, a man going back in time to stop the JFK assassination,rich millennials finding happiness despite their millions, a magician’s widow dealing with loss and secrets – and of course, numerous other love stories and self-help books about aging and fulfillment.

And there are new stories every day – my bookcase is full, and my Kindle should weigh 500 lbs with the unread books stored there. And there is the wonderful library. And stories online. And movies.

Are the best stories already written? Will something even more wondrous show up next year?

At what point in time will we have typed every possible combination of words? Sure, there are lots of books that are mediocre and derivative. But look how many have merit. It is more surprising to me that anyone can still write an original phrase than a monkey who can type Shakespeare.

And music is even more incredible to me. There are over 1 million words in the English language. But musical notes are limited. Yet people still write songs. How in the world have we not exhausted every possible melody?

Just this morning I heard a lovely new song on the radio. As it ended, I wondered: “Why didn’t someone write that song 100 years ago? Or 1,000 years ago? How did such a sweet tune go unnoticed until this particular songwriter discovered it?”

The human mind is crazy brilliant.

But it does leave me asking still one more question.

The Library of Congress contains 38 million books. Let’s say that half of them are either translations of the same books into other languages – or just plain pretty boring. That leaves 19 million pretty good stories. So why are all television shows the same?

 

monkeytheorem

 

My New Role Model

In my last post, “Slow Down,” I wrote:

Is it fun? Then why am I not doing it?

Yes, I want to have more fun. And no, this is not exactly an original idea.

I stole it.

I stole it from Theo.

theo51916

Yes, my dog is my new role model.

I’ve observed over the last 8 months that he’s pretty happy. So why not do more of what he does?

And PLAY is definitely on the top of his playlist.

If it’s fun, Theo wants to do it. All the time. He can play fetch with his bunny a zillion times a day, and guess what? The next day it’s still fun.

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And sometimes he will have fun that he is not supposed to have. We have done our best to train him to be good boy. And last week he even graduated from Obedience School – but let’s just say he did not exactly make the honor roll.

As much as we scold him, there are many times when the temptation far outweighs the cost.

Getting dirty, for instance.

theodirty

To Theo, going into the muddy bog to play with frogs was definitely worth the bath later. I need to remind myself that getting dirty and sweaty can be fun. And just because someone tells you “no” doesn’t mean that you can’t try it anyway.

Being scolded isn’t so terrible. I can see from my puppy that the best way to handle it is to listen courteously…

theolecture

 

Then do what you want.

I’ve also seen that you have to try stuff. Being brave can give you access to wonderful pleasures. The stairs may be really scary, but once you’ve mastered them, you can sleep on the bed – (if no one is looking.)

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On the other hand, Theo has also taught me that it is okay to be timid once in a while. There’s no shame in being afraid. When we go to the dog park, he’s very cautious around the other dogs. Just yesterday, I reminded him that he doesn’t have to be afraid of a dog with a name like Sweetie, for God’s sake. But I also understand that no one should force you into anything you’re not comfortable with. Trust your instincts. Sweetie could be a nine-and-a-half pound biter.

Pay attention. You never know when an opportunity may come your way. You have to be ready to seize the moment.

theotenderloin

 

Take joy in simple things. You don’t need expensive toys. Just taking a walk feels really nice. And if you want to bring something with you, it doesn’t have to be a monogrammed designer bone. You could take a toilet paper roll, for example.

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But by far, the most important lesson I have learned from my dog is:

Forgive.

Be generous with your forgiveness. Make your forgiveness complete. Let go of your anger as quickly as you can. Don’t nurse your grievances. Don’t hold a grudge.

I’m not talking about how easily I forgive Theo when he has been a bad boy.

No.

I’m talking about how easily Theo forgives me.

I haven’t had a dog for a very long time. I’m not good at raising a puppy. I’m set in my ways. I get aggravated quickly. I lose my temper at least once a day… sometimes once an hour. I scold. I holler. Sometimes I cry.

There are moments when Theo must think that I am a total lunatic.

And yet.

The next moment there he is. Ready to cuddle. Giving his whole heart to his lunatic mom.

I want to be more like Theo.

I’m sure he can teach me.

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Slow Down

I have to interrupt my usual self-absorption to report on a new way to focus on myself.

Yes. a better self-absorption.

I have been preoccupied with getting old. I turned 65 earlier in the year, and all I can think about is how I want to live in the limited time I have left.

But what if it is not limited?  What if I have 35 more years?

Yes, they will go by quickly. One kind and generous person (Momshieb) who read my blog “The Meaning of Life” offered this amazing analogy, which she attributed to her husband:

Life is like an old record album (remember?) The first several circuits of the album take a while. The needle has to go all the way around the edge. But as you get closer to the end of the album, the circle grows smaller and the circuits really are faster. But when you listen to the music, you don’t hear a difference.

So accurate!  My years will go around faster and faster, but it will still be as sweet.

And there is so much to do!

I am sure I can make my needle go around to the sweetest music ever. My music will be the accompaniment to years of fine, if smaller, travels around the center.

I want to write more.

And sure, a lot will be the trivial silly stuff I often write – because I love to make someone laugh. And maybe a little chuckle is just what that someone needed more than anything at just that moment. To provide that is a noble goal.

But once in a while I also want to write something a little more thoughtful. I hope that a sentence or two may nestle into someone’s heart – maybe not forever. Just for a moment or two will be all right with me.

I want to play more.

Is it fun? Then why am I not doing it? These are the questions I need to ask myself all the time now. I tend to be cautious and fearful. A watcher from the sidelines. But those times when I have been brave are the ones I remember best. I don’t have nearly as many great memories of all those times I observed others having fun. Our good friends have a picnic every summer when they set up a long crazy water slide. I need to go down that slide!

I want to put down my phone.

Oh yes, I’m connected to the whole world. But the whole world is right in front of me. It’s bigger and more colorful and noisier than a couple of square inches on my screen. I’m not giving up my phone (no way!) – I just want to assign it to its proper place. I took the dog to the dog park the other day, and I found I was watching him through my phone – to take the cutest picture, of course. I forced myself – after taking two more shots – to put the phone away, and just BE WITH HIM.

And I learned something amazing. It’s still real if it is an experience that only I have. I do not have to share it. Somehow, slowly and insidiously, social media has altered my perception of reality. That experiences are only real if I share them. That’s so crazy. But I have been sucked in. Facebook and Instagram – and my blog – are terrific ways to connect with the world. But in some ways, those very things can disconnect you from your own experiences.

We’ve all seen it: people who don’t savor what they are eating, because they are busy texting, people who scrolling through Facebook while walking in the park. And most egregious: the school play where everyone is watching through their phones, making videos they may never watch.

I want to watch my kid  (or doggie, in my case). Smile at him and take him in.Absorb him directly. Keep him as mine alone.

I want to slow down.

Yes, my old vinyl record is turning faster and faster. But the music can still sound the same.

It seems sometimes that I am speeding up the music. Making my songs go by too fast.

Here’s a tiny example. I have noticed that I cannot decipher my own handwriting. This has always been a bit of an issue for me, but now it is worse than ever. It’s one thing to rush through your signature. But I rush through everything I write. I tear up checks that I know the payee will not be able to cash. I re-write my post-its notes to my husband, because he will never understand what I wrote. It would have been quicker to write it more carefully the first time. Am I really in that much of a hurry that I can’t sign my note “Love, Nancy” instead of “N”?

I am not sure why I do this. But I do it in much more significant ways than my grocery list.

I don’t know why I rush.  Why I find that dishes I have washed are still not quite clean. Why I skip paragraphs in books that I am enjoying. Why I don’t pay more attention to the scenery. Why I don’t remember driving to my destination. Why I’m not sure whether that orange was delicious or mediocre. Why I don’t really listen when people speak.

I need to be more HERE.

Because I won’t be here all that much longer.

slow down

 

The Name Game

Our waitress last week pulled out photos of her two doggies.

This has become a common occurrence. If you want to connect, just mention that you have a dog.

Anyway, she popped out her phone from somewhere beneath her apron and said, “Here’s Brian Jonathan and this one is Buddy Michael.”

OMG!

I have committed a terrible injustice to my puppy!

He has NO middle name!

Ages ago, I had a friend with no middle name who told me she really hated filling in forms that required a middle initial. “I am going through life as Susan NMI Smith,” she complained.

Well, I can’t stigmatize Theo that way. I can’t let him hang his head in shame when he has to leave a blank space on his insurance form.

He needs a middle name.

My husband says this is unnecessary. But I tell him, “Just think about this:  We can’t get the dog to listen. Maybe it’s because he has no middle name to use – to let him know he is REALLY in trouble.”

And I am sure you are all nodding vigorously in agreement. The use of your middle name by a parent quickly told you how much trouble you were in, and how quickly you needed to stop what you happened to be doing.

So now we have to choose an appropriate middle name for Theo Roman. I’m sure as soon as we do, he will stop flunking out of obedience school.

As soon as I thought, Appropriate, of course the first name that came to mind was Lucifer. But even though it is certainly fitting, perhaps we don’t want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy either.

How about something Theo is good at? Where does he excel?  But again, Theo Humper Roman may not be the behavior we should encourage.

My husband suggested “Garbage Can.” And it’s true that he is very good at leftovers, but we need something with just a little more class.

My favorite dog of recent literature is Enzo, from THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. I was completely besotted with the total civilized dogness of Enzo. And so, I considered naming our puppy Enzo. Theo is a Lagotto Romagnolo, after all, and an Italian name for an Italian dog would be cool. But I had reasons to choose Theo, reasons that my husband loved.

Theo the Cat was part of our family when we first got married. A feisty black cat who was named Althea by some college kids who didn’t realize they had a boy. When they figured it out, they just called him Al. Which makes me think of the Paul Simon song, which I adore, but we had a good friend named Al. Al probably would have liked having a cat named after him, but just in case, we renamed the cat Theo when he was handed over to us. Theo had grown up holding his own against seagulls, and that is no small feat for a kitten. He had Courage with a capital C. At our home, it was the neighbor’s geese that Theo had to manage. And he was an excellent goose-herder. When it came to the numerous stray cats (and even dogs) in the vicinity, however, his abundance of courage was often misplaced, and usually took precedence over his actual fighting skills. He made more trips to the vet than I and my wallet would have thought possible. During one of his many skirmishes, it appears he became infected with one of the terrible cat viruses. His tough little life was short.

So my husband and I both liked the idea of having a Theo the Dog named after Theo the Cat.

Since we went the namesake route, maybe that would be a good idea for his middle name too.

The cat who shared our house with Theo the Cat was Casper. Casper was the best, craziest cat I have ever known. But he was certifiably OCD, and although that is perfectly acceptable – maybe even the norm – in a cat, I think in a dog that would perhaps be unbearable.

I had a dog, Sarge, as a teenager and young adult. And he was a great and sweet companion. But I’d like a two-syllable name, like Nancy Ellen Roman….Nan-cy-Ell-en-Rom-an.  It has good flow.

After Theo the Cat died and Casper was inconsolable, I went to the shelter and brought home Merlin. Merlin was around two at the time we adopted him, and had spent nearly a year in the shelter. He was delighted to be part of our family, and stuck around another 19 years. Merlin was both happy and cranky, curious and lazy. He took his place as Alpha cat and kept it even when he was so old he could barely stand up. No other animal ever challenged Merlin. But to me, the name Merlin is somehow distinctly feline. It would be unfortunate to put Theo in a position where he might be teased by the other dogs.

When Theo and his siblings were born, the breeder had given them tentative names  – because the puppies were evaluated as to disposition and energy levels in order to make the best placements with the right families. Theo had been penciled in as Carlo. Not a bad name at all. But I don’t like the rhyme-iness of a  Theo-Carlo paring. (The same goes for Theo Enzo… too many Os.)

However.

It is not much of a jump to go from Carlo to Carlos. Carlos is the little dog in my own novel, JUST WHAT I ALWAYS WANTED. He’s a mono-visioned, bald-in-spots, nervous little guy. He is my own creation. I didn’t model him after any dog I knew or read about. I made him up. I imagined him and gave him a story. And how cool is it that I can actually give him a real life, after a fashion, by letting Theo share his name? Sure, there is a bit of an ethnic discrepancy, but it only makes Theo a bit more exotic.

Theo Carlos Roman.

I can put it to use right away.

Theo Carlos Roman, put down that slipper!

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Theo Carlos Roman, get off the bed!

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Theo Carlos Roman, you cannot bury your bone in the potted plant!

theoandplant

The Meaning Of Life

You know what really sucks (so far, anyway) about getting old?

LOOKING FOR THE DAMN MEANING!

I’m at the last third of my life.

The first third went by very very slowly. As a kid, a year took forever. Not only was the school day endless, but so was each wonderful summer day.

The second third, however, flew by. Each day was over so quickly I can hardly separate one day from another. In great part that is due to the fact that, at work. one day mostly was exactly like the others. But even summers and vacations and weekends sped past me in one big thirty-three year blur.

Now that I am retired, I figure it can go either way. Without the monotonous job and fewer home responsibilities, my days might slow down again, and I will again have the long idyllic days of childhood. But on the other hand, maybe the swift days of the more recent past were not the result of a boring job, but of the aging process itself – that the older you get, the faster your days go. And if that is true, I am facing a very rapid old age.

And so – What does it all mean?

I was never much for the “Meaning of Life” and all that philosophical shit. But now that I am old, and well…

In truth I am desperate to know that individual life – my individual life – matters.

I spent about twenty years in school. I believe in knowledge. I believe in Knowledge for Knowledge’s sake alone. But does it really MEAN anything? I took courses from Life Drawing to Human Resource Management. From Bookkeeping to Beekeeping. From Investment Finance to Mark Twain to Sign Language. I think it might have made a difference in my own life if I had never studied French or Poetry or Typing. But how about Plane Geometry? In high school, I liked Plane Geometry, and I was really good at it. But I can’t imagine I would have been a different person had I not taken it.  Especially because now I don’t remember a thing about it. But I suppose the sum of all that knowledge – whether I ever found a practical application or not – makes me who I am. And I suppose it taught me to think. To consider new stuff.

Then there’s Work. I worked for more than 40 years. Mostly I liked it. Not every minute of course. Not even every year. As a kid, I worked for the phone company (boring). At a company that made sandwiches for vending machines (tasty). At the local amusement park (terrible work but very cute boys). I also had a few jobs here and there in retail (I’m great at running a cash register, but it is dangerous for me to be anywhere near cool merchandise, as I will spend my whole paycheck.) As an adult, I worked mostly in Accounting and Finance. An English Major in college, it surprised me very much that I had a knack for budgets and cash management. After 10 years in Health Care,  I rose up the ranks in a male-dominated industry (ESPN), but burned out after 15 years, and spent the next 10 at a mail-order nursery (White Flower Farm).

I had a good measure of success, and those jobs compensated me quite nicely. I was a terrible manager of people, but a good manager of information. I was well-enough liked.

But here’s the thing that haunts me.

The Meaning.

I was a fine accountant, but what difference does that make to the world?

If I had been a nurse (which I actually attempted for a short while), I might have helped someone back to health. If I had been a teacher (which I actually attempted for a short while), I might have filled a little mind with wondrous ideas.

But debits and credits? Imagine 20 years from now, when someone at ESPN stumbles upon an old filing cabinet and pulls out some wrinkled yellowed paper. Do you think this person will gaze at my work and say, “Wow. That is a hell of a present-value analysis!”

So I have spent forty years paying my bills with work that has no long-term meaning.

So What? That’s true of almost everyone. What we do is just not important. No one will remember us in a hundred years. Still, we carry on.

But again – it haunts me.

Because I want to do something important. I want to be remembered.

I have no children. No grandchildren. I have many sweet relatives, but the memory of my life will fade for them quickly. I love them and they love me, but I am on the periphery of their lives. Children make your life important. But I have none.

I write though. I leave my words behind. Many of my words – most of my words – are trivial. But a couple here and there …I hope a few of my words are lovely.

And I have many years left, I hope, to write more words.

Perhaps something I write will be found in some old file someday.

And someone will say, “This is beautiful.”

So I carry on.

me 5-11-16

Not Having Children

My Mother’s Day post from last year. I hope it comforts some women who may struggle with the same sadness.

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Note: I wrote this essay fourteen years ago. This Mother’s Day, I find I am ready to share it.

NOT HAVING CHILDREN

I married when I was forty.

It was amazing at that age how many people asked me if we were going to have children. No, I’d say, We’re not having children. What is amazing to me now is that I thought I was lying. Keeping a secret.

Of course we would have children. Forty is still young.

I’m lucky. Lucky in my career, first of all. I am immodest enough to know that my business success is largely due to brains and hard work, but I am also honest enough to know that a part of my success is the result of just too much time on my hands. I work hard because I have no place better to be. I’m not so much ambitious as simply trying to pass the time as interestingly as possible. People at the office listen to me, value my opinion, and pay me pretty good money. How ungrateful I am to rather have a baby.

And on top of a great career, I found a husband at forty. A nice one. Those horrible statistics say I have a better chance of being hit by a meteor. And I want a baby too?

My husband never quite felt the same way. He’s a few years older than I, and was married before to a woman who could not have children. He got used to the idea years ago that children weren’t in his future. He has no experience with kids. He doesn’t think he’d be a good father.

He’d be a wonderful father. I’ve seen how he adores and protects our little cats – feeding them treats from the table, gently untangling knots from their coats, bragging about their exploits long after his audience has lost interest, and, in time, building small cedar coffins through his tears.

When we married, he knew I wanted a baby. He just couldn’t know the completeness of my desire

Early in our marriage, I was late with my period. My anxiety and happiness overwhelmed me. I found myself sitting still for long stretches, holding my breath, counting the seconds until my life changed forever. Two long weeks. I was terrified that it wouldn’t be true; I failed to see that my husband’s fear was different. A baby would be great…but…financially, things are tough right now, it would be career-limiting for you, we’ll be retirement age when college tuition is due, we could die leaving a child for someone else to raise… I never really listened past A baby would be great. When my period finally came, I was quietly devastated. My husband was kind and sweet, but woven through his condolences were the unmistakable threads of relief. I spent all day in bed with the shades drawn. I’d feel him every so often watching me helplessly from the doorway, as if he knew he could not enter my grief. I guess it would be nice to have a baby, he said. I know how happy it would make you.

I am the most selfish person on earth.

The following month my doctor recommended a fertility specialist. I put the referral in my purse, knowing I wouldn’t call.

But even without professional help, I was sure I would get pregnant. Every month I was sure. For ten years. I still cry when I get my period. I try to keep this private but sometimes my husband sees. He comforts me, and I hope he thinks that it’s just hormones. At my age, it probably is.

I am very jealous of mothers. I am jealous of teenage mothers. I am jealous of older mothers. I am jealous of women who get pregnant the first month they try. And I am jealous of women who finally, finally, after miscarriages and disappointments, have their babies.

And now I am fifty. We’re not having children.

Not having children doesn’t take any big adjustments. I am already living a childless life. Now it’s just permanent. It’s a very good life, and it will continue exactly as before. I just have to make some minor modifications of my imagination.

For thirty years I’ve watched mothers with their children and stored little scenes for my own future. I have stolen other women’s moments like a shoplifter who keeps all her pilfered items in the closet, afraid to wear them. My closet is full.

But these clothes don’t fit me any more. It’s time to pack up these images likes bundles for Goodwill.

The first day of school, Mother’s Day cards and macaroni necklaces. Ice skating, singing Old MacDonald in the car. Chicken pox and computer games; soccer practice. Tantrums. Cheerios in the sofa cushions, bicycles in the driveway.

They are such little pictures. Insignificant really. Someone else’s memories. Time to give them up. We’re not having children.

At the restaurant a young boy rests his head for a moment on his mother’s breast. She smooths his hair. He returns to his pizza. Last year I would have certainly snatched up that moment. But now I have no place to put it. I let it go.

There is an emptiness where my vision of the future used to be. But not forever. I am a women with aspirations after all. So I know that there will be new images. Maybe warm fireplaces and good books. Fresh flowers on the table. Beaches. Sunsets. Conversations. Porch swings. I tend to think these new dreams will be quieter dreams, but I know that they are already waiting for me.

All these years I have been saving money for a rainy day that was secretly a college education. But we’re not having children. The money has been redirected.

My husband and I are building a home in the country. It’s a wonderful home on a breathtakingly beautiful piece of land. My husband and I designed the house ourselves. So it has almost everything we ever wanted.

Remember the movie, Grand Canyon? I don’t think the critics liked it, but I did. In one storyline, Mary McDonnell is out jogging and finds an abandoned baby in the bushes. She keeps it. Her husband is not crazy about the idea, but he is Kevin Kline and fabulous and their relationship is perfect and they have such a healthy outlook on life that you know it will work out beautifully.

Sometimes when I am out walking, I keep my eyes on the shrubbery.

deovolenti

Photo credit: deovolenti (Flickr)

What I Learned About Marriage From My Parents

When my Dad died 6 years ago, my parents had been married 64 years. This week marks their 70th wedding anniversary. And we will celebrate – because they are certainly still married. In my mother’s heart and in our memories.

I learned a lot about marriage from the example they set. I’m not saying I am able to put it into practice as well as they did, but I couldn’t have better role models.

Here’s just a little of what they taught me:

Play together

My mother and father had fun. They spent a lot of time not being serious. They liked to picnic at the lake in the summer, ice skate in the winter. They liked to play cards with their friends. They liked jigsaw puzzles and parades. Even when money was short, which it often was, they searched the couch cushions and went to a movie. And later, when money was more plentiful, my Dad would say to Mom: “Get your purse. We’re going out for ice cream.'”

Play separately too

You don’t have to be together every minute. Have your own interests. My Dad liked to go bowling, and play golf, and have a beer at the American Legion hall with his buddies. My mom liked to have lunch with her girlfriends, shop with her daughters, and play her own round of golf. As much as you should have fun together, let your spouse also have fun without you. When my father came home after a Saturday round of golf and a few beers at the club, my mother would say, “Look how happy he is to have a day to himself. And we have something new to tell each other.”

Be on the same side

My parents made it clear to us kids that their marriage was more important than we were. “We love you,” they always said, “but eventually you will go lead your own lives and we will still be together.” They always had a united front, and nothing we could do could pit them against each other. The same held true with relatives and work and decision-making. Your spouse is on your side.

Respect each other

I never heard my parents bitch about each other to anyone else. (at least not seriously). My mother listened to my father tell the same story a hundred times, and although she may have rolled her eyes once in a while, she never shouted, “Enough!’ though I am sure she wanted to. On my father’s part, he once told me that my mother was the smartest person he knew.

Respect each other’s families

Before you were married, you had your own families. Those relationships are still important. Their traditions are not to be discarded, even when you add new ones of your own. We always visited my mother’s parents every Sunday. We wouldn’t think of having Christmas Eve away from Dad’s big clan. And they didn’t criticize each other’s crazy relatives. They loved them. I remember my mother once joking, “If we ever divorce, I’m keeping your family.”

Look nice

Your partner fell in love with you. In his eyes you are gorgeous. Put some effort into keeping that admiration. It doesn’t matter if you have a few extra pounds or not as much hair. Just remember to look nice for each other. My father never wore a torn tee shirt. Ever. My mother put her makeup on even for those trips to the ice cream parlor. And her hair looked great even when they had nowhere to go.

Don’t complain too much

One of the perks of being married is that you have someone built in that you can bitch to. But try not to overdo it. Your partner loves you, but you are really testing their love if you start to complain about your day the minute you walk in the door. If you are constantly negative, you are a drag to be around. I remember when my mother was going through a particularly hard time with some changes at work, and spent several weeks venting her frustration every night at dinner. One evening Dad said, as nicely as possible, “If you really hate that job, then quit, and we will get by. But if you want to stick it out, then maybe you should stop complaining – because you are only making yourself feel worse.” And she did. She didn’t quit the job. She just stopped bitching about it. We were all happier, including her.

Make memories

You don’t have to take that one-in-a-million vacation. (although that would be nice). Just make little moments that you can recall, to remind yourself why your marriage is worth it. When you can say, “Remember that time we stopped on the side of the road and grilled hot dogs in the pouring rain?” you are saying that those memories are worth keeping – and your marriage is based on those moments.

Reminisce. My parents were married on Kentucky Derby Day. They celebrated the Kentucky Derby every year like it was a holiday invented just for them. And they never even attended the Derby. It was their marriage they were celebrating.

This Saturday is the Kentucky Derby. We’ll stop at the betting parlor, and then go to my mother’s home to watch with her. We’ll celebrate the Derby, celebrate their glorious marriage, and offer up a toast to Dad.

momanddadwedding1

My mother and father – 70 years ago. The smartest people I’ll ever know.

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