Daughter Dream

Recently, my husband had a dream. He went to put something in the back seat of our car, and there was our daughter, sitting in a car seat. (This was a nasty shock, because we don’t have children.) And then she spoke to him. He was stunned, and said as much. I looked back at him from the front seat and said, “Of course she can talk! She’s 4 years old!” (We’ve only been married for two years.)

I’m in my 50’s, and I am child free with absolutely no regrets. Parenthood would have made me miserable, even though I’d have done my best not to mess it up. And it’s blatantly obvious that the planet is crowded enough without any contribution on my part. So, yeah, that dream of his definitely came way out of left field.

But now I can’t help but wonder what our daughter looked like. And what did she say? What did her voice sound like?

I’ll never know. And that feels strange, too.


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One Crabby Family

During one of my recent “weekends” (Oh, to actually have it fall on a weekend, for once, but nooooo…) I went with my first Seattle friend to visit her parents in Port Townsend, Washington. What a gorgeous place! I’ll write about it tomorrow.

For today, I want to write more about what interested me the most about the visit: the family itself. It occurred to me during this trip that it’s a rare and special treat to experience the dynamics of a family other than my own. It was fascinating to sit back and observe how this family unit worked for two days. It was kind of like a sociological experiment, but one that left me feeling delighted.

My friend is a free spirit. She refuses to be defined. All I can say is that she’s a yoga-teaching, dog-walking, child-loving force of nature. I wish I was like her at her age. I’d like to think I’m slowly becoming like that at age 50 in my own way, but at 36 she’s already there, and I find that so admirable I can’t even put it into words.

But once I met her parents, I understood how she was able to grow so solidly into her own person. Her parents are their own people too. Retired, they recently had this stunning house built in this splendid community, and they don’t seem to have slowed down in the slightest.

Her father rides his bike 8 miles a day, and walks the dog, and is landscaping their entire yard from scratch. I have to say he’s doing a magnificent job. He also volunteers at various events, and will soon be doing a weekly Jazz radio show. Jazz is definitely his thing.

Her mother is, to sum her up, quite a pistol. She is irreverent, hilarious, and a fantastic cook. And she goes crabbing 5 days a week. I swear to God. This woman is out pulling crab traps into a tiny boat every day, and when she gets home, she bashes their little brains out and makes the most satisfying, delicious meals I’ve ever eaten. Honestly, how cool is that? She also seems to be the glue that holds the whole family together.

My friend’s sister wasn’t there during my stay, but she felt like a solid presence, as she was talked about often with great affection.

All three of them made me feel quite at home. Quite comfortable. They even allowed me to bring my dogs, which was extremely generous given the fact that one of them acted the fool the entire time by growling at their sweet old dog and pooping in their living room. That was the only time I felt mortified during my stay.

And what a loving family it is. They all know each other’s quirks and foibles, and for the most part they find each other amusing. Sure, they bicker and gripe from time to time, but in the end, the main thing is the love.

I watched my friend poke her mom as she snored though a movie we were watching. (I wouldn’t mention that except that she has one of my favorite qualities: she doesn’t care what people think.) I also listened to them all debate about whether a water filter should or should not be changed or the music should be turned up or down. All of this nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I would love to still have my mother around to poke. I’d love to have family members to irritate me. I’d love to have a gorgeous, active retirement (or any retirement at all, for that matter, but those are not the cards I have been dealt). I’d love to have a solid family unit and know without a doubt that people had my back. What a gift. What a treasure.

What an amazing family. It was wonderful to be a part of it, if only for a day or two. I was grateful for the opportunity to sit around a table eating crab with this deliciously crabby family! I will forever savor the memory of it.

[Image credit: cannonfish.com]
[Image credit: cannonfish.com]

Don’t You Know Me?

I had the most distressing phone conversation the other day. I try to call my favorite aunt, who is 85 years old and lives in Connecticut, about once every two weeks. Her health is not good. She’s in constant pain, but she has a killer sense of humor and her mind is sharp as a tack. She’s about the same age as my mother would have been if she had survived past her 60’s, so that means she has a special place in my heart for that reason as well.

I was expecting our usual chat. Cracking jokes, complaining about aches and pains, feisty gossip that for some reason she feels she can only share with me. Not this time. Maybe she was tired, maybe I caught her just as her pain medication was kicking in. I hope that was all it was. God, please let that be all it was.

Because the person I talked to did not know me at all. This person had my aunt’s voice and I’m assuming she had my aunt’s body, but it was like my aunt wasn’t there. She kept thinking I was my sister. She asked about a husband that I do not have. I said, “Aunt Betty, you know you’re talking to Barb, right?” She replied, “Oh! Sorry. I’m a little confused. So, have you heard from Barb?” “This is Barb.” “Oh, yeah… I love all the postcards Barb sends me.”

I don’t know which upset me more, the fact that she didn’t know me, or the fact that she wasn’t herself. This was not my hilarious, feisty aunt. This was a meek, confused person who seemed… well… old. It made me sad.

To be honest, I fear getting dementia much more than I fear death. To lose my memories, the only things in life that are uniquely mine, is a terrifying prospect. Losing myself and yet leaving my body behind is the stuff of nightmares.

This situation also reminded me of one of the last conversations I had with my mother. In the very end stages of her cancer she was pretty zonked on pain medication. She’d have good days and bad days. One day she seemed to be having a very good day, and I said as much. She said, “I am! My daughter Barb is meeting me for lunch!” When I hung up the phone, I burst into tears, because she was in Virginia and I was in Florida, so I knew I’d be standing her up. I sort of hoped her confusion was enough so that she wouldn’t remember to be disappointed. It’s hard when someone leaves you before their body does.

So I’ll call my aunt back in two weeks and hope for the best. But I’ll be scared. Whether she knows me or not, I’ll tell her I love her. Because everyone should know they’re loved, even if they don’t know by whom.

adult helping senior in hospital

[Image credit: draggarwal.org]


Pennies in the Parking Lot

A friend and coworker told me a delightful story the other day. When he has spare change he drops it in parking lots. Why? Because when one of his daughters was young, he noticed that she had inherited his extreme ability to quickly spot when things were out of place. This ability meant they both always noticed when there were coins on the ground. Over time they got into the habit of collecting those coins in a special jar, and when they got enough money they’d have a father/daughter outing, such as going to see the movie Pocahontas or getting ice cream at the mall.

Now that she’s grown up and moved away, they naturally don’t do this anymore. So now he drops coins in parking lots because he figures somewhere out there is another father and daughter who have taken up the torch and he wants to contribute. He never mentioned to his daughter that he does this until just the other day, and she laughed and told him she does the exact same thing.

So there you have it. This ritual connects them to this day. And I suspect this tradition will get passed down through generations of his family, because I can’t imagine a sweeter or more delightful way to say, “I love you just the way you are and I want to spend time with you.”

Stories like this make me wish I had known what it was like to have a father. For those of you who have one, remember that it’s never too late to start a new tradition.

Happy Father’s Day.

This particular coworker passed away after I wrote this. He was an amazing man. May he rest in peace. I wrote about him here.


The Black Sheep in the Family

Every family has one. A relative who refuses to play by the rules. Someone who causes unbelievable heartache, unspeakable scandal, and enormous amounts of frustration. Someone who generates really, really interesting family stories. In my family that was Uncle Dave, my mother’s little brother.

When my mom was young, she was bedridden with whooping cough, and she looked out the window to see her little brother picking up her kittens by the tail, one by one, and dipping them in a can of green paint. When she got better she got back at him by shaving the tail hair off his favorite pony.

A story Uncle Dave always liked to tell about himself was the time he had a pet skunk with no scent glands, and it got loose. A few days later he was walking in the woods behind his house and there’s the skunk. It came running toward him, and he was really happy. Then it occurred to him that it might not be his skunk. So he ran away, and never saw the skunk again. That always struck me as kind of selfish. He left a skunk with no defenses and no knowledge of how to fend for itself alone in the wilderness. But selfishness was a recurring theme in Uncle Dave’s life.

I tell you those two stories to illustrate that he was a hell raiser even before he discovered alcohol. Alcohol only made him that much worse. I never knew him to be sober a day of my life. To me, he was the man who delighted in humiliating me throughout my childhood. During my awkward adolescence, he delighted in pointing out my agonizingly slow growing chest in front of large groups of people. He thought my embarrassment was very funny.

Throughout the years he got into several traffic accidents, and as is the case with alcoholics, he’d walk away unscathed. One time he got pissed off at a drinking buddy and shot out all 4 tires in his car. How he managed to stay out of jail was beyond me.

Uncle Dave actually seemed to have amazing luck. Somehow he managed to navigate through his alcoholic haze and be a success in business. And one time he was sitting in his recliner watching TV when a bolt of lightning came down the hall behind him, bounced off the mirror, crossed in front of him, took out the TV, and exploded all the bottles in his wet bar, but missed him entirely. You’d think that would be enough to get him to reevaluate his life, but no. Me, I’d have taken that as a sign.

For my oldest sister’s wedding, it’s a good thing that we confirmed the church the day before, because he had called to cancel the reservation several days prior. We’d have shown up to a locked church with no preacher. Ha, ha, ha, right? At my other sister’s wedding reception, he called my 3 year old niece over to him, and then took his cigarette and popped all her balloons. Of course she howled. I had to leave the room to keep from lunging at his throat.

The final straw for me, though, was when I was home from college and I had a fellow student with me. She was from Holland. The phone rings and it’s a man with a funny accent, and he’s asks to speak to his daughter. I assumed it was my friend’s father so I called her to the phone. She instantly went into a panic because it was the middle of the night in the Netherlands, and the only reason they would call at that hour was if it was an emergency. She gets on the phone, and gets this strange look on her face. She didn’t know this person. It was my uncle, using a fake accent. My friend was really shaken by this. Later he came by to try to meet her, three sheets to the wind as per usual, and I kicked him out of the house.  Believe me when I say he did not go quietly.

I only saw him one more time, and that was at my mother’s funeral, 7 years later. He tried to comfort me, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late.

Fast forward 20 years, and imagine my mixed emotions when I heard he had blown his brains out in his garage. He was upset because at age 80 they had finally declared him to be unfit to drive. The only thing he left for his long-suffering wife was a garage that looked like an abattoir, and a note that included his name, the cost of a cremation, and the company who could do it.

I didn’t feel sad. He never allowed himself to be a part of my life in any positive way. I sure could have used a positive male role model but he was definitely not one of those. What I felt, instead, was anger. Anger at all the pain and humiliation he caused everyone within his reach. Anger at the waste of a life. Anger that he chose to go out in a way that was as selfish and over the top as every single thing he had chosen to do his entire life.

uncle bob

Stage Mothers

Anyone who has seen the musical “Gypsy” knows that certain people turn into the stage mothers from hell. It really ought to be a mental designation in the DSM 5, and it should be defined as someone who is so unhappy with her own life that she attempts to live vicariously through that of her child, whether he or she likes it or not.

I once knew a woman whose daughter was heavily into Irish Dance. Or so I thought. Their whole lives revolved around competitions. They traveled hours each week for lessons. Mom purchased obscenely expensive costumes, and came very close to losing her job because she took so much time off for competitions. Daughter broke her foot on several occasions, and started back dancing way before she should have. She will experience pain for the rest of her life. I used to think that was amazing effort and sacrifice on her part to excel in something she loved, and oh! what a loving and supportive mother! Then I had a talk with the daughter one day, and discovered that she no longer wanted to dance at all. It was fun at first, but her mother put so much pressure on her and it took up so much time, it had become more like a horrible job. And she had no time to just be a kid, to just have fun and goof off and make friends. She was even home schooled and had no social skills whatsoever. From then on I saw it for what it was: a sickness. The daughter finally grew up, left home, and they no longer speak.

I know another girl who just had a baby, and she told me she was entering the child in those horrible kiddie beauty pageants. I said, “Why don’t you wait until she’s old enough for her to decide for herself?” She replied, “Well, I can’t do that. She might not want to.” That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

But stage moms aren’t just relegated to the stage. I used to really feel sorry for the valedictorian of my high school class. I have never known a more stressed out person in my life. She HAD to be the best. HAD to. For her mother. It was so freaking important to her mother that this girl practically made herself sick over it. One day my mother and I ran into her in the library, and my mom asked her what she was going to be majoring in when she went to college. I can’t really remember what she said, but it sounded dreary, and I said as much. I’ll never forget what she said. “Well, it’s not what I want to study, it’s what my mother wants me to study.” And my mother said, “Hmmmm. Wow. Well, I’d never do that to Barb. I want her to be herself and enjoy her life and chart her own course.” That girl looked at my mom like she had two heads. Granted, I chose a really stupid major and came away with a useless degree, but I enjoyed every minute of college. I lost touch with the valedictorian, but I’m willing to bet that she spent a lot of years being miserable, and had to experience a major crisis in her life before she took charge of it, if she ever did.

I may not be a parent myself, but this I can guarantee: if you attempt to control the direction of your children’s life, if you stifle their individuality and don’t allow them to think for themselves, your relationship with those children will be severely damaged sooner or later.  And as adults they will have issues, whether it is an extreme midlife crisis, anger management problems, depression, divorce, or difficulty relating to their own children. This “gift” you are giving them will keep on giving, to be sure.

stage mom