Monthly Archives: November 2013

Follow-Up on Thanksgiving–‘Cuz you all want to know how it went, right?

See? First Thanksgiving and where are they? Outside. You see smoke in the background, and so we know they had a campfire. Only one question remains: Did they make s'mores?

See? First Thanksgiving and where are they? Outside. You see smoke in the background, and so we know they had a campfire. Only one question remains: Did they make s’mores?

After publishing my blog entry Happy Holidays, a lot of people ask me if I thought my mother-in-law would recognize her wedding china this year. My answer, of course, was “I don’t know.” The thing I have learned from living with her and caring for her this past year is “to expect the unexpected”—or my accurately, expect nothing and just wait and see what happens. Nothing is predictable.

Now, I can report what happened. Did she recognize the china? Did it spark any conversation? No.

If she did, she never let on. She was silent Thanksgiving Day. She did, however, feed herself. That’s remarkable feat these days. Maybe she was inspired to do so because the food was so good or the table was so beautifully dressed. Perhaps it was because my cousin, whom she did not seem to recognize, was seated at the table next to her. I’ve noticed she musters all her energy and puts in that extra effort for company.

I’ve also been asked by folks who read In Search of a Tradition to share how the Post-Thanksgiving Day Campfire went.

I think we found our tradition! Because yes, it went that well.

Earlier in the day, I was making chili, cleaning up, and thinking, “Oh, this is a bad idea! Whatever possessed me to think I could have a normal life while she is still alive?” I was feeling jittery—probably because we entertain so seldom. I was feeling harried because I had so much to do and yet, NOW, my mother-in-law was talking again. Yes, after weeks of not speaking to me at all—and that is no exaggeration—she became talkative and animated.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” she demanded to know several times. She shook her finger at me, frowned, and yelled.

Each time, I would calmly sit down next to her, put my arm around her and tell her, “Mom. I’m Susan. I’m your daughter-in-law. I’m married to your son, Anthony.”

She would relax her face. “Oh, okay.”

But a few minutes later, she would be yelling, “Who are you? Why are you here?”

She did this several times and I felt that it was really slowing my party-prep momentum.

I felt badly for her because when she is this aware, it must be a lot like being trapped in a dream. You know how in a dream, you might recognize certain people and places, but still there is a lot that just doesn’t make sense? I’ve often thought that that must be what it is like to have dementia. “So, I had this dream: I’m sitting at a table listening to Tango music, and I see this woman I don’t know come into the room with a vacuum cleaner…” See? It could be a dream.

I’m always amazed at how comforting and calm and patient, I can be with her on the outside when on the inside, I have these moments of extreme bitterness. “Whatever possessed me to think I could have a normal life while she is still alive?” What else would you call that besides bitterness?

Bitter, but normal. I feel certain that everyone who has ever been in a care-giving position has had the same thought—sometimes, it is fleeting and sometimes, it lingers. Either way, it’s there—a desire to return to a life in which there was more freedom and more flexibility, fewer demands and fewer limitations. Oh, to live in a world in which we just don’t have to take granny-care into account 24/7! People are pretty selfish that way–we want to do things our way and on our own time schedule, and I am no exception.

In the end, however, the campfire party was a success. We had a good time, our guests had a good time, and we plan to do this again and again. I can see it as a tradition that we will keep long after my mother-in-law is gone, but its origins will always go back to a time in which she was living with us and I had a desire to have a party at home without guests being in my home.

So, there you go, it’s a gift. My mother-in-law’s care is forcing me to get creative in redefining a “normal life.” We can still do some of the things we would have liked to do. We just have to do it all a little differently.

I am thankful for this gift.


The Red Coat of Happiness

Maybe it is because I am such a history-geek or maybe it is because I have no fashion-sense of my own, but I couldn't type "red coat" without thinking of these guys.

Maybe it is because I am such a history-geek or maybe it is because I have no fashion-sense of my own, but I couldn’t type “red coat” without thinking of these guys.

I am not a things-oriented person.  I once took a management training course in which the presenter said that all people are good at dealing with objects or people or data or ideas, but no one is good at all. I didn’t have to take her quiz to know I will take ideas, people, and data over objects any day.

And that is one of the reasons that this past year has been so challenging. With the help of a few family members and one of my dearest friends, I emptied my mother-in-law’s house, and she and my father-in-law had things. Lots and lots of things.

Throughout the process, I found myself angrily questioning them. “Why in the hell do they have so much %@#$-ing stuff? Did they ever get rid of anything? Ever?”

Then, justifying the enormous amount of stuff. “Well, they lived in this house for almost forty years. That’s forty years without the benefit of a major purge—the kind you only get from moving.”

To finally admitting, “If someone else had to clean out my house right now, they would be blown away by the amount of stuff I have. I should purge,” and “Even if you don’t have much, when someone else has to move it, it will feel like you have a lot.”

In the end, the monumental task took me almost a year, and of course, I had to figure out what to do with it all and so I rented storage units. When the storage unit manager asked me what size unit I needed, I found myself at a loss to describe how much stuff I wanted to store. “There’s furniture and my mother-in-law’s wardrobe…”

“She has a standard size walk-in closet now?” he asked.

I couldn’t even begin to answer that question. I went back to her house with a tape measure and reported back to him, “She has 71 linear feet of hanging clothing.” Let’s put this into perspective. My closet holds seven linear feet of clothes, and I share that space with my husband. How is that one person could accrue 71 linear feet of clothing? Well, if you never get rid of anything and you convert bedrooms into closets…

Yep, my mother-in-law was a well-dressed clotheshorse, a fashionista, and a hoarder. She had/has some beautiful clothes. Sadly, she only wears a small percentage of them now—partly because she rarely goes anywhere that requires dressing up and partly because of the atrophy. The physical act of dressing her is a struggle—for her and for the person doing the dressing. On a good day, she “helps” by lifting her arms a little. On a bad day, it’s like dressing a concrete statue.  Worse yet, I know it’s painful for her to move or be moved. For this reason, she wears a lot of sweats, and when I buy her something new, I look for fabric with a lot of “give.”

So, much of her stylish—and once stylish—wardrobe is in storage.

Over the weekend, we managed to consolidate her storage units, and in doing so, we moved a lot of clothes. I looked at her coats—of which there were many—shook my head and thought, “Coats should not be stored. The weather is turning cold and people need coats,” and so, I grabbed a bunch of them, took them home, and sorted them for donation.

Some of these coats were wrapped in plastic and had dry-cleaning tags dated 2003. They had not been worn in a decade? One of the coats was a long red, wool one that was probably purchased in the 1980s. I shook my head, “Who hangs onto stuff this long?”

My church runs a small, but bustling thrift store. Yes, I just wrote “my church,” but if you follow my blog you know I haven’t worshipped there in over a year—hence, the church-search, but let’s go with this anyway…

My church runs a small, but bustling thrift shop that is only open two days per week, but if you go there on those two days, you will meet a real cross-section of society working, shopping, and donating. I donate—often.

On Monday morning, I loaded my car with an assortment of stuff—including three Ikea rugs and a box of coats that belong to my mother-in-law–and stopped at the thrift shop to unload. My goal is always, always, ALWAYS to get rid of things because my house is too small and too cluttered to store anything that is not currently in use.  A stop at the thrift shop is always a big win for me.

But on Monday, I realized what a win-win-win it is for everyone. I get less stuff and a tax deduction—whoo-hoo! The church makes a little extra money that is put back into community outreach programs. And the shoppers get incredible deals. While I know that some of the shoppers are just very frugal or environmentally conscience, I suspect most of them are what politicians call “the working poor.” They have an income, albeit a very small income, and they don’t want a hand-out. They want the things they need to be affordable.

Almost as soon as I pulled the rugs from the back of my car, a woman was asking one of the volunteers how much they cost. As he hesitated, another shopper yelled, “I bought three just like that last week. The lady in the office sold them to me for three dollars each.” I smiled. I donated those rugs, too.

When I looked at the woman who had purchased the rugs, I saw that she had a baby with her.  I recognized her stroller. It was once mine.

I know it sounds hokey, but I’ll say it—my heart leaped for joy to know that these things were being used by someone who genuinely wanted and needed them. Other than a slight rip in the canapé, that stroller was in excellent condition. I imagine she was excited to find it and to buy it for only a few dollars.

And still, that experience paled compared to what happened next. A very young woman, probably no more than 19 or 20, began digging through the box of coats. She was so lovely—dark skin, dark eyes, long, thick, wavy black hair. While I don’t like to make assumptions about people based on how they look, I am pretty sure that she was from somewhere in Central or South America. When she found the red coat, she pulled it out of the box, hugged it like a long-lost loved one, and her face—she smiled the most beautiful smile. People say, ”so-and-so lit up” all the time—and so, it feels like such a banal thing to write, but yes, she lit up. She was glowing with happiness over that coat.

Why was she so excited to find it? I don’t know. Maybe she had always wanted a red coat? Perhaps she once had one, but lost it. Maybe the coat wasn’t for her, but would be the perfect gift for someone she dearly loves.

I do know that in that moment, I forgave my mother-in-law for holding onto her things for too long. If she had discarded that coat long ago, this young woman would have never found it, and I felt certain that this coat was meant for her.

In retrospect, I wished I had said something to her. I wish I had said, “That coat belonged to my mother-in-law, and she had the most elegant taste in clothing. She came to this country as a young woman and she had an extraordinary life. She had a long and happy marriage, she raised children, she had a beautiful home, and she had a career. Oh, her career! She worked for the Ecuadorean Embassy and the Organization of American States. When she retired, she volunteered at the White House. May God bless you with such a life!”

When our eyes met, all I did was smile. The moment passed with me saying nothing, but I was thinking, “Thank you for this gift.”

Happy Holidays!

This is one of my favorite family photos. As you can see, my children share my enthusiasm for the holidays.

This is one of my favorite family photos. As you can see, my children share my enthusiasm for the holidays.

November is beginning to wind down and I’ve already seen a lot of Facebook posts about having the house fully decorated for Christmas. If that’s you, I say, “Good for you!” I won’t put up my tree until just days before Christmas. I’m not being Grinch-y. I’m doing things the old-fashioned way, and for me, not rushing into Christmas makes the season last longer. I love anticipation. I don’t love hype.

I’m also starting to see posts about how we should all say “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays.” The implication is that to say “Happy Holidays” is to water down Christmas and therefore, to be less Christian. I’m a bit insulted by that.

I am saying “Happy Holidays” right now because Christmas isn’t here yet. Despite department stores piping in Jingle Bells the day after Halloween, the Christmas Season is December 25 through January 6, not November 1 through December 25 when it abruptly ends at 10 a.m. when the last present is unwrapped.  Yeah, I will admit it. I hate the way most Americans celebrate Christmas. In general, this is something Europeans do better. Feel free to read the previous sentence again if you want and note that this is the only thing I think Europe does better. I’m not one of the misled people who buys into this notion that European society is so advanced, so open-minded, and so peaceful. Ha! But that’s a blog entry for another time.

Back on track…

I am saying “Happy Holidays” right now because for me, it isn’t Christmas yet. Christmas comes later, and so I will wish you a Merry Christmas when we get a little closer to December 25, and I will continue to say “Merry Christmas” until January 6. I’ll also throw in “Happy New Year” every now and then.  Right now, however, we are simply beginning the holiday season, and so “Happy Holidays” is more appropriate as it encompasses more than just Christmas.

We have a lot of holiday stuff going on between now and Christmas. Thanksgiving—obviously—is only a few days away. Because of my mother-in-law’s condition, traveling is out of the question, and at the same time, I’m not comfortable hosting anything with her around. I’m okay with that when it comes to Thanksgiving. I’m keeping it very low key. My cousin, whom we all adore, will be our only guest.

Last Thanksgiving was our first big holiday after she fell and my father-in-law died. I made a point to set the table with their wedding china. My mother-in-law recognized it and said, “This is MY china. The embassy gave it to me as a wedding gift, and I saved it for you because you are Anthony’s wife.”

“I know. You gave it to me right after we moved into this house. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, and it looks beautiful. The table looks so beautiful.”

Honestly, my mother-in-law’s china is a little, um, ornate for my very plain WASP-y sensibilities, but I treasure it because I love that it was a wedding gift to her and my father-in-law from the Ecuadorean Embassy AND that she wanted me to have it because I married her older son. It’s an heirloom and I look forward to passing onto one of my children one day. That it sparked that moment of lucidity last Thanksgiving and an actual—albeit very short—conversation between the two of us is now a part of its history, what makes it dear to me. Yes, even a whole year ago, moments like that were rare.

This year, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m hosting a campfire party. I have decided that a true bonfire in my front yard probably isn’t the safest idea—especially with kids around. I can justify this entertaining because I imagine us all freezing our tushies off outside—and not in the house, making noise, and irritating Grandma.

I’m hoping this, like the wedding china at Thanksgiving, will become a holiday tradition.

Then, there is Advent, the four Sunday’s leading up to Christmas. If you follow a church calendar closely, you know most of December is the Advent Season, not the Christmas Season.

We will make our own Advent wreath. I have the candles and frame already. I just need to take the children into the woods to cut the greenery. We probably have a dozen or so species of evergreens on our property, and so past wreaths have been a real hodge-podge, and despite being put together by two small children and their craft-challenged mother, they’ve had a real rustic charm to them.

We will light a candle every Sunday before dinner and talk about how we are preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ and what that means for us. You see, I don’t think any holiday should just be one big party. I think we should reflect on what it means—and so, yes, if you are with me on the Fourth of July, please note that the fireworks come with a discussion on American history, and not a rush to the mall for a mid-summer clearance “event.” Yeah, don’t you love it when retailers use that word?

St. Nicholas’ Day is December 6. I’ll have the kids leave their shoes on the staircase on the evening of December 5. They will wake with a little candy in them. I didn’t grow up with this tradition, but I like it. I think it increases the anticipation that builds towards Christmas. I’d celebrate St. Lucia’s Day, too, if I weren’t sure that I would catch my daughter’s hair on fire.

And of course, right there in the middle of Christmas, we have New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I want to burn the old year in effigy on December 31. It’s an Ecuadorean custom and when I found out about it last year, I asked my husband, “Why haven’t we been doing this all along? I love it, and if ever a year ever needed burning, it is 2012!”

Weather prevented us from burning anything last New Year’s Eve. I’m optimistic, however, and so I am planning to burn this year in effigy.  2013 has been much better than 2012, but I’ll gladly burn it anyway.

New Year’s Day is about my traditions—or specifically my culinary culture as a southerner. I will be making hoppin’ john and collards. I may have to go into the neighboring county to shop because hamhock isn’t readily available at every grocery store in Maryland. Yeah, go figure.

And for the first time ever, I am looking forward to celebrating El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Three Kings) on January 6. I have always observed Epiphany as the end of Christmas, but I love that Latin culture treats it as a genuine holiday. Think about it–the Kings or the Magi or the Wise Men—recognized the significances of the newborn Christ. These guys were not only gentiles, but they were probably the most educated and intellectual people of their time. What does that tell me? Jesus came to earth for everyone AND religion is NOT “the opium of the masses.” Smart people believe in God. I’m not saying that I haven’t met some brilliant atheists, but I really take issue with this silly idea that to have faith is to somehow be less intelligent or less educated. I’m always deeply offended by that nonsense. Like the bumper sticker says, “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” Wise women do, too.

Yes, and you see the way I have appropriated the traditions of other cultures to make them my own? You could make the case that all American culture is based on the appropriating of other traditions, but I prefer a more positive spin. It’s about appreciation, not theft.

So, when I say, “Happy Holidays,” I’m talking about this entire season and it IS more than just Christmas.

And sure, over the next several weeks, there will be holidays I don’t celebrate—Hanukkah, Bodhi, and Kwanzaa come to mind, but why wouldn’t I wish other people only the very best as they gather with their families and friends to engage in their own celebrations? It has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with just plain correctness.

Yeah, and I KNOW some of you reading this saw Kwanzaa, and immediately thought, “That’s a made up holiday.” Um, yes, it IS— in fact, ALL holidays, festivals, commemorations, rituals, and ceremonies were contrived by human beings. I think it’s one of those things that separates us from bears.

Of course, if you wish me a “Merry Christmas” today, I will politely thank you and wish you the same.

Calgon-moments & Time-machines

I had forgotten that Calgon made print ads, too. This one is just bad. She's bathing in a wineglass? And the lower portion of her body has just disappeared? Yeah, not a fantasy of mine. Not making me want to buy the product.

I had forgotten that Calgon made print ads, too. This one is just bad. She’s bathing in a wineglass? And the lower portion of her body has just disappeared? Yeah, not a fantasy of mine. Not making me want to buy the product.

The phone is ringing. The baby is crying. The dog is barking. The food is burning. And the frazzled housewife yells, “Calgon! Take me away!” and is magically transported to a bath tub. A bath tub? I guess the phone goes to voice mail, and the baby and the dog are left to fend for themselves as they eat their scorched supper.

God knows, I feel like I am stuck in my own Calgon commercial. My house is a mess. Kids are fighting. My mother-in-law is glaring at me and saying “Ay-ay-ay,” but won’t tell me what is wrong beyond that. The thing is, I don’t want a bath. That would require that I pull all those bath toys out of the tub, and once I’m in the tub, it’s not like my mother-in-law will fall asleep while happy children clean the house for me. My problems will follow me into the bathroom. I know this from experience.

No, in my Calgon-moment, I want a time-machine. I want to go back to a time before my mother-in-law fell, before I met her, before I met my husband, and so, long before our children were born. I want to park the time machine outside my old apartment, breathe deeply, and go inside for a glass of wine and Chinese take-out. I’ll watch what I want to watch on TV or just enjoy the silence. Maybe I will read a magazine and do my nails. And if I still need to unwind, maybe then, I will take a bubble bath and in doing so will be reminded of the one thing I hated about that apartment—the bathroom fan was on same switch as the light. So, while I would want to sit in the tub and read while listening to soft music, I really couldn’t. There was always the noise of the fan. In retrospect, that’s not much of a problem, but it infuriated me back then.

I have to be careful with the time machine because I don’t want to go back too far. I have no desire to visit my twenties, for example. I was a bit of a mess back then. No one could tell, of course. In fact, people often commented on how incredibly together I was back then, and I believed them. In truth, however, I worried a lot about…well, what did I worry about? I don’t know. I was just always worried.

Quite literally, the question of “what should I do with the rest of my life?” kept me up at night. Should I have children? Should I go back to school? Should I change jobs? Change careers? When will I find happiness? How will I find happiness? What is happiness? Why do I feel so behind where I thought I should be by now? Do I need counseling?

Yeah, if I time-travel back to my twenties, I’ll have to find the younger me and knock some sense into her. I’ll have to yell, “GET A GRIP! THIS WHINING ABOUT ‘WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THE REST OF MY LIFE’ HAS GOT TO STOP!”

You know what is amusing to me now–even when I am trapped in a Calgon-moment? I never, ever agonize over what I should do about anything these days. I just do it, and if I can’t make my mind up about something, I shelf it. I stop thinking about it because clearly, it’s not very important and no decision needs to be made today. I’m not going to wring my hands and get frowny over all the what-ifs.

I don’t wait for life to happen anymore. I either let it happen—events just naturally unfold and I find God’s grace in them—or I make something happen by making a decision, sometimes forcefully. Even as frustrated as I get over my mother-in-law’s care, I don’t think about what to do about her. It seems very wrong to do something about other people.

If I had a time machine, I might even be tempted to kidnap the 20-something me and bring her to the present. My goal would be to show her how easy she has it. All her time is me-time. She thinks people demand a lot of her, but in reality, it’s all in her head.

Of course, I know that plan would backfire on me in the most wonderful way. She would look at my messy house and say, “Wow! We live here? This is our dream house. Yeah, we need to hire a maid and a decorator, but we’ve always wanted hardwood floors and a huge fireplace. Five bedrooms? On two and a half acres? That’s not too shabby.”

She’d see my children and say, “We did it? We had kids? And look at them! They are funny and smart and normal and they really love us. I guess we aren’t the terrible mother I feared we would be.”

“Oh, my God! And we have a master’s degree in historic preservation? That is so cool! And we worked in museums? We’ve even done some archaeology? We had our own newspaper column? Former colleagues still get in touch with us just to ask our opinion about work stuff? That’s just so professional. We’ve had all my dream jobs!”

“And we have great friends. Some we’ve known forever and some we’ve just met.”

“Our husband is that really handsome guy who smiles a lot? And he adores us? He reads the same books we read and he dances, too? Damn, girl! Not bad.”

I can’t imagine that there is much about my current life that wouldn’t impress a much younger me. I think she’d feel relieved, safe, satisfied in knowing that despite some serious ups and downs, we’ve persevered and what we have today is greater than anything she ever imagined.

In the end, the current me–the grown-up me–would be the one who would benefit from such a time-machine adventure. I’d see I had come a long way and despite all these Calgon-moments, my life really is a pretty awesome. It really is greater than anything I have ever imagined.

Okay, I’m ready for that hot, hot bath. Calgon, take me away.




Words of Comfort and Encouragement from the BTDT Crowd

I couldn't find an appropriate illustration for this blog entry, so I am sharing this picture of a cute kitten--'cuz it's cute. You need a better reason?

I couldn’t find an appropriate illustration for this blog entry, so I am sharing this picture of a cute kitten–‘cuz it’s cute. You need a better reason?

I don’t introduce myself to new people with, “Hi, I’m Susan. My 90-year-old, wheelchair bound mother-in-law lives with me. She has dementia.” Doing so would create a lot of awkward silences, and I would come across as needy. Besides, I read somewhere that people will tell you what is most important about them within the first few moments of meeting.  I would rather be banished to the moon than have you believe that the most important thing about me is that I take care of my mother-in-law.

Still, she does come up in conversation. Sometimes, it is very direct. Someone will ask me how she is doing and subsequently how I am doing. Sometimes, it is less direct. For example, a few weeks ago, I was on a playground with a friend and I told her that one of the things I had unearthed while cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house was a large box of green and red Solo cups and holiday-themed paper plates.

“So, if you are having a Christmas party and want them, please let me know. I’ll be happy to let you have them,” I said to this friend.

A third person—someone I had met, but we aren’t really friends and so she doesn’t know the whole saga—piped in, “Why don’t YOU save them for YOU? Maybe YOU can have a Christmas party.”

Without thinking, I answered, “Well, I can’t really entertain while she is still alive. Perhaps once she is dead, I’ll throw a party.”

And the third person walked away quickly after that, and I thought how my response probably came across as a little callous. I was certain I had made a horrific second impression and I wondered if I shouldn’t get in touch with her to apologize and explain. I decided not to. I’m over caring what other people think about me, especially if they aren’t in my position.

Besides, I have found that when I confide in people who really don’t know me well, I either say too much trying to make them understand the exact situation—“It’s like caring for a 100 lb. newborn” –and they still don’t get it or they immediately liken a care-giving situation they know of to mine. Everyone knows someone who has needed care or someone who has cared for a relative. “Oh, I know exactly what you are going through. My sister’s son is in a mental institution.” “I’m in the same situation. My step-kids are with us every other weekend.” “My mom just convinced my grandparents to move into an assisted living community, so I know what you mean.”

This used to bother me—all these people who claimed to know exactly what my life is like when really their situation or—more likely, the situation they know of is nothing like my own. Hard? Sure. Identical to mine? Almost never.

Now, I realize that they are looking for common ground, and something I have said has felt familiar and comfortable to them. And so, now they are confiding in me and perhaps doing a little projecting. I’m okay with this. I’m even happy to help.

There are, however, those rare instances when my mother-in-law comes up in conversation almost immediately, I giving a stranger more information than I had intended and find that I am talking with a veteran care-giver—someone who has truly been there, done that.

While church shopping, for example, I found myself explain our living arrangement because a friendly parishioner asked. When she said, “So, tell me about your family,” presumably so she could then tell me what her congregation has to offer, I responded with, “We are a household that ranges in age from 3 to 90. My husband and I have two small children and his mother lives with us.” And that opened the door to a conversation about eldercare because she had taken care of her mother-in-law. She had been there, done that.

In fact in the past year that I’ve spent as my mother-in-law’s care-giver, I have encountered only four people whose situations were truly like mine. By that, I mean the infirmed person was an elderly in-law who lived in their home, and while none of them had children as young as mine, all four had minor children in the home—usually teenagers.

And for them the situation was in the past.

The thing that I have noticed about the BTDT crowd is that they have never given me advice. Instead, they just listen and offer encouragement. Mostly, they say, “I know it feels like your life has come to a standstill and time is moving so slowly for you, but she will die and this part of your life will end. When that happens, you will look back on this time, and none of it will feel like that big of a deal. It’s just really hard to be where you are right now.” In other words, this, too, shall pass. It’s not a terribly brilliant concept, nor is it original, but it is true, and for some reason, it’s comforting to hear someone who has been there, done that say it.

I found this to be true while going through my divorce, too. I loved all my married and single friends, but they all offered advice—probably because they really didn’t know what else to do—but the friends who had experienced divorce first hand showed me that I would survive because they had survived. They really didn’t have to say anything beyond, “You will be fine.”

I’m sure this is true of every difficult situation a person can encounter. Just knowing someone who has stood where you are standing and hear them say that you will get through it really means a lot.



A Beauty History: From Cutie-Pie to Hot Chick to Invisible Woman

This Invisible Woman comic character looks just like me. All I need is a bright blue bodysuit.

This Invisible Woman comic character looks just like me. All I need is a bright blue bodysuit.

The other day, I wrote about dressing up for my school picture in 1972. A friend read my blog and commented that she also dressed up for her school picture that year—she was in first grade and she wore a long fuchsia skirt that her mom had made and a tuxedo shirt. When someone told her she looked beautiful, she replied “I know,” and twelve years passed before she would hear that compliment again. Twelve years may or may not be an exaggeration.

This friend and I met in high school when she was a sophomore and I was a freshman. By then, of course, she was well on her way to being a super-hot-gorgeous chick. Still, because of my own beauty history, I believe her when she says she had a lengthy ‘tween/pre-teen/early teen dry-spell in which no one complimented her on her good looks.

You see, like most little girls, I was extraordinarily cute, and everyone I encountered told me how pretty I was. In fact, if you are a little girl, often the only compliment you receive is on your appearance. You get used to hearing yourself called “adorable,” “beautiful,” and “precious,” but then you hit those awkward years and those comments stop. In my case, I hit the awkward years like a speeding car smashing into a concrete jersey wall. My legs were boney, my skin was pimply, and I wore thick glasses. On a good day, I was invisible. On a bad day, I was crying about how ugly I thought I looked.

Then, BAM! Almost as quickly as I hit ugly, I became a hot girl—thin, blonde, tan. My skin cleared up and I got contact lenses. I went from being ignored to getting more attention than I could handle. Does that sound familiar to you? Are you nodding in agreement? I think my friend probably had a similar experience because most little girls are adorable and most young women are attractive, but those in-between years can be brutal.

Mentally, those awkward years can linger, and most young women aren’t fully aware of how good looking they are. A few years ago, I found myself in a hotel lobby restroom with three women in their early twenties. As I adjusted my spanx under my cocktail dress and discovered a new chin hair to pluck, I could see them standing in front of a full length mirror examining themelves with a hyper-critical eye. “My hair is such a mess!” “I can never get my eye-liner straight.” “This dress makes my butt look huge.”

It was more than I could stand. Perhaps because I was newly in my forties and dealing with a post-partum blob of a body, I put on my best mom-voice and said, “Oh, please! Twenty years from now, you are going to find a picture that was taken tonight and you are going to be SHOCKED that you were ever this pretty. You are going to think, ‘I can’t believe I thought I had a big ass back when I was wearing a size 2.’” Yeah, and how do I know the middle-aged them will find a picture and think that? Because it happens to me all the time. If you are female and of-a-certain-age, it’s happened to you. I know it has.

Isn’t it all just part of a plan to propagate our species? Males are very visual, and so young fertile females are attractive. It’s a combination that leads to dating and finally mating. Yeah, I know I have reduced human-kind to an episode of Wild Kingdom, but we are mammals, and the desire to mate is second only to the desire to eat.

I didn’t meet my husband until I was 38, but still, if you were to ask him what he remembers about meeting me, he’ll tell you that it was my legs–not my easy laugh, my stellar table manners, or even my shining intellect that made him want to get better acquainted. It was the long, thin, shapely legs he saw peeking out from a slit in my skirt. When he admitted this to me, I commended him for his honesty, and in truth, I was more than a little flattered.

At 38, I was still what most people might consider “pretty enough for her age,” but those man-magnet  years in which men really noticed me—stepped out of their way for me, lit up when I entered a room, smiled, chirped, and treated me like a goddess—were waning. Definitely waning.  At my wedding, I’m sure more than one relative watched me walk down the aisle and thought, “Oh, thank God, she found someone before her looks were entirely shot.”

Now in my mid-forties (‘cuz you know I won’t call it late-forties until two days before my fiftieth birthday), I’m invisible—at least to men I don’t know. The other day while in Costco, a guy in his early twenties bumped into me and didn’t even pause to say “excuse me.” What a lout. His bad manners aside, that’s the sort of thing that would have never happened to me twenty years ago. He would have seen me because he would have been checking me out. Now, I look like his mom, or his mom’s friend, or a math teacher, but not the cute-young-just-finished-college teacher—I look more like the sick-of-kids, counting-down-to-retirement teacher.

I’m okay with being invisible. My worth as a human being goes way beyond what I see in the mirror or how many people tell me I’m pretty. I’m kind, smart, funny…and even if I didn’t have these less tangible, less celebrated qualities, the mere fact that I’m here tells me that I am of infinite value to God.  Just being created in God’s image is powerful—awesome powerful!

I want my daughter to know all this. Like all girls her age, she has been bombarded with positive comments about her looks. Yes, she is cute, pretty, beautiful, adorable, lovely, etc. and she knows it. I’ve done my best to make sure she knows that she is more than her good looks. When people have commented on her appearance, I have agreed, “Yes, she is gorgeous, and she also ___________.” I fill in the blank with whatever is appropriate at the time—“loves animals, is so smart, runs super-fast, is a wonderful big sister, tells the funniest jokes, helps take care of her grandma…”

She’s six-years-old. She looks so much like I did at her age that I already fear that she will hit that jersey wall of awkward in just a couple of years. I’m bracing myself for it. I don’t think it will be as devastating for her as it was for me because she was born the most confident, joyful person I have ever known. However, the less wrapped up she is in her personal appearance now, the less she will care when no one tells her that she is beautiful for twelve years. More importantly, she won’t have a hard time handling all the attention that awaits her on the other side of those awkward years. I don’t want her falling for the first guy who says she is pretty—if that’s all she is to him. And I don’t want her picking apart her appearance just because that’s what all young women do.

I want her to know that being attractive is nice. It’s the proverbial frosting on the cake. It’s not a defining quality or ever what is paramount. It’s not what lasts forever.

(Oh, and I stand corrected! My husband says it was a combination of my great legs and my knowledge of the blue crab that won him over. See? By the time you are in your late 30s, you really do have to be smart, too—or at the very least, know a lot about crustaceans.)

Picture Day

School picture, circa 1972. Yeah, it's a pretty bad picture, but I would go on to take worse.

School picture, circa 1972. Yeah, it’s a pretty bad picture, but I would go on to take worse.

Ah! School picture day in 1972. I remember it well.

Like most kindergarten girls back then, I wore a dress to school every day, but because I wanted to dress up for my very first school picture day, I insisted on wearing a long dress. It was a brown floral print dress with a ruffled hem and a lace-up bodice. My mother told me that the picture would be from the chest up and no one looking at it would ever know that I was wearing a long dress, but I insisted. I loved that dress.

On the walk home from school, my friends and I took a short cut that involved climbing a chain-link fence. My long dress got caught on the fence and it tore. I don’t remember ever wearing it again after that although I’m sure my mother patched the tear. And yeah, aren’t you amazed that elementary school kids had that kind of freedom back then—walking home unaccompanied by an adult, taking short cuts through people’s yards, and climbing fences? It makes me feel like I lived a scene from the Little Rascals.

A couple of weeks later, I discovered the tear in my beloved dress wasn’t as disappointing as the actual picture. When the photographer said “Smile,” I didn’t. I held my mouth in a funny, unnatural position and as a result, the picture didn’t look like me. It looked like some funny-looking kid wearing my dress. I was crushed.

When I showed my picture to my mother, she said, “Eww! What happened to your mouth? Why do you look like that? Why didn’t you smile? You look terrible. You should have this picture taken again.” Her reaction confirmed what I already knew: The picture that would forever immortalize my favorite dress was not my best. I cried, but I refused to have my picture retaken. In fact, my refusal turned into a real power-struggle between the two of us as I realized that there were certain things—like retaking a picture—that she could not make me do. I see this event as the first in many turning points in my childhood.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, my daughter’s very first school picture arrived today. Instead of being carried home by students, school pictures are now mailed. This meant I saw her picture before she did.

Oh, history repeated itself!

Just add some blonde hair to Wallace and you will have a pretty good idea of what my daughter looks like in her first school picture.

Just add some blonde hair to Wallace and you will have a pretty good idea of what my daughter looks like in her first school picture.

I opened it and eww, it’s bad. Very, very bad. She didn’t really smile. She held her mouth in some funny, unnatural position and well, she doesn’t look like herself. My husband said, “She looks like a claymation character from Wallace and Gromit,” and he was right.

When she got home from school, I told her that her school picture had arrived, and I showed it to her, but did so cautiously. I was prepared to tell her that it was just one picture and that she is so much prettier in real life. My concern, however, wasn’t necessary. Unlike my experience forty years earlier, she did not cry. She didn’t even flinch. Instead, she laughed. “Ha! That doesn’t even look like me! I made a funny face, and I look like a cartoon.” Yeah, really, she found it amusing.

Have I mentioned that my daughter is the most awesome kindergartener in the world?