Friday, July 30, 2010

Honeymoon Wonderland

Our first "home," (using the term in its loosest possible way) was an old, delapidated, nearly discarded double wide on a hill in the glory of the Ozarks. And it was beautiful.

We married on a Saturday, the mister graduated college on Sunday, we left for our honeymoon on Monday. A week in a tropical paradise, and then the move: the smallest Uhaul laden with our decorator style; we called it "early college." We drove from Pittsburgh to Tulsa, stopping on the way at a lavishly maintained Knight's Inn (yes), blinded by the purple wall paper and carpeting.

We stored our worldly possessions into a corner of my newly minted in-laws' garage and drove to Branson to work for the summer at a camp in the mountains. We were married staff, so we proudly assumed the entitlement of "married staff housing." This is a huge step up from regular staff housing, in that we had windows AND air conditioning. Living the dream.

I cop to a certain amount of "gross out" when I rested my gaze upon the brown and white, off kilter little gem that was to be our home for three months. The gag reflex promptly gave way to the beautiful haze that is newly married life. I had gifts to be thankful for, and pictures to sort. I had a new home in Tulsa to find. I had my life partner, the apple of my eye with me. And we were blessed.

And then it rained. Oh, how it can rain in those mountains. Turns out, the windows acted more like large, transparent colanders. We used our brand new towels to staunch the flow pouring into our cozy little love nest.

Then there was the matter of living quarters. The double wide belonged to resident staff who were at another camp for the summer. All of their worldly possessions occupied every bedroom. We had access to the living room/kitchen/dining room. And the bathroom. We stored our clothes in the kitchen cabinets. We kept coffee in the space where the dishwasher was to go. Socks went in the top drawers. Shorts and tees in the upper cabinets.

When I think about it now, 15 years later, I have to laugh. We laughed then, too, but for different reasons. We were young. We were happy. We were on an adventure, just beginning our journey together. I laugh now because that was simply crazy. We loved every minute of it. But, man, what a summer.

I took that photo up there in the fall when our home needed some ghastly repairs. This reminds me that along with our changing lives, we have changing perspectives, changing needs, changing attitudes. Sometimes we get to live like wild bohemians, in the eye of chaos. And sometimes we get to move out of that and live in peace.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tweenage Word Police

image via
One of the problems stemming from my stern grammatical upbringing is friendly chats are rendered neigh impossible. My parents both spoke, and speak, with a precision and depth few can match. They choose their words carefully and for maximum effect. Mom and Dad could rip steel to shreds with their words or plant flowers of prose.

As a family, we were, and are, vigilant about grammatical and pronunciation mistakes. We pounce on every misspoken word, every improperly used pronoun. No one is immune. Nothing passes our ears. We hear every little thing. And we will correct you. Yes. We will mock you unceasingly. It gives us great pleasure. In fact, many of our mistakes have entered the family lexicon; newcomers to our little grammar party may indeed not understand a word we say.

This admittedly annoying familial habit has made its way into my own family, our children being proud, card-carrying members of the word police. If you think your kids aren't listening to you, try making a mistake in speaking. I personally guarantee you will be corrected. By them. In an unfriendly tone. Children correcting their parents makes for uncomfortable family dinners.

I confess to the deadly sin of pride about my childrens' vocabulary. Except. For the past year, we've had a recurring language debate with our eldest, who can, in fact, word us under the table. (She once told me she would explain something to me using small words. She's 12).When we ask her to do something, or to NOT do something, or have a conversation and want some signal from our angsty tween, we expect, and rightly so, some kind of acknowledgment. We get this, "Okay." Or "Okay!" Or "OKAY." Parents, I know you hear the difference.

When one is used to precise language, "okay," as a reply means very little. Does she mean she understands, or that she's walking away, or that she hates our parental guts? IDK. (She is constantly surprised that I am hip to text lingo.) So then we say, "No. It's not okay." To which she replies, "You know what I mean." And then we say, "No. We don't know what you mean." Then she rolls her eyes and stalks, storms or saunters away and we throw up our flummoxed hands with heavy sighs.

We find ourselves walking this line like drunken sailors; as parents we are unsure of ourselves with this nearly teen-aged girl, but we know her and love her and want the best for her. As a nearly teen-aged girl, I'm sure she's feeling many things of which she is not sure. She is aware at least of her verbal double standard that allows her the luxury of correcting mistakes but not being called on her own.

We wonder how much do we push back, how much slack do we let out, how long do we let the eye rolling make our skin itch? We wonder if she can smell our fear: our fear of her growing up and walking her path and becoming who more of who she is every day. It's not an unreasonable fear, tempered as it is with confidence in her ability to make good choices, good friends, and certainly good sentences.

What does "okay" mean? No idea.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Regrets and Reconciliation

Once upon a time, I had two friends. Well, once upon a time, I had more than two friends, still do, in fact, have slightly more than 2 friends, but that's neither here nor there, as this little story concerns just these two aforementioned friends I had, once upon a time, and my grandmother, which is weird, considering the three have never met.

So I had these two friends. And they were funny and silly and I enjoyed their company. And they were my friends. And then we had a very dramatic, sad, ugly falling out.

I'll spare you the drama of our sad and ugly falling out. Suffice it to say, as is usually the case in these matters, all three of us can hoist some of the blame onto our humanly puny shoulders, burdened as we are already with pride, anger and selfishness.

In thinking about my role in this little tragedy, the Greek chorus in my head reminds me of a recent revelation, a reconciliation of sorts with my paternal grandmother, who has been dead for over a decade. Crazy Greek chorus, just like them to bring up some long ago turmoil, buried securely in my mind, to teach me a lesson.

Of Grandmas and Grace

Grandma and I had a monumental tiff during her later years. The kind that overshadowed family holidays and jubilant occasions, like my wedding. That lady was a spitfire on her best days. She was a mountain-mover, a hell-raiser, and woe be to thee if you raised her ire.

We had a minor miscommunication that grew and festered. I can blame my dad for this, because he invited Grandma to something I did not want her to attend. When she called for details, instead of being gracious and insisting she come, I blurted out that she was, in reality, not invited. I know. I'm embarrassed. This classy move led to the Thanksgiving Tumult of 1991. Neighbors still talk about it.

For the rest of her life, we were at odds, which pains me to this day. Tradition says that this is where I remind readers to cherish their loved ones, to seize every opportunity to express their devotion. Not gonna happen.

Here is where I tell you that if I'm at all like my hell-raising granny, I share her sense of justice, her stubborn pride, and her ability to hold a grudge like a precious gem.

Freedom through Tea Sets?

Standing at the tiny stainless sink at the decrepit family cottage, my mother and I shared the job of washing and drying the dishes. Offhand, she tossed out a bomb that shifted my perspective of my grandmother, veritably shattering the angry image and reminding me of her gentle thoughtfulness. My mother said that Grandma had packed a box with an antique tea service. She labeled the box: FOR JEN AND ABBY. Abby, my daughter, was 18 months old when my grandmother died. Moreover, my grandmother was suffering at the hands of a cruel enemy, Alzheimer's, that stole much of who she was and confused her memories.

I stood at that sink totally bewildered. My grandmother remembered my daughter? She cared enough about me—or her descendants—to leave a special gift just for us. In her darkness, in her deterioration, she remembered me with love.

What's with the Greek Tragedy, Again?

So, back to my fractured friendship. A solid decade after her death, my cranky, unforgiving, hardened grandmother, my kind, giving, talented grandmother taught me a lesson in humility, grace and forgiveness.

Platitudes don't work for me, they're too easy. But. If I don't look at this situation in a spirit of growth, I will continue to cherish regret, fatigue and bitterness. Maybe life's not too short for regrets. Maybe in the poor choices we make, in our betrayals, our deceptions and our minor infractions, there is a future wrapped up just for us, specially marked and ready to be opened. Maybe a future of redemption and reconciliation comes with regret as its cost.

For reconciliation, I can handle a little regret.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Anticipation and Melancholy

See that? Right there? Those are two of my favorite people relaxing in one of my most favorite places in the whole wide world. My family has owned this little slice of happy for 110 years. Yes, one hundred ten years. It may not be easy on the eyes, but I assure you, it's easy on the spirit.

Living 1000 miles away from this little beauty we call "the cottage," definitely puts a limit on how often we get there. Once a year to be exact. Being there means shutting down literally and figuratively. No TV, no internet, spotty cell service. Until a few years ago, there was no shower and no phone. The lack of current technology means a turning to others, creating a space where conversations ebb and flow with the shadows cast by the sun on the ferns. It means using your head to make sure there's enough water to do dishes and get the kids' grimy feet clean. It means not dumping food in the sink because there's no disposal. It means a calmer life, for a few days. Rising with the birds and sun, resting our heads in the heat of the afternoon, hitting the hay with the moon.

We all, my siblings and I, try yearly to make the trek to the cottage for the fourth of July, it being our mother's birthday. Knowing I get to see my brother and sister and all of our nieces and nephews fills me with tangible anticipation. In my mind, I play out our visit, the arrivals, the stories, the swimming, the food. I'm like a kid on Christmas Eve, completely wound up waiting for the presents to arrive. When everyone has finally assembled, it is largely as I had envisioned. We laugh, and cook, swim and canoe, drink cold beer, sit on the porch, tell stories, remember, catch up, look ahead. This trip is one big gift just for me to savor my family.

And then it's over, just as Christmas Eve passes to Christmas Day which passes to the ho hum day after Christmas of bloat of indulgence and crankiness from all that togetherness. I found myself in that doldrum yesterday as we drove out of the gravel drive, casting one last furtive glance at Sugar Lake, the place that defines my past as much as the house where I grew up. Leaving it, leaving the family, brought my anticipation to a screeching halt and left a gaping hole of sad.

I know I'll be back. I know I'll see my family again. There is something reassuring about having something to look forward to. It makes the minutiae seem to click by faster, to make it more meaningful or worthwhile. And there is also something about a return to "real" life that resonates, too. I wouldn't want to stay with my siblings at the cottage forever. Going home, my home, with my children, and our daily responsibilities, creates the possibility of something new to anticipate. What I'm trying to say is that we need the flow of time; we need to look forward, and we need to grasp our present with joy and purpose.

But, I still miss my brother, my sister and my nieces and nephews. Can't wait til next year.

Friday, July 2, 2010

How to Road Trip without Losing Your (Entire) Mind

Every year my family of five drives the 1000 odd miles from our door in Oklahoma to my parents' door in Pennsylvania. Because Pennsylvania is my hometown, this trip feels like one big treat planned just for me. Of course, it also has to do with reuniting grandparents and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, old friends, old places. But of course we all see the world through our own filters. I'm sure my kids think it's a big ole party for them and their cousins. My mom loves having all her babies around her. My dad likes seeing us use the family cottage. Everyone has their own reason to look forward to the trip.

And every year, on the drive, we experience the same emotional arc or cycle. It starts with eager anticipation and ends, well, it ends with a tired but happy family.

On day one of our trip this year, the first kid awoke at 5:45: ready to go. Everyone scrambled about, grabbing last minute items, talking about what they were looking forward to doing. We piled in, smiles on our faces, pictures taken, legs rested.

Two hours in, the electronics lost power, the boredom kicked in, the munchies arrived. (Roadtrip snacks are huge deal; I hide them as long as possible, not wanting tip my hand before necessary.) For the rest of the day, we rode out the moods. From excitement to boredom, to cranky, to tired, to chatty, to silent, to boredom, to cranky to tired to chatty to silent. We contended with the "arewethereyets." We played silly games. We looked quietly out the window, watching for the farthest away license plates. We are not above bribery. We are not above a few words hastily spoken. The closer we got to our destination the farther away it seemed and the more restless everyone grew.

We stopped half-way to visit a dear friend of mine. Reuniting with friends, stretching our legs in a wide open back yard, enjoying an adult beverage and adult conversation renewed us all. The kids caught fireflies and made new friends. The parents sat and talked. And talked. And talked.

Waking to gourmet breakfast made by our foodie friends was a treat like no other. It was hard to tear myself away from the luxury of being served breakfast, but PA will not wait. We loaded up the car and headed East, young man. And the cycle began. The second day the kids were much more mellow. They spent a lot of the time quietly gazing out the window. I kept looking back, concerned; my kids are not the quiet types. We still played some games. Everyone still had their choice of playlist. Snacks were replenished. But there was a resignation. The forward looking we had awoken with the day before succumbed to the miles of green, changing hilly to flat to hilly to mountainous. It all flowed under us as we took each mile.

Again, the closer we got the more restless we became. I prayed that no one would need a potty stop once we crossed the PA border. That's just the kind of thing that takes whatever wind you've got going right out of your sails. We pulled into Mom's and Dad's drive, happy, spent, and with a quiet anticipation. What had started as giddy physical excitment has transformed into a rested, inherent peace. Knowing we have ten days to soak up this beautiful place, these gorgeous friends, we are happy to have arrived.