Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My Own Worst Enemy

Frankly, I can’t believe I’m still alive. I am the clumsiest person I know. Today’s mishap was just one in a long line of near-death experiences that had me grateful to still be walking the earth, or walking at all for that matter.

I’m sitting at my desk, a 7-drawer beauty I inherited from my friend’s mom. I realized that I hadn’t backed up my laptop for a few weeks and to remind me to do so, I opened the bottom right drawer of the desk. That’s where I keep my small external hard drive. As I was in the middle of something I couldn’t back up at the moment so I thought I was being smart with the open drawer reminder tactic. An email came in that I wanted my husband to read. He’d just walked out to his truck and not wanting to miss him, I bolted from my chair, only to find myself in the next instance curled into a fetal position on the floor rocking to and fro holding my right leg. My head just missed the wall opposite my chair. My leg is fermenting a bruise the size, shape and color of a flattened out fruit roll-up. Such is the story of my life.

I can fall down walking on a flat, unmarred sidewalk. I fall off of porches on a regular basis. I even broke my foot hopping up a set of stairs. I walked into a fence that was propped up horizontally with the ends exposed because I wasn’t looking where I was going, just missing my eye by a hair . My husband still married me even after I embarrassed him by falling down two steps in a casino filled with people. I walk into walls often, bump my knees and elbows on the corner of things, and burn my forehead with the curling iron all the time.

Seriously, why am I still alive?

When it really counts and I’m paying attention, I can be very careful. When I became an archaeologist and had to traipse up and down steep mountains, walking 25 meters from my fellow surveyors and not get lost in the dense brush, fall off the mountainside or trip over the rocky terrain into a thorny mesquite, I concentrated and survived. Only once did I trip and fall and was luckily spared from cracking my head on a jagged rock, but that was the nature of the job – I wasn’t the only one with such an experience.

When I stop the mad chaos that’s my daily mind activity and think about what I’m doing, I end the day, or the moment, scar-free. It’s when I act before thinking, a character trait I have a reputation for doing, that I get into trouble. As I get older, I find I have to remind myself to do just that – think before acting – because my flesh bruises so much easier and my bones are surviving on borrowed time.

It isn’t easy being me.

It’s those moments when I don’t think to think that I hurt myself.

I was so concerned about my safety that I brought it up with a doctor once. “Ummm, I don’t know if there’s really anything wrong with me, but I, ummmm, fall down a lot.”

After ruling out a brain tumor I was advised to eat more protein. She thought perhaps my blood sugar and insulin levels were out of whack, thus causing my brain to malfunction. I increased my protein intake throughout the day. I don’t know if that was the solution, or that the process made me more mindful of my vulnerabilities, but I went fall-free for quite some time.

Whether it’s paying better attention to my diet or to the obstacles around me, I better figure out the solution now because my luck is running out. Maybe instead of opening a bottom drawer to remind me to do something, I would be wise to stick to that age-old, reliable method of writing on my hand; or maybe not because with my luck I’ll just get ink poisoning.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's Complicated - my father and me

No post has been harder for me to write.  I begin with a few sentences, then highlight and discard what I've written. 

October 26th is the anniversary of my father's suicide. Once that date passes each year I am free to continue my life without the albatross that the month of October is for me. 

I tried and tried to write something to commemorate my father: his memory, the feelings I have about losing him, his role in the destruction of our family, the legacy of grief and anguish his actions created.  I tried to write about the complicated emotions I feel for him: a need to forgive, my search for father figures, the draw I have to my Italian heritage - but the words did not flow.  I suspect that is due to all the unresolved issues I still harbor for the man who should have been the most important male influence in my life.

I guess I still have a lot of work to do with regard to my father.  While I am adressing that, I will share a photo montage of his short life.

Joe (on the right) and his younger brother Dick, 1922

Courtship days with his future wife, Pat Oberlander

Handsome Dad


The Joseph Gioia Family with their three boys: Joseph Jr., baby James Richard, and Dominic Michael, 1954). I wasn't in "the picutre" yet as I wasn't born until 1957

The Family business in Batavia, New York


Monday, October 19, 2009

Mother Me

When I was in my very early twenties I considered having a procedure so I didn’t become pregnant; I honestly thought I didn’t want to have children.  A consultation with a doctor, however, resulted in his dismissal; he said I was too young to make such a permanent decision.  As a feminist I could say I resent that male doctor’s interference in my decision-making; in truth, I am grateful he had wisdom and foresight I did not. 

I ended up giving birth to two daughters.  Their existence in my life has been both a blessing and, admittedly at times a curse.  I only say that because had I really known the extremes of being a mom: the heights of joy and the depths of despair, I am not sure I would have had the courage to become one. 

Thank goodness nature doesn’t depend on logic to do its job; It just plugs along and we humans are expected to deal with the consequences. 

Recently I watched a young mother and her daughter, who was I’d say about 7 years old.  The mom was very hands-on, kissing the top of her child’s head and hugging her; together the two shared whispered conversation.  It was such a sweet sight.  I thought about all the children in the world that were not so fortunate to have such an attentive parent.  I was not one of them. 

Not that I didn’t grow up in an environment where I knew I was loved – I did; there just was not a lot of physical expressions of affection.  My grandmother, my caregiver, was worn out.  I was the sixteenth child she raised!  The rare moments of outward affection I can recall are when she would reach for my hand in church or her delight when I asked if I could sleep in her bed with her.  I treasure those memories. 

When my own children were born, however, I was very much a touchy-feely, outspoken mom who professed her love for her children both physically and verbally. I believe that somewhere deep inside of me I was mothering my young self at the same time I was mothering my babies.

For my children, my intense emotional and physical attachment to them is also a blessing and a curse, for I have had a very difficult time allowing them the freedom to become the individuals they are destined to be.  I kept a very close eye on them when they were under my care.  There were, and still are, moments when I believe doom is at our doorstop, prompting me to cling even tighter to them.  When they naturally began to pull away from me as all children do, to choose their own path, I did not know how to let go. 

Through many a painful experience I have learned from them that I need to do just that – let go.  They have, in their own beautiful way, shown me that I will always be “mom”, that they need me, love me and count on me during both momentous and mundane moments in their lives, but that their life experience is their right and that I must have the courage to allow its unfolding.  

I have grown enough to recognize that I am so blessed, never cursed; that these extraordinary human beings are in my life, that I have the privilege to call each of them daughter.  Now that one is a mom and the other soon to be, I hope that they will come to understand the complex and oftentimes contradictory experience that being a mother is, and forgive me for my human fallibility, or better said - “motheribility.”  

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The very first fiction work I ever published was in my community college literary magazine. That was 15 years ago. Anyone that's been reading my blog will see I have carried the weight of losing my mom for a very long time. I wrote this piece with her in mind.
This post is dedicated to my mom, Patricia Ann Oberlander Gioia on the anniversary of her death at age 26: October 17, 1958                                                         
                                                                                                                                Lisa and her mom, 1957

The Women’s’ Circle

Battered, bruised, and weary, Trish moved forward on the arm of a woman close to her own age. The woman, who had identified herself as Carolyn held her protectively, murmuring encouraging words. They headed toward a circle of women, whose faces held sympathetic, yet welcoming smiles. Though Trish was nervous and hesitant, she allowed herself to be surrounded and coddled. She was shown to a chair and gently seated. The others took seats, forming a close- knit circle with everyone facing one another.

Carolyn introduced Trish to the others. In shameful horror Trish heard Carolyn describe her “situation.”

“Trish has come to us courtesy of her husband,” Carolyn said. “He beat her and as you can see, the damage was substantial.”

The women looked at Trish with pity in their eyes. They sighed and shook their heads. Some reached over and stroked her arm or took her shaking hands in theirs. To Trish’s amazement, no one looked upon her with disgust or blame.

Carolyn spoke once again, this time directly to Trish. “When you feel stronger you will speak of your experience. Yes, you will.” Carolyn nodded to Trish’s denying headshake. “It will take time. You will learn to trust us and you will see the need in purging yourself of your pain.” Trish heard the murmurs of agreement from the women around her.

Turning her attention to the others, Carolyn said, “It’s time for sharing.”

For the moment Trish was released from the scrutiny of the others. A sniffle to her right drew her attention. A petite woman with blonde hair and sad eyes wrung her hands as she spoke. “Today is my daughter’s tenth birthday,” she lamented. “This is the second birthday I have missed.” As she spoke of her memories of past celebrations the other women in the circle listened raptly. Consoling words and comforting hugs were generously offered. As time passed, Trish heard from nearly every woman seated around her. The stories they told were chilling tales of abuse and fear. Most compelling, however, were the expressions of longing for loved ones.

Trish sat in horrific wonder at the stories she heard. One woman, a brunette with an eye blackened and an unusable arm expressed concern for her eldest child, a son of eight years. She described that her son was present whenher husband clubbed her with a ceramic vase, and tried in vain to intervene. His cries for his mother, his wracking sobs, still haunt her. She wondered if he has been able to overcome the horror his young eyes witnessed.

Another woman, one of considerable age expressed a deep regret at not having left her abusive husband sooner. She spoke with a voice burdened with guilt as she told her tale. She saw the pattern of her tragic life played out through the actions of her offspring; her sons, she said, were physically abusive to their wives, a way of life their father modeled for them. Her only daughter, a gentle soul full of love and kindness married a man so like her father. Fear for her daughter’s well being conflicted with the thought that they may someday be reunited, together again among this circle of women.

Trish began to feel a kinship to these women. Slowly and hesitantly she acknowledged that their stories were similar in many ways to her own. Her voice, shy and hardly above a whisper caused the others to turn toward her.

“He, my husband, was so sorry that first time,” she began. “He said it would never happen again.”

All eyes were on her, encouraging words floated her way. Taking a deep breath to calm her inner shivers Trish continued. “But, he didn’t stop and he would yell at me and hit me for the littlest things.” She looked at the women with pained eyes. “I really did try to be a good wife, to not do anything that would set him off. But, it seemed I couldn’t do anything right.”

A woman across from her contributed, “Seems like they always just lookin’ for an excuse to pop ya one.” Another offered, “My old man, he was great, until he had his drinks, that is.”

Trish looked warmly at this group of new friends, formed through adversity and like experience. They talked, cried, and laughed with the sharing of memories. Trish’s feelings of isolation and shame were banished, yet she could not shake the urgency she felt. She stood, looked fondly upon the perfect strangers that she has shared her most intimate feelings with. She hoped the best for each and every one of them, but she knew she must go; her family awaited her. Her children needed her to be there when they arrived home; her husband would be expecting a clean house and food on the table.

Carolyn, observing Trish closely stood with her, an expectant look upon her face. With a nod from her that to Trish held some meaning, the others also stood. Trish thanked her new friends, wished them well then explained her need to leave. A knowing look Trish did not understand passed from woman to woman. Carolyn came to stand by her side, placing an arm once again protectively around Trish’s shoulders.

“We all reacted this way at first,” she said.

Confused, Trish looked about her and asked, “What are you talking about? I need to get home.” She said these words with conviction, yet they were laced with a hint of fear.

Carolyn looked deeply into Trish’s eyes as she said, “Honey, there is no going home. You are in Heaven now and no one will ever hurt you again.”

Battered, bruised, and weary, Sandra moved forward on the arm of a woman. Trish, as she had identified herself held her protectively, murmuring encouraging words. They headed toward a circle of women…

Monday, October 12, 2009

Touching the Past

One of my daughters says I’m a compulsive hoarder. Let me set the record straight and say I’m no where near being called out on an upcoming Oprah show. Yes, I have hung onto things, even with my many moves over the last thirty years; I still have stuff I collected in high school.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saving things that hold significance; I absolutely love reconnecting with my past.

This friend from junior and high school died shortly after graduation. This is a reminder of our sweet friendship and her keen humor.

Having that tangible evidence in my hands: scrapbooks that hold movie tickets and faded flowers from past dates, my children’s baby dresses and blankets, airline tickets from places I may never get the chance to ever visit again; these items bring back memories that give me comfort and joy. It’s that ability to hold the past in your hand or in your mind that made me a historian, genealogist, and oral historian, after all.

So, yes, I am a collector of things past. Yesterday, as I organized my home office I ran across a 2002 Far Side daily planner. I opened it and found myself reading a day-to-day account of my life from January 1 to December 31.

A day-in-the-life from 2002

Reading certain entries I was able to clearly recall the event or mood of a day seven years previous. I realize that I hadn’t kept the practice up, that I have little recollection of what I did a week ago, much less every day over the last few years. Starting today, my day planner will begin to be filled with more than just the “gotta-dos.”

Here’s a sample of My Life circa 2002

•My thyroid problem escalated and after repeated consultations with endocrinologists, it was removed in May

•I followed daughter Adrian’s pregnancy, first from afar while she lived in New York, then when she came to live with us, close at hand, a memory I’ll always cherish

•Daughter Erin’s coming-of-age at our home in Vegas, before she decided to move back to where she was really happy, getting her first apartment in Attica, New York

•The birth of beautiful Aiden

His 6-year-old self's art creation

•My ever-increasing discontent working in a job that ran me ragged, the work never ending, the compromises I made for the sake of a measly paycheck

•The escape from the job I hated to work for a summer in Yosemite National Park where I worked in museum archives, where my daughters, grandson and best friend came to stay for extended periods of time. We read, talked, laughed, hiked, and bonded like never before

•The once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy, to the birthplace of my paternal grandfather and to see with my own eyes a place of such ancient history

Train Ticket from Italy trip

•One entry had my current weight with a sad face penciled in next to it. Boy, if only I could still be that weight now! I see I have gained 2 pounds a year since then

•The many fluctuations of the relationship with my husband: sometimes we argued, sometimes things were better than ever. Always, money was at the crux of our discord; there was never, ever enough of it

•Visits with various family and the places around town we showed them

•Marking the first anniversary of 9-11

Yes, 2002 was a very busy year, as I am sure every year has been before and since. I’m looking forward to reading about today in the future and recalling memories that make me smile.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What's Best for the Kids - Amicable Divorce

When I was living through the first few years of divorce from my children’s father, I couldn’t wait to have the girls grown up so I would never have to deal with him again. My first husband and I were married six years; it was a marriage rocky and wrong from the beginning but one that produced the loves of my life, Erin and Adrian. It took almost all of those six years to find the emotional willpower to end the relationship and become a struggling single mother.

Once again, I leapt into the unknown hoping for the best and things turned out better than I could have ever hoped for.

First I found the love of my life, the man with whom I have been married to for over twenty years and who helped raise the girls in a stable, happy environment. Second, the girls’ biological father has remained a constant in their lives who has lovingly co-parented with me, giving our daughters a wonderfully healthy concept of how life after divorce can work.

That is a huge accomplishment for me, one of the approaches of life I am most proud of, one that is so far removed from the way I, as a child, witnessed the outcome of divorce.

Estranged members in my family instilled a sense of fear in me. I recall two incidents. One uncle’s ex-wife was at our home visiting when one of the aunts said, “Quick! Go out the back door, he’s coming.” It was a mad shuffle and the ex-wife barely got out in time before her former husband came in. I got the sense it would have been horrible had the two encountered one another. Another time, when I was ten, I was visiting an uncle and his new wife in their home. I was awakened in the middle of the night to banging and screaming. The wife’s ex-husband/boyfriend (not sure of his standing) was outside the house shouting for her to come out. I’m not sure how the incident resolved itself, but the man eventually left, leaving me with a lasting impression.

For me, divorce was an option to avoid because it never turned out well.

I can’t say I made a conscious effort to make my divorce experience different, but my relationship with my daughters’ father looks nothing like that of family and friends. It didn’t start out that way; there was plenty of give and take, bruised feelings, and power struggles. Somehow, however, we made a conscious effort to get along for the children’s sake.

Our respective spouses have come to terms with the presence of exes in their lives. While I don’t spend much time with my first husband’s mate, he is much more present in my life and that is due to the fact we share children. It is no surprise to anyone who is the parent of a grown child that no matter what their age, there are still plenty of opportunities to be involved in their lives. My children’s father and I have many conversations regarding the choices, decisions, and outcomes our kids make. I can’t imagine not having that support system from him during the occasional crises we have encountered.

I am just grateful things turned out they way they did so our children did not have to be pawns in a messy breakup. I’m lucky to have such an extended family. One can’t have too many friends in this world, right?

Friday, October 2, 2009

October - In Memoriam

Today is my mother’s 77th birthday. It would be her birthday if she had lived past her 26th year. October is a month of remembrances for me. It is the month my mom was born, as well as the month she and my father died.

For several years now I find I go through a depression around this time of year. I always assumed it had to do with how much I love autumn. I miss New York during this time of year. I miss the nip in the air, the leaves changing colors, apple cider and pumpkin patches. Although I’m sure that has something to do with my mood, I’ve come to believe that decades of being reminded about what I really lost has resulted in an unconscious effect on my psyche.

Last year on October 17th, the fiftieth anniversary of my mom’s death, I sat outside on my back porch and talked to the sky. I said to the spirit of both my mom and dad, “I’m okay. I’m over it now. It’s done.”

What I meant by that is that I believe 50 years is long enough to grieve. I have done a great deal of work to that end; my writing, public speaking and research into my parents’ lives and deaths has allowed me to tap into a grief I’d never experienced.

I was a year old when they both died. I have no recollection of them. I don’t know the sound of their voice, the feel of their touch. I have no memories to which I can turn to ease my heartache.

For years the fact that both my parents are dead and the ugly way in which they died was just a story I could easily speak about with a complete lack of emotion. As a child I just said they died in a car accident; as an adult I could say, “My father shot and killed my mother; he then killed himself nine days later.” The only emotion I felt was embarrassment at that proclamation.

That isn’t the case anymore.

For a while still I could still share the details of how my parents died, but I developed over time a catch in my throat. If I went on to share more of the story I would even find tears pooling in my eyes. Recently, however, I believe I cleared a hurdle.

Someone with whom I’d just met asked about my parents. I simply said they were dead, that I’d lost them at a very early age. When my companion asked, “Did they die in a car accident or something?” , rather than give my standard shock-inducing answer I just said, “No, but I’d rather not explain.” I think I’ve made some progress.

Another October has arrived. It’s National Domestic Violence Month. So no matter how much I desire to let the month slip by unnoticed, both my personal story and that of countless other victims of violence so close to home and heart will serve to remind me.

Another October has arrived. It’s the month that my father, for reasons known only to him and my mother, used a gun to end the life of his wife. Lost, remorseful, and possibly afraid of the Sing Sing electric chair, he used an Ace bandage to secure a knot around his neck and hang himself.

They left behind four children, as well as family and friends who have never gotten over the tragedy. For me, I will await another anniversary date. I will silently pay tribute to my parents by acknowledging their death dates. I think my proclamation that my grieving is over was a little premature. Frankly, I don't think it will ever be.

Happy Birthday, Mom

High school yearbook photo, 1949, Corfu, New York