Thursday, December 24, 2009

For the Children

"Nana, how old will you be when I'm 52?

My seven-year-old grandson is starting to ask the big questions. After a litany of similar questions, right up until he asked how old his Nana would be when he turned 99, there was silence in the car. That might be due to my answer that I would be long gone by that time. Rather than let him dwell on my ultimate demise, I turned the conversation into a learning experience. We began to figure out the life spans of a variety of animals including dogs, cats, parrots, elephants, and tortoises. When he heard that some tortoises can live over one hundred years, he said he wishes he were one.

I love this questioning phase of childhood, when no question is off-limits. There are so many things that are old hat for me as an adult and so many things our boy is just starting to discover.

The problem is, as he matures and processes the world around him, his exposure to things both fascinating and frightening is part of the deal.

I sometimes wish I could shield him, just as I felt when I was raising his mother and his aunt, but I know the impossibility and perhaps the harm in doing so. The best I can do is to provide him a safe haven that he can count on when he is confronted with those moments in life that cause him fear, pain, confusion, and worry. Just like I did with my daughters, I can only hope it is enough.

On the day of Aiden’s birth I purchased a book of blank pages. Before I even met him, knowing only his full name, I began to tell him about himself, his family, the world he had been brought into. I update the book on occasion, sparing little detail so that when he is old enough to read and comprehend he will know just how he arrived at the place he presently finds himself. I hand the book to others in his life so they, too, can share their thoughts, feelings, and impressions as they relate to him. Aiden himself has entered into his book, adding drawings and stickers. When I showed him his book on a recent visit he exclaimed, “My book!” As he flipped through the pages seeing artwork from his younger self he said, “My brain is going crazy!”

I have two more grandchildren due this spring. I need to go out and find the perfect book of blank pages for each of them. When they are each 99-years-old and my own mortal body is long gone, I hope they will turn to the one thing of me that remains: my words and the documentation of their lives as I witnessed it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I Loved It! She Hated It!

Friendships are amazing and wondrous things. In one of my past posts I shared how my female friends are lifesavers for me and that they do so much for my soul. I have friends in my life that date back to my childhood and ones that I have recently met. Each and every one of them brings something to my life that I didn’t know I was missing until I met them. What I find most fascinating about these friends is how much I gain from them even if a few of them are the complete opposite of me. That was never clearer to me until I met Linda O’Conner and discovered how much fun we have together, how similar we are on one level, yet how little we have in common.

I met Linda over a year ago at a writer’s group meeting. It was my first meeting attendance. I didn’t know anyone and kept quiet as I listened to the conversations around me. A woman entered late and as I had an empty seat next to me, I offered to move over and she sat down. We introduced ourselves and over the course of the next hour discovered that we both hailed from New York State; she from Albany, me from Rochester/Buffalo area. We graduated from high school the same year and our birthdays are 10 days apart (she LOVES to remind me that I’m the older one).

We decided then that we needed more time to get to know one another so soon after we met over beers (she likes the dark Guinness kind, I like pale ale) and talked easily for three hours. A new friendship was created, one that I could tell from the outset that would be deep and long lasting. At that time we connected due to striking similarities: we are both writers and both have daughters who, at the time, were giving us major headaches due to their approach to life and the choices they were making. It was during the next year, however, that we discovered just how dissimilar we are.

Linda hates animals; I devote much of my life, time, and money to rescuing them and live with many. She is not at all domestic; she hates to cook whereas I thrive on it. Linda’s idea of a fun night out is sashaying (I mean that literally) up to a biker bar and engaging in conversation with men in leather; I like the Elephant Bar with its fancy appetizers and frosted beer mugs. I love to be surrounded by nature; Linda carries such a profound fear of birds that even the sound of fluttering wings has her diving for cover. She swears often and relishes in telling dirty stories; I slap my hand over my mouth if a profanity slips and blushed profusely during her stand-up comedy act. Linda loves to show off her sexiness in short skirts and cleavage-baring tops; I wear dresses down to my ankles and layer my clothes to prevent any wardrobe malfunctions.

It never occurred to me that we would differ on one thing though and that was at the Las Vegas show, LOVE. After all, we both love Beatles music and who doesn’t enjoy a Vegas extravaganza? Linda apparently. The show was spectacular. From the moment the lights went out I was in awe: the costumes, the aerial acrobatics, the light show, and the creativity that went into the production. I was astounded and clapped my hands in glee throughout. As soon as the show ended I turned to my BFF and exclaimed, “I loved it!” Her response? She hated it! What? How could that be? For Linda the show was too much. Everything I loved about it caused her to close her eyes because it was over-stimulating. For her take on the show, visit her blog post.

As we headed out of the theater we marveled at our friendship; how we could enjoy one another’s company with so many obvious differences between us. I guess it is true that opposites do attract. Linda is a great girl date, we have the best time when we go out together and last New Year’s Eve with us dancing on tables is testament to that. I guess we just experience things differently, that’s all. That’s fine with me; she is a hoot to be with and has helped me, as friends do, in more ways than I can count.

I’m looking forward to finding out more about Linda over the next decades of our friendship, even if that means she’ll never come over to my animal farm and I never step foot into her barren apartment with her empty refrigerator. Perhaps the two of us need to stick with what works best for us: beer and bars!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Menopause and Patriotism - What a Mix

Menopause and patriotism are an interesting mix.

I discovered this today when I attended the memorial service for a man I hardly knew other than to pay my respects to him and his family. I am at that stage in my life where my hormones are fluctuating and I can cry over the simplest thing; a corny commercial, a nostalgic picture, a passage in a book I’m reading. I also have a very strong patriotic streak; I tear up whenever I see a mass of people with their hands over their hearts collectively reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. So it is no wonder I reacted the way I did midway through the service.

All was well until Taps was played on a bugle, Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, and a fleet of men in marine uniform conducted the full military ceremony complete with presentation of the flag and the firing of their rifles.

I couldn’t hold back the tears; but neither could several others in the room.

In this divisive time in our country, where political and religious views seem to fracture relationships as tragically as those during civil war times when brother fought against brother, it is easy to feel like if things get any worse perhaps the life of an expatriate is the answer. I admit I have often thought that way; that I could go live in a tiny village in Sicily and leave behind the negative climate that has descended upon my country of late.

But being in the presence today of saluting marines, with the sound of such exquisite music as a backdrop, in addition to the way in which a former marine and state senator was being honored, I felt the most immense pride in being an American.

I told my husband that it’s a good thing I don’t attend military funerals very often; in fact that was my first one. On the other hand, I walked away from the event with a renewed appreciation for my status as an American citizen and looked upon the crowd not with my usual suspicious eye: who’s a conservative, who would judge me for my views, who doesn’t agree with me?

Instead, I felt a sense of bonding with those around me, all of us mourning the loss of a fellow human being as well as a father, brother, grandpa, friend. We all experienced emotion and I know that patriotism was one of them as that is when the waterworks really began. Perhaps the answer to this country’s woes, that of the discontent that leads us to accuse, point fingers and scream at one another, is the mandatory attendance of each and every American to a military funeral.

There we can witness with both our eyes and our hearts the one thing that brings us all together no matter what our political or religious views: that we are in a country built upon the spirit of patriotism, sentiment, and principles. Maybe after the final notes of Taps is played even the most obstinate attendee would embrace his or her neighbor with a renewed sense of tolerance.

Or maybe not. Perhaps all this sentimental drivel is just another symptom of my fluctuating hormones. Whatever it is I can’t get the words “I once was lost, but now I’m found” out of my head. Maybe all I need is to up my hormone dosage and call it a day.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Book that Changed My Life

Although I grew up near and often on a Native American Indian reservation, it wasn’t until I read a historical novel back in the 1980s that I became immersed in the culture and set myself on a path of following the Native American approach to living and spirituality. It’s amazing the power that another’s words can have and how a book can literally change the course of one’s life. That’s what happened to me when I read the novel, Ride the Wind, written by Lucia St. Clair Robson.

Until that time the Native American way of life held no special significance for me. My uncle by marriage is a Seneca Indian and lives with my aunt and their children and grandchildren on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation in Basom, New York. I spent a lot of time with them, both during family visits and living with them on and off throughout my childhood and young adulthood. While I was aware that the people living on the reservation were a minority and lived outside mainstream society, my uncle, his family, and friends were just regular people to me. It wasn’t until years later when I had an interest in Indian culture and realized I had an “in” that I paid more attention to the historical connection within my own family.

In the early 1980s I was a young mother with two small daughters. We spent a lot of time at libraries and one day I checked out Ride the Wind. It’s one of those great reads that grabs you the moment your eyes hit the first page. I’m sure my daughters ate a lot of finger foods during the hours I was immersed in the book, unable to put it down and give them the attention they needed.

Ride the Wind is a work of fiction based on a true story. The main character is Cynthia Ann Parker, who at the age of nine in the year 1832 was captured by the Comanche Indians. Cynthia, along with others kidnapped during the same raid endured unspeakable horrors, but was one of the lucky ones to not only survive but who was adopted into a Comanche family and lived as one of them.

The story chronicles the author’s vision of what life was like for the blond-haired little girl who grew up to become the loving and beloved wife of a Comanche named “Wanderer” and the mother of one of the last Comanche Chiefs, Quanah Parker.

Photograph of Cynthia Ann Parker and her daugher after she was
rescued by whites 25 years after her capture by the Comanches. 

Cynthia Ann and Wanderer's famous son, Quanah Parker

Something about the story touched me to my very core; it was the author’s exquisite writing, her ability to show both sides of the Indian/White experience, the details of life in the natural world, and the story of a little girl who lived a tragic, yet fulfilling life. Once the book was read I was on a mission to find out more of the story. I wrote to the author expressing my gratitude in writing such a wonderful tale. I combed the libraries looking for references to Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker. I contacted the state park in Texas where the story unfolded, and I found more books written about the Native American experience.

My life became that of a wanna-be Indian and my home, my lifestyle, and my spiritual journey reflected that transition. I took my girls to Native American events and museums and continued to expand my knowledge of the culture through books. When a time in my life came to return to college, I chose anthropology as my major.

That one book changed the course of my life. I often wonder how many authors realize the impact they have on their anonymous readers. I was fortunate enough to be able to share my feelings with Lucia St. Clair Robson and our first face-to-face meeting is one of the highlights of my life.

By checking out her website, I saw that Lucia was speaking at a public event in Florida during the time my husband would be in the same city on a golf trip. I invited myself on the trip thinking it was an open event, only to discover it was not. After contacting Lucia via email she graciously invited me as her guest. That was two years ago. I plan on making another trip to see her in the near future.

In her presence and in reading her books, I am inspired. As a writer and historian, I dream of creating a work of art as she has done. I have come to realize that I do not have the discipline to write a novel, much less match the caliber of Lucia’s writing. It’s really enough that I still have the joy of reading her work and that of other talented writers like her.

What book or books have you read that have made a similar impact on your life? What authors have inspired you to become more than you thought you could be? Have you contacted them and have they responded to you? Personally I think it’s important to let writers know that their work is appreciated, not just by book sales but from the voices of their readers. Take it from my experience and tell someone how much their creation means to you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Making Memories In My Kitchen

For the last week I’ve been preparing for the arrival of one of my daughters and her husband who came for a five-day visit before Christmas. During that time I have been planning for their stay by getting the house ready (got the husband to redo the guest room bath) and by baking cookies, bread and this morning, cinnamon rolls.

Oh, and the kitchen will be a veritable restaurant with all the things I’ll be cooking, starting with the pot of soup I made before they arrived.

My life is so busy that I rarely cook and bake anymore and although my time is strapped I couldn’t resist the urge to get in the kitchen. No store bought foods for me or my girl.

The preparation and presentation of food is so ingrained in me that I am happiest when I am making it for others. One of my friends said it is because of the “Italian Momma in you.” While it’s true that I’m half Italian and I have memories of my Aunt Jean (Gioia Fortunato) plying her guests with plates of pasta whenever anyone came to visit her,

That's my late Aunt Jean

it was my Polish grandmother who instilled a connection between food, home, and comfort in me.

My late grandma Oberlander with my baby daughter, Erin

As a child our kitchen and refrigerator was filled with ready-to-eat meals. If you were hungry, at any given time of day you could open the icebox and pull out goulash, beans and cabbage, spareribs and sauerkraut, or any number of a variety of soups. Leftovers were the mainstay of our home. I don’t recall the smells of food preparation as much as I recall that there was never a shortage of something to eat.

I still remind my husband of when I took him home to meet my family for the first time. A visit to my childhood home included uncles and aunts sitting around the dining room table while my grandmother loaded it with pigs in a blanket, sausages and potatoes, and anything else that was in the fridge. My husband is the world’s pickiest eater and it was so funny to watch him pretend to eat so as not to be rude but to see the horror on his face as he took in all the unfamiliar foods, not to mention his tablemates' enthusiastic attack on it all.

Now that my children are all grown up and living elsewhere I have little reason to cook, outside of the one meal a day my husband I share. It’s hard for me to limit the preparation for just one meal, so I always end up with leftovers that generally don’t get eaten. That’s why I have chickens and a pig to help ease my conscience about throwing away perfectly good food. No matter what season it is, however, there is always a pot of soup - oxtail beef and barley, chicken with rice or pasta, or vegetable found in my fridge.

The visiting daughter is a vegetarian so I get creative in what I make to please her, but continue to serve some meat-based meals for the rest of us. I have beans soaking for burritos, a meat-free sauce planned, a turkey thawing, and will lay out the cookies I made on platters for ready consumption.

I am in heaven!

The memories my grandmother has left me I hope to carry on with my own daughters and grandchildren. If nothing else, I hope the smells emitting from my kitchen over these next few days instill in Erin and her husband a memory she will carry with her long after I am gone, too.

A cherished note from my girl

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Static Cling to Me

“Damn You!”

Those are the words I shouted this morning as I came in from outside and brushed against the metal door leading into my kitchen. Damn the makers of non-wood doors, people who sell them and husbands who buy them in the name of saving a buck!

If you happened to read a previous post of mine, Words I Like and Don’t, you know I said I rarely curse with swear words and that only a couple of things set me in the mood to do so. I need to add to that list because I forgot the one thing that changes me from an always calm, serene, and clean mouthed person (I hear “Yeah! Sure!” from the Peanut Gallery) to a foul-mouthed trucker with murder in her eyes – static electricity. If I thought garden hoses and closet hangers were invented to annoy me, static electricity is the Big Man Upstairs’s way of finding humor at my expense. I can just see Him looking down on me as He watches with amusement how well he’s trained me like a Pavlovian dog.

Living in the desert, where the air is dry and humidity is practically nil, it’s a breeding ground for static electricity and I believe I am the perfect conduit for generating it. I don’t see others, mainly my own husband, conducting the same OCD (that’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) rituals that I do in order to go about the day. He is oblivious not only to the amount of static in our house and the world outside, or it doesn’t affect him the same way it does me. I have to be vigilant at all times lest I receive a shock that knocks me off of my feet.

You think I exaggerate? That one door in my home isn’t the only culprit. There’s also the space heaters, refrigerator, washing machine, and doorknobs. Getting the mail from our communal mailbox requires me to get out of my car clinging to the metal door, but just the few short steps to the box is enough to generate electricity. Key in hand I go for the box lock and once the two metals touch, a spark shoots out.

Venturing away from home, there are more dangers awaiting me, such as shopping carts and the worst store in town (which also happens to be my favorite for shopping) - Costco. The warehouse environment and metal d├ęcor found everywhere from the meat, cheese and milk cases to the conveyor belt at the checkout stand lay in wait for me to reach out and touch them. Sparks fly, I swear and the people around me look on with pity. If you see me in Costco you’ll witness the OCD rituals of hip, arm, hand movements in order to lessen the impact, but it’s usually to no avail as I am traumatized nonetheless by the fear of a shock.

Last night while shopping in Costco I witnessed a woman conducting familiar hand movements before reaching to open the milk case. When she received a static charge I saw the pained expression on her face and felt a bond with her.

I live in fear every time I fill my car with gas. Did you ever see that news report of the woman whose hair went up in flames from a static electricity charge when she touched the gas tank door?

Perhaps I’ve taken this too far, allowing myself to make more of the matter than is necessary. I am a believer in the power of thoughts and that if you think negatively you bring negative to your life. To exemplify this I cite the time that I needed a medical test done to see if I suffered nerve damage from a car accident. What do you think the test entailed? My worst nightmare, that’s what - electric shocks up and down my arms to gauge my nerve responses. I broke out in a cold sweat and reverted to the breathing method taught to me in anticipation of giving birth. Me and static electricity seem destined to interact.

It’s kind of hard to keep a positive outlook when a simple movement results in a painful shock with sound effects such as a loud crack!

It’s called conditioning, something I learned during my time as an animal trainer. So forgive me if I expect to be shocked and exhibit outlandish physical antics to try and prevent the occurrence.

And if you don’t see me for a while, come over to my house and check on me. I may be stuck inside.  I may have become an agoraphobic because I’m afraid to cross the threshold asI’m sure the door is out to get me.