Sunday, November 2, 2014

My Trip to the South

Wait. Another post in less than two months?? I know, I know. I wait forever to post something, and then they’re back-to-back. Well, that’s how my mind works. As my friend Ashley ( once wrote, “I write blogs in my head all the time.” I knew exactly what she meant, because so do I. Some of them don’t make it to the posting stage; some of them I decide I don’t want to do or I’m not ready to do; and a lot of them percolate in my head until I’m ready to write them for real. (Side note for the younger crowd: “Percolate” is how your grandparents made coffee before our generation thought we were something special with automatic drip.)

I do have some more things to say. I just got back from my annual trip to the National Recreation & Park Association conference with the usual side trip afterward. As you may recall, last year on my way to said conference in Houston, I had to jump out of a smoke-filled plane after a very scary emergency landing. As pleased as I am that that experience inspired me to start this blog, I’m even more pleased to report that nothing eventful happened during any of my four flights this year, and believe me, no one appreciated that more than I.

Of course, it couldn’t be completely problem-free. It did involve Andee and traveling, after all. With a 15-minute delay on my first flight and a very tight connection in Detroit, with gates on opposite ends of the airport, of course, I had to do some serious hustling to make the connection. When I got there, I was huffing and puffing with rubberband legs. But as always, I found the silver linings: (1) I made the flight; and (2) I got my booty back to the gym.

To really rub it in, the next evening I was chatting with two scholarship winners, and they were discussing various marathons they had run – not bragging, just discussing it like everyone runs marathons. Thinking back to my only recent run in any number of years (see above paragraph), I realized I had nothing to offer the conversation, so I excused myself and went to get food.

This year, the conference was in Charlotte, North Carolina. What a great city! I had not been there before, and I didn’t know what to expect, but I learned it was full of charm and lovely people. The owners of the condo I rented left me a tray of food, a stocked bar, soft music playing and a note asking me to text them when I got there to let them know I arrived safely. I have rented many condos, and most of them have been quite nice with very nice owners, but this welcome almost made me cry. And I learned pretty quickly that people in Charlotte are just that nice. While I was there, the Hornets invited 17,000 middle school students to watch them play a game one day so they could talk to them about bullying. How cool is that? Because I was working, I didn’t get a chance to play very much, but I do plan to go back to this lovely city, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a nice place to visit.

My side trip this year was to Charleston, South Carolina because I had always heard it was a beautiful place to visit and there was a beach about 10 minutes away from it. I learned a lot while I was there. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union; Charleston is the home of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired; and Charleston was also a major port for slavery. There was certainly a lot of history, and I spent two days touring the sites. I visited the Magnolia Plantation, where I listened to a presentation by Joseph McGill, who is a descendant of slaves. Sadly, I learned more from him in one hour than I ever learned in any history class. All I remember was memorizing dates and battles and a blur of details that don’t really matter. We never learned about the people.

The slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation have been restored, and I was able to visit them. I learned that Mr. McGill also started The Slave Dwelling Project (, with the goal of restoring all the slave dwellings that still exist. There is a wonderful article about this in the October 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, where he was quoted as saying, “Americans tend to focus on the ‘big house,’ the mansion and gardens, and neglect the buildings out back. If we lose slave dwellings, it’s that much easier to forget the slaves themselves.”

I’ve sort of gone off on a tangent here, but I was totally absorbed in everything this man had to say. It was a strange thing to be in actual places where slavery existed, and I often found it difficult as I imagined what it must have been like. I tried to be as objective as possible, but that was difficult as well. How could people fight for their way of life when their way of life involved owning and mistreating other human beings? Would I have felt differently if I lived in that time and was raised in the South? Would I have been one of the people who stood up for doing the right thing? I’d like to think I would have since bullies really make me angry, but would I have been a different person if I’d been raised in a different time?

The next day I took a tour of historic sites in the city of Charleston. A lot of it was very interesting, and again, there was a great amount of hospitality even from random strangers. Tourism is a major industry for them, and they do it very, very well. As the tour was wrapping up, though, we passed an official looking building. Frankly, I don’t remember what the guide said about it except that she pointed to some stairs and said that was where most of the slaves were sold. Then the tour went on, and soon she was asking if people wanted to be dropped off at the downtown market.

I could not shake the picture of those stairs, and the people who once stood on them, and the children being torn away from their parents, and the human beings who were beaten and in chains and shoved around and forced to give up every shred of dignity they might have once had. Who wants to be dropped off at the market?? No one else seemed to be moved or saddened by this at all.

Even though I was renting a place on a nearby beach, I decided that afternoon that I was ready for my visit to end. The knot in my stomach would not go away. Then the next day I was souvenir shopping across the street from my condo, and I saw this:

This was being sold in 2014. I couldn’t even believe things like this were still being produced, let alone being sold. But there they were.

Unfortunately, the stairs and that disgusting photo are two of the last images of my trip, and they seem to be burned into my brain. Maybe that’s good. Maybe I need to remember those two things. It seems we still have work to do.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


There was a time when I really did know a lot about little children. I was a certified special ed teacher. I graduated with a minor in early childhood education. I even graduated with honors, thank you very much. I really knew a lot.

And then I actually had children.

I have long felt the need to apologize for my (fortunately unspoken) judgmental thoughts of the fellow teacher with three small boys who struggled daily just to get to work on time. I do remember thinking if she’d only start earlier, she wouldn’t have so much trouble. Ok, fine…..cue the laughter. I’ve laughed about that so many times since then. Every time I had one of those mornings, which was basically every day, I thought of her. And I still feel the need to apologize even though she didn’t know what I was thinking. I knew it. That was enough.

And then, after we had Leah, I firmly believed if I gave her a truck, she would play with trucks. I was convinced girls were girlie girls because they were raised that way. So I tried to be objective in what I exposed my daughter to, trucks and dirt, no bows and frilly things (well, not too much), and I treated her in a way I thought was neutral, and we were on our way.

And then we had Lindsay.

I was so pleased when we had a second girl for many reasons, but a big reason was because we wouldn’t need to buy new clothes. All the clothes we had saved from when Leah was a baby could be re-used for this second little one. Hah! Au contraire! Second child had a mind of her own. We’re talking before she could walk and talk! She liked pretty, and dressy, and make-up, and wigs, and changing clothes ten times a day, and God help us all if her socks didn’t line up right. Socks. I am not kidding.

But I still really believed that children would be normal, regular people if that’s what we expected of them. Girls wouldn’t be girlie, and boys wouldn’t be “boys.”

And then I met Matthew.

And all my thoughts about the two genders not being all that different went right out the window. So I now realize that all the brilliance I thought I had all those years ago didn’t exist at all. It turns out I knew very little.

Let me clarify that. I knew little about girls, but I knew even less about boys. Boys are different. Everything I ever believed has been proven wrong by the little boy who stole my heart more than three years ago.

And there’s so much I don’t understand!

Why would you build a tower for the sole purpose of knocking it down? Lego towers. Sand castles. Beautiful accomplishments. Why? Recently, I was discussing this with some of the guys I used to work with, and they acted like I was the only one who didn’t know this concept. One said, “Well, yeah! The bigger the tower, the harder it crashes! That’s why you build it!”

And I just shook my head in wonder while they all laughed.

And why is beating on someone else (in fun, of course)…….well, fun? Leah, mother of Matthew, has much wisdom on the subject of boys now. She learned fast because she had to, and sadly, I was not able to help much.

Here’s a tidbit:
“The bigger the crash, the louder the laughter.” She used to text about how she would cringe after hearing a huge thud, only to hear it followed immediately by peals of laughter. Now she just says, “Oh, the boys are playing,” and by boys, of course, she means Matt and his daddy.

And everything is louder, messier, dirtier, rougher, stinkier. All of those “ers” that I always thought were stereotypes……..are not stereotypes at all!

Of course, I get that not every girl is the same, and not every boy is like all the others, but I can only speak from my experience, and well, my experience has been eye opening.

And here’s the thing. My girls were not prim and proper little darlings who sat quietly sipping their tea. When they weren’t doing chin-ups in one of our doorways, they were running down the hallway practicing their vaults on our couch arm (side note: not a good strategy for the life of the couch). They both played softball and believed sweat and dirt and scars were essential parts of the game. They both have appreciated the fine art of belching and farting and actually come from a long line of champions in that arena (on both sides).

So Leah is a really good mom for boys because she’s pretty tough and often just rolls her eyes at the antics and seems to be immune to most of the “ers.” And she’s funny, and she’s kind, and she’s smart, so she’s an incredible role model also. Matt has been taught manners and how to be kind and how to think through problems, and she is his safe place to fall. Having that safe place to fall allows him to not be afraid of the world, which, in my opinion, is one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child. I have to pay credit to his father, Scott, also. This is not just the Leah show…..not at all. But this post is a lot about Leah because Scott already knew what it was like to be a boy. Leah had to learn……and learn fast.

And while I’m mentioning people who have been influences in Matt’s life, I have to mention his babysitter, Ms. Soup. (Some people call her Sue.) She has three boys, who are all older than Matt. They’re all teenagers, or just about. So basically, Matt has three big brothers who play with him, throw him around, laugh with him and are kind to him. And speaking of not being intimidated, that would be Ms. Soup. She’s raised three of these darlings, and she’s really, really good at it.

Ok, let’s talk about the common thing that belongs to most of the people Matt idolizes. I don’t want to get graphic, but they all have a certain body part. When Leah’s family and I visited my partner in crime, Tonya, and her husband and two stepsons, Matt developed a huge man crush. Tonya’s husband, Mr. Peege (another story for another post), was like the pied piper. Matt thought he was the coolest thing ever. EVER. And his boys were right up there also. So one day quite a while after our trip, I was telling Leah something about Tonya; and Matt, who appeared to be engrossed in something on his iPad, suddenly looked up and said, “Tonya?? Tonya who lives at Mr. Peege’s house with the two boys??” I started to say to him that Tonya actually owned the house also, and Leah stopped me. “Mom, don’t bother. She doesn’t have a penis.”

The Great Robby
And then there’s Uncle Robby, Lindsay’s partner in life. Robby (fanfare, marching band, it’s ROBBYYYY!!!). No lie. When Lindsay walks in to greet her favorite little guy, the first thing he says after he hugs her, is “Did you bring Uncle Robby?” So Lindsay has learned about who matters the most also. Robby is THE MAN. Actually, the best thing for all of us is having Robby there because Matt could care less if any of us exist. When Leah, Matt and I went to Baltimore to visit Lindsay, the girls and I actually got to visit because Matt just wanted to hang with Robby. I kind of felt like I should pay Robby for entertaining Matt all weekend. He IS pretty awesome. Leah has even told him that if he and Lindsay break up, they’re going to have to negotiate some visitation rights for Matt. She’s serious.

Matt flying into his daddy's arms
So I guess this also tells you how Matt’s daddy and the two grandpas rank. Yes, those of us without the body part just have to accept it. It’s always a joy for Leah when she puts Matt in time out for whatever well-deserved reason it is at the time, and he cries for his daddy. Those are some of her favorite moments. And the thing is, it’s not like Scott would tolerate whatever inappropriate behavior it happens to be at the moment. But the kid cries for his daddy anyway, which makes for very special times for his mama.

Papa Jay
Papa Dave
And Papa Dave and Papa Jay can do no wrong. When Matt knows he’s going to see one of them, he literally cannot sit still because he is so excited. I know that if Dave and I happen to be with Matt at the same time, I’m just going to have to wait for my time, because Papas always come first. It is what it is. His Gammy and I have learned to accept it.

So, to sum up, this is what I know. Girls – I’d say I’m pretty knowledgeable now. Boys – not so much. But I do know this. All kids need loving and snuggling, and that’s what I do really well.

Recently, Scott had to do a lot of traveling for work, so Dave and I did some tag-teaming to help a very pregnant Leah (oh yes, did I mention another boy will be arriving shortly?). During one trip, Dave took the first couple of days, and then I went up to relieve him. When I got there, Matt and Dave were away, which was ok, because I knew I’d have Matt all to myself the next day. At most I expected a wave and a “Hi, Gaya” while Dave was there anyway. So hours later, when they got back to the house, suddenly I heard the “pitter patter” of a little boy running into the house, and as I stood up, Matt yelled “GAYAAAAAA!” and threw himself into my arms. He then gave me the quick recap of his day with Papa and threw himself into my arms again. And off he ran to finish his time with Papa.

And life was good. We all have our place in his life, and I am very happy with mine.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Alzheimer's: The Journey Continues

I’m sitting across the table from my mama as a storm rumbles outside her window. When I was a child, she was the one always there to comfort me during thunderstorms. I hated them. I’m still not a fan, but I no longer cower in the bathroom (most of the time) as I used to do. The interesting thing is my mom is a little jumpy this time around and keeps asking me if I’m going to stay tonight so she doesn’t have to be alone in the storm. I remind her I am staying, but I also reassure her that the storm will end soon, that it’s not a biggie as storms go.

The roles are reversed now, and I’m helping her through this part of her life, just as she helped me all those years ago. When we go to the doctor, I ask the questions. I discuss whether a treatment is necessary. I am her advocate and make decisions on her behalf. When I feel it’s a decision that needs more input, I talk with my sister. Our mom is not capable of making those decisions anymore, so we do what is best for her.

Alzheimer’s is a journey. Sometimes it’s a long, heartbreaking process for families. Sometimes it goes relatively quickly. Every journey is unique, fortunately and unfortunately. I am occasionally active on the caregiver message boards, and some of what I read is terribly difficult. A 20-year-old college student is a full-time caregiver for her grandma. A 26-year-old is dealing with her 53-year-old mother’s early onset disease. An elderly man visits his beloved wife nearly every day even though she hasn’t known him for years. Many people are alone, and the message boards are their link to the outside world.

Comparatively speaking, my sister and I feel lucky. First of all, we have each other, which in many families, just doesn’t happen. She handles all the financial and legal issues, and I deal with all the health and caregiving issues. I am completely grateful for her skills, and she is equally grateful for mine. We realized early on, back when we started this journey with our father, that we both had an appreciation for the other’s abilities. After reading an e-mail I wrote to someone who could have been difficult, she said, “Your appreciation to them certainly helped in getting a kind response. I’m so task oriented I sometimes forget that. I’m leaving all outside communications to you. ”

If you know my sister, you will appreciate the humor in that. “Task oriented” is an understatement. I describe her as “zero to sixty” because the woman can get things done! And I now know the best thing I can do is to get out of the way. So, sometimes my approach is called for, and I also get great pleasure in turning an issue over to her, especially when it’s something like dealing with the many people who call our mom’s house because they try to prey on vulnerable seniors. Those are the best. “Let me refer you to my sister,” I like to say as I try not to chuckle.

In all seriousness, we do feel lucky. I previously wrote about our mom still having her beautiful personality even though her memory is failing more and more all the time. She is content in her day-to-day world, she’s happy with the life she’s had, and she’s ready (but not necessarily eager) for when the time comes to go be with our father. She’s ok with it. As she says, “he always led the way.”

Perhaps we feel lucky because we choose to approach life this way. We are both problem solvers, so when we face a hurdle, we determine how best to get past it. Sometimes we walk quietly around it. Sometimes we need to crash right through it. And sometimes we ignore it and hope it goes away (and sometimes, blessedly, it does).

I just went back to read e-mails from three years ago, when we had to step in to stop our father from driving – the real beginning of our Alzheimer’s journey. The pain in those e-mails is clear, and I find myself taking deep breaths again as I read them. (Side note – Lamaze classes didn’t help me much in childbirth, but that deep breathing thing sure has been there for me countless other times!)

We have come so far since that horrible day. We know about Alzheimer’s stages and behaviors; we know about caregiving services (Home Instead is our lifeline) and other living options if needed; we know things that work well and we’ve learned a lot about things that don’t work well; and we know about support and the need to support each other. Sometimes the only thing we know is that we will put our heads together and solve whatever problem comes our way. We’ve also learned we’re both pretty good at it.

This has been on my mind lately because of a post my sister wrote on her blog Layers of the Onion: The Private Face. As she said, we both talked a lot about how much to say publicly, and I was the first to post something about our double dose of Alzheimer’s; but she has since written some really powerful things, and she has been even more open about some difficult parts of our past. So I’m now admiring her. It’s good to be part of a team.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Reunion

My 40th high school reunion was this past weekend. I find myself, days later, still thinking about it. It’s a strange thing, going back in time for a night. As I’ve said before, all the bad feelings about high school went away a long time ago. It was fun to see people I knew in another lifetime. Some looked exactly the same…….seriously, exactly the same! How did they not age at least a few years or put on just a few pounds?? Most of us looked somewhat the same. Fortunately, we had nametags, and there was a lot of looking at someone’s nametag as we said hello.

Many things surprised me:
People I didn’t expect to remember me remembered me. These were not the grade school friends I grew up with. They were people I didn’t know until high school, and I did not know them well. I really thought I had done a pretty good job of blending in with the lockers, but apparently I didn’t.

Several people complimented me on my blog. I knew from their comments about various subjects that they had actually read it. That was nice. Yes, I’m writing it for myself, but I do like to hear when someone has actually read it, and I really appreciate it when they can relate to it in some way.

Someone said she always thought I was so cute. Whaaat??

This one cracked me up. Someone said, “Let me see if my recollection about Rolling Acres (my grade school) is correct. Jeanne was the smartest kid, and you were the second smartest.” Yep, I’m laughing again as I write this. Let’s just say they got the Jeanne part right!

Speaking of Jeanne, we spent a long time reminiscing about our years being best friends in grade school & junior high. We went different directions in high school – she developed into an even more well-rounded, successful student, and I just developed a bad attitude. But back in the day of slumber parties and beloved teachers and occasionally getting in trouble but not really, we had a lot of good memories, and I had a great time strolling down that path with her.

Several people said they wished they had known me better in high school. To that, I say thank you, but no, you really don’t. I was kind of an ass.

I have to say, a few hours before the reunion, as I was getting ready to drive to Peoria, a little bit of anxiety reared its ugly head. I won’t say it was on the level of a panic attack (I once knew them well, a post for another day), but I was really regretting my decision to go. I sent a picture of what I was wearing to my girls for a quick opinion. They reinforced my outfit selection and wondered why I was asking. I sent back, “I don’t know! I feel like I’m going back to high school!”

As I drove to Peoria, I continued to question why I was doing this. When I got there, I saw a number of people walking in, and I didn’t recognize any of them. I took a deep breath, and I walked in, and then it was all good. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had felt that way, and I think we all were glad we went.

We reminisced a bit about life in the 70s. I recalled how my children once said, “Mom, how come so many stories about when you were young start with, ‘Ok, it was the 70s’?“ We laughed at that and we all understood why. We remembered parents who purchased kegs for our graduation parties, which seemed perfectly fine at the time. There were other parents who knew teenagers were smoking pot in their houses. Then we talked about how, as parents, we would never have even thought about doing that! I mean never! And that, girls, is why every story had to start with “Ok, it was the 70s.”

Then there were other alums who said, “I must have gone to a totally different high school, because I didn’t know about any of that!” That was funny, too, because they were serious.

I knew a number of grade schools had fed into our high school, but I had forgotten just how many. I think it was at least 10 schools. So I remember now how intimidating high school was at first. My kids all went to new schools at various grade levels, but they were with all the same kids. They weren’t all thrown together as we were.

Probably for the same reason, it seemed that a lot of people at the reunion gravitated to their grade school pals. Those were the people we really knew well. We knew each other’s houses. We knew each other’s parents. Most of us really had grown up together, and I did have fond memories of those days.

And parents were discussed – if they were still living, how their health was, which of us were caregivers. Most everyone had lost at least one parent, and many of us were now caregivers. Most of us had grandchildren or at least granddogs or grandkitties. A few had young children still, and we all had great sympathy for them as we discussed the joy of being grandparents and having so much fun and then being able to send those beautiful little ones back to their parents.

There were a lot of people who couldn’t be there, some because of conflicts, some because they probably didn’t want to be, some because they couldn’t be found, and very sadly, many because they had passed away. They were all missed.

Someone posted that she wished it could be an annual thing. And I have to say, Ms. Why-Am-I-Doing-This would agree with that, even if it’s a casual meeting at a bar kind of thing so that no one has to work so hard in planning it.

The fact is, no matter what kind of memories you have, when you have a shared history, you do have a forever connection. And it turns out, I’m really glad about that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Every Mother’s Day, when so many people on Facebook post pictures and wish their mothers a happy day, I hurt for the children of mothers who died way too young. I’m sure it’s because of one child and one mother in particular. My beautiful young friend, Rachel, lost her mama when no child should lose a parent. I lost one of my dearest friends at the same time, when her mom, my friend, Mindy, was taken from us. Rachel was only 12 years old, and her brother, Brian, was 10, I think. There’s no way to put a positive spin on this. It sucked then. It does now. It always will.

Having said that, however, I have to say that when I think about Mindy, which I truly do every day, I don’t feel sadness. I don’t feel pain anymore. I have SO many wonderful memories that most of the time I’m smiling, and sometimes there’s even a snort-laugh. The girl was a riot.

Here’s the bad part of the story. Let’s just get it out of the way. When Mindy was 36 years old, she started feeling extremely tired, very sick and generally awful. She had all kinds of tests leading up to that horrible day when I heard the worst three words I have ever heard in my life, “I have leukemia.”

She didn’t just have leukemia. She had the worst, most aggressive form of it. The next 13 months were awful for her, and we lost her shortly after her 37th birthday in 2001. It blows me away that it was so long ago. I can’t believe it’s been 13 years because I could swear she was just here. Maybe it’s because she still is such a huge part of my life.

A number of years after she died, I made a major decision and then acted on it. My first thought after all those years was that I had to tell Mindy. After all that time, she was the first person I wanted to call. You don’t need to worry about me. I knew she was gone. But she was the first one I wanted to tell.

Ok, here’s some more sadness, but I’m going to tell it anyway, because it was also very meaningful to me. On what was to be her last night with us, I got up to her hospital room, hoping against hope that what I had heard wasn’t true. I walked into the room to see her family sitting around her bed, and I got a horrible kick in the gut when I realized I had gotten the correct information.

But in the middle of all that sadness, a lovely thing happened. All the things that you would expect to go through your head were going through mine… could this really be happening, how could we all go on without her, how could I be there for Rachel, what would the kids do without her, etc., etc. Rachel was sitting next to the bed and holding her mama’s hand. When she saw me, she reached out with her other hand, and I took it in mine. The symbolism of that moment had a powerful effect on me, as I realized I would always be connected to Mindy through Rachel. If ever there was a sign, that was mine. I knew then that as hard as it would be, we would be ok.

Not long before that night, I was beginning to accept that the worst might be happening. and it dawned on me that if Mindy’s ex-husband, Peter, was raising the kids, I might not be a part of their lives anymore. He had no obligation to me whatsoever. So after a fair amount of fretting over this, I toughened myself up; I took many, many deep breaths; and I called him. He was always just Mindy’s ex to me, and we weren’t friends, although I wouldn’t say we were enemies. He was just always her ex, and she was always my friend. So I didn’t know what to expect or how the conversation would go. I knew I needed to talk to him, and that’s about as far as I had thought it through at the moment.

It turned out we had a very long, serious and sometimes emotional heart-to-heart. We talked about the past, and we agreed we needed to move forward for the sake of the kids. I told him I wanted him to know that no matter what he might think, I would always be 100% supportive of him, and I meant it.

I won’t go into the rest of what we said, but when we hung up, I’d say we were friends, or if anything, we were a team, with both of us focused on what would be best for the kids. He said something that really touched me. “I know,” he said, “that every bit of compassion and kindness my children have is totally because of Mindy.”

And again, I knew we’d be ok. And we were.

Shortly after Mindy died, I had a dream about her. I don’t remember what it was about, except that we were so happy to see each other, and we gave each other a huge, wonderful hug. When I woke up, I was happy, and then I remembered why. I can’t describe the feeling that washed over me except to say it was a peace I don’t think I’d ever known. And you can believe whatever you want, but I know absolutely without a doubt that Mindy was telling me she was ok.

I really intended for this not to be sad or emotional, and I’m afraid I haven’t done a great job of that. So, I’m switching gears to tell you what a joy she was. Everyone who had ever met her loved her. It was that simple. You couldn’t help it. She had this amazing ability to laugh at herself. She was a beautiful, kind, talented, smart, lovely person, but she never took herself too seriously. She had an uncanny ability to be our own Lucy Ricardo. She spilled coffee everywhere and on everything, she often tripped over nothing, and she had these natural facial expressions that could make you double over laughing in an instant. At one of our fall festivals at the forest preserve, she dressed up as a jack-o-lantern and handed out candy. I’m not at all sure how this came about, but there she was, in pouring rain, handing out candy with this “why the hell am I doing this” expression, and everyone loved her.

Another thing that you just had to love about her…..she always meant to do things but never quite got around to them. Here’s a classic. The night before her wedding to Tom, she announced that she still needed to buy shoes. She was getting married HOURS later, and she hadn’t gotten around to buying shoes! So, on her wedding day, we were doing what all brides do. We were at the mall, trying to find some shoes to go with her gown. Only Mindy. When we told the salesperson she needed shoes for her wedding, the woman got very excited and asked when she was getting married. Mindy looked at her watch and said, “Uhhh, in about four hours.”

One of her finest moments was the night she was introduced to Father [can’t remember his name, so we’ll say] Joe at a fancy reception with lots of people around, and because they had another friend they called “Father,” she went along with what she thought was a joke and said, “Well, hello! I’m Mother Teresa!” Not long after that someone said, “Hey, Father Joe! How are things going at St. Matthew?”

It was hard to top that, but there was also the night we met Scott Studwell, who we learned after the fact was a former Illini football star who went on to play for the Vikings and was Pro All American for several years. Yeah, it was brutal. I think the words “So how long did it take you to come up with THAT name?” and “I bet you looked really cute with those horns on your head” were spoken. After I went home and told Dave, who informed me that he was, in fact, a huge football star, I called Mindy, and she picked up the phone groaning, “I know! My brother just told me the same thing!” [Side note: Scott Studwell was a very classy guy who thought the whole thing was hilarious.]

I could go on and on. I really could. And that doesn’t even count all the stories I can’t repeat here. She truly did brighten the world. There’s even a garden at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve in Mahomet that is dedicated to her, and the plaque reads:

Mindy Harrington Memorial Garden:
a symbol of the beauty she brought to the world

I’ve wanted to write about Mindy for a long time because she was so amazing and I was so lucky to be her friend. I’m also writing about her because knowing her changed me. Losing her broke me for a while, but it made me stronger in the end. My kids noticed I stopped sweating the small stuff. I realized that also. Since this happened, I’ve learned when I feel overwhelmed to compare what seems so awful at the moment to the day of the three horrible words. It’s amazing when I do that, how much doesn’t really matter, so I can save my strength for the really bad things, and let the others go. Losing her seemed to put everything into perspective for me, and my priorities were made right. I felt I owed it to her to live a better life.

And living my life, loving my people and doing what I can in my own small way to make the world better are top of the list. Laughing is right up there also, along with experiencing pure joy and appreciating every day I’m given.

Of course, you can’t see this, but I just started smiling as I reread that last paragraph. I realized I just described Mindy. I knew I carried her with me, but I didn’t realize until now just how much. What a great thing this is. Without really noticing, I managed to keep with me all the best things about her. And I have to say I’m pretty talented on the coffee spilling too!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Memories and Class Reunions

My 40th high school class reunion is coming up this summer. It’s definitely bringing back a lot of memories. I do have some good memories of high school, but mostly, I was miserable. It didn’t help that my childhood best friends moved away, but a lot of the bad was because I had a lot of mean teachers. I’m talking seriously mean teachers! I was belittled. I was embarrassed. I was yelled at. I was sexually harassed. I was told to shut up. And I wasn’t even a bad kid (although you probably won’t be surprised to hear I developed quite an attitude by the time I graduated).

Now, having said that, I have to say there were a few exceptionally kind adults who were also great influences in my life. (Mr. Christiansen and Ms. Boleman were lifesavers.) But I went to a school of 2,000 kids, so having had only a few great teachers is really pretty sad. I have to assume it’s better now. I hope it’s better now.

Back in the day, though, it was really tough for a girl who didn’t feel very good about herself. Looking back, I have to think “shame on them” for playing favorites, for putting other kids down, for not caring more, for not noticing there were real people inside some of those very confused teenagers.

But enough about me! This is about my 40-year reunion coming up this summer. 

I remember when I graduated, I thought that would be the last time I would ever have anything to do with anyone or anything related to my high school. And I did a good job of that for a long time. When my 10-year reunion came around, although I was curious to know what had become of some of my peers, the hurt was still too great, and I had no desire to return.

After 20 years, though, a lot of the bad feelings had numbed, and there were people I wanted to see, particularly those from my old neighborhood. So I went. And to my surprise, I had a really good time. Life had done an amazing job of leveling the playing field. I found that many of the stars of high school were just normal people. Some hadn’t grown at all in 20 years, and some had peaked in high school and gone downhill from there. The other thing I found was that a lot of the regular, everyday kids had become very accomplished adults. I enjoyed seeing that, perhaps more than anything else.

And I found the hurt had lessened considerably. I did not forget those bad times, but I didn’t feel the feelings that used to go along with them. And I was very happy that I went.

At 30 years, my life was unsettled, and I didn’t want to deal with telling my story when I didn’t know how that chapter would end. So I didn’t go.

Now we’re at 40. It still is a bit mind-boggling, the number 40. But there we are.

Had it not been for FaceBook, I probably wouldn’t care much about attending. But I’ve reconnected with a lot of people, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them. Some I didn’t really know. Some I did know, but I know them better now, and I really like the people they’ve become. Some I always thought I wanted to know, but it turns out, the more I got to know them online, the more I decided I really didn’t want to know them at all.

But, as I said, the field is definitely more even now. I’m sure we’ve all made bad choices; we’ve all had some great things happen; we’ve all faced serious loss; many of us seem to be happy; and sadly, a larger number than I ever would have imagined are no longer living. 

Our class president died not long ago from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I didn’t know him well, but he was a good man who suffered a tragic fate, although it appeared he did have a happy life.

Recently, a classmate posted a beautiful picture of her parents and noted it was the 15th anniversary of their dying in a plane crash, or as she so eloquently said, it was the day they “fell out of the sky.” Her dad was my orthodontist, and I really liked him. I was stunned to learn about the plane crash, and I felt terrible. I didn’t know that horrible, life-altering event had happened to her. She was always, in my mind, the beautiful classmate who had it all. 

Also because of Facebook, I met up with a friend I really didn’t know well in high school. She told me she had more than 25 years of sobriety. There was a lot of drinking in the high school years (so I’ve heard), but she was never someone I saw in those circles. I had no idea she would have been one who struggled with alcohol, and I was so proud to know her after hearing about her journey of climbing back up.

Mostly, I find I’m drawn to the “normal” people. They live relatively normal lives, and are very comfortable and secure in who they are. They don’t sweat the small stuff and are generally happy. They have political and religious beliefs, but they don’t feel the need to put them online all the time. They’re the ones who post interesting pictures of their travels or their families, or they post funny comments about their lives. They’re honest about who they are, and they approach life with a gratitude and joy that are infectious.

All of us from the Class of ’74 have different lives now, but we all have a bit of shared history. So we’ll see. It’s in mid-July, and I’m sure I’ll have a few things to say about it. 

In the words of our controversial (seriously!) class motto, “Let the good times roll.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pure Joy

I experienced pure joy not long ago. I was in Baltimore with both my girls and my beautiful grandson. We went to the children’s museum. We went to the train museum. We went for ice cream. We walked around the city. We ate a lot. We laughed a lot. It was pure joy.

Let me back up a little bit to tell you why that’s so important to me. You know how you watch a tv show, or a friend says something, or maybe you read something, and you have that thing that stays with you for whatever reason? Well, this was one of those times. I was watching Oprah a few years ago, and she was talking about how she had really been struggling, and how she had been very unhappy. She had just produced Beloved, which didn’t do well, and I don’t remember what all was going on, but someone important in her life had asked her when the last time was that she had experienced pure joy. And she couldn’t remember. Oprah could not remember experiencing pure joy. For some reason, that hit me, and I thought it was so terribly sad.

So I thought about my own life, and right away, I was able to remember a time when I had experienced pure joy. It was in New York City with our high school drama club. Leah and I were able to tag along with Lindsay on that trip. The whole week was incredible, but at the risk of sounding like a travelogue, I will just say my dream had always been to see a Broadway musical. And there I was, on Broadway, watching Hairspray, with both girls. The dream was just to see a musical. I never expected the moment would include a Tony-winning hit show with both girls! I remember sitting in the theater so caught up in the incredible performances and then realizing how amazing it was that both girls were there with me. That was the moment. It was pure joy.

I can sit here now and think of other moments. One involved my friends, Jan and Tonya, whom I’ve mentioned before. Of course, we were on a beach. We were trying to take a selfie (before they were called selfies) in the sunset, and let’s just say it wasn’t going well. We couldn’t get the camera focused right, we couldn’t all get in the picture just right, and then one of us (possibly me) kicked over someone else’s drink, and I know it doesn’t sound funny in the re-telling, but the point of this really bad story is we started laughing, and we couldn’t stop laughing. We were laughing so hard we were holding each other up, and then we were crying, because we were so happy to be together again, and we just hugged and laughed and cried, and yes, it was pure joy. We realized not long after that we were also the entertainment for a lot of the people sitting around us. My point, though, is it was pure joy.

I remember watching Oprah that day and really feeling for her. I thought, “She’s Oprah, and she couldn't remember feeling pure joy?” How sad was that? And I remember thinking I don’t ever want my life to get to that point, and I decided that day that I wouldn’t let my life get to that point.

So back to pure joy. Here’s the interesting thing. All of my moments involve people. Not things. Just people. All the things that bring me joy are not things at all. They’re moments with the people who matter to me.

At one point on my recent Baltimore weekend, I woke up during the night. I looked across the room, and in the shadows, I saw the people who matter the most to me, all together under the same roof, sleeping peacefully. And I smiled with gratitude, and I said a little thank you before I closed my eyes again. Pure joy.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why I Haven't Written About My Grandson

A number of people have asked me why I haven’t written about the love of my life, my grandson, Matthew. That is a good question. He is undeniably the best thing that has ever happened to me. I mean he’s #1 on the “what I give thanks for every day” list. My girls feel the same way, so it’s not like they were demoted. It’s more like he was born and shot right to the top. Whoosh! There he was.

But here’s the thing. I don’t want to be that grandma. You know exactly which one I mean…..the one who thinks she invented life with a grandchild, that no one could possibly experience anything quite the way she has, that her grandchild is exceptional, and everything he does and says is adorable. So I’ve been hesitant to write about him. I mean of course, all that is true, but that’s been my dilemma. I’m trying to be polite.

Seriously, though? Even the kid’s feet are adorable! I am not kidding you. He has the cutest feet I have ever seen. EVER. Well, now that I’ve said that, I don’t think I’ve ever really seen cute feet. I don’t even like feet that much. But this kid has the cutest feet! See what I mean? Who wants to read about a grandma who loves her grandkid’s stinky feet?

And when he snuggles up in my arms….. Oh! It must be what heaven feels like. There is nothing…….nothing…….greater in this world. You know the saying, “my cup runneth over”? I didn’t understand that until I had my girls, and this enormous rush of love would come over me that I had never experienced before. Well, with a grandchild, it’s like a tidal wave. It’s like being a mommy times a million.

But that’s nothing other grandmas haven’t experienced too. I mean who doesn’t love holding their grandkids? Ok, so this one time, when he was maybe nine months old, he fell asleep in my lap while we were rocking. I could have put him down, but yeah, right. I sat and rocked for about an hour while he slept in my arms. It was one of those “nothing can top this” moments. And then he woke up, and he looked around like he didn’t know where he was……and then he looked up and saw me and he smiled at me (cue harps and singing birds). He smiled at me. And I realized I was wrong earlier because THIS was the “nothing can top this” moment. It’s like it’s already fantastic, and then it gets even better.

The tough thing is sometimes his parents get in the way. They think they have to do things like raise him to be a good human being, so they have these rules, which also get in our way, but what are you going to do? Here’s one. They think he should have a decent bedtime, and when he was really little, they would let him cry for about five minutes to see if he could fall asleep on his own before they went to get him. So one night I was in the guest room and I woke up to hear him crying, and I thought well, I’ll go rescue him, and let everyone sleep, so I went tiptoeing across the hall, when I saw this shadow standing there, and as I jumped about a foot in the air, the voice said, “Helloo, Motherr.” Dammit! How in the world did she get there so fast! Well, her story was that she had just put him down, and it had only been two minutes, so I had to cool my jets out in the hall, which of course, I did, because far be it for me to undermine his parents. I am telling you, it was the longest three minutes of my life!

But we manage to work around the mom and the dad most of the time. It’s usually pretty easy because as soon as I mention I’m coming for a visit, they say, “Ooh, great, do you mind if we go out??” I mean, really, could you just throw me a bone and pretend you’re happy to see me? The truth is, though, sometimes we’re so busy playing that we forget they’re even in the house. So I guess we don’t really need them (and their rules).

He calls me Gaya (rhymes with hiya). I’m not sure how this came about. I’m pretty sure he was trying to say Grandma, but I love Gaya, so Gaya it is. His other grandma is Gammie, so we each have our own names that we love. Oh, and she totally agrees that he is the greatest thing ever to come into the world, so I’m not lying.

But again, I know there’s nothing really unique to what we have experienced. So I still have trouble deciding what I can write about him.

Ok, this is kind of funny though. I have always loved trains. I’m not sure why. I just have. I think maybe it’s from growing up in Peoria, and I didn’t really get to see many trains. They were mostly on the outskirts of town I guess. So seeing them and counting the cars was always a cool thing, usually something we did on vacations. Once a few years ago, before Little Man was born, when we were riding the Metra into the city, Leah apologized for the boring ride, and I told her I wasn’t bored at all because I love trains! So my children cooked up this idea for my old age. They would purchase a weekend pass and put me on the train with a note pinned to my coat that said, “Please drop off in Elgin Sunday night.” Aren’t they just so funny?

Anyway, so this adorable grandson comes along, and guess what he loves more than anything?? TRAINS! What are the odds?? We both love trains! And I have to tell you, there is a world full of trains that I never knew existed. Some of the malls have trains now that you can ride (we have the mega-pass). There’s a train museum in Bartlett, Illinois that he and I visited for hours one day. I mean this museum is the size of most living rooms, and between watching the trains go by, doing train puzzles while we waited for the next train, and playing with toy trains, we were kept busy for hours. And then, when we finally pulled ourselves away from that, we walked about a block to the…..I’m not kidding…..Train Restaurant! They deliver your food in train cars! How cool is that?? That was the greatest day!

But getting back to the challenge at hand, I still don’t know how to approach writing about my grandson. I'll keep working on it though.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lessons & inspirations

I have learned a lot over the years, and some of the most powerful lessons I have learned have been outside of a classroom. Many times, I didn’t even realize I was learning a lesson until much later when I reflected back on it.

Shower Rods and Apologies

The lessons started when I was very young. I was blessed to learn about unconditional love and friendship and laughter and respect all in one place, which was the home of my best friends. I’ve mentioned Jackie and Janet before, and I probably will again, because I don’t have many memories of my childhood that don’t involve them, and so very many memories involving them are happy ones.

For reasons I never really knew, but for which I’ll always be grateful, I was treated like a member of their family. I can picture their home as if I were in it yesterday. One particular memory stayed with me always, and it came rushing back to me years later when I had to discipline my own girls.

Jackie and Janet and I were horsing around in the bathroom one day, and I’m guessing we were probably swinging on the shower curtain rod, because it came down in our hands. Their mom, Dee, came rushing in, and once she saw we were okay, I could see she was very angry. I braced myself for the screaming and the yelling and the horrible things we would be called, and to my great surprise, none of that happened. In response to our apology (actually their apology because that was a foreign concept to me), she said she accepted it (also shocking to me), but she was very angry and she needed some time to cool down, so she asked us to go outside and play. What? Where was the yelling and the screaming? I actually felt good about myself after helping to break their house. This was entirely new to me.

Years later, my girls and a number of other neighborhood kids were rollerblading out on the forbidden busy road behind our house, and I happened to drive down the road and busted them all (good lesson here: don’t misbehave on a busy road that happens to be within spitting distance of your mom’s work). To say I was angry was an understatement, but I thought back to that shower rod day, and not only did I not kill my children, I told them I was so angry I needed some time to calm down and talk to their dad before we determined their consequences. So I said I was going back to work, and we would deal with it later, which we did. I totally channeled my inner Dee that day, and not only did I appreciate what she unknowingly taught me, but my children should always be grateful to her as well.

Babies in Car Seats

Not long before I had children, I read a letter in one of the newspaper advice columns. It was from a mother whose baby had died in a car accident. Car seats were still relatively new, and she had chosen not to put her baby in one because she was just going to the post office, which was very close to her house. As she was driving, another car ran a stop sign, crashing into her car, and she described her baby daughter as bouncing around the car “like a ping pong ball.” I can picture that horrible image even now as I write this, and because of her, I never went anywhere without buckling up my children. I can only imagine how many children she probably saved by writing that letter in the midst of her grief. I’ve often wished I could thank her.

Making Molehills out of Mountains

I’ve had a number of bosses over the years, and I learned things from all of them. Some of what I learned from some of them was how I would not want to do something. Actually I learned a lot of that, but I won’t mention those lessons here… least not now. I will relay one from a boss who was a great mentor and is still a good friend.

When I worked for the Forest Preserve District, an issue arose when neighbors were up in arms because the power company was trimming trees under power lines, and a number of the trees were on forest preserve property. We have learned from a few nasty ice storms that trees under power lines cause major problems when the power lines are weighed down by ice, but at the time I don’t think we were as aware, and the idea of cutting down trees was very upsetting to some people, which is actually a good thing most of the time. So they called the Forest Preserve District to enlist our help. This quickly went up the chain to the top because of the potential public relations issue.

As the PR person for the agency, I sat in on our director’s call to the power company, not knowing what to expect except that I guessed it would be heated. What I heard surprised me, as my boss said into the phone, “What can you and I do to keep both of us off the front page?” I clearly was not the only surprised person, as the power company executive was stunned as well.

They went on to discuss their reasons for needing to cut or not cut various trees. My boss, John, said there were a few trees that were particularly valuable and worth fighting for, but he could give in on some of the others. The power company guy did the same, and lo and behold, they worked out a successful compromise that solved the problem and ended the controversy, which kept us out of the news because there was no story to tell. I sat there in awe as I watched this play out, and I learned that a lot of problems can be resolved by simply talking to opponents with respect and then working to reach a compromise. What a simple concept that I wish all people, especially our elected officials, would embrace.

Beautiful, Amazing Ashley

And then there’s Ashley. Ashley B. has become one of the greatest inspirations I think I’ve ever known. She used to play softball with my girls, and I didn’t know her extremely well during those years, but I liked her and was glad she was on their teams. I actually was better friends with her mother.

Ashley is now 30 years old and the mother of a beautiful little girl. Not long after her baby was born, Ashley was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, obviously an incredible shock to her and everyone in her world.

The amazing part of this story is how she has responded. It’s hard for me to even find the words to describe the fight and strength she has shown the world. I’m sure she has difficult days, and I know she worries about her daughter, but there is no sitting and crying for this girl. She has wrapped herself in a huge support network and is choosing to live her life. Every day. She does this with grace, with humor, and with tremendous strength. She’s even speaking to student groups about finding inner strength when life gives you a nasty blow. For a better introduction to her, you should read her blog “I Dressed Cute 4 Cancer” at It’s so well written and heartfelt and funny and inspiring. Everyone needs to know this woman.

This is the thing that makes me admire her the most. On her daughter’s first birthday, she posted this: “Happy 1st Birthday to my sweet, sweet girl! You make every day worth living, and this has truly been the best year of my life because of you!!!”

There was no mention of cancer or sadness. She doesn’t dwell on pain or fear. Ashley doesn’t know what her future holds any more than the rest of us know ours, so she’s choosing to live her life. And she has inspired everyone who knows her, and even many people who don’t know her, to do the same.

So my goal, in honor of Ashley, is to try to live every day of my life as she has chosen to live hers. We all can learn a lot from this strong and amazing woman.