Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I've Been Touched!

Today I met a friend for lunch.  She and I used to work together and hit it off big time!  We have children who are the same age who also became friends.  As I was driving to Dothan to share good food and better conversation, it occurred to me that she is one of those who have entered my life for a relatively short amount of time but whose footsteps echo from time to time in a very pleasant way.

All of us have people who drift in and out of our lives.  Some, thankfully, for a very short time!  To amuse myself on the drive over, I began to run through a list in my head of those who, at one time or another, have played a role in my life.  I didn't think I should count family members, because we all have those, but then I re-thought that decision.  Don't our family members define who we are, or at least who we see ourselves as?  So, in keeping with the spirit of the list concept, I decided to start with family members. 

Probably the two family members who have had the most influence on how I see myself are my maternal grandparents.  I'm not the first grandchild, nor was I the last.  I fell toward the middle.  If there is truly such a thing as Middle Child Syndrome, then there must certainly be Middle Grandchild Syndrome!  If being a middle grandchild doesn't label one as "been there done that," then my other deficiency did:  I am not a boy.  Boy grandchildren in my family, both sides I believe, are venerated.  They do no wrong and must suffer from nosebleeds from the height of their individual pedestals.  That didn't really occur to me until I was an adult and began to step back to consider family dynamics.  It doesn't keep me from loving my boy cousins, it just sheds a new light on things.   My grandmother, Mama Martin, probably had more to do with defining how I see myself than any other family member other than my own mother.  We are truly a matriarchal powerhouse!  The women in my family rock!  My Mama Martin does not suffer fools lightly and did not tolerate foolishness from me, either! My most cherished memories are the days when I would be at her house and it would be just the two of us.  It didn't matter if the only reason I was there in the first place was to help with some task or just to visit, she talked to me.  I don't mean that she and I swapped words, I mean she talked to me. Without ever actually saying the words specifically, she told me that she expected me to achieve, that to do less than my best would result in her disappointment, that developing a life for myself wasn't just expected - it was required.  I understood that to fail should be looked upon as a learning experience as long as I had given the task my full effort.  But, I think the best of all the times I spent with her my favorite are those times when I got a glimpse of the woman she is - not just the grandmother she is.  She remembered to call me when she made tomato gravy for supper (my absolute favorite with her biscuits) and made extra so I could eat with them.  My favorite desert is peanut butter cream pie, but not the one most people think of.  This one is homemade custard with peanut butter mixed with confectioner's sugar on the crust before pouring the hot custard on top, topped with meringue sprinkled with more of the peanut butter mixture.  I ramble but with a purpose.  My grandmother would make a pie for me and then call me and give me the whole thing.  She missed very few birthdays without making one of those pies for me and letting me have it all by myself.  She knew that I love divinity but not the way most people like it.  I don't like it once it has set up. I like it hot and glossy.  Every Southern woman knows divinity won't make if the humidity is too high:  those are the days she and I would make divinity.  We wouldn't make a full batch, just enough to either stand at the stove and eat with a spoon or to take out (still in the boiler) and eat with a spoon as we sat in the swing. 

The second most influential person who is a family member was my maternal grandfather.  I'm not so sure this is because he spent time with me the way my grandmother did, or just because everyone in my family respected his opinions.  We were always afraid that when he died our family would fragment, as he was the lynch pin which held us together.  Unfortunately, that has proven to be true as our family isn't as close as we once were.  Possibly this fragmentation is a natural progression as the grandchildren grew up, grew apart, and grew away.  We have families of our own now and our own lives to lead.  We don't follow our parents to our grandparents' home for gatherings anymore.  Although Daddy Paul was a source of fun while I was growing up, I think his influence actually came after I married.  Once we moved to the barn, I saw him every single day.  I would like to think that I was what drew him up the dirt road, but I know better.  He and Erin thought the day could not end without seeing each other.  As little as she was when we moved to Kinston, I believe that those memories are precious to her, too.

The first two were family members who have run their course as influences.  My Daddy Paul died when Erin was 5 and my Mama Martin is into her 90s now.  I don't feel that we'll have her much longer.  She is tired and misses the days when she could work circles around everyone else in the family (and that wasn't that long ago.)  The others who came to mind during my drive to lunch today were not those with whom I have had long-term relationships.  Please forgive me if I do not use their names as I would not want to make them uncomfortable in any way and you probably wouldn't know them anyway!

I have a friend from high school that wasn't truly a friend until we went to college.  Occasionally she drifts back in at the oddest times and always when I've been thinking about her.  The rumor mill says she is going through some difficult times right now and I hope that if she thinks there is anything I can do for her, she will call.  Another is also a friend from high school but one with whom I've made sure to keep in touch since high school.  Our lives have taken such different directions and yet when we get together it is as if we have never been apart.   Then there is the first friend I made when I moved away to college.  She never judged me for my homesickness and allowed me to camp out on her top bunk until we were both giggling uncontrollably.  I haven't seen her since she moved out of state, but her Christmas letters are the highlight of my holiday every year.  If I don't get one, I email her to encourage her to get with the program!  Those three women, at different points in my life, have wandered in and out giving my life a boost when it needed it.  One of these friends, hopefully, will be coming soon to spend an all-girls weekend!  I can't wait!  Watch out world, you ears are gonna burn that weekend!

After college different types of people wandered in and out of my life.  I learned what "work friends" are and how some of those turn in to real friends.  Some of my first work friends still show up from time to time.  I'll run into them while out to dinner or shopping and we take time to catch up on each other's families.  I always leave those chance meetings with a good feeling. 

My daughter's friends must also be counted among those who have drifted in and out of my life.  At various times in our family life, depending on stage of development or sport season, different children were almost as much a member of my family as my own child.  While these children are not around anymore, I will always be interested in their welfare and their lives. 

That brings me full circle back to the friend with whom I had lunch today. Before we realized it, we had monopolized a table at Olive Garden for approximately two-and-a-half hours.  The only thing I regret is the poor waitress who missed out on tips because we refused to leave.  Even so, I felt that we were only just getting into our conversation when it was time to go home.  We have promised to try to do it again before we both go back to our jobs in August and I really hope we keep that promise.  While we both have lives of our own, our friendship has a life of its own.  In order for it to thrive, we must nurture it.  Thank you, Lisa, for letting a lonesome mother rant about how much she misses her only child.  Thank you for making me feel as if my separation anxiety won't be fatal and will gradually, oh so gradually, settle into dull ache followed by renewal of my own life separate from that of my child.  Thanks for the stories of your vacations with your husband that came to mind while we were talking today.  It was a gentle reminder that now is a really, really good time to focus my attention on my marriage, that now I get to be a wife, not a wife AND mother.  Because of the key times you wander back into my life and I into yours, tonight I'm back on a more even keel.  Thank you.

There are four people who are glaringly absent from this list.  That is simply because those people - John, Erin, Mother, and Donna - are constants in my life.  They neither come nor go. They simply are.  They serve as my lodestone and keep my compass true.  Without them I cannot be who I am, or at least who I believe myself to be.  Each day they serve as reminders of the lessons I learned from all the others.  They keep me true to my beliefs about what constitutes value in a person's life.  Because of this, my love for them is not constant.  Nothing that grows as much as my love for them does each and every day of my life can possibly be viewed as something as lifeless and unchanging as a constant.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I don't know of a kid alive who doesn't live in breathless anticipation throughout the entire school year for summer.  Visions of lazy days, swimming pools, watermelon, mindless TV...what could possibly be better?  Summers when I was growing up fell into a type of routine.  My sister babysat during the summers to make extra money, so I don't remember very many summers without "extras" in the house.  My goal every day of the summer was to sleep as late as I possibly could each and every day.  I think the goal of the kids my sister babysat were to do whatever they could do to keep me from realizing my goal.  We had a window air conditioner in the living room, one in my sister's room, and another in my mother's room.  They were not, under any circumstances, to be turned on without express permission of the management....Mama.  We ran the air conditioner when we were hosting overnight guests (not my or Donna's friends..usually family from out of town).  I can remember being uncomfortable and making up excuses to go to my grandmother's where there was air conditioning every day, but I don't remember ever being miserable in the heat.  Of course, my mother's house had trees that shaded the house.  Also, she had a good old-fashioned window fan in her room.  At night we would close all the windows in the house except the ones in my and my sister's bedrooms and mother would turn on the window fan.  The result would be the equivalent of sleeping in a wind tunnel!  It is from that particular experience that I truly understand the concept of a "soft summer night."  Once I moved away to college and could run the air conditioning in my dorm room as much as I liked, I adjusted to sleeping in a meat locker!

My first transition in my summer schedule didn't actually occur until after I got married.  I wasn't  teaching yet so I still didn't get that summer off from work.  The first summer we were married, however, I was working at a radio station in Enterprise.  I spent that summer being incredibly envious of those still living the college kid summer life.  John was really laid back about "housewife responsibilities," so that first summer transition was actually pretty easy.  We grilled a lot, went to the beach for the day, learned how to live with another person in our summer space.

As an adult I find myself looking back quite fondly on the summers of my youth.  Man, I sound old, don't I?  At this point I feel that I really need to give credit where credit is due.  I grew up with a childhood that I didn't realize that many are not privileged to have.  My mother made sure that we went on a family vacation every single summer.  We cut corners all year to get to go away for a week in the summer.  I'm sure not every vacation was exactly a week....but that's the closest estimate I can make looking back now.  Those trips always followed a pattern:  I filled the back seat with books and pillows while Mother and Donna made their home in the front seat.  They woke me up when we reached our destination and I asked to stop only when I needed a rest area or food. I don't think the two of them every really understood that for me it was never - ever - going to be the trip.  For me, it's the destination!  I like being somewhere new, not necessarily getting there!  I remember quite distinctly being awakened from a perfectly good car nap to look at corn fields in Iowa.  I didn't understand why they felt the need to wake me up to see something I spent several days in as we filled our freezer in the summer!  A corn field, is a corn field, is a corn field, is a ....you get the idea.  But, regardless of whatever we had weathered the previous year, each summer brought that vacation and all three of us looked forward to it all year!  Memories of those vacations still come to me quite often.  I believe that they defined my relationship with my mother and sister.  It was during those long car rides and stopping at every corny tourist trap along the way that we laughed the hardest, talked the longest, and bonded the tightest.  I wouldn't give that up for anything.

My husband and I have been very fortunate that we have been able to carry on that ritual with Erin.  I can't tell you what our first family vacation was, but we have traveled with her since we first learned how much stuff we could cram into the back of our Explorer.  I'm still amazed how much stuff a baby requires for a simple weekend away!  We have even been fortunate to have traveled with my mother and sister, specifically to Alaska and Hawaii on cruises.  Erin has even been to China with my mother!  I think I can fairly say that she is one of the most traveled women of her age in this area!

Last summer was another transition summer for me.  Erin graduated from high school and worked for the summer.  While she was still living at home, I spent my days alone.  It was certainly different from our summer days the rest of her life.  Until then she and I had lazed away our days sleeping late, watching TV, and pretty much seeing how little activity we could get away with!  Now, I'm glad I had that transition last summer, because this summer is a whole new ballgame.

This summer is another transition and it has been especially difficult.  Just like last summer, Erin has a job so she isn't home during the day.  The difference this year is that while Erin has a job, it is in Wisconsin!  She doesn't come home nights.  We don't talk about her day over dinner every night.  Her friends aren't here at night raiding my kitchen and watching TV.  This summer our conversations are via text.  I'm getting faster!  I've also decided that I like texting, because if I'm interrupting whatever she has going on, she can answer me later.  There are details about her days that I find out from others who have talked with her or texted her.  Friends I've spoken with about this don't seem to understand why this summer is any different than the past school year when she was in Tuscaloosa.  It is different - very different.  In Tuscaloosa Erin could jump in her car at the end of her last class and come home.  I think the longest we went without seeing her this last school year was three weeks.  To date she has been gone for right at four weeks with no visit in sight.  I try not to pressure her about coming home because I know it isn't as easy as it was.  A visit home involves either a very expensive plane ticket or a very expensive gas bill to drive.  I miss her, but she knows that.  She misses us, too, but this is an incredible experience for her.  I think that the time she spends in Wisconsin this summer will have a direct influence on the rest of her life one way or another.  I think that the funniest thing about the whole situation is that, as strange as it may seem, she is actually getting to know me better.  I spoke with her today just before some company  who were coming to visit arrived.  She had earlier had an unfortunate disagreement with her mop and I had called to let her actually tell me the story rather than trying to explain it through a text.  Maybe I can better explain what I mean by giving examples of some of the lessons she has learned this summer:

  1. Regardless of all previous opinions, it is important to clean before company arrives even if you just cleaned the day before.
  2. As soon as the kitchen floor dries, someone with mud on his shoes will need to come through.
  3. No matter how many times you unload them, dishwashers need constant attention.
  4. One can survive on Ramen noodles and Alfredo sauce.
  5. Eating out isn't as important as making a house payment.
  6. Dirty clothes breed dirty clothes; laundry is a constant.
  7. One can survive without Internet or television.
  8. Someone in the house needs to know how to cook something besides Ramen noodles.
  9. You can only eat cereal for so many meals before there is a mutiny.
  10. Buying groceries can be a traumatic financial event.
  11. Ignoring the dust on empty pantry shelves won't make food "magically" appear.
  12. You have to tell the people at the post office you have moved in.  The mailman won't just suddenly notice lights in the house and arrange for all your mail to arrive at your door.
  13. Having money in a remote bank where you are unable to access it does mean you are poor.  No    money is no money.  The bills won't wait until you get your banking situation resolved.
  14. Your boyfriend's family's approval makes life so much easier.
  15. Anyone who can read can cook. 
  16. Calling your mother for advice, recipes, or even a laugh doesn't indicate weakness or failure.
  17. You are never, ever too old for a Care Package.
Looking back over the list of lessons she has already learned this summer, I can't wait to see what comes next!  She is making sandwiches, serving coffee, selling snacks to construction workers this summer.  She has learned more economics from this experience than she ever will in a classroom.  Right now there is only a small crew on site.  They are expecting about another 150 workers to come in next week weather permitting.  I do believe her little business will experience a surge next week!  What Erin is learning this summer is a set of true "life lessons."  Those are the lessons you can be told about but you'll never really learn them until you attempt to put them into practice.  I think that's how I'll think of this summer...practice.  She's finding out what it means to be very far away from your safety net.  She's finding out what being responsible for yourself really means.  She's finding out that all the times I lectured her on neatness, cleanliness, etc., I really did know what I was talking about.  Hopefully, above and beyond all else, I hope she realizes that no matter how far away she goes there are people here who love her, who want her to be happy, who want her to be successful.  This summer is just one more stop on that wild ride that is living an independent life. 

We, as her parents, have always believed it to be very important that she be independent - that she be confident in her own abilities to take care of herself away from us.  She is trying to find out if the life she can make for herself in Wisconsin is one in which she will be truly happy.  She is spending time with TJ to see if being with him on a day-to-day basis is what she thought it would be and if she can see herself there in the future.  She has learned her lessons well and we couldn't be more proud.  What that means to me personally, is that I must, out of necessity, spend my summer in yet another transition - teaching myself how to be alone.  I have to learn that having her become everything we knew she could be isn't a bad thing just because she is becoming that person so far away.  Our dream for her has always been to go to college, experience college life to the fullest, make life-long friends, then, after she graduates from college, go out into the world and begin her life.  I keep having to remind myself that is my dream for her, not necessarily hers for herself.  Her first year in college wasn't the experience I wanted it to be, but I think it was the experience she wanted it to be.  She has made new friends and developed some old ones.  She is happier now with her life than I have seen her be for quite a while.  What more could a parent ask than that a child be secure and happy?

Just one last thing I truly want Erin to stop to consider...mild temperatures during the summer in Wisconsin turn in to brutal temperatures in the winter!  But, then, what better excuse to visit?!