Monday, July 10, 2017

Long-Distance Loss

My dad and I have lived in separate states for most of our lives, since I was 14, actually. He and my mom divorced and he moved to Arkansas, where he would eventually meet and marry Terry, my stepmother.

You can imagine what a unique father-daughter relationship this made for. Our relationship was mostly phone conversations, with visits sprinkled few and far between. 

When I was in college, he would call to see how life was, tell me to hang in there and keep studying. He himself was struggling with a business that was not doing well, one that eventually went bankrupt.

One Friday my sophomore year he called to let me know he and his girlfriend Terry had gotten married that day. I was reeling from having just learned that my boyfriend had advanced cancer; I could barely take in the news. Dad understood, and let my need to lean on him during this time overshadow his exciting news of his marriage.

When my boyfriend passed away 9 months later, Dad was the first call the morning after his death, at about 6 a.m. He was an insomniac and he knew I would be up, having never really slept that night. 

"I'm sorry," is all he had to say, and the sincerity and depth of those two words made me break out in fresh tears. He didn't make it to the funeral; he didn't need to be there. I had other family and friends around to support me, and I knew he would be on the phone when I needed him. 

Years later, I called him to let him know I was engaged to a man he had met only once before. Our wedding day was only the third time my dad had met his son-in-law, the second being the night before, at the rehearsal. 

My husband and I traveled to Arkansas, to my dad and stepmom's rustic log cabin in the woods, what seems like now a scant number of times. Money was tight for them and for us, and travel wasn't easy to their rural area of the country. Dad started making driving tours of the Midwest, coming up to Minnesota to visit, then heading through Wisconsin to Upper Michigan, hitting Indiana on the way back to visit my sister Kristi before returning to Arkansas. He made many of these trips alone, as travel disrupted Terry's schedule so much as to be detrimental to her health. But then, we would return to our phone calls, with plans to visit again in a couple of years. 

He visited when our first-born daughter, his first granddaughter from either of his two children, was six weeks old. He marveled at our new neighborhood, at how much we could walk to, and looked at the baby every once in a while. When he returned home and developed the photos from his visit, he found he had a camera full of architecture and flowers and only one of his granddaughter, which I had insisted on taking. This would become a running joke for years, with my taking pictures of houses and asking if he felt like visiting. 


"I don't think we'd see each other any more often even if we lived next door," Dad speculated during one particularly lengthy, in-depth discussion. "Your lives are so busy, and we both are so accustomed to just talking to each other, I don't think we'd know what to do if we saw each other more." He was probably right.

We got into detailed discussions of the latest book we were reading, and we often gifted books to each other for Christmas. One year Dad bought me Travels with Charley, an autobiographical account of John Steinbeck's travels across the U.S. with his dog, Charley, during civil unrest in our country. I was so fascinated that I picked up all of John Steinbeck's works and read them one-by-one, even those I had to read previously for school. John Steinbeck is now one of my favorite authors, alongside Mark Twain, whose autobiography Mark Twain Volume One was also a gift from Dad. 

The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson is another book that stands out to me that Dad recommended. I was so amazed by it that the minute I finished it I read it again with fresh eyes. Years later it still sticks out in my mind as an amazing find I would've never picked up had it not been for my dad.

For many years, my dad was my career counselor. I could call him with an issue or problem at work, and he would ask questions and listen. He would not give advice, he'd just get more details of the entire situation, often making me think more deeply about the situation myself. Then he'd think on it. And think. 

The next day or the next week, depending on the complexity of the problem, I'd get a call back and he'd start with, "Say, I was thinking about your situation last night, and I have some ideas." By "last night" he meant some time between 3 and 5 a.m. He was a notorious insomniac whose best thinking was often done at night. 

He would then come up with some brilliant perspective about the problem that I hadn't considered, or some wording or dialog that would help flip it on its head to those I was dealing with.

For many years he has not been able to be my counselor, he was so involved with his own health and illness, as he needed to be. In the past several years I would leave work and want to call him to ask his advice, but I couldn't ask that of a man who was struggling with his devastating health issues. 

As his cancer treatments advanced he lacked the concentration to read, so we could no longer discuss the latest book we were reading. The only topic of our conversations for the past several years was how he was feeling, his treatments, the next course of action and hope for positive results. 

Phone call by phone call, I lost my dad. 

My stepmother Terry feels his physical loss every day. Every day, she wakes up and he's not there. She goes to bed alone. She has to do things around the house that my dad used to do. Hers is a profound, life-changing, daily reminder of his absence.

For me, I am left with memories of good conversations, of his voice on the phone, of laughter shared. And yet, in the cool early mornings, when I used to call him before I could call anybody else, I miss him. The minute I get in my car to drive home from work I miss him, as that's when I often called to download my day to his ever-listening ear.

Every once in a while I'll call the house and it's almost a treat when Terry doesn't answer, so I can hear my dad's booming voice on their outgoing voice mail. I hope she never changes it.


Miss you, Dad. 


Sunday, July 09, 2017

More Laughter Than Tears

As my dad requested, his memorial service was around the 4th of July in Munising, Michigan. He always loved the 4th, and dearly loved his hometown. He could think of nothing that would be more enjoyable than to have family gather on that holiday to celebrate his life and then enjoy his hometown's holiday offerings. He specifically requested the Corktown bar, as his aunt and uncle had owned it once in the long-distant past.

Kristi and I scanned photos, planned the service, and otherwise worked to get everyone together.

He would have said that we were making too big a deal, he would have demured. And yet, he would have been inwardly pleased at all the hoopla.

Family came together from Arizona, Illinois, Arkansas, Florida and many others places. Classmates came in from downstate ("Lower Michigan" to the non-Yoopers) and Munising itself to pay tribute. His childhood friend, Joe Hase and his wife Barb came to the service as well, which tickled Kristi and I pink, as Joe's name is mentioned frequently in dad's writing as someone who got into a whole lot of trouble with Dad over the years.

As he would have wished, there was more laughter than tears. More stories than sadness. His tales live on in his blog and the hearts and memories of those he told them to.

Kristi and I in front of the Floria window at the United Methodist Church in Munising, MI, purchased by our great-grandma Toot, $5/week until the $100 window was paid off. 

Hugs to Terry from Joe and Barb Hase. 

Terry, Jessie and Tracy at Dad's wake. Yes, he wanted smiles.

Dad's cousin, Jon Floria, and his wife Cynthia. They were such a treat to get to know!

Dad watched over the gathering with a manhattan in front of him, compliments of his wife, Terry. 
The most wonderful part is that all the family came together to honor him. Even the younger generation nieces and nephews, who did not know him the way we did, knew there was something special about him and his ways. He was always genuinely interested in people, easy to talk to because he made you do the talking with his questions of curiosity.

Because of him, this group of people came together, people whose connections to each other may not have otherwise survived the trials of time and distance. New connections were made, to be preserved in more stories, more gatherings and fun.

To the occasion.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Whose Hand Got Cut Off?

Our youngest proves to us frequently that listening and hearing are two different things.

While on our summer vacation to South Dakota two summers ago, Wayne was telling some story to me (me, mind you, not to all occupants of the car), about someone at work who asked someone to hand him his sandwich. Marissa, who always seems to be on the cusp of listening to our conversation, misheard the word "sandwich" and asked, "Who's hand got cut off?"

Throughout the rest of the trip, whenever she would ask "What?" we would reply, "Whose hand got cut off?"

Last week the four of us were in the car, driving back from the girls' soccer game. They are both taking a summer recreational soccer league, and were placed on the same team, which makes it convenient as can be for us to go see them both play.

We were talking about a teammate of theirs who plays goalie. She is a great goalie, and a few times during the game took a ball to the head or chest, shrugged it off and kept playing.

"She sure is resilient," I said.

"No Mom, she was born in Russia," Marissa said.

It took us a while to figure out that she thought I said, "She sure is Brazilian."


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I Can Wait


Today is my eldest daughter's 8th grade graduation. She is excited to have middle school behind year, nervous for her high school years.

When I was pregnant with her, people with children would tell me, "Nothing prepares you for becoming a parent." (Some of the most unhelpful "advice" I've ever been told). Now I keep hearing those with graduating high schoolers or adult children say, "Don't blink, these next four years will go so quickly."

Thanks...I think. As if the first 14 years weren't a whirl.

When she was a newborn, I couldn't wait for her to be big enough so I could take her skating with me in the jogging stroller. When she was finally 6 months old, I took her around the lake for the first time. When I put some speed on, I looked down and she had her hands up next to her head, a look of wonder on her face, which slowly became a smile, then a giggle, and then a full-on laugh.

At age one I couldn't wait for her to learn more words, so I could be done with the pointing and the crying and the random temper tantrums because we could not understand her desires.

When she was 2 I couldn't wait for her to be done with diapers, especially since we had a second baby on the way.

The family at Dana Lake. You can hear the whining, right?

When she was 6, I was thrilled when she move to a larger booster seat so she could finally belt herself into the car. Now I just had to contort my body into strange pretzel shapes to get one child into the backseat, while she sat there safely buckled in, waiting to go.

When she turned 10 I was excited for her to move on to movies that others in the family also wanted to watch. Don't get me wrong, I love a good Disney animated film, but there's only so many times you can watch "Finding Nemo" before you don't care if he gets found.

When she was in 7th grade I couldn't wait for her to be old enough and responsible enough to not need before-school and after-school care. For the first time in years I could just get myself ready and out the door, knowing that the eldest would be responsible enough to lock up after the two girls left for school. We suddenly had extra money in our budget that could now be used in other ways.


We used some of that extra money to have date nights, because we no longer had the added expense of a babysitter whenever we went out. We went on our first spring break trip as a family, where many fantastic memories were made.

Now she and I connect in different ways. We share books. She'll find a good series on Netflix and we'll watch it together over the course of a few weeks. I can share some of the movies of my past that tickle my funny bone, because she'll get the humor of them, too.

Yes, she is surly at times, prickly, impolite, pick your adjective. But she is also expressive, funny, sensitive and caring.

These next four years? I can wait.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Felix Felicis, or "Lucky Potion"


My birthday was Friday. I love my birthday every year, it doesn't seem to matter what number it is. I was fed by my company for two of my three meals, and went out to dinner with my Big Sweetie to Murray's steakhouse, established 1948, and in general had an amazing day.

My amazing day continued into Saturday, when I was running errands. And I mean...errands; a whole lot of running around that had built up over the past few weekends. And I noticed something from the very first stop.

Everyone was soooo nice. I had a consult with an orthodontist and they managed to squeeze me in for impressions for a new retainer. I returned flowers to Home Depot and they gave me a full refund for a partially used flat. At the local vinegar and oil store they gave me a 10% discount because they knew I would bring back the bottles. Caribou Coffee gave me my free birthday drink even though it was only supposed to be good on my actual birthday.

Small things all around, but all day long. What could it be?

Was it some leftover birthday glitter? I think so. After all, I had a smile on my face all day. Every person I greeted was with a smile and a pleasant greeting, which was returned in kind. Plus, it was raining all day long, so stores were generally less busy and clerks were happy to take extra time with shoppers.

I thought about all the posts I've read about men telling women to smile, and how insulting and abrasive that is. Yes, I would never like to be told by anyone to smile, unless that person was a speech coach. Yet smiles can make the day so much more pleasant. Everyone I encounter with a smile has one in return.

I guess that's my Felix Felicis, my lucky potion. My way of making a little bit of the world kinder.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Lunch with Grandpa

From L to R: My dad, Phyllis, Carol, Dean and my Grandpa, seated
I dreamt I had lunch with my Grandpa and my dad.

It was in my grandpa's small apartment, my mind's vision of some of the places he's lived, merged into a strange concoction of his living space, as dreams tend to do.

The three of us sat around a little table, my father's large frame shoved into a small kitchen chair, his knees hitting the bottom of the table. The meal was peppered with doses of conversation and laughter. I can imagine it was every day stuff, the light that doesn't stay on in the kitchen, the Packers upcoming game, getting the oil changed in a car. Actual conversation was not a part of the dream, just the feeling of togetherness and commonness, of knowing each other so well that conversation isn't needed, just pleasant.

After the meal was done, I picked up plates and started to clean up Grandpa's kitchen. My Aunt Carol walked in, seeming to know when the meal was done so she could help and be a part of the banter. She and I cleaned the kitchen, then we all sat down and visited for a bit. She didn't stay long but popped up and said she had to go back home, and that it was nice to see me.

I awoke with tears in my eyes. Such a lunch was never possible. My grandfather never lived close to my dad and my Aunt Carol at the same time. When we got together with family, it was few and far between and it was a big deal, usually a holiday.

After the sadness passed at having visited with those long gone, I realized that they must have sent me the vision. My father loved his family dearly. He had great respect for his father and reveled in his sister's effervescent joy. Now the three of them are together, probably enjoying heavenly diversions, but the only way I could understand that they're together is by a vision of what it means for humans to commune with others -- by sharing a meal.

My grandfather died in 1996, my Aunt Carol four years ago this past March, my father this past October.  I think this means they found each other and love each other as much now as they did in life.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Genders Go Camping

Say what you want, there are some inherent ways that boys and girls are different, whether a person identifies as one or the other.

While chaperoning at Marissa's 6th grade retreat, the girls in my cabin got about an hour of free time before lights out. During this time, they took showers, got ready for bed, then often spent the rest of their time braiding each other's hair, telling stories or joking around. One girl, a budding artist, sketched quietly in her bunk, the "scritch scritch" of her pencil heard throughout the conversation. Marissa worked on word searches with a friend and engaged in the room's banter.

How many braided heads can you count?
I took this picture on the last morning of camp -- clearly braiding each other's hair was a popular activity in many cabins for the girls.

In the meantime, I compared notes with a parent who was chaperoning in a boys cabin.

When it was free time, none of the boys took a shower. Instead, they took all the thin mattresses on all the beds and spread them across the floor to make a huge wrestling pit.  The chaperones drafted brackets and they had themselves a wrestling match. The loser of the previous match was the announcer for the next match, while someone else would flicker the lights on and off as the boy trumpeted, "And now...in this corner, we have the ever amazing, ever strong...Evan!!" And they were off.

This chaperone is the dad to two girls and was looking forward to chaperoning a boys cabin because he never gets "boy time," as he put it. I suspect he was the biggest kid in the room.

They had very different ideas of fun, both pursued with enthusiasm.

The 6th Grade Retreat, subtitled "Apparently I Camp"


Marissa and her favorite chaperone.
Each year the 6th grade class does a two-day camping retreat to Camp St. Croix in Hudson, WI. When Lindsey was in 6th grade she didn't want me anywhere near the camp, but Marissa asked me to chaperone.

"You know I don't really camp, right?" I reminded her. I don't do well with bugs, or sleeping bags, or walks in the woods to get to the bathroom. Plus, I was guaranteed to embarrass her at some point over the 3 days, intentionally or not.

It didn't matter, she wanted me along, and so I signed up.

I and a friend were assigned co-chaperones in a cabin with 8 6th grade girls, most of whom were Marissa's requested friends. During the day I was in Marissa's activity group, which was a different set of kids besides those in the cabin, so I got to know more of the kids in her class.

What a time!

Marissa and her cabin mates: Berit, Allison, Marissa, Carolyn, Eleni, Anjali, Erika and Hattie
Girl power at the archery range.
The first day was all sunshine and warmth. (Warmth in April=55 degrees). The group played games in the "Enchanted Forest," where they had to use teamwork to cross a path or balance a board with all teammates on it. The evening activity was a townhall where kids voted to preserve St. Croix or sell it to a developer who spoke an awful lot like Donald Trump.

Day two promised rain, and it started just after breakfast. It poured, then lightened up enough for Marissa's group to go to the pond for an aqua ecology lesson. The other chaperones and I quietly took bets on the side on which kid was going to fall in; I won. I know, not very chaperone-like, we can't be perfect role models all the time.

The second night's activity was the campfire. I told Marissa that the counselors had asked me to sing "Kum Bya" to the entire grade and that I had agreed to do it. The reaction I got when I finally told her I was kidding was priceless.

Marissa turned a new shade of red when she found out I wouldn't be singing.
The last day was the best activity ever, Predator and Prey. All the kids are split into animal groups; wolverines, skunks, rabbits and others roamed the property looking for food, water and shelter. Those at the top of the food chain could hunt those down the food chain, while others, like Marissa in the rabbit group, spent their time running and hiding. We all roamed fields, woods and water playing this game -- the places to hide were immeasurable, and with 150 kids playing, it was an absolute blast.

For me the biggest downfall was the lack of sleep. A hard and small mattress meant my shoulder was shoved into my ear for most of the night, and by the last day I awoke with the start of a migraine and tight shoulders. Not to mention the two bathroom requests in the middle of the night which required a chaperone to walk with a child to the bathrooms.

This was far outweighed by watching my daughter enjoy the outdoors and play with her friends, and by getting to know the other students and parents in her class. I'm so glad I was able to be a part of her memories of this trip.
Marissa's cabin which sleeps 12 people.