Thursday, June 21, 2018

When you're 4 and separated from your mom, here's what happens.

'To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma." - American Academy of Pediatrics, in response to the border crisis 

What's happening at the border is not political; it's humanitarian. It doesn't matter what side you're on. It's inhumane, and it's a scourge on this country -- one from which portions of our population won't heal for a long time, if ever. 

What's happening at the border is also sure as heck not about me. But as a small child, I experienced profound loss. And maybe my experiences can help others understand what happens to the psyche of a little child who is separated from a parent.

I lost my mom to a particularly brutal cancer when I was 4. She had been sick for two years, but her disappearance from my life was sudden.

Unlike the traumatized children on the border, I had the benefit of a loving support system of adults who did everything in their power to make sure I'd be OK. Also unlike the detained children, I benefited from my socioeconomic status, and from the fact that I did not have brown or black skin.

Still, given my privilege, the loss affected me in ways I wouldn't understand till much later. The effects, though, were immediate. I remember profound anxiety, which, in a little child, is manifested differently from the way it's exhibited in an older child or an adult.

I was afraid to go to bed. Some well-meaning adult -- I don't recall whom -- had said something about my mom having gone to sleep, so bedtime became a frightening time for me; would I not wake up? I remember feeling real terror as my eyelids would droop, and I'd fight hard to stay awake; I'd make myself get up and walk around my room, or simply stand and hold onto my headboard until I couldn't help but fall back into bed.

The constant checking -- later identified as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder -- also started around that time. In what a therapist later identified as a small child's need to try to control her environment, I started a series of bedtime rituals, some of which continue to this day. My shoes had to be lined up perfectly -- facing straight ahead, each shoe an equal distance from the one next to it. I had to open and close my dresser drawers a certain number of times (always an odd number, never even). Same with my closet door -- open, closed. Open, closed. Over and over and over.  The lamp next to my bed: on, off. On, off. I don't remember what signaled to me that it was OK to stop and get into bed, but if one of the adults in my life intervened before I finished, I had to get back up after he or she had left the room and start over again. The emotional exhaustion wrought by putting oneself through those kinds of rituals can't be overestimated.

My sister, Teresa, an adult by that time, had become my mother figure after our loss, and my emotional difficulties were hardest on her. I would not let her out of my sight during waking hours. Our neighbors, having taken pity on this messed-up little girl, would send their kids over to invite me to play. Teresa would open the door and urge me to go outside, and I'd cower behind her and cry. I'd agree to go only if she agreed to go with me, so she'd stand next to the sandbox or swing set, no doubt wondering what in the world she could do to help me. (She finally found help in the form of the nuns at the St. Joseph's Academy preschool, who agreed to make a spot for me in their full program in order to give her a needed break and acclimate me to life outside my house.)

The manifestations continued. A disordered relationship with food; I had no "off" switch and lived to stuff my mouth with sweets. When Teresa would return from the store, I'd grab my favorite snacks and hoard them in my room, eating them in private in anticipation of the calmness a mouthful of Hostess cupcake would bring. I grew chubby, which didn't do great things for my self-esteem; I was also tall for my age and felt gargantuan. I developed a stutter.

Our family pediatrician advised Teresa to wait it out. Counseling for children was not common in those days; besides, I did have a few things going for me, and kindly Dr. Alberts suggested my family focus on those. I excelled in school, particularly in anything having to do with language; I devoured books and filled notebooks with stories. I also had a talent for art back in the day, and I spent happy hours in drawing, painting, and sculpting lessons at the Art Center -- all resources, again, that the children on the border don't have and can't possibly imagine.

Slowly, feeling loved by the adults in my life and bolstered by an extended support system, I began to function as a "normal" child. But the anxiety never left me, and would wax and wane through most of my life. It impacted my parenting; when my kids were teenagers, the lack of a return phone call surely meant the child was dead in a ditch. I'm not being flippant, as my kids can attest; my mind automatically heads in the direction of crisis. I still worry more than most "healthy" people. Disordered eating stuck around, too, and is something I battle daily, as is the OCD, about which I joke with those close to me. But although I manage it, it still can be exhausting.

The takeaway from all these words: Separation from my mom caused traumatic and lasting effects. Even though I was loved and supported and had every resource at my disposal, I still feel the impact, 51 years later.

What, then, will likely become of the kids on the border, many of whom might never be reunited with their parents? Some will never be OK; the rest may seem to be. But only on the outside.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Believing Roseanne's character rings true doesn't mean I'm betraying my views.

I feel as though so many people are missing the point with this "Roseanne" thing. One of the local TV stations is doing a follow-up to CNN's story about the renewal of the show for a second season, and I was contacted because someone had seen my post Thursday night saying I'd enjoyed the two episodes that aired that evening. The reporter was reaching out to people on both sides of the aisle.

"You said you're a Democrat, so did the show offend you?" the reporter asked.

Well ... no. The show's titular character is indeed a Trump supporter, and I'm indeed not a Trump supporter. But the show is make-believe, and the character isn't a real person. (Neither, by the way, is the character of Karen on "Will & Grace," who also is portrayed as a Trump voter.)

Plus, the show is not a Trump love fest -- not at all. One of my favorite actresses, Laurie Metcalf, plays Roseanne's sister, Jackie, who sported during the first episode a "Nasty Woman" shirt and a distinctive pink hat. And the rest of the characters have yet to "out" themselves politically.

And yes, Roseanne Barr herself is a Trump supporter, but I don't care at all about Roseanne Barr. Fun fact: In the early '90s, when I was editor of Iowa Parent Magazine, I wrote an article about Tom Arnold and got to know him a bit and really liked him -- and it became clear a lot of the couple's shtick was just that -- shtick. So how much of Roseanne's stuff now is just for show? Who knows -- and who cares?

Regardless, if you're keeping track of the political views of the show's main characters, the score so far is one Trump supporter, one Trump critic. Who can't live with that? Most of us know people whose views are different from ours, and unless relationships have become volatile, we coexist.

And besides, again ... these are not real people.

Plus, there's this. Since the 2016 election, media outlets have tried hard to define the Trump voter. And say what you will about Roseanne's show; her writers have done a better job of explaining just why someone in the industrial Midwest would have voted that way than some political pundits have been able to do in 18 months.

"He talked about jobs," Roseanne Conner responds when sister Jackie asks how she could have supported Trump. Roseanne then goes on to explain that, presumably under the previous administration, the Conner family had come close to losing its house.

The message was clear: We struggle financially. We're tired of that. He said he'd change things, and we believed him. Why would anyone assume the fictional Roseanne would have voted any other way? To coin an overused phrase, all politics is local. Regardless of anything else the character might have given up to fill out her ballot the way she did, of course, to her, the promise of better employment, and better pay, would have taken precedence.

Here's another thing that critics and fans alike seem to be missing: Credit for the reboot's success should be given to the writers. Yes, the actors are talented -- some more than others. (Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman are treasures, and Sara Gilbert's pretty good, too). But the people who put words in their mouths, including the brilliant Wanda Sykes, are the ones who are charged with keeping the show from being Roseanne Barr's mouthpiece, and so far, they've achieved balance.

I'm going to keep watching "Roseanne" because it's a funny show. I'm eager to see how the writers handle Johnny Galecki's character, and how the whole surrogacy thing plays out. And just as people on the right, and the president himself, pointed out during awards season, it's pretty silly to base one's political decisions on the opinions of people in Hollywood. That's rational thinking, and it shouldn't change simply because the actor in question wears a MAGA shirt.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Dear Betty...

Dear Betty: A week or so ago, I realized I hadn't seen anything from you on Facebook recently. Your absence from my feed was notable, as you're prolific. That was one of the first things I admired about you; at an age that would cause others to render you "too old" for social media, you navigated the platform seamlessly. You used it to make your world larger -- to stay in touch with friends near and far. To state your opinions. To have a voice.

I looked for you, and it appeared you had vanished. So I private-messaged a mutual friend because I was genuinely concerned; you're older, and you've had health issues. The friend assured me you're alive, well, and as prolific as ever. I assumed, then, that you had blocked me from finding you, and mentioned to our friend that I found that odd.

Our friend, having seen my posts in recent weeks congratulating my cousin and his husband on their wedding, responded that you had no doubt severed ties with me because you are "very anti-gay."

That's absolutely your right, Betty. You're entitled to your opinions, and to express them as you see fit. And, truth be told, you and I weren't actually friends. We were Facebook acquaintances, having "met" through mutual friends and perhaps a mutual idea or two. A few months ago, you called upon me to provide some information to help you make a decision, and I did so with enthusiasm. That was the extent of our connection.

Still, I have to tell you: I feel bad about this.

And I owe you an apology.

I apologize that I was open to a Facebook friendship, as tenuous as those can be, with someone whose thought process condemns people about whom I care very much. I apologize if you provided indications along the way of your feelings, and I'm sorry I missed them.

I'm sorry that you missed my signals as well, Betty. I'm sorry that you didn't see photos of and status updates that indicated my support of LGBTQ individuals. I'm sorry that you missed rainbow frames around my profile pictures, and photos of me in my "straight against H8" sweatshirt. I'm sorry if you missed my support of a friend who came out after spending many years living a life in which he wasn't true to himself.

But mostly, I'm sorry about any signals my too-silent times might have sent to you.

I'm not conflict-averse, but I don't go searching for a fight. It's not my nature to be in-your-face about causes and opinions; I like to think I state my cases respectfully, but if I see a status update on someone else's wall that bothers me, I'm likely to leave it alone.

So I apologize, Betty, for the time -- I can't quite remember when -- that I didn't speak up when you and one of your friends were bantering on your wall with some tired language about God having made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The conversation caught my eye, but I wrote it off because, frankly, you're from a generation different from mine. My dad, a product of his time, occasionally was known to use narrow-minded language that made me cringe. You made me cringe that day, but I gave you a pass.

But, wait a second. Did I really give you a pass, Betty? Or was I just cowardly?

There were a couple other instances when your verbiage offended me. Let me make it clear, again: You're entitled to feel any way you want to feel. But expressing yourself rudely is not OK. Making fun is not OK. I have a friend named Dave, whose religious beliefs tell him that homosexuality goes against everything God dictates. He and I are miles apart in our thinking, but if you were gay, Dave would give you his last morsel of food and the shirt off his back because even though he believes people choose to be gay, he respects everyone as a child of God. I wish he felt differently, but he's a kind and gentle man, and we agree to disagree.

You, Betty, are not all that kind and gentle. You're actually pretty judgmental, even in areas other than this. I've seen you respond in a way you probably considered witty, but was actually on the mean side. I would never call you a racist because I can't see inside your mind and heart, but some of your comments indicated you'd probably assume my dark-skinned South African daughter-in-law is a criminal or on public assistance.

Yep, I saw those comments. And I'm so sorry, Betty, because I never responded. And my silence probably allowed you to believe that we could continue to enjoy one another's social media company.

Two people don't have to be of a like mind to be friends, let alone acquaintances. But the big things probably need to align more closely than ours do.

And for that, Betty, I thank you. I thank you for being firm enough in your convictions to do what I should have done long ago -- pull the plug on a friendship that really wasn't one. I thank you for prompting me to take a long, hard look at myself, and for awakening me to the fact that perhaps my attempts at politeness are being construed as approval.

I thank you for providing me with a platform to reiterate that hate in any form is wrong, and that associating with it makes me wrong, too.

Finally, I thank you for providing me with a microscope though which to look at my own behaviors, especially as I age -- for reminding me to improve and evolve. I don't ever want to be viewed as a mean and hateful old lady. And I'm sure you don't, either ... so it's a pity you'll never read this, because maybe, just maybe, it would also encourage you to take a closer look.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

You don't see my addiction, but it defines me nonetheless.

I've never been a huge Oprah fan. I respect her success, certainly -- she's obviously talented and goal-oriented and all kinds of things one should aspire to be. But the "YOU get a car and YOU get a car and YOU get a car" stuff is cloying. I don't know why. She's just always seemed a little too much.

Until recently. I saw an ad in which Oprah, famous in small part for her weight struggles, was talking about the ways being on the Weight Watchers plan has changed her life. Mainly, she said, it allowed her to be in control of her eating. And as she elaborated, I thought, well, Oprah, maybe we have more in common than I'd assumed. It was clear as she talked of her challenges that the same The same monkey -- addiction -- is on each of our backs.

(A side note here: I'm a Weight Watchers member, but this post isn't about that. Weight Watchers isn't an MLM thing, for starters -- I don't profit in any way from endorsing it. It's worked for me, but I'm all for whatever makes and keeps anyone healthy.)

Food addiction is truly a thing -- as much a thing as is addiction to alcohol or Oxycontin or sex or anything else that provides immediate gratification so intense that it's difficult to see beyond the high. It's weirder in some ways, though, because it can hide in plain sight. If you're addicted to alcohol, chances are you're not going to allow yourself to get drunk at a work lunch. Me? I've been known to be elbow-deep into the contents of the bread basket five minutes into the conversation, becoming "inebriated" right before my co-workers' eyes.

My food addiction, when I'm not actively addressing it, looks like this. I wake, and immediately my thoughts turn to what I'll eat for breakfast. If I'm in the middle of a binge cycle, chances are I ended the previous day with something sugary, usually eaten in secret -- Pop-Tarts or a bunch of Jif straight out of the jar. Or maybe I binged in the middle of the night. So, like a lab rat who's become accustomed to pressing the sugar-water lever, I'm out the door and on my way to the convenience store. My bounty? Carbs and sugar. A biscuit, maybe, with cheese and egg. Some chips. A Clif bar for now, and maybe one for later.

I settle in at work, and by mid-morning, the second Clif bar is gone and I'm wondering what I can score for lunch. When I'm managing my addiction, I pack my food at night and pre-track my nourishment for the day. But when I'm in a binge cycle, I don't begin to pack anything; if I were to do that, how could I justify grabbing a couple of pizza slices or a giant burrito? After lunch, I obsess over what I can eat later in the afternoon, when my sugar cravings seem to be the worst. Dinner? That's at least two to three helpings of whatever, the more carb-laden the better. And on and on.

I have a wonderful job that I enjoy, a loving and supportive husband and children, and an abundance of material goods. Everyone I love is healthy, and for that, my life is charmed. But as any addict knows, sensibilities and gratitude fly out the window when you're using -- bingeing, in my case. When I'm not controlling my food issues, food is absolutely controlling me. It's demoralizing and exhausting.

Any accomplishments of which I'd normally be proud pale in the harsh light of the refrigerator's open door. When I'm bingeing, I hate myself.

What causes food addiction? Theories are mixed as to its origin; chances are it's a combination of biology and environment. People who suffer early and profound losses often repress pain, then use different behaviors or substances to stuff it down when it starts to surface. In my family -- and please understand I am NOT blaming anyone in my life for my behaviors -- food was medicine. Food was comfort and recreation and reward. That's not unusual, but the way some of us process and respond to that appears to be out of the ordinary; I'm really the only person in my family of origin who has a weight problem.

Addicts often deal with accompanying issues as well; I'm not sure I believe the "addictive personality" theory, as I've never had an interest in other substances or chemicals, but I do live with the "obsessive" side of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I manage it pretty well, and, like many people afflicted with it, I've figured out how to use it to my advantage; often, people with OCD are perfectionists who strive to be high achievers. But it does feed (no pun intended) into my tendency to hyper-focus on what I'm eating, or not eating.

Other things can become part of the addiction mix, too -- in the story "Craving an Ice-Cream Fix" in the September 20, 2012, New York Times, Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, notes that the human body is biologically adapted to deal with foods found in nature, not those that are processed.

"We don't abuse lettuce, turnips, and oranges," Dr. Brownell says. "But when a highly processed food is eaten, the body may go haywire. Nobody abuses corn as far as I know, but when you process that corn into Cheetos, what happens?"

What happened to me was this: After years of alternating bingeing with leveling off, I found myself, at 49, weighing 216 pounds on a 5'5" frame. My cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure were high. Walking up a flight of stairs taxed my lungs. I couldn't wear shorts because my legs rubbed together and chafed. I had heart palpitations and sore joints. I'd already had both knees replaced, but my weight likely would cause the prosthetics to fail sooner rather than later.

I was professionally accomplished -- but the self-hate was nearly unbearable. My children had reached adulthood, and I knew that unless I took control, I likely wouldn't be around to be part of their children's lives. I was tired of being defined by the way I looked, and by what I wasn't able to do. My doctor recommended Weight Watchers, and I committed.

As anyone who deals with addiction knows, though, the story didn't end there. Several months ago, I eased up on my program, then eased up some more, then stopped attending meetings altogether. As a result, I gained back a third of the weight I'd lost. Three weeks ago, I took control again, and my behaviors are back in check -- for now, anyway. I'm not "cured," and I take this day-by-day.

As a society, we're woefully ignorant about food addiction. As evolved as we are, we still see overweight people as lazy and undisciplined. Overcoming addiction takes discipline, to be sure. But just as an alcoholic may process alcohol differently from the way someone without a drinking problem may process it, food addicts eat and react to eating differently. And we know how others regard us, and that stress may manifest itself as a desire to eat an entire cheesecake while hiding in the pantry or -- my personal favorite -- driving.

And conversely, people around us can also behave in less-than-constructive ways when we're trying to get the addiction in check. We're accused of "dieting to get attention," for example. Of wanting to be thin because we're vain. Of being obsessed with eating healthily. (And that last one may be true -- but hyper-focus is necessary when a person is trying to make a huge lifestyle change.) People sometimes say snarky things about my being "selfish" in refusing to skip my Weight Watchers meetings, or for spending time at the gym. But just as therapy can make a difference, doctors tell us exercise can help "rewire" the brain in a way that can help us manage addiction.

When a drug or nicotine addict or alcoholic decides to seek treatment, those around him or her are usually supportive. Few people urge "just one drink" or "just one cigarette." But I can't tell you how many well-meaning people in my life still say such ridiculous-to-me things as, "Just have one cookie." "Just have one helping." Or -- my personal favorite -- "Just eat less." Oh, OK. Thanks.

If you love someone who's dealing with food addiction, don't say those things. Listen and offer support, but don't offer advice unless you've been there. Most importantly, don't judge. Recognize and and affirm that losing weight and keeping it off is challenging, and feel free to encourage. Most importantly, as in all things, just be kind, and understand that in the wrong hands, that bread basket on your dinner table can be just as destructive as a stiff drink on someone else's.

And if you're struggling with food addiction, read about it. Learn to stop blaming and hating yourself. Recognize what's happening, and talk to someone. Know you're by no means alone. And consider, when you're ready, finding a way to take control.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-confidence vs. the kickball field: Does that little voice ever really leave us?

Self-esteem is a funny thing. You think yours is in good shape, and then something floors you and you realize you still need to do some work.

I was at the gym tonight, trusting my trainer as he added weight to the bar on the rack in front of me. He'd slide plates on, clip them, unclip them, slide them off, and replace them with heavier ones. We'd talk a bit as I rested, and then I'd duck under the bar, settle it on my shoulders, and lift whatever he'd served up for me.

And I'd sit down and stand up, over and over, with the bar on my back. And then I'd put it down and swing a really heavy (to me) kettle bell 20 times, and then we'd repeat the cycle.

And in the midst of conversation, he said, "You know, if you trained for another year or so, you could totally compete."

And my first thought, despite the degree to which I like to think I've evolved, was, "What? I'm not athletic. And I'm too old."

And then: "I've gained some weight back. I'm too heavy to do this. If this fat weren't slowing me down, well, then, maybe. Really, though -- no way."

But like a shy little girl, I responded, "Really? You think I could do that?"

"Sure," he replied. "You're strong and you're competitive. And you have a great work ethic. You have a ways to go, and I'd need to look up what's going on and when, but, yeah. You could totally do it."

We have a history, my body and I. It's been sick and it's been healthy. It spent a lot of years carrying too much weight for its heart to handle, and then it spent a little while -- thanks to the physiological and emotional support of Weight Watchers -- pleasantly and healthily lean.

And then it became addicted to the leanness, which then became thinness, and then undernourishment as I obsessed over every calorie I put in my mouth. (Example: I wouldn't swallow a vitamin unless I could look it up and determine its calorie content.)

This body has forever sought to find its equilibrium. And a few months ago, as I found myself agonizing over every morsel, I thought, enough. I was just tired of it all. And I joined a class at the gym and decided I'd try to shift my focus from the size of my body to the strength of my body.

And I found I liked lifting heavy things. Running has always appealed to me, but I run a certain distance and then I stop; I can't seem to motivate myself past a certain point. Strength training, though, seemed to be different. I watched as my form improved. I recognized in the mirror the dancer's body I hadn't seen since I was 18; the lean shoulders. The strong legs. A body too stocky to have developed into a ballerina's body, to be sure, but sturdy and capable in its movements.

I developed definition in my biceps. My balance began to improve. My pesky, weaker left quadriceps muscle began to respond. And, lo and behold, I began to want to fuel this new body with the food it needed -- not withhold from it, but feed it good food. Not punish myself for being hungry, but listen and respond appropriately when my stomach growled.

I felt a connection with the trainer teaching the class; smart and kind, he reminded me somewhat of my son. He was knowledgeable and committed and knew how to push me to do just enough, but not too much. So when the gym offered a great personal-training deal, I signed up.

And that takes me to tonight. And Grant, whom I believe and trust, was telling me I could possibly do this amazing thing, and after the doubt passed, I thought: "Yes. Just say 'yes.' Pretend you're encouraging your children, who you know are capable of tackling any challenge. Don't worry about the potential for failure. Set a goal, and commit to working toward it."

I'm a capable mother, a capable employee, a capable friend. I'm confident in my talents and in my ability to contribute to all facets of life in which I'm involved. I love building others up, mentoring them, helping to develop their skills and their confidence. And yet sometimes when I look inward -- all too often when I look inward -- I see the girl who was awkward and shy and chosen last for kickball. I feel her sense of being "less than." And I hear the voice that says, "You can't."

But tonight reinforced that indeed I can. I can lift heavy weights -- not above my head, but on my shoulders. And much more importantly, I can share the weight of my own challenges, my own frailties. I can let go of the need for perfection and be proud of myself for trying so hard to be healthy.

"You alone are enough," Maya Angelou wrote. "You have nothing to prove to anybody." I can remind my children of that. Someday, God willing, I'll sit on the front porch with my grandson and remind him of that.

And tomorrow, I'll hoist that bar again. And I'll remind myself.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

There is no failure here.

My niece got married yesterday. I adore her, and I adore her sister. They're my nieces by marriage, and they've remained my nieces through divorce.

I'm a fairly quiet person. And when you're quiet, you tend to hear things. I was at the gym today, basking in the glow of last night's wedding festivities, when I overheard a couple of women in the locker room talking about upcoming nuptials, presumably those of the daughter of one of them. "It's a good thing (husband's name) and I have been married so long; on his side, there are just marriage failures," she said.

I walked away because my buzz was killed, and I didn't want to hear more. The comment made me so sad. But as I walked home, started to feel angry. It was the word "failure" that set me off.

My first marriage, to my nieces' uncle, didn't succeed. We were young and made mistakes, a great many of them mine. No offense intended to my husband or my ex-husband's wife, but the divorce is my greatest regret because of the toll it took on our children.

But no one can convince me divorce equals failure -- primarily because of those children, and the hope that's evident within them as they embark on their own marriages, and the strength we continue to demonstrate as a family unit -- a nontraditional one, but a unit nonetheless.

We weren't always this functional; it took a long time for us to get to this point, and in the process, the kids sustained a lot of hurt. My ex and I lashed out at one another, pushed buttons in any way we could, and behaved in some really immature and ridiculous ways. But I choose to focus on the fact that eventually, we figured out how to relate to one another as parents -- "for the kids" as they say, but also for the sake of our own emotional health. It's not good to hate someone, especially the other person with whom you created two wonderful and deeply loved humans.

Here's what I wish I had told the woman in the locker room today about children of "failed" marriages:

  • They don't know only failure, and they don't see their parents as failures. Of course, given the choice, I daresay every child of parents who split up wish their dads and moms had worked out their differences and found a way to stay together. But children of divorce often witness the strength of single parents and benefit later on from the tenacity that was being built while they weren't aware any "life lessons" were going on. They learn to be financially responsible because money is often tight. They learn to appreciate what they're given because chances are someone had to work like hell to give it to them.
  • They seek out and value honesty, and their emotional maturity is well developed because of it. By far, the most difficult conversations in my life were the ones my children and I had when they became young adults and questioned exactly why their dad and I divorced. You want your children to adore you, and it's a risk to allow them to see that you're capable of having been a pretty flawed human being. But in most cases, if they know they're not being lied to, they can evaluate, and they can -- thankfully -- forgive.
  • They can, and often do, go on to have solid marriages of their own -- precisely because they're determined to prevent the problems that took down their parents' unions. My son and daughter, married three and two years, respectively, insist on communication in their marriages, and on heading off small issues before the problems are allowed to become big ones. 

I wish the locker-room women could know my family. At niece Alli's wedding reception last night, I sat at a table with my ex, his wife, my son, and his ex's sons. (My nieces and their parents still welcome me as family and not an "outlaw" -- a something about which I'll always be grateful). We talked and laughed -- not to impress anyone with our "example," but because we like one another and enjoy spending time together. A funny thing happens when your divorce is several years in the past; the brain pushes the bad stuff to the back and highlights the attributes in that person that allowed you to want to marry him or her in the first place. My ex is kind and funny. He's a wonderful son and brother, and a loving father. That's all I see now.

I wish they could also have seen something else. Alli's parents are divorced as well, and as her dad, Bob, began his father-of-the-bride toast, the first person he credited was Alli's mom, Phyllis, for instilling the values in Alli that made her the lovely woman she is. He praised Phyliis in a way you'd expect to hear a man praise a woman whom he continues to value, admire, and respect. It was beautiful and spoke volumes not only about Bob as a person, but about the union that created my nieces -- a union that could in no way be regarded as a failure.

We all know of marriages that are simply toxic; the partners can't abide one another but remain together. One could call this admirable; there's much to be said for placing a value on commitment. But I also ask myself what's to be gained from the resentment and martyrdom that might exist in those marriages. In those cases, does "staying together for the kids" benefit those children, or does it adversely impact their views of what marriage can be? I can't pretend to know. Would staying with my ex have harmed the kids in the long run? Could we have worked things out? We'll never know; we can simply continue to move forward, doing the best we can.

But, please, gym ladies and everyone else: Don't automatically judge divorced parents, and don't automatically consider their children as somehow "less than." My children and my niece are extraordinary, if I do say so myself. In the case of my kids, I used to tell people they were fabulous "in spite of" their dad and me, but I've seen things differently for a while now. Their dad and I chose one another, and we chose to create them, and we're pretty decent individuals, so our son and daughter are pretty great people because of us, as well ... "failure" be damned.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

One hundred years of memories, and I can't wait to hear more

My grandmother Teresa, the one with the tiny chair 

I visited my dad's 100-year-old cousin today. (First takeaway from the visit: Please, God, let me have those genes. Not just the longevity, but the one for great hearing and beautiful skin. She looks fabulous and is sharp as can be.)

I've seen Jennie once or twice over 50-plus years, but Dad had a lot of cousins and everyone was scattered, so the children and grandchildren of those cousins don't all know one another. I recognize the surnames; besides Lavias, there are DeFinos and Sodas and Romeos and Punellis and many more that I can't recall. I'm friends on Facebook with first and second cousins I've seen probably only once, if at all.

I'm curious about this side of the family. On my mom's side, we were closer; I grew up very attached to my aunt and saw my Nana quite often. I look like that side of the family, and for whatever reason, I feel more connected to them.

But the Lavia genes are in there, too. The curls. The tendency to ruminate. The slender-ish legs and big bellies. The introversion. No doubt I'm my dad's daughter.

But Dad didn't talk much about his family, and I've always wanted to know so much more. So when Jennie sent me a photograph of my paternal grandparents after she cleared out her house to move into an assisted living community, I wanted to do better than send a thank-note.

She seemed happy I wanted to visit. I hope that when I left, she was as happy as I was that I had come.

I was delighted to listen to her talk. She showed me photos of her family, told me of her childhood in Des Moines and Chicago and about a boy who was sweet on her when she was 15. She told me about my dad and his brothers as young men -- "good-lookin', every one of them."

She brought to life relatives I'd never known. My paternal grandfather, her uncle and godfather, who died when I was 4, was a carpenter at Mercy Hospital just north of downtown and walked to and from work; sometimes she'd meet him on the sidewalk and talk to him a little before she reached his house. He was so talented with his hands and could build anything, she said. (This made me laugh at the memory of my unhandy dad, who relied an awful lot on duct tape.)

She loved my uncle, my dad's oldest brother -- the one my dad seemed to see and speak to in the days before he died. His name was Emilio, but he was called E.A. or Tony or Milly; in World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Japan. He survived, but died young, in his 50s. I was 9.

"Tony was the handsome one; since he lived in California, you know, he probably could have been in movies," Jennie said. "We were the same age, so he would have been 100, too. And probably would have still looked good."

She remembered, vaguely, my dad's little sister, who died tragically at age 5, and that the family was never quite the same afterward.

My dad, she said, was the funny little one who followed his older brothers around and was close to his mother, who died when he was 16. In what was, for me, the sweetest part of the conversation, Jennie described the grandmother I never knew as being "tired, you know, with all those boys running her ragged, and with cooking all the time, and she was sick so much."

She brought my grandmother to life for me by describing the tiny rocking chair that was hers; she was only about 4 feet 9 or 10 inches tall, and it was a chair made for a child. She would have rocked my dad in that little chair.

Jennie talked about her life, too; how difficult it had been a few years ago to bury her son, who died of lung cancer; how much she still misses her parents and the siblings she's lost. How difficult it was to leave her home on the south side, to sell or give away many of her possessions and try to find space in her tiny apartment for the others she couldn't bear to part with. How the new place is fine, but it's not home.

When I was young, I had relatives in, as we called them then, nursing homes. I didn't visit those relatives enough. And although I saw my dad several times a week, there were instances in which I complained about visiting him because I believed myself to be too busy.

Maybe it's because of the degree to which I miss him, and my aunt, and my grandparents, and all the others who are no longer around to tell me the stories I crave hearing. Maybe it's because in my line of work, I understand the value of older adults and their stories. Whatever the reason, I'm unspeakably grateful for today.

And I'll keep going to see Jennie as long as she'll have me.