Saturday, May 25, 2013

"P" is for pickles. Too many pickles. And paper towels, too.

I'm not a "list" kind of person. When I go to the grocery store, I wing it.

That would be why this happens: pickles. Jars and jars of pickles.

And bottles and bottles of ketchup.

When I walk down the aisles in Hy-Vee that hold those two items, I cannot for the life of me recall whether we need them. So I buy another jar, and another bottle. And when I get home, invariably, my husband's comment is something to the effect of, "Are you OK? Next time, just don't buy them. Assume we have them. Because we do."

So I thought about why I'm incapable of not buying them, and I came up with this. It ran as an essay in the Des Moines Register on June 14, 2008, but the idiosyncrasies still hold true.


I realized when I freaked out over the paper towels that despite my efforts to the contrary, I'm growing more like my father every day.

My husband brought it to my attention. When the paper towels near the end of their roll, I take a new roll out of the pantry and set it near the spindle so whoever uses the last towel can make the switch. Admittedly, that person is usually me. No one else in my household really seems to care if there's a Bounty at the ready.

One day not long ago, I realized that there were only a few towels left before the roll would need to be replaced. So I looked in the pantry -- but no extra roll. There was no roll under the sink, either, or above the stove.

A little more stressed than I would have cared to admit, I called my husband. He was running errands, so I asked him to pick up a roll of towels. He brought them home, looked on the counter, and said, "I thought you said we were out."

"Well, no," I said. "But we're going to be out."

"You know, don't you," he said, "how weird that is." And he shook his head and walked away. I knew what he was thinking ... because I had been dumb enough to tell him about the bomb shelter.

It wasn't a bomb shelter, really, but my dad's bathroom closet when I was growing up. On its shelves were enough provisions to see us through months of house arrest. There were paper towels, of course, and toilet paper, and row upon row of deodorant, toothpaste and mouthwash.

When anyone else in the family would run out of anything, we would know just where to go, and we also knew Dad would replenish the stock every Saturday morning. He'd put on his perfectly creased slacks and sport shirt, add a gold chain or two and his toupee. We'd drive off in his massive robin's-egg-blue Lincoln Continental to Kmart, where he'd check out the blue-light specials with something resembling glee.

"Do you know that if you buy 10 of these, you save 17 cents a box?" he'd ask me as he loaded up on Kleenex, Old Spice or cellophane tape. Soon, the cart would be full, and we'd be on our way. Sometimes we'd stop at my uncle's so my dad could boast about his savings.

Then it was time to go home and unpack the treasures, and I remember how much I liked the way the neat, full shelves looked. The mouthwash would peek over the Kleenex, which would form a backdrop for the toothpaste boxes. When he was finished, Dad would sigh contentedly and close the door.

You'd have only to survey my pantry to know I didn't inherit the organization gene, but I did seem to inherit the need to be well-stocked. A half-filled refrigerator unnerves me, and I'll make a special drive to the salon to buy a backup can of hairspray, even if I took the cap off a new one just that morning. All is right with the world if my son has not only a second set of razor blades, but a third.

I certainly can understand where my dad's compulsions came from: His parents were immigrants, and he grew up in the Depression, appreciating the things he had and longing for things his family couldn't afford.

That all must have made an impression: He has always been able to pinch a penny until it bled; in fact, he was able to pay cash for my Drake education -- a fact that, as the mother of a current college student, blows me away. And despite all our ribbing over the years, at 88, Dad is living comfortably in retirement.

At half my dad's age, I have a bank balance and a 401(k) that are a lot smaller than they should be. But his ways have made an impact: My car is 10 years old, and I'll drive it till it dies. I weigh each purchase so carefully that my teenagers will urge me now and again to buy something for myself. I turn the ketchup bottles on their heads in the fridge to wring out every last drop.

And if paper towels are on sale, of course, I buy rolls of them.

Monday, May 20, 2013

"O" is for over; for my kids, school is no longer in session. Strangely, that makes me sad.

Scott and Caroline, left, waiting for the school bus with the neighbor kids, circa 1997
It's over, and I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around it. For my family, as it exists right now, school is over.

I can't remember a time when I didn't love school. I didn't always like waking up early; there were teachers I didn't like, and I'm sure that from time to time, there was a test I wasn't prepared for. But I was a good student, and school was my comfort zone.

When I became a mother, I tried to pass that love of learning to my kids, and it "took" in various ways with each of them. Although they loved being read to, each went through a stage during which he or she didn't care to read for pleasure, and that wounded me.  But that worked itself out, and now I'm happy to report that I think each of my children will be a lifelong learner.

The formal part is over now, though, unless one of them decides to go to grad school. I can see that happening eventually, but if and when it does, I won't be a part of that experience; they're adults now. So for all intents and purposes, they're done. Each has at least one bachelor's degree.  I'll never again be the mom of a student. 

That makes me feel a little unmoored. I was always the mom who bought school supplies as soon as the lists came out, matching the pencil case to the scissors and the Trapper Keeper. I was the mom who signed up for the first slot at conferences, the one who happily served as PTO president, baked for bake sales and worked the book fairs.

As the kids grew older, I was still involved, chaperoning and volunteering and chairing boards. I believed in the importance of those activities, but I also wanted to send a message to my kids and to their teachers and administrators: In our family, school is very, very important.

There was more, though: I derived personal satisfaction from the good test scores, the pleasant conferences, the results that indicated although our family had its challenges, my kids were able to excel. Children whose parents are divorced are sometimes labeled as being at risk for certain educational challenges, and it meant a lot to me to help reinforce to my kids and to the people teaching them that that didn't have to be the case.

Most of all, though, I loved seeing the learning process take root and bloom. I loved seeing the light bulb turn on above each child's head when he or she learned to read. I loved watching music captivate Caroline and philosophy and history allow Scott to become the intellectual I always knew he was.

I don't mean to be melodramatic; I know my kids will continue to learn daily, as I have. And Caroline is a teacher now, so I'm sure I'll be able to get my "classroom fix" every now and again. But I'll miss the buildings and campuses that enveloped and nurtured my kids as they were students, and I'll miss the extraordinary men and women who gave of themselves to impart knowledge to my family.

I'm not a grandparent yet, and I sure don't want to rush anybody. But I'm calling dibs now, and I want this to be on record: When there are little ones in the picture and it's time to take anyone school-supply shopping, I'm coming along. I'll even foot the bill. And if I have my way, the pencil case will always, always match the Trapper Keeper.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"N" is for Nancy

I'm never quite sure what I actually remember from my early childhood as opposed to words and images that disguise themselves as memories, or stories I've been told that then become stories I think I remember on my own.

I know for a fact, though, that I remember Nancy Sinatra. I was 3 or 4 the first time I saw her, and I do recall being mesmerized.

I was in our little ranch house on the outskirts of West Des Moines, and she was on a variety show of some kind -- "Laugh In," maybe?  And she was singing "These Boots are Made for Walkin'".

I was a little, little child, so I hadn't yet formed an idea of what beauty was. But I recall her shiny blond hair, and I recall those boots. Considering that I've spent much of my life wanting to be stylish and blond and succeeding at neither, though, I do wonder what sort of ideal may have been cemented in my psyche that day.

My infatuation with Nancy didn't last; as I grew, I discovered the Osmonds, the Jackson 5, and, of course, Tony DeFranco, and poor Nancy was left at the bottom of the little suitcase in which I carried my 45-rpm records. But she didn't leave me altogether; Kevin and I were watching "The Voice" last night, and one of the singers was wearing high, patent-leather boots, and I found myself saying that I needed some of those.

"What boots?" he asked, confused.

"The Nancy Sinatra ones," I replied.

He wasn't sure what I meant, but it didn't matter.  In my mind, high boots -- go-go boots, if you will -- will always be Nancy Sinatra boots. And once I finish losing weight and my calves are small enough for them, I am going to indulge a 46-year-old fantasy and buy a pair. And I may even wear them in public.

The "Boots" song itself is kind of dumb; I read that it was written as if being sung by a 16-year-old who was giving a 40-year-old man the brush-off. Gross. And it's also filled with words that aren't really words, like "truthin'."

But even to a 4-year-old, it was clearly cool.  And Nancy -- she was coolness personified.  Frank Sinatra's daughter, and a blond Italian to boot!  How often does that really happen to my people? I didn't understand artificial hair color back then, but although she had dark roots, even those looked good.

Nancy is probably in her 70s now, but I imagine she's still cool.  And I'll bet she can still rock a pair of go-go boots.  We'll see if I, too, can pull it off.

Are you ready, boots? 

Start walkin'.

Monday, May 13, 2013

"M" is for memories

Two years ago on Mother’s Day, Caroline gave me a bracelet.  Oddly enough at my advanced age, it was my first charm bracelet.

I’d collected memories in other ways; in junior high, for example, I went through autograph books like nobody’s business. (I didn’t have autographs of famous people, but of my classmates; we all seemed to be “2 good 2 be 4 gotten.”)

Later on, I collected Wedgwood china, and I tried for a while to collect memorabilia from different political campaigns and movies. But nothing stuck … until this bracelet.

Even though I don’t remember having owned a charm bracelet when I was young, I doubt the available charms would have been as specific as the ones that decorate my bracelet today, and that’s what attracts me to the idea of collecting them. The company that makes these charms really seems to have one for every imaginable location, pastime or scenario.

Caroline started me out with a pearl “mother” charm; from there, I’ve purchased, or been gifted, charms to commemorate not only my trip to the UK but also my alma mater, my good friend and my dog.

I can look on my left wrist and see the Union Jack, a scroll and a doghouse. The memories are instant, and are far more portable than carrying around one of those old autograph books.

What’s more, after I’m gone one day, this hopefully will fall into one of those “treasured possession” categories for my daughter … who started the whole thing to begin with.

I’ve always been somewhat nostalgic, but as we age, memories take on a whole different significance. How wonderful to have so many of them bound, tangibly, where I can see them, and in such a nice package.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"L" is for longitude and latitude; who knows where life will take these kids?

"L" is for latitude and longitude. Years ago, the coordinates of a town in South Africa wouldn't have mattered to me a whole lot. Now, I find myself looking them up.

When he was a sophomore at Iowa State, my son Scott met a girl named Katleho -- "Kat," for short. I noticed he was talking about her a great deal, and although he claimed they were "just friends," I knew it was just a matter of time.

I met her not long after, and I found out a few things -- her parents had passed away.  She was from South Africa but was living in Ames with her aunt and uncle while attending Iowa State. She was planning to major in finance, but also wanted to be a musician.

Life hadn't dealt her a great hand, but she was strong.  And she and my son seemed to be very fond of one another.

Flash-forward a few years. Scott has graduated and is working; Kat will graduate soon. She leaves tomorrow for South Africa, where she'll work for a few months before coming back to start her senior year. And then she'll come back, and then the two of them likely will talk about making their lives together.

Speaking of latitudes and longitudes -- far-away ones -- I'm not sure where they'll choose to make a home. They may settle in the U.S. They may spend some time in South Africa. Or they might compromise and live in the U.K. To them, it really doesn't matter; the world is small enough, via FaceTime and Skype and all the other methods now available, to keep loved ones close.

When it comes to the two of them, I do a lot of sitting back and watching. Their story is already unusual enough; who would have thought these two would find one another?  But the fact that they are so good at meshing their lives and their beliefs and their cultures is a thing to behold.

When I asked Scott just today if the interracial aspect of their relationship ever poses any challenges, he said it does not, nor does he expect it to. Keep in mind we're only decades removed from a time when they could have been thrown in jail because of their association with one another.

As the world truly does become smaller, we'll likely see more and more stories like Scott's and Kat's. It makes me proud indeed that they're helping to make this planet a more color-blind one, one with respect for all beliefs and cultures. It won't happen overnight, but they serve as a reminder that we're on the right track.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Learning as we go ... "K" is for Kevin

Sometimes marriage is just this side of perfection; other times, it's so, so hard. But if you're lucky enough to continually learn from the person you are married to ... well, you are pretty lucky.

Like most people, I think, I'm married to someone who's not a whole lot like me.  He's good with numbers; I'm not. He doesn't like sugar; I wonder how that's even possible.  He doesn't have to have the kitchen clean before he can relax enough to enjoy dinner; I do. He does tend to be a little moody now and again, but by and large, he's a pretty easy-going guy.

I'd be lying if I were to say I'm a quick study, but I know enough to realize that the whole easy-going thing is where I'm lacking. So I'm lucky, because on the days I'm willing to sit back and be quiet, Kevin is a pretty good teacher.

One thing I really don't like is unfairness, and suffice it to say Kevin has had to put up with quite a bit of that. This is my blog post and not his, so I won't go into detail, but a situation in his life causes him a lot of hurt, and the way it looks now, the situation seems as if it will persist for the foreseeable future.

If I were in his position, people would feel my wrath on a regular basis. But somehow, he manages to not simply ignore the situation, but turn the other cheek. He seems to feel that if he can just be patient, the wrongs will right themselves.

I have to admit they might ... but my nature would be to simply help them along by trying to force those who need to accept responsibility to accept it. But, says Kevin, "You can't do that. You can't make anyone accept responsibility for anything."  And he's right.

When I'm angry about something, I feel that anger physically. My cheeks flush. My heart pounds. I'm sure my blood pressure rises. Kevin seems to experience none of those reactions. He may become quiet and sad, but nothing unhealthy happens to him. That's a behavior I'd definitely like to emulate.

During my formative years, I often heard the Bible passage that promises the meek will inherit the Earth. People who could be defined as "meek" have never appealed to me, to be honest; my inclination is to help "meek" people build some backbone, lash out, talk back.

I'm not sure I'd describe my husband as "meek," but he'd fit that description a whole lot more closely than I would. And if we both were to die this second, I have no doubt he'd be invited into Heaven with open arms, while God would likely tell me, "You -- not so fast. You have some things to work on."

There have been times I've reacted less than patiently when he's chosen not to address the situation that's causing him pain. But I wonder sometimes if my frustration is actually borne of the fact that I wish I could let things go. And that I know I really should strive to be a better person.

Kevin is not perfect, but he's really, truly good. I know myself well enough not to expect miracles, but if that osmosis thing really works, I guess I could be in better standing simply by virtue of proximity.

Friday, May 10, 2013

An unsung hero of a dad -- "J" is for Jon

Jon Gyldenvand with two daughters -- baby Kelli and me, looking cheery -- in 1967

(Note: This first appeared in the Des Moines Register in June 2011.)

Imagine this: You're 22 and newly married. You and your wife are working hard at your first jobs and trying to make enough money to cover your expenses. Times are tough, but you're in love and you have your whole lives ahead of you, so even on rough days, your optimism tends to trump everything else.

Then one day, you learn that your wife's mother is very ill; so ill, in fact, that she doesn't have long to live. If that weren't sad enough, she'll be leaving behind a 2-year-old daughter -- your wife's little sister. For the next two years, you're juggling working and serving in the Iowa National Guard with helping to care for your mother-in-law and a toddler.

When your wife's little sister is barely 4, your mother-in-law dies. Your father-in-law, in his late 40s, must keep working full-time, so the question arises: Who is going to help raise this little girl?

You and your wife step up, of course. Your father-in-law and the little girl move in with you and your wife in your tiny house. You're 24 -- 24! -- and your life changes forever.

Although you would never admit this, you become the unsung hero. You and your wife go on to have two kids of your own, but for all intents and purposes, you have three. It's you who takes the little girl to Indian Princesses and teaches her to ride a horse. You give her a giant set of professional markers to foster her love of art. To encourage her love of reading and writing, you buy her Big Chief tablets and all the books her shelf can hold.

She's a complicated little girl -- smart, but also sad, withdrawn and socially unsure of herself, and you're the one who hangs in there with her. Her sister -- more of a mother to her now -- and her father become frustrated with her at times, but you see only the positives. You keep your cool during the bad times; you refocus her, teaching her to drive a boat and love the water. School comes easily to her, and her self-esteem grows.

By the time she's a teenager, things are looking up. Your business is thriving, and you build a big house. You're working long hours, but still, your family comes first. You coach ball teams and buy a place at the lake so the kids will be encouraged to value family time as much as you do. You teach the girl about tying sailors' knots; you provide her with books from your own library to challenge her. You teach her to drive.

But still, she has a father. You're relegated to an undefined place. You refer to the little girl as your daughter sometimes in social circles, just to avoid explaining the whole situation.

But what are you, really? "Brother-in-law" doesn't work. The girl goes on family vacations with you, your wife and your kids. She has been brought up as a sibling to your son and daughter. Your parents are her grandparents. But things are what they are, so you sit back and try not to sweat the details.

Fast-forward. Your father-in-law begins working for you; he remarries and leaves your home after 15 years. The girl graduates from college, marries, has kids, divorces, and marries again. During rough times, you're there with open arms and words of wisdom.

The years continue to pass and your father-in-law becomes very ill. Your wife and the girl help his wife care for him. On a Thursday in March, he passes away. The road has been a tough one, and the girl is a little shell-shocked, a little sad, and a little lost.

But she turns around and you're still there, as you've always been.

You're all the father she has left now, but she can let you know this now: You're not the default dad. You're the Indian Princess/horseback-riding dad, the one who had paid the dues and never been rewarded.

I don't know how much of a reward this is, but I'm the girl and it's Father's Day, and its time to thank you, Jon Gyldenvand, for the drying of tears and the reassurances and the refusal to see anyone in anything but the best possible light. Thank you for your generosity and your warmth of spirit and for turning the boat around and around until I finally was brave enough to get up on skis.

Thank you, most of all, from accepting a challenge that would have felled many another man. Thanks in large part to you, the sad, scared little girl -- the one you wouldn't back down from -- has turned out all right.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"I" is for Isis, my nurse and protector

I'm on Day Four of a mystery illness that's really starting to tick me off, and I'm reminded of just how much 20 pounds of noisy rat terrier have changed our lives.

"I" is for Isis.  She's many things, but lately, she's been my protector.

This respiratory thing has rendered me unable to do much more than wander around the house as if I'm walking through soup. Mainly, I sleep.  And when I sleep, Isis is there, guarding me.

Sometimes at night, she'll sleep, too, curled around my legs. But in the daytime, if I'm in bed, she'll stand sentry, growling at anyone who enters the room.

I've always loved our dogs, but Isis is different. She came along shortly after both my kids had left the nest; in fact, Scott picked her out for me, from the animal shelter in Ames, and Caroline and her friend Kelsey made the trip north to meet her and bring her home.

Apparently the part of my personality that needed to nurture someone or something came to the forefront, and this noisy little girl terrier jumped in to fill a void.

Kevin is crazy about her, too, but make no mistake -- she's my dog.  And right now, she's especially my dog. She can tell something is not quite right, and she's trying her darnedest to make it so. A while ago, she brought one of her rawhides and dropped it on my stomach. When I cough, she cocks her head at me, then gives me messy dog kisses. She gives what she can.

I read a saying not long ago about the fact that although our dogs are only a part of our lives, we're 100 percent of theirs. But as I look into the kind brown eyes of this little pup, I think she knows that in all actuality, she is, as they say, the one who rescued us.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"F is for fusion, "G" is for grammar, and all rolled up, they make up my comfort zone. Bazinga.

Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon  Cooper, rolling his tongue. I cannot do this. It's genetic.

"F" is for fusion, and "G" is for grammar. But this post really isn't about either.

It's about The Big Bang Theory. If you watch the show, you know it's about scientists. So while it's a stretch, "fusion" makes sense. As does "grammar," as it's around this area of my life that I tend to resemble one of the main characters.

When it comes to The Big Bang Theory, I came late to the party, beginning to watch only a few months ago. During the height of my freelancing, I was gone most evenings, so TV wasn't a huge part of my life. But when things became a little calmer and I started spending more time at home, I found myself flipping channels every now and again.

"You HAVE to watch this show," my husband said. And my stepson added, "There's this character, Sheldon, and you're just like him."

I wouldn't say I'm JUST like Sheldon Cooper,  but there are similarities. People who have spent any time with me could tell you I like to be right, and I've even been told that I'm -- ahem -- a little obnoxious about areas in which I have a little expertise, grammar being one of them.  I make my living partly on knowing how to use grammar, and although I love social media, I mourn what it's done to the King's English.

But I digress.

The Big Bang Theory appeals to me for other reasons, with most of those revolving around Sheldon Cooper as well. As the only girl in my entire Catholic grade school who didn't have a mom, I felt different, and as a result, I isolated myself to some degree.  I had friends, but truth be told, I preferred my books and my tablets and my own thoughts. I was taller and wore glasses and had a stammer that came to the forefront when I had to speak in front of the class.  I had a touch of OCD that manifested itself in terms of repetitive "checking" -- door locks. Stove knobs. Faucets. (Still have that one. Yep, I'm a ball of fun.)

Needless to say, in those days, I didn't feel pretty or funny or ever quite "good" enough socially. Ah, but I was smart, and I say that not to boast but to tell you that my formative years were not all Sylvia Plath-meets-Mean-Girls.

I was this girl: I earned perfect scores on my ITBS every year. If someone organized a spelling bee, I won it. Yes, I was a tad obnoxious, a la Sheldon, but some good things were forming in my character: I escaped into some great books and was bolstered by a few good teachers who saw my potential. I started keeping journals, some of which evolved into my first work on my high-school newspaper.

I was not a genius, but I was most comfortable in the space made possible by a good, strong brain. And when the glasses gave way to contacts and the braces came off and I stopped growing so everyone else could pass me up, the brain was still there. And it never forgot those challenging years, so I like to think perhaps it allowed my empathy to evolve to make up for the times I was so hard on myself.

The guys on Big Bang Theory are the male versions of the person I remember being. They're much smarter, but they're flummoxed by Halloween parties and malls and anything requiring a clear understanding of the nuances of emotional interaction. They have their white boards.  I had my books and my notebooks.

Just as I evolved, those characters are evolving, too. But every time they eschew a night out for a Halo marathon, I see myself.  As I watch from the outside in, I wish I could have regarded my brain for all the great things it gave me instead of wishing I could have traded it for Olivia Newton-John's bangs and Marcia Brady's cute cheerleading outfits.

As crazy as this sounds, Big Bang Theory is my comfort zone, and it allows me to laugh at myself.  Some could say it makes nerds cool; I'm not sure I agree.  But it humanizes them and makes them relatable to the cool kids, and from time to time, it also redefines the memories of an awkward girl, taking her strangeness and making it perhaps not so strange in the eyes of the sitcom-watching universe.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"E" is for elegance.

Grandma, a long, long time ago

(Note: This essay originally appeared in the Des Moines Register. When I was trying yesterday to come up with a topic that started with "E," my husband said, "How about 'elegance'? You've always said your grandma was the most elegant person you've ever known. Write about her."  I think she would have liked this piece, so I'm recycling it.)

Eleven years ago Christmas, my grandmother died. The date is significant: My grandmother was a diva before the word entered the vernacular, and family members joke that she wanted to make darned sure no one forgot the anniversary of her death.

Even more significant to me, though, is the fact that she wasn't my grandmother at all, not if you're a purist who would classify a grandmother as a flesh-and-blood relative. But Louise Renda Gyldenvand was more a grandparent to me than any of my "real" grandparents, most of whom died before I knew them.

Grandma came into my life shortly after I arrived. Her son was preparing to marry my sister, who is 20 years older than I. The first mention of her is in my baby diary, written by my sister because our mother was ill after my birth. "Louise brought a beautiful velvet romper suit from Younkers," the entry reads. "Lisa is so chubby I'm afraid she has already outgrown it."

As also is chronicled in my baby diary, my mother never shook the infection that took hold of her when I was a newborn, and cancer claimed her when I was 4. My sister and brother-in-law, Teresa and Jon, took me in and raised me; they took my father in as well. And they started their own family soon after, giving me siblings.

Into this confusion swept Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandma's parents, Nana and Papa. Nana and Papa, John and Elizabeth Renda, lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa. In the two houses that made up their little compound on Des Moines' west side, I became the princess.

Whenever anyone says, "Oh, it's so sad that your mom died when you were little," I wish that person could have known the kindness with which my new relatives treated me. Part of their regard for me was, I believe, borne of their being Italian. Children are revered in the Italian culture. There is no such thing as "seen but not heard."

Every Sunday at noon, when we walked into Nana and Papa's house for dinner, I was handed peanut M&Ms and a Pepsi, even though I made a mess every time by dropping the candies in the soda to watch their colored shells dissolve. And although I was too little for the Chinese checker game in the foyer closet, I could play with the marbles, even if I had lost some the previous time.

It's impossible to approach Christmas without thinking of them -- in particular, Grandma. Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was a child's wonderland come to life: elegant tree, presents and trays upon trays of sweets. And there was Grandma herself, elegance personified -- lacy apron over festive pantsuit, planting kisses on our cheeks, sometimes leaving traces of lipstick or flour. Telling me, awkward and frizzy-haired as I was, that I looked beautiful.

When it was time to open presents, hers were always my favorites. Books, usually -- Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott when I was little. Later, the Bronte sisters and poetry. And always, always Readers' Digest Condensed Books from her own shelf.

Grandma was not a conventional type of Italian nana; she preferred decolletage to housedresses, heels to oxfords. She smelled not of pasta and sauce, but of Tabu, her signature fragrance. She was artistic, painting china and doing elaborate needlepoint. She believed in her talents and loved the praise she received when she showed them off.

She also believed in me. Perhaps because of the early loss of my mother, I was slow to trust. In a book of poetry Grandma self-published when I was a young teenager, she called me "aloof," a word that stung at the time, but was probably accurate. And yet she, along with Grandpa and her parents, persevered. They loved me wholeheartedly and accepted that I loved back cautiously.

As I grew into my teens, I began to lower the wall that had kept me from being as demonstrative as I so wanted to be. I could reach outside myself and visit on my own after school, to sit in Grandma's kitchen as she baked. We would talk about boys I liked, about my schoolwork and my plans for college and for life. Grandma had quit teaching when she married, and she told me again and again to work, and to keep working. She kept trying to make me believe I was beautiful, but she praised my brains more.

When you're a child who has lost a parent -- even if you have the most wonderful parent-substitute -- you are different. The effortless way Grandma and her family accepted and loved me made me feel less so. Names and labels are important to children, and labeling relationships was a big deal to me. I may not have had a mother, but I had a Grandma. She called me her granddaughter. She went a long way toward making me feel whole.

It was hard to let her go. It still is. She died in the early hours of Christmas morning after having spent Christmas Eve surrounded by all of us. My sister and I had stroked her smooth skin and told her how lovely she was. She wasn't able to speak, but her dry lips shook a little, and she smiled.

I think of that moment as I move around my kitchen. I'm not much of a cook, but I'm making trays this Christmas, the way she did -- different kinds of cookies, even candies if I can manage it.

I wish I has told her, when I had the chance, how much I appreciated her for loving me. For being my Grandma. She would have told me it took no effort at all -- that God had given her three grandchildren, and I was simply the eldest of them.

Friday, May 3, 2013

"D" is for donuts.

I will always love you, little bags of Hostess Donettes.

"D" is for donuts. I miss them. I do.

If I shared that with my Weight Watchers leader, she'd say, "Well, have one!" And if I did, I'm sure the world wouldn't end. But here's why I just can't take the chance.

Before I started losing weight, I'd frequently buy those little bags of Hostess chocolate donuts, the waxy ones, under the guise of having them on hand for my 16-year-old stepson, Logan.  In all reality, half the bag would be gone before Logan even became aware they were in the kitchen.  And all too often, I'd wake up in the middle of the night to let the dog out, then finish the bag before I went back to bed.

It wasn't just donuts; I'd make pasta and have three helpings of it.  Pizza?  I'd eat half a large, easily. Pop? Gummy worms?  Yes, and yes. And don't even get me started on pancakes.

I equate my lack of control to this: I know a young man who has an alcohol problem.  He's battled his demons for a long time; he'll stay sober for a while, but then he'll start drinking again because "I can handle it now." Before you know it, he's getting into bar fights and jeopardizing even partial custody of his child.

My eating wasn't dangerous, but it was just about that insane; I'd eat cleanly for a while, then go back to the donuts. Every time. So just as I wouldn't tell the young man with the drinking problem to "have just one beer," I don't feel it's healthy for me to have just one donut.

Just as many smokers wake up one day and decide to quit smoking cold-turkey, I made the decision one day in March that enough was enough. But I'm still vulnerable. Why? Unlike cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and anything else that's addicting, food is everywhere. To stay on track with my weight loss, I need boundaries, and I place imaginary ones between myself and everything that's not on my plan.

I've been told what I'm doing is not sustainable in the long term. With all due respect, I disagree. The food I eat amounts to about 1,200 calories a day. I'm not starving; in fact, I'm healthier than I've been in years, and my physician is totally on board. I simply eat the points I'm allotted, and no extra, ever. When I get to my goal weight, I'll add more points. And for now, I'm doing just fine.

My friend/cousin who is doing Weight Watchers with me told our last meeting that the word that comes to mind when she thinks about her weight-loss success is "obsessed," and I agreed that I feel similarly. That may sound worrisome, but if you know me, you're aware I'm often laser-focused on, or obsessed with, different things -- projects at work. Articles I'm working on. Elements of my kids' lives. If I care about something, I'm very serious about it. So to me, "obsession" in this sense isn't pathological. It's a focus that helps ensure I'll do what I need to do.

In the wise words of Yoda, "Do, or do not.  There is no 'try'."

Each of us knows what we have to do to reach a goal, and for me, deviation is not an option. Discipline is. Will I ever eat a donut again?  I'm sure I will, but my goal is to have developed the inner "tools" by that time to leave a few in the bag for somebody else.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"C" is for Caroline, of course.

Caroline at 3, offering advice and direction
My daughter’s name appears on this page all the time, so I won’t bore readers with yet another Caroline story.  I’ll sum her up this way:

When I was about 34 weeks pregnant with Caroline, the younger of my two children, I experienced a complication, and my doctor ordered an ultrasound. This was 1991 and ultrasound machines were nowhere near as high-tech as they are today, but the way she happened to be lying gave us a perfect view of her little face.

And I swear to you – even in utero, she looked irritated.  In a “Let’s get on with this and get me out of here” kind of way.

Caroline is many things – talented. Smart. Kind. Beautiful. Driven. But she would also be the first to admit that she’s frequently irritated. And always in a hurry.

When she was in elementary school, she was more than ready for middle school.  Halfway through middle school, she was itching to go to high school. And her senior year? Forget it. She was halfway out the door.

This year’s been much the same. She’ll graduate from Drake in a couple of weeks, but she was ready to leave last semester. Not that she hasn’t loved being there; she most certainly has. But Caroline is always ready for the next thing.

And that next thing is a job. She’ll not only teach vocal music at Hiatt Middle School, but she has plans to start a hip-hop aerobics group. And a show choir. And, oh yes, in her spare time, stage a version of the musical “Fame.”

As her mother, my job has perpetually been to do the following: Nod appreciatively, maybe offer a comment, then get the heck out of the way.

She may be 21, but I don’t see any reason to start doing things differently now.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"B" is for Brandy -- the fine girl, not the drink

Laura Ingalls Wilder, not Brandy

The summer I was 9, the song “Brandy” by Looking Glass was all over the radio.  It was a strange summer for popular music; it was 1972, and if this tells you anything, the year’s top singles were “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, “Alone Again, Naturally” by Gilbert O’Sullivan, and the dreaded “American Pie” by Don McLean.  (Unlike almost everyone else on the planet, I hate “American Pie” – always have, and always will. Yes, I know the story behind it, and I still hate it. It’s just too danged long.)

But, “Brandy” – now, that was a song.  According to Wikipedia, here’s the story:

“The (song’s) lyrics tell of Brandy, a barmaid in a port town. She wins the admiration of many of the sailors, but she cannot return their feelings – the love of her life was unwilling to abandon his true love, the sea.

"In spite of this, Brandy continues to love the sailor and wears a braided silver chain with a locket that bears his name. It has been suggested that the song was inspired by the real life story of Mary Ellis, whose grave resides in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where the band was formed.”

At 9, I was in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books – which I now firmly believe were written by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, but that’s fodder for another nerd-girl blog post. I mooned over the courtship of Laura and Almanzo, becoming almost apoplectic when one Friday afternoon, a petulant Laura refused Almanzo’s offer of a ride back to town, thus forcing herself to stay the weekend in the home of the crazy lady with the knife. 

In my little head in 1972, Laura Ingalls and Brandy the Barmaid combined and blurred in some kind of old-time romantic soup. I had read the story of the Mary Ellis grave in a magazine article about the song, each time I heard “Brandy,” I thought of the ghost of Mary – looking like Laura in 1800s garb – haunting her own gravestone, mooning for her absent sailor even after her death. 

“Brandy” is on my iPod, and I still think of the ghost story when I listen to it.  But I also think of the summer of 1986, when I was about to marry my kids’ dad and visited his small Indiana hometown for the first time.

The town was so small you could walk from one end to the other, and I fell in love with it. Each time I hear the lyric, “At night, when the bars close down/Brandy walks through a silent town…” I think of Redkey, Indiana, and how amazed I was that a person could literally walk through a town, all of it, without even stopping.

If you’re interested in doing a little ghost-conjuring of your own, here’s Brandy.