Friday, June 29, 2007

Repenting for past sins

Most 12 step programs require that the member try to make amends or set things right with anyone they have injured. Are we as humans under a moral or spiritual obligation to right whatever wrongs we can in our lives? And, if so then just how far are we expected to go? When is the debt satisfied?

Why do I ask? Well that requires a story.

In the neighborhood diner where I regularly eat, I often see this very cute older couple. The woman is in a wheelchair and has apparently had a stroke and is unable to walk and only has use of one arm and her speech has a lisp. It is pretty obvious that the man dotes on her and takes great pains to care for her. She is always very well dressed in coordinated outfits and even has on earrings and a brooch or necklace, there is always a small handbag looped over the back of her chair and it always matches the shoes she wears etc. It is very apparent that someone is taking more then the customary care you would expect for someone so disabled. I have always admired the way the man talks to her and cares for her and wondered how many years they have been married, and thought about the kind of love it takes to be that nurturing and loving for so many years. More then once I have said to myself......Boy, I wish I could find someone that would want to care for me like that in my old age, regardless of what my infirmities might be.

One day when going to the diner for dinner, I happen to park in the spot directly in front of a mini van and notice this man get out and head to the passenger side cargo door, I then saw the woman sitting in her chair in the back of the van. The van did not have an electric chair lift and so I sat in my car and watched as this man spent a great deal of time and effort unloading and align ramps and struggled to wheel the woman and her chair out of the van, then replace everything and lock up the vehicle. Inside, I watched him separate her chicken from the bones and cut everything into tiny pieces and serve her; and, the whole time I was thinking about the other struggles this man must face on a daily bases to care for his wife, and wondered how long he has cared for her and much longer he would have the physical strength and emotional stamina to continue.

One morning I happen to get the chance to leave work early so I decided to attend the early mass at my church. I was early and found the church doors were still locked. As I was waiting on the steps for the doors to be opened the man from the restaurant came and joined me and we started to talk. I started to tell him how much I admired him and his care and dedication to his wife and he stopped me and told me this story. He said:

“Arleen and I are not married. Oh, we were once a very long time ago, and we have three children together. But, I was a first class bastard and I mistreated her and the children terribly. I was quite a charmer in those days and I knew it and I had an ego to match, so I was never faithful to her. I also had a serious alcohol problem and I would often come home drunk and take it our on her and the boys. I put them all through hell, until the day I just walked away and never looked back. I have no idea how she managed for so many years to raise and support our boys alone, but, she did a wonderful job.”

“I have to admit that I was hell on wheels for many years; I tramped all over the world doing as I pleased and living the party life. Somehow, I still managed to start my own business; a small but successful import/export company. Oh, I finally got sober, remarried and had a second family but I never told them about Arleen and the boys, and I never tried to contact them, and over the years it began to nag at me. Finally, after my second wife died I decided it was time to face my past and began to look for my first family. Arleen had taken the children and moved from the coast, back to the St. Louis area to be closer to her family and eventually remarried and settled here. By the time I found her she was widowed and had just had a debilitating stroke and was living in a convalescent home. My sons were scattered across the country struggling with how to best care for their Mother, and as you can imagine, they wanted no part of me. Well, to make a long story short I felt I owed it to all of them to do what I could to help as a way of making things right for my past mistakes, and I felt the God was telling me that I needed to take on Arleen’s care as my penance for my sins against her and my sons. So that is how Arleen came to be in my care.”

This mans actions are very admirable and I applaud him for them. But, I would not consider his actions to be the norm, and it brings me back to my original question. Just how far would you go to make amends, or repent for the sins of your past?

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Oldest of Thirteen

Whenever I am asked the question “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” and I respond with something like, “I am the oldest of thirteen” I get a look from people that can only be described as completely incredulous.

Growing up in a time and place where large families were the norm I always thought the reaction was rather odd. As I got out into the world, I learned just how rare my family and my community really were even though that first time reaction still catches me by surprise.

When I first starting getting involved with single’s websites and going to single’s get-togethers, I found I was hesitant to say how many siblings I had out of fear that any prospective suitor would be put off. I finally reached the point where my large family was the first thing I mentioned about myself. If knowing my immediate family consisted of more than sixty people and was still growing did not have the gentleman shaking in his boots then I knew I had a keeper.

Usually, one of the first questions I am asked is, “What is it like growing up with that many people and only one bathroom?” Somehow I do not remember the bathroom situation as being a major problem, but then, for quite a while we used an out-house sitting at the edge of the backyard.

What I do remember is going through many phases while growing up. I had my Cinderella phase, where I felt destined to be the ugly duckling of a spinster slaving away, caring for a house full of ungrateful men. I did, after all, have nine brothers and it often seemed the rule book was biased toward the males of the household.

I also went through my enlightenment phase, where I just wanted to take my parents and shake some sense into them. Didn’t they know where all those babies came from, and how to prevent them? Didn’t they know how much it would cost to educate all of them? Didn’t they care that others thought we were poor and deprived? Hadn’t they read about the benefits of population control?

Then, of course, I had one totally embarrassing phase where every time I was out somewhere with the youngest kids, someone would mistake them for mine. At seventeen, did I really look old enough to have six kids? Once, at the grocery store, I had the task of babysitting the little ones while my mother shopped. I lined them all up on the brick ledge in front of the widow by the doorway with some candy. Folks entering the store would often stop and make some comment on how cute they all were, or just shake their heads in amazement. I lost count of how many asked me if they were all mine, so finally I reached my breaking point. The next person that asks that question was told “yes they are all mine and I have six older ones at home besides.” I though she was going to swallow her teeth in shock.

I’ve often read or heard were someone would make the statement that they “grew up poor” or even “dirt poor” well, we many have been poor but I don’t think any of us kids ever knew it. Being the oldest, I was more aware of the financial struggles in the household than the others because my mother tended to use me as her sounding board and possibly confided more to me because she had no one else to talk to. That grew from the frustration and isolation that came from our moving to a rural area when I was twelve, and several years before she was able to drive. Once Mom got her license she became very involved in church and civic groups, and was able to take a bigger part in the daily operation of the family business. Once she was able to make friends among the ladies of the community, Mom stopped using me as her confidant . However, it was not always for the better where I was concerned. The more involved my mother became in outside interests, the more I was expected to pick up the slack at home. But, with my mother’s mobility also came more excursions and adventures for the children. Where my mother went also meant that some lucky kids would be chosen to go along, so everyone’s world got expanded as a result.

The phase that I am the least proud of, and wish I could make amends for was my resentment phase. During this time I was already married and not very happily. My parents were becoming more prosperous and had moved to a larger house in a less isolated area. I was on the sidelines of the family watching as my younger siblings got more freedoms and opportunities than we older ones ever had. It seemed the rule book that governed my childhood had been lost or rewritten as my parents aged. My mother claims that it was just that as they got more experienced at parenting they made fewer mistakes with the younger ones. Regardless of the reasons, I was envious of the opportunities that were coming their way and developed a much less caring and forgiving attitude toward both my parents and my siblings for a while.

Today, as a sixty-ish woman looking back on my life as the oldest in a family of thirteen children, I realize there is little I would have changed and I have much to be grateful for. The hardships and strife of that time helped make me the stronger person I am today. The love and support of my brothers and sisters helped me travel many a rocky road. Each has grown into a wonderful, caring and supportive person and I have been truly blessed. That fact is reinforced each Thanksgiving as I watch the interactions of the large, loving crowd standing around my Mothers dinning room table. Today, being the oldest of thirteen seems to be the perfect place to be.

Garrulous Old Man

Several times recently I’ve heard my dear sweet husband, of less then three months, telling someone that he is in training to be a garrulous old man. Not wanting to admit that I was clueless to what he was referring, I had to spend some time online seeking the correct spelling and finally the definition of the word "garrulous."

For those of you who, like me, need the word explained, here is what the American Heritage Dictionary had to say. gar·ru·lous adj. 1. Given to excessive and often trivial or rambling talk; tiresomely talkative. 2. Wordy and rambling: a garrulous speech. And the thesaurus gave me Adj. 1. garrulous - full of trivial conversation; "kept from her housework by gabby neighbors"
chatty, gabby, loquacious, talkative, talky, voluble - marked by a ready flow of speech; "she is an extremely voluble young woman who engages in soliloquies not conversations"

Well, since learning this definition I have assured my husband that I will have him a tee-shirt made stating that he is a "Trainee in the Garrulous Old Men’s Club." for his upcoming birthday. My Frank certainly lives up to this description, NOT.

Like all women I have heard all the jokes that men make about how women can spend hours in conversation and not say a thing that they consider worth hearing. Well that does not apply to my Frank. This man continues to amaze and astound me with the amount of trivial, factual and complicated knowledge that he has stored away. When you combine all the stories culled from 30 years of navy service, the world travels he made at Uncle Sam’s bidding, the number and variety of books that he read idling away off duty hours at sea plus his uncanny ability to never forget a single statistic and who can recall the name of anyone he has ever met; then you have a person that has plenty of interesting stories, factoids and useless trivia locked up inside his head to keep a conversation from lagging.

It is true that my Frank is a “know it all” but he is actually someone that legitimately does know it all, and is not one of those “smart asses that just thinks they do and tries to outdo everyone else. Frank just tells it the way he learned it, his facts are seldom wrong and he is genuinely not trying to be a show off or a knowledgeable jerk. While Frank may be wordy and rambling he is certainly never tiresomely talkative. He is voluble and I suppose a small case could be made for his using soliloquies instead of conversations.

The dictionary defines soliloquies as; A dramatic or literary form of discourse in which a character talks to himself or herself or reveals his or her thoughts without addressing a listener. And no, Frank does not talk to himself, but, he does like to give long dissertations on an assortment of topics. And, if I were to be completely honest then I would have to admit that he is sometimes not addressing a listener or I am not qualified on the subject to carry on an actual conversation. Truth is, that growing up in a house with twelve siblings I developed a life long ability to tune out the conversations around me and become solely focused on my own thoughts. So if I am not paying attention or responding then I suppose the soliloquies definition might apply.

Sorry dear, you were right when you accused me the other day of not always listening to you. But, I only do it when you get overly engrossed in your operations of a navy carrier mode or want to expound on the complexities and virtues of aspartame over saccharine or some equally enlightening topic.

I will admit that when getting involved in conversations with my sweet husband, I sometimes feel as if it is my first day back at school after a very long absence and I am leagues behind the rest of the class and will never catch up. But, that is a good thing. Where he is concerned I really have to stay on my toes and keep my wits about me and it is a very rare day that I do not go to bed with a lot more knowledge then I started the day with. I use to question his facts on occasion and he was always able to prove me wrong. Now, I just head for the old computer and do my own research before I end up finding my extra wide foot stuck in my mouth.

And, in case you’re wondering, this little “Salute to the man of the hour” was just my way of letting my Frank know that he will never be a garrulous old man. One, he just does not fit the profile. And two, I will not allow him to become an “old man” because then I would have to admit to being an “old lady” and that is just not going to happen.

I swear! So there!

And, Frank darling, I do love you ------ and your soliloquies! Really I do.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Myrtle Marie

While cleaning out some old word files today I came across this one that I had written several years ago about my Mother-in-law. I use to be very active on a website that had some lively message boards and one night the ladies were really ragging on their mother-in-laws. So I posted this notice about mine to prove that good ones do exist, and I had one of the best.

Mom this one is for you.


My Mother-in-law was one of a kind. I have never known another woman like her. From the first day I met her until the day she died I never once heard her raise her voice, ask anyone for help or make a move without getting her husband’s permission first.

I once heard her referred to as a throwback to the last century. What people never understood was that due to the time and place where she was born she really was a 19th century woman. Her name was Myrtle Marie and she was born in 1910, the youngest of six children of a 60 year old father and the only child of his third wife, a 43 yr old former spinster. She married at 18 and had six children spaced over 20 years. Five of her six children born at home with the help of a midwife. She never held a job, drove a car, wrote a check or saw a dentist. She received her first pair of slacks when she was in her seventies. She never traveled more then 100 miles from the place she was born and what little schooling she got happened mostly around the kitchen table. She was 4 1/2 feet tall, wider then her height, had a lazy left eye, a very pronounced limp from a childhood accident and epilepsy since the great fever outbreak of 1915.

She would box the ears of her grown sons as if they were still children. No one dared swear or show disrespect within her hearing. Her feelings were hurt if you did not ask her first to baby-sit, and she always sent you home with at least two containers of leftovers from Sunday dinner. She waited on all the men of her household as if they were royalty, never set two plates on the dinner table with the same food and kept her household money tied in the toe of an old sock hidden in a Karo can in the back of the cupboard.

She was a wonderful and caring person who showed me nothing but love, respect and kindness. From the minute she realized her son was in love she adopted me as her daughter and I could do no wrong as long as her son was happy. She made sure I learned to cook all his favorite meals, passed down all the frugal household tips she learned during the great depression and tirelessly tried to teach me to crochet.

My mother-in-law was someone I admired, respected and loved. I do not recall ever having a cross word with her and she never once tried to interfere in anything that happened in my married life unless we brought it, uninvited, into her home.

By the time her husband died from a stroke she was advancing into the black void of Alzheimer’s. The progression of her illness caused a reversal in her personality and she was starting to get sharp tongued and testy when suddenly she was gone.

It was certainly a strange situation for her three daughter-in-laws when they went into her home to dispose of the material accumulation of sixty years spent in the same small five room bungalow where nothing was ever discarded and many nice things were stored as a hedge against the worst tomorrow that never came.

Mom only had two Sunday dresses and three for everyday. The daily dresses were threadbare and patched but we found her closet held at least 10 that were waiting to be moved into the rotation as her Sunday best moved into the daily lineup. In going through her things we soon learned that each pocket would be a mini filing cabinet or savings account, holding papers and small collections of coins or a few folded dollar bills. In each drawer we would find some small container filled with coins or a pencil size roll of bills tightly tied with twine. Apparently the fear of being without, learned from the great depression, had never been put to rest.

In the end this lady who had always managed to make do with nothing was laid to rest in the family cemetery beside her husband on a shady hilltop in the middle of a pasture overlooking the farms and valleys that were her playground as a child.

Rest in peace, Mom, I will always love you.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Home Place

My Grandmother spent her entire life in the house where she was born. Her children say she was born, married and died in the same room. This was the same room where my mother and her siblings were born, and in which one sister and a brother died. That ramshackle, tin-roofed house never saw a coat of paint, sat on a patch of bare red clay that was regularly swept clean instead of mowed. The house was surrounded by cotton fields, fruit orchards and sharecropper’s shanty’s; one of which was my home during part of my young life.

My earliest memories are about that farm and now I often think about the way it shaped the lives and character of the people who lived there for more than a century. It continues to reverberate in my life to this very day. The last time I visited the house that is always referred to in our family as "the home place", the front porch was propped on concrete blocks, daylight could be seen through the floorboards and wind rustled curtains. Laundry was done in a wringer washer on the back porch while cats napped under the steps. Aunt Florence, dressed in a flour sack dress and bib apron, was still placing pans full of large fluffy biscuits in the oven each morning by dawn; and a good day would end with the family gathered on the porch with the scratchy sounds of the "Opery" playing on an old Zenith radio in the background. If we were lucky, on a clear Saturday night, we could pick up the sounds of a baseball game as far away as St. Louis, we children waited to turn the crank on the ice cream churn, tossed cigarette butts occasionally sent blazing red streaks flying through the air and the women swapped the latest recipe or gossip from town.

The home place has long been torn down and the old farm subdivided, but the legacy of the place continues to live in the lives of those who once called it home. My mother left her family and moved to Missouri with her husband and four small children more than fifty years ago. For decades I have gone with her back to the southland to visit her family. Last week my dear husband traveled with my eighty-two year old mother and me to the wedding of a first cousin and met all my Alabama kinfolk. The poor man had no inkling of what was in store for him.

Traveling through places with names like Waverly Hall, China Grove, Camp Gray Loop and Pine Level; to meet people known by names like Uncle Brother, Aunt Sister, Aunt Tump, Uncle Dink, Eddy Barr, and Sally Jill would be a lot for anyone. But, hearing stories about how marriage made one cousin’s wife his own step sister or the feud that has lasted for sixty years with no end in sight; I thought would do him in for sure.

However, my Frank is a real trooper and he faired better on this trip than I did. Truth be told, I found the trip somewhat disheartening. So many of the familiar things I associate with the South, and always gave me a warm feeling while connecting the area and the people with my mother’s upbringing and my inborn sense of family, seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

Gone are visits with very prim and genteel southern ladies. Great Aunts in ruffled collars with linen hankies tucked up their sleeve and smelling of Jasmine who served fig jam made from the trees growing in their yards, at tables set with translucent porcelain cups and silver tea pots. This was the first trip where shop keepers and service personnel all seemed to have lost their distinctly southern way of speaking; due in part I suspect, to television’s influence diluting regional speech patterns. Once small and charming towns are losing their historic charisma as they quadruple in size and city limit signs move miles in all directions. Fields that once held endless rows of white cotton or expanses of peanut plants are now filling up with fast food franchises and tanning salons. Stately old homes are losing their charming colors, character and beauty behind layers of vinyl siding. Verandas and lovely wraparound porches are falling into disuse as that wonderfully southern habit of lazy evenings visiting over icy tumblers of sweet tea is replaced by the harried schedules of modern households. But, the most disheartening part of this trip was the realization that the southern half of my family is slowly slipping away from not only the northern branch but from each other.

As often happens in families, once the parents are gone the children tend to lose frequent contact with each other. It is also regrettable that so many extended families are separated by the death of the senior siblings. Divorce is separating parents from adult children that have taken the other parent’s side in the divorce or refuse to accept a new spouse. Unfortunately, I see these things happening in my family and feel sad that I can do very little to change any of it.

And finally, I fear that due to my advancing age, financial or health concerns, future visits to my southern roots and family may be curtailed, causing a loss of my sense of self and family unity. I fear that before long, the memories of a young girl playing with her brothers under a cottonwood tree while their mother becomes a decreasing figure working her way to the far end of a cotton field; cousins huddled whispering secrets in the shade of a pecan grove or counting the many doors in a large stately house before stepping through the parlor window onto the veranda for sugar cookies and lemonade with Miz Thersey will be all that is left of the south of my youth.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ire, Ire Stop the Liars

During the last ten weeks I have stood transfixed in amazement, at the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean. I have also come within a crow’s craw of dipping my toes in the warm salty brine of the Atlantic. In between the sands of that San Diego beach and the Georgia coastline has been a long parade of food and lodging establishments that have not lived up to the hype touted on their billboards and in their print and media ads.

Ire, ire how do we stop the liars, that tell us a visit to their particular establishments would have us slumbering on mounds of soft cotton, in lavender scented rooms full of balmy tropical breezes or feasting on the ambrosia of treats taken from a king’s own table.

For many years, my dear husband made it his practice to stay at one particular hotel chain, even though its rates were usually higher and he would occasionally have to travel miles farther to locate one. He believed its name meant quality and consistency, so was worth some inconvenience or extra expense to seek it out. As newlyweds on our cross country honeymoon we began our journey by looking for his favorite chain each night; but by the tenth week of travel we were pulling off the interstate at any likely exit to play "rock, paper, scissors " or flip a coin as a way of selecting which available motel or eatery got our business.

In other words, we found that having a trouble free and pleasant stay or a tasty and appealing meal was nothing more than a crap shoot having nothing to do with the name on the sign or the promises made by a parent company’s multi-million dollar advertising , and everything to do with the diligent care, concern and supervision of the management and staff or lack thereof. After 70 days on the road and stays at many of the best rated national chains, with only one exception, our stays would best be rated between barely tolerable to just passably adequate. If I were a teacher grading a student,this assortment of hotels would all receive grades in the D-plus to B-minus range, with only one deserving a resounding A.

My husband’s favorite hotel chain the "Comfort Inn" fell into disfavor because of the consistent lack of care given to their well advertised deluxe breakfast. Three separate stays found the breakfast area closed for reconstruction and once the lobby had become a minefield of packing crates. My nieces First Communion found us spending two nights at a Inn in Omaha that moved their food service into a guest room so cramped that if any guest sat at the tables provided, no one else could pass by them to reach the serving area. Even the staff found it impossible to service the room due to lack of space. In Springfield Missouri, the food service was moved into a basement area near the pool and the room reeked so strongly of chlorine that it flavored the coffee. Another, chose a room across a narrow hallway from the laundry room and the constant passing of maids with their noisy carts blocked both the doorway and the elevator. A family wedding had us spending two nights at the Comfort Inn in Lincoln Alabama which gets our award as the "bar none worst" stay of the entire trip. There we found the staff repeatedly in front of the large screen TV in the lobby or huddled in conversations with their visiting boy/girl friends. The breakfast selection was extremely meager, the coffee pots always empty, dishes empty or the food old and unappealing. The second morning an out-of-order sign hung on the juice machine and the waffle machine’s timer was broken. Suspecting that the staff preferred to place the signs instead of actually attending to the machines I went to complain to the desk clerk. The young lady explained that the night girl would set the breakfast bar before she left at 6 am and that they did not have anyone else assigned to work the area until it was time to take it down at 9:30, so they just posted "out of order signs" to keep guests from pestering the desk clerk. In fact, the girl said they had so few guests wanting breakfast that they could not see a need for better staffing. I suggested perhaps the reason so few wanted breakfast was actually due to the poor quality of the items and service provided, at which she just shook her head and gave me her best "It's not my problem" look.

At a Ramada Inn in Oklahoma the medal steps to the second floor had no safety treads and during a light rain my husband lost his footing and slid down the entire length of the stairway causing him to have tender ribs and bruised elbows for several days. Our room had loose ceramic tiles in the shower and the bathroom floor appeared to have been coated in WD-40. I slid across the room and barely missed conking my head on the side of the tub. What had once been a outdoor pool had been enclosed but was located at the end of the building down a long unlighted sidewalk and the only access was through a deserted and dark banquet room making it a scary place to visit at night.

At a Super Eight in Alabama we were serenaded by a stereo concert put on repeatedly by the whistling plumbing pipes and the clanging air conditioner. Their breakfast bar consisted of frozen waffles heated in a toaster with only one working coil on each side, watered down juice and tepid coffee that smelled of motor oil.

During our time on the road we seldom found a room with a heating or cooling system that worked properly. Most rooms had stale, stuffy uncirculating air upon entering and then we would either freeze or swelter depending on the unit. It was a very rare day that we were able to sign on to the internet on first try or finish reading that days e-mails without getting booted off at least once. We found dozens of sagging mattresses, lumpy smelly pillows, stained carpets and countless dirty coverlets. Twice we had to wedge a fork under the stopper of the bathtub or sink to hold it open so the water would drain out. Seldom did we find that a hotel provided a cart we could use to transport our luggage between the car and the room, and when they did it would have a bad wheel that required a tug of war to use. Even though I would seek places with a pool and dress for swiming, I can count on one hand the number of times I actually got my suit wet. I found that many pools were locked before the posted closing time, or they were either to unsafe to use or a complete turn off. Some were dark and isolated, a few just plain dirty, many unheated and artic cold or so full of unsupervised children that I would do an about face and return to my room.

While a hotel in Alabama gets our "worst of the worst" vote, another Alabama facility also gets our "best of the lot" award. We are sending kudos to the Holiday Inn in Dothan Alabama for restoring our faith in the American hotel system. They provided the best appointed room complete with a comfy wing chair and floor lamp, had everything clean and in working order and served the best breakfast of our entire travels. This hotel not only had a full hot breakfast complete with bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits with gravy and fresh fruit; they also had Jamie as our table server. Jamie was straight from central casting and made us feel as if he was a Pullman Porter serving drinks on the linen draped tables of a Southern Pacific dining car as we glided alone a Mimosa and Magnolia lined railway. He was witty, efficient, and oozing southern charm and hospitality. Our time spent with Jamie was worth the price of our room. Of all of the hotels we stayed in this is the only one that we are actually looking forward to revisiting,

Can anyone recommend a great hotel in Omaha? We are heading back your way to celebrate July Fourth.

Please, check back for my upcoming review on the eateries we have encountered on our travels.