We Shared a Path

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Sorting through my desk this morning, I found the photograph taken at my 50thclass reunion. The photographer had to shoot it with a wide-angle lens to accommodate the increased girth of the  ninety-three classmates in attendance.

We’d made an effort to look our best for the occasion. “I bought a new outfit,” a friend told me, “I planned to get a manicure and pedicure as well, but buying the dress exhausted me; so I decided to replace the batteries in my hearing aids and call it good.”

Despite such efforts, the photograph shows grandparents in comfortable shoes and generously sized clothing with hair dyed, gray, sparse or gone. We squint with puffy eyes below wrinkled brows as we suck in rounded bellies and square slumping shoulders.

But as I studied the photograph, I didn’t dwell on our time-altered appearance; instead, I noticed arms thrown fondly around one another and happy smiles on every face. Despite our aging bodies, the class of ’61 enjoyed its evening, which surprised me.

The three earlier reunions I attended had quickly clotted into the cliques and gossip of high school. I assumed this one would do the same. But a song by our class crooner established a more appreciative mood.

Every time Larry performed for a high school assembly, he received a standing ovation due to the popularity of his signature song, “Scotch and Soda,” a daring choice in a predominately Mormon school. We assumed our ancient principal, with his perfect posture and habit of addressing us as ladies and gentlemen, had never heard of jiggers of gin.

As I listened to Larry sing the song we’d once cheered, I was again eighteen, sitting in an auditorium among friends, happy to be young and looking forward to life after high school. I think others at the reunion felt a similar tug of nostalgia because Larry’s song kicked off the best part of the evening: mingling, conversing and re-discovering our past.

As classmates approached, I quickly read their nametags so I could identify the smiling woman who remembered throwing up on me during band practice and the old man with hairy ears who hugged me as though he’d done it before.

“Janet, you haven’t changed a bit,” some said. Others studied my nametag and exclaimed, “I would never have recognized you.” I found these contradictory statements puzzling, until I realized vanity had caused many of us to leave our glasses home, which confused the issue.

We found time had polished our positive qualities: Blake, former class clown, possessed a generous wit that amused everybody without demeaning anyone. Kathy and Ruby Ann, once energetic cheerleaders, laughed and drew others into their fun. Edgar, whose quirks challenged the social standards of high school, asked insightful questions and expressed affection and admiration openly. He had a crowd around him the entire evening.

So we socialized: groups forming, dispersing, and re-forming as tired spouses hoped a lightning strike would force evacuation of the building.

The sorting criteria of teenagers — who was in, out, best, worst, most, least — had been scrubbed out of us by years tinged with heartbreaks, illnesses, and disappointments. Our common struggles allowed us to see friends rather than jocks, grinds, beauties, nerds, winners and losers.

Our edges were worn away. We bore witness for each other: We’re here. We made it. And, for part of the way, we walked together.

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Blame It On Birth Order

I felt mistreated when Mom assigned chores by age. Being too old for Barbara’s pretend work and too young for Carolyn’s skilled tasks, I drew the dull, dirty or distasteful jobs. I remember pushing our vacuum down the hall, trying to finish before the antiquated machine erupted. It needed to be emptied; I hoped to avoid doing so by stowing it away before Mom noticed the dust clouds oozing from its bloated pores.

I cut mean glances at Carolyn who ironed in the kitchen, popping nary a bead of sweat. She sneered back at me as she took a sip of lemonade, turned up the radio, and crooned along with Patti Page: “How much is that doggie in the window—arf! arf!” Seemed more like a party than work to me.

Pushing my belching machine into the living room, I aimed for Barbara, who sat on the floor pairing clean socks from the laundry. Concentrating on her task, she didn’t glance up, increasing my chances of inflicting serious injury. Unfortunately, I had to veer off when Mom appeared and gave Barbara towels to fold along with praise: “Look at the good job you’re doing; you’re getting to be a big help.”

What was I? An incompetent orphan on loan from the poor house?

No, I was a middle child.

Recently, in an article about the impact of birth order on the personalities of children, I read, “If you are a middle child, you probably have fewer photos in the family album.”

Bingo!

A stranger could skim our family albums and immediately identify me as the in-betweener. Baby pictures of the other six abound. My infant gallery consists of one fuzzy snapshot Mom said might be me.

Not that I’m complaining. For every disadvantage listed by experts for middle children, I experienced an advantage. Evidently, I should have felt unknown and unnoticed in the crowd. No problem. I liked doing anything I wanted during the chaos created by rebellious teenagers and needy babies.

Another accepted generalization: “Middle children may feel life is unfair since they enjoy neither the privileges of the older nor the attention given the younger.” But I, too, doted on the babies; and I knew those older did more chores and had to babysit the rest of us. Not my idea of a good time.

The positive middle-child descriptors — cooperative, flexible, independent — seemed a perfect fit for me; while the negative traits — secretive, avoids conflict, may exaggerate or lie to get attention — obviously didn’t apply.

My position in the middle also had advantages the researchers didn’t mention; for example, I received excellent parenting; Mom and Dad hit their stride with me. They’d learned from skirmishes with those older, but weren’t yet weary of the battle as with those younger.

I notice another blessing of my birth order at family reunions. Twenty-one years separate my oldest and youngest siblings. Lawrence was a Marine in Korea when Blaine was a toddler and JL was born. But I lived for several years with all my siblings; I know those older and those younger in alarming detail; and I love them all. I believe they feel the same about me.

“Feels unloved and left out,” one authority said of middle children.

Not in my family.

An Easter Dress to Die For

I liked to sit on the floor and watch Mom’s feet rock the treadle as she sewed. Sometimes I played; other times she told me stories; always she worked: creating curtains, dresses, shirts and flannel nightgowns for babies.

I have a faded photograph of Carolyn and me at three and seven holding hands, standing next to Mom, who ignores the camera and looks at us. We wear winter coats sewn on the treadle machine and accessorized with rabbit fur from a thrift-store find. Fur collars frame our faces; our hands snuggle inside fur muffs; and hats decorated with fur balls sit on our heads. As a child, I studied the photograph and assumed Mom’s smiling face reflected pride in her handiwork. My older eyes recognize the look of love.

When Mom and Dad came home with a new Singer sewing machine, the family gathered to admire the electric foot-control that replaced the swinging treadle. With this modern marvel, Mom more efficiently clothed a family richer in children than in dollars. When I was twelve, she created an Easter dress for me I’ll never forget.

I crawled into my top bunk, tired and sunburned from a glorious Saturday on West Mountain chucking dyed eggs at the heads of my classmates—an Easter tradition in Lake Shore. As I fell asleep, I replayed my victorious egg shots and pictured my entry into church the next morning in my Easter dress.

Each year Mom made dresses that shot her daughters to the head of the Easter parade. This year, however, I insisted on choosing the fabric and pattern myself, thinking I had better fashion sense than my mother, who was getting old.

I had poured over pattern books and materials at Christenson’s until I found the perfect combination: a snug, red corduroy sheath. I disregarded Mom’s opinion that I didn’t have the years or curves to fill out such a tightly fitted dress, so she made me the dress I wanted; and I loved it.

On Easter morning, my red sunburn a-glow, I sashayed into church in my bright red dress. As I entered a pew, Lehi Smith, who had lobbed enough eggs at my head the day before to make me think he liked me, leaned forward from the bench behind and whispered, “Wow, Janet, you look like a skinny glass of tomato juice.”

I flounced by without answering, shot a threatening glance at Barbara, and forgave Mom’s stifled snorts, thinking they were sounds of sympathy. Lehi, I wrote off as a numbskull, not worthy of my attention.

I wore my tomato-juice sheath for years, and every time I put it on, I felt beautiful and loved in a dress my mother made for me.

The Gift of a Memory

Years have passed since the deaths of my parents and, later, my oldest brother, and I’m slowly losing the nuances that made them unique: their laughs, their intonations, their expressions, their walks. But Christmas helps me remember. As I bake cookies, hang ornaments or listen to the gentle notes of carols, memories of those who shared my early Christmases bring them back in their entirety.

Recently, my sister Carolyn reminded me of a Christmas memory I’d like to share with you. I think of it as “The Dance of the Reindeer.”

On Christmas Eve, we usually drove to our grandmother’s house in Provo. Inside the small, orderly home filled with relatives, warmth, and the smell of baking, we’d tussle with our cousins until told to “settle down or else…” which we did when Grandma’s homemade cookies and candy appeared. Silenced by our chewing, we’d listen to the unfortunate cousins whose parents had convinced them to recite, sing, or play Christmas tunes on their band instruments. When food, talent, and patience had worn thin, Grandma read the story of the first Christmas from the Bible; then we drove home through fields crusted with snow-diamonds under a sky filled with low-hanging stars.

As soon as we arrived, Mom announced bedtime, and with minimal grumbling, we left the warmth of the living room for our unheated bedrooms: Bob and Lawrence in one room and Carolyn, Barbara and me in another.

I don’t know what our brothers did, but we girls partied.

We talked, giggled, climbed in and out of each other’s beds, watched out frost-etched windows for Santa, and took turns trying to sneak into the living room because we needed to go to the bathroom “really, really bad.” When the grandfather clock in the living room chimed, we quieted and counted: Mom had warned us not to get out of bed again until the clock chimed six times.

One year, five-hear-old Barbara listened intently as the clock struck, then said, “Oh, no, I counted eleven. Way past six. Now we have to wait until the big hand makes it to six again. I forgot. How many does it go to before it starts over? A hundred? That’ll take forever.”

But on my eighth Christmas, as we began to doze, Carolyn startled us awake: “Listen, can you hear that? Shh. There’s a noise on the roof. Be quiet!” We sat up in our beds, straining our ears, until we heard a faint clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop on the roof. We held our breath and listened as the clops grew louder and more frequent — a herd of deer tap-danced over our heads until, gradually, the hoedown calmed into silence.

Only then did we squeal with excitement and wonder if we should wake everyone to tell them what they missed. Eventually, we decided rousing the household would be unwise and drifted into sleep.

The next morning, after the chaotic joy of presents, Barbara remembered: “We heard them,” she announced into the general din, “We did.”

Only Lawrence caught her remark. “Who’d you hear?” he asked.

“Rudolph and those other ones.”

“Huh,” Dad said, “ What did they sound like, fellers?”

As we re-produced the sound of the dancing deer we heard in the night, the others exclaimed, questioned and chuckled.

Later, Carolyn, older, more skeptical and not above threatening Bob with physical harm, discovered the truth of our nighttime visitors: Lawrence had saved two deer hooves from his successful hunt that fall. Then, on Christmas Eve, waiting until we lost steam, he climbed onto the roof and clopped until he could clop no more.

In doing so, he gave us a meaningful gift: a Christmas memory of prancing reindeer, laughing parents and an older brother who took the time to create fun for his sisters.

A Memory For Fathers’ Day

I remember how my dad took his children to Schroeder’s, despite a lack of ready cash. Screen door slamming; tall, work-slim body striding across the yard, he yelled to any of us within hearing, “If you want to go, climb aboard. I’m on my way.”

Word spread, “He might be going to Schroeder’s.” Deserting chores, we scrambled into our dilapidated jeep, jockeying for position. Dad gunned the engine, shot away and, singing that he’d take Kathleen home again, paid no mind to his passengers caught in mid-scramble.

A fast five miles of irrigated farmland flashed by, dotted by an occasional house hunched beneath massive outbuildings. The finger-smeared windows through which we peered softened the countryside and gentled farmyard clutter. Dad, more interested in his vibrato than our battles, bounced the jeep along rough roads in tempo to his tune, until, gravel flying, he executed his usual abrupt stop. “Whoa there, old boy, whoa there,” he shouted to our great amusement as he flamboyantly pulled back on the wheel and stomped on the brakes at Schroeder’s Auto Repair.

The single, rusted-out gas pump reflecting long departed prices isn’t tempt us; nor did the garage’s shadowed interior with its thick air smelling of rubber and oil. We didn’t stop to examine Schroeder’s grease-begrimed tools or the fly spotted glass case holding PayDay bars, Juicy Fruit gum, and hide-a–key containers. Instead, clutching unfamiliar dimes Dad distributed from a near-empty wallet — an act our money-worried mother wouldn’t approve — we ran to the rectangular soda machine sitting like a dusty treasure chest in a far corner, burbling moistly to itself.

While Dad discussed man things — lay-offs, unemployment checks, failed crops — with big-voiced, thoroughly dirty Schroeder, we circled the red machine and argued best flavors: orange and strawberry being top contenders. Then, decisions made, we clinked our dimes into the coin slot. The machine’s scratched red lid sighed reluctantly as we lifted it, exhaling cold air that washed over our peering faces.

Inside the rectangular chest, icy water bathed cold bottles that we slowly worked along notched metal rows until we could each lift our choice clear, remove its crimped cap with the built-in opener, and take the first sweetly stinging swallow.

Carolyn, a teenager, assumed a pose of nonchalance and sophistication, drinking as though it was almost more than she could manage. Bob threw his head back and drank like the rowdy boy he was, pausing only to burp. I sipped, savoring and saving. Barbara, who had yet to grasp the science of swallowing, let orange liquid flow down her throat in an uninterrupted stream, plugging it with her tongue when she needed to breathe.

As we drank and laughed, Dad looked over at us and grinned.

If the total of a man is made of small acts, our dad was a giant.

This post was adapted from my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns

Thoughts on Sunday 

I awoke late at night to a crescendo of crickets and a surge of fever. Mussed bedding trapped my limbs. Pain entangled my dreams. I heard a whimper and wondered who was crying. A shadowed presence appeared at my bedside, palmed hair from my forehead, freed my legs from sodden sheets, soothed until I slept.

My mother’s touch that fevered night formed my earliest memory. Later, when I was thirteen, Mom shaped the direction of my life.

We were the featured speakers during a Dear to My Heart night for mothers and daughters of our church. I don’t remember what I said in my tribute to Mom, but I do remember fussing endlessly with my bangs, gluing them in place with Brylcreem and hair spray, more concerned with my appearance than my words.

But I have a hand-written copy of Mom’s speech. She began with startling news: “Janet, from the moment I first held your warm, perfect body in my arms and gloated over your dark, curly ducktails — I actually had a baby with hair! — you’ve been a source of joy and delight to the entire family.”

The entire family? Even Bob?? Did they vote?

Later, another surprise: “I enjoy leaving your younger sister and brothers in your care. Even if the dishes are sketchily done and the furniture pushed awry, I know the little ones will be well cared for and also have fun with the games and stories you create for them. You’d be a good teacher, Janet.”

With those words, she directed me toward my future.

Mom made my heart soar that night; then, driving home, she returned me to reality. “Janet, we have to do something about those shaggy bangs stuck to your nose. When we get home, I’m cutting them. You look like a greasy Shetland pony.” Amused at the accuracy of her description, she giggled, and, despite myself, I chuckled with her.

When Mom was seventy-seven, I spent a week with her in Wyoming. Most of the time we talked. But other times I sat with a book in my lap and watched her sleep in a recliner; her hands unusually idle in the middle of the day. Soft window light bathed her lined face, and her breath seemed slow and faint.

Not wanting to bother her children, she admitted to heart problems, but told us her medicine and pacemaker helped. As I sat near her, watching her drift in and out of sleep, I refused to recognize the truth.

She died seven months later. With time, I recovered from the emotional turmoil of her death, funeral and burial — a poignant week I walked through with my father and siblings, united by our grief and love.

Then began the long-term ache of her absence.

Over a year later, in Carson City, Nevada, I absentmindedly drove a street of golden leaves let fall by tired trees. My neck tight with stress, I worried personal choices, professional puzzles, a life littered with busyness. Then I saw a woman who reminded me of myself: face beginning to age, flowing skirt and heels working-woman high. Her head inclined, she walked slowly toward a nursing home, tenderly holding the frail arm of a stooped, white-haired woman. Their smiles were identical.

As I watched, they paused and commented above a bed of purple asters. Without warning, my heart collapsed like a butterfly caught in a net, and I mourned: I never walked my mother through her decline; I lived far away, thought I’d have time; others were there. And she died so quickly.

I grieved that I hadn’t taken the time for more memory-making moments with her.

Sunday, I experienced the same regret.

The Gift of a Child

merry-christmas-free-clip-art-merry-christmas-clip-art-7-jpgEvery Christmas, I think about the gift of a child and remember my brother’s birth.

At the age of nine on a worn-out day in February, I heard a rackety car approach and ran to the kitchen window. The barren branches of cottonwood trees streaked shadows across dirty snow; and a pale sun fled behind West Mountain as Mom stepped from Mrs. Anderson’s car.

She slammed the car’s door behind her — launching our resident crows into an orbit of admonishment — then walked along our sidewalk of frozen mud, her face as tired as the day.

Entering the house, Mom glanced at me — my scattered paper dolls, their cut-out costumes and her sewing scissors. Then, saying nothing, she slowly stirred the coals in the stove with a poker. Made uneasy by her silence, I wondered about its cause: Was it her visit to the doctor in town or my use of the forbidden scissors?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

“Oh, Janet, I’ve loved all my babies. But I’m old. And tired.”

My mother had delivered family news, introduced me to a new word and shared a confidence. I forgot all three before dinner.

Then, a few months later, my family arrived at church, and I rushed to catch up with my best friend. “Oh, your mother’s pregnant,” she remarked, looking at Mom in her new, ballooning outfit.

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“That she’s having a baby. My mother’s too old to have another baby. She said at her age, it would kill her.”

My insides shriveled. A few years before, my mom had nearly died giving birth to a baby sister who hadn’t lived. When she told me she was old and tired, did she mean having a baby would kill her this time? My world slowed to a standstill; and in the following weeks my anxiety grew along with my mother’s stomach.

In September, shortly after Mom told us the baby could come any day, she and Dad went to Provo, saying they’d be home by dinner. But they weren’t. So we ate the bottled tomatoes and toast Carolyn fixed for us; then, sent to bed, but wide-awake and worried, I crouched by a bedroom window and hoped the headlights I could see across the fields would turn at our lane. I held my breath, watched the headlights, and promised I’d do my chores without whining and change the new baby’s diaper without complaining, if Mom was in that car rather than dying, far away in Provo, trying to have a baby when she was too old. The headlights turned.

A week later, I again stood sentry by a window. The evening before, Dad had taken Mom to the hospital. Grandma either believed my lie about an upset stomach or understood the fear clouding my eyes. When the others ran for the school bus, I stayed home.

Again, I tracked our car until it stopped beneath the cottonwoods. Dad stepped out, then stopped and studied the sky. Why was he looking at heaven? I ran from the house. Panic squeezed my voice tiny: “Dad?”

“Hey, Janet. You have a new brother. We named him Blaine. They’ll both be home Friday. Looks like it’s going to rain, doesn’t it?”

A few days later, I experienced an unexpected rush of love when Mom let me hold my brother, bundled in white flannel, smelling new, small fists waving at nothing. I smiled up at Mom, and my last worry vanished as I saw that she, too, loved this baby.

In that moment, as I exulted over the birth of our baby, I began to understand why hearts overflow with joy, love and hope each Christmas.