This Time, Last Year

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On Friday, I’m leaving town. It’s not the best time for me to be gone because we run a retail shop and it’s almost Christmas.

And yet, it’s the best time for me to be gone because it’s almost Christmas. Dad died one year ago today, so I’m going to Colorado. It was Dad’s favorite place in the world and I’m hoping I can hold myself together until we get there.

For several weeks leading up to this day, I’ve been a falling apart and recovering in equal measure. On certain days, I wake up with dread and sit in a chair reassessing my entire life, and other days I’m peaceful and resigned. I’ve labeled it burnout, but I think it’s grief in disguise. Mostly, I’ve just been working hard to put one foot in front of the other with the hope that when this year anniversary has passed, I will be well. It’s true, I’m a bit raw.

So on a morning when I was feeling more sane than usual, I realized my need to be in a place that feels as close to Dad as possible. He loved the Rocky Mountains. During my childhood, we were all over the place: Aspen, Estes Park, Ouray, Ponderosa, Purgatory, and finally, Pagosa Springs. We settled in this small southwestern town and never left. For two weeks of each year, it’s our summer escape and haven. At one point in his life, when Dad was far from retirement and the reality of how Mom’s diabetes would make her dependent on living near a dialysis unit, he and my Uncle Bill bought a piece of land in Pagosa. They were going to build a big house so our families could spend more time in the mountains. It was on Antelope Drive, near a lake with a straight-shot view of the mountains. That’s what he loved – the view. He was particular about what condo we stayed in each summer, and when he finally found one that allowed him to sit on the patio with that view of the mountain, that’s the one we booked every year. Peregrine 7877

Mom started dialysis when she was 60, and the dream of spending the entire summer in Pagosa slowly faded away. Her life was different now – she had to be strapped to the dialysis machine three days a week in order to live. And Pagosa didn’t have a unit. So they sold the piece of land on Antelope Drive and waved it away with the realization that the dreams we have early in life don’t always intertwine with the way our life unfolds in the latter years. They found a dialysis unit in Cortez, Colorado and were content to give up the dream of being in the Rocky Mountains all summer. Instead, they drove three days a week over the mountains during our two-week stay in Pagosa. My parents were steady people, and they bounced back from adversity together. For ten years, dialysis was a part of our Colorado vacation, and they never grumbled, complained, or quit going.

Dad would start talking about Colorado in January, wondering what it looked like under a blanket of snow, proclaiming the obvious, “If we think it’s cold here, imagine what it feels like in Pagose.” (He had taken to dropping the a, thus giving it a little nickname). Around April, when the weather started to turn warm, he would let us know that it would only be a few months and we’d be in Pagose. And then, about a month before our late July departure he would talk about it every time we saw him, literally counting down the days and inventorying the food and cookware he and Mom were gathering to take – pancake mix, cereals, pasta, soda, griddle, skillet. He hated the cheap cookware in the condo.

When Mom’s neuropathy took her legs from her in early March of 2007, he shopped for and purchased a van with a lift and all the necessary handicap features, then proclaimed, “This will be perfect for Colorado.” She died in April and he sold the van. And then we went to Colorado that summer without her.

For seven summers he came to Colorado with us – or maybe we went with him. It always seemed like Colorado belonged to Dad. He continued to carry all the food and his cookware until the last couple of years when he only brought Diet Coke and pancake mix. He meant to  bring the griddle, but he kept forgetting it. He spent more time alone, staring at those mountains and doing more reminiscing about past trips. And then, last December 7, before he even started talking about the next Colorado trip, he died. It’s hard for me to add anything to what I say about his death. He just died. Suddenly. After rolling the neighbor’s trash cans to the side of their house and bringing in his newspaper. He fell over in his chair and died.

Colorado belongs to us now. We took our annual trip to Pagosa last July without Dad. It was heartbreaking, but also wonderful because for the first time I understood what tied him to these mountains and this place. All those summer weeks, the memories, the people and the traditions. And that air. Our trip this past summer came in the middle of a busy, stressful time for us and I needed that fresh, crisp, mountain air. I needed to breathe. I needed to see the absolute majesty and mystery of mountains and be reminded that I should be humbled by creation, and calmed by my insignificance. I need that again now.

We will return to Tulsa on December 13, and one month from that day we will move from our comfortable house in Shadow Mountain to the Rosedale house in northwest Tulsa. After twenty years in my childhood neighborhood, eleven years in this house, and countless memories of living within a half mile from parents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, we’ll pick up and move to the other side of the city. We’ve made choices – lifestyle and financial – that necessitate us giving up our home. Many of those choices were solidified last summer in Colorado. So I’m going back to say goodbye to Dad one last time, and to prepare for another farewell. As Kyle reminds me, we’re not moving across the country, just to the other side of town.

When one thing ends something new is beginning. Although I know this, endings and goodbyes always knock me to the ground. So I’m going to Colorado to breathe in the air, look at the mountains, and be reminded that there is something bigger than my small world. I’m going to allow myself to grieve again, and then I‘m going to stand back up and come home and pack our life in boxes for another ending, and a new beginning.

Taking the Royal into 2016

I remember the sound of typewriter keys on Saturday mornings. Dad would finish his Sunday school lesson by typing his notes on the old Royal, circa 1940-something. It’s a gray, metal machine that weighs about as much as a full box of encyclopedias. Every week he was teaching – which was most weeks – he hauled it back and forth from the kitchen to the spare bedroom. By the time I was in high school, he had moved up to an electric typewriter and retired the Royal to a quiet existence in the linen closet.

Years ago, I laid claim to this old typewriter and promptly placed it on a shelf in an upstairs closet that held the things we couldn’t give away, but never touched. I couldn’t imagine myself typing on it. It was too slow, too heavy, and the font was one size only. Besides, it was outdated technology that held no promise of productivity. Worthless except for its antique value. For a decade I didn’t give the Royal another thought until Dad died last month. The day after his memorial service I went straight to the closet, lifted the heavy as heck typewriter and carried it downstairs to the den bar. We ordered a universal ribbon cartridge that fits most old typewriters and I loaded paper in and began to type quotes. It was clearly a grief project (I highly recommend these), and one that gave me a surprising amount of comfort and connection. Decades ago, my mother typed recipes on index cards on the Royal, and so there were times when the click of the keys were from her fingers. In elementary school I typed my first (very short) stories on it. I was hearing memories.

Because I am an only child, there has been no exercise of divvying up the items that belonged to my parents. Everything that was special to them now belongs to me, and I do not take this lightly. So the typewriter is being put to use to communicate messages of gratitude, encouragement and love, with a contrastingly jarring clack as I type. Any font my computer can spit out pales against the quirky lettering of the Royal, and when I place them side by side, the smudgy, uneven typewritten words prevail. But it comes at a cost. The keys must be pressed with about 10 times more force than my laptop keys, and if you hit the wrong key you don’t get to backspace with a handy delete key. You take the paper out and start over again, even if you were three words from finishing. The keyboard on the typewriter is a QWERTY, cleverly named because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY. Most computers have this layout, but with very different spacing between the keys. My third and pinky finger are weaklings and can’t push the typewriter keys down, so I type with only forefingers. It’s slow going, but far more precise.

So the old Royal and I are stepping into 2016 together. I am beginning to believe that there is nothing that doesn’t come back around in some form or another. There is an Adinkra symbol in Ghanaian culture called Sankofa. It’s in the shape of a swan that has turned its long neck to look backward. Sankofa symbolizes how much we can learn from the past, and that often looking back is one way we move forward. This is true whether we are learning from mistakes or rediscovering the value of what we thought was left behind. The typewriter is comforting, but also teaches me the beauty of the imperfect – smudged letters, uneven spacing, one font size. I’m typing those quotes and listening to the memories of weekly Sunday school lessons, handed-down recipes and a child’s short stories. I thought these things were gone forever, and maybe that meant they didn’t matter anymore. But now I know they are still with me – comforting and familiar like the typewriter that brought them all back.

 

Thoughts on Double-Timing It

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Two days before Christmas, I did this to my car. It was completely my fault, and adding insult to injury (actually, my injury was only a bruised leg and a stiff shoulder), I was ticketed for not yielding right of way. And we had to pay for the damage repair. And we lost our good driver “bonus” that came each January. I beat myself up for days.

And yet, it would have been far worse if I hadn’t seen the car coming and slammed on my brakes. But it was not enough and I can still hear the doomsday sound of screeching tires and the crunch of two automobiles colliding. Like an idiot, I tried to tell the officer that the car’s driver must have been speeding because the two lanes I was crossing during rush hour were completely clear. He begged to differ. It was my bad, and I made Christmas not so merry for a few people.

For the two weeks of Christmas holiday, I drove a loaner that made me feel like I was doing laps in a go-kart. I swear my back end had to be four inches from the ground, but it was actually a nice compact car that was easy to park and opened a wide swath of space in our garage. I was practicing gratefulness, but I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to the rental when the body repair shop called to tell me my Kia Sorento was ready.

“You’ll never know you had an accident,” they said with great confidence, which is exactly what I wanted to hear. Let’s wipe this from our memory, shall we? The car looked just as I had remembered, and I felt a little emotional as I climbed behind the wheel. At this point, I should tell you that I’m not a car person. I don’t get new car fever, and I don’t trade in my car on any regular basis. This was my first new car in almost a decade and I aim to keep this one until the wheels fall off. I’m actually envious of the people who call Car Talk and when asked how many miles are on the car answer well above the hundred thousand mark.

I drove my car out of the parking lot of the repair shop and onto the main street, where I eased into the left turn lane and clicked on my signal. And at that moment, I knew that my Sorento and I – however long we will be together – were probably never going to wipe the accident from our memory. The clicking of my turn signal was in double time, like a nervous woman incessantly tapping her long fingernails. I turned it off and then on again, and still, she tapped in fast motion. I checked the right turn signal, and the slow, rhythmic sound was a soothing contrast to the impatient clicking of the leftie.

I could have turned the car around and demanded they fix the hyperactive turn signal, but I didn’t. I realized the irony and the lesson immediately. Nope, the Sorento and I were going to endure her flaw because I need to be reminded of something every time I turn left: there exists in me a problem with speed. I thrive on going fast -everything from walking to talking. In Ghana, as I spoke to groups of our families in the Rising Village program, Isaac, our Ghana director, was constantly giving me a signal to slow down my rapid speech – palms down, pressing lower and lower. “Slow down, please Lisa,” he would say with that ever-present smile.

Yes, Lisa, please slow down. I avoid the grocery store during the mornings because that’s when all the slow people shop, and there is nothing that makes me lose my religion like getting behind someone who shuffles through the aisles as if they have never stepped foot inside that store. Here’s another sad fact: sometimes I count down how long it takes me to get dressed in the morning and I’m not making that up. If I can get dressed in 40 seconds I’m doing good. My goal is 30. It’s a game, really, because nothing in my life demands that level of speed. I can’t really explain it, and I should probably seek therapy for it, but the turn signal is cheaper. It’s double-time click has been a reminder that I shot out into the lane to make that left turn because, once again, I was in a big, fat hurry. Every time I turn left, it’s like a chant: Too fast, too fast, too fast, too fast. 

I drive like a granny now, and it’s not because I made some resolution to “slow down in 2015.” It’s because I want to keep that Sorento and call in a radio car show and boast that my Kia has 145,000 miles on it, and here’s this little noise it’s been making…” And also, because I can look back and list quite a few other mishaps that occurred because I was too impatient to slow down, or just wait patiently. I still find myself tempted to play “beat the clock” while getting dressed or doing a dozen other daily tasks, but now I’m paying attention to my need for speed and intentionally slowing things down. And if I need a poignant reminder, I can always slowly walk to my car, get in, drive the speed limit, and make a bunch of left turns.

 

Running Away to the Same Place

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I’m not much for ruts. I don’t like doing the same thing the same way over long periods of time, but I make an exception for this place.

Colorado.

I know, everyone in Oklahoma and Texas flocks to these mountains in the summer. It’s not like where we go is unique, but heck, we’re in a rut. And I’m so glad that we are. I haven’t always felt this way. There were quite a few years when I longed for something different. It felt like we were doing the same thing the same way and had been doing it for a long period of time. But this summer has been filled with changes and we’ve got new and different coming at us this fall, so I’m longing for the familiar. The same old thing sounds good to me. Despite all the dizzying newness that is about to come around the bend, there are some things still beneath my feet that haven’t changed. And I am learning to appreciate the large collection of stories that my family has accumulated around these trips. We circulate them every year while we are here and they make us laugh, cry, and miss those who are gone. And they continue to bind us tightly together, which we all need for mental and physical health.

My dad always loved this story (at my mother’s expense): We have always taken these vacations with family – grandparents, siblings, cousins. In 1970, we were all in a caravan and had made it to Colorado Springs when my mother realized she had left the suitcase with all my clothes on the bed in the guest room. My mother was an obsessive packer. She started at least a week early, shopping for the clothes, washing and ironing them, and then laying them on the bed and mandating that I not wear those “trip clothes.” And now, these carefully arranged outfits were still beautifully laid out in the suitcase back in Elk City, Oklahoma. And my mother cried. Then she apologized, hugged me, and took me to  J.C. Penney where she bought me exactly three outfits that were rotated for the two weeks while we were on vacation. The photo above proves that the clothing selection at the  Colorado Springs Penney’s was not geared for vacation mode, but rather for the start of a new school year. I looked sadly formal for our time in the mountains, but I was five years old and didn’t care. For decades, however, we got a lot of mileage out of this story. My mother laughed the hardest, especially when the story was accompanied by the photos. I was a sailor in the Rocky Mountains.

I’m glad we’re here. I’m thankful to share this vacation with the same people every year – the ones who know me best and love me anyway. I’m grateful to know that there are some things in Pagosa Springs that don’t change: the Liberty theater downtown still only plays the same single movie all week, with a matinee and evening showing. This week it’s Wolverine. Bummer. It rains most every evening, but it’s sunny most every morning. The County Fair is serious business and takes place the first week in August. The Malt Shoppe has been here for 30 years and the decor, furniture, and menu has remained exactly the same, which is good because it won’t do to come here and not have multiple caramel malts. You can still spot the hot weather exiles in the grocery store, stocking up on Oletha corn while the locals wind in between us, smiling kindly as they count down the days until the end of tourist season. And the mountains. They change colors with the sunrise and the sunset, but they are the same mountains that we have looked at for over 40 years. If everything else finally does change, the mountains will remain, which means I’ll keep coming back.

I love everything this vacation represents and every blessing it bestows on me at the end of each summer. It feels right to have run away to this same place. To do the same things. And I think I’ll stay here for a while.

On Mother’s Day: Two Women Remembered

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There is a quiet debate these days about the politically correct word for mothers who give birth and then place their child for adoption. It’s good to describe these adoption realities with sensitivity, but honestly, I lose track of what’s in and what’s out. As for my youngest daughter’s circumstances: instead of being abandoned, she was “left in a place where she would be found.” And instead of giving a child up for adoption, the birthmother “made an adoption plan.” And so in some circles, a birthmother is now referred to as a “first mother.” Which, in my mind, means that an adoptive mother – regardless of what you say – is a “second mother.” I’m passing on these terms, just so you know.

I have a birth mother. And I have an adoptive mother. And they are both gone, which always makes Mother’s Day a little bittersweet for me. It’s not the hardest day of the year, but it’s not one that I get gushy over either. And yes, I have children, but let’s face it: most of our kids need a little prodding in order to 1) remember Mother’s Day, and 2) do something about it. A friend of mine posted a photo of her Mother’s Day gift wrapped in toilet paper with a sticky note in kid writing that said, “Sorry.” This is so real and so perfect, and it was the only Mother’s Day post on Facebook that made me feel all warm and fuzzy. (As a side note, if Mother’s Day is a little rough for you, skip Facebook on this day.)

I lost Mom five years ago in April. I lost my birthmother hours after I was born. And I think about both of them on Mother’s Day. In fact, on most days, each of them crosses my mind at some point, either during waking hours or in my dreams. My house is filled with things Mom gave me and so I am surrounded by her with gifts and possessions passed down to me. And every time I look in the mirror or wonder why I have that little physical imperfection or notice my short stature (when I’m hanging with tall people), I think about my birthmother who passed these things to me, and then without realizing it, passed some of them on to my biological children. And yes, I miss both of my mothers and feel the empty space their passing has left in my heart.

I celebrated this day with my own children, but it feels odd to be unable to turn around and honor the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who raised me with absolute selflessness. It seems as though I should be saying Happy Mother’s Day to someone. Perhaps this is enough for me. Writing usually quells the restlessness.

To my birthmother: I know it was difficult to hand over your baby and walk away. Thank you for physical life – for taking care of yourself during pregnancy, for not being reckless with your health, and for whatever good thoughts you chose to focus on during those nine months. I have a sense that you were tenacious but calm as you waited to deliver and then give away your child. I’m confident you were strong. And I am proud to be your daughter.

To Mom: I know you wanted to live to see so many things, but you made the most of every moment that we had together. Every day, you chose a life that focused on others. You tormented me with little quotes like “It is better to give than to receive,” but you were speaking absolute truth. It just took me a long time to get it, and an even longer time to begin to learn how to live it. But I have more than adequate footsteps to follow in.

So I honor you both today, in my own way. Happy Mother’s Day my two mothers. You are deeply loved…forever.

Another Amazing Woman Whose Genes I Don’t Share

This is my Granny Flonnie – the grandmother with the most sing-song name a kid could ask for.

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Her maiden name was Cromwell, but do not mistake her for a Victorian-era shrinking violet. I suppose her given name was Florence, but no one ever, ever called her that. She was Flonnie, a woman who was over 40 years old when she had twin babies – a boy and a girl. The baby girl was my mother.

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The year was 1936, which still holds the record for the hottest summer in the U.S., and Flonnie had those two babies on the front porch while someone poured buckets of water on the wood to cool it down. My mother once told me that she and her brother weighed over seven pounds each when they were born and that sent a shiver across my spine. Thirteen months later Flonnie’s husband was killed by a drunk driver and she was left to raise six children alone. My mother and Uncle Bob were surprise babies, born 13 years after my Aunt Margaret, who was the youngest until the twins came along. So my grandmother, now a widowed mother, took a job at the school cafeteria and brought home the leftovers for dinner on many evenings. She raised her children and then when grandchildren began to come along, she helped take care of them too.

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She had developed diabetes by the time I was born and the circulation in her legs wasn’t good. She had a hard time getting around. When I was a baby, she came to visit once and spent an evening with me while my parents went out. They had put me to bed upstairs, assuring her that they wouldn’t be gone long and there would be no need for her to climb the stairs. But sometime during that evening I began to cry. She couldn’t make it up the stairs, and when they came home they found her sitting on the bottom step sobbing while I screamed in the room upstairs. She had tried to climb the stairs, but couldn’t make it. Not long after that she was confined to a wheelchair. Then, she went to a nursing home. This was the late 1960s when nursing homes were like…nursing homes, and that place is the setting for most of the memories of my Granny Flonnie. She aged quickly in that place, and most of what I remember is a metal bed in a small cinderblock room with a bell on the nightstand and another twin bed on the other side. No single room option in that nursing home.

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I’m not sure my grandmother had one easy moment in her life, but she didn’t seem to believe that she was entitled to easy moments. This is a big deal for me – people who have every right to throw themselves a pity party and don’t do it. My mother was this kind of person. I, however, have quite the comfortable life so I can’t compare myself to these women. But I want to. I want their courage and fortitude and the character to face challenges without pouting or stomping my feet. I don’t want to raise my voice to a whining pitch every time something doesn’t go my way. I want to stop obsessing over how good I look in the eyes of others and start looking into the eyes of others so that I can serve them. Sometimes I tell myself that if these women’s blood ran through my veins, then I could say that I quite naturally inherited all these attributes. They weren’t perfect women at all, but they did possess some character traits I’d like to claim as my own. But these women and I are not genetically linked. And yet, I know that doesn’t matter and so I’ve tried to walk in the footsteps of both of my grandmothers and my mother. And, more importantly, I’ve shared all these stories with my girls so that they will want to walk in those footsteps also. This is another big deal for me. May I say this: I don’t want my girls to be princesses. And I didn’t buy the t-shirt.

I was raised by women who did not quiver over hard times. They weren’t afraid to bring the leftovers home from the school cafeteria or wear homemade clothes. They got their hands dirty (my mother and father cleaned every single used brick for a house they built in the 1970s) and wore out their oven mitts taking meals to people who were sick. These are the women I long to emulate. In my book, these were real women who taught everyone around them how to be both gentle and tough at the same time. You can’t do much better than that.

The ring my grandmother is wearing in her nursing home bed is her wedding ring, given to her by the husband she lost. That ring is now in my jewelry box and I take it out every now and then and try it on (it’s too big for me) and imagine myself to have the amount of fortitude that was in the ring finger of my grandmother. I’d be lucky to have that much. Gentle and tough. I’m working on it.

Dear Erin: A Birthday Letter on the Occasion of Turning 21

Dear Erin,

This is your birthday, and I’m writing you an open letter. Yes, I could have done this privately – printed it out and tucked it in your birthday card – but you are a little bit like me and you lose things easily. So this way, we both know where the letter is: parked on my blog for all the world to see. But I promise not to embarrass you. If fact, this will be pretty short and sweet (insert smiling emoticon here).

You were born 21 years ago today. You came out screaming like a mad woman and kept it up for four straight months. Your face was purple with rage and you didn’t sleep longer than 90 minutes at a time. (See I told you that I wasn’t going to embarrass you.) I thought we were going to have to send you to live at your grandparent’s house, or just pass you around to stay with different families who had not yet endured your wrath. The problem was, I had given birth to a little boy nineteen months earlier who rarely cried and slept through the night at eight days old. We thought you might do this also. We looked forward to your birth with anticipation, and then it dawned on us as the weeks passed that perhaps you were going to be, well, different. You weren’t going to be a carbon copy of your brother. You wanted us to know that just because your birth followed his in short order, this did not mean that we would produce two identical babies. We finally got this message loud and clear by month four of your life. And then, you were satisfied. You had delivered your message and a silent truce was arranged between you and us. You stopped screaming and we stopped expecting you to be the baby we had planned for you to be.

And the story has played out pretty much like that for 21 years. You made sure, from the very beginning, that we knew you were going to be your own person. You’ve reminded us of that in much sweeter ways after the first four months. In fact, after you delivered your message, you’ve been quite delightful. The few times that we’ve butted heads, it’s because I kept expecting you to walk a path that I had laid out in my head. But you’ve always had your own path in mind and you’ve walked it. And now, you are 21 years old and I’m amazed at the person you have become without me hovering over you to make sure you ended up doing things our way. My way. You know I like to help people, fix things, control moments, and gently lead toward the decision I think is best. You must have been aware of this on November 24, 1991, when you came into this world to deliver the clear message: I am here to be Erin. And I’m going to go ahead and be Erin because I don’t know how, nor do I care to be anyone else.  

As it turns out, I love who you have become. God knew best. He gave you tenacity, stubbornness, and a mile-wide streak of individuality. Sometimes I wanted you to blend in so you wouldn’t get hurt, but you weren’t worried about that. And so neither am I. You are still walking your own path. And you’re still delivering the message that Erin will most definitely be Erin.

Thank God.

Happy Birthday daughter.