Tag Archives: love

Family Does Not Mean Common DNA

We talk to each other on the phone
Nothing much of nothing

So many topics not to be discussed

Stepping around the land mines of opposing views

The things we say don’t matter, have no connection

The only thing we have in common is the past

Mother, father and child

Years later and light-years apart

Idle chit chat of dinners out and what the lawn man said about the hedges

Have you heard from your children

And I pass along the news of the next generations

As we talk, I find myself wondering

Why do I even bother to talk to them

I owe them nothing, I have no debt to the past

I have fulfilled my childhood obligations

An obedient child, bowing to their authority

Learning how to lie and be sneaky to get past

The eyes of parents who don’t like small children

We have less to say to each other than

The conversations we have with strangers

I am not that child; I have changed more than they can imagine

They have changed into sad people, waiting to die

I feel sorry for them

Mother is a complainer, nothing makes her happier than to

Grouse and mutter about her health, the clerk who was rude

My father’s staying up all night on the computer

My father is trapped in the house with her and

He hates confrontations so he hides in the Internet

He’s not as vocal about her shortcomings to me

As she is when she speaks about his; even as she laughs

You can tell it makes her angry

Two strangers living in the same house

Even after more than 50 years of marriage

To be honest, I don’t really know these two people

That I call my parents

Our lives diverged when I left home at 18

Thirty-six years later and we’re all of us new people

I have come to a deeper understanding of myself

And I know that the “me of me” is not someone they’d want to know

I think maybe they suspect that as well

So we maintain the façade of familial ties and emotional connections

Where there is none, not any more

And we talk on the phone, speaking nothing much about nothing

Our only link is the past; and our relationship has no future

~~KGChmielewski 2016


Family: fam-i-ly; fam-uh-lee, noun

~~a group consisting of parents and children living in a household.

~~all the descendants of a common ancestor

“We are family”; family honor; family dinner; holidays with the family; family time; family rules; family movies.

We have a fairly common idea of what a family is–you know, Mom and Dad, the 2.48 children, house. white picket fence and a cute dog or cat. We buy into this concept of family as the only form that “family” can take. We recognize all the labels of family: mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew, grand(label) and if you live long enough, “great-grand”(label). We compare strong relationships to those not related to us with some version of those labels–my “brother from another mother”, “the daughter I never had”, “like a grandmother to me” and so on.

I think that’s backwards. Based on my own (dysfunctional) family, I strongly believe that “family” is NOT “all the descendants of a common ancestor”–or a commonality of genetic information. Just because we share the same genes does not mean I HAVE to love you–or even like you, and they are different things. In theory, families are the ones to whom you can turn to, no matter what, and they will respond in love. In reality, we all know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And just because we have common DNA doesn’t mean that I have to stop my life to get you out of some mess or lend you money without expecting it to be repaid. You can swap the personal nouns in that one and it would still be true: you don’t have to stop your life and etc.

The concept of family, especially the Norman Rockwell version of American Family, is such an ingrained part of our society’s structure, that we don’t even question it. Most of the time. I have had to question it for several different reasons. Let’s do this chronologically: my parents do not actually like children and probably shouldn’t have reproduced. But that was a part of their generational expectations (marry, have kids, in that order) so it never occurred to them to not have children. And I am grateful to be here (as is my brother, I assume). So I was brought up by an overwhelmingly authoritarian mother. Example: when I was still a baby, when we went to someone else’s house, my mother would spread a small blanket (say, 2 feet square) and place me and my toys on it. I was not allowed to go off of that blanket. People were impressed by my ability to not get under their feet or demand things from Mother, just sit there and play quietly. (The thought of doing this to my children still gives me the willies.)

As I grew older, there was still the hard-line rules and the unspoken but definitely understood requirement of complete and immediate obedience. I got spanked if I didn’t do what I was supposed to–or if I did something that I wasn’t supposed to. My mother usually punished me–she used a wooden spoon as her method for spanking. One time though, I did something real bad (and in hindsight, it was something very foolish–but childish) and my father spanked me. With a leather belt. I was 7 or 8 years old at the time.

We lived overseas for several years and at one point, there was no English-speaking school. So my mother home schooled me. Three or four hours in the morning, then we’d have lunch, then she let me go outside. I wandered all over the local area, for hours at a time. I was allowed to go to the beach by myself but with very strict instructions of NEVER entering the water. I was smart enough then to know that if I did go in, I’d have to dry off before going home. (The only time I ever broke that rule wasn’t even for swimming–I was offered a chance to water ski. Complete strangers (but a woman, if that makes a difference) and she asked if I’d like to try–they were using a sort of beginner’s skis–one wide ski with two foot holders. I got on in the surf, rode out and around and landed back up on the beach. Not a single drop of water on me!)

Let me reiterate that for you: I was out of the house, beyond my mother’s vocal range, doing whatever with no supervision. I went to the beach and built sand castles; I played in a little group of evergreens that made “rooms” between their trunks. I walked around the other houses and made friends with an old lady who spoke no English and I spoke very little Thai…but I’d go inside her house, she’d give me cookies and a drink and we’d watch some Thai kick-boxing together. Then I’d go home. I don’t know if I ever told my parents about her. I learned from a very early age to be sneaky (and to lie).

Fast forward 20 years and I have my own children. The thought of them being somewhere that I didn’t know where they were, and doing the same sort of things that I did at there age…made me have nightmares, so to speak.

So under my parents’ regime, I was outwardly obedient and inwardly rebellious. I came home drunk once–a cast party for the spring musical, I tried every single drink that came around and my friends had to carry me into the house. I was grounded for 6 weeks and missed the Junior-Senior Prom because it was during that time. A little bit after my sentence was over, I mentioned not being able to go and my mother looked all shocked and told me that I could have gone to that! No, I couldn’t because you didn’t tell me that PRIOR to the dance.

I think you get the idea. I usually sum it up as “I never had a childhood”. I lied to do the things I wanted to, especially during those rebellious teen years. I freaked out other adults when at the ages of 7 or 8, I would sit in the room with the adults and occasionally added something to the conversation–pertinent and not the sort of thing you’d expect from a child. Things didn’t improve when my brother was born–7.5 years between us and I became his 3rd parent. Poor guy.

At 18, I joined the Air Force and left home. The first 6 months of freedom were spent on the stupidity that comes with freedom from the jailers. I drank, I had sex, I got pregnant. That “sobered” me up pretty fast. (Side note: I told my parents about being pregnant; I’m pretty sure they think that I lost my virginity to my child’s father. Sorry, folks. Did that 2 years prior with my boyfriend.)

I gave my child up for adoption and went on with my AF work. I married a co-worker and when my term of enlistment was up, got out of the AF so that we could start our family. My son was born in ’86, my daughter in ’88. We moved as the AF sent him and then at 11 years’ of service, he chose to get out of the military and return to civilian life. We ended up living in the same city as the rest of his family…but our marriage is best left for another time. Let’s just say it ended long before I gave up and divorced him.

My mother had the unmitigated gall to tell me that perhaps (he) would accept God’s love into his heart and “take me back”. I told her in no uncertain terms that I was never going back, that he hadn’t pushed me out, I had left him. (And when I did leave, I lost the family (of in-laws) that I had belonged to for almost 18 years.)

Leaving home and having my own life did not stop my mother from trying to tell me what to do. It took her about 25 years before she realized that my brother and I would listen to her telling us what we needed to do and we’d just go “uh huh” and then do what we wanted. She was not happy about that. And the biggest reason for that unhappiness is that, as I have come to realize, she is a narcissist. One of the main characteristics is strongly identifying (yourself) by the job or title you hold. In other words, you are your job. My mother wants to be a mother, NEEDS to be a mother, in order to have any sense of identity.

I haven’t spoken to my brother in almost 6 years–not because we are fighting, but because our lives are so different, there is no common meeting ground. All of my grandparents are dead, my favorite uncle, too. The only living relatives (all cousins) I have beyond immediate family are completely unknown to me, scattered who knows where–and there’s very few of them. I am, in a very real sense, an orphan.

However. For a long time, I had a group of friends that were closer to me than my own DNA-related family. Then circumstances changed and we all moved on. I met and married my Beloved, and have become part of his family. In fact, my mother-in-love told me that she did not think of me as a “daughter-in-law”, but as a DAUGHTER. His parents have been more involved in our lives than mine ever were. And I don’t mean the bad kind of involvement–I mean emotionally AND financially supportive. For various reasons, he and I chose to move across the country from them–and while they miss us, they absolutely agree that we had to do it. We talk to them almost every day. I talk to my parents maybe once a month.

They say that “home is where, if you go there, they (family) *have* to take you in”. WTF is that? A mandatory obligation to take in someone just because they happen to share DNA? Let’s put this in really simple terms: you do not have to accept anyone or anyone’s behavior “just because” you are related. If your DNA family treats you in a way that you would not tolerate from a stranger, you do not have to tolerate it from them–even if it means cutting of contact with these (poisonous, negative, judgmental) relatives.

If your DNA family is not supportive of you and your goals; if they do not give you respect; if they denigrate you or in any way make you feel bad about yourself; if they treat you as a child even after childhood; if they don’t like your chosen friends or mates and say so to you; if they don’t accept your choices; why on the gods’ green Earth would you bother to spend time or the effort of any contact with them?

Those who you spend the most time with–happy or sad time? THAT IS your family, regardless of genetic codes. The people you rely on, the ones you can trust, those who support you being you…are family. And the best part about a chosen family, instead of an accidental one is that you can have endless amounts of “relatives”–no limitations on how big (or how small) this healthier family is!

Once a Mother, Always a Mother

I miss my children. It’s not the miles (we live across the country from each other), but it’s the passage of years. I am proud of them both. They’ve made good lives for themselves, with jobs and partners and children of their own. They have grown up to be what I had wished for them: responsible, independent, compassionate people.

But lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about those years when they were young. (And I was younger, but that’s not the point.) Looking back over all those years, it’s like a slideshow in my mind. Flickering images, passing in succession, of babies and toddlers and tweens and teens. I have come to realize that I loved every moment with them. I’d like to be able to relive some of that, to have a second chance to enjoy all those “firsts” for those new beings.

I had only the first 3 days of my eldest child’s life as I gave her up for adoption. While that was a hard decision, I have never doubted it, have always known that it was the best thing for her–even if it wasn’t what I would have wanted for me. But my circumstances were such that I was not able to have a child in my life at that time. I am still in contact and I am happy to report that her mother did a great job–I’m also very proud of her and her accomplishments.

W, my son, was born in the year of the Texas sesquicentennial (150 years) of statehood and the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. I was 8 months pregnant with him when I watched Challenger blow up. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. We were listening to “That’s What Friends Are For”, “Addicted to Love”, “Rock Me Amadeus” and Prince was giving us a “Kiss”.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos had fled the Philippines, leaving her thousands of shoes behind. 1986 was the year of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Chicago won the Superbowl and the Mets were the World Champions. Science was giving us the first Hep B vaccine and superconductivity; Voyager passed Jupiter and sent back photos that answered some of our questions about it. Fox channel was born on our TV and Oprah had her show.

I was busy with more important things. W was born at the end of March. I watched him lift his head and turn it over while in his layette at the hospital. His father and I took him home and began our life as a family (not just a couple). Because I breastfed him, we had a lot of “face” time. I talked to him and sang to him–not unlike the mariachi bands that wander through the Mexican restaurants while you’re trying to eat. There were so many firsts, those remarkable moments of new actions, new abilities. His first smile was wonderful, all gums and happiness.

Now, looking back, it seems like the time went by like lightning…a flickering moment and then on to something else that was new. He learned to drink from a straw. He tasted strawberry jam for the first time. He laughed, that deep and wonderful belly laugh that only babies have. He went to Mother’s Day out, leaving the house as it had always been and then coming home to an empty house; then he crawled all over, looking for our things. He (and I) lived with his great-grandparents for several months until we left for Germany. His first Christmas filled the floor with presents from the grandparents / great-grandparents. He preferred his father’s optic orange golf ball.

He got a stuffed animal for his 2nd birthday, a duck we named George. W still has George and he still sleeps on W’s bed. Apparently his wife cuddled with George when he was on sea duty. He would take all of the toys out of the footlocker (toy box) and then climb in his…boat? Spaceship? Maybe it was his car… He had a toy phone and he would hold it up to his ear and hold a conversation–complete with pauses while the “other person” was speaking. He was a loving baby, happy to get hugs and kisses, which he learned to return with great enthusiasm. There was a certain feeling of awe to realize that I was the center of his Universe–at least for the first couple of years.

His sister (L) was born in 1988, when W was 2.5 years old. That was the year George Michael sang about his “Faith” and it was the first time we were Rick Rolled. (We didn’t even know that was what happened, those first few times of hearing Rick Astley singing.) And we all knew the words to Bobby McFerrin’s song…”Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Reagan was still President. Pan-Am flight 103 exploded from a bomb, to crash in Lockerbie, Scotland. Benazir Bhutto was elected as the first Islamic woman to be Prime Minister in Pakistan; she said of her two terms in that position: “The government I led gave ordinary people peace, security, dignity, and opportunity to progress.”

Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen were the candidates for the Democrats; George Bush and Daniel Quayle were the GOP’s choice. Washington won the Superbowl; LA Dodgers were the World Series winners. CDs were outselling vinyl and Ted Turner created his own TV station. “The Last Emperor” won the Oscar for Best Picture. Oh, and the US Navy shot down an Iranian airliner after mistaking it for a jet fighter.

L was born in the middle of November, just in time to get Christmas presents that year. She was also born in Augsburg, Germany. The first stuffed animal she was given was from her father and brother–a little orange tabby kitten. Last I heard, L still has it.

Each of my pregnancies were different except for the morning sickness that lasted all day. This time, with L, I had a toddler to chase after and couldn’t just sit quietly, hoping for the queasiness to pass. By the time I was about 6 months along, poor little guy had to climb the four floors up to our apartment by himself. I wasn’t able to balance him and my tummy without feeling like we’d all go rolling down. The only question he asked me about the sibling that was coming along was “how does the baby get out?”. Whew. Missed the big one, “how did the baby GET IN?”

I announced this pregnancy to my grandparents (the “greats” for my kids) when I told my grandmother that I could not come to the US for their 50th wedding anniversary because the airline wouldn’t let me fly with a newborn. Instead, they came to Germany for Christmas and New Year’s. It was the first time they had ever been out of the US.

I got to see my children interact with my grandparents–the youngest and the oldest of the family. My grandfather took out his dentures to show W–who promptly ran to me and held on. I guess he thought he’d get bitten. For various reasons, I was bottle-feeding L and it has been a cherished memory, the sight of Grandmom, holding her and feeding her.

W took his position as the older brother seriously and was always helpful–bringing me diapers or a burp rag. He was always gentle with her and I enjoyed watching the two of them, learning about each other. BUT! L’s personality was already manifesting itself: she could be extremely vocal about the things she wanted (even if it only was in baby-babble) and I told her father that one day, our child would come running into the room, crying and saying, “SHE hit me!”. (I was not wrong.)

As a stay-at-home Mom (SAHM, so I’ve heard is the acronym), my world revolved around my children. Taking care of them (and their environment) was a major priority. I wasn’t chained to them, there were no bad feelings about being at home. As a matter of fact, I thoroughly took pleasure and joy in being with them, in the daily routine. And a daily routine with a baby and a toddler is a study in changes and discovery. (I don’t mean diaper changes, although we had those, too.)

I tried to mark in my own mind each of the many milestones, for both of them. The first food, the first drinking from a cup, the first step…so many “firsts” it could be overwhelming. I’d be marveling at one and then BOOM! We’d have another. Even the “firsts” I had had with W were different than those same things with L. And I loved every minute of it.

The whole world takes on a new, lustrous and exciting feel when you are seeing it through the eyes of a child. Even explaining and talking about the mundane things they were doing, I knew that “mundane” was my word and “wowee” was theirs. I took the time to explore their world as they explored this big world they were living in. The trees are a little taller, the grass a little greener, the dog or cat a little fluffier and softer.

As time passed (as it is wont to do), the “first” events slowed down a bit. I had a chance to really savor it and even catch my breath before the next one came along. L was my dramatic child. Supporting evidence: she was in the high chair, W and his friend were seated on the bench and W says to me, “Mommy, (L)’s face is blue.” Mommy went into freak out mode because when I looked at her, by the gods, she was blue. A blue that no human face should ever be. I pulled her out of the high chair and that action knocked the food loose so that by the time she was in my arms, she was breathing again.

She wasn’t done with us and high excitement. Not too long after the high chair episode, she was coughing and hacking around the house. Friday afternoon, of course. Did I mention we were living in Germany and had military healthcare? No appointments over the weekend. So her father and I both agreed we would be taking her first thing Monday morning. That apparently did not meet with her agenda… I was downstairs at the neighbor’s house when the husband knocked on the door, holding L. “You need to go back upstairs to be with W. I’m taking her to the ER. I was changing her diaper and she stopped breathing. I had to resuscitate her.”

These are not words you ever want to hear. The wait was horrendous. Husband came home, without L, about 10 pm. The hospital had done an xray of her esophagus. If this (      ) is the normal esophagus, hers was like this (XX|XX) where the “|” is the actual opening for air. No wonder she was not breathing well. Turned out, she had the croup. Poor baby got shots in her thighs every 6 or 8 hours…and the medical team had asked her father to help hold her down for the first couple. When I went to see her, she very pointedly refused to look at her father. I think I lost some popularity when I didn’t grab her up and take her home. Scary, scary times for a mom (and a dad).

It’s not like W didn’t have excitement. No, his was of a different style. When they were tweens, we accompanied their father to an office party at the boss’ house. There was an above ground pool. It is pertinent to the story to understand that in this circular pool, in the center, there was a slight dip so that all the dirt would collect in that one place. My son dove in and found himself standing within that dip. It made the water just *that* much too deep for him. I saw him, thought he was play-bobbing up and down and then I realized that he was in danger. It’s true: people who are drowning are NOT yelling for help. Their arms go out, up to shoulder height and they spend all their energy trying to catch a breath. I had a glass glass in my hand and didn’t want to drop it (making another hazard) and by the time I found a place to set it down, I heard a splash. Husband had gone into the pool (clothes, watch, wallet and all) and got W out of the water. Let’s just say that W didn’t dive in again and it took a while before he got back into the water.

I know it sounds melodramatic, but…except for the quick response of their father, there would be a very good chance that both of my children would be dead. And that thought still makes me shudder. I don’t want those scary times. But you don’t always get what you want…

At 14, L broke her arm, rollerblading. When he was about 3, W fell and cut the skin on his forehead/hairline. Head wounds bleed a lot, but a simple butterfly bandage fixed him up, no problem. I don’t remember any other medical emergencies, so I guess we were blessed with reasonably good health and a bare minimum of dramatic sickness or injury.

W went to Kindergarten and I had two school years of having just one child at home all day.  Then it was her turn and L went off to get some edumacation, too. For the first time in 7 years, I had days of being “single” again. Odd feeling and I got a lot of reading done. And handicrafts. And I could grocery shop without threatening my offspring for getting away from me. Or having to explain 469,756 times why I was not buying (X). I missed them.

Christmas time was always fun. I decorated our house and as the lights went up on the other houses, we’d ride around at night time and “ohh” and “ahh” over them. When they were little, we had some serious discussions about what they would like Santa to bring. The ToyRUs catalog would arrive and they both did the “I want this…and this…and this…and this”–you get the idea. So I would ask them the Big Question: “If Santa could only bring you ONE present, what would you really, really want to have?” They generally got whatever that one thing was–and Santa did bring some other things, too. But Christmas morning, Santa’s presents were always wrapped in Santa paper. The other gifts were from Mom and Dad. (And then we’d go over to the husband’s parents house for Christmas with the whole family. And when I say whole, I mean siblings and their spouses and children as they came along…and considering the number of siblings was 7…lots of family!)

We’d let them stay up long enough to see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. There were a number of years where they didn’t manage it and had to be carried to bed. The Easter Rabbit hid eggs and treats all over the house. (I didn’t want to encourage animals coming along and eating them.) One year, he left plastic eggs with hints left in them–and when they got to the end of the treasure hunt, there was one special gift for each of them. (Actually two hunts, if I’m remembering right–one for L and one for W.) Halloween was also celebrated and one year I made their costumes–Robin Hood for W and Maid Marian for L. They were adorable. But the amount of work was too much to try and repeat it–and they were happy with the Power Rangers costumes from the Halloween section of Party City.

We had one Halloween tradition that saved them from sugar comas. Keep in mind that we lived on a street that had other children, and they were allowed to go around the block and across the streeet, around the block. So that’s about 40-ish houses. Once they had gotten their loot, they brought it home and we dumped it out to make sure there were no razor blades. Then I would have them pick out the ones that they only had singletons of, as well as the candies that were their particular favorites. These candies (probably 25% of their take) went back into their bags and no one else ate them. The remaining pounds of candy (not kidding!) would go into my 26 cup Tupperware bowl…and fill it to brimming. Anyone could eat out of that. While their bag had candies, our tradition was that they could eat all the candy they wanted for 20 minutes. Then they had to go brush their teeth…not quite 20 minutes, but certainly enough to get the sugar coating off! Sometimes that might mean just 1 candy–something larger, or a lollipop that was to be sucked on.

And I had candies to nibble on for the next month. (They nibbled, too…but you know what I mean!)

They played tee ball; W went on to play on a team but L decided that baseball was not her thing. They learned to ride bikes, rollerblade, swim (not just walk into the water and get wet–or dive in). They went fishing at the family cottage near Dundee in the Finger Lakes. When we visited my family in Baltimore, they went to the National Aquarium and the Science Center in the Inner Harbor. (L tried to jump into the beluga whale tank. She is and was always a Water Baby, like her mother and her great-grandmother.)
(Ed. note: Here is the story, “Water Baby” , which is where I got that term)

We only had one computer, back in the “old days”. Which saved me from having to buy TWO computers and never seeing the kids because they’d be up in their rooms, surfing the Net. Nope, we had one, and it sat in the corner of the kitchen. I could keep an eye on them and they could go pretty much wherever they wanted–and there were sites that wanted a parent’s “signature” to ensure that the child was allowed there. The three of us learned about Internet research–and Google, when it came along. I answered all of their questions, but when I didn’t know the answer, the 3 of us would go on the computer and find it. They weren’t the only one who was learning new things!

We started getting the Nintendo gaming consoles, starting with the SuperNES and Mario. All 3 of us played–my time was mostly at night, once the kids were in bed. And if it was a rainy day, I’d let them play most of the day…but on nice (not raining, maybe even some sunshine) days, I’d let them play for a couple of hours. Then I’d say, “It’s time to quit and save!” — and I always got the cry of “Mooooom, it’s SAVE and quit!!” And back in those days, I could rent the games for a week–and sometimes, if the game was involved enough…I’d spend most of my free time playing.

When they were tweens, their father and I split up. (It took 3 YEARS to get the final decree, but that’s another story.) I moved out and took them with me, getting an apartment about 20 miles away from our old home. I was working nights, so I’d get home after they had left for school. I’d sleep until they came home. Then we’d spend a couple of hours together, have dinner–and I’d go back to bed for a 2 hour nap. I discovered that I couldn’t sleep for 8 hours, be up with them and then try to work an 8 hour shift. I needed the psychological effect of getting up and going to work. (Even if it was just a nap.)

They were good kids, taking care of each other and not having *too* many fights. Then I was invited to share my friend’s house and get a (better) job in VA. That was well out of the range that I could take the kids. It was a tough, tough, tough decision. But I finally figured that if I could get myself in a better place, I would be a better mom for them. So I left them, living back in the house with their father. It was only 8 months before he allowed them to move back with me. Rather, I should say, that he asked the children if they’d like to live with me and he barely got the question out of his mouth before they were both saying “YES!”.

So South they came. We lived with my friend, her 2 kids, her boyfriend and his 2 kids and then me and my 2 kids. We counted 11 people for Christmas (boyfriend’s ex-wife and mother of his kids and a friend from work with no family in the area). We couldn’t afford to buy presents for everyone…or so we thought. My friend came up with a brilliant idea and I pass it on to those of you who find it helpful. We loaded up everyone and went to the local Dollar Store. We bought 11 big gift bags and everyone split up to go into different aisles. The idea was that each person would buy one thing for each of the others–and so in the end, we each had 11 presents to open.

Eventually the three of us moved out of the commune (haha) and got our own apartment. I got a new job (I had been working at a place called Dominion, making flash memory) at the local assisted living center. I started courses on Network Security and Administration. One of my fellow students suggested trying for a job at the place he was working. I did, and thus began my tenure as a Customer Service Rep, making reservations for teleconferences. I left for about 18 months to work at the help desk of a company that was contracted to provide computer support for Congress. There was no place to move up, and so I returned to being a CSR at the same company. I had not burned any bridges when I left.

The kids continued growing up and it seemed like it had only been a few days before that they were being born and being toddlers… They both participated in the Junior ROTC program at school; they were both actors in several of the school’s plays. W actually got the high school version of an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Modred, King Arthur’s nephew (and son) in the musical, “Camelot”. L got her starring chance in her senior year with “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

In the twinkling of the eye, in the space of time for one breath…they went from helpless, wide-eyed newborns to being teenagers and on the verge of going out into the big wide world on their own. I loved every stage. I was and still am grateful for the discoveries we made together. I was the best Mom I knew how to be and I must have succeeded because my two wee ones are all grown up now, with wee ones of their own. And I look into the face of my daughter’s older daughter … and see my daughter there. I can do the same with my son’s son. Both of those grandchildren have a younger sister. I am blessed with a foursome of proof that I did a good enough job that my kids were willing to try that role for themselves.

And yet I still miss my own little ones. Even the throw-up and backtalk and bickering between them. I’d like to go back in time and visit them again–and I’ve found a way to do that. I simply close my eyes and let the images scroll through my mind. My son. My daughter. And the 20 years that flew past like an express train. They were both very good children. They are both very good parents. I can only wish them the same joy with their children as I had with them.

My Grandmother, Pauline Baker Foote, 1914 -1992

Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She would be 102 years old. She died in October, 1992 at the age of 78. It’s been 24 years since then. I miss her as if it were yesterday.

Grief never really goes away. You learn to live with it, you learn that it really won’t kill you, you learn to put it away into a tiny corner of your heart. But then something triggers a memory and the grief comes galloping out, as if it had never been there before. This sudden swell of grief can make you staggered, make you cry, make you angry at a Universe that took someone away from you.

My grandmother’s name was Pauline. Nobody called her that. To most of her friends, she was “Polly”. To a select group of longtime friends, she was “Bunny”. (That’s because my grandfather called her his “Honey Bunny”…and it stuck.) To me, she was “Grandmom”…there is no greater way to name someone like her: Grand Mom.

Without going into the gory details, let’s just say that my parents don’t like children as children; they are supposed to be little adults. Of course, that’s a ridiculous demand; children are children, or they’d be called adults right out of the womb. All that growing and learning stuff to do, you know. I am grateful that they had me (and my brother) but…if it weren’t for my Grandmom, I would have a lot more mental issues than I already do. It’s not that my parents were not caring or loving. But they were authoritarian enough that the military regimens had no horror for me and in fact, I found boot camp to be more free than my childhood years. How sad is that? But let’s not talk about the ‘rents. This is about my Grandmom.

She had a life before I showed up, as amazing as it seems. She was born in Portsmouth VA on February 20, 1914. That’s just a few months before the start of World War I. Her parents lived long enough that I got to meet them…when I was 4. I have a picture in my head of a tall, thin man and a short, round woman…and having to look up up up to see his face. My great-grandmother died in the ’70’s, while we were living overseas. My great-grandfather lived until I was 16…and it was amazing that this oh so tall man was now eye to eye with me.

Grandmom did all the things that people did, back then. She had something called a “Baby Party”, where everyone dressed up to look like babies. Don’t judge, this was before the Internet. (Found a mention of these from the Wheaton College records, where their first Baby Party was held in 1914. It was part of the “moving up” of juniors to their senior year. Apparently something of a tradition.)

She had a younger brother, named Hugh. I don’t remember him, although apparently I had met him, probably at about 3-4 years old. Grandmom told me later that he like to eat mac’n’cheese cold. I tried it that way, and that’s something I still do these days. A connection to my past, even if I began it on secondhand knowledge.

She met my grandfather when she was 16. He knew that she was The One for him. But he was 20 years old, so he waited several years for her before proposing. When Grandmom graduated high school, she went to work for the the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, nicknamed the “Old Bay Line”, as a secretary. (Click here for more about the Old Bay Line ) At some point, she was in a beauty contest and was Miss Portsmouth, about 1930-32. I can’t say for sure, but this may have been a local pageant that led to the Miss Virginia pageant.

My grandfather had a picture of her on his dresser, taken when she was a teenager. It could have been a photograph of me, there was that strong a resemblance. But I’m not tooting my own horn when I tell you that Grandmom was beautiful. Lovely dark eyes, dark brown hair, nice legs…but what made her truly beautiful was the love that poured out of her, that shone in her eyes, her entire life.

I met my Grandmother when I was born. Needless to say, I don’t remember it. I have snippets of memories, like snapshots in my brain, of her and her house from about 4 years old until…I could remember whole movies. My family lived overseas from 1966 until 1971 and again from 1973 to 1976. So a great deal of my childhood was spent too far to see her on anything resembling a regular basis. I do vaguely recall my mother’s friend taking us from the airport to my grandparents’ house and surprising them early on a Sunday morning. They didn’t go to church that day.

When we finally came back to the States to live, my father gifted my mother with living close to *her* mother–and when I say “close”, I mean 5 minutes’ of walking across the elementary school’s property and up through the alley, then down the alley to Grandmom’s house. My parents had actually sent my brother and me home in the summer of 1976 so that we would be in the US for the start of school. So he and I lived with our grandparents all that summer and into the fall, until my parents came home.

My grandmother was the most loving, most patient person I have ever known. I try to be like her. She had the amazing gift of “just listening”. People, all sorts of people, would come to her and pour out their lives. She just sat and listened. The few words she would speak were always loving and wise. She would babysit for anyone she knew, so there was a crib permanently set up in the back bedroom. She kept clean sheets on the double bed that was in the same room, as well as on the single bed in the other bedroom, just in case they were needed. That smaller bedroom was my room whenever I was there.

When I think of “home”, it’s always her house that appears in my mind. It was (and still is) a red brick “row home”, the Baltimore term for what is called “townhouse” or “condominium” in other places. It had a wonderful basement. All sorts of things, on shelves, in boxes… A couple of chest freezers (she had begun with one, but when it no longer stayed cold enough, she added the second and used the older one for things that didn’t require deep cold, like bread) that could have been used to hide bodies… A player piano, the old fashioned kind with the feet pedals to pump the air to make the music. It sort of worked…until eventually the bellows got so full of holes, it wouldn’t play on it own. I learned to play the piano on that.

There were stacks of comic books, a favorite activity for any child–and even for teenagers. There was an old Lionel train set…had to use steel wool to get the rust of the tracks before you could even hope to run it. And there was a bench that had storage inside of it. Flip up the seat and enter Fantasyland…that’s where she kept all sorts of things for “dressing up”. My friends and I played with those quite often.

The first floor was your basic kitchen/dining room/living room set up. The kitchen was smallish, with limited counter space but in a way that was good, because it meant few steps between tasks. In one corner there was a hutch…and on that hutch were 5 glass jars, with glass lids, in graduating size from about a gallon, down to about 2 cups. In each jar there was some type of candy: Hershey’s mixed small chocolate bars (milk chocolate, milk chocolate with almonds, Mr. Goodbar and Krackle); M&Ms (always) and then the other jars held whatever else sweet they wanted, like spearmint leaves or Canada Wintergreen Mints (or as we called them, “pink mints”, for they would leave your tongue Pepto-Bismol pink). My granddad kept some bull’s-eyes, a caramel wrapped around a white sugar icing. Sometimes there would be a package of Oreos or sugar wafers in the biggest jar.

Upstairs were the three bedrooms and the bathroom. And there was a set of stairs in the hallway ceiling, the kind you pull down and can then go up into the mysterious attic. Not quite as much fun for kids as the basement (and the candy in the kitchen), but still an adventure to have. Just a regular row home, nothing special about it…but because my Grandmom lived there, it was MY home,and it was also the childcare center, the hotel for wayward souls, the counseling center…

If someone knocked on the door, they were always invited in. (Thank goodness we didn’t have vampires in the neighborhood.) My Grandmom always had a pitcher of “Southern” iced tea–you know, with sugar–and everyone would have a glass of it. She actually crocheted what we called “pants” for the glasses–think coaster with a wall, going about halfway up the glass. Kept the condensation off the furniture. Any time anyone needed something, they could usually get it from Grandmom, if it was within her power to do so. A bed, a meal, someone to cry on, someone to share the joys of life with, a person so good, so giving that no one ever said a bad thing about her. Ever. And there are still houses today (that if I knew where they were) I could go to and say “I’m Polly Foote’s granddaughter and I need a place to stay” and get invited in without a second thought.

She and my granddad were both extremely active in their Presbyterian church. (I mention the denomination because she had been Baptist and my grandfather Episcopalian…Presbyterian was the halfway point between those religions, so there they were.) Grandmom’s service to the Lord was often, almost always, done in the kitchen. She helped with church dinners, wedding receptions, and the Thursday Pancake Breakfast. For several years, the church offered teenagers pancakes before school. I first went when I was about 9 or 10. I helped my grandparents carry in supplies, I ate pancakes and helped them load the car back up. Eventually I was one of the teens eating pancakes on Thursday mornings. And it was free. The church paid for it all.

She was so much a part of the kitchen that when it came time to buy new dishes, she was the one who chose them. She taught Sunday School when she wasn’t attending her own Ladies’ Group. She worked at Vacation Bible School. She was, as they say, a “good person”, a “good Christian”. Yes, she was. But she wasn’t good because she was Christian. She would have been a “good Buddhist” or a “good atheist”…she was good. She just happened to be Christian.

Her heart was huge, large enough to hold the hundreds of people she knew as well as the strangers she met on the street, in the store… She glowed with love. No other way to put it. She was Love, personified. It drew people to her, to bask in the love of her heart.

And for me? Well, it’s not that I *don’t* love my mother. But when I think of Mother, the source of all wonderful-ness, the person I want to be good for…I think of Grandmom. She let me prattle on about anything and everything. So did my mother. But Grandmom’s listening had a different feel to it, an intensity that my mother’s lacked. Sometimes I wonder how my mother can be as she is (another blog someday, when I’ve had my mood stabilizers, haha), coming from that home.

My Grandmom loved cardinals. She had one that she fed peanuts to…and if she was sitting out front, the bird would come and chirp at her. So she’d say “All right, I’ll meet you out back.” And by the time she went through the house, got a peanut and stepped out on the back porch, he was there, waiting for her. She also loved Canada geese and I cannot see a “V” of them without wanting to show her. She loved purple, something I obviously inherited from her! Being born in February, her birthstone was amethyst. Lucky! I now wear her amethyst ring, as well as an amethyst pendant and her gold bracelet…all the time. (I wear other jewelry all the time as well; getting any imaging done {x-ray, especially MRI} is a study in removing a pound of metal off my body. Okay, I’m exaggerating…but the count is impressive: 7 earrings, a tongue ring, 2 rings, 6 bracelets, 3 necklaces, an ankle bracelet and a toe ring. I’ll be able to trade with the natives for food and blankets when I’m on a trek.)

Grandmom was not a trend-setter. She dressed like…any other grandmother. (Side note: she still had her wedding gown, a glorious, gorgeous heavy satin gown; I tried it on when I was 17 and thin…could not get the waist of the dress past my shoulders.) She was petite, standing only about 5’3-4″. She, like so many of us, weighed more than she had as a young woman…but she was a joy to hug. She was a champion back-scratcher. Even after 50 years in Baltimore, she still sounded like she had stepped off Tara just yesterday. Soft spoken, Southern accent…when I worked at an assisted living community, all those little old ladies, with their white hair and their Southern accents always reminded me of her.

She was generous in a way that has nothing to do with money. She was generous with her love; she was generous with her home, but most of all, she was generous with her time. That’s something most people do not, cannot, do. She was thoughtful and she was wise. She was kind, the sort of kind that we sorely need in the world today.

She was my Grandmom and I miss her. Happy Birthday, Grandmom!