Monday, June 18, 2012

Body Parts

I was reminded the other day of one of those things that we think about from time to time and that is the importance of body parts.  While we all have been contemplating such things since we first noticed that the thing waving back and forth in our line of vision was actually a part of the whole, the hand, and that we could make it do pretty much whatever we pleased, people have noticed their body parts.  After getting acquainted with our own, most of us begin to compare ours with those of other folks in our acquaintance; and we notice some people's parts more than some others simply because they are well worth noticing.

I once had an allergic reaction to a pill I took.  The reaction came in the form of a hypoglycemic attack and didn't occur until I was sitting at my desk early one morning.  One of my co-workers noticed that I was looking decidedly ill and called 911.  The paramedics showed up promptly and got to work.  The one kneeling in front of me was listening to my racing heart and asking me questions.  All I could think of was that this was the most gorgeous face I had seen in my entire life with a perfectly shaped nose, black fringed baby blue eyes and a mouth like a ripe peach waiting to be tasted.  While I was sixty plus and he was probably half my age, I was thinking that if I weren't so busy dying at that moment, I would kiss the daylights out of the poor guy.  I think it is safe to say that we all notice the very good and maybe the very bad.  It is also a wonder that we are such diverse persons with such individualized tastes that there seems to be someone out there that is going to look mighty good to each other someone.

The other thing I wonder about is that each person seems to have a strong preference for some particular part to admire.  My dad was a leg man.  He once told me that a well-shaped ankle curving into a neatly rounded calf was a sight to stir the heart of any man.  Now days, lots of men seem to enjoy the going away view of women to the point that admiring the "junk in the trunk" has almost become a national past time.

My writers group got into this type of discussion on Saturday after critiquing a piece one of our members had written on all the changes that had been made to her original equipment, some of her own choosing and some chosen for her by circumstances.  She is a breast cancer survivor and has had a double mastectomy and reconstruction.  She doesn't recommend cancer, but she did have high praise for the boob job stating that it was much better than what God had given her as far as looks were concerned.  She was too old to care about function.  Several of the other women present also decried the idea that anyone could find boobs attractive since they were generally a burden to women requiring support that is awkward to put on and uncomfortable to wear. And the older one gets, the more grotesque the shape becomes unless a boob job has made them permanently perky.

My friend, Dennis, was sitting quietly beside me during the discussion; but I know Dennis well enough to know that his mental gears were whirling like crazy.  And crazy is exactly the word to use for most of Dennis' thoughts.  So, I leaned over and told him my own little boob story.  No, my boobs aren't little.   The story is.

Several years ago, I found a lump in my right breast.  Given my mother's early death due to cancer, I had always thought if the possibility ever came up, I would probably be found in the back of my closet, curled up in a fetal position and sucking my thumb.  Not so.  I was on the phone immediately getting the earliest appointment I could and got in to see my doctor in two days.  With the usual "It's probably nothing to worry about," he sent me off for a mammogram.  It was inconclusive.  On to the next step, a lumpectomy and biopsy.  For this, my doctor called in a young surgical specialist who was and is considered something of a genius.  Upon meeting him, I also realized that he was all business.  As Elizabeth Bennett said to Mr. Darcy, "That is a pity for I dearly love to laugh."  Over the next few days, I met with him several times.  No humor at all.

On the day of the surgery, I was draped and prepped for a local so that I would be awake when the report on the biopsy came back and would be able to discuss options at that point.  In came the surgeon dressed in his OR greens and with his usual serious scowl, looked down at the area he would soon be cutting on.  In an effort to lighten the mood while the nurses unrolled the instruments from their sterile casings, I asked the doctor, "So, who's the taxidermist on staff at this hospital?"

I was met with a startled and quizzical look as he came back with, "Taxidermist?!?"

I noticed that everyone else in the room was looking at me as if I had been given too much Demerol.  "Look," I said. "I need to know because while I a very certain that I can live without my boobs, I'm not sure my husband can."

While the nurses were practically rolling in the floor, Dr. Seriously Medical almost cracked a smile.  "It's OK to laugh," I told him.  "It's how we survive."  And the report came back cancer free.

Friday, June 1, 2012

For years, my sister and I have gone on yearly road trips to a predetermined destination just to see what is there. The secondary reason for these trips is to remind our overly complacent families of the work that we do in their behalf. We usually come home to expressions of great gratitude which last for a long time. They stay in line quite nicely until it becomes necessary to remind them again of what it is that we do for them. We love to go gallevanting about the countryside, enjoying the sights and the oddities that we come across either by design or serendipitously.

For a number of our most recent trips, I drove because I have a hybrid which gets great gas milage, and economy in one area means more money to spend in another. Since I had been doing most of the driving the last few years, I had forgotten what kind of driver my sister is. We are both notorious for our love of speed; or as my racing enthusiast husband says, our lead feet and singular disregard for the law. Speed doesn't bother me at all as long as I am the one speeding. However on or last trip, we took her new car, also a hybrid; and I had to confront the truth about her, myself and parts of our sibling relationship.

The first thing that became obvious to us is that I love control, not some of the time, all of the time. Since control is, intellectually speaking, an illusion, you can see that I was going to face some issues on this trip. My sister, on the other hand has a fatalist's approach to life in that she expressly lives as if whatever occurs is predetermined to occur so you might as well take the risk and die in some heart stopping( pardon the pun) exciting way. When a trip takes you through the Rocky Mountains on blue highways(our favorites), the opportunities for such an exciting demise increase dramatically. Add to that her almost gleeful enjoyment in seeing how fast she can exceed the posted limit on tight winding curves, and you can see why I became better acquainted with prayer as a bargining tool. I am sure that I have promised God far more that I can ever deliver just so he would get us back on a long straight stretch of highway. My glutes did profit from the ride as I used them to grip the seat as we flew around 20 MPH curves at, at least, twice that speed.

The other thing that I began to see was that my sister suffers from a serious case of road rage. She carries on a constant barrage of derogatory remarks on the eneptness of her fellow road warriors and seems to take their assinine choices as a personal affront or an attempt on her life. While she is perfectly o.k. with dying from her own risk taking, she is sure she will be truly ticked off if someone else takes her along on their own failed exploits. She calls total strangers names that imply that she has intimate knowledge of their chatacter, and she uses names that I know she would have never learned in the household in which we both grew up.

Another thing that I learned was that she does not use good judgment when it comes to dealing with people in traffic and assumes that those parties are going to act appropriately whether or not she does. I digress to tell you that my sister has inherited the Roberts vocal cords. Althought I am a Roberts, I seem to have inherited the Thibault gene for an almost too soft voice. She, on the other hand, has a voice which can be heard from one end of a football stadium to the other without the aid of a microphone even when she thinks she is speaking normally. When raises her voice, it is a phenomenally booming thing
that has been know to cause ear pain especially when heard insde the confines of a closed car. As we were returning to the United States after a day in British Columbia, we were caught up in the morass that is the American border crossing. For some reason, the three lanes approaching the crossing narrowed down to one lane just short of the gates where they spread out again to four lanes with a guard at each. The merging process was very slow but polite until we went from two down to the single lane. There the unwritten rule seemed to be that a car from each lane would go in turn. This was fine until it became our turn, and the car that should have given way surged forward causing us to have to swerve sharply to miss getting hit. Instead of waiting for the next opening, my sister pulled up beside the large offending SUV and yelled in her loudest voice, "Damn! Be Rude!!!" To my surprise, the driver slammed on his breaks and let us in. I was nursing my nearly ruptured eardrums and thinking that he was pulling in behind us so that he could get a better bead when he shot us for interfering with his progress. As you might imagine, I was huddled in the passenger seat, praying that he would realize that I had nothing to do with her attact. I finally got my thoughts together enough to ask, "What do you think you're doing? Are you trying to get us killed?"

Her reply, "It worked. He let us in. Besides, I didn't think he could hear me since the windows were rolled up."

"Lord, girl," I said. "They could hear you in Vancouver and that's 20 kilometers away." Notice that in less than 24 hours, I had begun to think metrically. Needless to say, we were happy to see armed guards just ahead who could protect us from assault if need be. The real kicker came as we were at the crossing gate answering those silly questions as if anyone would be honest. You know the one like, "Are you carrying any weapons?"

"Sure, here's my AK47 right here under my seat."

"Why are you coming into the United States?"

"Because we want to blow up some big buildings."

The SUV had been directed to the gate next to ours where I was sure he was going to report us as possible lunatics. Instead, we heard the guard say in a loud and incredulous voice, "What do you mean you don't have passports?"

So that poor boob was pulled over and read the riot act. For him, it had been a really bad day. He had just come from Vancouver where everything was twice the US price. He'd been verbally attacked for his bad manners, and now he was being interrogated as a possible terroist. At this point, he probably would have shot himself if he had a weapon; or of course, he might have been rattled enough to tell the guard that he had a gun or bomb or, God forbid, a collection of illegal conifers and fruit.

We, on the other hand, drove peacfully on our way. Will I go on another trip with her? As soon as I can, and my family irritates me enough to press the need.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Climbing the Walls

Some things are generational. I don’t remember ever teaching some of the things my children did nor do I recall that anyone else taught me those things. In our family, which has some adopted children, the message must have passed by osmosis. It would not be genetic. One of those strange lessons that they all seem to have learned, excepting one, is climbing. I was a climber from an early age and so were the other children in my family. I would climb just about any structure that I could get a hand grip on or a leg over. We had a long fence that ran across the width of my grandmother’s front yard. It was a frame made of 4x4 posts and 2x4 caps and braces. The rest was a decorative woven wire with scalloped edges along the top. At the driveway end of that fence was a mulberry tree. I loved to climb that thing then drop down onto the 2x4 cap of the fence and run the length of it, leap over the gate area and keep on running to the other end. That leaping over the gate scared my grandmother half to death. Since the gate was directly in front of the huge double dining-room windows, it was not unusual for me to be in mid-flight and hear her rapping sharply on the panes of those windows. The message was clear. “If you fall and break your neck, don’t come crying to me.” My father’s take on this was that kids do these things, and that she should relax unless there was actual bloodshed. Grandmother was rarely in a relaxed frame of mind. She had taken on the mothering of the three of us as a deathbed promise to our mother, and she was determined to see us grown or die trying. I have to admit we challenged her dedication to the limit, at times; and it was mostly by the grace of God or shear dumb luck that we actually made it. It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I understood the sacredness of this trust and the fears it engenders. Both my sister and I loved to read and we had a pear tree with a lovely configuration of branches that made it a perfect place to tuck into with a good book. I read Anne Of Green Gables in that leafy perch. There was a large fork and an upright limb just off one side, and the whole thing was high up but almost perfectly parallel to the ground. I have never seen another tree with a similar spot although I hope that there are others out there somewhere. I would tuck my book inside my shirt and swing myself up by way of a large branch then go on up several more steps to reach that special spot. In the depth of summer, the leaves were so thick that I was completely hidden from view. By being very quiet, I could avoid being found even when Grandmother was out calling for me. When she finally learned about this spot, she would head for the tree first and demand that I come down immediately. My sister found this spot as well; and although I never told her what I used it for, she saw what it was meant for and became a tree reader as well. My children didn’t have access to such trees as that, but they all climbed the trees that were near our home and which had branches low enough to reach. The oldest was the most adventurous as he would go far higher than was really safe and then sway the whole upper part of the tree by rocking his body back and forth. Sometimes it looked like he was standing on twigs. The other thing which the children all climbed, were the hall walls. I didn’t do this as a kid since the only hallway in my grandmother’s house was far too wide. I do remember climbing inside of door frames which are similar. I don’t know why Geoff came upon this idea that you could brace your hands and bear feet against the walls of the hall; and in a series of small hops, propel yourself up to the ceiling. Each child, in turn, learned the same trick. It did not surprise me when the oldest grandchild and only boy did the same thing. The second has not done this and is probably too old at 16 to even want to try. She is also very ladylike and would probably not be interested in the first place. She's so well behaved that I sometimes wonder how she got into the family at all. This last week, my younger daughter came home to find her then 7 now 8 year old climbing the walls quite literally. Neither her parents nor older brother admit to having taught her this. She figured it out on her own. However, her mother, an expert wall climber in her day, skyped her sister is Florida and let that one’s child watch as her cousin showed off her new skill. That’s all it took for that one to take off up her walls. The issues there are that the dad doesn’t like the footprints on the wall and their hall has 12’ ceilings. That granddaughter is six and already doing advanced gymnastics so is probably better prepared than most to handle the climb. She also has some knowledge of how best to dismount without hurting herself. I can just see the scores going up. 9.4; 9.6; 10. Many families have traditions that they pass down generation to generation. I have a friend whose family always sneaks a potato into the suitcase of whoever is traveling. No matter how hard the traveler tries to prevent it, somehow the potato is always there when they reach their destination. When her father and mother died, the children insisted that potatoes go with them on their final trips. That’s what her family does. My family members climb the walls.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reunited and It felt So Good

One of the things that I have often thought about is why it is our brains can store away events or memories so deeply that we will not think of them for years, indeed, not even be aware that they are stored there until some scent or color or word hurls them to the forefront of our brain as vivid as the moment they happened. Such a thing happened to me this past weekend. I went to my 50th college reunion in Conway, Arkansas. I had graduated from Hendrix College; and except for two short visits to that campus, never given much thought to my experiences there. However, the school honors its fifty year alumni by inducting them into the Half Century Club by draping a medal around the alumnus/alumna’s neck and allowing them to speak briefly on their educational experience. Actually, the person introducing the process stated that we could talk about our life or the school or tell an anecdote. They began this process alphabetically so that as a Roberts (maiden name), I was pretty far down the list of speakers. While I waited, I heard a lot of serious speeches on the value of the Hendrix experience and the gratitude of those who received such a valued education. I, however, had only one thing that came barreling into my brain as soon as the word anecdote was spoken. It was something that I had not thought of even once since leaving the school but was as clear as if had happened the day before. The picture in my head was of Cleave Want who was an English professor back then who, among other things, taught a course in Victorian Literature. He came into class one day at the last possible minute, went to the front of the room and began his lecture. He must have talked for ten minutes or more before he noticed that our riveted attention was not on the context of his lecture but on the fact that he had a three inch diameter, perfectly circular, reddish-purple hickey in the center of his forehead. It was then that he felt compelled to tell us his story. Cleave and his wife had a young child, still an infant; and the previous day, the wife had left him in charge. In order to entertain his child, Cleave had removed a mobile from the crib which had been attached to the head of the crib by a large suction cup. He took it and the baby to the living room and lay down on the sofa with the child on his chest and stuck the mobile to his forehead. By bobbing his head around, he caused the child to giggle gleefully. Babies being babies, however, the child soon became bored and fell asleep. Cleave followed suit. An hour and a half later, his wife came home and found the two loves of her life still on the sofa; the child asleep on his father’s chest and her husband asleep with a weird, unicorn like projection in the middle of his forehead. He said that it had been a bit painful to remove. The most unusual thing about this story was that Cleave had somehow convinced himself that if he acted as if everything was normal, no one else would notice. That was what I talked about. What I didn’t get to and what I wish I had added was that I didn’t disagree with anyone about the value of my education or the friendships I had made in those four years. However, during those years, there had been some monumentally crazy things that happened at that school; and not for one minute did I believe that I was the only witness to them. All of this happened because the word anecdote was spoken in a long ago place among long ago friends. I had a great time connecting with some that were close friends then and getting acquainted with several people who were on the edge of the radar screen of my callow days. Some people had lives that were filled with travel and excitement. Some led lives of service. Some may have felt ordinary in the face of some of the achievements of others. Whatever they felt, we had survived for 50 years beyond that shining world marked by the election of JFK and the unconquerable spirit of Camelot. And more importantly, none of us discussed any of our ailments. We were happy to be alive to tell our tales; and I, for one, was happy to hear theirs.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Gathering Place

My husband and I are getting ready to remodel our kitchen. When we bought this house, we loved everything about the layout and grounds, especially the huge attached garage and detached garage across from the house. It meant that the husband, a car buff, would have plenty of room for his toys and accompanying gear. The house needed some work as it was covered in dark wallpaper and had colors that were not to my taste. I know that one of the reasons it had not sold before we came along is that most people walk into to a house and are turned off by the owner’s taste or lack thereof. I am not one of those people. I have been blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see potential in the structure and layout.

One of the things that struck me was that while the kitchen looked “cute”, it was deceptive in its layout and function. There is plenty of room in the space, but it is all negated by poor arrangement and absence of essential function. The cabinets are few and there is a huge island with little cabinetry under it. Most of the island is table height and blocks the flow of traffic. There are deep soffits all around the perimeter that eat up valuable storage space. That huge island extends so deeply into the work area that there is barely room to squeeze around the dishwasher door when it is opened. In spite of that, folks walk in an immediately say, “What a nice kitchen.”

WRONG! There is almost nothing nice about it. For a while it bothered me that I was so unhappy with this space. I am not by nature an unhappy person, but this kitchen has been driving me crazy. I have pondered this for several months now and had an insight recently into the real problem.

We had a mini family reunion about a month ago when my cousin, Lenita, brought her mother, my Aunt Helen for a visit to Little Rock. They were going to visit all of Helen’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren because she is getting to the point that she doesn’t get around as well as she once did. We met at Helen’s daughter-in-law’s home in North Little Rock. This house is modest, but at some point had been expanded to include a large family room across the back. You would think that that would be the place for everyone to sit and visit. But you guessed it, we all sat or stood in the eat-in kitchen. No one complained that it was crowded or that there were not enough chairs to go around. You see, the kitchen is the hub of such gatherings whether they are joyous as this one was or sad as post funeral family gatherings are. In our family, kitchens are where decisions are made, gossip exchanged, arguments settled and lots of love shown through an abundance of food and drink.

My kitchen is hard to feel cozy and familiar in. It seems to close in rather than embrace. We like to prepare meals where there are as many cooks as there are folks sitting down to eat. And we like to micro-manage the cooking of all the other cooks. You can’t do that in a cramped space. This kitchen doesn’t have enough room in its business area to swing a cat; and while I am averse to swinging the cat, I like to think that I have the option.

So we are ripping the place out to the walls, recessing the refrigerator into part of the pantry, replacing soffits with tall upper cabinets and diminishing the size of the island and moving it out of the hub of the work area. I have drawn up the plans, and I like what I see. We will be able to party and cook and hug and laugh and boss each other around when it’s finished. However, for the next couple of months, I’ll be needing your heartfelt prayers for my sanity. We’ve done this before, and my children remind me that I don’t deal particularly well with chaos.

Hopefully, I’ll have before and after pictures to share. And I might even invite you over to join in the fun.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Gift of Joy

I was reminded this last week of something that I have known for a long time but had lost touch with in a busy life. Some people are born with the gift of joy. They are happy by nature even when they suffer the events that come to all human beings: loses , disappointments, estrangements. They seem to carry with them the ability to focus on the positive and move forward . In fact, it has been my experience that they come at life full tilt, devil take the hindmost. My father was one of those people. So was my friend, Dave.

Life was not easy for Dad, but he refused to be daunted by it. In fact, he seemed to embrace even the most devastating experience and grow from it, always choosing joy over sorrow. He fell in love with my mother on first sight when she was fourteen and he was sixteen. There was never anyone else as far as he was concerned. They both finished college before getting married. We children were icing on the cake for them. She died when they had been married seven years. He was broken hearted yet he focused on his children and the plans they had made together for us. I recall a childhood with a father who knew how to set boundaries but was accessible, even playful with us. He seemed to always be smiling. I recall that the worst I ever felt about my own rather outlandish antics was when he looked at me with disappointment.

One of the things that I recall is that both he and Mother played the violin. I have no recall of hearing her play, but my father would take out her violin, the better of the two instruments, and play for us. They were always lilting tunes. He especially liked Dvorak’s Humoresque for its playful syncopation. I like knowing that that violin is still in our family in the hands of my cousin, Lenita, a doctor and herself a very talented musician.

My father didn’t live as long as we would have wished, but he saw every day as a gift. He’d grown up hearing about the fight it took for him to come through the first day or so of his life. He always said that he wasn’t meant to be here; but since he was, he intended to enjoy ever day he was given and he did.

It could be that my young friend, Dave Richards, reminded me of him from the beginning. I met Dave because he and my older son, Geoff, swam on the same team and seemed to connect from the first. Theirs was an odd friendship as they were not very much alike except for the swimming thing. Our Geoff tends to be serious and somewhat dark by nature. He is highly gifted intellectually; and, like many people with that kind of intelligence, he has difficulty relating to most people. Dave, on the other hand, had the gift of joy. Because I know that any friend of Geoff’s had to be smart, I assume that Dave was; but that is not what made him noticeable. It was his spirit. He came at life with exuberance and high expectations that each day was going to be a blast. I don’t think I ever saw him frown. That is not to say that he didn’t recognize when things were not what they should be. We talked about his life a lot over the years. He shared some of the worrisome moments, but there was always that hopeful quality even when things were tough. He was zany and quirky with a grin as big as all outdoors. I would defy anyone who knew him for more than a few minutes not to fall under that spell of carried joy. He loved his family and would share with me his tales of his nephews and their accomplishments. He almost hero worshipped his older brother, Doug, and saw him as the ideal he hoped to achieve although he laughingly admitted that that was hardly likely given their very different approaches to life. I was reminded this week that he called his mother, “Mumsey,” a name she cherishes. It’s whimsy fits his personality and lightened her life.

Even after our son left the area, Dave would come roaring up in our driveway riding his latest motorcycle, a mode of transportation he loved. He would bounce up to our door; and when I opened it, he would sweep me into a great bear hug and bless my mundane day with his latest tales that always sounded like great adventures. And he grinned.

I learned this last week that Dave had died suddenly. I attended the visitation and spoke with his family and some of the friends he had made over the years. We all agreed that we were helpless in the wake of his personality. We loved him deeply because we all appreciated the gift that he brought to us—sheer, unapologetic joy. His mother shared with me that that is the way it was from his birth. As I looked at photos of him from his early childhood, I could see that she was spot on. His grin dominated the room even then.

And did I mention, he played the violin. He was an accomplished musician who tended to downplay his talent; but for someone who grew up hearing violins, I was impressed when I heard him play. His mother told me that he played violin the way he lived, with energy and verve and astounding talent. Why not? That was Dave. I will miss him, but I will also be grateful that he saw me as a friend and shared his life with me. That is, indeed, a gift to treasure.