Family Time Situation

I love family.  Who doesn’t?  When, however, do you draw the line and say that enough is enough?  Is five hours of “together time” enough?  Ten hours?  How about two days?  What happens when two long days drag into three or four?

It depends upon how you define “family”.  I love spending time with my grown children, but I intentionally keep the time short so as to not wear out my welcome.  Four or five days, max, and I’m gone.  Don’t get me wrong. I love our time together, but I recognize that lengthy visits become an imposition.  After all, tall my “children” lead hectic lives filled with work, school, children (in my daughter’s case), and a social life all their own.  They are not dependent upon me for their entertainment.

With my husband’s family it is different.  They seem to suck up time like a tornado, sweeping along anyone caught in their path.  Hours slowly turn into days, which then morph, painfully, into weeks.  Invitations crop up more regularly than armpit hair, and turning one down causes an earthquake that sets new highs on the Richter scale.

Is my perception an “in-law” thing?  That would be a partially correct interpretation.  The family shares a long history of names and places that mean little to me.  My husband’s family is huge, with roots beginning in Nebraska and with branches stretching from coast to coast, north to south.  I can’t keep all the cousins straight, let alone all the children produced within those relationships.

There are only so many times you can hear what someone’s house looks like, in a painfully drawn out explanation.  How is dear Uncle Jay doing?  The story is good for another five minutes, at most.  Then there are the wedding plans for the niece, which have to be retold every time an arrival steps into the room.  Comments about decorations, food, remodeling projects and health only carry a conversation so far.

Walking out of the room to enjoy some solitude is only permitted when a bathroom break is needed.  It’s amazing how many times that toilet seat calls!  One has to be careful even then, however, as too many visits prompt discussions about intestinal mishaps, surgeries, cancers, and deaths.

I do care for my husband’s family.  They are big-hearted people who accept everyone into their lives and hearts.  Once met, never forgotten and you are family for the rest of your life.

What is overwhelming are the never-ending parties that start late, run even later, and go on for days.  Dinner at five?  Arrive at four for cocktails and snacks?  Don’t worry if you get out of the house late or if you are held up in traffic, for you won’t have missed a thing.  You’ll be lucky to eat by seven.  Over by eight? Forget it.  Family parties frequently run into the early morning hours, dying only when the last standing person caves and crawls out the door.

Refusing an invitation is tantamount to causing a revolution.  Shock and dismay registers, for who could turn down such a lovely family?

After a few hours, I get restless.  My legs twitch and my eyes glaze over.  My patience takes a hike after hearing about Aunt Mabel’s hip surgery for the sixth time.  I yearn for a good book and a quiet corner like some folks salivate over rare tri-tip roast beef.  Give me my computer!  Put on a good movie, even one that I’ve seen!  Turn on the stereo so that music fills the gaps in conversation.

As a hostess, I am conscious of my guests’ time.  Things begin and end when stated.  Dinner is served promptly.  Dessert and tea to follow.  An evening together is just that, and no more.  Never do I stretch a gathering into double digits, even when the guest is staying at my house.  I retreat into my solitude, allowing my company time to relax and recoup energy.

One time declined an invitation.  Mind you, this was after being together for twenty-four hours.  I thought that the earth would shatter and swallow me up!  My husband gasped and turned pale, so I quickly amended my decline by adding that he could come if he wanted.  My mother-in-law gave me a look that questioned my competence, and my sister-in-law giggled nervously, followed by a muffled cough.

Oh, well.  Here we go again.  How much time is too much time to be together as family?  When I quantify it with charts, graphs, and concrete statistics, I’ll let you all know.  Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my gut instincts.  When the stories recycle, then the party should be over.

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

  A Grain of Sand

Nothing more than a grain of sand

one among a cast of millions

arose and accepted the burdensome

yoke of humanity, the drudgery of life,

the pains, torments, tears, and fears

until love entered his heart.

 

Nothing but a tiny grain of sand

now filled with a woman’s love

beaming broader than the sun,

wider than the Milky Way

standing tall, strong, proud, and fearless

with her vision in his mind.

 

Nothing but a proud grain of sand

knelt by her side, making his

wishes known, the dreams of his soul,

the secrets of his heart,

the projects, plans, ideas, and thoughts

searing his vision.

 

Nothing but an exultant grain of sand

stood with his love at the altar

pledging faithful love, devotion,

a lifetime of togetherness,

trials, tribulation, joys, tears

traveling the path of marriage.

 

Nothing but two grains of sand

forged through the world

casting aside the millions to

focus on the other, the others that

they create, the little ones, children,

loins of our loins and loves of our love,

for now and forever. Amen.

Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

Our Life Stories

 

all of life is a series of

nonstories

the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of

doing

but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited

near-misses

chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds

and

soon-to-be forgottens

all stories untold

mysteries locked

romances closeted

things never experienced

foods never tasted

but secretly yearned for

nonstories frozen in place

and time

with no characters to lament

plots stagnant

themes dragging behind

do we obsess

over the lost stories

and live life in a

vacuum?

NO

we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless

possibilities

Resurrection

Papers, lifted by a gutsy breeze

Flapped about like feeble gulls’ wings,

Until, at last, their drunken flight ceased

Abruptly, like puppets on strings.

 

Through open window they had fallen

Landed in a puddle quite deep.

Now the spell of written words broken

Quietly, they drifted to sleep/

 

Letters danced in the mind’s ballroom

Exposing every faux pas.

Signal fires of humanity’s doom

Unwoven, like arrows of straw.

 

Windows blackened shatter by gunfire

Pain inflicted on those who dream

Forgotten the words to inspire

Leaving behind a crooked seam.

 

Until one morning with the sunrise

Rays impaled the heart of the mess

Erased and cleansed, papers did arise

United, with tuneful address.

Soared again with joyful abandon

Like children enjoying their play.

Through window papers excitedly spun

Yesterday’s worries away.

 

Feeling Proud

I have never been an arrogant person.

For much of my life I’ve been shy,

Backward

Afraid to exude confidence.

Pride does not come to me willfully.

It sneaks up like a mouse in the night.

It catches me unaware, surmising me

When it calls my name.

Even though I’ve accomplished much in my life,

I seldom take an opportunity to brag.

Instead, when I do speak, I do so quietly

With an unassuming air

Because even I am surprised when

Something goes well.

There have been times when I wanted to shout out,

To proclaim loudly those things that

Fill me with pride,

But I haven’t.

Until recently.

I realize now, at my age,

That I have much to be proud of.

Every day of life fills me with such joy,

Such a feeling of accomplishment

That I want to brag about simply being here

On this earth.

Today I am bragging, just a little,

Because I am alive.