An aging Ford and miles of memories

Some years ago my brother called and, without so much as a hello, said, “Pick a number between 3 and 14.” He meant business, so I picked a number.

He said, “Congratulations, you just bought Dad’s SUV.”

My brother was closing out our dad’s estate. He added a thousand to the number I picked and declared me the owner of Dad’s Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer edition with suede seats, leather trim, 4-wheel drive, power-folding third-row seats, easy liftgate, and moonroof.

To say it was an upgrade would be the understatement of automotive history. Our minivan had a driver’s seat with broken springs, a sliding passenger door that no longer slid and chronic ailments.

“Eddie” was far more than an upgrade. I logged a lot of miles in that vehicle with my dad. Long drives were how he outdistanced grief after Mom died.

One spring we drove to see the migration of sandhill cranes in his home state of Nebraska. It is a wonder of nature, some half million cranes gathering along a thin ribbon of river en route to Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

Thousands of tall, gangly birds with long legs and long necks strutted about like they were high-fashion models of the bird world. They milled around in shallow gray water, stretching their enormous wings and shaking their big bustles of feathers.

Sometimes when I’m driving Eddie, I can still see those sandhill cranes silhouetted against a sinking sun.

Another time we drove to visit one of his brothers who had been sheriff in a small poke-n-plumb Midwest town. Poke your head out the window and you’re plumb out of town. Headed home, we took a short cut on a small highway. For miles and miles, it was a desolate stretch of two-lane bordered by nothing but fields of grain and endless blue skies.

“How fast you think we’re going?” he asked.

“Seventy?”

“Eighty,” he grinned. “Hard to gauge speed when you’re in the wide open.”

I still hear that exchange in my head sometimes. It was the voice of contentment.

After surgery for the pancreatic cancer that would eventually take his life, Dad announced he was ready to drive again.

“You’re positively certain you have the strength to slam on those brakes if you need to?” I demanded to know.

“I’ve already been driving,” he said. “You should see the long skid marks I left a couple days ago.”

Anything to spark a little outrage from overprotective kids.

Eddie has more than 200,000 miles under the hood now and has made more than a few trips to our mechanic’s garage. But that’s the only thing that’s changed. The Fix-a-Flat and jumper cables are still in the back like Dad had them. First aid supplies are still in the glove box and an enormous flashlight still sits in the storage cubby between the middle seats.

Most importantly, Eddie still slows down for every sunrise and sunset and pauses to watch deer at dusk.

It’s probably time to let go and I will. Just a few more miles down the road.

 

 

Lost opportunities lead to lasting regrets

I read the email to one of our daughters over the phone and heard my voice crack.

“Where does he live?” she asked. “Is he close by?”

“I have no idea.”

The email was responding to a lighthearted column I’d written wondering if the grands would still come around when they’ve outgrown the inflatable pool and can’t be lured with Oreos. The column triggered a flood of responses, many talking about the joys of older grands who still greet grandparents with big hugs and even bigger smiles.

And then there was his email:

“I will soon be 96 in a few weeks. I am a widower with grandchildren in their 40s. My great-grandchildren range from 12 to 17. Two thirds of them live within a few minutes from me. The rest are a few hundred miles away.

“Granted, they are all busy people, doing meaningful things.  They are happy and healthy and for that I am very grateful.

“As the years go by, the distance between us gets wider.

“I am not looking for, or asking for, anything. I am not seeking accolades from anyone. But it would be nice, as well as comforting, in my older age to know that they care or even think of me. I guess the word I am trying to say is respect. Is that asking too much?

“I rarely see or even hear from them. I make excuses to myself, but it grieves me.  They, especially the great-grandchildren, are growing up and I am not in the loop. That is sad! Very sad!

“At this stage of my life, what else is there to look forward to?

“I guess just knowing they are well, happy, and safe, will have to suffice. But, does it?“

You learn of someone else’s situation, indignation flares and you think, “How hard can it be for someone to stop by?”

Then names start coming to mind of elderly friends, relatives who’ve lost a spouse, people I’ve been meaning to call, but haven’t gotten around to it.

Maybe that man’s kids, grands and great grands aren’t the only ones remiss.

Another email poignantly illustrated the regret of letting time slip by.

“Concerning visiting Grandma, when I was growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, we often visited my only grandmother, because that’s what many families did on holidays, and we took virtually no vacations due to the expense.

“Grandmother was born in 1873 in the Reconstruction Era Mississippi, to a Civil War veteran. She witnessed a huge and important swath of American history, and her knowledge of family history was irreplaceable.

“She came to live with us in her 90th year, while I was in college, and on spring break in 1963, I mentioned to her that we should spend the summer getting family history and stories taken down for posterity. She agreed, and her mind was still as sharp as a razor, but unfortunately, she contracted pneumonia and died while I was taking final exams that May.

“Her knowledge of family history was lost forever—one of my great regrets! So don’t wait. Talk with your grandparents and all older relatives while they are able to remember! All life is fleeting.”

Both writers answered that perennial question of what to give the elderly people in your life.

Time. Sweet, precious, wonderful time.

 

When kids don’t want to go to Grandma’s

We’ve been hearing disturbing warnings from grandparents who are further down the pike than we are. They say, “Enjoy those grands while they’re little. Once they’re older, they won’t have time for you.”

We find such proclamations troubling. We’re hoping it’s fake news. Still, we can’t help but wonder.

We are cutting and gluing construction paper at the kitchen table when I casually ask a 7-year-old grand next to me if she’ll still come see us when she is older.

She looks at me, looks at the pink paper flower I have cut to her specifications, and softly says, “Maybe.”

There is a slight lilt to her voice that indicates we might still be on her radar, but it is also clear that she isn’t going to commit and wants to keep her options open.

Rotten kid.

Just kidding. She’s precious.

If keeping her and the rest of them coming around means we’re still having water balloon fights outside, playing chase and doing cartwheels decades from now, so be it. Neither of us can do a cartwheel now, but maybe it’s time we limber up.

Our standing in the polls with the grands is extremely high at this stage of the game and that is a concern. Such levels of popularity are hard to sustain.

“We need a strategy,” I tell the husband.

“What’s the rush?” he asks. “We’ve got a few more good years.”

He’s probably right. There are 11 grands; the oldest is 10 and the youngest two just turned one.

“They’re not going anywhere soon,” the husband says. “Not only can none of them drive, but a lot of them are still in car seats.”

“Yes!” I yell, pumping my fist in the air.

“Plus, none of them have any income,” he says. “We’re still their ace in the hole for pizza, ice cream and donuts.”

“We may be good now,” I say, “but I doubt any of them will think fun is standing on a chair next to me at the kitchen sink, drying dishes when they’re 15.”

“When they’re older, we’ll do older kid things,” he says.  “You know, take them to a monster truck show.”

“Those things are awfully loud,” I say.

“It won’t matter,” he says. “By the time the youngest ones are in their teens neither of us will have much hearing left anyway.”

“You realize your days are numbered for that game where they sneak up on you and comb your hair all crazy, right?” I ask.

“Moot point,” he says. “In another few years, my hair may be gone.”

“When they’re older, they’re not going to think it’s a big deal to drop pennies into that big 5-gallon glass jar you have,” I say. “What then?”

“If we pass them a few bills and tell them they can keep them, we’ll be fine. And then they can take us out for pizza and ice cream.”

I am once again feeling optimistic.

The Map Guy doesn’t fold

The husband believes a paper map is a necessity for a road trip. You know, the kind with 64 creases that never folds back the way it was.

I believe that a fully charged cell phone and GPS are necessities for a road trip.

We are a vehicle divided. A Y in the road.

The husband says only a map gives you the big picture.

I say only GPS gives you the nearest coffee shop.

I will acknowledge that my map guy has a keen sense of direction and a sharp memory for roads and landmarks.


I have a keen sense of direction, too. When the sun rises, I am certain which way is east and when the sun sets, I am confident which way is west.

We are driving through the lush Smoky Mountains painted in a magnificent palette of greens, when we decide to take a small back road for the fun of it. We don’t have a local map, but we have a good idea of where we are headed and high-tech GPS.

Rounding curve after curve with secondary roads shooting off to the sides, we near the mountain top and pass a fellow leaning on his motorbike by a pond. He looks peaceful. We wave. He nods.

It is early morning, and we have the road to ourselves. In the distance, we see low fog rolling our way.

“Beautiful,” I say. “Like driving in the clouds.”

Soon, we are swallowed whole by the clouds and so is the GPS. We drive and drive losing all sense of direction.

We make out a figure a short distance off the road. We have circled the man leaning on his motorbike by the lake again. If he still looks peaceful, we can’t tell.

The once gentle curves have become nerve-wracking hairpin turns.

There fog momentarily lifts and the mountainside no longer looks lovely but like an enormous head of broccoli. We are trapped in a giant vegetable drawer in a refrigerator.

The husband announces that he studied the map back at the visitors’ center and is certain where we need to go. Basically, we need to take every turn that will help us go down the mountain.

Oh, we’re going down all right.

I wonder if we will pass the man leaning on the motorcycle a third time.

I wonder if he has food and if he will be the last human I ever see.

Then a funny thing happens. Again, sealed in by fog and an no GPS, the trip becomes more engaging. Passenger seat co-pilot drowsiness disappears. We both search for markers, craning our necks to see the road in front of us, ears popping as we descend, all the while speculating on when—and if—we will intersect with the highway.

Eventually the fog burns off, the GPS returns to life, and at the next bend we meet the highway.

At our hotel that night we found an online map of where we were.  The roads charted a Smoky Mountain maze. The map guy got us where we needed to go.

Three secrets to summer survival

I have discovered three secrets to summer survival.

The first one is a purchase I made a year ago. It’s one of those purchases I wasn’t entirely sure about at the time but has proven a worthy investment.

What did I buy?

An outdoor trash can.

I know. Other women buy Botox injections. I buy a trash can. I should wear one of those T-shirts that says, “Easily Amused.”

It’s a large trash can with a flip top, so all the grands can open it.

Now parked by the back door to the house, they have to trip over it before coming inside. That would be “they” as in all the kids in possession of half-eaten ice cream cones, remnants of peanut butter sandwiches and cups of lemonade.

They have now been trained to dump sticky stuff in the trashcan outside the house, which means that I no longer have sticky floors inside the house. Four days out of five, I can walk through the kitchen without losing my shoes because they stuck to the floor behind me. I am a woman at peace.

The second secret to success is the table setting. I enjoy a pretty table with fresh flowers, real dishes, cloth napkins, sparkling glassware and my mother-in-law’s silver. Do you know how long cleanup takes with all those niceties? It was a struggle, but I have willed myself to become a devotee of paper plates for large family gatherings.

And disposable tablecloths. You bring all four corners of the tablecloth to the center, tie the ends together, stuff it in the outdoor trash can with the flip-top lid and—voila!—cleanup is done.

Out of the way, kids. Grandma has free time and is headed for the hammock!


The third secret to a successful summer is to invest in inflatables.

We are the proud owners of a giant inflatable water slide. The arch over the top has partially collapsed, and the base of the slide doesn’t inflate as much as it did two years ago, but it is still a hit.

We’re the fun house and we want to keep it that way. We will shamelessly compete to retain the distinction in order to draw the grands, which is why we also have an inflatable pool, two inflatable surf boards and three dozen water blasters that shoot water 20 feet. It’s true. Just ask the neighbors—the ones sitting on their patios wearing rain slickers.

The backyard often looks and sounds like a water park because it is.

In moments of sanity, which are few and far between, we have concerns about our water bill. On the upside, we have a very green lawn.

To maintain our good standing, we are in the market for some new inflatable water toys as we phase out the older, slowly collapsing ones. The husband is pondering an inflatable 6-foot unicorn that spouts water in two different configurations and I have my eye on a large pink flamingo floatie.

Who knows? We might even let the kids play with them.

What to give Dad for Father’s Day

When Aretha Franklin recorded “Respect” in 1967, the song became forever linked with the Queen of Soul.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me.”

“Respect” was a huge hit against the smoldering backdrop of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s movement. The song quickly became the anthem of the battle for equal rights for women.

Ironically, it wasn’t Aretha who wrote the lyrics for “Respect.” The original lyrics were written by a man—Otis Redding.

Aretha heard Redding’s song in 1965, liked it, tweaked it, flipped it, sang it from a woman’s point of view and was catapulted into the stars.

Meanwhile, Otis Redding was still sitting on the dock of the bay dreaming about getting a little respect. The story goes that Redding got the inspiration for the song when he was on tour complaining about the grueling schedule. His drummer said, “What are you griping about? You’re on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home.”

“Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna
You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone
But all I’m asking
Is for a little respect when I come home.”


Women and men sometimes speak different dialects of the same language. Men often lean toward the vernacular of respect. Like Otis Redding, they’d just like a little respect. Not that women don’t appreciate respect and that men don’t have a need for love, but still.

Love and respect intertwine, yet love tends to be more emotional while respect is more concrete, based on actions and accomplishments as opposed to feelings of the heart.

Respect means to hold in high or special regard, to esteem someone, often for worthy and notable things they have done.

Browsing Father’s Day cards, one after another mentions celebrating Dad, thanking him for being the best dad, the greatest dad and the nicest dad. Not a single mention of respect. But then 80 percent of card buyers are female, and cards are created with female targets in mind.

Men have taken a beating in the past few years. Certainly, there are male reprobates and additional tiers of reprobates who cover for them.

But we now tend to paint all men with the indiscriminate brush of toxic masculinity. In a growing number of corners and on many college campuses, if you stand male, you stand guilty. Sign here to register for detox.

Faithfulness, hard work, helping put a roof overhead and food on the table, doing the routine when you’d rather do something else, showing up for the job of being a dad day after day after day are deeds and accomplishments worthy of notice. And respect.

If you have been blessed in such a fashion, buy the tie or the golf club for your dad this year, but what he might like most is hearing he has done a thing or two that has earned your respect.

 

Recipes need some sifting

My girls complain about my recipes—not about how they taste, but about how they read. They say my writing leaves something to be desired.

You know how well that goes over with a writer?

Like yeast bread that doesn’t rise. Like a cake that falls and cookies that crumble. You get the idea.

My recipes are not poorly written. They are descriptive. They leave room for imagination. And interpretation.

The girls object to a glub of this, a pinch of that, a dash of something else. They are also opposed to a little of this and a little of that.

I learned to cook watching my mother. She had a wooden recipe box for baked goods where the amounts and ratios are critical, but for the most part she just cooked, or “whipped things up” – another vague but delightful cooking term.


My mom graduated from the Culinary School of Ad Lib—she was of a generation that learned to cook watching their mothers cook during hard times known as the Depression.

Likewise, many of the things I cook I learned by watching her cook. Like potato salad. You don’t even need to write the recipe down, I can just tell it to you (another habit I have that is frowned upon).

Boil a pot full of potatoes and cut them up. Add a couple squirts of mustard, a glub of vinegar, chopped onions, chopped celery, salt and pepper, a good sprinkle of sugar and some big mounds of mayonnaise. Finish it off with a few shakes of paprika and garnish with whatever you have in the fridge – green olives, black olives, hard boiled eggs, parsley, green onions.

The girls claim the recipe is impossible because it is not specific.

My counter claim is that the lack of specifics means your potato salad never turns out the same way twice so people you serve it to never get bored.

The girls say my lack of specifics also can yield too much potato salad.

I say if you have too much potato salad, invite more people over.

I do admit the way I write recipes is sometimes streamlined. I list the ingredients, followed by cooking instructions, which often read, “You know what to do now, right?”

Such brevity is not acceptable in the days of food blogs and Pinterest. Every recipe comes with a myriad of photos detailing every step, detailed specifics including what brand of baking soda to use, videos demonstrating how to use a whisk, lengthy narratives (novellas really) about restlessness, cloudy days, a love of brown eggs and the thrill of smelling good vanilla.

I am of the Nike Culinary School. Just cook it.

I recently made an applesauce cake recipe that has been in our family for generations. The recipe is written in a great-aunt’s distinctive script on an aging brittle piece of cardboard. All of the ingredients are listed. As for directions, it simply says “Bake in a moderate oven.”

I rest my case. And my cake.

Stiff competition for holding the baby

It’s a shame that newborns can’t talk. They probably have interesting observations on all the people constantly in their faces.

“That one needs to shave before he nuzzles my cheek one more time.”

“Oh great, here comes that one with coffee breath!”

“I’d like to toss a couple of you up in the air on a full stomach and see how you like it!”

The latest two babies in our family are probably asking what all the hollering is about. It’s about everyone vying for a turn at holding a baby.

And you thought competition on the soccer field was fierce.

Three kids scramble to line up on the sofa, all wearing sweet smiles, all holding their arms in cradling position.

“I’m the oldest,” one says, offering credentials.

“I haven’t held the baby since Tuesday,” says another making a plea for pity.

The third one doesn’t say a thing. She simply slides a pillow under her arm to demonstrate that she is safety conscious. Just like that, she gets the baby.

“I’m next! I’m next!” shout the other two.

I finally get a turn to hold the baby and a kid tugs on my dress and says it’s not my turn.

“I’m the Grandma,” I say calmly. “It’s always my turn.”

She takes off crying that Grandma doesn’t share.

If this high demand for holding a baby continues, the baby will have to give up naps. Sorry, baby, it’s just the way it is.

Another kid runs to the baby’s momma and says, “Next time, you should have twins!”

I am holding the baby at the dinner table, dinner is finished, and five kids and four adults are on the other side of the table, all of them trying their best to make the baby smile.

They are bugging out their eyes, wiggling their eyebrows and uttering strange sounds. Frankly, none of them look very bright. One is shaking his head back and forth so hard that his cheeks are shaking. And he’s the business exec in the family.

An array of fingers tickle her chin, her belly, the bottoms of her feet, all the while coaxing, “Come on, sweetie, give  us a little smile.”

And then she does it.

She spits up.

Groans of disappointment.

We clean the baby up and they start in again, cameras poised, cooing, laughing, standing on their heads, hoping for a smile.

Grandpa finally gets a turn to hold the baby. He’s had her 90 seconds when the baby’s 2-year-old sister approaches, waves her hands in the air, wildly wiggling all 10 fingers, saying, “I neeeeeeeeed to hold the baby!”

But we all neeeeeeeeed to hold the baby. And therein lies the problem–so many needy arms, so few babies.

“I believe it’s my turn to hold the baby,” a voice says.

“Get in line,” someone says laughing.

“You just had a turn,” someone else chimes in. “Why should you have another turn?”

“Because I’m the baby’s MOTHER!”

She wins.

Memories written on paper, but held in the heart

There was only one time that I saw my mother-in-law cry. She was a dichotomy, a woman who loved unconditionally and a tough cookie.

She was a nurse when World War II began. Within a month after Pearl Harbor, she told her parents she wanted to join the Army Nurse Corps. They told her ladies didn’t do such things. She was a lady, but she was also a patriot.

Her unit did not ship out to Europe until December 1943. Their destination was Stockbridge, England. She kept a journal overseas. Entries were sporadic, often cryptic, many only a sentence or a phrase.

“First night overseas. Slept in a hut with only two little coal stoves.”

She picked up a 3-week-old black and white dog in England and named her Vicki, short for Victoria and fed it bits of her meals.


Her outfit, the 25th General Hospital, was responsible for setting up and opening field hospitals. They cared for the wounded, mainly Allies, but also prisoners of war. Many of those she tended to died.

“Got sick. Left England with few regrets.”

In July 1944, the month after D-Day, they crossed the English Channel, arrived at Utah Beach set up a 1,000-bed tented hospital near Lison, Normandy, France.

“I’ve worked all around this week – mostly with prisoners – two half days with our boys.”

Another entry reads: “That d—- (she used dashes) Hitler. He should be hung from a toe until dead.”

When the German offensive began, they moved to Belgium.

She mentioned receiving a package from home, noting every item it contained and wrote, “I pray to God things will revert to as near normal as possible when we go home.”

Early in 1945 she wrote, “The more I think of it, the more I liked France in spite of the mud.”

Jan 14: “Here’s hoping the buzz bombs don’t start here. It is wonderfully quiet.”

Feb. 10: “Enjoyed 10 days of work. The boys were swell.”

March 13: “Bombers really coming back today. It was a wonderful sight.”

March 14: “More bombers today. Germany must look like a sieve.”

A few days later from Aachen, Germany: “Talking about sieves – Aachen looks like one. Very few people on streets.”

The most personal entry was written May 7, 1945: “I walked across a meadow so peaceful and beautiful that I had an indescribable feeling of loneliness. I don’t believe I have had a more deep sense of being alone than I did at that moment. It lingered for a couple of days, too. Victory here was expected any moment and there is no one on this side to whom I mean much. Needing companionship, as I always have, it is more wanted at a time like that than any other.”

She smuggled Vicki onto the troop ship heading home, hiding the dog in her overcoat.


Not long after returning, she found the companionship she had longed for and married. In 1950, expecting their first child, she told the obstetrician she’d like to have the baby without drugs. She’d learned of the Lamaze method overseas.

The doctor told her that was not possible.

She said it was possible.

He said if she wanted to try a crazy thing like that, she could get a different doctor.

So she did.

She lived a good and full life and was never easily rattled. When she was concerned about something, she’d let you know, but in a measured tone. Or she’d simply chew her bottom lip.

As she aged, her memory began fading. Eventually, it was easier to remember things long ago instead of things in the recent past.

One day, someone found her box of World War II memorabilia and placed it in her lap. She opened the box, exposing a bright array of red, gold, and blue on emblems, patches and insignias. Soldiers had torn them from their uniforms and given them to her as tokens of gratitude for good care in dark days.

Her eyes welled and soon she was sobbing, memories unleashing a torrent of tears.

It was a deep and sorrowful moment of remembrance.

Traditionally, every Memorial Day at 3 p.m., many Americans have paused for one minute to remember those died in service to the country.

In this age of vitriol, division and polarization, we could all use a moment of unity, a moment reflecting on the sacrifices of others that have enabled us to live free.

 

 

Why mothers might worry

Our kids are in their 30s now. It’s the big exhale. They’re grown, finished with school, settled in solid marriages and raising kids of their own. Everything is good. Everybody is on track. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the bathroom scale said I was down two pounds and I’m having a good hair day.

Life is good.

Mid-morning, the oldest daughter stops by and announces she is going to have laser eye surgery.

“Creepers!” I shout.

Who lets someone reshape their eyes with a laser while they are semi-conscious? She begins detailing the procedure and I slap my hands over my eyes.

I feign enthusiasm saying, “Wonderful! You can lose the contacts and glasses.”

She accuses me of insincerity. Maybe it’s because she can’t pry my hands away from my eyes.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” she says.

At noon, our son calls to say he is going to Alaska on business and will email his travel itinerary. He forwards a confirmation for a primitive cabin in the wilderness. It has a wooden platform for a sleeping bag, a table and chairs and a woodstove. The fine print says, “If you want water, melt snow but be sure to purify it.”

Are you kidding?” I yell into the phone. “Bears!”

He responded by sending a picture of the mountains where the cabin is.

“I can’t see it! My hands are stuck in front of my face. Your sister’s having eye surgery and now you’re camping alone in Alaska when you could be staying in a nice hotel. May I remind you that you have five kids?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I think it’s going to be very quiet.”

“What does your wife think?”

“She very sad – that she can’t go, too.”

“You don’t have to go to the wilderness for peace and quiet. We could come babysit, you know.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll be fine.”

I ask him to text when he’s out of the wild and on the job site. He agrees, but says it could be late in the day because he’ll be very busy.

How long does it take to text “A-L-I-V-E” to your mother?

My stomach is churning, my hair is wild from running my hands through it and I am standing in front of the ‘fridge with the urge to graze.

I call our youngest and ask, “What crazy thing are you planning? Skydiving? Running with the bulls? Storm chasing?”

“What are you talking about?” she asks.

“Don’t play that game with me, missy. Your brother and sister just dropped big ones on me and you’re probably up to something, too. It’s not enough that one of you worries me sick, I know how you like to team up.”

“I’m not up to anything,” she says. “You need to calm down. We’re all responsible adults now. Why would you worry?”

Because once a mom, always a mom. That’s why.