I know I can make it!
I’m part of Daily and Weekly Post
This week’s photo challenge dives down into details.
A misty morning after a night’s rain in Umbria.
I got to thinking about penmanship today. Remember that? On rainy days, we used to stay inside and practice our penmanship. Does anyone under the age of 30 even know what this is?
This was a big deal when I was growing up. We got graded on it in elementary school. Teachers in high school terrified us into believing they could see into our souls by the way we wrote.
Your penmanship told buckets about you. Were you introverted or outgoing? Were you an artist or a scientist? Were you organized or scattered? Were you humble or a show off? Did your writing slant up or down? And what did that mean? Were you angry, sad, happy, goofy?
Ah, here’s a good one–were you right-handed or left-handed?
And what of an entire industry that has probably gone by the wayside: the handwriting expert. Handwriting experts could describe personalities to a tee, or predict someone’s future, or diagnose a “criminal” for the courts. And they could spot a forger a mile away. And what about forgers? I suppose that’s a dying art as well.
There’s just not a whole lot to say about a bunch of abbreviations in a text message, except that maybe the sender is illiterate. In Italy, they say the young people don’t know how to spell correctly. They don’t know that “perché” is a whole word, for example. They think it’s “Xke” (the X is the symbol for “per” and “ke” is the phonetic sound of “ché”). There are countless other examples. Pity.
Don’t get me wrong, I love typing, especially on a great keyboard, and I’ve got speeds of up to 100 words a minute. But I still love writing in my journal or…gasp…handwriting a letter occasionally. I love the sensuousness of putting script down on paper with a beautiful pen, watching the letters form from my own hand, taking my time to think through what I’m writing (no cross-outs or deletes!), and marveling at the finished product on the page. And feeling proud of my penmanship.
Oh horrors! I look at the word penmanship itself and see that it’s way out of date in our politically correct world. If such an activity were still popular today, it would have to be called penpersonship or penhumanship, or worse yet, touchpadchallengedship.
The point is, so what if I fail? I mean, if Sylvia Plath could feel like a failure at times, so can I, right?
Motivation. Where is it? I sit down to write and the millions of thoughts I have don’t make it to the page. No, scratch that. That’s not what I want to say. Start over.
Feeling out of sorts. Big time. Dreams of cluttered houses, I can’t make it up the stairs, dirt everywhere, doors that don’t open, people invading my space. Creativity gets tangled up in the cobwebs. BEEP! Wrong again. I’m failing to say what I really want to say. Okay, one more time.
What I want to say is, simply, that I miss my mother more than I ever thought possible. I thought my heavy heart had lifted after the two-year anniversary of her death on New Year’s Day. Wrong. I need to put her life and death into perspective and get on with my life. How to do this.
Aha. It’s staring me in the face. Upstairs in my little study, I see it. On the desk stand four photos, four generations of women in my family.
Looking at these photos, I realize that life passes from one generation to the next with memories that are like a silk thread—shimmering, resilient, supple, but also fragile and bound to disintegrate over time. As these women in my life went before me, so too shall I go one day. It’s inevitable. Okay. Accepted. In the mean time, live life to the fullest (oh how cliché!) and savor a few good memories (at least I got that part right).
This is my great-grandmother at 75, the day she said her life began. Haha! She had a great sense of humor. She wrote a book about her life and the last chapter was entitled, “Life Begins at 75”. That was when Pa died (she and my great-grandfather were just known as Ma and Pa). They were Mormon. She had her 14 children without ever seeing the inside of a hospital. She used to say that she had a baby every other spring whether Pa was there or not! I look at the wonderful sepia-toned photographs in her book and marvel at one photo that shows the whole family stuffed into the covered wagon heading off to church. When Pa died, she sold the farm, and started to travel. She never wanted to see another cow or make soap or cook or beat dozens of sheets into dry submission again. She saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and held me as a baby on the beach.
This is my grandmother, Lola, at 25 in 1925. She was the tall one of the children. No one knows where she got her height (5’9″), or her beauty, and it was the stuff of intense jealousy among her sisters. Lola was a contralto, with a honeyed voice that melted hearts. She was the first female soloist in the Tabernacle Choir from 1919-1921. But the grander life pulled at her, and she left Salt Lake City and Mormonism for New York to pursue her singing career. There, she met my grandfather, a banker from Chicago, in a hotel lounge where she was singing. She had known him from Salt Lake City but only from afar. When she saw him walk in and sit down, she sang one of the classics of 1924, “It Had to be You” and never took her eyes off him. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is my mother, Jean, at 18, newly engaged to my father. She was a also a singer, a beautiful soprano. She was raised in Chicago in private girls’ schools, but she had a rebellious streak in her. Rather than going off to one of the elite colleges on the east coast, she chose the University of Chicago and was accepted into the Hutchins School there at the age of 16. My grandmother never forgave her…my grandfather was secretly thrilled. I’ve written about my mother on other posts, how she broke the mold and how she spent her last 25 years in San Miguel de Allende surrounded by her three dogs, five cats, and her two beloved horses. There was a full moon last night, she came to visit me.
And yours truly at 21 (I will NOT say how long ago, thank you very much). I’m not sure how my life compares with these three women, but I do have some of each within me: my great-grandmother’s humor, my grandmother’s height, my mother’s rebelliousness and willingness to take chances (13 years ago, we left California to start a new life in Italy). I wish the four of us could sit down together and talk about our lives. It’ll just have to do to have the photos close to me, and when I feel a tug at my heart, I know it’s that old silk thread pulling at me with shimmering, resilient, supple memories that are bound to disintegrate over time.
I dunno. Maybe scratch all of this and start over. I’ll try to think of what I really want to say.
The day after La Befana will always be the day we put down our beloved Vladimir, who had been gravely ill with intestinal cancer. Five years ago on a sunny January 7th, his time was up and my heart still cries a little.
Vladimir, “so dignified and pure of heart” as our brother-in-law, Eddie, wrote, will be forever etched into my life and soul. Our beginnings here in Italy were made all the more wonderful with his presence.
An excerpt from my book, The Field Stones of Umbria, describes his last two days with us:
He spent the last few days of his life resting in the gardens, in the sunshine. He had stopped eating again, and this time we knew it was the end. The day before we put him down, I sat with him in the Japanese garden for an hour. We listened to the horses in the field, the sheep and their bells in the hills, and he watched the birds with his usual intensity.
A large woodpecker landed near the bamboo, and he leaped off my lap. Even though he couldn’t eat and was down to nine pounds from twenty, his instinct as a great hunter flashed for another moment. He was poetry in motion and I momentarily forgot that he was about to die.
The next day, when it was time to go, I found him in the lower meadow near the stream. I picked him up, his poor skinny body weighing nothing, and he draped himself on my shoulder. We walked all around the grounds, and I talked to him about the fields, the stream, the olive trees, the meadow, the lavender and rosemary, the bamboo and Japanese maples. I told him that all of “his nature” would miss his beautiful presence. He touched his nose to my lips, our secret kiss that we’d coveted for 12 years.
It was time to go. Pavel and I didn’t talk on the way to the vet. What is there to say? You have to do this, and there’s no turning back.
I held him while he was going under, Pavel at my side, both of us crying. The roller coaster of emotion had taken its last uphill climb. Our vet was amazing. Vladimir didn’t feel anything. He died peacefully. She cried with us.
We remember all of his antics, his playing, his purrs in the night. He still kisses me in his secret way. But most of all, we see his beautiful eyes gazing directly at us—questioning, understanding, loving, and connecting as no other animal has ever done.
Vladimir. So dignified and pure of heart.
A caravan pulls up to our neighbor’s house and the music starts. Bells are ringing, people are singing and shouting joyous greetings. The house is lit up with all the outside lights (which is very special here since electricity is so expensive!) to welcome the local bandwagon of people, gifts, and good cheer.
This Christmas Eve mission? To visit each and every house in this tiny valley where someone (or more) is at least 80 years old. And there are a lot of them! At least 20 people out of a population of 100 or so.
I stand on the terrace and watch and listen. My heart fills with joy, I smile. And I think to myself, I want to still be here when I’m 80.
Merry Christmas to all.
Reflections on the Vltava River, Cesky Krumlov, in Bohemia, Czech Republic.
If you can’t find your menopause humor at home, try looking under the rug—you probably swept it there. If you do leave home without it, you’ll find yourself grinding your teeth at every stop light, freaking out in the dairy aisle because they don’t have the brand of milk you want, or seriously considering tripping the 20-something, infinitely perky secretary—with her clip-clapping high heels on the tile floor of the workplace cafeteria—and gleefully watching her cottage cheese and tomato salad go flying. What a great image. Except that I could never do this because it would be tripping up the last faint image of my former self oh so many years ago. I have to hang on to a tiny part of my past, of the vibrant young woman who was ready to take on the world. And who did in so many ways. Before this. Before menopause.
It’s National Menopause Awareness Day. Leave it to us baby boomers to create an awareness day of something that’s been happening to women since the dawn of people. Gosh how we love to talk about everything that’s happening to us, as if it’s the first time this has happened to anyone! But okay. It really is a good thing to raise awareness of this phase of a woman’s life. Especially if it helps women (and men) seek advice and get their hands on as much information as possible. More important, awareness programs let us know we’re not alone with horrible symptoms that are driving us and our loved ones stark raving mad.
When I went through the worst parts of menopause (and I’m still going through some rough patches of post-menopause), there were times when I truly thought I was going crazy. Confusion, anxiety, crying spells at the drop of a hat, and unbelievable anger dominated my life. I kept telling myself that all of this was normal, and I read everything I could get my hands on. I have an older sister who listened to me and described her symptoms, so I knew what to expect. I knew there would be hot flashes and night sweats, I knew I’d crave anything salted and vodka, I knew my sex drive would go down, I knew my memory might start failing. I was totally prepared to experience all these symptoms.
What I didn’t know was how strong the force and profundity of emotions, especially the anger, would be. This storm of rage took me completely by surprise. I’m no stranger to rage; as a child and teenager, I watched my mother’s generation spawn a lot of angry women fighting for equal rights. And there were the angry outbursts at family gatherings, which truly puzzled me at the time. I remember wondering why everybody was so mad. As Dee Adams says, “If you don’t get it, you ain’t there yet.” Well, now I get it.
So there I am, having had a fairly calm character most of my life, and all of a sudden, everything is pissing me off. Royally. You name it, I was getting mad. I started to understand why so many women around 50 have nervous breakdowns or give up on life. Even my sister, who inherited our dad’s humor genes, went through a couple of years of not laughing much; she was just pissed off at everyone and everything. Well, I said to myself, this won’t happen to me. Uh-uh. I’m calm, I’m a nice person, I’m trained as a psychologist—I can handle any emotion that comes up. Yeah, right. None of that mattered. I didn’t want to analyze my feelings, look at my motives, or talk anything through. I wanted to throw dishes. Lots of them.
One night when things got particularly bad between my husband and me, the delicious thought of a two-year old’s tantrums came to mind. I’d had enough of hot flashes, night sweats, confusion, a new-found clumsiness (I’m an ex-ballerina, for god’s sake, and I was bumping into walls). I’d also gotten scared to death when I realized I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t care about my husband’s feelings, I didn’t care about trying to have a good life, I didn’t give a damn. This was worse than anger, this was how suicides happen. I decided I’d better sit down and write about what I was going through.
I fantasized that I was doing family therapy again. I listened to the menopausal woman’s anger, frustration, lack of self-esteem, and depression. I listened to her husband wondering why he was doing everything wrong. I listened to the kids wondering where their loving mother had gone. I concentrated on the family members first for my fantasy advice. To help them with coping strategies, I started coming out with statements like learn to disappear, learn to cook, humor her–listen to ’70s rock, think of menopause as your houseguest who has stayed way too long, and think of a two-year old’s tantrums.
Then suddenly, it all seemed so funny. A two-year old’s tantrums. Yes! That was me! So, before I killed my husband or he killed me, I found humor in this crazy situation and had to write a humorous book on menopause. It developed into a “guide” for the husbands, kids, and animals of the menopausal woman. My father always told us that his humor got him through the roughest times of his life. I listened to that nutty little voice inside of me and transformed a lot of insane thoughts and angry feelings into a 10-step guide for the family members to survive HER menopause.
Believe me, I know that menopause is serious. It’s bigger than most of us and proves that the Body Snatchers do exist. It’s important for everyone to be informed, to seek help, to stay healthy, exercise, meditate, to do whatever it takes to get through it. And once you’ve done all that, it’s even more important to find your inner menopause humor, and don’t leave home without it!