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Exposure brings funny things. With the launch of the WL100 site, my little stories have been getting exposure beyond the five people I’ve already written about, and beyond the four or five more people I’ve shared details with.Continue reading
Jenny has impacted the lives of hundreds of people in this town, but I think I’m the only one she’s raised from the dead.
A long time ago I was married to someone else. I’d been a stay-at-home mom and he traveled about four or five days a week. Let’s just say he had a lot of time to kill while I was at home baking pies and sewing frocks.
Jenny knew my ex through family connections and had thought we were the perfect couple, but in September of 2003 the wheels fell off my world when I learned that he was having yet another affair.
I’d tried to forgive his transgressions from two years prior, when I discovered he’d been paying for similar services. Back then he’d exclaimed that he was sick and needed help, and since in sickness and in health were magic words to me, I agreed to work through it together, quietly. Having two little kids at home and no career of my own at the time, I also felt boxed in.
Now I was going to have to fight my way out of this devastating and lonely black hole.
I may have tried to call Jenny first, but I may have just shown up at her house unannounced, because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t remember how to use a phone at that point.
She opened the front door and looked at me, surprised.
“Hi! Is everything OK?” She asked.
“Not really. Can I come in?”
She ushered me into the living room where the two of us sat down with her husband, and in tears I told her about the past two years I’d been hiding.
Jenny’s face went white as I recounted all I’d learned, my fears about the future, my grief over the past, and my humiliation at being unaware of all that was happening under my nose. Her jaw alternately clenched and fell open, her eyes bounced from me to the wall, then back again. In the end, maybe an hour later or maybe more, I’d exhausted my story and the room fell quiet.
We looked at each other in the silence and I started to think she might ask me to leave; after all, I’d essentially come into her house and vomited all over the floor.
Jenny took a sharp breath, her eyes first resting on her husband and then quickly darting to me, and sharply proclaimed three words I’d never heard before, not from any family, or any friend, or any boyfriend, and certainly not from my then-husband.
“I choose you.”
I was stunned. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Just what I said. I choose you. It’s done. I’ve made my choice.”
“I’m not asking you to choose,” I replied.
“I know. But I’m choosing anyway. I mean I’m choosing you. This is easy. I choose you.” She nodded her head quickly and continued, “So how can I help? What do you need? Do you have a lawyer? Craig will mow your lawn. Do you need to sell your house? Do you have an agent? Becca and Sarah can babysit.”
She was in full-frontal Jenny mode as I sat there trying to withstand this generosity explosion.
She continued her problem solving, anticipating every possible scenario, but I was still stuck on her words, I choose you, and hardly knew how to respond. She was one of the first people I’d told, and I had anticipated some kind of rebuke for remaining in that marriage for two more years, knowing that anyone in their right might would have bolted for the door. I’d only considered reactions of disappointment and maybe disgust.
I went there thinking I’d spill my guts, wait for the blow, and hope for a chance at redemption in her eyes. I’d never considered Jenny’s wide-open embrace, and found myself with no prepared statement, no framework for whatever came next. She chooses me? Who says that? How could anyone choose me in this mess?
Jenny interrupted my thoughts. “We’ve got to move forward. What do we need to do first?”
Snapping out of my internal monologue I took a minute to think about her question. “I don’t know,” I replied, “I definitely need to get a job. Maybe we can work on my resume. Oh my God,” a wave of desperation hit me, “I don’t know what I’m going to do because I don’t even know what I need. I haven’t worked in so long and I don’t know where to begin. I’ve got nothing to show for all this time…”
“OK…” she responded in a drawn-out tone, as though the word were a question. Then in a sharp staccato voice she sat up in her seat and shaking off any doubt, announced, “We. Will. Figure. It. Out. We’ll work on it together and I’ll help you find a job when you’re ready. It’s kind of a hobby of mine. But you have bigger issues now.” She looked around the room. “What else? Food? I have food in my freezer. Do you like lasagna? And some cake. You’re in no shape to cook. You’re getting cake.”
I appreciated her words, telling me that her hobby was helping people find jobs, but I also thought that nobody in their right mind does that. And yet she was taking me on with both barrels blazing, full of raw certainty and willpower and energy. I must have looked a little incredulous, certainly resistant, because Jenny shifted in her seat again and became quiet.
She cocked her head and continued in a gentle voice. “Karen, listen to me. I want to help. Other people will want to help. It’s an honor to help.”
“This is too much,” I replied.
“Think about what I just said,” she continued, “If our roles were reversed, you’d do the same thing for me. If I told you I didn’t want your help you’d be hurt.”
“Yeah, of course,” I managed.
“So let me help. Let other people help. Remember this conversation and get used to allowing help because you’re going to need it.”
I nodded in agreement and with a quick nod of her head and an air of thunder, she stood up and turned toward the kitchen. “I’m going to make sure you remember it. Let me get that lasagna.”
My atmosphere, starved of air for two long years, cracked open to the sky with Jenny’s bolt of energy, and an otherwise impossible flame started to flicker through the pervasive darkness I’d been living in. My life now depended on keeping this tiny flame alive.
Sometimes having one person believe in you, even a tiny bit, is all the energy we need to kindle our own spark back to life, and Jenny’s intense belief and raw determination that my kids and I would be OK felt like a trainload of oxygen had stopped at my door.
The months wore on but my energy rose to a new high. Jenny and I talked daily and she had endured the entire roller coaster with me. Nobody tells you that divorce gets worse before it gets better, and as Jenny and I chatted I decried some new and ridiculous legal gymnastics I’d been forced to endure. As far as I was concerned, there wasn’t anything to argue about as we had literally no money, and custody had already been established. By now my parents were paying the mortgage and buying food for me and the kids, while I had put the house up for sale, packed up our belongings, and started looking for a job. I was frustrated at how the situation continued to drag over nothing.
As I rambled, Jenny interrupted, and in a demanding tone she firmly laid it out for me, “Karen! Stop! What else is new?”
Was Jenny trying to divert me? Or was this her way of telling me she’d had enough? “What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m just saying What else is new! It’s a question! Is anything new? Anything at all?” She was strafing me with the same rapid-fire question, stunning me into submission.
I stammered, “I… I… I don’t know. It’s just more of the same crap as before. Every day it’s the same old crap.”
“Exactly!” she shouted, “Nothing is new! This is the same story you keep telling me, but the details are a little different. So what else is new?” She started laughing and continued, “You keep going around and around about all this baloney, but it’s the same thing you already know. So what if the details are different! Remember, you’ve handled all of this before and you’ll handle it again. None of this is news because nothing’s changed. Just keep going like everything’s steady state, exactly the same as it was yesterday.”
I’d started to pace across the floor but now I stopped and sat down. How long had I been re-hashing the same situational clown in a different costume, over and over again, as though some new outrage had occurred?
She laid it out for me then, “You’ve got to change your outlook or this will eat a hole in you! Next time this happens, just ask yourself What else is new? And when the answer is Nothing, then move along. Go do something positive in your day.”
That was indeed new, and it was a turning point that changed my drama into a b-movie that deserved far less credit than I’d given it. Of course my situation was still a mind-bender, but so what? It truly was old news, and I suddenly had the key to freedom I’d been looking for. Move forward to create something good and truly new.
The kids and I moved into my parents’ house a few weeks later and began to find our new normal. A few months later, once some of the dust had finally settled, Jenny called during the afternoon. It was strange because she was usually working during the day.
I answered the phone, “Hey Jenny, what’s up?”
“Is your resume ready? You have to send it to a company I just talked with. They’re developing a new technical support center and they’re moving fast! I told them you’d be their number one employee within the year.”
My mind full of doubt, I replied, “Geez, I don’t know that I’m technical enough for that.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re interested so you just have to jump on it! They’ll train you and you’ll pick it up quickly. I know the manager and he’s a really good guy.”
My resume and a cover letter I’d hacked together were immediately emailed to the group as I crossed my fingers and said a few Hail Mary’s. I really needed a job, and Jenny wasn’t kidding about that hobby of hers. How did she always seem to know so many people? How did she find a job that hadn’t even been posted? These were all mysteries to me at the time.
She was right. I was called back for an interview and my first real job at one of my favorite companies was in the bag a few days later.
At $14/hour I’d never felt so wealthy in my life. Suddenly I had a modicum of control, along with health insurance and all the brilliant challenges inherent in the world of working adults, and nobody could take it away from me. The tiny spark we’d been blowing on, at last, had become a tiny flame, and I was able to move from that initial role into a sales position later that year, which set the stage for everything to come.
I’ve since learned that over the decades, Jenny has helped hundreds of people tap into her network. These conversations have led to career turnarounds, job fulfillment, and professional growth. She cheers and cajoles her people into belief, and when they finally land, she tells them she knew it would happen because it just had to, because they’re the best. I’ve had a front row seat to her deep belief in people, and I’m living proof that the power of a little coaxing, plus a few kindly laid out truths, can make all the difference.
If you ask her, she’ll tell you I was her toughest project, definitely bigger than a breadbox. But if you dig, she’ll shrug and tell you it’s good karma, no big deal, it’s just a little hobby of hers, like decorating cakes. But I know her better than that. Jenny travels with oxygen and a matchbook, and she knows how to play with fire.
For fifteen years we’ve talked constantly, almost daily. She keeps me sane and laughing and infused with possibility and I do my best to return the favor, but she operates at an Olympic pace and I’ve come to realize I’ll never catch up.
When Jenny told me I choose you, I didn’t know what that meant and she probably didn’t either. It meant that she was willing to take a stand, beyond words, by entering my yucky reality. Jenny taught me what it means to say Let’s get together—and mean it. She showed me what can happen when we send a card, bake a cake, make the call. And I’m proof of how lighting a little flame can ignite a future.
You’ve never met anyone like Annie, a woman who’s known what she’s all about since the beginning of time. That’s a pretty big statement, and I know she’ll disagree with me, but I’m not talking about things like a passion for lip gloss or even a noble desire to save the oceans. I’m talking about her inherent gift of knowing where she stands, and her willingness to live into it.
I remember in college she needed to register for class. This was back in the pre-internet days when you stood in a massive line, ten students wide by twenty students deep, and told one of the clerks which classes you wanted to sign up for. Students were assigned registration times based on how many credit hours they’d attained, plus a random factor of what letter their last name started with.
Required classes were filled quickly, so there was always a great deal of tension in the herd as we stood there, hoping to get the classes we needed. Any time someone at the front of the line requested a class, an impatient sigh or two from deeper within the ranks could be heard, the sound of one more available seat being flushed away from them.
Annie approached the frazzled clerk at the front of the line, who pulled up Annie’s name, entered some information…and promptly erased Annie from the system. It was an accident, but there was no undo button back then, and suddenly there was no way for her to register for any classes, much less the ones she needed.
They offered her one option, “We can get you set up in the system over the weekend, and you can come back on Monday.”
The chance of this working correctly was nearly as slim as the chance that anyone would come into the office on the last weekend before classes began, just so they could fix Annie’s record. Furthermore, the line behind her wouldn’t be getting any shorter, and a new wave of students would arrive every fifteen minutes as their time slots opened.
“The other option is to wait here until you get my records back, so I can register today. I think I’ll take that option,” she replied, as she set her backpack down on the desk.
Seven hours later, late into Friday evening, she finally left the registration office with her schedule in hand.
It’s been like this with Annie for the forty years I’ve known her. When she knows something is right, whether it involves deep moral convictions or it’s just the obvious right thing to do, she becomes unstoppable.
The first time we met, toward the end of 3rd grade, I’d noticed her walking down the hallway and wondered who she was. We didn’t see each other very often, as she had a different teacher, but hadn’t I also seen her at church, singing in the choir? Something compelled me to figure out a way to meet her, but I’d have to wait until the following year.
I grew up Catholic, but my folks didn’t want to pay for Catholic school when public school was free. Nevertheless, high quality guilt and a genuine attempt to raise moral kids led them, and many others, to enroll their children in the church’s CCD classes, a sort of crash course in Catholicism. Every two weeks or so a bus would pull up to Harmony Elementary school, which was public, and kids who were enrolled in the local parish program would climb aboard. The bus then drove a mile to another school, grabbed another load of indifferent youth, and drove us all two more blocks to the church where we’d stay for a few hours, until the bus returned to bring us back to school.
On the first day of CCD during 4th grade, Betty Osowski herded a squirming mass of children from all over the district to the cold tile floor and cement walls of O’Reilley Hall. We sat on the ground, waiting to receive our fate, as Betty assigned each of us to a group led by a parent volunteer. Upon hearing my name called, I stood up, walked over to my new teacher, and stared at all the strange new faces.
We all stood there waiting as more names were called. I wondered who might join our group, and prayed fervently to Jesus, whom I believed was extra attentive considering where we were, that at least a few particular kids would wind up in someone else’s class. And then I saw the blondest haired, bluest eyed girl in the hall walking toward our group. Jesus smiled as the girl from 3rd grade greeted our group and stood next to me.
Annie and I started talking immediately. I don’t know what we discussed but it was probably the simple conversation where a couple of 4th grade girls, not yet at that awkward level we’d all find a few years later, welcomed each other to the fold.
I jumped in, peppering her with questions. “Weren’t you at Harmony last year? Who do you have this year? Did you miss the bus? I never saw you get on.”
Without batting an eye, Annie replied, “I transferred to Carver this year, so I took that bus. We moved and I needed to switch schools.”
“Why’d you move?”
“We got a house.”
“Do you like your new school?”
“Yeah, my teacher’s really good!”
“I got Miss Lewis. I hate her.”
“I remember her, the one with the cats,” and then we got shushed for the first of many, many times. We were inseparable.
During large group time, when the entire roster gathered behind the church altar for story and sing-along time, we sat in the front row, singing so loudly that Betty said she’d probably break a guitar string from strumming so hard. We sang louder, staring at the strings and praying for the big event, and pray we did. We volunteered prayers for the sick, homeless, foodless people around the world, we offered prayers of thanks for our parents, our grandparents, someone’s cat, and cheese pizza. We squeezed our eyes shut hard, that God might hear us better, because our silent prayers had to be the loudest.
Annie talked almost as much as I did and made a lot more sense, but even as kids it was like she came from another realm. She was fearless as we argued together that the Holy Trinity made no sense at all. Our teacher told us we had to take it on faith alone, and our classmates told us we’d better be quiet, or we’d wind up in hell. Annie chuckled at the silly children surrounding her, like a Catholic Buddha, and pointed out that doubting your faith could, in fact, make it stronger. Their mouths could only hang open as I quickly came up with examples to support her argument. We both loved every minute of CCD.
The next year, in 5th grade, our reign continued, and we were once again in the same CCD class asking all the tough questions, waiting for the guitar strings to break, and planning our future together as nuns, or maybe veterinarians. We learned that we both loved Jim Croce and Little Orphan Annie, animals and stickers, cars and sports—and I learned that Annie’s mom, Carolynn, trained horses. From time to time Carolynn volunteered or just stopped by. I don’t remember exactly why she was there, but she was beautiful and kind, and I adored her, too.
One particular morning, before school, as I inhaled a breakfast of Count Chocula, I began an argument with my own mom about how I needed a horse, and how only horrible parents don’t buy their kids a pony.
“I’ve wanted a horse since first grade! Why can’t I get a horse? They’re not that expensive. It’s not fair, I mean we don’t even have a dog. You and Dad are so mean!” I had logic on my side and if I could just add enough passion, just press the right buttons, I was sure to sway her.
“We can’t afford a horse and they are very expensive,” she impatiently replied. We had this conversation every week or two and as usual, the argument continued back and forth. Finally, Mom’s patience ran out, and this time she snapped.
Barely containing her anger, her voice ominously quiet and low, the hammer fell. “I’m taking care of two patients in the hospital right now, and both of them had horse accidents. One of them has a few broken bones from getting kicked, and the other one is in a coma. I will not support getting a horse because I will not take a chance like that. I cannot let myself be a part of it, so you’re just going to have to wait until you’re an adult when you can buy one yourself.”
Somehow, I just had a feeling. And when Betty Osowski approached our table, I knew what she was going to tell us.
“Annie won’t be in class today because her mom’s been in an accident. We should all pray for her,” and then Betty walked away, and the rest of the kids sighed, and I don’t remember another day of CCD after that. Not one.
My own mom was a nurse at the county hospital, a Level One trauma center, and in an extraordinary coincidence of grace, Carolynn was her patient. Mom had an affinity for Carolynn and usually requested to be her nurse, but I don’t know when she made the connection that Annie was the girl whom I’d always spoken so highly of. At some point she figured it out and Annie, an only child, was simply folded into our family’s world after Carolynn passed away a few months later.
Annie and I remained inseparable, swimming and singing and performing in local plays together, rescuing worms in the gutter after a thunderstorm, discussing our views on God and chatting about the travails of elementary and then junior high school. We’d talk of our future lives as nuns a lot too, although that never quite panned out.
Sometime during our teenage years we were driving down the highway, Annie at the wheel, and she said something I found surprising. She was reflecting back on the days and weeks after her mom’s death, and everyone’s effort to support her and her dad.
“I remember the adults were downstairs, and they probably assumed I couldn’t hear, but they were talking about poor Annie as though I were doomed, like I was some kind of lost cause. I was so angry!” I remember thinking how at that age, I probably would have been grateful for the pity, and would have slid comfortably into the role of victim.
She watched the road intently as she drove, and in the same matter-of-fact way you’d tell someone you don’t like mayonnaise, quietly remarked, “I didn’t want their pity then and I don’t want it now.”
Her words made no sense to me. Wasn’t it sad, I thought, even tragic? I mean, she wasn’t a lost cause, but wouldn’t she hope people would bend over backwards to give her extra stumbling room?
“Maybe they were just feeling bad for you? I mean, they probably couldn’t relate very well,” I offered.
“No,” she replied, “They were giving me permission to be a screw-up. I’d be poor Annie and if I turned into a drug addict, or got straight F’s, or became an antisocial dropout I’d always have that excuse in their eyes. Like, Poor Annie couldn’t help it because her mom died. Or, You can’t blame poor Annie because it’s only to be expected.”
“You mean they thought you were going to fall apart?”
And then Annie appeared in a new light.
“I don’t know what they thought I’d do, but it didn’t matter. I resolved right then that I would never become that girl. I would never let my mom’s death become an excuse for screwing up my life. I would never hold my mom responsible for that. If I’m going to fail, it’s on me alone. I control who I am and what I do.”
“You decided this back in fifth grade?” I asked, remembering those debates with our CCD class.
“Yup,” she replied, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. That was that. And don’t forget to hold the mayo.
Decades later, I’d like to think we’re cut from the same cloth, but I’d only be flattering myself. Nobody’s made of the same cloth as Annie. She’s not perfect and I’m not trying to portray her that way, but she’s something extra. There’s a deep current running through her that’s wiser and stronger and more certain and more correct. Definitely better. Actually, pretty close to perfect.
She’s managed to retain her Catholic faith, while at the same time exploring her personal beliefs and spiritual experiences. She has remained steadfast in her conviction of right and wrong, while still allowing for all the beautiful shades of grey we can find in our existence on Earth. These things don’t always live comfortably side-by-side, but she gives them the space and time they need to get along.
Annie, who now goes by Anne, taught me that depth of character is at our very center, hard-fought and hard-won—and I’ve seen her fight like a tiger. She taught me that real beauty lies in the struggle itself, when you simply remember that life isn’t fair, you can’t expect it to be, and that it’s going to be OK anyway if you focus on the things that really matter. And she taught me that I should get used to having friends who were simply better than me in the best possible ways.
“Hey Dad, this is my friend Karen. We just got back from the barn.”
Michelle turned into her parents’ kitchen, intent on some grapes while I, still standing in the front hallway, reached out to Tom’s open hand, shaking it firmly. “Hi, I’m Karen. I’m in college with Michelle.”
“Ahh, Karen,” he said, “Do you like horses, too?” He sounded a little like Dracula, his Serbian accent making him seem particularly serious. I felt like he expected a really good answer to this simple question.
“Yeah, I’ve been riding since I was a little kid,” I replied, smiling in that stiff way I do when I’m trying a little too hard.
“Very good, very good.” His voice trailed off for a few seconds, and then he cut to the chase. “So… Karen,” he said slowly, his accent pronounced, “What are you going to do with your life?”
Stunned by his bold question, I began to stammer a response, “Well, uhhh, I… I’m going to be an artist… I mean, umm, I plan to go to art school.”
“Dad! Stop!” yelled Michelle from the other room.
“An artist?” Came his surprised reply.
“Karen,” he said with a tsk, “The world doesn’t need more artists. The world needs scientists and engineers.”
Trapped with Tom, no visible means of escape, I desperately prayed for some kind of lifeline.
Michelle swooped in from the kitchen. “Dad leave her alone,” she said, shoving a bundle of grapes in my hand and pushing me into to the living room.
We sat on the couch together and started eating.
“What just happened?” I asked her, once the coast was clear.
“Nothing. Ignore him,” she laughed. “He’s always like that but he’s harmless.” She folded herself into the couch and popped a couple grapes into her mouth. “He’s got, like, 30 patents to his name and he’s a little obsessed with science.”
She grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. “What do you want to watch?”
Michelle and I had met during our first week of fall semester. I distinctly remember a weird feeling coming over me when we were introduced, like I already knew her, like we’d shared a few prior lives or something. An art lover like her mom, she was just as direct as her father, and she saw no conflict between some of her nonconformist tendencies and her pursuit of an economics degree.
She also owned a horse and rode dressage. I’d ridden since I was a kid, but in a sort of fearless vagabond style, barely ever using a saddle. I was as unrefined as I was unshakeable, and was grateful when she brought me to her barn for some lessons on the etiquette and lightness of her art.
Climbing on her horse’s back, the unfamiliar security of a saddle helping to build my confidence, we began trotting in a circle around Michelle. She was holding her horse by a lunge line and holding a long whip, keeping the trot at a good pace and correcting my position on his back.
In her strongest teacher voice she began, “In dressage, you have to concentrate super hard on everything you’re doing and everything the horse is doing, all at the same time. Once you understand the intricacies, that feeling of dancing together, it’s like riding a horse in the Bolshoi Ballet. It looks so easy but underneath it all, those dancers are working really hard!”
“This is taking a lot of concentration!” I breathlessly replied as we continued at an energetic pace.
“Actually I think it’s more like being a brain surgeon. People who don’t understand think it’s like watching paint dry, but once you realize how technical and difficult it is, you’ll never go back to anything else.” She let out a self-deprecating laugh and continued, “I should totally go to medical school.”
I let Michelle’s words filter through my mind as I tried to apply them, posting up and down with her horse’s rhythm as I concentrated on my shoulders, my hands, my heels, and everything in between. It was indeed difficult, exhausting work, and it didn’t escape me that underneath Michelle’s energy and tone came another message: Difficult things are attractive. Difficult things are to be embraced. Difficult things are where we belong.
“Make him go!” She yelled, “Forward! More trot! I want to see suspension in his gait, like Baryshnikov!”
I found myself feeling like I was doing something important, riding a difficult trot, tethered to a difficult lunge line, going around a difficult circle, and contemplating medical school. Somehow this difficult thing was the most fun I’d ever had.
“Karen,” she said to me years later, “The first thing they teach you in Buddhism is that life is difficult. If we can just look at that for what it is and accept it, everything will be fine. Pain and suffering are just a part of the whole spectrum, and they’re OK. Something can be difficult, but it’s up to us whether we suffer or not. You get to choose that part.”
Suffering is a matter of perspective, but by the time we were in our early 20’s, she and her boyfriend, Jason, decided they could no longer suffer through Minnesota’s cold, flat winters, so they left for the Colorado mountains and a total change of pace.
They planned to work around the slopes for a season, cleaning condos in exchange for lift tickets, while living in a trailer home packed to the gills with other twenty-somethings from around the world. They’d re-evaluate their situation once the ski the season ended, in case living the dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
That winter turned into a lifetime among a community of characters she couldn’t leave behind, so she and Jason bought a ramshackle house built by hippies on the top of one of the mountains. More than once they were a step away from having to catch their own food to survive—they hardly had any money, but they bartered and hammered and traded their skills for renovation help from their friends.
It was twenty minutes up a suicidal dirt road to get to their dream, but the views were unparalleled and that was all that mattered.
I’d visit from time to time and would have to leave my car parked at the bottom of their treacherous mountain. Michelle navigated their beefy 4×4 truck up the hill, like a safari guide picking her way through the ruts, while I tried to keep my head from falling off my shoulders.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing to the steep side of the mountain rising from the left shoulder, a stalled river of dirt and boulders and tree trunks laid bare. “We had a landslide last year so this part’s a little dicey.”
“How did you get through the road it when it happened?”
“Our neighbor up the mountain has a bulldozer, so he cleared a path for the rest of us.”
“Your neighbor? Shouldn’t the city do that?”
“It’s a lot faster if we just do it ourselves.”
“Is it solid? I mean, is it safe to drive over?” I was a little nervous now.
“I guess. We’ve been driving on it for a few months and nothing’s happened.”
“What do you do if something does happen?” I asked.
“Gun the engine and get the hell out of there!” laughed Michelle as she gunned the engine. Craning her neck to look past me, she checked the truck’s wheels against the side of the road as we approached a sheer drop down the right side. “But don’t worry,” she added, “We’ll be fine.”
She has a habit of taking every situation in stride, evaluating it and figuring out the best path forward, the one that serves the highest and most effective purpose. She knew how to get me up the mountain, and there was one particular time when she knew how to talk me off the ledge.
I’d called her late in the evening, despondent as I worked through the early stages of a painful divorce. “Michelle,” I said between sobs, “I just realized I’m going to be a single mom.”
“Yes you are, but so what? And why are you so upset about it?”
“It’s just a label I never wanted… I never thought this would happen to me, and I never wanted to do this to my kids,” I cried.
“Karen, listen to me. You’ve always been a single mom—he was never home! Since when did you even have a partner? Your kids never had a dad who participated in fatherhood, and you never had a good husband to begin with. Besides, he was a one-upper.”
“What do you mean? What’s that?”
“You know, someone who one-ups everyone else. Remember the time you were here last winter, and he was laid out on the couch and his kidneys almost failed?”
“I remember, but I don’t know the story.”
“Every time Jason told him about something Jason had done, your ex would tell him how he’d done something bigger and better. He was one-upping Jason about how great he was in the backcountry and how altitude didn’t affect him.” Michelle started laughing and continued, “Oh my God, you guys live practically at sea level and we’re close to 10,000 feet! Anyway, Jason figured whatever dude, so they went up to the ridge via the power line in five feet of snow, and Jason kept telling him to rest and drink water, but he wouldn’t. God, I thought he was going to die on our couch that night. What a dummy.”
“Was that what was happening? His kidneys?” I clearly remembered him curled on the couch in agony, refusing to go to the ER.
“YES! He’s nobody’s partner. He’s all about himself. He’s a one-upper.”
“I get it and I agree, but I still feel like my kids now come from a broken family.”
And then Michelle told me something miraculous.
“What are you talking about? Your family is whole! You, Kevin, and Elizabeth are whole. You’ve always been whole, and you always will be. You don’t need him to be complete and neither do they. They just need a mom who’s there for them, and who goes after the things she wants to go after. They need a mom they can be proud of. Now your job is to make them proud.”
In one single moment my entire outlook shifted, and just like that first time I rode dressage with her, the hard thing was the only thing that mattered, it was the only thing I wanted to do, and it was exactly where I belonged. My kids and I were a complete and whole family, just the three of us.
It’s been nearly 20 years since she uttered those magic words, and I called Michelle the other day for some advice. She didn’t pick up so I left a message. “We’re thinking about taking a big leap with something. Like a big adventure. I don’t want to tell you what it is right now, but it’s super exciting and huge and totally daunting and really scary. Call me back. I want to hear your thoughts.”
An hour later my phone rang.
Before I could say hello she took off running, “Hey Kar, that’s SO COOL! Adventure and daunting? That’s the perfect combination! I don’t even care what it is, you’ve gotta do it!”
I laughed, “You don’t even want to know? Dude, it’s cool but it’s big and scary!”
“So what? You have to be a little bit scared because that’s how you grow. It’s how you keep life fresh and interesting. Besides, if you’re not a little scared it’s not that big of a deal. I mean, who really cares?”
All I could do was laugh, because I should have known what she’d say all along.
She and Jason still live on top of the mountain in her small, now beautiful, house. A new section of the road threatens to slide away after last winter’s heavy snow, and when I visited a few months ago she gunned the engine as we bounced over waves of dirt, past rivulets of mud and water trickling over the edge.
Michelle still trains horses, and she’s added a meditation and spirituality practice to her days. She ponders questions from middle age, and a vantage point of someone who’s never let herself go backwards, who calls her own shots, surrounded by colorful characters in a beautiful part of the world. And she’s still showing me that forward is the only direction worth pursuing, especially when it’s hard.
When I lived in Ireland 30 years ago my friend, Killian, startled me when he said he couldn’t join us for a pint because he had to go to his fuckin’ sister’s house.
“Killian, don’t you and your sister get along?”
Killian’s eyes darted to me and in a thick, Dublin accent he retorted, “I love me fookin’ saysder! What the hell’s fookin’ wrong wit’ya? Jaysus, of course I love me fookin’ saysder!”
“Then why do you call her your fucking sister?”
He shrugged his shoulders, “Eh, I don’t know. It’s just what we say. We use ‘fuck’ fer everyting. Like, if ye ask me where ta put dat tray I’ll just tell ye to fook it over dehr… But I want ye t’be clear dat I loove me fookin’ saysder very much.”
Our parents call her Tracy, and I usually do, too. But my sister is Myfookinsaysder because I love her fiercely, the way Killian loves his.
Mom brought Tracy home from the hospital when I was fifteen months old, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t informed of the rules around being a good big sister. If I had been, I probably nodded my head at all the words and then ignored them. Not because I was so young, but because I was me.
Shortly after her arrival, Mom was in our tiny apartment kitchen when she heard Tracy’s muffled cries. She rushed into the living room, ten feet away, and looked at me as I hovered over my newborn sister in her bouncy chair. I was busily shoving raisins into her mouth and up her nose, one after another.
“Karen!” Mom shrieked. She ran toward us, horrified, then picked out all raisins and emptied them into the trash.
“What were you doing? What were you thinking?”
I don’t remember the incident but, according to our Mom, I looked back at her in surprise and calmly replied, “I’m sharing my raisins with Tracy.”
And that set the stage for the next 20 years.
In elementary school Tracy owned the entire Sunshine Family collection of dolls, including a big Grateful-Dead-meets-Little-House-on-the-Prairie style home, the antithesis of Barbie’s Dreamhouse. It even came with its own tiny pottery wheel. I played with my Lone Ranger doll, whose legs could spread open to ride the plastic horses in my plastic stable, and who launched mounted raids on unsuspecting, pottery-wielding hippy families. She played with Easy-Bake Ovens and dolls that could poop, while I rode a pony who pooped all over our suburban neighborhood.
We were pretty rough on each other in the old days, mostly because I couldn’t actually figure out how to share. We’d scream and tattle and purposefully make life hard. She’d take my stuffed animals for her menagerie, figuring I never played with them anyway, and I’d pop the head off one of her dolls as revenge. I’d grab a donut and she’d throw a fit because it was the last pink one, and everyone should know it belonged to her because pink was her favorite color and my favorite color was blue, and everyone knows they don’t make blue donuts but that wasn’t her problem.
Our parents would tell us to work through our conflicts on our own, with only two rules: one, no name-calling and two, no physical contact, but we managed to fit a lot of hurtful childhood stuff into the acreage between those flimsy boundaries. Usually I’d get in bigger trouble for it since I was a more aggressive kid, and sometimes we’d both get in trouble, and over the course of our first two decades we struggled to learn how to come together.
We had a few good moments, as well, and I think these are what we ultimately built our relationship on as we grew up.
During my senior year I was grounded to my room, forbidden from both the TV and the phone for a week. When we were grounded, our only options were to read books, draw pictures, or buckle down on homework. We could only leave our rooms to eat or use the bathroom, go to school, or go to work if we had a job. And by we I mean me, because Tracy never got grounded.
This particular time I remember running into Tracy’s room, crying that the only option I had left was to run away from home.
“I don’t want to run away, but I’m being forced into it. Mom and Dad are being totally unreasonable and won’t listening to anything I have to say,” I wailed.
“Why are they grounding you?” she asked.
“Because I didn’t come home after school, and Lisa and I went to Brian’s house, and I didn’t call to tell them where I was,” I replied.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“Because they don’t care anyway,” I replied.
“Of course they care. That was stupid of you to not call.”
“And grounding me is going to teach me to call? If anything, it’s just teaching me to be gone more!”
“The point isn’t that you weren’t home, it’s that they didn’t know where you were, and they were worried about you. They do care. They’re grounding you because you were selfish.”
She made a lot of sense, but I could hardly admit she was right, much less accept my parents’ punishment. “Fine, I should have called. But I’m still leaving. I’m simply not going to sit in my room for an entire week.”
“What problem will running away from home solve? Don’t you think it might just create more problems for everyone. Won’t that make it worse?”
Of course it would, and over the next fifteen minutes she chiseled away at my emotions, a combination of logic and compassion, and managed to talk me off the ledge. She then went the extra step, appealing to our parents for some leniency; it was so out-of-character for her to come to my defense that they actually listened—and although they denied her appeal, they amended my sentence to a couple of days.
I remember something shifted that day, and I was so grateful to have her in my corner that it felt OK to spend a few days alone in my room.
Nearly twenty years later we’d forged a strong friendship, and she was no longer a mere sibling I’d known as a child. I had just been accepted into the University of Minnesota’s part-time MBA program, and the two of us were reminiscing about all the things that had transpired over the previous decade, particularly the last few Twilight Zone years leading up to my divorce. I’d been single for a few years at that point, and after an epic struggle I finally felt like I’d come into my own.
Tracy mused, “You were so taken up with your family’s lives that it started to become hard to talk with you about anything. You didn’t have much to say about you and what you were doing.”
“I suppose. I was at home with the kids and that was my whole world. It must’ve been weird for you to not have kids and then talk to me about all the things a three-year-old did. I was kinda boring.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, and I knew she was trying to figure out how to say something.
“Well,” she began, “it’s not that you were boring as much as you were just gone. All the things that made you you were gone. I felt like I kept trying to get at this ghost, like you were just a vapor I couldn’t catch, and it was really sad for me. It was like I lost my sister.”
I’d always felt misunderstood by those whose lives revolved around work or hobbies or other non-kid factors, and I hated that all the esoteric and mystifying work of motherhood seemed dismissed, like moms weren’t doing their part, or we were somehow taking the easy way out.
“I know it can seem dull to be a stay-at-home mom,” I replied, “But I couldn’t relate to you or Dad or anyone talking about business simply because I’d never been in that world, but I did try. I asked questions, and I tried to understand as much as I could. By the same token, don’t you think it was also up to you guys to try getting into my world a little? To try to relate to what I was dealing with?”
She sat there thinking for a minute and, with a confounded look in her eyes, told me something extraordinary.
“It had nothing to do with work or kids or those day-to-day activities. It wasn’t that people couldn’t or didn’t want to understand. That’s not what I’m getting at. It was more like your soul got sucked into a black hole that killed your spark. I think all the drama you were going through over such a long period of time, especially when it came to your ex’s crazy behavior, just took you away from all of us. It was a gradual slide but it was very real.”
I hadn’t been aware of the extent of her feelings. I remembered how agitated she’d get with me, frequently re-asking what I’d been doing for myself, and yet I always somehow thought I’d answered her questions. The more time passed, however, the more clarity I’d gained through hindsight.
“I became codependent with all the craziness in my life,” I replied, “When you live in an environment full of deception, it’s easy to lose track of yourself since you’re always trying to keep track of the impossible. It was like being sucked up by a tornado, and all you know is that you keep getting hit by shingles and tree limbs and flying cows, and nothing makes sense. I could hardly tell where I was or how I got there. It didn’t occur to me to get out of the tornado until the very end.”
She replied in a slow and measured tone, “I think that’s true, and I can’t begin to understand the depth of all of it, but I still wonder what would have happened between the two of us if you hadn’t found out about his last affair with another woman and gotten divorced. I mean, I wonder what would have happened to our relationship as sisters over the long run if something hadn’t changed.”
“Do you really think it would have affected us?” I asked, surprised.
Tracy thought carefully about her words. “Honestly yes. It was so frustrating for me. I didn’t want to know about him or your kids or your neighbors. I wanted to know about you. I felt like I didn’t have a relationship with you and I resented the fact that you wouldn’t speak up for yourself. I was mad at you whether it was fair or not, because I wanted you back.” Tracy paused again, looking me directly in the eye. “I’m going to tell you something and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way.”
I was getting nervous. Our conversation had started to feel like a build-up, the way an alligator pauses before winding into a death roll, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Umm, OK,” I said, “I’ll try to be open minded.”
She took a deep breath and said something crazy, something I could never have imagined anyone saying to me behind my back, much less to my face.
“If I ever meet her,” she began, “I hope you don’t get mad if I give her a hug.”
“Excuse me? The woman I found out about? You want to give her a hug?” I asked, mortified.
Tracy composed herself, her eyes filling with tears. It was clear that the force and intention behind her words had shaken her but she regrouped and continued, “Yes. A hug. She did a horrible thing, I mean they both did a horrible thing, but in the end, she gave me my greatest gift: She gave my sister back to me.”
She gave my sister back to me.
Everything Tracy said was true and as I let her words settle, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude, maybe the same one Tracy felt, for the woman with whom my ex-husband had his last affair.
It’s been about ten years since that conversation, and I still feel the same way. Obviously, I don’t condone what the two of them did, and it remains the most traumatic event in my life, but what a strange and beautiful juxtaposition it is to be grateful for.
Sometimes Truth feels like a quiet revelation brought forth by someone who knows you better than you know yourself. And sometimes Truth can feel violent. It can be so blinding and so revealing, and sometimes so painful, that resistance is futile and there’s no choice but to let it sit at my kitchen table while it tells me to make some coffee because we’re going to spend the afternoon getting to know each other. And when I can muster the courage to face Truth head-on, when I feel like the trauma of a particular Truth might just crush me into dust, I’m overcome with understanding, and suddenly the dust that had been so threatening will settle down and reveal a new guest sitting in Truth’s chair called Peace.
Tracy possesses a clarity of thought that helps put the world into perspective. If I can hold on long enough to see the light, Myfookinsaysder brings Truth, followed with an abiding Peace, every single time.
It’s Saturday morning. You’re waking up from that deep sleep you can only get on the weekend. You roll over to look out the window, except that you can’t. Something is stopping you. Your arms are somehow restrained. What’s happening? You thrash against the ties, trying to scream, but your voice is silent. Everything hurts and it’s not Saturday morning and you’re not where you thought you were. You’re not at home in your bed on a fine Saturday morning, you’re hooked to a ventilator, a machine that breathes for you, and tubes are poking out from parts unknown. Your head is spinning, you can’t move, and you have no idea where you are. You just know that you’re in trouble.
A woman appears at your side and tells you that you’re waking up from open heart surgery. You start to remember, and you settle a little. She gently says everything went well and it’s going to be alright, you’re in good hands, and it’s OK to go back to sleep. She sounds like she knows a lot more than you do, like this is all very normal and all part of the plan. And your life is in her hands. As you start to accept her explanation, you hope to God she knows what she’s doing, and you close your eyes again, letting sleep take you back to where you were before.
She’s my mom, and she knows what she’s doing.
My mom, Judy, spent much of her career as a critical care nurse in the ICU, and I witnessed this scene when I shadowed her back in high school. It terrified me when that guy woke up from a dead sleep and started thrashing, but she calmly walked over to him and explained it all, while I peeled myself off the ceiling.
Mom is fierce, and when a storm comes to town, she’ll be standing Zen-like amidst the chaos, directing traffic so all the firetrucks can get through. She’s a totally unapologetic pragmatist who grew up on Chicago’s Polish south side, where working-class pragmatism usually worked. Combine all this and you can save some lives.
Mom’s early ferocity was untempered, borne of a persistent belief that she wasn’t one of the popular kids when she was little, and she wasn’t going to let anyone mess with her own kids. Any time I’ve shown people a photo of her, they’ve remarked on how striking she is, like she could be Jackie O’s cousin. But that simply wasn’t her experience and, like many mothers, I think she started to find her voice once her inner mama bear showed up.
When I was in Kindergarten, my younger sister, Tracy, and I were swimming at our apartment pool and an older boy thought it would be fun to dunk the little kids underwater. Other moms told him to knock it off, but he wouldn’t stop. The moment he approached my sister, Mom darted over, reached into the water, and practically lifted him out of the pool by his hair, screaming something about how she was going really get him if he tried it again. That bullyboy’s mom was the pool lifeguard, who threatened to throw us out for good, but Mom took the fight to the apartment manager, who took her side. When mom knows she’s right in principle, she won’t quit. Plus she never did like wearing swimsuits.
I learned it was OK to be bold when the situation called for it, to stand up for your people. I’m not saying it’s right to confront a kid that way, even if he was a horrible jerk, but Mom’s loyalty stood firmly with us and all the other little kids in the pool, and they needed help. On that day I also learned she was not the same as most rule-following, convention-driven, headscarf-wearing moms.
About the same time as the pool incident, and against our deeply conventional, extended family’s wishes, Mom brought us to my great-aunt Mabel’s visitation and funeral. I don’t remember ever meeting Mabel, but I do remember walking up to her open casket, astonished at the ancient and worn body inside. Mabel was stiff and waxy, her hands layered on top of each other but not exactly touching. My little sister Tracy and I stood on either side of our mom, who was kneeling on a bench next to the casket and pretending to pray. I’m pretty sure she couldn’t have been actually praying because I kept peppering her with questions.
“What happened to her? Why is she dead?” I asked, trying my best to whisper.
“She was old, and she just died of old age,” Mom replied, trying to close her eyes and focus on the task at hand.
“Who is she?”
“Grandma has a sister?”
“She has a few.”
“What are their names?”
And so it went, I chatted away at this curiosity while Tracy’s eyes darted between me and Mabel, who suddenly seemed to be smiling at us.
“I think she smiled,” I announced.
“No, she’s dead. She can’t smile,” replied Mom.
“No, watch. She’s smiling!”
Little Tracy chimed in, “Yeah, she smiled!”
“Maybe she isn’t dead,” I offered, wondering if this mistake happened very often.
Mom turned sharply and told me to quiet down, out of respect.
I tried in the way young children do, but quickly forgot the mandate. “Can I touch her?”
Looking back on this question, which I distinctly remember asking, I’m astounded at my mom’s reply.
“Sure, go ahead.”
She might have told me to touch her hands or I might have just been close to them, but I reached out and set my tiny hand on hers and quickly recoiled. I can still remember the words that came to mind as I pulled my hand away: Cold and bony.
“Mom, she feels like a frog!” I exclaimed.
Mom stood up to hustle us away, “C’mon girls, let’s give someone else a chance to pay their respects.”
“What’s paying respect?”
We walked back to the hall where Mom could mingle with the others, and soon after that, we skipped the funeral and went home. We’d learned all we needed to know.
As an adult I asked my mom what drove her to bring two small children to a funeral, much less let me touch Great Aunt Mabel’s hand. She said our relatives were pretty angry with her, telling her this wasn’t the sort of thing children should be exposed to, but she believed that death should be a part of life and she wanted to normalize it for us, to help us understand that it was sad, but that it was also OK. She saw this as an opportunity, and it helped that Mabel wasn’t someone we knew well. Just the same, Mabel was part of our family and it was still a loss, but it was of a low enough magnitude that a child could deal with it in a healthy way.
As conventional as she was, that’s a pretty bold move. And never in a million years would I remember Mabel if not for that day.
I’ve come to realize that although we think of raising kids as an 18-year endeavor, a little longer than raising a dog, our kids are our kids no matter their age. This is important. I’m my mom’s kid just as much as my twenty-something kids are still my kids. My mom and I are dear friends, and I’m also my mom’s fifty-year-old kid. I mean that in a mature, adult way.
In 2001, when I was my mom’s 32-year-old kid, I learned that my (now ex-) husband wasn’t into monogamy. I was devastated. A couple years later, after a one-way attempt to work things out, I had a funny feeling. And by funny, I mean bad. He insisted everything was fine but after a little digging, I figured out how to crack his Blackberry, where I found all the email evidence I needed.
I confronted him, he moved out, and a couple days later he was off with his new girlfriend instead of soul searching, per the plan.
In a nutshell, my world fell apart. My parents paid my mortgage until I could finally sell the house and pay them back. I had to start a career, usher the kids into a new reality, and try to help them understand what it means to commit to another human being with integrity. There was no sharing in this load; my ex was just… gone. Like, a complete no-show for all of us.
He was telling the judge to put me in jail because I hadn’t shared all the photos with him, even though I had. He was taking his girlfriend to New Zealand in spite of being fired from his job. And he was not showing up for teacher conferences and soccer games, or bedtime stories, or boy scouts or homework or walks in the park. He wasn’t there for two little kids who needed their dad.
Considering all of this, what would you do if you were my mom? Curl into a ball? Blame someone? Try to fix it? Rage against the world? Or God?
If my mom did any of that, she kept it to herself. Instead, she became superhuman with casseroles, babysitting, scheduling, interceptions, counseling and shuttling. At Halloween she bought us an electric pumpkin, at Christmas she brought cookies and a wreath for my front door and took extra care to make the holiday less threatening. She swooped in unannounced to take the kids to Dairy Queen and the zoo and the Children’s Museum. She dusted and vacuumed my house and had the three of us over to her house when it became too painful for me to be in a place that seemed to melt as the days wore on. She bore witness to everything, right by my side, caring only about our forward momentum.
Then my kids and I moved in with my parents for eight years and I learned that mothers never, never give up. You read that right. Eight years.
A few years into living with my parents, we all got to talking.
Dad started telling me about a dinner conversation they’d had the night before with some old friends. “They asked why we were all living together, and if it might have been better to just help you with rent, or maybe help you buy a townhouse.” He went on, “And I could see her jaw tighten. You know how your mother gets when things aren’t sitting right with her…” His voice trailed off.
The conversation started to worry me, and I couldn’t quite tell where it was headed. Were they going to tell me to move out? Were they re-thinking their generosity? I gathered all the calm I had in me, smiled a little, and asked, “Do I want to know what she said?”
The drama was killing me and then Dad replied with a little nervous laugh, “It was pure Judy.”
Mom looked at us like we just didn’t get something truly fundamental and completely obvious, surprised because she always considers her actions to be completely normal and altogether rational.
“Well yeah,” she began, “I told them that a family is more than a physical place to live. It’s a support network, a place where kids learn how to handle conflict and human dynamics. I told them that I didn’t know what kind of environment my grandchildren would live in if they were to live in some apartment far away, and I knew that none of you would have the advantages you’d have if we all lived together.”
And Dad added, “Don’t forget the part about if you didn’t have grandchildren to worry about, you would have just patted Karen on her back and wished her luck.”
Mom’s voice suddenly became more intense, more firm. “Well that’s what this whole thing is about. It’s not about Karen, it’s about those kids,” she said.
And I got it. Suddenly I understood absolutely everything, and like Dad said, it really was pure Judy.
I can imagine her tone of voice in that dinner conversation with old friends, smiley and measured in her chatter about doing whatever it took to ensure her family’s needs were met. I can also hear the steeliness underscoring her words, a certain tone between the tones, letting everyone know that if they pushed it too far, she would walk to their side of the table and pull them out of their seat by their hair.
In my mom’s mind, there was a road map for everything and where the map ended, her instinct took over and she created new one. I remember a day when my ex stopped by to pick up the kids; we’d been living with my folks for a month or so. As he walked back to his car, Mom went out to the driveway and quietly slipped him a hefty gift card to a local grocery store, then chatted with him like a long-lost friend.
Everything was so fresh to me and as I watched her out there smiling and nodding her head, I went into a silent, blind rage, feeling like her loyalty had suddenly switched. My dad, also incredulous, asked her what the hell she was doing once she came back into the house.
She was absolutely certain about her response and without hesitation said, “That man is the father of my grandchildren and I would never alienate someone so important to them. And those two grandkids of ours need to see people treating each other well. Besides, if anything were to ever happen to Karen, I need to make sure I still have access. I won’t lose them, too.”
She rested her case to our stunned silence, because we both knew she was right.
My mom taught me about a new kind of dedication, a different kind of practicality that extends beyond society’s norms, and rises above one family’s agony, by being insanely, impossibly, fiercely practical. When my kids were born, motherhood seemed almost like a temporary state: 18 years, give or take, and it’ll be over and I’ll have to find a new gig. My mom taught me—she showed me through her own example—that moms are never done being moms, that some of the greatest lessons are the hardest to swallow, and that it’s never too late for a kid to learn a thing or two.