What Could Go Wrong?

It was Labor Day weekend, the last weekend in a summer full of outdoor adventures with my grandsons.  Twelve-year-old Noah and I headed up north to go white water rafting.  It was my idea.  I’d gone rafting dozens of times.  Who cares that the last time was almost 30 years ago?  What could go wrong?

We arrive at the meet-up spot near Pembine.  Our guide, Derek, fits us with life jackets and helmets.  Along with the other 6 rafters, two women and four men, we board the bus with our driver Bill who takes us to the launch spot on the Menomonie River.  We rafters chat a bit on the bus and I learn that only two of them had ever been rafting before and it was a long time ago.

The first section of the trip is just flat water and Derek uses the time to review the safety instructions and practice paddling in unison.  We all listen carefully.

The next section is class 2 rapids which I now know means “some rough water and rocks, some maneuvering.”  Only a basic skill level required.  Yahoo!  We got wet.  Everyone was laughing.  We give a high five salute with our paddles.

The next section is class 4 rapids which I now know are waves, rocks, sharp maneuvers, a considerable drop; “exceptional” skill level required.

Off we go.  Derek is calling out paddling instructions.  But the people paddling on the left are paddling way harder than the people on the right and we smash straight into a giant face of rock.  The force bounces us into a ricochet which catapults me into a backward summersault out of the raft.

My helmet pops off and I’m trapped underneath the raft.  “Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.”  Oh dear, this is bad.  I was really, really scared.  After a death defying amount of time, the raft and I drift  apart.  But now I’m going down the “considerable drop” all by myself.  Whitewater crashes over my face.  It feels like what I imagine waterboarding would feel like.  I thought I was going to drown.

Noah is screaming, “Grandma!  Grandma! Grandma!”  When you are over 60, you think about death now and then and you think, yeah, I’ve had a good life.  I’m okay with death.  But not today!  Not fucking today!  Not like this.  This would really suck for Noah.  I can’t have Noah’s last memory of me be this!

Derek is shouting “nose up, toes up” at me. He’s yelling at the rafters to paddle hard and they finally get close to me.  Derek reaches over and grabs me by the shoulders of my life jacket.  “One, two, three,” and he hauls me into the back of the raft. The bottom of my suit falls down to my knees. I’m face down, bare ass up.  As I wriggle around to pull my suit up and find a more comfortable postion, Derek says, “Sorry ma’am.”

We get through the rest of the rapids and glide to the river bank.  No one is laughing.  “Grandma, are you okay?” says a wide-eyed Noah.  I say, “I’m fine,” even though my heart is pounding out of my chest and my hands are shaking.  Derek is wild-eyed and wants to know if I hit my head anywhere.

We hike a little way to rendezvous with the bus driver.  Bill greets us with. “Wait until you see the video!  Some of you are really going to want a copy.”

Video?  What video?  I forgot about the video.  Bill had been perched above the falls recording.

I rationalize it away.   How close could he possibly have been?  Plus, the mishap was in the back of the boat.  Only Derek saw it.  I tell Noah about it just in case and he thinks it’s funny but he’s not concerned.  “They would probably fuzz it out anyway,” he says.

Back at the meet-up spot, everyone gathers around a small flat screen to view our exciting journey.  Sure enough, there it is.  My big white ass for the whole world to see.  Noah nods his head and says, “Oh Grandma.”

The two other women in the group realize how awkward this is and yank the men away.  I threaten to stalk anyone who buys the video.  Noah consoles me, “It’s okay Grandma.  It’s not that bad.  Everyone has a butt.”

I give Noah a big hug.  I’m so very grateful that our memory of this trip will be this really funny embarrassing thing that happened and not something horrible.  He tells me that rafting was the most fun he had all summer.

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Our Anniversary

Tom and I were married in 1989.  On the eve of our wedding a friend asked him how he felt about getting an instant family.  My boys were 11 and 15 years old.  He replied that it was going to be great.  “The hard part of raising kids is already over.”  He figured they were practically grown.  And the boys loved him.  They even invited him for a sleep over.  “Mom has a really big bed.”  They told me that they liked the idea of having a man around the house full time.  At least that’s what they said.  A few short weeks after our brief honeymoon, we discovered just how difficult becoming a family was going to be.

They turned on him.  They complained about everything and the “You’re not my dad” line was practically on an hourly rotation.  Ben, the 11 year old, took me aside and said that he didn’t think it was working out.  “Why?” I wondered.  “I don’t like the way he makes eggs,” was the only thing he could come up with.   Sam, the 15 year old, just stayed out of the house as much as possible mostly at the local skate park.

And Tom, who was the only child in his family, was not used to having competition.  He was cranky.  About noise, especially boy noise early in the morning.  The sound of them slurping cereal made him insane.  And he didn’t like sharing special snacks.  Or having to compromise on the TV schedule.  I was constantly negotiating the tsunami of two pubescent boys with the thunder clouds of a spoiled child .  It was ugly.

And it got worse.  Sam would disappear for whole weekends at a time on vague skateboarding missions without adult supervision.  When Ben got to high school he became a chronic truant and found a new hobby spray painting everything in the neighborhood.   Tom suffered through a bought of depression.  I spent countless months on projects I invented in the basement and went to counseling.  We even took separate vacations.  And in the mean time, we managed growing responsibilities at work.  Our marriage was being tested everyday.

Little by little things started to sort themselves out.  Sam turned 18 and cashed in all of the savings bonds his grandparents had given him and went off to travel the world as a professional skateboarder.  Four years later, Ben started his carpentry apprenticeship and moved out of the house.  Excited empty nesters, we booked a romantic budget trip to Europe!

And then in year 10 of our marriage a letter arrived by certified mail.  It was from the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  It said, “We regret to inform you that while you are married in the eyes of god, your paperwork was never properly filed with the State of Wisconsin.”  It went on to explain that we had a year to file a special form called a “delayed certification of marriage.”

Stunned, Tom made us a drink and we reread the letter together a dozen times.  What did it mean?  Was it a “get out of jail free” card?  How strong was our commitment to one another?  How would we feel if the letter had arrived a few years earlier, in the midst of the firestorm that was our family life?  Since there was no urgency and we were busy with work, we decided to just think on it for a few weeks.

And then the Journal Sentinel came out with an article.  It said  that during a period from roughly 1988 to 1990, the church where we were married failed to complete the necessary legal paperwork.  The reporter discovered that the issue was uncovered when a woman who had also been married during that period, applied for a passport in her married name.  When the government informed her there was no person with that name matching that social security number, the shit hit the fan.

I didn’t change my  name so it never came up when I got my passport for our trip to Europe.  But we’d been filing joint tax returns the whole time.  This was difficult to understand.

The article also cautioned people affected by this mishandling of really fucking important paperwork, that it was not a “get out of jail free card.”  Looks like a marriage, smells like a marriage.  The untangling of any union would require time in court.

Tom made us a drink and we discussed our course of action.  Together we decided that the letter was really a gift.  That we could take our time, the whole year allotted to us, to think about the years that we had survived, our lives as they were now, and the kind of relationship we wanted going forward.  We established a weekly date night.  We found new interests in common like visiting art museums.  We rekindled our friendship and passion.  We went on vacation with my adult sons, mended fences, laughed about the years that we had survived together, and truly reconnected.

Weeks and months went by and soon we were coming close to the deadline.  With five days to spare and the signatures of two witnesses who attended our wedding, we filed that delayed certification of marriage form.  We finally became the family we wanted.  The rest will be easy.

This month Tom and I celebrate our 28th anniversary.  Or maybe it’s technically only 18.

A Tribute to Mary Jo

In a black and white photo of my first day of school, you can see Mary Jo in the background with her hands on her hips and a little jealous smirk on her face.  Me in the foreground with a matching pixie hair cut and a smart new plastic school bag.  My sister is three years younger than me which means I have always been a step or two ahead.  I rode a bike first.  Lost a tooth first.  Went to school first.

But when her turn came to go to school, to half-day kindergarten, she hated it.  She didn’t cry when mom dropped her off but she regularly escaped.  As soon as the teacher let the class out for recess, she walked the three blocks back home all by herself.

I was in the second grade at a different school, a Catholic school that didn’t have kindergarten.  We were serious in the second grade.  Serious about reading and math but mostly serious about our first communion.  That spring, my class was in church practicing for our First Communion ceremony which mostly meant practicing to assemble in an orderly line for the procession and sitting quietly in our pews.

I was concentrating hard on my prayers, trying not to be distracted by the boys who were snorting and punching each other in the pew behind me, when the black and white clad sister who was the principal came in and whispered something to my teacher.  Sister John pointed to me and I shrank with fear and guilt even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I wasn’t talking or moving at all!

The stern nun beckoned to me with her curled finger and led me back to her office–the principal’s office, the scariest possible place on earth for a kid.  This was the place where parents were called.  The place from which some kids never returned to class!  I was wracking my brain to formulate a defense against the trouble I was sure those horrible boys had gotten me into.

But that wasn’t it at all.  It was Mary Jo.  At my school!  Sitting on a stiff wooden bench in the waiting area with her scrawny scabby legs dangling in the air, arms across her chest, and her face screwed up in a defiant sneer.  I was relieved that I wasn’t in trouble but also peeved that my sister had interrupted the transformative holy experience of first communion practice.

Apparently, my kindergarten-hating little sis had managed another one of her escapes and went home to an empty locked house.  My grandparents lived next door to us but Mary Jo didn’t dare knock on the door.  She was perpetually mad at Grandma for holding her doll hostage.  Grandma was trying to teach her a lesson for leaving the poor thing outside in the rain.

Determined Mary Jo had navigated more than a mile walk to my school crossing the treacherous Fond du Lac Avenue and wandered around the hallways until she was spotted.  “I’ve called your mother at work,” said Sister Principal.  “You are to walk home with your sister now.  Your mom will be there by the time you get home.”  I was allowed back into my classroom to collect my homework and Mary Jo and I set off for home.

“How did you get to my school?” I asked as she struggled to keep up with my brisk purposeful pace.

“I dunno,” she said.  “I walked.”

“You’re going to be in so much trouble,” I told her.  Mary Jo didn’t even flinch.

Mom flung open the door as we approached and rushed us inside.  Mary Jo got a hard hug and then a serious lecture.  Mom knelt down and held Mary Jo’s shoulders tight.  “Mary Jo, you are never, ever, ever to leave school again.”  Mary Jo sat in a tight knot and glared at me over mom’s shoulder.

I couldn’t help but admire the guts and outright boldness it took to do what she did.  It’s been that determined spirit that I’ve always respected in Mary Jo.  It shines whenever she’s up against a challenge.  It was there when she fiercely advocated for and supported her children through some challenging times, when she cared for her husband through a health crisis, when she went back to school and began a completely new career, and countless other times.  I stand with my hand on my hip, a smirk of understanding, and watch her with awe.

 

A Memorable Birthday

My birthday is January 8th.  Two weeks after Christmas and one week after New Years, in the dead of Wisconsin’s winter.  It’s usually not much of a celebration.  I’ve had a birthday gathering that was canceled due to a six foot snowfall.  A birthday when no one, not even my mother, remembered to send a card.  Oh, and then there was the year I turned 40.  I had an emergency tonsillectomy.  Yep, at best, my birthday has been just another day for my entire adulthood.

Except for last year.  I was turning 59, the last year of a big decade, and I had just quit a job that paid well but sucked the joy out of life.  It was time to get out of the god forsaken freezer we live in and let our friends, California Dave and his wife, Misao, show us a good time.

Dave and Misao live in San Jose and are wonderful hosts.  My husband, Tom, and I had visited many times before and they knew exactly what I would like.  The morning of January 8th we set out for a long hike in the red woods of Henry Cowell Park and had a picnic lunch.  Then on to wine tasting at Beauregard Winery.  Late afternoon we headed to Bonny Doon beach to watch what promised to be a glorious sunset.

As we started our slightly tipsy descent down the sand dunes with a blanket to find a comfortable viewing spot, something besides the setting sun caught our attention.  A paunchy middle aged naked guy with shoulder length white hair, who had a remarkable resemblance to my husband from a distance, was running laps between dunes, his junk flip flopping with every step.

“Hey, that guy could be Tom’s stunt double,” said Dave.  A humorous observation.  There were distinct similarities.  But seeing a naked guy wasn’t a big deal.  We’d been to this beach before and been exposed to similar situations.  This is a nude friendly beach but we’re not the type to indulge.

We had just settled down on our blanket to watch the sunset when Misao inexplicably got up and took off after Naked Guy.  Most of the time, Misao is pretty quiet and reserved but every once in a while, she surprises us.  Like the time she yelled “Heat it up, heat it up” at the craps table at Potawatomi.  Or the time she leaned over the balcony to blow kisses to the cast of Jersey Boys.  Or the time she scolded me for being impatient with my husband.  She later apologized for “going all Japanese on me.”

We could see that Misao and Naked Guy were exchanging a few words and then they turned and ran back to the blanket together.

“Oh, no she didn’t,” I said and had serious thoughts about running the other way.

“I hear it’s your birthday,” said Naked Guy whose wing dang doodle was at my eye level.

“Yes it is,” I said trying to avert my gaze.

“Well, happy birthday,” said Naked Guy with a shrug and returned to his jiggly lap running.

“Nope,” said Tom who had the same close up view I did.  “No way that guy could be my stunt double.”

I laughed so hard I snorted merlot out of my nose.  “If I was going to see a naked guy on my birthday, couldn’t it have been Antonio Banderas?”

Note:  A version of this essay with the naughty bits edited out aired on WUWM’s Lake Effect 1/7/16.  http://wuwm.com/post/essay-memorable-birthday

 

Christmas Mitzvah

I’m a professional fundraiser but there wasn’t a charitable bone in my body when I offered to work on Christmas day.  My motivation was to save paid time off for a vacation to California in January.   I didn’t have any other plans anyway.  My grandkids spend Christmas day with their other grandparents.  for Mitzvah story

The job was to host a group of Jewish volunteers who were coming to deliver poinsettias and visit with patients; they call it their Mitzvah Day, a day to serve their Christian neighbors.  I figured most of the patients would be asleep or in a coma anyway.

I arrived at the hospital and took the stairs to my second floor office where I encountered a couple, a tall white-haired man pushing a woman in a wheel chair. I asked if I could help them find something and they told me they were looking for the Breast Health Clinic.  I explained that it was right down the hall but that it was closed today.  “Oh, we know,” said the man.  “Dr. Joan said she would meet us here.”  Dr. Joan is a world renowned breast cancer specialist.  She could surely find someone else to cover for her.  But she was coming in. I was impressed.    I found a comfortable place for the couple to wait for her to arrive.

After reviewing the instructions the volunteer coordinator provided an getting my carts together, I headed to the lobby to wait for my guests from the synagogue.  There, I found a middle-aged woman was crying in the outer lobby.  She kept saying that she was waiting for the number 18 bus.  The security guard said that she was drunk.  My guess was that there were some mental health issues at play too. At first I looked away, embarrassed for her.  But then I observed a security guard treat her with complete compassion—inviting her to rest in the warm inner lobby while they made some calls. I couldn’t imagine being so alone in this world that I would be standing drunk and crying on 12th and Kilbourn in the freezing cold on Christmas day.

Five volunteers arrived and we gathered for an orientation.  Sylvia had organized similar outings for the synagogue for years and knew just what to do.  She explained that our objective was to share who we were, visit with each patient capable of a visit for a while, and leave behind our gift of a poinsettia and a decoratively wrapped tube of scentless hand lotion.

One of the volunteers was a class “A” jerk.  Randy.  He just wanted to plow through it. Kept complaining that we were wasting too much time getting instructions before we started.  And then when we hit the floors he’d abruptly blurt:   “Hi, we’re from here to bring you good cheer and leave you a present.  Goodby.”

“Oy,” said Gladys, a tiny woman who was clearly the most senior member of the group.  “That Randy is somtin’ else.”  He was the first to leave.

There was a middle aged couple who volunteered, Bob and Lois.   I noticed that Bob had to help Lois complete the volunteer form.  I noticed that she smiled sweetly but didn’t talk or ask any questions during our orientation.  And it occurred to me that maybe for Bob and Lois, this special act of charity on Christmas day was about helping Lois.

We split into two teams, each with a cart full of gifts, and headed off in separate directions to deliver our good cheer.  The first person, I encountered was Annie, an old woman standing outside her room holding her gown shut with one hand and waving her TV remote around in the air with the other.

“There’s something wrong with my TV,” Annie said. The lack of teeth in her mouth made it hard for me to understand her.  Her coarse, thin, grey hair was pulled back into a pony tail that stood up off of the top of the back of her head like a stiff paint brush   I offered to help.  I took the remote from her and cleared a patient survey question on the screen and scrolled through the menu until I found a nice Christmas concert for her to watch.

I asked if she would like to visit for a while.

“Who?” she asked.

“With me?”

“Where?”

“Here?”

“Yes, why not.”

I helped Annie get back into bed and fixed her tangled covers.  “God bless you,” she said.

She showed me her swollen arm.   It was as big as the top of my thigh and she was not a large woman.  And I’m not thin.  She told me that she had asthma and diabetes.   She said she told her family that they had to “go on and do what they had to do,”  but that she had to go to the hospital.  Annie told me that she had five children–four girls and one boy.   She got to seven and lost track of how many grandchildren.  I asked how old she was and she said 75.  It was kind of a shock to think about the comparatively youthful glow of my late-70s parents.  This woman looked decades older than even my 90 year old mother-in-law.  But she is just a reflection of what we know.  Being poor kills you…sooner.

My next visit was with a couple with an Eastern European accent.  The cheerfully smiling wife with blond haired pulled back into a pony tail looked to be about my age.   She spooned  thin oat meal into her handsome silent husband’s mouth.   I explained what I was doing with the group of volunteers and the wife, Mary, had questions about the temple the volunteers were from.   I called the nearest volunteer I could find, Gladys, the older woman who was part of my team.

Gladys answered all of Mary’s questions and then inquired about her Eastern European accent.  “My husband and I are originally from Croatia,” she said, “but I lived all over Europe as a foster child.”    She told us the story about how her father had died and her mother was a refugee from Yugoslavia who just didn’t have the resources to care for her.  She said a few words in Croatian.  Gladys told me that Mary was thanking me for visiting.  I wondered if I would be as kind and cheerful as this pretty blond Croation woman if my husband became incapacitated.

The next person I visited was Jean, who seemed fine except for the obvious tremors in her legs.  She talked about the dullness of her life in an assisted living facility.

“Get up, have something to eat, watch TV; eat lunch, watch TV; eat dinner, watch TV; go to bed.  Repeat.”

Jean said that as soon as she gets a few new cribbage partners, they “leave” and she has to start all over again.  She has a great grandson named Marco.

She said that she wanted to die.  I was afraid to ask what brought her to the hospital.

It was time to bring our visits to a close and reconnect with the other volunteer team, so I went to find Gladys, who was a few rooms down the corridor.

“Come in,” said Gladys when I motioned to her from the door.   “You’ll never believe it,” she said, gesturing to the man lying in bed attached to an oxygen tank.  A woman wearing a multi colored  hijab stood by his side.  They were from Palestine.  Gladys explained that she asked them if they could speak Arabic and they could.  “The same dialect I speak!” exclaimed Gladys.

“You can speak Croation and Arabic?” I said maybe too incredulously.  “Oh,”  I can speak French  too,” Gladys told me.

In the meantime, the couple beamed with joy at having someone to speak with during this health crisis.  “Salem, Salem, (God is great!)” they repeated over and over.  They offered me chocolate.

As Gladys and I walked back to my office with our now empty cart, we shared our patient visiting experiences.   I told her about Jean, who said she wanted to die.

“Oh my ‘got’!” said Gladys.  “If you are alive in this world, it is to do good.”  She explained that even when people are ill or incapacitated they play an important role.  They give others the opportunity to learn kindness and patience, and that is “doing good.”   My face filled with the warmth of embarrassment.  People like me I thought.

On my way out that day, I physically bumped into Sally, an administrative coworker, who was there with her two adult children to bring fruit baskets and cookies to the staff.  We were both so surprised and delighted to see each other that our eyes welled up with tears knowing that we had both experienced something very special this Christmas day.  My heart felt large and my spirit felt light.  I felt peace and happiness.

On Monday, I wrote thank you notes to all of the volunteers.  Except Gladys.  She didn’t include her last name, address or phone number on the volunteer form.  Only “Gladys.”

Indeed, no one was served more from this Mitzvah than me.

Tampons

When I was a kid, at a time when the bodies of women were a curious mystery to me, my best friend’s brother told me that tampons were ladies cigars and they smoked them in the bathroom.

As a young single mom, I was forced on occasion to send my sons to the nearby grocery store to get them.  I’d give Sam and Benny a coupon and tell them to get exactly what was on the picture.  They took this job very seriously and were proud that they could do something important for me.

One time I caught Sam and Benny playing with discarded tampon cardboards outside in the dirt next to the house.  They were using them for GI Joe missiles.

While we were cleaning up the house preparing for his First Communion party, Benny came out of the bathroom clutching a fistful of tampons and declared, “There’s going to be a lot of women here and we’re going to need more of these.”

Another time, I was busy volunteering for the church festival staffing a betting game, when I knew by the way I was feeling that the dreadful event was about to surprise me.  I sent Benny home to get me a tampon.  He came back with two.  “I know how you women get,” he said.

I know it’s unusual but my boys were very comfortable with tampons although I don’t think they knew exactly what they were for.  Maybe they thought I smoked them in the bathroom.

No Comprende

This little old Latino guy is standing on the corner with a folded piece of yellow tablet paper in his hands.  He is looking around at the street signs.  Even though I am sure stopping will make me late for my meeting at the neighborhood coffee shop, I ask if I can help.

In English of course.  I don’t speak Spanish other than a few niceties like “gracias,” and I can ask where the bathroom is by saying “el baño?” with an urgent look on my face.

He responded in Spanish of course.  And from his gestures and inflections, I gather that he is very disappointed that I don’t speak Spanish.  It’s happened before.  People mistake my olive skin and dark hair for something else.

He chatters on and I figure out a little of what he was trying to tell me.  He is from Peru.  His family lives in Michigan.  He showed me the piece of paper he was holding.  It had some phone numbers on it but I couldn’t understand anything else.  I take my phone from my purse and offered it to him so that he could call one of the numbers.  He shakes his head no.

So we walk together in the direction of the coffee shop.  All the while I’m hoping that we run across a Spanish speaker.  That doesn’t happen so as we pass by my friend Jill’s house, I ring the bell.  Her husband speaks Spanish.  The dog barks his head off but no one answers.

Then I get the brilliant idea that I could call one of my Spanish speaking friends and ask her to translate for me.  On the third try, I connect with my friend Maria who lives in California.

I explain the situation to her and hand my friend from Peru the phone.  I am really hoping that the assistance he requires won’t take too much longer.  They exchange a few brief words and he gives the phone back to me.

Maria says, “Elaine, he’s been trying to tell you that he doesn’t need any help.”

My friend from Peru and I shake hands and go our separate ways on this fine sunny day.