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.

Shoot the First One

DADD“DADD.  Dads Against Daughters Dating.  Shoot the First One and the Word Will Spread.” I saw these words on a t shirt at a gift shop in the Wisconsin Dells and nearly choked on my walnut fudge.  It made me think of my own Dad.  He had rules about dating when I was a teen.  I had to be home no later than 10 pm.  He had to know exactly where we would be going.  No dashing out at the sound of a car honk.  My dates were required to ring the bell, come into the house and be properly introduced.  And every time, Mom would be harmlessly puttering in the  kitchen but Dad would be in his basement workshop loading shot gun shells.

It didn’t occur to me that there was anything devious about this at the time.  After all, he is a hunter and loading shot gun shells is something he did.  But many years later, when I ran into an old boyfriend at a club, he mentioned it.  “Your dad was really scary,” he said.  “Not only was he always working on ammunition, he made sure I saw his arsenal of rifles.  There had to be 6 or 7 of them standing in that glass case! ”

Most of the time, all of dad’s protectiveness annoyed me as it would any teen girl.  But I  remember a night I was glad to have that kind of dad.  I’d had a date with a guy I wasn’t that into.  When he brought me home, he walked me to my back door and made what I will politely call “a pass” at me.  I had the perfect way out.  I just leaned back on the door bell and Dad was there in a flash.  Having been introduced to Dad in his workshop earlier, “Romeo” skedaddled without even a parting glance.  Romance over.

When my first marriage ended, I was concerned that Dad might seek some sort of revenge.  But he was just glad for me to be done with him and kept his feelings in check.

Then there was the time I brought my future second husband over to meet my parents for the first time.  Tom was trying really hard to win my two boys over and wanted to show my parents that he was a good prospect for me.  He bought the boys two of those small balsa wood airplanes.  The second we arrived, Sam and Ben launched their planes into a quick high arc landing them both high up in a birch tree.

Dad, standing shirtless in the driveway, said, “I’ll take care of that,” went in the house, came out with a shot gun and blasted them both out of the tree with two rapid shots destroying the planes in the process.  No “Hello, glad to meet you.”  Nothing.  Tom, a guy who would never even consider owning a gun, froze with his mouth agape and mumbled, “What kind of hillbilly family am I getting mixed up with?”  Being used to their grandfather and the stuff he does, the kids merely shrugged at the loss of the planes and the evening went on as if nothing happened.

Dad still hunts some and loads shot gun shells in the basement although that’s long faded as a threatening activity to anyone including deer.  Yet, I still think of him as my protector.  The guy who will do anything he can to prevent me from harm, especially in the form of a male human.

Disney World

I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 31 years old.  I flew to Atlanta for a work conference.  I felt so awkward and stupid—asking flight attendants if I was on the right plane a million times, wandering around the airport looking for the baggage claim.  It was a humiliating experience and  I wasn’t going to let this happen to my kids.  I wanted them to be savvy travelers and see the world.

I came home from work on Tuesday and announced, “We’re going to Disney World!  We leave on Thursday.”  I found the deal of a life time, $150 for me and both my kids.  A last minute charter deal.  Off site motel and rental car included.  We were all set!

The boys jumped up and down and shout, “We’re going to Disney World!”  But after a few minutes of revelry, Sam stops cold.  “Wait, how are we going to get there?”

“We’re flying,” I say.

“What airline are we taking?”

“Funjet.”

His face disintegrates and he wails, “Those pilots take drugs!  Can’t we take a train or drive?”

At 13, Sam watches way too much news.  Flash floods, starving children in Ethiopia, and drug testing for pilots are of great concern to him.

Ben, who is 9, is mostly worried about what we’ll eat.  I explain that they will serve food on the plane and that their will be plenty of McDonald’s in Florida.

Tuesday arrives.  As we board the plane, Sam takes a long pause to look into the cabin at the pilot.  After we’re served lunch, Ben stuffs our uneaten saltine crackers and packets of jelly into his pockets so that we’ll have something to eat later.

The pilot lands the plane safely.  We follow our fellow passengers to the baggage claim.  But then, I have no clue where we’re supposed to go to get the rental car.  I had no idea there were so many choices.  So, again, I follow my fellow passengers.   We board a van which takes us to Enterprise.

I leave the boys in line and head to the bathroom because I have that feeling.  That crampy “oh crap, I have my period feeling.”  I have a stain on my khaki shorts which I try to hide by holding my purse in front of my crotch.

It’s finally our turn.  The clerk asks me for the voucher.  “What voucher?” I ask.  He tells me that I can’t get a car without a voucher from the charter group and turns me away.

Sam, Ben, and I sit on our two suitcases in the now almost empty parking lot in front of Enterprise, and I cry.  I don’t have any idea what we’re supposed to do now.  Sam squeezes onto the suitcase with me and puts his hand on mine.  Ben stands with his arm around my shoulder.

Apparently it’s bad for business to have a sobbing woman with blood stained shorts and two waifs in front of your building.  The rental car guy comes out and tells me there’s a car left that I can have and we’ll straighten everything out later with the travel agent.  He gives me a map and detailed instructions for how to get to our motel.

Our motel as it turns out, is right next to a pawn shop and a Quick Mart.  The kids are excited because it has a pool but the empty beer cans strewn around it make me nervous.  The motel clerk asks for my voucher, which of course I don’t have again.  I promise to straighten it out with the travel agent and we’re given a room.  It’s pleasant enough.  Air conditioned with two double beds.

Stressed out Sam heads straight to the bathroom.   When he eventually comes out, the toilet is running and water is pouring on the floor.  I call the motel office and someone comes to fix it.  But now I’m crying again.  I call my boyfriend of just a few weeks.  He’s sympathetic and offers to call the travel agent on my behalf.

Ben’s eating the crackers and jelly he squirreled away from the flight.  But we’re all hungry so we go to the 7/11 for foot-long hot dogs and antacids for Sam.  We finish the night with a swim in the pool until a gang of creepy teenagers show up.

The next day, with a death grip on the steering wheel, we make it to Disney and buy three day passes.  We head for the big roller coaster first but Sam’s not feeling well.  I leave him on a bench with his Tums.

Disney 1987Day 2 at Disney: We lose Ben for almost an hour.

Day 3 at Disney: I’m so lonely for adult company that I chat up the waitress for an awkwardly long time.

Day 4:  We take a break and head to the NASA Space Museum and Cocoa Beach, at least I think it’s Cocoa Beach.

Day 5: Epcot Center

Day 6:  Cypress gardens where my cousin is on the water ski team.

Day 7:  Head home.  I cry when the plane lands.

What do my adult children remember about this trip?  Chasing seagulls at Cocoa Beach.   Cocoa Beach 1987

But here’s what I know more than 25 years after this trip.  Sam never balked at flying again and has traveled all over the world.  He makes friends everywhere he goes.   Ben has done his share of traveling too but never without a snack for the road and a meal plan.  We all take a vacation together every year.

Me and that hero boyfriend of mine who is now my husband, took the grandkids to Legoland this summer!  I can’t wait to hear what they remember about it in 15 or so years.