Pretty Baby

 

 

 

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One of the family legends about me is that around the same time this photo was taken, I pulled myself up to a mirror and, as I stared into the eyes of that image staring back at me, I said, “Pretty baby.” Some people might think that was rather a conceited thing to say, but please remember that I was only about 18 months old at the time. Instead, I would say that I had a mother who adored me and made that statement to me enough that I began to say it before I even knew what it meant.

Later in my young life, my Mom told me I was “pleasingly plump,” a euphemism for the fact that I was quite sedentary during my childhood.  That meant I never got not enough exercise to cover the calories I was consuming.

I remained “pleasingly plump” throughout high school to the point that some well-meaning friends told me if I could just lose some of the pleasant plumpness, I would have lots more dates. I did manage to lose it at one point, but not by dieting. Falling in love for the first time works much better. After our first kiss, I promptly lost fifteen pounds. That svelte figure continued for about six months until I had my heart broken for the first time. The fifteen pounds returned and brought along some friends.

Sometime during my ‘20s I gave up the “Pleasingly Plump” ploy, and realized I really had to get a grip on what was happening to me. That started years of dieting to the point that, if I had gathered together the 30 pounds of fat I lost over and over and over again, (only to gain it back over and over and over again) I could have created an entire 180 pound person.

All that gaining and losing weight made me completely unrealistic about what I really looked like. I have always felt that I have the opposite of anorexia. An anorexic person that may be nothing but a skeleton in reality looks in the mirror and sees a fat person. I, on the other hand, look in the mirror and see the same person whether I am a size 6 or size 14. I can’t tell the difference. As a matter of fact I’m always a little taken aback when I start having trouble getting my jeans zipped up and I usually start ranting and raving , “Why can’t they make clothes that don’t shrink!”

I took a class once that suggested I stand naked in front of a mirror, study the image, and then look myself in the eye and say, “I love you just the way you are.” Great idea, right? I tried it. When I finally stopped giggling like a schoolgirl (I am a bit modest, even when it’s just me standing there naked), I paused and said, “Maybe next time.”

I have always assessed myself as being not quite good enough whether it’s my body shape, writing, housecleaning, dancing – it doesn’t matter, it’s just never quite right. That explains how in a journal I kept in my 30’s, I had a meltdown over my body measurements. I was keeping close track of them at the time, because I was on one of my diets and had joined a gym. Striving for that perfect 36-24-36 shape, I was lifting weights and running. None-the-less that perfect hourglass figure eluded me. I went on and on for an entire page in my journal about my “not good enough” measurements. What were they? 36-28-38. I stared at the page, and I almost cried. You see I was reading this entry some ten years later, in my late 40s when I would have given my first born to have those “imperfect” measurements.  There in lies an interesting phenomenon about me. I am so wise and I learn so well in retrospect. Only then can I see the folly of my ways.

I am now nearing the beginning of my 7th decade of life and I like to think I have gained a modicum of wisdom over time. I have vowed to stop using the rearview mirror approach in assessing my body image.  Instead, I am taking the advice of a very wise woman, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women Who Run With The Wolves…”. She suggests that we study the bodies of our female ancestors and learn to honor the things we share with them; large breasts or massive hips, long legs or big hands. Whatever we observe should be observed with reverence. After all, they are our ancestors.

Now when I look in the mirror at my prominent clavicles, or my short waist, or what one doctor called my “childbearing hips,” I see my grandma, and instead of giggling and turning away in shame, I say, “I love you, Grandma.”

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Refrigerator Nursing

Our theme this week in the Guided Autobiography class I am teaching, is “My Life’s Work.” It’s an exploration of, among other things, how we got into our life’s work and who influenced us along the way.

Here’s my story:

I devoted a little over half my life to nursing. If I’m really honest, “devoted” is too strong a word. A better description is that I worked as a nurse doing what was known as “refrigerator nursing.” In other words, I worked to keep food on the table with no particular thought to any sort of career path. My real career, my passion, was wrapped up in being a mother.

Having a job, and to be honest it probably could have been any sort of job, made me a better mother. It prevented me from being a helicopter parent, continually hovering over my daughter, an only child. Pam, my daughter, may argue that I still hovered, but working kept me from being a full-blown Piasecki H-21 Workhorse/Shawnee helicopter – look it up.

Shawnee helicopter

Bill and I made the decision to have only one child, so I knew this experience was my one chance at motherhood, and I wanted to enjoy every minute of it. That meant planning birthday parties and holidays and trips and opportunities to provide Pam a loving, exciting, fun-filled childhood. To this day, she tells stories about hesitating to mention a passing interest in anything – dance, guitar, swimming, you name it – knowing she would surely be enrolled in a class regarding that passing interest for at least two weeks the following summer. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t a Workhorse/Shawnee helicopter, but it’s possible I was a Mosquito XE Turbine Personal helicopter – look it up.

Personal Helicopter

Working part time also allowed me to be available for those moments when things didn’t go well, like between the ages of 13 and 15 when drama and devastation reign; no one asked her to the dance, her friends all “turned” on her, the love of her life started dating her best friend – those kinds of things.

From the time Pam was 10 months old until she graduated from high school I continued to work part time at whatever nursing job was available. When she graduated in 1992, she moved to what felt like the other side of the world, but in fact was CU Boulder, 45 minutes from our front door to her’s.

That same summer my best friend, Sandy, announced she and her family were moving to California. Sandy and I had bonded while working on the surgical floor at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. She was my mentor being much more focused on her career than I was. She went back to school to get her BSN while working fulltime. She worked her way through the hospital’s system which gave nurses an avenue for advancement while allowing them to remain at the bedside. Throughout her journey, she encouraged me to join her, and I did. So, when she left the surgical unit to begin a career in the outpatient wound care clinic, I quickly followed.

Then, one spring day she told me she and her family were moving to California. “When?” I asked thinking perhaps it was a long term goal and would occur in maybe 5 or 10 years.

“In August,” she responded.

Still not getting it, I asked, “But what year?”

She looked me in the eye, “This year – in three months.”

I tried to be happy for her. I really did, but when someone you adore pulls the rug out from under you it takes awhile to recover.

One month after she moved away, I got a phone call at 10:00 at night, never a good omen. It was the Director of our department. Our head nurse had died in a tragic accident at her home. That’s the moment my years as a refrigerator nurse came to screeching halt.

They asked me to step into my boss’s role while they searched for a replacement. That replacement ended up being me. It became a significant branching point in my life – from working to keep food on the table to working towards career goals which led me at long last to finishing my degree. I then went on to attain my certification wound care nursing.  I also took every management class the hospital had to offer. I turned all that energy that had been focused on Pam and placed it on my career, working to become the best nurse and leader I knew how to be.

Looking back I realize that what I thought of as Sandy abandoning me was actually a blessing. She had mirrored for me how to expect the very best from myself as a nurse. Had she never left I may never have internalized those lessons.

My life’s work has changed over time, and yet remained the same – giving my best at whatever lies before me whether it’s parenting, nursing or writing. It’s a never-ending exciting journey.

Penny Pinching

The Guided Autobiography theme this past week was all about the role money has played in our lives. I struggled with what to write since I have a long and complicated relationship with money. I found those messy issues much too painful to put down on paper, at least on paper that other people would read. For now, those thoughts will remain safely tucked away in my journals.  Instead, I decided to write about where I might have learned to be such a “penny-pincher,” and how the lessons learned were, perhaps, not all bad.

Here is my story:

Pondering what I learned about money from the way I was raised, I guess I would say that I learned to be frugal, some would say “penny-pinching.” I also learned that there’s more than one way to meet the needs of a family, even if money is scarce.

My parents never shared their money concerns with their children. They didn’t have to.  We learned how to be frugal through mirroring them. My Mom used to tell me I could pinch more out of a penny than anyone she knew. I disagree. She needn’t have looked any further than the bathroom mirror to find someone who could match my thrifty nature.

One of Mom’s favorite sayings when she bought a new dress was, “Don’t tell your Dad.”  She had a way of pilfering grocery money, putting it in a savings account and waiting for a sale. Then, she would buy the dress, bring it home and put it in the closet as though it had always been there.  I’m sure she did something similar to cover the cost of buying new school clothes for four children.

We always had food, because Mom and Dad usually had a garden. If we didn’t have a garden, Mom would buy green beans or corn or beets by the bushel from someone who did. She would buy mountains of green beans and can them every fall, along with pickled beets and corn and tomatoes and sweet pickles. We didn’t have a freezer, but the local grocer, Warren, had lockers for rent in his store freezer. Our locker overflowed with frozen corn and ground beef, and chicken; lots and lots of chicken.

On Saturdays she made ham hocks and beans, one of my favorite meals to this day. The meaty aroma of those ham hocks and navy beans simmering in the pot all day long made them taste even better when suppertime finally arrived.

I didn’t know until I left home that some people actually have pancakes for breakfast. We had them for supper at least once a week, along with eggs and bacon. It never occurred to me that feeding a family of six ham hocks and beans or pancakes was a prudent way to stretch a dollar. I only knew how heavenly delicious those meals were.

Dad had his way of bringing in extra cash as well. He loved cars and he bought and sold them for as long as I can remember as a side business to running his gas station. He also came home on occasion with unexpected treasures by allowing people to pay their bills through bartering. That’s how I got my piano. It just showed up one night as payment for tires a farmer bought and couldn’t pay for. I also got a watch through that same system.

I never thought of us as being poor until Mom announced one day while doing the taxes that, according to the United States government, our yearly gross income fell below the poverty line. At the age of ten, I wasn’t sure what to do with that information. I was strangely proud that we were considered poor, and I told everyone at school that that was the case. Of course, none of them were impressed. They were farm kids, many of them poorer that we ever were.

It’s true that I grew up poor, and I learned well the lessons in being frugal. I will even admit to once in a great while using the phrase, “Don’t tell your Dad.”  However, the ham hocks and beans that I occasionally make and the pancake suppers I serve have little to do with pinching pennies. Instead, they are delicious reminders of growing up with a full belly, new clothes at the beginning of every school year, and a piano.

 

 

“BE GOOD. . .”

The theme in our second Guided Autobiography class is, “Your Family.” Family is defined however the student chooses to define it. It could be their family of origin, or the family they created, or friends, or even a pet. It doesn’t matter how it is defined, it’s just a story about some aspect of family and/or family life about which the student feels inspired to write.

As always, sensitizing questions were handed out. The one that caught my eye concerned a family philosophy about life. We didn’t have a written or spoken philosophy, but it was a powerful philosophy none the less.

Here’s my story:

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“Good-bye, be good, if you can’t be good, be careful, and remember I love you.” A kiss on the cheek and off to school we went, my three brothers and me. This is how our Mom sent us on our way each and every day.  At first glance it may seem trite. I certainly never gave it much thought as a child. Now, however, I have come to cherish those parting words.

“Be good.” What mother would argue with those words of wisdom? “Be good,” to my Mom meant staying out of trouble; things like not walking in mud puddles, doing your classroom work, and being nice to other people.

“If you can’t be good, be careful.” What a wonderful piece of advice this is for a child. She wasn’t exactly giving us permission to play in mud puddles, but she was saying that if you just happen to end up playing in one, be sure you don’t lose your overshoe in it.

“I love you.” This more than anything else she said sent us all out into the wondrous and sometimes scary world with the confidence that there was someone who loved us, no matter what.

If you ask my brothers who had the most influence in our young lives, they may very well say it was our Dad. He is the one who went out every day, even on Sundays and ran a gas station back in the day when that meant filling the gas tank for the customer, along with washing their windshield and checking their oil, rain or shine. It meant changing tires on school buses and figuring out what was wrong with someone’s old pick-up truck, or driving a woman back to her car which was out of gas and filling it for her, free of charge. It meant working from early morning until late at night six days a week along with a half day on Sundays. He came home at night exhausted, but most of the time, he still found the energy to play with us for awhile. We begged him to take us on what we called, “horsey-back” rides which meant getting down on all fours and bouncing us up and down on his tired aching back until we fell off more from giggling than anything else. If he got a bad report about our behavior from Mom, he would slap his belt against the stairway to our upstairs bedrooms and admonish us for being “little stinkers.” Just hearing the whack of the belt against the wall was enough to bring all four of us back into line.

While it is true that Dad made the money for our family I contend we wouldn’t have been a family without our Mom’s love and d

aily guidance. She is the one who fed us, made sure we took baths now and then and that we had new school clothes every fall and new dressy clothes every Easter.

She put thought and love and creative energy behind every holiday whether it was her potato salad on the 4th of July or her chili soup, as she called it, for Christmas Eve dinner.

I grew up believing I had a birthday party every year until I left home. I followed suit and made sure my daughter always had a birthday party, just like my Mom did. It turns out I had very few actual “parties,” per se. No friends were invited over, no balloons hung from the dining room light, no streamers cascaded down from the ceiling. Still, I could have sworn I had a party every year. Why? Mom always baked us a birthday cake of our choice. Mine was always German chocolate cake with that yummy coconut and walnut frosting drizzled down the sides. She also allowed us to pick out a special birthday dinner like fried chicken with all the trimmings – mashed potatoes and gravy, and home-canned green beans with just a little fried bacon on top. We always sang, “Happy Birthday,” and Dad always tried to chase us down for the traditional “spanking,” one spank for each year of our young lives. There were gifts from Mom and Dad and from my brothers. I was a young woman before it occurred to me that the gifts from my brothers were really gifts my Mom picked out for them to give me.

She took us to church every Sunday. Imagine getting all of us cleaned and dressed in time to make it to church before the doors closed. As a child I used to think she was rather emotional, because she cried a lot on those Sunday mornings. None-the-less, we made it to church, we sang “Holy, holy, holy,” and we learned about eternal love, maybe more from her than from the sermon.

There was one final thing she never failed to do that trumped all the special birthdays and yummy food and fun times. She never failed to say those three magic words, “I love you,” at least once each day. Seeing the love pour out of her brown eyes and down onto my young head, made my day.

Of course, I had no idea that other children didn’t grow up the way I did, so it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I began to fully appreciate her loving ways. She taught my brothers and me how to conduct our lives, not through wise sayings but rather through the way she lived her life. My Mother left an eternal legacy that lives on through the way we have raised our own children, repeating her actions and her three little magic words.

Now, when I go out the door every morning, I try to remember to, “Be good, and if I can’t be good, to be careful, and I remember that I am loved.

 

 

I Wanna Be A Nurse

Our first theme in the Guided Autobiography class I am teaching is entitled, “Branching Points.” James Birren, the creator of Guided Autobiography, describes branching points as, “turning points in your life – the events, experiences, or insights that shaped your life and its directions. They may have been big events such as marriage, war, moving to a new city, or retirement. Or they may have been small events that had big outcomes, like reading a book or going on a hike.” Or, I would add, going to see the doctor, but more on that later.

The class is given the task of creating a life graph full of these branching points. They are also given several sensitizing questions which help loosen those memories from long ago and bring them forward into current remembrance. The second part of the assignment is to then go home and write 2-4 pages about one of the branching point memories.

The questions that sparked a memory for me were, “What was the earliest branching point in your life? What happened and why was it important? How old were you at the time?”

Those questions brought to mind the little girl in the photo; me at age five. Here is part of her story:

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I Wanna Be a Nurse

The smell of rubbing alcohol and some sort of pungent antiseptic filled our nostrils as we opened the glass doors to Dr. Don’s office. Our footsteps echoed off the marble steps up to the waiting room. Magazines were scattered across tables which sat between rows of chairs. A gentle bell rang now and then, sometimes twice, sometimes three times, in some sort of secret code only nurses and doctors were privy to.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the nurse when she came to take us back to the exam room. Her crisp white uniform made a ruffling sound when she walked. Her white hose had a white seam down the back that was perfectly centered on her calf, and her white shoes had nary a scuff mark on them. Her cap sat atop her head neatly pinned in place. She had a kind smile, but exuded a “no nonsense” attitude. I imagined an angel must look something like her.

I watched her every move, never averting my eyes as she filled a glass syringe from an ampule of some sort of magic potion. It stung when she put the needle into my arm, but I watched anyway, in total fascination. I was completely absorbed by the entire procedure; wiping the skin with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, then quickly jabbing the needle into the skin and in one graceful motion, emptying the syringe’s content into my arm.

“I wanna be a nurse,” I declared to Mom as we left the office.

Mom’s eyes brightened. “You do?” She never asked me why. She simply embraced the idea. Secretly, I think she felt relieved that perhaps someone else in our family would be willing to tend to cuts and bruises. My brothers paraded through life with regular episodes of fingers smashed by a hammer or a fish hook stuck in a thumb, bloody stubbed toes, and gashes in heads from over exuberant hammering techniques. Mom hated the site of blood and would hide her eyes and cover her mouth in an attempt to stifle her gag reflex. I, on the other hand, jumped right into the middle of it, anxious to see all the gore. I also enjoyed picking out just the right bandage to cover the gore, and I especially enjoyed my Mother’s praise over what a good job I did.

“You would make a wonderful nurse,” she said in a slightly too enthusiastic manner. A nursing uniform complete with a blue cape and white cap soon appeared from Mom’s sewing machine and were added to my dress-up repertoire. That was quickly followed by a plastic doctor’s kit with a syringe and plastic scissors and even a stethoscope. I swore I could hear my doll’s heart beating through the plastic tubes I stuck in my ears.

Soon everyone in our family and all over town knew that I wanted to be a nurse. No one asked if I had ever considered any other profession. Instead, they asked where I wanted to go to nursing school and what kind of nurse I wanted to be. They all echoed Mom’s excitement and told me how wonderful they thought it was that I was going to be a nurse. I absorbed it all.

So it was that, at the age of five, my future became locked into place.

That’s my story. What about you? Do you have branching points you can recall?

 

JUST WRITE

I complain all the time about writer’s block, not being able to settle down and do the writing that needs to be done. Then it occurred to me that I write every single day. Every morning I start the day by writing in my journal. So, what’s the difference between that writing and the writing I like to post on my blog and that I want to do for my clients? Well, for one thing my journal is just for me. If I misspell a word, I’m the only one that will see it. If I dangle a participle, so be it, let it dangle. If I ramble, who cares? If I write only two sentences that day or six pages, it doesn’t matter.

It’s doing the writing that goes beyond stream of thought, writing that includes cohesive ideas, good grammar and spelling that slows me down. Then I read a meme on the Writer’s Circle Facebook page. It said, “Forget the rules. Rules are for editors. Just write.”

Ahhhh. The problem is my editor, not me. If only she didn’t live with me. Her room is in my head, and she insists on perfection from the first draft forward. There is no excuse for misspelled words, poor grammar, or incomplete thoughts. “If you really are a writer, then write like you’re a writer, perfect pros from page one,” she says. She shows no mercy, and she creates resistance which is just another name for writer’s block.

In the War of Art, Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield has this to say about resistance, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

My resistance shows its ugly head as that internal editor. The fear of not doing it right the first time creates multiple rationalizations for not doing the work. There always seems to be something more important, more urgent, more exciting that needs doing.

Many of the things I find to do instead of write are legitimate. After all, I do have to eat which does require trips to the grocery store. I do have a life and friends who invite me to lunch and a grandson who calls and begs to come over and see me.

In the end, though, none of those things really matter. Pressfield mentions the great writer Somerset Maugham who said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Pressfield goes on to say,

“. . .by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his. He knew if he built it, she would come.”

If you are unsure that what he says is true, I can assure you of its validity. How do you think this blog got written after a lull of six months?

“Just write” is my new mantra. I’m sending that internal editor on a much-needed vacation, so get ready. You’re going to hear a lot more from me hence forth.

 

What Will You Write About Next?

 

One of the most frequently asked questions after I published my novel was, “What will you write about next?” I hated that question, because I had no idea what I would write next. I have always grappled with what genre I fit into. Am I a historical fiction writer or a nonfiction writer? Just what am I? Nothing ever felt quite right until recently, when I discovered something called a Personal Historian. Suddenly, I had a name for what it is I love to do and an answer to that annoying question.

My first published book was a biography. That was a delightful experience, but it didn’t lead to other opportunities as I had hoped it would. My second published book was a novel, something I never thought I would do, but the impetus behind writing it dealt with what attracted me to writing in the first place. I love to listen to, read about, and delve into people’s recollections about their lives.

I think my interest in other people’s lives probably came about because I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska where everybody knew, and took some delight in knowing, everyone else’s business. Okay, I’ll say the word; gossip; we took pleasure in gossiping.

As I grew up and moved away from that isolated environment, I learned that spreading gossip shows a certain lack of character, and I gradually gave it up. I found it much more enjoyable to hear people’s stories directly from the person instead of hearing a distorted secondhand rendition through the gossip chain. That interest has only increased over the years and so, when I learned that listening to people reminisce about their lives and helping them document their legacy  was an actual profession, I was hooked!

As a personal historian, I am not only allowed to sit for hours and hear every detail of a person’s life, I am expected to do it. It’s part of the job. I listen, record, transcribe and write the narrative so that it can be shared with future generations.

When I began to explore the many venues used to help someone recall their personal history, my excitement only multiplied. I have been a scrapbook enthusiast for years. Imagine my delight when I learned that telling someone’s story may involve an expansion of a photo album to include family history. So, I get to write and put photo albums together? I must be dreaming! Or, perhaps it’s as simple as videotaping a conversation and adding photos to the video to enhance the experience. Either way, I end up getting to do things I am passionate about.

Over the next few months, I will be writing in more depth about what a personal historian does, the various methods used to write personal histories and a DIY version of writing your memoir or biography.

Now, when someone asks me, “What will you write about next?” I can confidently tell them, I may very well be writing about them.