IMO: Turning 100

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Today was the annual visit for students of mine who are members of Interact Club (Rotary International) to head over to our local nursing home and deliver presents to residents who would otherwise have no family members visiting or likely receive gifts on Christmas.

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We receive the wishlist for fifteen patients, take an afternoon to buy them sweatpants, blankets, books, chocolates, art supplies and wrap them on the last day of school before winter break. Our club members respond warmly to the vis-à-vis exchange. Every year, for me, there is a resident who stands out and makes me think about life and the secret behind having a good one. I know it will happen; it’s divine intervention. The revelation has me thinking of George Bailey from the iconic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the life imitating art moment affects me.    

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Mr. Bouffard recently turned 100. He is well liked by the nurses and staff because he is a cheery man.

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Over the summer, he was honored by the mayor and honor guard for serving in WWII. A book was written chronicling his time, and what his band of brothers did. It sits along with his dog tags in a cupboard. All will be donated to the local historical society when he passes.

Armand had me imagining him at age twenty-five. His life was ahead of him; each decade brought challenges, joys, and tragedy. Think of the experiences one gathers up over a lifetime. Here was a man with wisdom. What could he share? This man with ancient skin, a crinkled face, and watery eyes? He, a fragile shell who was once a soldier, a son, a husband, and a father? Now at age 100, he is alone, yet he still smiles. Days go by slowly, but the weeks fly by, and the years even faster. Such is life.

I have a cynical attitude about reaching 100. I look at Armand and wonder how he still smiles? After all, he is alone and not in his home. Who is left to share his life? Not his spouse. No children. No friends. How could anyone want to live to be 100?

What you have is yourself.

Armand gave himself for 100 years. He took chances and loved. He took chances and failed. He did what he was supposed to and a little of what he shouldn’t. At 100, he crossed the line, broke the ribbon, and won the game of life. I would like to believe for what mistakes he made he owned and apologized. If he didn’t, I hope he forgave himself for being human.

Armand Bouffard’s secret? He is proud of himself. He is attended to by compassionate caregivers who do their best to make sure he is comfortable in his final days. He sucks on candy, scoots around in his wheelchair, and says hello to everyone who passes by. He owns nothing but his smile, and it gives me courage. If I make it to 100, I want to feel proud that I caused more joy than pain. I want to wear Armand’s smile like a medal on my chest.

Happy Holidays!

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IMO: Baby Talk and the Passage of Time

Fellow blogger, South African/Londoner,  ABBI O,  chronicled her thoughts of pregnancy; when “Little O” was born, Abbi continued her posts about the life-change, documenting her thoughts of motherhood and the demands of her now five-month-old son. Not only does her dry wit make me laugh, she makes me think about the passage of time. Her journal-in-the-making is a clever idea. I imagine Little O when he’s older and turns into Bigger O asking her what it was like to carry him inside her body? To have him? What was he like as a boy? She has gathered her posts and self-published them. She tosses her book to Bigger O and says, “Read all about it.” When Abbi is much older, she will toss the book to her pregnant daughter-in-law, and assure her the fear is universal, the experience is awesome, she understands, and it will bring comfort. When Abbi is ancient, she will revisit herself in words, that worried young woman from her past, and smile at her and feel pride that she muddled through it all miraculously just fine. She’ll look across the room at Biggest O, who is now a father himself, and wonder how time flew by.

Based on a diary, 1785–1812, professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich investigated the entries of a midwife, Martha Ballard. It’s an interesting account because, in the center of a Maine community, she literally touched the lives of everyone in it and provided a glimpse of the values and expectations of gender, the struggle to fight the seasons, impartial diseases, techniques for perseverance, and the cycle of life through births and deaths. It is a rare, profound historical portrait. And yet, at the time of her writing, Martha Ballard was unaware her diary entries would become important one day. Her “voice” varied depending on time and tiredness. Martha was at times insightful, other times clinical, like her profession as she weaved in and out of households aiding the sick. Recommended. 4/5.

In my opinion, Abbi is creating a historical portrait, a primary source. Fifty years from now, a hundred years–two–social historians could look to her blog or self-published book about motherhood and life from 2016 onward from a historical perspective. I read about an abolitionist the other day whose date of birth matched my own, minus a hundred years. She was born in 1863 and lived until 1951. Can you imagine all that she saw? How much the world changed? From the death of Abraham Lincoln through World War II? From buggies to rocket ships? From the telegraph to the television? I wonder what life will be like if I made it until 2051. Just saying the date makes me shake my head in wonder.

Here is the passage of time illustrated by my granddaughter, Amelia. She’ll be four in February.

Where did the time fly? 

IMO: Stuck in the Van with Zealots

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In my opinion, I would rather clean my oven and scrub the toilets than travel ninety minutes each way in a van with outspoken colleagues to attend a professional conference. My nickname is Switzerland because I abhor confrontation and prefer to remain neutral over most topics. I am surrounded by two loud alpha females: one who is passionately a feminist (Sally), while the other is a supercilious Democrat (June). The stoic, older intellectual (Martha) is a Buddhist and a socialist who esteems animals higher than humans; she has a general disregard for Americans. So much so that when she travels, she speaks other languages to avoid being labeled American. Finally, there in the back of the van, the gentle, calculus teacher and coach (Phil), pretends to take a nap. He’s not married.

At least I got to drive which kept me busy. Tired of listening to an hour of extreme opinions, negative attitudes, and the general flush from the two super-fans of Hillary Clinton, I attempted to steer the conversation away from the upcoming election. Let’s talk shop. June prides herself as a senior faculty leader who name-drops her school board friends and is privy to inside information behind administrator’s doors.  I threw out a conversation starter. “How does everyone like our interim superintendent? Do you think he will become our new principal? Who knows of his plans?” There began an eruption of groans and a clamor of disapproval. June assured me there was no way the board would let him stay after his temporary contract was over.

Sally gasped, “Can you believe he initiated the pledge of allegiance back into the classroom?”

I raised my fist with approval.  “I think it’s great. I was surprised when I first moved to Arizona that we didn’t lead the school day with the Pledge. It’s about time!”

Sally and June looked at me with raised eyebrows. June knows I am a Navy veteran. She said casually, “Oh, that’s just the military side of you talking.”

“I don’t do it in my classroom,” said Sally. June agreed. “It’s propaganda. It’s brainwashing.”

I steamed. “I make my kids stand up and say it.”

“You shouldn’t make them.”

I tried to remain calm. “So many have sacrificed their lives for us to enjoy our freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights.”

Sally smacked her thigh. “Precisely why I don’t say it. Free speech. I don’t have to say the pledge just because I’m told to. It’s my right. I don’t pledge my loyalty to the United States of America.”

“But why wouldn’t you want to?”

“This country is fucked up.”

 It was the first time I had a conversation with this new teacher. She talked about leaving AZ and going back to Washington at the end of her annual contract. She aroused in me dark thoughts and mean wishes. I looked at Sally with one eye. My hands were shaking.  “I teach Holocaust Studies and U.S. History. I’m well aware that nationalism is the downfall of the twentieth century. Propaganda, taken too far is dangerous. But how we see ourselves is connected to the values our society believes in. In America, that means rugged determinism. Hard work. Serving others. Going after dreams. Reinventing ourselves when we fail. Perseverance. My national identity is wrapped around a creed that aims to create solidarity. Another creed I identify with is the Apostles Creed.”  It comforts me to identify myself with my country and my God. These creeds are guidelines, reminders of my history, and they define me.

Feel free to be disgruntled with your government, but love your country. I see high school students who don’t know what to believe. All they hear is noise and they stumble around looking like zombies trying to figure out their identities. Understanding why the United States is a great country with an awesome history is a start, and why I love my job. A national identity is a great start. Without loyalty, integrity slips away. Without loyalty to your country, we are loyal to ourselves and such self-absorption halts the growth of communities. That’s where individuals make the biggest impact in their country.

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Why should we pledge ourselves to the flag?

I’ve known women who have lost husbands, sons, and daughters to wars. That folded flag at a funeral is a thank you. A thank you for serving and protecting my freedoms. When I pledge the allegiance to the flag, I see the Revolutionary War. Those were true patriots who died for the principals of freedom. They died for an idea.

I see in the stars and stripes the battle of the Civil War. Northern and Southern soldiers chose to protect the union or were willing to die to protect their land and an ideology. They believed in their principles, and that made them patriots.

In the 20th Century, while late in entering both World Wars, the U.S. aided and served with the Allies to stop dictatorships and uphold democratic ideals. Soldiers died so that their children and grandchildren (us) would enjoy free speech and the right to pursue their dreams. The American flag took a beating after that. Citizens grew angry and unhappy with their country. The Vietnam War was a mess with soldiers who didn’t want to fight in an unwinnable war. But they did go and serve. Civilians started burning the flag. Reagan came along, and as a Teflon President, his strong appearance helped convince Gorbechov they could end the Cold War.

Now all seems like chaos. Special interest groups covet. Desert Storm. Afghanistan. Iraq. Taliban. Isis. It’s a muddled mess with drones and ultra-technology. Now others hate America.  It’s a colossal mess, and I certainly don’t have answers. I can’t imagine any President would want to inherit it all. It’s understandable that people are angry and lost and care little for the U.S. flag. The rise of ex-pats leaving the USA is growing. Okay, go then, if you are consumed with hatred and feel hopeless.

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What I do believe, when I say the Pledge of the Allegiance, is I’m thankful for the original soldiers who fought for an idea. Their strength of character inspires me. I strive for my accomplishments. I earn them. The flag symbolizes the American Spirit which I stress in class. Through hard work and determinism, anyone can strive for a better life. I pledge my allegiance to the flag because chaos from the past offers us a balancing stick to cross the tightrope of chaos today. To me, it is an insult, a dishonor not to say The Pledge of Allegiance.

I still don’t know who I’m voting for on Tuesday.

Hell and the Hookah Bar

 

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Sailing toward Turkey

Hell is the nickname for Helena and she met up with our group on the Greece trip and tagged along. She’s from Bristol and a geologist, but I think of her as a gypsy, for her lifestyle is devoted to traveling and she’s been all over the world. At 32, she has a free-spirited attitude and a zest for interacting with everyone she meets. I remember feeling invincible at her age. I don’t feel much like that twenty years later. When we stopped at the port of Kusadasi, Turkey, I was a little nervous getting off the boat. The bazaar wasn’t my idea of fun because I dislike being accosted by the salespeople who try and steer you into the stores to buy jewelry or expensive trinkets. She suggested leaving the bazaar and exploring the streets of the city. I thought it might be dangerous. I imagined dark alleys and hearing only a strange language I had no idea how to interpret. What if something went wrong? Jim and Hell thought it would be fun to walk around the main streets. I went along with them out of peer pressure, but I wasn’t happy about it. The rest of the group was fine and busy, so I had some free time. Do I stay safely behind or venture out and explore? What a silly question!

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A Kusadasi pedestrian street

We didn’t go far. Just a few blocks down the main avenue which was still touristy, but it was quiet and bright at noon. I was fearful a bomb would explode or we’d be attacked by rioters. I believe the media’s constant spewing of atrocities is creating a culture of fear; it had its hooks in me. It was hot and Hell wanted to sit at a cafe and watch the people go by.

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Jim selected a cafe in cool shadows, and before I knew it, Hell had ordered peach flavored tobacco for the Hookah. The owner and servers were generous and friendly. With broken English, they waited on us as we sipped beer and smoked. It was something I never thought I’d be doing, smoking the hookah. This two-hour respite from herding the group was a highlight of the trip. I wouldn’t have done it if Hell hadn’t been there. I studied her as we three talked about our lives, politics (2 minutes only), and traveling exploits.

The digression from my comfort zone was a reminder how important it is not to hide behind imagined fears. My personal saying is, “Nine out of ten things you worry about don’t come true.” I let my worries get the better of me, almost. Looking at Hell as she animatedly talked reminded me of someone I once knew. I saw a younger version of myself. Where did that fearless woman go? Who is this older woman today who recoils from spontaneity?

So we smoked. We laughed. We created a memory. My morals weren’t compromised. The day remained sunny and calm. Strangers were friendly and courteous. Thanks, Hell!

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Siblings

Siblings. I don’t remember if we have ever been close. We’re all in our late forties and early fifties. Some years, we’ve hardly tolerated one another. For what reason? The birth order? The first of four, I was the bossy one and resented having to watch the three of them. To me growing up, my little sister was a whining princess who had dodged curfews and chores while I did them all. She had complained she resented going through school being compared to me, so she rebelled. When I graduated high school and joined the Navy, I rarely thought about her. We just parted ways. The same can be said for my brothers. I was the tomboy who didn’t want dolls. I climbed trees, shot marbles, rode my bike everywhere, sharpened swords from tree branches and defended my fort. When I left home for good, all I felt was good riddance. No one wrote me letters or called. Neither did I.

My siblings and Mom. I'm the one wearing the scarf.
I’m the one wearing the scarf.

As time passed, we took turns and married, had kids, and divorced. There was the occasional snappy remark instilling resentment or the full-frontal, verbal attack which fostered hatred. Personal friends became my sisters. My brothers had their own adventures and weren’t prone to discussing their feelings or sharing their goals or troubles. It was none of my business. As adults, we gathered at Mom’s house for the holiday get-together and were cautioned to “be civil or leave.” As I’ve grown older, it bothers me we aren’t close. But how do you change life long perceptions or soften a hard wood?

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Of the four of us, we would all agree my brother in the front seat next to the oranges and my sister standing behind him have never seen eye-to-eye. The other day when we tried to bond, she confessed she felt compelled to find the one toy my brother was obsessed with as a boy and surprise him.

For twenty years, my sister has looked to find them. We all remember my brother sticking his tortured pirates with pins and the sound effects he would make. How ironic that she found them on E-Bay and paid a hefty price for these plastic guys that were once bought with a quarter from a five-and-dime forty years ago.

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Wouldn’t you know, my brother laughed and teared up with joy when he saw them? He stood up and gave my sister a hug and thanked her with great sincerity. We all started tearing up. How ironic that his least favorite sibling was the one who made the effort to please him. If those two could get along, maybe hard wood can soften. Maybe there’s still time for relaxed conversations. For compassion. For laughter. Maybe!

Martha’s Gift

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Last year, Martha was giddy to see us. We stopped in her room and gave her a present, a fuzzy cardigan, size small. Kathy, the activities director at the Haven Nursing Home, had organized the resident wish list, and my high school students who are club members of Interact Club (an affiliate of the Rotary) each year buys gifts for the long-term residents, and we delivered them today. Armand the 99 year-old French American wanted to kiss everyone. Fred ate his chocolate bar and clutched his new collared shirt. Joe thanked us for his ball cap and started crying. Mae the nun and former school teacher clapped and said, “I’m so surprised. None of my students ever went this far to give me a present!”  Vindication! As a teacher, I frequently hear how today’s youth are self-absorbed and passive. It’s not what I see.

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The first year I visited Martha in her room, Kathy warned me that Martha was a chatterbox. She was sharp and expressive. When I asked her what was her favorite experience, she confided that at fourteen, she was waiting tables at a diner out at the end of the valley close to where they were filming a John Wayne picture. Mr. Wayne sauntered in and filled up the place with his stature and reputation. Martha was his waitress. Young and pretty, he asked if she wanted to be an extra on the set. “Of course I said yes. Who would refuse?” Her eyes moistened at the memory and her smile was delicate. What fun she had had in the dust and sunshine as one of the townsfolk on the set. She couldn’t remember the name of the film, but that was irrelevant. She made certain I knew that Mr. Wayne was a gentleman and that day’s adventure was a highlight of her life.

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The second year I visited Martha, she was at her walker, her eyes bright with anticipation of bending my ear. She had never married or had children. I asked her what she had done to earn a living, and she told me she spent her career as a WAVE.  I’m a Navy Veteran, so we hugged each other as if we had been stationed together.

Today I visited Martha. She was lying in bed gazing at the walls of her room. Kathy leaned down to her ear and asked her if she was feeling okay. She murmured she was fine, but her sadness was palpable, and I had a hard time keeping a smile on my face. Our group gave her the fuzzy cardigan and she thanked us, hoarse.

I know next year when we visit her room, it will be empty. Of course this makes me sad, but I can’t help but feel I had been given a gift — she was the fuzzy cardigan. She had inspired me. Martha’s younger self is in my current novel about a girl who gets to play an extra on the set of a movie picture. She will become a WWII heroine in the third manuscript, if I get the chance to write it.  I can’t wait to research the WACs and WAVES.

Who’d of thought this little old lady had such adventures. She didn’t tell me how trying her life had been or expounded upon her pain or failures. She remembered John Wayne and her atypical career which gave her joy and satisfaction. I willed myself to stop crying, for it hurt to see her physical and mental decay. She learned to live life without her fears stopping her. How cool is that?

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