God Bless Best Friends

“Everything that has happened in your life has happened perfectly in order for you—and all the souls involved with you—to grow in exactly the way you’ve needed and wanted to grow” -Neale Donald Walsch

Eventually I was promoted and scheduled to open a branch office in Fredericksburg, VA for the Investment Company I worked for. I took my son and a neighbor girl up there, lived in a hotel for a month while I attempted to make things happen, and focused on making a life for us. It did take root slowly so we moved. I got an apartment and Francis started Kindergarten. We were a team – he and I. We settled in to our routine as a mother/son pair. I was 28 and began making peace with life.

It was an interesting time. For me – being 28 was like a neon light flashing “30’s Coming” over and over inciting me to ‘hurry up’. My mental timeline for being married and completing my family was ending at 30. While I had had an epiphany some time back about reaching my goals in a different way, it was becoming more difficult to trust that process by the day with the absence of evidence that it may change. I became aware of my body aging. I was getting laugh lines around my eyes and more chin hair. I recall spending a solid weekend giving myself a facial and steam bath, caking on the moisturizer and then going to buy a bottle of wine; they carded me. YES!! It worked I thought. Whereas today -I find this memory quite hysterical – it was difficult to feel then. Not rationale given perspective but we don’t have future perspective – we don’t know what we don’t know!

Francis was my light. He was so incredibly gentle and innocent. A special memory for me is a day when I came home tired and perhaps a bit frustrated with work. I must have sighed really deeply because he asked me “what’s wrong mamma?”  “I had a bad day honey, it’ll be ok” I replied. “I’m sorry mom.” His little voice was gentle. “Oh honey, it’s not your fault”. I picked him up to sit in my lap. “Yes, it is” he says in a small voice. “I forgot to tell you to have a good day”.  I cried.

As adorable and endearing as he was, he gave me a really hard time staying with a sitter. I couldn’t blame him really. For most of his life he had been cared for by my mom or his sitter since infancy. There in Fredericksburg everyone was a stranger. Aside from that, I worked a ton. I would drop him off at school in the morning and then he would be bused to daycare afterwards. I was almost always one of the last to pick him up. One day he asked me “When am I going to get a new daddy?”

I had to explain that in order for me to find a new dad, I’d have to date people and get to know them and find out if they would work out which meant he would have to stay with a sitter. He starred off into space for a bit and then looked at me with very serious eyes and said with a resigned tone. “OK, I will.”

I tried dating again. Dating in 1988 wasn’t any easier than it is today. Let’s face it – dating kind of sucks. There is so much uncertainty; intense vulnerability. It highlights our insecurities. I met a guy who worked at a gas station I went to almost every day; not for gas but lunch or bread, milk, etc…. He worked there. He asked me out and then asked me if I liked seafood – I said yes to both questions and gave him my address. He picked me up on a Friday night and took me to Long John Silvers.

I used all of my good manners and worked really hard to be open and non-judgmental. It didn’t work. I was overwhelmed with the failed expectation. I swelled with aggravation that my life was panning out like this. That even though Prince Charming had found me, I was relegated to being there – with a gas station attendant – on a date at a fast food restaurant. No second date and I changed gas stations. And then, I felt guilty and snobby. I’m sure he was a good guy really. It wasn’t all about WHAT he was. It was so much more about who he wasn’t. I missed Rocky.

I remembered a dogma of the SAGE movement I had attended almost a decade earlier based on what many of us know now as ‘the Law of Attraction’, which postulated our ability to attract into our life those things we focus on. I created a list of my ‘perfect’ man. He would be tall, Catholic, unmarried, attractive, financially secure, etc… those were the key points. I read the list daily with an emphasis on believing that this person I was visualizing would appear in my life. The technique had worked for me years ago when I was searching for an apartment, why not try it again?

I was fortunate enough to have fantastic friends. That group of people who had become a surrogate family. The only problem was that after I moved they lived a solid 3 hours away. My bestie and I created a ‘schedule’ of events so that we always had something to look forward to. She was also a single mom and our children were buddies, which made it easier. They were Nintendo buds. Her daughter was a bit older and therefore much more practiced than my 5-year-old who didn’t have a system yet. He would sit crossed legged on the floor next to her with his lips slightly parted, intently watching the screen while she played. I always wondered what was happening in his mind as he watched her manipulate Mario and Luigi around the screen. It turns out that he got really, really good at playing video games.

In any regard, she was my ‘other’ for those months. We created a bucket list and then planned weekends to fulfill the items there. We went camping with the kids and created memories that we still talk about. We visited amusement parks that challenged our patience and equilibrium. We cooked, baked, and threw parties. We drank a lot. It was truly one of the happiest periods of my life. If I were a Lesbian, I could have married that girl!

Our lives mirrored one another’s in almost every way and we relished in our friendship because it made the commitment to abstinence we had made, bearable. We both had such negative experiences with men in recent history so many months before, we had committed to abstain from casual encounters of any form. We thought it would surely be the healthiest way to gather our wits, our strength, and our courage for an eventual relationship. She was responsible for bringing my spirit back to life. As it happens, we share a birthday – although I am the younger one ; ) – and the combination of shared experiences, love for one another, and deep, deep respect have fed our friendship for almost 30 years now.

Our company held an annual conference to educate us and reward us for the successes achieved throughout the year. It happened that this year, we both qualified to go and it was to occur over our birthday weekend in 1989 so she drove up to me and we traveled to Lancaster, PA together. Lancaster is a good sized town in the heart of Amish country in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It was familiar to us since the company arranged to have the same location year after year. It was a relaxing, beautiful drive on country roads. We were looking forward to sitting by the pool and seeing old friends who lived in other parts of the country. We always looked forward to this event.

Many of the people who attended the conference were young. Working for pure commission weeds out the weak really quickly. Lots of young people try so the population at these conferences was weighted with twenty-somethings. There was a nightclub at the conference center and as is typical at these things, it was packed after the dinner/speaker session ended. We were all dancing and drinking; having a great time with new and old friends. During one of my dance floor appearances I locked eyes with another guy across the dance floor. They were piercing. He smiled. I smiled back. He winked. I winked back.

And then my heart fluttered.

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Only Darkness

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

I was a widow.  Prior to this moment I was mostly untouched by death; the very old grandmother of a childhood friend and my own grandfather that I had barely known.  One day we were talking about more babies, going to school, buying a house, and our next vacation – two weeks later I was picking out a coffin and planning funeral music. It was the most surreal experience of my life. Please people…. Pick out your own coffin!! Make your own funeral arrangements!! Do NOT let your loved ones have to do it…

How does one coffin shop?? A funeral director ushers you into a room full of them and explains the benefits of one from another. This one is particle board covered in velvet – it’s the least expensive. This one is Brazilian Cherry and lined with satin. This one has 7 layers of steel with a lead core to survive a nuclear explosion. This one has a time capsule for DNA so the body will never have to be exhumed. Are you f***ing kidding me? I want my husband back!

I left my body. I was aware of sounds and people. I was aware of where I was but I became someone else. It was as if I was back in high school, on stage, playing a part. Rocky wasn’t the velvet type… maybe Cherry… it was warm looking. I wanted him to be warm.  I saw something with a flannel interior and chose that one.

Do you have a favorite reading? Do you want someone to sing? What kind of music? When? Where? How? Who? Holy shit… shut up people. Leave me alone! My soul was screaming but my voice was deciding. He loved Journey and Little River Band – play those songs. Yes, On Eagles Wings – that’s nice… Sure, she can sing it. I floated above it all remembering our wedding night when some fool packed the car air vents with flour so that we were blasted as soon as the car was started and looked like two old people checking into the hotel. It was apparently, not… a vision of our future. I was remembering our first kiss… it was some kiss! I was remembering the sight of him holding our son for the first time… such love. So many dreams, not enough memories.

My sister-in-laws took me shopping for something to wear. I wasn’t so concerned about being stylish or fashionably chic, nor did I care about how well my purchase would fit. My primary concern was finding something that I ‘felt’ beautiful in, not for me – for Rocky. I wanted to be beautiful. I was searching for something that felt calm and comfortable yet highlighted my best features, perhaps the color of my hair. It couldn’t say happy but I was adamant that it did not shout sad. It could not be black, navy, or brown. It shouldn’t be too short or too long; the fabric not too thick or too thin. I was not sure if it should be one piece or two, and I was undecided about the sleeve. We were in hunting mode, searching for just the right thing. Eventually, I settled on a light peach linen suit and an ivory blouse with satin buttons and a round collar. It was feminine, soft, and quite respectful. It worked with my strawberry blonde hair and most importantly, it didn’t scream funeral.

I dressed up and showed up at the funeral home on the night of the private viewing. It was for family only. I did not go into the room where he was on display. I was unwilling to see my husband as a dead man (ultimately a mistake). I was told that the funeral director did a fantastic job with makeup, etc…

That’s nice ~ with a southern slur**

I was still detached. Existing on another plane where I was safe and not alone and loved.  In reality, I was surrounded by so. many. people. Rocky’s large family had all flown in. My dad and step-mom drove in along with a few other relatives. His co-workers, mom’s friends and neighbors whom we had started to know. I don’t know where Francis was… I seem to remember making a decision to keep him away from the ceremonial affairs because I didn’t want him to be negatively impacted by all the emotions, but I can’t remember who had him. I logically know many of these people loved – and still love – me. It’s just that, well – they weren’t HIM.

I got through it. We all did. Indeed – there were lots of funny stories and laughter that goes with them. There were tears – lots.

I couldn’t go back to the house where we had been a family; it was too much for my spirit. His brothers went through things so that I didn’t have to. Someone moved our stuff into storage. I kept a pair of 501 Jeans (because his butt…well, it was so HOT in them!) and I kept his Navy whites. I don’t really remember making all of those decisions and I’m sure some of them were made on my behalf, out of compassion and concern. I’m not sure any were made out of understanding; even my own. How does one understand the death of a 23 year old whose whole life was yet to be lived – or the wishes of his widow – or the lonely cries from his child? How?

I know I was not the only one struggling with these impossible questions but I was so deeply immersed in my personal loss that I was unable to really consider the experience from the perspective of his parents or siblings. It took me years if not decades to be willing to look in that direction. At some point, everyone left. Everyone went back to their own lives and I was left to face each sunrise and each sunset in a way that was unfamiliar to me; unwanted.

A friend took me to her parent’s beach house for a week. We took the kids too.  Then a week later, I went back to work because there was nothing else to do. I didn’t know how to be a widow. I was so very pissed at the world. This was NOT supposed to be my life. I thought God and I had agreed that me – as a single parent – was off the table. Rocky and I had mapped out our lives…. there was going to be three children, a house, and a career by 30. It was planned. It was imagined. If that wasn’t going to happen – what was? What was in store for me?  For our son? What did the universe want from us?

Each morning when I opened my mind – there was only darkness.

**That’s nice ~ with a southern slur** – My mother told a story about a proper southern woman who believed it completely unladylike and immoral to curse. And so, from time to time you could hear her say “That’s nice” with a gentle smile and a slight nod of her head. When asked if she ‘really’ thought it was nice?? she replied “Why no darlin’ – that’s how us Southern women say “FUCK YOU”.

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A Yellow Kite

I could spend an entire post or two just sharing shenanigans about the U-Haul and a cross country trip with a 9 month old. Francis and I almost died; Rock would have been oblivious for hours. We packed and unpacked the truck three times and drove across country – San Diego to Va. Beach with a few stops along the way for sightseeing and visiting family. We were so happy to be together and free of the US Navy’s demands that we celebrated all the small things there were to experience. We knew that real life awaited us but we also knew that for those few weeks, we had everything we would ever need because we were three.

Within a couple of weeks of arriving in Virginia we had jobs and a place to live. It was a time of true creativity. We only owned one car and we were both employed. As luck would have it, the little house we rented was just down the road from Rocky’s boss so he was able to carpool each morning. I dropped Francis off at daycare around noon and then Rocky picked him up and went to my mom’s house until I could get there in the early evenings. It was a routine that worked for us well. Rocky and Francis got some good time together, my family bonded with them both, and we were settling in to family life. Our little house in the country was just across the North Carolina, literally a stone’s throw from the Virginia Beach border. It was country though. Miles of cornfields and swamps surrounded us.  It was a dirt road and it was quiet.

Our little house had been hand built by its owner. It had a wall of windows that overlooked a field across the street. In the center of this house was a wood stove, the only source of heat. There were three bedrooms; one for us, one for the baby, and another for the waterbed that we sometimes chose to sleep in. We had a washer but no drier. The clothes rack was set by the woodstove in the winter and on nice days, it went outside. It was a simple life.

One day we drove home together and Rocky seemed nervous. He wouldn’t admit to there being ‘anything wrong’ so I was silent for most of the drive. We got home and entered into our evening routine of dinner, bath, and bedtime but he was outside for most of that time – doing something at the rear of the property where there was a shed type work shop (void of most everything that would be necessary to properly use the word ‘workshop’). After dinner he asked me to bring the baby out back – he had something to show us. I cleaned smashed peas off the cute baby cheeks of our rolly polly baby boy and heaved him up to my hip as I walked out the back door and across the lawn to where Rocky stood with a sly half smile attempting to burst from his face.

Behind him was a five foot fence that enclosed a rather large space, the remnants of a ‘dog run’ from the previous owner. I saw something move inside the fence and stepped backward quickly. “We have a pet” he said, and the smile finally emerged, full and furious, across his face. I looked behind him and saw a PIG, a small, pink, and naked, pig was in that dog run – running in circles and loving life.

We (or rather I) named that pig Christmas in hopes that it would become our Christmas ham. I was unimpressed. We were pretty much broke and Rocky explained that we would need to buy feed for him at the expense of approximately $20 per month – money we didn’t have in the budget.  But… it was really an investment in meat he would argue.  We would raise him, butcher him, and eat him for much less overall than the cost of the same meat we could purchase at the grocery store.  That was what he explained to me each time I attempted to rediscover the rationalization he provided. I finally figured out that he hadn’t taken into consideration the $200 chest freezer we would have to buy to accommodate all that protein.

Can I just say that neither one of us knew anything at all about animal husbandry. This poor pig. As it turns out, that dog run was just too dag gone big.  Pigs need to get FAT and it they have too much running space – well…. They don’t get fat. We eventually figured it out and closed that baby in until the pig – Christmas – was sitting most of the day – confined to approximately 12 square feet. (I hope that isn’t considered cruelty.) Christmas day passed……

It was February before that Pig was ready to be slaughtered and it was a chore to find a way to transport him to the bacon factory. Rocky was on it…. And got it done! By March 1st we were picking out freezers and anxiously awaiting the message telling us we could pick up 200 lbs of organic, prime, homegrown pork. We were excited actually. We had followed through with something big. That pig had been a chore. It had gotten out of the pen on more than one occasion, routed through the yard like it was Easter candy, and taken a share of our budget that would never be recovered. I was ready to celebrate its bounty. We invited friends over for the weekend.

Our friends had three children, two older and a baby the same age as our Francis. It was supposed to be a great weekend weather wise so I bought a kite for their kids to fly in the field across the street from our little house. Since it was March, the corn hadn’t yet been planted and it was just a great place to play (at least that is how I envisioned it). The kids were 8, 6, and 2 if I remember correctly and used to playing outside so a kite was just the ticket on Sunday, March 10th, 1985. It was yellow. We were contemplating going into Norfolk – to the zoo. In the meantime, keeping the kids busy was a priority. We gave them the kite and told them to go across the street. I vaguely heard Jack Sr. issue a warning but paid no mind as I set out to cook up the first of that prime bacon we were sharing with our friends. A big hearty breakfast was in order. Annette and I moved in unison as two mothers preparing a meal often do – synchronizing our kitchen movements in perfect harmony as we prepared a morning meal for eight.

That was the BEST bacon I’ve ever had. I unapologetically had no remorse about Christmas the pig but instead savored the organic goodness; we all did. Rock and I cleaned up while the Mills family took all the kids outside to enjoy the day and the kite. It was quiet in the house and my frisky man who found sexy in everything we did together was more about finding five minutes of privacy than he was about cleaning up – I quickly understood his sudden eagerness to wash dishes. The only thing between us and six other people was an unlocked door so I was compelled to reject this advance and asked for a postponement of his proposed rapture. (I may have said “go away you crazy man” but my ‘postponement of proposed rapture’ sounds so much nicer and way more romantic).

It wasn’t but a few minutes later (I thankfully made the right decision) that we heard commotion outside and went out to discover that someone had let go of the kite and it was now flying – fully engaged with the wind – from the high tension power line that crossed through the adjacent field. Oh well…. It was only a $5 kite. We began discussing how we would spend the rest of the day – the zoo or the waterfront? For some reason, Jack and Rocky were hyper-concerned about leaving that kite where it was. They were convinced that if the wind died down, the kite could become a hazard if it was still attached to the power line and started to devise a plan to dislodge it.  The plan was to throw bricks up in an effort to jar the stick (that was holding the kite string) off the wires. They grabbed a couple of bricks and threw – over and over and over. There were a couple of close calls but ultimately they were exhausting themselves chasing the brick after each throw. It apparently seemed like a good idea to get rope – tie it around the brick – so that after throwing it, they could simply pull it back. There was no arguing with either of them. They were explicit in their goal. Throw after throw and then – the brick did exactly what that kite stick had done – wrapped right around the power line and was dangling … taunting those young, stubborn, invincible men.

We women were getting frustrated and impatient. The kids were restless and it felt as though the men were inviting trouble. They agreed they would stop after getting the rope down – that they would give up on the kite. Just pulling on the rope wasn’t working and so they used their limited knowledge of physics to consider that by tying a brick around the dangling end of the rope and throwing it up – the potential for it to actually make it up and over (i.e. unwrapping from) the line- was better. What no one knew is that the ‘rope’ they were using was actually the old style of clothesline…. Rubber coated copper wire.

As Rocky attempted to wrap the ‘rope’ around the brick, the exposed end made contact and there was suddenly a route for the 44,000 volts of electricity to ground.

There was a flash of light – screams – and I looked up in time to see my blonde god falling backwards.

NO! NO No no no no….

Learning to Hope

I was crazy thankful that my first baby was a big baby. He didn’t feel quite so delicate that way. As can be the case in military families, the timing wasn’t really good. It was September 30th and since Rocky was leaving for Japan the beginning of November, we had scheduled 30 days leave to move me back East so that I could have a support system, new baby and all. As I nested prior to the baby’s birth, most everything was in boxes and ready to be moved into storage by the time we got him home from the hospital. Anything that needed to be moved with a truck had been done by Rocky and a few friends while I was in the hospital.  I came home to a mostly empty apartment although they had saved all the couch cushions to create what they assumed would be a comfortable sleeping space for a brand new mother. Um-hm. None of them comprehended – in any form – the consequences of a four degree episiotomy (look it up). Nor did they consider that I would be up and down every two hours from the lowest position in our apartment. I may have been better off attempting to sleep standing up. It took some time for me to experience gratitude for the fact that our furniture was appropriately stored and I didn’t have to worry about it.

The baby – also called Francis Marion Rockefeller – and may I digress just a bit to discuss the name Francis. It was a ‘Rockefeller’ family name. For my husband, it had shifted sideways a generation (from his Uncle Frank) so that the name could be carried down-line and let’s just say that I had absolutely no choice in the matter. There was no annotation of numbers (i,e., the III or IV) but I was always told that there had been someone in the family with that name since the civil war. I have no documentation of that fact but it always made a great story. I came from William’s and Patrick’s and Edward’s. I had trepidations about the name Francis. When I met Rocky (obviously a nickname he garnered while in the Navy) he talked about how he loved his nickname.  I actually shortened it to ‘Rock’ pretty quickly and he would tell me it made him feel strong. Funny what a name can do. My step-dad was Francis a.k.a Frank. Rocky’s family called him Francis – Frank’s family called him Francis – Neither of them were Francis to me. What in the world would I end up calling my son?? It’s funny that he turned into a Francis for me…. Within days of his birth it felt natural and authentic. I had my own Francis. Years later it would get really confusing again but for now, everyone was distinguished with a name unique to them – for me at least.

So Rock and I are parents. He is leaving the country and we have to get from San Diego to Cincinnati, OH where my dad and stepmom have  loving prepared space for us to hang while Rocky is overseas. Ten days after giving birth we all pile into a little Ford Pinto and head across country; an infant, a male cat, and over 30 stitches in my bum. I sat on a donut and moved sparingly. I know we stopped in the (then) tiny little town of Texhoma, Oklahoma for the night and checked into a classic Route 66 style strip motel.  It may have been our second night on the road, I can’t exactly recall. It was THIS night however that stands out in my mind clearly. Francis (the baby) was hungry and crying. My milk had come in – my breasts were rock hard, my nipples were cracked and bleeding, and I needed to sit in a pool of warm salty water. I hurt, the baby was hungry and needed to eat but I couldn’t cope with the notion of allowing anything near the petrified coconuts on my chest. Rocky felt helpless and was getting mad at me for not knowing what to do It was 1983 – the world before cell phones – long distance was expensive and collect calls required someone be home! He simply needed advice from a woman who had experience because in a matter of days I had become a tired, restless, and hurting, bitch.

My mom was finally reached and she suggested that I sit in a bathtub with warm wet towels draped across my milk factory while offering to nurse the baby. I can only imagine what it must have looked like just two weeks postnatal. THAT was love…. For better or worse. The baby finally latched on while I cried and we got through the night. By late the next day we were in Clay Center where I finally had some experienced help (thanks Grandma R) and rested. We begrudgingly left the cat in the good hands of Gpa. We moved on to Cincinnati. It was great fun to watch my father turn into a Grandfather and we settled in just a few days before Rock left for his tour of duty.

He was gone for 6 months. In that time, an infant changes daily. I was so sad that he may miss even a minute of it so I invested in a Polaroid camera and took daily photo shoots of FMR Jr. They would get folded into a letter that professed love and sorrow for the distance. I stamped, and mailed one every day.  Eventually I learned to date them on the outside because he usually received them in a stack. To keep him motivated to come back to me, I added a personal Polaroid from time to time. ; )

Sometimes I think it was then that we really fell IN love with one another – those letters were our hearts poured onto paper. They were absent of defense mechanisms and blaming. They lacked rhetorical pieces of our brokenness and focused solely on the ways in which we supported and cared for one another. For a solid six months there were no arguments, no conflicts, no power struggles; we simply shared ourselves in the most vulnerable of ways.

We started to plan the rest of our lives and shared hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We began to develop a clear vision of what we hoped for our lives to become. We wrote letters to one another that were clear in intention and specific in our picture of the future.  The map to the rest of my life was being drawn.

img_5407 img_5404  img_5413

I split the time he was away by spending half with dad in Ohio and then the final three months in Virginia with mom. I loved being back on the East coast and fell in love with the Virginia Beach area. Rocky and I came up with a post-navy plan. He would only have 30 days of his Navy commitment left when he returned and we agreed to move east – all the way. We counted down the days with each letter. I washed windows in big houses with newspaper and vinegar for months as I earned enough money to get back to California so that I could be there when he got back Stateside. I made enough to fly out there and rent a trailer on the Camp Pendleton beach for the last month of his service. It was a surprise. He didn’t know I would be there and I was able to watch as he got off the bus – perhaps a bit envious of other family members running up to their loved ones – and then he saw me. I remember it as a movie moment, a bit sappy, probably cheesy, but everything I wanted it to be; surprising, joyful, and romantic.

We were three again. We had persevered. We still wanted one another – he came back to ME. His desire for me had withstood the test of separation and time (six months is a life-time at the age of 23). I began to believe that dreams can come true, that families can be happy, that life was fair. I was learning about hope and counting on it.

Silly me.

Prince Charming

In the years after high school I sowed some oats and experimented with life.  I explored love, travel, and a few illicit substances before it was all said and done.  I received a couple of hard knocks as men took advantage of my kindness and naiveté. I worked hard but spent a lot of money while I discovered slot machines and cocaine. I was enrolled in college but never took it seriously enough to make decisions about my life or grades that counted. I changed majors three times over five years and never finished.

I had graduated from high school in California and stayed there after my parents relocated back east. I was finished with moving around. For the first time in a decade I had established friendships and felt a sense of belonging. I was self supportive and made the decision to rescue my sister after she finished high school (her story to tell).  I rented a two-bedroom apartment and brought her out to live with me. My work with the railroad kept me on-the-go to the extent that I was gone more than half the time each month. Frankly I don’t remember much about that time except that we fought about dishes and who would be doing them. I experienced a reality of being stone broke. It took everything I earned to take care of us both.

I turned 21 and felt old. In an effort to bring some light and fun into my life, my sister arranged a blind date for me. She was dating a Navy guy from a local hospital base who had three roommates. Apparently, she invited them over to our apartment with the agreement that I could choose one for a date. I was getting ready for the evening when I heard commotion in the kitchen and as I entered the main living area I was aware of three young men. One of them – the only one I really noticed – had his back to me but oh…. What a view. He wore white flared pants and a camel colored short sleeve shirt. He was the tall, blonde, and broad shouldered. Even from the rear, there was no doubt in my mind that I was interested and immediately attracted. It was a visceral physical attraction. When he turned around and smiled, I could barely breathe. This blonde god was the kind of man that would never, ever, be interested in a gal like me.

His kind of attractive looked past girls like me. Even though I had an average figure and corrected my ‘bucked-teeth’ issue with orthodontics and dental surgery – my body image and self value was still strongly tethered to the original version of me. I felt an immediate sense of disappointment as I recalled the thousands of rejections that had previously taken place (in reality it was probably dozens – felt like thousands).  The other two guys were great but I put them all in the same category – too attractive to be interested in me. I felt disappointed but attempted to have fun as I knew Al was excited about ‘hooking me up’.  The tall one – the one that had first caught my breath – asked to lie down at midnight. He explained that he had an oral surgery procedure the next morning and was unable to eat or drink anything after midnight; he might as well sleep.  I directed him to my room and carried on. An hour or more went by… I was curious. I walked back to my room, opened the door and looked in on this human hunk who was lying in my bed. He looked up.“You know – it’s not just any man who gets to sleep in my bed.”  I felt brave. He invited me in. I sat on the edge of my bed and talked with him until it was obvious that everyone else had quieted down and was ending the night. He kissed me or maybe I kissed him or we just simply moved into one another in some romantic and wanton way. I believe I heard trumpets or something coming from the heavens. I knew that I wanted to kiss him again over and over and over. I was certain I didn’t deserve him. I hoped he wanted me. It was a beginning.

Truth be told, I was immediately in love. I was in love with the idea that a man who ‘looked like him’ would be *at all* interested in me. I lived in fear that he would wake up and notice the fat buck toothed girl I really was. When, just a couple of weeks (like, literally – two) after meeting, he casually discussed getting married someday – I said yes! Let’s do it. He moved into my apartment, turned 20 and picked out an engagement ring that I helped to pay for.

I gradually fell in love with the family attributes he embodied, the way he allowed me to feel special and beautiful, the insecurities he trusted me with. It was the first time that I understood I was not the only one who felt unlovable. He felt that way too – even though he was physically beautiful. An ah-ha moment…. Beautiful people could feel unworthy. He was Francis Marion Rockefeller (Rocky to me) and he was my prince charming. He was the vision of everything I had ever hoped for and it was rough. We were so very young.  We were both so broken in our individual ways but we didn’t know it. There was such a void in our awareness. In an effort to fulfill the Cinderella story, we got married and began a life together. We vowed to cherish and to adore without understanding the meaning or value of that commitment.

rocky1

It was SO MUCH work… which, feels like an understatement really. Neither of us was emotionally ready for the commitment of marriage and yet, we were drawn to one another in a way that felt constantly passionate and romantic. There were ‘eye’ moments…. The kind you see in movies where everything stands still and nothing exists except you both – there – in the moment. There were evenings of dreaming and hoping and planning the rest of our lives. There were fights about money, lots of adventure, and card game weekends with friends. We got a cat, went fishing, ate guacamole, and discovered strawberry shortcake in a way that only happens when one is pregnant.

rocky3Our son was born just weeks before Rocky was scheduled to leave for a six month tour of duty to Okinawa, Japan. He showed up after 9 hours of labor weighing in at 10 lbs 9 oz; not bad brewing for a first time mom. There are so many funny stories to tell about that day but leave it to say that neither of us had ever experienced a more joyful moment.  Parenting became us. We pulled maturity out of our asses and bucked up to the occasion of accepting the role of mom and dad. This was the moment, the single most important moment of our lives up to now. It was the moment that we understood commitment and honor and hope in a way that had never shown up before. It was the moment we unconsciously decided to get our shit together. We looked at each other and knew that our ‘forever’ had just been dedicated. Or so we thought.

 

Sand Castles

In my sophomore year of high school my mom and step-dad had to relocate to the metro DC area so that mom could obtain some specialized medical care for an at-risk pregnancy. She spent three months on bed rest before my (half) twin sisters were born. In an effort not to have us change schools AGAIN – we, my brother and I (sister Allysen was living with dad in California) went to stay with our grandmother until the school year was finished. It entailed come unique transportation arrangements since she did not live in the district we attended. They made arrangements for me to be picked up at an intersection of a state highway that a teacher drove for her commute. It was rural Pennsylvania and the term intersection is loose. There were a couple of roads there actually, the state Highway, a county road leading into a town of a few hundred, and a dirt road that was predominately farm access. It was the dirt road that I travelled to meet this teacher.

Occasionally, my grandmother was unable to pick me up in the afternoons and I was relegated to walking the 3.5 miles home. No, really…. It’s true. And no….. it wasn’t uphill both ways and yes…. I had shoes. I actually loved those walks when the weather was good. I recall singing Karen Carpenter songs and making up poems. One of them won a poetry contest at school. I still remember it.

As the autumn leaves turn to red

Lay your sleepy soul upon the bed

Close your eyes and go to sleep

Listen to the Willows weep

Nestle down all snug and warm

If you chill reach out your arm

Let me hold you extra tight

Before we kiss and say goodnight.

I’ve never forgotten the words to that poem and no, I don’t recall any special significance from it. I was probably missing my mother. I’ve had people say that it reminds them of death….. In future years if ever an English professor somewhere decides that there is some amazing underpinning of sorrow here and decides what it must mean, please know it is beyond my conscious understanding.

The other memory that stands out from one of those long walks is the profound understanding that I was “too young to feel this old”. I was fifteen and had assumed primary responsibility for my 6 year old brother. In all of the moves, the one consistent element is that he and I were together. Our sister often chose to live with the opposite parent and it was only a year or two out of our entire childhood that we all shared the same home. Along the way people would say “take care of your brother” or “you are such a big girl” and “it’s nice to count on you”. I became that girl – the one whom everyone depended upon. The idea that I may fail or let someone down became unacceptable to me. I began to thrive on people’s reliance on me. I became Miss Responsible while I lost my childhood.  That day I realized I was “too young” I didn’t know why or how it had happened exactly that I “felt too old” – I just knew I did and I didn’t believe that my thoughts about it would be taken seriously or accepted. I knew I needed to be dependable.

Perhaps on some crazy deep plane I was somehow in touch with the idea that my youth was escaping, my innocence waning, my adolescence disappearing and that is the source of the poem. Perhaps there was some subliminal pain that was unable to rise to the surface except metaphorically in that collection of rhyming words. Is that where art comes from? Should I have paid closer attention? Should someone have noticed? Nope, adults in my life were on auto pilot, coping with their own stuff – looking across the valley and choosing not to see the garbage there.

By the age of 15 I had learned and deeply engrained into my psyche the need to please – to be dependable and responsible – to take care of others. I had demonstrated so greatly that I could meet the needs of other people that *I think* people assumed I knew how to meet my own. I’m not sure I was aware that I had personal needs. How does a young person become aware of their needs if someone isn’t guiding them and teaching them about emotional and physical needs and about healthy methods of self care?

Some might argue (in fact, I often have a mental debate/war ensuing in my own mind) that learning dependability and responsibility are admirable attributes and actually, they are. However, there are UNHEALTHY behaviors that arise when we forget to set limits, to listen to our own needs, and fail to use our voice in fear that someone will feel disappointment. We learn to keep secrets where truth would meet displeasure. We develop perfectionist personas and fears of failure. We become slaves to positive response and most importantly, we fail to learn how to COPE with the idea that it is impossible to please all people – all the time.

That was me by the age of 18. I had become a complete and total people pleaser without skills to manage negative responses in a healthy manner and so it began, like a drippy sand castle…. one situation after another, the fears of disappointment and the inability to handle failure. Mental messages that slowly accumulated into a distorted perception of self.  There was my ‘inside’ self and the identity that I portrayed to the world. I had allowed a constant state of disconnect to exist in my mind between the person I felt like on the inside and the person I allowed the world to see. When people looked at me, they saw a confident, strong, smart, motivated, determined, and fearless young woman.  That was my outside – the part that people were proud of; teachers, parents, friends, siblings, employers, neighbors. I was a ‘good girl’. And, while those qualities are definitely there, the 12 year old girl who missed her mom and wanted to ride bikes and play hide and seek ‘til dark also existed and she was at war with me. She wanted to come out and be taken care of. She needed love and compassion. She wanted to cry in the lap of someone who didn’t judge. She needed to learn how to disappoint without risking total approval.

Merging my inside and my outside happened, but not until a storm blew in and washed wave after wave over the well fortified castle.

 

 

 

Intentions

It can bum you out when your intentions aren’t, like, translated properly. ~ Kesha

Right Kesha??!!

I had lunch with a friend the other day and talked with her about my decision to write this blog. She’s known me for 20+ years and has shared many of my deepest pains. She’s actually the first one that allowed me to feel safe being imperfect – at least consciously. “What do you want to accomplish” she asked and I had an answer ready but I’ve been rethinking it these last few days. I’ve been digging deep to be sure that my motive isn’t attention seeking or purging prior hurts that I haven’t processed.  I believe I have done the work or at least all that I am aware of. If, through this process I discover that isn’t true I can stop and reevaluate.

I am extremely confident that my goal is to share HOW I got here, to this place where comfort and vulnerability coexist – at least most of the time – in an effort to demonstrate how others can take that journey themselves. If no one reads it, well then – it will be a well documented historical gift to my children and future grandchildren. They will ‘know me’ via my writing. I kinda wish I had that gift from my mother or grandmother but I know that both of them would have rather gotten run down by a train or dragged by a team of horses than to air any weaknesses or personal shames. After all, they were the voices I spoke of in my last post – the ones that encouraged me to ‘put on my big girl panties and carry on’ versus process a painful / shameful experience. My grandmother in fact, once attempted to teach me that I could stand on a hill and simply observe the beautiful green grass on the neighboring hill instead of tramping through the garbage dump in the valley to get there. “Don’t look” she would say – “it’s only garbage”.

Knowing how we became ‘who we are’ is paramount in understanding how and what to change – at least in my *humblest* opinion. I don’t have any pretty empirical evidence to support this claim and I haven’t recently researched specific psychological theories that point to verification for this perspective but in almost a decade of private practice and several decades of personal discovery, it is clear that true change doesn’t take place without attending to the origin of the problem.

In the early years of my journey, I would attend therapy to hear a counselor ask “what my ‘problems with living’ are.” I would explain how fearful I was that I was really unlovable that people didn’t ‘really’ love me. Sure guys wanted to have sex with me and for a few years I believed that meant I was desirable – good looking – pretty – sexy, etc. But we KNOW, I hope all females KNOW that is NOT true. It wasn’t true in the 70’s or the 80’s or ever…. Horney does not equal desirable. I wish females were born with that knowledge!!  What I soon discovered is that it takes a counselor interested in the INFECTION not the symptoms. Treating symptoms only is just asking for another flare-up down the road. It wasn’t until I found someone who DUG and forced me to look deep that I began understanding why I thought / felt the way that I did. Having said that – we all have to be WILLING to go deeper. I remember a therapist asking about my childhood and what it must have been like when my mother left to join the Army. I said ‘it was good. I got to play grown up and they were all better off.”  It took some time before we both really understood the dynamics and consequences of that decision.

So, here I am – a middle aged woman who became a mental health counselor in after 40. I made that decision because it was the only way I could think of to find meaning from the pain that I had experienced in my own life (future posts). I believe that everything happens for a reason or at the very least that there is value in each experience. My goal in returning to school and investing in graduate school during a tumultuous time in my own life was to find a way to make that pain make sense. I believe that sharing some of those experiences helps people who are working to find their own way.  I share when it is appropriate during sessions with clients. I am often told how helpful it is to know that “they aren’t the only ones”. That sense of ‘universality’ is understated – in my opinion.

That’s why this blog has been in my head for so long… it’s the print version of what I share / do in my counseling practice. It will be the complete version – the whole story. IF it is helpful, great! If not…. Move on. I am daring here; daring to expose myself to the world in an effort to let people know that they are NOT the only ones. That personal growth happens from our pain IF we are willing to do the work. IF we are willing to see the garbage in the valley or clean out the closets where we have shoved our pains.

I have fear. Fear that I will be criticized and ridiculed for sharing deeply private thoughts and experiences. I have allowed fear to direct far too many decisions in my life. Here, I am pushing through fear of being mocked and unaccepted. I am remembering all of those people whose opinions truly count. I am remembering all of the people who have told me my story was helpful for them.  I am remembering that I – Leslyn – know my intent. I hope I am appropriately demonstrating it to you.

Like Lava

In these first couple of posts I am describing my childhood. In psychodynamic theory, it is in childhood – the experiences and relationships there – that form our personalities. While I don’t buy into the totality of that premise, clearly some of those things teach us about the world in which we live. They shape our understanding of what to expect and how to respond. I have shared information about the relationships I experienced with mom, dad and both step-parents. I briefly talked about the idyllic environment that encompassed the small town we lived in. I’m confident in stating that that strong foundation benefited me in numerous ways; shaping much of the woman that I am today.

However, there were *some* less-than-wonderful moments in those years. Ironically, many of them are the ones that are stand out memories for me. I recall going to the Fireman’s carnival and not having enough money to buy an ‘all night’ ride pass. My family struggled more than others financially. I recall the day our car was repossessed. I can still visualize it going down the street – being driven by a young man I had never seen before. My mom was embarrassed and attempted to distract us but I was just old enough to understand it meant we didn’t have enough money. I had to turn in supplemental forms so that I could get lunch ‘aid’. For the longest time all I wanted to do was pack my lunch in a brown paper bag like so many other kids.  I hated standing in that lunch line. It was in the basement with really short ceilings and pipes running along the corridor that sweat and dripped on us as we were corralled through the cafeteria. I felt like an Ogre standing in the lunch line because I was so much taller than other kids; I grew tall early and fast.

I was mortified in the 3rd grade as I wet myself while doing a homework problem at the chalkboard. I was wearing a blue leather skirt that was a favorite and when I got paddled for not making it to the bathroom, it stung that much more through the leather. Yes – paddled. In those days it hung on a hook right behind the teacher and it was used frequently. Yes – I pee’d my pants at 8 years old.  As I recall, I couldn’t do the math problem and had asked to use the girl’s room but was told to do the problem first. I was petrified of failure. I tried. I failed both with the math problem and making it to the bathroom.  Consequently, I was shammed and publicly punished.  Thankfully, that kind of behavior is now illegal.

In 4th grade we had to line up and get our statistical data recorded by the nurse. It was also a type of cattle call. We were herded into the hallway in lines of boys and girls. We would move first to someone who collected our cards where a parent had carefully printed our names and addresses, names of parents and siblings. We were required to be measured for height first so shoes had to be off. I recall having holes in my socks. We moved quickly in fear of reprimand to the scale where someone would weigh us and yell the number across the hall to another person who recorded the information. That year I crossed the threshold of 100 lbs. Yes, when the average 9 year old girl was around 70 lbs, I tipped the scale over three digits and they announced it to the entire student body or at least those in the hallway. I’m quite sure by the end of the day, everyone knew. By 8th grade people would simply tell me that if I lost weight, I’d be pretty. I learned I couldn’t be pretty the way I was.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had inherited my father’s jaw structure. My upper pallet was extremely narrow forcing my teeth forward across my lower jaw bone; commonly referred to as bucked teeth. They were the subject of ridicule from peers throughout my childhood.  In our 5th grade classroom the social studies workbooks were typically stacked on a cabinet against the wall and distributed by a student whenever that subject was about to be taught. Our names were on the front and one child was responsible for moving throughout the room handing them out.  Typically, the name would be read and a meeting would occur where the transfer took place. One by one they went out. Suzi, Katy, Tommy, John, and then…. Someone had scribbled out my name and written “Buck-tooth” … my name couldn’t be read through the scribble and so the question was delivered loudly and hung in the room for an eternity…. “Who’s buck-tooth?”  The room got quiet and one by one, student’s eyes moved in my direction and the room broke out in mocking laughter.  I wanted to die. I wanted to room to swallow me up and hide me. In that moment, I hated that my parents were poor. I hated that I was different. I hated that I was there in that room. It was in that moment that I learned how cruel the world could be; that parts of me were unacceptable and could be the brunt of agonizing laughter.

These petty experiences as an 8, 9 and 10 year old were sparse and seemingly isolated yet their impact superseded amazing childhood joys in ways that are difficult to understand. Today, we label much of that behavior as bullying and abusive. There is no doubt that they significantly fashioned parts of my SELF concept. It seems that no matter how supportive and loving my family and friends were, these insulting moments were defining. I learned that the world beyond home could be humiliating and emotionally unsafe.

As I write, read, and edit I can hear voices – well not really, not actual voices – but thoughts or comments in my head that say “get a grip, kids can be brats” or “seriously, you had a great childhood; get over it already”. Somehow I also learned to devalue the pain of those experiences. I learned that they should be dismissed. I hear judgment in my mind instead of compassion and empathy for that young girl who hurt. I suspect that people told me to “never mind them” or to “just ignore them” – advice that supports dismissal versus empathizing and processing the hurt. Essentially, somewhere down the line I was taught to ‘avoid’ the feelings – set them aside. In fact, I recall that my mom’s way of dealing with negativity was to box it up and set it on a shelf in a (mental) closet. I’m sure she taught me that. Now that I think of it, mom’s closet was pretty full and disorganized.

I share all of these details not to solicit pity or compassion because really, you probably can’t say or do anything that someone in my life hasn’t already tried. It’s always been up to ME to process those experiences in a positive way it’s just that I was never taught how as a child. Actually, we –as a culture- aren’t very good at teaching emotional processing (I guess that’s why I have a good job these days). We spend a lot of time telling one another (and sadly our children) to “suck it up”, “get over it”, “move on”, etc….. When what we could be telling them is that emotions are REAL and they are NORMAL and that THEY JUST ARE. We actually encourage people NOT to feel. We tell them that feelings are bad, wrong, or ridiculous instead of validating their existence and then teaching or encouraging evaluation and processing.

Nurturing those old wounds takes work. They are a constant in my psyche. It’s as if they run on a current of hot lava through my soul and occasionally erupt – sometimes violently in an explosion but more often seeping through cracks in a way that slowly burns whatever is in their path. Sometimes I feel like a gatekeeper, running from vent to vent attempting to coral or channel the flow so to limit the damage. The idea that I am vulnerable to public humiliation because of the way that I look or because of an embarrassing accident or due to how much money I have, continues to be challenging but here I am…. Staring it in the face and daring greatly.

 
Photo credit: schizoform via Foter.com / CC BY

Solid Foundation

I distinctly remember childhood as a pleasant time. I grew up in a small town in the Pennsylvania Mountains where everyone knew your name. Of course, it was a blessing and a curse because IF I had wanted to get into a little mischief, my parents would have been told and a punishment planned before I ever got home. Just the threat of that generally kept me in check. There were dozens of children within a two block radius and summer evenings were filled with playing hide-n-seek with all. It was one of those evenings in my 9th year when I got my first kiss as NJ and I were hiding together. It was as innocent as my mischievousness but allowed a multitude of diary entries that proclaimed a lifelong love and extreme anticipation whenever I saw him crossing the street or pushing the mower across his lawn.

I had two very close friends and the crossing guard dubbed us the three stooges early one school year. We were inseparable. If we weren’t experimenting with popcorn or playing cards, we were outdoors using our imagination or riding our bicycles down to Henry’s Drug store for ice cream. Monopoly marathon weekends were common. It was a childhood experience similar to those on television without the drama. Well, as is typical with a threesome, there were times that any combination of two were better ‘buddies’ for the week but when it was all said and done, we were three. We shared all of the distinctive adolescent ‘firsts’ and giggled about what would happen when we grew up and fell in love. We shared the death of grandparents, marriages of older siblings, and held strong when visiting cousins tried to interfere with our agenda.

I was the kind of kid that got up on Saturday mornings and did all of the chores that I thought my mother may include on my list so that I was ready to get out and play as soon as possible. The regiment generally included dusting, making my bed, and scrubbing the bathtub – all of which were fairly tolerable. It is safe to say that I was a parent-pleaser. My subconscious but occasionally blatant goal was to hear “good job” or “we’re proud of you” as frequently as possible. I thrived on praise and was instantly heartbroken on the few occasions that my father calmly and sternly offered a consensus of “we’re disappointed”.

I desperately wanted to be a Go-Go Girl like the ones on American Bandstand and coveted a pair of white knee-high boots. Unfortunately for that inspiration, I was half a decade too young and overly conscious of my parent’s necessity for frugality. I was lucky to get a new pair of sneakers each school year. We weren’t poor exactly. For most of my early academic years, my father had a steady job with Proctor & Gamble and mom had a hair salon in the back room of our home. We didn’t take annual vacations or have elaborate holidays but really, I didn’t notice. We always had what we needed.

dancerina

1969 Ad for Dancerina. Holy Cow what a great example of gender biased advertising. Yikes!

I vaguely recall threatening to ‘run away’ if Santa didn’t bring Dancerina (a battery operated doll that did pirouettes when you pushed down on her crown). She was the only gift under the tree for me that year but again, I didn’t notice because I was tucked into a quiet corner wearing out two new double-D’s.  I sometimes experienced a whispering sense of shame for the childish and obnoxious threat but it was quickly over spoken with the knowledge that I was the recipient of that year’s most coveted girl toy. There was no such thing as a Christmas ‘list’ – we were allowed to dream of ONE item… and more often than not, we were not disappointed.

My mother gave me the gift of believing that I was her favorite child. I’m sure I was not but that debate continues in the family today and nevertheless, it allowed me to develop a confidence that parental love was unconditional and abiding. She was, in my youthful perspective, a beautiful woman and had the gift of ‘gab’. She was always involved in a craft project of some type, trying a new recipe, or volunteering for some committee. I am sure her beauty salon perpetrated the ‘gab’ factor but the end result was that I observed what it was to have a wide reaching social network.

My father was tall – Abraham Lincoln tall – standing 6 foot 9 inches and had a crazy long stride. My walks with him consisted of me at a slight run as it took three of my steps to match his one. It never mattered though; my dad was my hero. He smoked a pipe of cherry tobacco and wore Old Spice for as long as I can remember; scents that instantly provide me with a sense of longing today. Dad was a dreamer. He allowed me to dream and made sure that I knew I was capable of chasing them.

I am the oldest sibling and had to share my early childhood with a sister who inevitably crawled into bed with me at night. The most disturbing part of that was that she wore socks and every time our feet would touch, the sensation of something soft and fuzzy tricked me into believing that a critter was at the bottom of our bed. It was difficult to move through the ‘monsters under the bed’ phase when every night it felt as if they were IN the bed. On more than one occasion I recall taking a running leap into bed as to prevent whatever was under there from reaching out.

dressed-up-pat

I’m pretty sure that’s a half-slip on his head.

Our little brother was born right about the time that dolls and ‘playing house’ (do kids do that these days??) were the focus of my past time. His first friends were all of my plastic babies that kept him company in the playpen. While it was easier to dress them because they held still, I attempted to attire him with doll clothing far too often. Mom was convinced that he would grow up scarred.  I loved that kid.I couldn’t have been more proud of him than if he had been mine.

This is how the story of my life begins; idyllic and fun. It’s the first 12 years of my life and it provided me with an unshakable foundation. Thank goodness because I ended up needing it. It is the basis from which I developed optimism, hope, and ultimately – some unrealistic expectations. It supports the standards that govern my life view and helped to foster some of the perfectionism that hasn’t necessarily been a positive force for me.

I am NOT complaining, in fact I am deeply grateful for that start to life. It is however, necessary to look back and see realistically, how some of my grown up ideologies were developed. Understanding and awareness are the first step to growth.