DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

One of my friends, Rachel, is trying to get her 94-year-old mother, Blanche, to clean out the house she’s lived in for 45 years. She’ll be moving from a big house in Long Island, NY to a small apartment in an independent living facility in Portland, OR. That’s where Rachel, Rachel’s two daughters, and Rachel’s brand-new granddaughter live.

Blanche is a ‘collector’ to put it charitably. She doesn’t like to part with anything. She has literally hundreds of paintings, many by her late husband, on the walls and floors of every room as well as in storage in her large basement. She has almost as many photos and photomontages and old holiday cards crowded onto every wall and piled on every flat surface in the house. Then there are the piles of books and papers literally everywhere. Rachel found a file cabinet with tax returns from the 1960s.

An example of a cluttered room

The problem is that everything is precious to Blanche. She feels that the house and its contents represent her life and she has trouble getting rid of anything. To me, she seems overly attached to the physical objects, which only represent the memories of the past. I’m not sure how the move will go because Blanche has not yet accepted that her smaller accommodations will not hold everything she insists she needs.

Another example of ‘stuff’ on every surface

This got me thinking about what I would do if I had to downsize dramatically. What would be important to me to keep with me? A good portion of my memories are in my photo albums. These start with my grandparents and go through my mom’s life, my early years, and my life with my kids. But the albums stop in 2002 when I married Tom. My kids were 22 and 17. My phone has most of the recent photos and I have boxes of photos that have not yet been put into albums. I can be happy with my mish-mash of photographic memories.

Some of my photo albums

I’m also lucky in that I have written a lot of biographical material over the years and I’ve collected my writings into binders. For 40 years I’ve written humorous, rhyming poems commemorating birthdays, anniversaries and father’s and mother’s days. My early poems were ostensibly ‘from’ my young son, David, so they documented his early years and his relationships with his family and loved ones. Then I started doing poems about the birthday person and I branched out into major events like Bar Mitzvah’s and weddings.

But my major biographical opus is my collection of blogs for Serendipity that tell my family history starting with my grandparents’ early years. I documented stories from my parents’ lives, my childhood, and my kids’ childhoods into the present day. I also wrote blogs about relationships that shaped our lives and I arranged the blogs in a sort of chronological order. I ended up with a 370-page document that I am very proud of. I have given copies to both of my children so they will always have their family stories close at hand.

Because I have so many of my cherished memories saved in photographic or written form, I think that I could pack my ‘life’ into just a few boxes. I’m not really attached to my furniture – except for a beautiful, custom made kitchen table embedded with sea glass and a matching sea glass mobile. I do love some of my chatchkis, particularly my glass and paperweight collections and a few things from my mom and grandmother. But I could live with just a few of them, decoratively placed around my living space.

So I don’t think I’ll drive my kids crazy if I ever have to leave my home and move to a smaller place. I’ve already condensed my past into manageable form.

However, my jewelry is another story!

THE JOYS OF DOORMEN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I lived in New York City for the first 40 years of my life and since then I’ve lived in the woods in a small town in Connecticut. So I have a good perspective on life in the city versus life in the country.

To be honest, there’s very little about city life I miss, except for being able to go to the theater without spending hours sitting in a car, stuck in traffic. However the one major perk of city life that makes me wax nostalgic, is the pleasure of living in an apartment building with doormen. Now, most people would probably not think of doormen as a big selling point for living in New York City. That’s because doormen are the best-kept secret among us long-time New Yorkers.

There’s a special relationship that often develops between friendly residents and chatty doormen. You get to know each other well and become like a family. These men know a lot about your life from the comings and goings in and out of your apartment. And people tend to talk to doormen, almost like they do to hairdressers. Mine knew my kids, my mom and my friends in the building, which created a strangely intimate relationship. They knew when we were doing work in our apartment, like when our upstairs neighbor’s bathroom leaked and our bathroom ceiling fell in. They followed every skirmish in our battle with the insurance companies, which lasted two years.

I’ve experienced this relationship as a child, as an adult and as a parent of young children. Each phase is unique and gratifying. As a child, every doorman knew my name and often the names of my friends who visited frequently. I had severe school anxiety so waiting for the school bus in the lobby every morning could have been a tense time for me if I hadn’t had a doorman to distract me and keep me talking. Jimmy was my favorite for many years, a tall thin man with a missing tooth who made me look forward to the morning wait for the bus. If I was running late, he would make the bus wait for me and would call up to our apartment to tell me to hurry up.

The doormen also helped the kids in the co-op bend the rules so we could play in the street. They let us skate and ride bikes in front of the building, which was strictly forbidden. They were our lookouts, warning us to stop if someone on the co-op board was entering or leaving the building and might ‘report’ us.

When my kids were young, we lived in a different building, all of two blocks away from the one I grew up in. But the next generation of doormen, they were as wonderful to my kids as mine had been to me, and they too developed a strong bond.

Their doormen let them skate, skateboard and practice gymnastics down the long, narrow hallway leading from our elevator to the lobby. I could send the kids downstairs to play on their own and know they were safe and supervised. I had built-in babysitters.

They often let my kids spy on people in the elevators on the security cameras they kept behind the lobby desk. For some reason, that was a huge treat!

The long hallway in my apartment building

Once our doormen went above and beyond for my ten-year-old son, David. David had a pet python and there was a large ficus tree in the lobby. David thought the snake would have fun climbing around in the tree so the doormen let David sneak the snake into the lobby and, when no one was looking, put it in the tree. David and the snake nonchalantly hung out in the lobby for several hours, with people coming and going, until someone finally noticed something moving in the tree. That ended the tree climbing experiment.

The lobby decor has changed but the ficus tree is still there!

As an adult, there are a myriad of other reasons for enjoying the luxury of having a doorman. They accept deliveries for you when you aren’t home and help you with your bags.

Another convenience, beyond mere safety, is they let workmen into your apartment when you aren’t home so you don’t have to wait for them to show up or give them your keys.

\You also feel safe knowing the doormen monitors everyone who comes into the building. They won’t let anyone up to your apartment without your approval. They are your first line of defense against predators and nuisances.

In the country, I’m friendly with the local post office workers, farmer’s market cashiers and with the people at the nearby coffee shop and market. It’s not the same thing. It’s not as personal. These people may like you, but they don’t know your life or have your back like doormen did.

Doormen are a special breed of extended family that I treasured as a New Yorker and I miss as a country dweller.

 

MR. ROGERS AS PARENTING GURU – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother was a psychologist who originally specialized in child psychology. Throughout life, I had a personal role model for parenting through the way she treated me and from what she actually taught me about relating to children.

Her philosophy was to respect your child as an individual but understand how he or she thinks and what he or she understands at each level of development. You should talk to children as you would an adult, but using words and concepts they can understand at each developmental stage.

She believed that you should explain whatever is going on in your child’s life, including why you want them to do something or not do something. I always got a reason for what was expected of me so I was a very reasonable and cooperative child, most of the time.

My favorite photo of my mom and my son, David

I was nineteen in 1968 when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started its 30 plus year run on television. I didn’t get to know him until around 1987 when my daughter was two.

She became a huge Mr. Rogers fan, as did I. I immediately realized that he was motivated to help parents as much as kids. He was a wonderful example of the calm, consistent, patient demeanor parents should exhibit towards their kids as well as a model of how adults should communicate with children.

He showed parents how to tune into what their kids were feeling, to respect those feelings and how to appropriately address them. He was particularly good at showing parents how to help kids through difficult times in their personal lives or in society as a whole.

He started his TV run in 1968 and that year he filmed an episode especially for parents, showing them how they could talk to their children about the assassinations and social turmoil that was erupting in the society at the time. His last address specifically for parents was after 9/11 in 2001, when he was talking to a generation of parents who had grown up watching his show.

Mr. Rogers’ parenting style was familiar to me because it mirrored my own mother’s approach to parenting. It apparently had a huge influence on many other parents for decades.

He became a parenting icon, or guru, to millions. His influence could be compared to the influence of Dr. Spock. He also wrote several books for parents. The real wisdom he conveyed was through his overall persona and gestalt. Parenting philosophies have changed over the years but his example of nurturing and sensitivity has had a lasting impact.

Celebrations last year marking the 50th anniversary of his TV debut were received with enthusiasm and huge ratings. There was a PBS special and a critically acclaimed documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which made 22-million dollars at the domestic box office and became the top-grossing biographical documentary in American history!

The trailer for the new movie coming out about Fred Rogers, starring Tom Hanks, also received an enormous outpouring of affection and support on the internet.

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers is obviously beloved by both the children and the parents who watched his show and he was a comforting presence to parents as well as children. He gave parents confidence that with some empathy and patience, they could handle any situation with their children. But he also made it clear that there had to be a real connection between parent and child for this magical relationship to work.

To be a parent like Mr. Rogers, you had to talk to your child, ask him questions, read to him and play with him in order to develop the rapport and trust that predicates the “Mr. Rogers’ style” relationship.

Above all else, his message was to accept and love your child “just the way you are” and to give that dependent being all the time and attention he deserves. This approach is timeless, compassionate and caring.

Mr. Rogers set a high bar for generations of parents, particularly working parents whose time with their children was more limited. He also gave these parents the roadmap and confidence to reach his lofty goals.

You could say that Mr. Rogers has played a major role in shaping American society through his influence over generations of kids and parents because society is made up of individuals, and parents shape the character of the individuals who populate society.

Mr. Rogers helped shape parents since 1968.

FAMILY MEDICAL HISTORY – Marilyn Armstrong

We do not know nearly enough about the health of our parents and grandparents. We don’t know enough because they didn’t care to tell us about them. The freedom we feel know to discuss our ailments and cures is relatively new. When I was a kid unless it was lethal or it directly affected our day-to-day lives — no one said much.

Sometimes we got “hints.” Clues. Listening to the grownups talk sometimes dropped information that we could later put together. We learned more as we got older, especially if we were nosy enough to ask, but mostly, people in general across races, ethnicities, and religions, people didn’t talk about their medical issues.

It simply wasn’t done.

I knew, for example, about my mother’s breast cancer because it was unavoidable. And also, because my mother talked to me about grownup things to a degree that was unusual in parent-child relationships at that time. Also, knew about her radiation therapy because she had to explain why she could not go into the sun at all. They don’t do radiation (or surgery) like that now, but back then — well, let’s just say they have come a long way since then. They may not be able to cure cancer, but they treat people who have the disease with considerably more kindness.

I also knew about my father’s bone disease that came from being dragged by a car when he was a child and because they didn’t yet have antibiotics, it got into his bone and was not healed until he was in his fifties.

I knew who needed eyeglasses. Who was near-sighted. Who was far-sighted. My mother’s far-sightedness was a bit amusing because as she got older, the books she needed to read needed to be farther and farther away. At one point, she could only read the phonebook when it was on the floor and she was standing up.

What I didn’t know was close to half my family had been born with club feet. I knew my then-husband had been born with club feet (it was hard to miss), but because I knew nothing about its presence in my DNA, I didn’t know that Owen had a pretty much 100% chance of coming up with the same problem. As did Kaitlin, too. It turns out — and no one told us — that club foot is a very common genetic ailment among children. Almost every family has traces of it in their DNA.

But no one mentioned it so I was genuinely surprised when Owen showed up with it.

I didn’t know my father’s heart problems were genetic or that I had the same problem because they are not typically tested for. I’m pretty sure my father didn’t know he had it. He was told he had “congestive heart failure” which is a bucket term the medical community uses to describe just about every kind of “old age” heart problems.  Except that they don’t just show up only in old age. Young athletes die on basketball courts and football fields because no one knew they had Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It’s not something a family doctor can hear in a stethoscope. You need a specialist and unless someone knows it runs in the family, no one checks.

Garry knew about deafness. It was kind of obvious. But he didn’t know that both parents suffered from Glaucoma. Now he has tests coming up. Bad news? Yes, but not terrible news because treatments for it have come a very long way. Use your eyedrops, get regular exams and you are good to go.

But he didn’t know. Because people didn’t talk about it. He did vaguely remember his mother using eyedrops. When he called his brother later in the evening, he discovered both parents had it.

My thoughts? Tell your kids about your medical history. A lot of things are genetic and we don’t always know it. Some things are genetic and the link has yet to be discovered.

Discovering your newborn has something you had no idea ran in your family is a hard way to discover the truth.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

ULTIMATELY, WE ALL ARE ORPHANED – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Orphan

Although most of us never plan to go home again to live, there’s always somewhere, way back in our minds, the realization that if terrible things happen and everything else fails, we can go home.

We wouldn’t like it and they probably wouldn’t care for it, either. We might even hate it.

Otsego Road – Photo: Garry Armstrong

But the thought is there. Almost hidden by the rest of our lives, friends, work, children.

I never went home except for the occasional dinner. I swore when I left I’d never go back … but there was always a tiny corner in there. Not even a set of words, but a fragment of a thought. There was a last-ditch place I could be if the rest of the world collapsed around me.

I never went back, even when things were bad and I was sick. Never wanted to be there, not even briefly. Then, my mother died. Eventually, my father died though losing him wasn’t much like losing a parent. I hadn’t seen him as a parent for many long years. Garry’s father passed and eventually, his mother too. He never went home, either.

We are orphans. We can’t go home because this is home and there’s nowhere else to be. We haven’t even the fragments of those unspoken words.

Eventually and ultimately, we are all orphans.

THERE’S NO CRYING IN THIS NEST – Marilyn Armstrong

A woman, younger than me, has no children and asks: “What is ’empty nest syndrome?’ What does it mean?”

I gave it a bit of thought. After all, my nest is empty except for two terriers and the handsome husband.

The empty nest is one in which the children have grown up and moved out. They have independent lives. These newly made adults have left the family nest and assumed the mantle of adult responsibility.  Isn’t that what we wanted all along?

Swan family all lined up

My mother’s life did not revolve around me, though I kept her pretty busy for a long time. She was a dutiful mother insofar as she did the right stuff. She fed us, though this was her least shining achievement. She clothed us … and to this day I wish I’d better appreciated the clothing she made for me. I was just too young, awkward, and afraid someone might notice I was dressed “differently” from the other kids. Big mistake.

The whole family!

She talked to me about adult things in an adult way. She gave me tons of books and if I look around, I probably still own more than half of them. These weren’t the books my friends and schoolmates read. They were grown-up literature. Sometimes, I had to ask her what it meant because if anything, she overestimated my understanding of the larger world. When I was ready to go, she was proud of me for taking the leap.

It freed her to paint and sculpt and travel. To read, go to the theater, spend time with her sisters. Not cook and clean all the time. Make her own clothing instead of mine. She was glad my brother and I were independent and built lives.

I doubt she suffered from any kind of empty nest issues.

Nor did I. Of course, my son and his family kept coming back. For years, I yearned for an empty nest. Having finally achieved it, do I miss the patter of little feet? Or, for that matter, the thunder of big ones?

Flocks of Goldfinch

I miss the thunder more. Is there something wrong with enjoying the company of adult children more than little kids? I really enjoy having real conversations with grownups who look like me. Even if we disagree, I’m delighted they have opinions. That they are part of a bigger world and standing on their own feet.

Maybe the difference is that so many women seem to prefer babies to adults. They don’t want independent children who don’t need them. Some parents urgently need to be needed.

Children need nurturing, but they don’t need it all the time and they definitely don’t need it for their entire lives. After some point, their drive for separateness should overwhelm the need for nurturing. The drive to be independent should become dominant. I have always thought it’s our obligation as parents to help our kids achieve adulthood because we won’t be here forever. They will need to go on without us.

An empty nest is when you don’t need to do a load of laundry every day. Where the sink isn’t always full. You can park your car where you want it.

Photo: Ben Taylor

Extra rooms revert to your use, even if you use them as closets for all the stuff you collected. If you have a life of your own, interests of your own. There’s no such thing as an empty nest. It’s a time when your kids have achieved maturity. It’s when the work you did to raise them right pays off.

Adult children are great. If you still need to nurture, get pets. Adopt dogs and cats and ferrets and parrots. They will always need you.

If you do it right, your kids will always love you, but not always need you.