“When He’s Ten . . .” And Now He’s Fifty!

When our youngest sibling (a boy) was born, my ten-year-old brother announced in awe, “When he’s ten, I’ll be twenty!” As if it was impossible for him to consider ever being twenty, which it might well have been.

My siblings and me with our grandmother, right after the youngest brother was born. This might even have been the date when my ten-year-old brother said, “When he’s ten, I’ll be twenty!”

My grandmother loved telling that anecdote, and she repeated it often over the years. Of course, she was just a few months short of sixty when it happened and had already lost one husband to death. Even being twenty might have felt long ago in her past, which is what made it amusing to her.

My take on the story at the time was that in ten years, I would be twenty-one—out of college, an adult, and voting. (The voting age hadn’t yet been reduced to eighteen.) I didn’t say so when my brother made his pronouncement, but the notion of adulthood awed me as much as it did him.

Earlier this fall, that ten-year-old brother turned sixty. Our “baby” brother turns fifty tomorrow. It is fifty years—half a century—since that story became part of our family lore.

Baby brother when he was ten, escorting our mother into my wedding.

Obviously, fifty years ago, baby brother was not thinking of what his life would become. Now he has been married for over fifteen years, and he and his wife have two children. His career is well-established. I’ve written about this youngest brother before—his childhood precociousness, the fulfillment of his childhood desire to become a pediatrician, his devotion to our parents, and his steadiness after their death. He has become a better adult than any of us had in mind half a century ago.

Meanwhile, long before age sixty, the ten-year-old brother became estranged from the family for reasons of his own. I wonder when his perspective changed from awe at the possibility of turning twenty to a decision he didn’t need the rest of us. He is independent, but I doubt he has the type of adulthood he imagined through his growing-up years.

And in the intervening half century, my perspective has changed as well. After all, I am now older than my grandmother at the time of that incident fifty years ago.

Not only am I an adult—as I have been for more than forty years—I’ve been married for forty years, had two children, completed a corporate career, and launched myself into a “retirement” career of writing novels. In fact, I’ve been “retired” from paid employment for more than a decade—the same time period that so awed my brother when he was ten.

A decade doesn’t mean what it used to. At ten, it is an entire lifetime. At fifty, it is only 20% of a life. At sixty, it is even less significant. My perspective on time has changed as I have aged. A half-century still seems like a lot, but even that means less than it did fifty years ago.

How have your perspectives on time changed as you have aged?

A Belated Veterans Day Post

It seems that in over five years of writing this blog, I have never written about Veterans Day. This year, I am finally doing it, albeit a couple of days late.

I never expected to be part of a military family. I didn’t have any veterans among my relatives. Neither of my grandfathers served during World War II. One grandfather was just past draft age in 1942. He also owned a business that made machinery for sawmills—his work was deemed part of the war effort. I don’t know why the other wasn’t called up—he was still of draft age, though at the high end. He was married and had two children, but so did other men. I never heard of any health problems that would have kept him from being drafted.

My father toyed with the idea of joining the Air Force during the Korean War, but his eyes were too bad for flight school (which is what he wanted to do), so he went to college, got married, and had kids.

My brothers did not turn eighteen until after the draft for the Vietnam War ended.

So none of the men in my family served, and of course, it was much rarer for women to serve.

USNA picture

Then I married a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Class of 1971.

My husband and I met after he had served his five-year commitment in the Navy, during which he had both sea deployments and shore assignments. Though he had left active duty, he was still in the Naval Reserve and drilled every month while we were in law school together.

He thought about going back on active duty after law school, but I was adamant that I didn’t want to move our family every few years. I wanted to put down roots in a community. So he didn’t return to active duty, but he stayed in the Naval Reserve until 2001, when he had thirty years and was forced out as a Captain.

For the first twenty-four years of our marriage, then, he was in the Reserve. He drilled every month, often in cities far from our home in Kansas City—a couple of years in Milwaukee, another two in Fort Worth, and there were a few other cities he traveled to as well.

In uniform, as a Naval Reserve officer

In addition, he went on two weeks’ active duty every year. Sometimes he trained on a ship and was at sea. Sometimes he went to a course in Europe or did training exercises in Japan. Sometimes he set up a Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare unit on the coast and trained.

These Reserve weekends and active duty periods always seemed to fall at the worst times.

Both of our kids were born on drill weekends. He had to skip the Saturday drills to be with me at the hospital. But he made the Sunday drills.

Our first dog went into seizures on a drill weekend when hubby was in Milwaukee. I had to take the poor thing (a 60-pound mutt) to an emergency vet clinic by myself to be put to sleep. The only 24-hour vet I knew of was all the way across the metropolitan area. Our son helped me load the dog into the minivan, but I was alone when I dragged him into the clinic.

Our toddler daughter broke her arm on the Friday of a drill weekend when my husband had already left for wherever he was going at the time. I took her to the pediatrician on Saturday morning, five-year-old son in tow. It was the only time in my life I showed up at the pediatrician’s office without an appointment.

Our son almost got our car insurance canceled due to too many speeding tickets. I found out while my husband was in Japan on his two-week stint. Son and I had several lengthy conversations about the issue before hubby returned, and I purchased alternative high-risk insurance for son as well.

All of this in the years before cell phones and text messages made communications around the globe a simple matter.

In addition to the crises, my husband’s stock response when we debated who ought to do what around the house, or which of us should ferry a child to a social or sports commitment, was “I provide national defense,” as if his Naval Reserve obligation should exempt him from all other responsibilities. He said it tongue in cheek, but he did spend many weeknight evenings after working as an attorney all day on Naval Reserve paperwork and training. It’s hard to argue with the importance of supporting the national defense mission.

I do not pretend that the problems our family faced were anywhere near as significant as those of families where one spouse has been deployed for months on end in a war zone. But my husband’s military service did have an impact on our family, and I experienced enough of the single-parenthood caused by a spouse’s service that I can relate to what service members and their families endure.

Our marriage survived my husband’s absences, and we celebrate our fortieth anniversary later this month. Many veterans are not so fortunate, and many military families disintegrate under the pressures of distance and trauma.

Our veterans deserve huge thanks from this nation for their service and sacrifice, and so do their family members who do without them.

A belated expression of gratitude this year—to my veteran and to all our nation’s other veterans.

The Baggage We Tote Around

In this phase of my life, I sometimes find that I am a bag lady. I often spend an entire day away from my house in meetings with other writers, in workshops and webinars, and in many other activities. For example, last Saturday, I attended a writing workshop from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. And yesterday I was a poll worker from 5:00 am until 8:00 pm—a longer day than normal, but so be it.

On days when I’m going to be away from home, I gather all the belongings I’ll need—my laptop, a notebook, lunch and drinks, and the newspaper or a magazine or my tablet in case I have downtime and want to read. This time of year, I’d better pack a coat as well. All this stuff gets crammed into a tote bag—hence the reason I call myself a bag lady.

Recently, I’ve been using an old tote of my mother’s. I have a nice black leather tote, which looks more professional. But it’s heavy and the handles sometimes fall off. I have lightweight bags, but they are getting pretty worn (I’ve sewn the strap back on one of them with ugly brown stitches, and I no longer trust the straps on another bag) and are too summery for this time of year.

So my mother’s tote it is. It’s a good quality bag, with leather handles and trim, a heavy upholstery fabric, a nice lining, and a zipper pocket inside.

But it is definitely no longer in style.

I think I gave it to Mother one Christmas back in the 1990s. The label inside the bag says it was made for the Smithsonian Institute, and I recall doing a lot of my holiday shopping from the Smithsonian catalog back in the day. Perhaps it was in 1995, the year I did all my shopping from catalogs while sitting in the back of my minivan while my daughter took horseback riding lessons.

In any event, my mother was not hard on the bag, and it was still in good shape after her death. I recall her using it some, but not a lot.

On one of my visits shortly after Mother’s death, my father and I cleaned out her clothes from the closets in all three bedrooms of their house. He kept handing me things, saying, “Here. Can you use this?” And, “Take this. It’s brand new.”

I took a few items—a sporty jacket, a raincoat, a couple of purses, and this tote bag. Most of the items I’ve since given to Goodwill. My mother and I were close to the same size, but not exactly. Plus, many of her things were too far out of style to be wearable. And our tastes were not always similar.

But I kept the tote bag. And recently, I decided to start using it.

When I carry the bag, I think of my mother. I remember her in good times and in bad. The good times include her using this or a similar bag for knitting projects, back when she knitted baby sweaters for grandchildren. The good times include her writing years, late in her life, when she joined Questors and won an essay contest for local writers.

The bad times include her last couple of years at home, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and before she moved into an assisted living facility. During those years, she wouldn’t leave the house without three purses or totes, all crammed full of her “necessities.” These necessities included wadded up tissues, little notebooks, saltine crackers, and whatever else caught her fancy. She carried a wallet, but it didn’t have any cash. She didn’t carry car keys, as she no longer had a driver’s license.

It drove my father crazy waiting for her to gather all her bags before she would go wherever they were going. He was always early everywhere, and he fretted she would make them late.

In those bad years, she didn’t use this tote (stuffed full, she might not have been able to carry it). But she had a purse about half this size made out of a similar fabric. Even that purse weighed a ton. And she carried two other purses as well. We could usually talk her into leaving most of her bags in the car when she reached their destination, and my father would carry her “real” purse (the one with the empty wallet) when they went places. But she wouldn’t leave home without all her bags.

When I use my mother’s tote, I am reminded of these and other events marking the passage of time. Of ability and disability. Of making the best of the time we have, each day that we are given. And of the baggage that everyone carries every day—most of it inside of us, and not in the bags we tote.

What baggage do you carry?

On THE ARTIST’S WAY and the Truth in Fiction

I’ve kept the Post-It from September 2005

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a diversity program called “Women Supporting Women” in late September 2005. When I declared to the other participants in that program, “I will write a book before I die,” one of the women in the group handed me a Post-It note. On that Post-It, she wrote a quote from Julia Cameron, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.” She also jotted down the titles of two of Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way, and Walking in the World, and recommended I read them.

I wasn’t sure I had “sudden problems” in my life, though I did feel I was at a crossroads. So, as a good student, when I returned home, I went to the library and checked out The Artist’s Way. It appeared to be a book that might be helpful to me as I flailed at how to become the writer I wanted to be. Its exercises were as much about self-awareness as they were about artistic endeavors.

I quickly realized I would need my own copy of the book to highlight and mark up. I bought myself a copy and worked through it in some detail. Over the next year, I also bought Walking in the World and Vein of Gold, both by Julia Cameron, and a few years later when she published Finding Water, I bought it.

In the twelve years since I attended that diversity program, I have read all four of these books at least twice (as well as a couple of Cameron’s other books). Most of them I’ve read three or four times. I’ve highlighted my copies until there is as much yellow as white on the page, and their paperback spines are all broken.

While it would be an overstatement to say the books changed my life, they certainly have contributed to my growth as a writer. First, they encouraged me to proclaim I am a writer—which is very difficult for beginning writers to do. Second, they told me to do a little bit every day—write three pages, take one small step toward my goal, do something physical or repetitive with my hands or legs when I’m stuck creatively. Third, they provided tools for me to use in examining my life, in determining where I’m on track and where I need to change.

I was already journaling before I read The Artist’s Way, but Cameron’s encouragement of daily “morning pages” made me a more faithful scrivener. When I retired from my job at the end of 2006, I made a commitment to write in my journal every day, and I haven’t missed more than three or four days a year for the last eleven years—I don’t always write in the morning and I don’t always write as much as she recommends, but I write. The exercises in Cameron’s books have provided topics to write about when I’ve felt empty. As she says in her books, when the same subjects come up over and over in morning pages, it’s a signal that area of my life needs to change. (And there are always a few areas of my life I need to change.)

I’ve been less diligent about incorporating her concept of “artist dates” into my life. These are weekly times of play, where one goes on a small, solitary expedition to fill one’s creative well—anything from a concert at the Philharmonic to browsing through a fabric store (I’ve done both on my artist dates). Even though I don’t go on artist dates regularly, I’m more aware now of when I could use a shot in the arm, when I need exposure to something different and playful in my life.

Earlier this year I read through The Artist’s Way and did many of its exercises for at least the fourth time. What amazed me was how much I’d grown since the first time in late 2005 or early 2006. The first time I worked my way through the book, I was not at all certain that I could be a writer, nor did I know how to go about making myself into one. I needed Camerons encouragement. During the years, I have become a writer, and I’m proud of myself.

This time, I focused on the spiritual aspect of the artist’s journey. I wrote the following affirmations to myself:

1. God intends me to have a writing life, to be a writer, at least at this stage of my life.
2. My stories speak of human frailty and fallibility, of people trying to do their best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—as such, they speak the truth.

Those statements are far too wordy to be memorable affirmations that I can use when I need to give myself a pep talk. So I shortened them:

1. I am a writer.
2. My stories speak the truth.

It may seem strange that I write fiction, yet tell myself “my stories speak the truth.” But fiction is only good if it faithfully portrays the human condition within the confines of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As such, fiction often clarifies the truth in ways that real life cannot. After all, everyone reading this has not yet experienced the end of life’s story.

I’m not done with my journey along the Artist’s Way. As Cameron says in the epilogue to that book, “Growth is a spiral path, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.” I will probably reassess my life and my work using her exercises in the future, and I hope twelve years from now I can see that I have grown even more.

What affirmations do you tell yourself? And when have you found that fiction speaks the truth?

After Forty Years, I Wonder—Did He Ever Propose or Not?

There is one issue that I continue to debate with my husband of almost forty years—did he ever ask me to marry him or not? He swears he did, but I don’t remember it. You’d think a girl would remember something like that if it had happened, wouldn’t you? Even if it took place forty years ago.

My engagement ring

I remember that he raised the subject of marriage not long after we began dating in the spring of 1977, but I told him then it was too soon to be talking so seriously. I remember that sometime in July or August we set the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend as our wedding date. And I remember him giving me an engagement ring sometime in October 1977—we were outside on the Stanford Law School campus, when he pulled out the small box and put the ring on my finger—but that was well after we’d made the decision.

So him actually popping the question? I’m not sure that ever happened.

Did I ask him to marry me? I don’t think so. I think we just sort of fell into it.

Oh, well. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose.

Just before the wedding. If you look closely, you can see the sweat on his brow.

In my opinion, today’s practice of making a monumental occasion of getting engaged is silly. Planned spectacular events. Scenic locations. Photographers. Witnesses. Parties. None of it really matters in the long term. In the long term, what matters is the day-to-day. Who empties the dishwasher? Who walks the dogs? Who gets up in the night when a kid vomits?

In the best of marriages, you both do. At least, we have, though there have been tiffs over all these things.

The rings I’ve worn nigh on 40 years

I was going to make this post amusing. Or I was going to tell the story of how my engagement ring—the stone came from my husband’s great-aunt’s engagement ring—was almost lost in the Kansas City Plaza flood of mid-September 1977. (Thankfully, Jaccard Jewelry had the ring at their downtown location that day, rather than at the Plaza store. It was delayed in getting to my fiancé, but it arrived in California unscathed.)

But instead, this post turned serious. As I wrote, I started thinking about what makes a marriage last for forty years.

When people ask me how my husband and I have stayed married so long, I answer facetiously, “Inertia.”

The reality, however, is that it takes more than inertia. It takes work. And forbearance. And getting up at 2:00am with a sick kid. It takes knowing that, however many arguments there are over little things, in the big things of life, you have someone reliable walking beside you and holding you up.

Today my husband of almost forty years celebrates his birthday. He knows which one. I’ve bought him a few presents, but nothing that compensates for the love and support he has provided me for so long, nothing that thanks him adequately for being my mainstay when the seas of life get rough.

Happy birthday, sweetie!

Reflections on Mount Rushmore

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to South Dakota. I’d never been to the state before, and I wanted to see attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and the scenic roads and towns in the Black Hills.

My daughter scoffed when I told her we were going to Mount Rushmore. “I spent twenty minutes there,” she said. “That’s all you’ll need.”

But it took my husband and me two days to see it. Well, portions of two days. And we enjoyed every minute of the three or four hours total it took us to view the exhibits and memorial.

The first day we went, it was so overcast we could not see anything from the main observation deck. Not even George Washington’s prominent nose.

I overheard one tourist shout to someone else in her group, “Take my picture. You don’t get a view like this every day!” You certainly don’t—I’m told most days you can see something, but that day all we saw were clouds.

Still, we enjoyed the history of the place. We learned who conceived the monument, why these four presidents were chosen, how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum prepared his models and supervised the construction, how the workers did the blasting and jackhammering and finishing touches to create the presidential visages, and how the monument is preserved today.

The fog and mist persisted that day, through our leisurely exploration of the visitor’s center and even through lunch. So we decided we’d come back later in the week. After all, our parking pass was good for the rest of the year, and we were early in our trip to South Dakota.

The next morning was cool but sunny, so we returned to Mount Rushmore. As we drove back to the memorial, however, clouds rolled in and we couldn’t see the tops of the hills around us. “If we can’t see anything, we’ll move on to Custer State Park,” I said. I was hopeful we’d be able to see the memorial, but the morning grew more and more dismal.

We approached the parking area. “There!” I shouted, pointing at the four presidents’ faces. Though there was gray sky behind the memorial, the sculpture was clearly visible. My husband pulled into the line of cars waiting to park.

Approaching the observation deck, while the sky was still gray

Since we’d already seen the museum, we went straight to the observation deck, where we oohed and aahed and took pictures with all the other tourists.

View from the Presidents’ Trail, now the sky is blue

Then we walked the Presidential Trail under the memorial to the Sculptor’s Studio. Lots of stairs, but also lots of opportunities for pictures. As we walked, the sky cleared even more. The day remained cool, but we could see the memorial from many vantage points, blue sky behind it, as I’m sure Borglum envisioned.

Me at the Sculptor’s Studio, with Mount Rushmore in the background

I was impressed by the artistry of the sculpture and the monumental (pun intended) nature of the project. These four presidents were worthy of commemoration—George Washington as the father of our nation, Thomas Jefferson as a prime drafter of our core documents and architect of the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt as protector of the nation’s wilderness, and Abraham Lincoln as the leader who held the nation together through its darkest hours.

Borglum’s model, at the Sculptor’s Studio

Nevertheless, as I pondered the history of our nation and the difficulties of creating the memorial on Mount Rushmore, I wondered whether carving up a mountainside was the appropriate way to recognize these individuals. Why destroy a lovely granite cliff that nature etched over eons? Is human handiwork—even as majestic a project as these four figures—worthy of displacing what it took earth and wind and water millennia to form?

I don’t know the answer.

At some point, earth and wind and water will eat away this masterpiece of human artistic chutzpah. The National Park Service fills the cracks that develop today. But eventually they will lose the battle. It may take several more millennia, but over time our memorial to these four men will come to mean no more than the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu or the heads on Easter Island mean today. The significance of the memorial will fade with time.

Until then, however, tourists will ooh and aah and take their pictures with these four great men.

Weather permitting.

What National Park treasures do you like best?

P.S. Later we saw Mount Rushmore from a distance. The perspective changes—the memorial seems impressive, but no more so than the granite cliffs and forest.

Mount Rushmore, from Needles Highway

Blue-Tarped Roofs After Hurricane Katrina

As the news reports have shown pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma over the last few weeks, I’ve thought about my experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I wasn’t in New Orleans during that hurricane nor for over a year after it occurred, but what I did see taught me how long it takes for a community to recover from a natural disaster of that scope.

My daughter attended Tulane Law School from 2007 until 2010. She and I first visited New Orleans to check out the school in April 2007—over a year and a half after Katrina destroyed much of the city. We returned in June of that year to find her an apartment, and in August 2007 we moved her to New Orleans. We visited her a couple of times during her three years there, and our last visit was for her graduation in May 2010—by then it had been almost five years since Katrina.

Blue Tarp City, by Gail Williams, taken on December 20, 2005, available on Flickr

On my first visit in April 2007, my daughter and I drove all around the city, trying to get a feel for the community. In every neighborhood we passed through, there were dumpsters in the driveways and blue tarps on the roofs.

“But this neighborhood’s fine,” my daughter said as we drove near the Tulane campus. “Check out the cars.”

Sure enough, there were late-model cars parked on the streets, indicating that the nearby houses would be repaired, even if they were in bad shape at that time.

In other neighborhoods, where the cars were older, there were more homes still boarded up, fewer dumpsters showing active rehabilitation, and more blue roofs that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. Those neighborhoods still showed the storm’s destruction.

Blue Tarp Roofs Across the Street, by Bart Everson, taken on December 5, 2005, available on Flickr

With each visit to New Orleans, I saw fewer blue tarps and more repaired homes. The more affluent neighborhoods returned faster, the poorer neighborhoods continued to have many abandoned and boarded-up houses. But slowly the community fought its way toward normalcy.

What I saw in New Orleans taught me that Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the other areas hit by storms this year have a long battle ahead. The immensity of the reconstruction must be overwhelming to residents at this stage.

But what I saw also tells me that Houston and the many other cities and towns devastated this year will come back.

The same drive to rebuild has been true after other hurricanes, after tornadoes and floods in the Midwest, and after mudslides on the West Coast. The restored communities won’t look exactly the same, and not all the same people will return. But the human resolve to reconstruct their lives will prevail. Again and again, if need be.

What experience have you had with natural disasters?