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!

A Mother-Daughter Brunch and Fashion Show

My daughter went to an all-girls high school. One of my favorite events of the year was the mother-daughter brunch held each spring. After the meal at a hotel downtown, the senior class put on a fashion show, with the styles selected from several major retailers in our area. Each clothing store offered a different theme—casual clothes, beach wear, formals, etc.

I loved the fashion shows, which were an opportunity for the seniors to have a bit of fun after four years of hard work. Not every girl in the senior class participated, but most did—even those who were shy or overweight or who never wore anything but the school uniform or jeans. The show was a rite of passage. Kudos always went to the seniors willing to wear a swimsuit in public.

I worked in a corporate environment largely populated by males, and there was more estrogen in that hotel dining room than I was accustomed to. These young women strutted their stuff down the runway, proclaiming themselves young adults now out of the schoolroom as campily as they could. They showed their potential as independent women of the world, whether in bikini or gown or business wear.

My daughter and I attended this brunch all four years. The first three times I watched the show, I looked forward to the year my daughter would be a senior. I anticipated her role. What clothes would she model? Would she enjoy it as much as most of the girls seemed to? What glimpse into her future would I see?

Her senior year finally came. She didn’t tell me much about what she would be modeling, other than that it would be in the business wear section.

When that portion of the show began, I watched the girls parade in skirts and slacks. I saw them as they would be not too long into the future, after their college years when they would—most of them—enter the professional world.

My daughter is in white. Though she’d never wear a tie like that these days.

And there came my daughter. My tall, beautiful, intelligent daughter, striding down the runway in a white pantsuit, looking like the successful attorney she wanted to be.

Like the successful attorney she has since become.

I was granted a vision of the future that spring morning, now fourteen years in the past. I loved it—and her—then. I love her more now. She has become a strong, independent woman—both book-smart and street-smart, athletic, attractive, and caring. I couldn’t have asked for more from a daughter than she has given her father and me over the years.

As I’ve written before, she was my Mother’s Day baby—she has a birthday this week. I look back on her runway day and smile at the past. I smile even more at the present. And I await the future, still smiling.

Happy birthday, daughter!

On Birthdays and Memory

Sixty years ago today was my first birthday. I was too young to remember it, but there is a fuzzy photograph of me in a high chair with a cake bearing one candle in front of me. I was the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side of the family, so I’m certain my first birthday was a big occasion.

Family lore says that I stuck my fingers in the flame and got burned. That happened to most of the kids in our family—I’m surprised my parents didn’t learn better over the years. A one-year-old does not know that candles burn. I was more careful with my own children.

Although I can remember some things from a very young age (see here and here), I have no specific memories of my birthday until my sixth birthday when I was in the first grade. Or maybe it was my seventh birthday when I was in the second grade.

My mother arranged a daisy-themed party. I have no photographic evidence of this daisy party, but I know it was my first birthday party with friends beyond family members. I had a party in the second grade that I remember well, but I think I had a party in my first grade year also, and I think that’s the daisy party I recall.

My mother made invitations and taped plastic daisies to them, then we sent the invitations by mail. I felt very grown up to be entering society with written and posted invitations requesting “R.S.V.P.”

My mother was very much in control of this party. Daisies were one of her favorite flowers, not mine. The entire party involved daisies. In addition to the invitations, there were daisies on the table, more plastic daisies on the name cards at each place setting, we played a game of pin the petal on the daisy, and so forth.

I did get to choose the cake. I chose angel food. I usually wanted angel food, whenever I got to choose. I love the airy sweet texture of angel food cake. My mother typically covered it with whipped cream and pineapple frosting, though sometimes she left it plain and served fruit compote on the side. Angel food was one of the few cakes my mother made from scratch. She preferred making pies to cakes, and most of her cakes were from boxed mixes. Though she also made German chocolate cake (my father’s favorite) and pineapple upside down cake (my brother’s favorite) from scratch, so she was capable of some fine cakes.

Even though I have no memories of my early birthdays, I know that birthdays were important occasions in our family. Birthdays were so important that we also celebrated half birthdays with half cakes. So it surprises me that my early memories don’t include my birthdays. But they don’t.

That is the way of memory. We cannot decide how to fill the filing cabinet in our mind. Why certain things remain in our heads and others disappear forever is a mystery. Is it because certain physical synapses connect in our brains, triggered by later events? Is it because some traumas sear us irrevocably and cannot be dispelled? Is it because some scenes get repeated as family lore and institutionalized in our minds? Probably all of the above. Our memories make us who we are, yet we have no control of which we keep and which we lose.

Which is the earliest birthday you remember?

Yo, Mom: An Introduction to the Teenage Years

I’ve written before about our family’s trips to the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming, where we spent a summer week riding horses, except for occasional breaks to hike or go river-rafting. On our last trip in 1994, my son was twelve. It was his third time to the ranch (or the fourth?), and he was an old hand. He relished the freedom from parents that the ranch permitted—most days, the kids had separate activities from the adults.

Son on horseback the day of the “Yo, Mom” incident. He’s holding on in this picture.

One afternoon, the ranch staff had all the kids who were there that week practicing various gaits as they rode across a large open field. I was leaning on a fence nearby, watching the kids show off.

From the middle of the field, my son shouted, “Yo, Mom!” as he trotted by, waving his hands in the air, not touching horse or reins, a big grin on his face. Like Superman, only on horseback. His cocky assurance that he wouldn’t fall off was evident.

I was a little taken aback at his casual greeting. “Yo, Mom?” It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I didn’t know it was part of his.

But he was so clearly enjoying himself that I let it pass. He probably didn’t mean to be disrespectful. He was just moving into the teenage years. A few months early.

In fact, I was amused by the greeting. “Yo” became our calling sign for the next several years. His bedroom was in the basement, and when I wanted him to do something, I’d shout down, “Yo, James,” to get his attention. (I didn’t use it when I was angry, only in good humor.)

“Yo, Mom,” he would call back to signify that he had heard me.

His true teenage years began the week he turned thirteen. That was the week his cocky “Yo, Mom” morphed into talking back at me. I don’t remember what the topic was that week of his thirteenth birthday, but I gave him some instruction, and he sassed me in response.

Talking back and the hang-dog, put-upon sighs of a teenager responding to parents continued for several years. His high-school years were sometimes difficult and tense. He grew more distant when he went to college, and, of course, I couldn’t call down the stairs when he was hundreds of miles away in a dorm.

But he and I both came through his teenage years mostly unscathed. He has become a fine, independent adult. I admire the man he now is. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect that his opinions are thoughtful and well-founded.

Today, that cocky twelve-year-old turns thirty-five. He lives far away, and we only talk occasionally on the phone. I would love to be able to yell “Yo, James,” to get his attention, to have him close by, and to see him more regularly.

But it’s a good thing for both of us that he doesn’t live in the basement anymore.

Happy Birthday, Son!

Little Brother as Mother’s Escort

My husband and I will celebrate our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary soon. We were married just days after my youngest brother turned ten. His role during our wedding was to escort my mother into the church. He wore a tuxedo and looked so cute, as little boys usually do when they wash up, comb their hair, and dress nicely.

Here is one of my favorite pictures from our wedding day, of my mother and my brother walking up the side aisle to their seats. It’s not the best picture of my mother, but I love how solemnly my brother took his responsibility.

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My brother escorting our mother on my wedding day

This ten-year-old grew up to be a pediatrician. Our mother always said that it was because he liked the doctors he went to when he was about this ten-year-old size. They took the time to talk with him and he decided he wanted to be like them.

He’s also a great husband and dad now, and he’s always been a great brother. (And he’s been taller than our mother—and me—since he was about twelve.)

Happy Birthday, little brother!

Learning Flexibility at My Daughter’s Birthday Parties

I wrote an earlier post listing many of the things I included in my daughter’s baby book. One thing I didn’t mention in that post was that I wrote descriptions of how we celebrated each of her first eight birthdays.

I reread those entries recently, looking for a hook for this blog post. My major take-away was how much we gathered as a family for those occasions. Extended family came to visit for all of my daughter’s birthdays until her fifth. My mother traveled halfway across the country for my daughter’s first, second, and fourth birthdays. My grandmother came for my daughter’s first, second, and fifth birthdays. And my in-laws were there for her first, second, and third.

Of course, it helped that her birthday was in mid-May—a delightful time for travel. (My poor son was born in February. Very few visits for his birthdays.)

My mother came to visit the year my daughter turned four. On the actual birthday, my mother and I took cupcakes (which I think my mother made) to my daughter’s preschool. My daughter wore a crown that said “Big 4 Year Old” on it, and, of course, we all sang before we ate.

The following Saturday, my daughter had her first non-family birthday party. I had a rule for my kids—no more than one guest for each year. So for my daughter’s fourth birthday, she got to invite four friends. The theme was ballerina bears. Hallmark made pink little-girl party goods with that theme, and I could get the company cafeteria to make a cake with that design. All my daughter really cared about was that there was pink. (In later years, she got pickier.)

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The Big Four-Year-Old with her Ballerina Bear birthday cake

Thank goodness for my mother, because five little girls were more than enough for me. (My son went to play with a neighbor friend, so at least we didn’t have the boys as well.)

All the girls had wands and party hats. I had several games planned, thinking each would take twenty minutes. The games were supposed to last an hour or more. As it turned out, each game took about ten minutes, and we were done with food and games within the first hour.

Now what?

The girls happily played house in the basement for the rest of the party time, while my mother and I cleaned the kitchen.

And a good time was had by all.

My daughter’s parties continued every year through her eighth birthday. (I can’t remember much after then, and there was no more space in her baby book to record the details.)

That eighth birthday was also memorable, even without the baby book. There were only six girls—I don’t know what happened to my rule—but six was plenty. It was a sleepover. I may have limited her to six girls, because we didn’t have enough floor space for more in our basement rec room.

I had planned two crafts that I thought the girls would enjoy after they ate the pizza and ice cream cake. One craft was painting tote bags, and the other was making lanyards. They seemed easy enough for eight-year-olds, but both caused tears. The paint smudged, and the lanyards proved too complicated for some of the girls to braid.

We set the projects aside for them to deal with later at home, then switched to popcorn and videos much earlier than I had anticipated. But that meant I could go to bed at a reasonable hour. I remember getting up at least once in the night to go quiet things down, so I guess the girls had a good time.

I learned through these experiences that the best children’s parties retained their flexibility. Which meant I had to remain flexible as well. My husband still tells me I need to work on my flexibility.

It’s probably a good thing that my daughter is grown now and living halfway across the country, responsible for her own birthday celebrations. I’m not sure I have the stamina any more.

Today is her birthday (I won’t say her age). Happy Birthday, sweetie!

What do you remember about childhood birthday parties?

Milestones: On Turning Sixty

We have a tendency to mark milestone birthdays more than others. In my last post I described my twenty-first birthday.

I don’t remember my thirtieth birthday—I was too busy with work and child-rearing for the day to make much of an impression. In fact, I remember being bothered more when my husband turned thirty (the same day we moved into our first house) than when I attained that august age some years later.

I remember my fortieth birthday. I was relieved that I had made it into yet another protected class—I could then sue for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act if the occasion ever warranted. (Employment lawyers think that way.)

On my fiftieth birthday, my department at work held a “surprise” party for me. The party itself wasn’t much of a surprise. A colleague had scheduled a meeting with me in her office, and after a few minutes announced that she would escort me to a conference room a short distance away. I knew full well where the conference room was and needed no escort, nor had she had anything to talk to me about prior to our stroll down the hall.

But I was surprised by what I found in the conference room. Not only my co-workers, but my husband. And blown-up photographs of me as a child. My husband had been dragooned into the party preparations, and he, in turn, had talked to my mother about getting the pictures. In 2006, she was still capable of finding photographs that would embarrass me, organizing them, and shipping them halfway across the country. And she delighted in it, as I found out when she called me that evening.

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Display of photographs my mother sent for my 50th birthday party

I probably didn’t enjoy my fiftieth birthday party as much as I might have, because I knew what the other attendees did not. Later that afternoon, my boss would announce that I was moving to a special project for several months. My boss hoped that working on the project would keep me from deciding to retire later that year. I thought the project would be a way for me to ease out of the company slowly.

And as I anticipated, I retired at the end of 2006. I wanted to write, and I couldn’t fulfill my dream while working in my corporate role.

A year later I became a part of a local writing group, and I met many wonderful writers in the Kansas City area. Most of them were older than I was.

“Oh, those fifties,” one woman in the group exclaimed in 2008 when we were discussing our ages. I had just told her I was fifty-two. She was in her mid-seventies. “The fifties are so wonderful,” she told me.

I couldn’t disagree with her at the time. Once I had extricated myself from my job, I had embraced the writing life. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I got trained as a mediator and began mediating cases. I found the local writing group and other critique groups and improved as a writer to the extent that I have now published two novels and won some writing contests. I traveled, including trips to visit my parents when they vacationed in Carmel, California. My children were independent and required only occasional hand-holding.

As my older friend predicted, many wonderful things happened in my fifties. In some ways, it has been the best decade of my life. I’ve been freer to do as I please than I ever have been. I haven’t missed the stress of work. I’ve felt financially secure (even though I retired just before the Great Recession).

And yet in many ways it has also been the hardest decade of my life. Even before I had been told that the fifties were so wonderful, I had begun to wonder if my mother was developing Alzheimer’s. A year later, she suffered a serious physical problem. In 2010, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she went steadily downhill until early 2013, when my father moved her into assisted living. Just after that, my daughter broke her leg. In 2012 my father-in-law died, in 2014 my mother died, and in early 2015 my father died. Along the way, other family members have had health issues. So I have suffered as many losses in the last decade as I ever have.

Yesterday I turned sixty.

I think I’ve learned in the past ten years that every decade has its ups and downs. My fifties may have been wonderful, but they held tragedy as well as dreams fulfilled. As does any period in a human’s life.

So as I face my sixties, I am both optimistic and realistic. There will be great joys and achievements in the years ahead, I hope, and great losses and sorrows, I know.

Oh, those sixties! . . . What will they bring?