“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.

A Halloween Story I’ve Never Told Before: Alone with the Wind

Every year on Halloween night, I remember Halloween night in 1963, when I was seven years old. Our family had just moved into a newly constructed house in a new neighborhood about a month earlier. I had my own bedroom for the first time in my life. My room was on the corner of the house, and the wind (always fierce in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River) blew around that corner so hard it whistled and howled.

My younger brother and I had been out trick-or-treating earlier in the evening. I don’t remember what costumes we wore, nor which parent took us, though it was probably our father. I’m sure it was a happy evening, as all Halloween evenings are for kids of that age.

I was in second grade at a Catholic grade school, and the great thing about my school was that we always got November 1 off, because it was All Saint’s Day, a Catholic holy day. We had to go to Mass with our parents on November 1, but we didn’t have to do homework on Halloween night, so we could stay out a little later than the public school kids. Of course, for a seven-year-old, staying out late wasn’t a huge advantage, but it became a bigger deal as I got older.

After trick-or-treating, my brother and I came home, indulged in our favorite candy, then went to bed.

In the middle of the night, my father woke me up. “I have to take your mother to the hospital. Just stay in bed, go back to sleep, and I’ll be back by morning.” There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

Even at seven years old, I knew what the problem was. My mother was having a miscarriage. Again. She’d lost one baby in February 1960, then had a miscarriage in January 1962, and now was pregnant again.

Wide-eyed, I nodded my head at Dad, and he left.

I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed and turned and listened to the wind rattle the windows. In addition to concern about my mother, I worried about whether the house would burn down and whether a burglar would strike and all the other fears children have when they’re alone. I thought about waking my brother up, but Dad had said to go to sleep.

Finally, I turned on my light and read a book as the wind continued to wail. This might have been the first time I ever read in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep, though there have been many, many occasions since then when reading has been my remedy for insomnia.

At some point in the wee hours of the morning, I did fall asleep. Sure enough, Dad was home for breakfast, and he retrieved Mother by noon. She lost the baby, but otherwise, all was well, though I don’t think we got to Mass that day.

I’ve often wondered about my father’s decision to leave my brother and me at home by ourselves. We didn’t stay home alone during the day yet, nor in the evenings if our parents went out. This was the first time I’d ever been left in charge.

When my mother lost the first baby in 1960, I was not quite four. I don’t remember that night at all—he told me many years later that he put us in the back of the car, still asleep, and took us to the hospital with my mother, where he left us with the nurses. I don’t remember the 1962 miscarriage either. We were living in a small house with good neighbor friends next door—he might have called the neighbor lady to stay with us. (I do remember the neighbor lady bringing us casseroles in the days following.)

But in 1963, in our brand new neighborhood, we didn’t have next door neighbors yet, and didn’t really know anyone else in the few occupied houses on the block. Besides, I was seven—a big girl. I remember feeling very grown-up and responsible when Dad told me they were leaving me in charge. But I wasn’t grown-up enough not to fear the wind.

What frightening memories do you have from childhood?

The Long-Term Effects of Birth Order

Today is my sister’s birthday. Regular readers of this blog can figure out which one, but this post isn’t really about age. It’s about birth order and growing up and distance and—well, maybe it’s a little bit about age.

My sister is eight and a half years younger than I am. In some ways, we grew up in two different families. There was me—the oldest—and a brother just seventeen months younger than me. Then there was a gap of seven years before my sister came, and three more years before our youngest brother.

We first two children had different early experiences than the younger two. I was born just nine months and ten days after my parents were married, and their second child came along before they’d been married three years. Our father went back to graduate school, first to get a Master’s degree, and then his Ph.D., all of which happened by the time I was in the first grade. While he was in graduate school, Dad held several part-time jobs because he refused to have his wife work. Money was tight, and I knew it as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but the extras we had came from doting grandparents. During my early years, we lived in five different houses, plus had a stint with grandparents. I didn’t live in a long-term home until shortly after I entered second grade.

By the time my sister was born, our father had earned his Ph.D. and had been promoted into managerial positions. My parents bought a nice house in a new part of town. It was a long way from our school and there weren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, so my brother and I played by ourselves. We got a second car so my mother could drive us around during the day.

Then there was this new baby in the family. She was a happy infant but became an opinionated toddler. One of her opinions was that babysitters were evil. The only babysitter she tolerated was me. It became my job to watch her whenever our mother was busy. At ten years old, I didn’t enjoy that responsibility. When my parents went out for the evening, they hired a babysitter, but I did everything my sister needed except change the diapers. (I wasn’t getting paid, after all.)

When I turned eleven, my parents quit hiring a babysitter, and I was in charge. When our brother was born later that year, my parents hired a sitter again for a few months for the newborn, but by the time I was twelve, I was in charge again. (By then I was getting paid 50 cents an hour, and I even changed diapers.)

The eight-and-a-half-year gap between my sister and me was never enough to endow me with authority in her mind. I could sometimes bribe her into doing what I wanted, but I often resorted to bullying. (I was not the Good Big Sister of family myth.) So we didn’t get along well. And we were never close.

The only formal portrait of my birth family; I was 19 here.

Fast forward a number of years. I went to law school and married a law school classmate. Then, the younger two kids in the family had some upheavals during their high-school years, when my parents moved across the state. That was only the second home they’d known, but it may be harder to move during high school than preschool. By that time, I was married, so that move didn’t impact me.

Several years later, my sister also went to law school and married a classmate. Then our lives became more parallel. We both had stressful jobs as attorneys. We both had two kids. We developed a lot in common, but through all this time—and she has now been married 29 years—we only saw each other about once a year, for a day or two during my approximately annual visits to our parents. We rarely spent extended times together.

Still, as long as our parents were alive, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we each heard from our parents what the other was doing. When Mother got ill and Dad became her caregiver, we emailed each other to report how we thought our parents were doing.

After our parents died, I stayed at my sister’s house on several trips to the Seattle area to manage their estates. I probably got to know her as well as I ever did.

Now the estate issues are behind us. There are fewer reasons to stay in touch. My sister still works and has little time for herself, let alone for a distant older sister. My life in Kansas City is busy, and I have obligations here that keep me from frequent trips to see her and my youngest brother.

The three siblings who are left, after our father’s funeral

And yet there are also important reasons to stay in touch. Because there is no one else. That brother right behind me has no contact with the rest of us. My sister and youngest brother are the closest family I have left. Even though they have no memories of my childhood years, they go back in time with me longer than anyone else I know. We are each other’s history.

Perhaps we’ll become closer in the years ahead. We have the example of my father and his sister, who rebuilt their relationship in their seventies. That is my hope. If we’re lucky, it won’t take us until our seventies. (Or, as our youngest brother would gladly point out, when I’m seventy, our sister will be in her sixties, and he’ll still be in his fifties.)

Which family relationships would you like to foster?

Broken Bones: Which Ones Were They?

I’ve written before about the two times I broke my left foot (see here and here). Well, I broke another bone in that same foot many years earlier. During the winter of my 8th-grade year, I broke the fourth toe. The odd thing is that within a year, both of my parents broke that same toe in their left feet also.

I don’t recall how my parents broke their toes, but I vividly remember what happened to mine. I went barreling out of my bedroom into the hall on my way to take a shower. I wanted to watch a TV show, and I barely had time to squeeze in the shower before it started. Unfortunately, my baby brother was toddling along past my bedroom door just as I exited. I tripped over him and slammed my foot into the furnace return grate across the hall.

Ouch!

It swelled and turned black, so the next day one of my parents took me to the doctor. (It was usually my mother who had doctor duty, but as I recall, my father took me this time.) There was no treatment, the doctor said. “We could tape it to the other toes, but that won’t really make any difference.”

So I limped for a few weeks until it healed.

Within months, my parents broke their toes. We laughed about the coincidence—though there wasn’t much laughter until all our bones had healed.

The following year, when I was in the 9th grade, I took a Creative Writing class. One assignment was to write a story in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe—something sinister or scary. I decided to try to make something ominous out of three broken toes in one family—was it merely coincidence or was some evil striking that family?

My story wasn’t very good and has been lost to the trash bin. But I do remember drafting it. I took some literary license with the facts to “improve” the story. Writing repeatedly about the “fourth toe on the left foot” or “the piggy that got none” seemed awkward. So I decided the story should be about three broken “left little toes,” which had more alliteration, even if it didn’t match the facts exactly.

But memory is a tricky thing. Over the years, I often forgot whether my parents and I had all broken our left little toes or our fourth toes. My fictional story confused my reality.

It was only as I grew older and that fourth left toe began to ache that I could re-ground myself in the truth. If I walk too long in uncomfortable shoes, or if the weather is damp for days on end, I remember—it is my fourth toe that hurts. This past month has been rainy and dreary in Kansas City, and I have had it drummed into me that I broke my fourth left toe. The piggy that got none gets even these days.

What pains do you have now that make you remember earlier events in your life?

Infrastructure, circa 1962

Troutdale - Dodson 1957 Columbia River HwyThere’s been a lot in the news in recent years about infrastructure. Which projects are “shovel ready”? Which will create more jobs? How do we bring our aging roads and bridges into the twenty-first century?

When I hear about infrastructure, I think of the development of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was a child living in the Pacific Northwest in those years, and my family traveled regularly between our home in Eastern Washington and the larger cities of Seattle and Portland. The old highway to Seattle meandered through the Cascade Mountains, and the Portland route took us through the Columbia River Gorge. Both routes were under construction for my entire childhood, it seemed, as I-80 to Seattle and I-84 to Portland replaced the older roads.

My earliest memories of these trips are of the two-lane highways that crept through one small town after another. We only stopped in those towns if the car needed gas. My father’s philosophy was that our bladders needed to be as big as the gas tank. We left home before dawn and arrived at our destination by early afternoon—no need to pay for a meal on the road.

The routes to both Seattle and Portland were scenic, though those pre-interstate roads included some hazards. The mountain highway twisted and turned as it climbed to the passes, with huge drop-offs next to flimsy guardrails. Every so often, a guardrail would be missing, and I would wonder what had happened. Rushing mountain streams ran at the bottom of those drop-offs. We might see patchy snow any month of the year, but in the winter when the roads were covered with snow and ice, we had to stop at a turn-off near the pass so my father could put chains on the tires.

The river route couldn’t deviate far from the Columbia because of high bluffs rising near the banks, but this road offered views of dams and tunnels and waterfalls. My brother and I used to count the waterfalls—in spring there were well over thirty cataracts spewing over the high cliffs down toward the road. Some were mere trickles, but some were real gushers. We agreed not to count the spots where the cliffs were simply wet and no water flowed.

ellensburg_cleelum-postcard-1940s

Between Ellensburg and Cle Elum in Washington. Postcard from the 1940s, but not much changed by  1960.

When the interstate construction began, the length of our trips doubled. Every few miles, we stopped in interminably long lines of cars. Our family sedan was not air-conditioned, and in the summer we baked in the heat, with dust from the jackhammers wafting into the vehicle through open windows. My brother and I sat in the back, bored and cranky. I tried not to fight with him, but what was I supposed to do when he encroached on my half of the bench seat? I couldn’t read in the car without getting nauseated, but during those tedious waits, I pulled out my book. Then we would start up again, and I’d have to put it away.

When we finally reached the head of the line and passed the construction worker with the flag, my father gave a jaunty salute, and the man in the hard hat nodded.

Only as I neared my teens was the interstate completed, and the trip became easier. The scenery was still lovely—we still counted waterfalls and held our breath through tunnels. And we still had to put on chains in the winter. But no more long lines of cars.

Now, fifty years later, so many of our roads need repairs. I live in Missouri now, and the state of I-70 is a frequent topic of conversation. I agree we need another infrastructure push, but I don’t look forward to the jackhammers and delays.

What do you remember about childhood road trips?

My Earliest Thanksgiving Memories

I’ve written before (see here and here) about how glad I am that my children spent so much time with their cousins growing up, because I didn’t have that experience as a kid. But I do remember one Thanksgiving my family spent with my cousins. It’s the earliest Thanksgiving I remember—1958, when I was two-and-a-half years old.

My paternal grandparents lived in Seattle at the time, and Daddy, Mommy, my year-old brother, and I went to visit them. We stayed at their house for a few days over the Thanksgiving holiday.

t-m-1958-72360158-sld-001-0014

My younger brother and me, Christmas 1958, just a few weeks after this Thanksgiving story

My father’s sister and her family lived in the Seattle area also. My aunt had three children at the time—two girls who were four and two, and a baby boy who wasn’t even a year old yet. Although my brother had celebrated his first birthday and was walking, I thought he was almost as much a baby as my boy cousin.

I have two vivid memories of that Thanksgiving holiday. Both took place in the bathroom.

t-w-ironing-board-1958-72360158-sld-001-0022

Santa brought me my own ironing board that Christmas

My brother, who had only started walking a couple of months earlier, had burned his hand a week or so before Thanksgiving. While he was toddling around our house, he pulled Mommy’s iron off the ironing board. It hit his palm on the way to the floor. It may have burned him elsewhere, but the hand was his worst injury.

I was with him when it happened. I was petrified when he started screaming. Mommy was not there—she’d gone to answer the telephone, leaving the iron on the board. (Bad Mommy, but these things happen.)

What was I supposed to do? Mommy had told me not to bother her when she was on the phone. But my baby brother was sobbing. I sat there, worrying about whether to go get her. Thankfully, Mommy came running right away, so my dilemma was quickly resolved.

On Thanksgiving, my brother’s hand was still bandaged. He wasn’t supposed to get it wet. He was in the bathtub before the holiday dinner. My two girl cousins and I were all in the bathroom watching. The cousins were asking questions—“Why is his hand all wrapped up?” “Why can’t he get it wet?” “When will it be better?” And on and on.

Mommy patiently answered their questions, and soon his bath was over. We all dressed in our finery for the Thanksgiving dinner. I had a pretty party dress to wear, and everyone said I looked beautiful. They probably told my girl cousins the same thing, but I don’t remember that.

Later in the afternoon, I had to use the potty. I was well along in potty training at two-and-a-half. I knew what to do and when to do it. But I used a potty chair at home. There was a potty chair in the bathroom at my grandparents’ home, but I wanted no part of it that day.

My four-year-old cousin didn’t use a potty chair, and I wasn’t going to either. I wanted to use the real toilet. I wanted to be grown-up like her.

So what if my two-year-old cousin still used the potty chair? She was littler than me. By two whole months. I was certain I could do what the four-year-old did.

So I tried. And promptly fell in. And got my pretty party dress all wet.

All the grown-ups laughed at me. I had to change into another dress, and was humiliated for the rest of the day.

Most of the people present that day have died. The cousins are still around, but I hope they have long forgotten my embarrassment.

Happy Thanksgiving to readers everywhere! Be grateful for family.