sibling revelry

Today I called my brother with some upsetting news. Once again, factors beyond my control were thwarting my plans to move forward.

He was the only one who would fully understand how challenging it would be for me, because he’d been with me from the start of the events that led to the distress of today.

My brother was there for me before I even knew I needed him.

belinda-thom-1962

Growing up, we weren’t close. It was my brother and sister who were allies, often, it felt, against me. Certainly I was on the outside.

Yet we share a history, sometimes a laughable yet now bonding one. Once, he asked if I remembered the cookie-eating bear from the Andy Williams Show, a popular variety program in our childhood.

I didn’t, and he was legitimately shocked, because I have a tremendous memory. He calls it memory for useless trivia, which is a little hurtful, because my memory includes much more than that.

Some months later there was a two-hour A&E biography about Andy Williams that I watched start to finish, just to see if this cookie-eating bear would be mentioned. He was, almost as an afterthought, in the last 30 seconds.

I sat through two hours of a biography I didn’t give a rip about just for my brother. I’d do an incomparable amount more if I could.

At the end of my phone call today, I gulped out a thank you for listening to me. He said, with a bit of surprise, “of course!” He’d said the same thing several years ago when I thanked him for flying out, at great expense, to be by my side at a time I can’t conceive of surviving alone.

He took over when I was absolutely lost, and later let go when I’d regained my strength, focus and independence. I’d never known what it was like to have someone value me that much before.

He’s two years younger than me, an age difference that become irrelevant sometime around high school. We started to connect more then.

I remember a sweet, red-haired girl who had, to say the least, a huge crush on him. We had a class together, and she talked about him endlessly to me. I really wanted him to reciprocate her feelings, but I knew full well he did not.

I was, however, proud of the way he treated her. Although he was clear he wasn’t equally interested, he let her know he thought her interest was a high compliment. Of course that just intensified her feelings for a time, but it was the right way to handle it.

me & Thom 1994
circa 1994

Now he has a daughter, sixteen years old, who no doubt brings all the frustrations a girl that age can carry. I hold my breath, then relax, as I watch him value her in the same concrete ways he values me and valued that cute girl in our high school years.

He’s proven there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me. In a lifetime we may or may not be lucky enough to fully show our love for those who mean the most to us.

I’ve been blessed to be on the receiving end of that love and sacrifice from my brother, a humbling and heartening experience for me. It has changed the core of me, my essential self.


A special thank you to those of you who have been following my blog long enough to remember this post!

Pages of the World Book

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
― Augustine of Hippo

Travel, or otherwise explore the world.

It is easy to dismiss the decisions of others, particularly those of people in other cultures, if one has never traveled more than 100 miles from their place of birth. Brief trips to a large city for business travel are often sheltered, and the annual visit to the family cabin, albeit more than 100 miles away, isn’t truly traveling in the sense I’m speaking of here.

At the age of 19, my brother loaded his backpack and headed for Europe, Australia and New Zealand, hiking and taking odd jobs for about a year, as I recall. I believe that trip shaped him, helped him focus his priorities and exposed him to thinking different from that which he heard while growing up. He has always been a kind and thoughtful person, but traveling alone gave him a perspective he couldn’t get any other way.

He shared with me some of the conversations he had with complete strangers during his trip, and those words have changed me, so I know they changed him. I wouldn’t have survived the last few years without him, and I believe that foundational, transformational experience is part of the reason he has so much to offer me.

Over the years I’ve talked to parents who are agonizing over their son’s or daughter’s choice to travel for a time, giving up their dreams of a college education (or so it seems to mom and dad) for a hobo lifestyle. I tell them not to worry, and inevitably those children have gone on to greater things, some back to school, some not, but they knew that that time away from all that comforted them would be healthy.

The Whole World Kids

Even Prince William took off for ten weeks to volunteer in Chile, where he faced ribbing by other volunteers, such as less-than-complimentary nicknames, among other things, I’m sure. At the time he said, “I’m with a group of people I wouldn’t normally be with and getting along with them is great fun and educational. There are some real characters in the group who don’t hold back any words at all.”1

I imagine.

Several friends of mine graduated with honors from high school, went to a nearby college and moved on to career success in the same city they were raised in. Their standards and norms are measured by the world immediately around them, and they mock others whose lifestyle and thinking is foreign to them, even if those people vote for the same president they do. They are experts in their own world with no grasp of what motivates people outside the walls of their great city.

Not everyone can backpack through foreign countries, or even distant parts of their own country. It isn’t suitable for some to travel extensively. But the world we live in today gives us exposure through traditional and modern methods to pages of the World Book. It’s not the same as travel, but it still is an opportunity to grow.

Take the time to grow.


1 The Telegraph, December 10, 2000, “Hard work and high adventure for William in Chile.”

Image Credits: (World Map) © asantosg — Bigstock; (World Kids) © lenm — Bigstock

The Ideal(istic) Adult

Being thirty was about the best thing that ever happened to me.

I’d set goals and achieved them, and the world seemed like a welcome place, with manifold glorious destinations. My mind was likely at its sharpest (although admittedly, I still had much to learn), Me c 1989I’ve probably never looked better, before or since, and I’d started to make some money. Not a lot, but more than ever before, and it seemed like a fortune.

If I could live forever in that magical world, that’s where I’d be. Has my life gone downhill since? No, not really. I’ve had ups and downs — that’s the way life is — but I’ve never regained that sense of optimism, my belief in the future and my own potential.

That glory must have been more than reaching my goals, because I’ve set goals and achieved them since that time, goals that were further out of reach and potentially more rewarding.

The problem with that sort of idealism is the world is more complex and more ordinary than our dreams. Jobs don’t deliver, people disappoint us, relationships fail. Of course then we find better work, more rewarding and lasting, we discover friends who stand beside us through thick & thin, and new relationships begin, with all the hope they hold at the start. But it’s the first time the world looks good that we’re happiest, because we don’t have the cynicism of experience.

Yet the wisdom we gain over the years benefits us, too. We see that hard times end, and impossible situations are resolved through perseverance and yes, some luck. Pain beats at us persistently, but in the end we overcome it, newly girded with the wisdom of survival.

Looking in the mirror can be discouraging. Our looks fade. It costs more money to maintain a lesser appearance. It’s hard sometimes to remember you’re 55 and not 35, who your peers actually are and what you can & can’t do anymore.

Given the choice, I’d always prefer to be an adult, but can I specify a few things? I’d like to have the physical and physiological benefits of being 30, with the wisdom and maturity that comes from living.

Of course we’re not given any such choice, or anything like it, and I’m aware many have the same thoughts as they get older. Makes me wonder what I need to appreciate about being the age I am now, and what I’ll miss about it 20 or 30 years from now.


Image Credit:  © justdd — Bigstock

Any Good Book

When I was young, I would hurt sometimes so badly I would panic, then hide in my room, wrapped up tight in protective clothing, deep beneath the covers. I fled the pain I could not bear by burying myself in the stories told in multitudes of books.

Some stories so deeply resonated with me I read them over and over, and I realize now these tales provided a solution to the same loneliness and isolation I was feeling. It was fiction, of course, and I couldn’t follow the same path my erstwhile heroine would, so I lost myself in fantasy.

It was a lonely life, but a safe one.

Today I still like to lose myself in novels, but it isn’t the same. Life has taught me certain realities, and one of them is that rarely do events follow in a logical progression as they do in storytelling. Nor do problems resolve them in a straightforward manner.

Yet if the books don’t provide some sort of conclusion, I’m frustrated.  I still want to end with resolution. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it should be a logical one. The story should be told.

I cannot flee my pain, but I can find respite from it in certain escapes, and I look for particular qualities in those methods of safety.

Read any good books lately?


Photo courtesy of Pixabay


Flee

In My Little Town

I spent most of my growing-up years in the Bay Area of California, in a suburb of San Jose I won’t name for reasons you’ll note shortly. During the time I lived there, it was an eclectic little tourist town. It was also a place where respect was taught — in my high school — and practiced.

When I was a sophomore in high school, the girl who sat next me and the boy who sat behind her in my geometry class worked at a local Mexican restaurant, well-renowned in the area. One night, this 16-year-old girl found herself waiting on a man who looked vaguely familiar. Not vaguely. He looked like — he was — Robert Redford.

This was 1976, and this was what Bob looked like around that time, in case you’re too young to remember.

28971010355_a7655971dd_b
Robert Redford in “The Great Gatsby” (1974)

Damn. Both of my classmates got his autograph, she as his waitress and he as the bus boy, and they were smart enough to let their manager know, too. They were also gracious enough not to say anything to anyone else. Mr. Redford was eating with his family, and they respected his privacy.

Today, I doubt it would happen that way. That quaint little town has turned into a new money hell hole, and people are very status-driven. Someone sees a celebrity, they likely scream it out.

lake-vasonaMy freshman English teacher had noted that unlike most of the towns and cities in the area, generations of families grew up and stayed in my little town. He’d taught the children and now grandchildren of his early students, in significant numbers. It was a pretty place, with a town square and tranquil parks. The high school had the only nighttime football field in our league, which made home games very popular.

I’m speaking in very nostalgic terms here. It wasn’t all glory growing up there. Numerous girls in my high school class, including some I was very close to, were sexually assaulted on or near the school grounds. More than one notorious serial killer had lived in the area during the time my family was there.

But if we can’t have sweet memories of our growing up years, and for me it has sometimes been hard to find them, it is harder to find the good in our world today. So I am thankful for the town I grew up in, as it was then, as it remains in my heart and mind.

the strength of good words

the kids at Coney Island

Fresh out of college and packed for my dream job in Europe, I took a drive down to visit my great-aunt Vi.

vi
My great-aunt, Violet Panzram, 1910-1996

I was caught off-guard by her enthusiasm for my continental venture. “I can’t believe I’m related to someone who’s doing something as exciting as this,” she exclaimed.

This from someone whose travels and life experience rivaled that of just about anyone I knew or have know since. I didn’t know what to say, but I felt so…significant.

(The dream job ended up being a nightmare, complete with monster. Oh well. A story for another time.)

A few years after that,

I was restless and bored one evening, and found myself, an established critic of soap operas, watching the Daytime Emmy Awards just to see if Susan Lucci would win Best Daytime Actress (this was a big question each year back in the 90s).

I don’t recall if she did or not – probably not – but I clearly remember that year’s Lifetime Achievement Award went to a man I, along with everyone I grew up with, had spent years mocking: Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame. I changed my mind about him after hearing his speech that evening. He spoke of his own childhood, and how his grandfather, upon seeing young Fred, would always stop what he was doing to tell his grandson his day was good because he was in it.

Those are good words. They reminded me of my great-aunt Vi, who had since passed away.

Even as I write this, there’s an internal rebuke:

I’ve dished out passive-aggressive criticism to two people already in this short piece, Susan Lucci and Fred Rogers. I’ve never met either of them, and never will (Fred Rogers passed away in 2003), but each has a long-established reputation of kindness and decency.

Who am I to mock others, no matter how lightly, just because it’s the popular thing to do? Simply reporting the truth is one thing, but the intent or manner with which it’s said is another. Look at how I talked about Ms. Lucci a few paragraphs back. It was true, but it really wasn’t very nice.

the kids at Coney Island
Two people who make my day good

The first words anyone should hear me say about another person should be the best words. Realistically, I’m not going to speak well of everyone in my life all the time, but I want people to know who I am and where my heart is, and I want my heart to be in the right place. That place should be respectful and non-judgmental.

I want people to know me for my good words. I want to be remembered for making other people feel significant. And I want it noted both Susan Lucci and Fred Rogers deserve kudos for far more than just their talent and hard work. I’m a fan of them both.  

truth to tell

And then...and then..
“And then…and then…”

It’s at times entertaining to watch a pre-schooler try to lie their way out of a sticky situation. So endearing, in fact, parents may pretend to believe everything the little tall-tale-teller is saying, just to hear them say it. They’re so earnest and sincere.

Not my second grade teacher, though. Mrs. Smith didn’t take falsehoods from anybody, in particular her son, Tim. One day she told our class Tim had only lied to her once, back when he was three years old. She caught him, and he was so ashamed he never did it again.

Not one kid in our class bought that story. She stuck to her guns. Tim was as honest as the day was long.

A few weeks later this poor guy, now 19, showed up at our class to drop off car keys for his mom. He innocently walked into a room full of skeptical, disapproving seven-year-olds, having no idea of the tale we’d heard. In short order, his face was as red as his scruffy, shoulder-length hair. He didn’t look like a saint to us and we had no problem saying as much.

Maybe we weren’t being fair and he actually was that good. I can’t imagine any child NEVER lying to their parents, but I’m not sure what it said about us kids that we were so jaded about telling — and hearing — the truth.

I was visiting a friend last summer and as I approached the front door, a child about the age of her youngest daughter came running up to me. With hair cropped short, jeans and a team-logo sweatshirt, I assumed it was a little boy, probably a neighborhood friend. It wasn’t. It was her wild child five-year-old girl, who told me she’d cut off her shoulder-length hair the week before. All by herself.

blue scissors II smI laughingly asked Pam about it, and she signaled me to come inside.

“That girl’s hair was cut short and straight across the back,” she said in a low, firm voice. “And there wasn’t one single scraggly piece I had to trim. No way she did it herself.”

Right at that moment one of Pam’s older daughters walked by. “We told you what happened!” this one said defensively.

“I know what you said,” she replied mildly, then turned to me and continued in the same low, yet clearly distinguishable to those eavesdropping, voice. “They’re not telling me the truth and it’s obvious what happened, but since no one was hurt, I just punished all of them for leaving the scissors out.” Older daughter walked away.

Pam looked at me and sighed. “I have no idea what happened and I can’t get them to budge on their story.”

No illusions on her part. I don’t think her girls are particularly dishonest or deceptive, in fact, I think they’re fairly transparent. Well, two are teenagers now, so let me revise that: for the most part I think they are, at the heart, trustworthy girls. One of whom probably cuts hair.

When I was young, I was always afraid what would happen to me if I was caught being wrong. That was how I saw it, by the way, being wrong, not doing something wrong. I became a pretty decent liar. I was clever, with a good imagination and even better memory. Fortunately, I got tired of it, physically, emotionally tired, and I stopped well before adulthood.

My parents were not abusive, so I can’t say what it was that caused that fear, probably a more subtle message they weren’t aware of and didn’t intend to send to their highly sensitive child. What could they have done differently? I don’t know.

I’ve said it before: parents, you have an impossible job, but you do it. Hang in there. Believe in your children. Believe in their overall character, not their occasional deeds. Know that lying is something any child is going to do, if not this day, the next, for his or her own reason. Deal with it, of course, but save up a few stories to laugh at when they have kids of their own.

my best gifts received, part one

In high school, my friend Sue gave me an ornament for Christmas. I remember being a bit disappointed. It wasn’t much of a gift in my 15-year-old estimation.

angel ornamentSue assured me I’d value it more each year. What she didn’t know was her friendship had far greater value.

At a time when I was awkward and insecure, she made me feel important. The first time I met her was as the new kid in sixth grade. I huddled alone in the corner of the playground, the only girl wearing a dress, waiting for class to start.

Shaking, my back against the brick wall, hands clasped tightly together, I was wishing I’d worn jeans as my mom suggested. All these kids had gone to school together since kindergarten, I was sure of it. I’d never fit in.

Sue with her pigtails & bows and another girl, Nada, approached me.

“Are you new?” they asked in unison. We all giggled.

“Yes!” I said, incredibly happy someone had noticed me.

Turned out we were in the same class, with the same scary teacher. They gave me the scoop. She was fat (apparently important information for sixth-graders) and this was her first teaching job.

I don’t know if I was the friend to her she never stopped being to me.

The next summer Sue’s mom was killed in a plane accident. Her father remarried soon after, and certainly the adjustment must have been hard for her. I don’t know if I was the friend to her she never stopped being to me.

A seventh-grade diary entry early in the school year noted she seemed okay. At least I wondered how she was doing. I hope I asked her about it, gave her a chance to talk. I don’t remember.

In high school, my mental health problems arose. As I started to lose confidence, gain weight and sink into a series of deep depressions, she did her best to make me feel better. “You look real nice today,” she’d tell me on days when my dirty hair was held back with a scarf or my outfit played up the extra pounds. I saw through it and appreciated her thoughtfulness. It meant I had a friend.

Every Christmas I think of her and cry a little, missing our friendship and how much it meant to me.

The last time I saw her was about a year after we graduated. I was walking around a lake near my home and she came from the opposite direction, with a boyfriend, I think.

She was genuinely happy to see me. We had an enthusiastic and chatty catch-up conversation, then moved on in our separate walks. I haven’t seen her since.

I’ve tried to look her up, with no success. Every Christmas I see that ornament, think of her and cry a little, missing our friendship and the opportunity to tell her how much it meant to me.

Still means to me.


 

Photo Credit: (background) © Diana Rich; (ornament) © Stuart Monk, both — DollarPhotoClub.com

behave (as) yourself! whaaat?

During Christmas break when I was in seventh grade, I added bangs to my one length-fits-all hair style, and for most of my life since then I’ve kept them.

I’ll never be sure how much this plays into it, if at all, but I distinctly remember one boy complimenting me when we returned to class in January.

Beth, Thom & Me Summer 1972
My sister, brother and me (far right) the spring I was in seventh grade

“They look really nice,” he said. “They make your face look less round.”

He was a year older than me, and all through junior high, high school and until the last time I saw him, two years after I graduated, he was particularly nice to me.

I didn’t clue into it until about twenty years later, but I think it was more than just a kind nature.

This very popular, somewhat bad, really good-looking boy quite possibly liked me, the socially awkward girl whose weight fluctuated with the changing tide and insecurities overshadowed everything about her.

It makes you think. I’d realized it already on some level by this time (the age of 36 or 37), but it brought home a valuable truth: no one is who they appear to be on the outside. Why one kid is popular in high school is a bizarre combination of the “right” talents, good looks and circle of friends. He’s not better than the girl with none of that, and if he’s lucky, he knows it.

That continues throughout life. The seemingly perfect couple gets divorced. Most of us knew the Duggars would fall eventually (although perhaps not as far). There’s always the pastor who walks away from his church in shame…that’s just a given in any community. Okay, I’m being facetious with the last one. A bit.

The hooker with the heart of gold. A cliché to make a point.

A close friend of mine made the observation a few years ago that who we are is “not about behavior.” It rang true for me instantly.

In her case, her husband had had a benign brain tumor that affected the entirety of his behavior, including his ability to hold a job or even help with household chores.

Their church, in a gross misuse of its authority, directed him to leave his family until he could figure out how to become “the man of God his family needed him to be.”

He had a brain tumor. He had brain damage. His behavior had nothing to do with who he was.

Now, that’s an extreme example. But there are plenty of people, say, with mental illness, who do things that later shock and humiliate them. Virtually everyone I know, mentally ill or not, has done something so “unlike themselves” they have a hard time confessing it to others.

I wish I’d known that boy liked me, if in fact he did. I wish I’d had the confidence to openly reciprocate his feelings, because I probably would have felt something for him if I’d let myself. I could have learned, early on, one of life’s most valuable lessons: who we are is more than what others see, it’s more than how we behave, and it’s more than we’ll be able to discover in a lifetime.

my best gifts given, part one

In fourth grade our student teacher, Miss Trillman, got married mid-semester.

As a wedding gift from the class, our regular teacher gave us each a 3×5 index card and instructed us to print our favorite recipe on it. It didn’t matter what it was, as long as it was our favorite. As I recall, every one of my fellow classmates gave Miss T the most complex recipe their mom was able to prepare. The cards were carefully printed, and no doubt just as carefully chosen, by their mothers. I took the idea to heart and instead got my mom to calculate the ingredients for my absolute favorite meal of all time, bologna & cheeses.

These aren’t simply bologna & cheese sandwiches, sliced and placed on bread. They are made from polish sausage, cheddar cheese, onions, ketchup and probably one or two other things I don’t remember, all put through the meat grinder and turned into a gooey delight. When Mom suggested B&Cs for dinner, the whole family went shopping with her, just to make sure she didn’t forget any of the ingredients. Each of us had one thing we picked out and brought back to the shopping cart, making the trip a quick one. Heaven forbid Mom should have too much other shopping to do. Our patience was limited.

Once blended, the mixture was then spread on lightly toasted bread (both sides) and broiled until it bubbled a little and the edges and part of the top turn just a little black. It takes a little practice to know just exactly how thick to spread it — too thin and it’s dry, too thick and it’s, well, too thick. But this is the best sandwich ever for kids and adults alike. It takes ordinary ingredients and turns them into something with a sharp taste, better than spaghetti or hamburgers.

If you’re a ten-year-old girl and have just an average appetite, you eat two. If you’re ravenous, you eat three and maybe regret it a little, because it’s too much in the end. The best part is, no matter how hungry the rest of my family was, the recipe made enough for plenty of leftovers, and bologna & cheese holds up well for a couple of days. So two more days of great lunches to look forward to, and you’re still not tired of them.

Miss Trillman, who became Mrs. Peck (distant relative to the actor Gregory Peck), told the class my recipe was her & her husband’s favorite. They all protested because their recipes were fancier and therefore, better, but she told them mine was best because it was perfect everyday food and besides, her husband was a big man with a big appetite and these sandwiches easily filled him up. Another bonus, he liked preparing them, and after a long day with 30 fourth-graders, she didn’t always feel like cooking. We groaned at that comment, but frankly, I’d never doubted my choice would win out over the others.

Image Credit: © Graphic Stock