Hal Learns Mimi’s Storied Past

Hal and I were sitting in the front pew next to each other, each with an ashen cross on our foreheads. The rest of the two congregations that had joined together for Ash Wednesday were lined up the center aisle, progressing forward for the Imposition of Ashes.

We saw someone he knows best from outside of church in the line and I asked if he had noticed her. He had. “Does she go to that church?” he asked, motioning to the other pastor.

I laughed and said that no, she went to ours but she hadn’t been on Sundays that much lately (and when she is there, he’s usually too busy running around to notice her anyway).

“She doesn’t come on Sunday but came on Ash Wednesday?!

“Everyone has their own lives and their own complications. People stop coming to church regularly for different reasons. Sometimes they have scheduling conflicts or they fall out of the habit or they are struggling with something. Mimi stopped going to church for years because she was mad at the church.”

I realized right after the words were out of my mouth that I had stepped into dangerous territory.

“Why was she mad at the church?”

“Well, it had to do with Grandpa.”

Hal, not understanding the difference between a local church and the greater denominational structure that I was referring to, looked up at me shocked.

“Mimi used to go to Grandpa’s church?!”

“Um, well, yes. You know they were married, right?”

“What?!! I didn’t know that!”

“They are my mom and dad!” I responded, equally surprised but also amused.

“I know that, but I didn’t know they were married.”

“Ok, so do you know that Poppy and Grandma were married?” I asked, referring to my husband’s parents.

“Yes,” he responded. No recognition was in his voice on the lack of symmetry in his understanding of his grandparents. To be clear, I don’t think the distinction in his mind was that they had perhaps been an unmarried couple. He had just never put together that my parents must have been together at some point in the past. Yet he somehow came to that conclusion for the other set. It was strange and quite humorous.

“Well Mimi and Grandpa divorced when I was 5 and Mimi stopped going to church for a long time. She started going back when Papa…” I paused as a whole flood of emotions washed over me.

My mom started going back to church when my step-dad was diagnosed with cancer. He announced one day that they were going to church and she said ok and off they went, becoming weekly attendees and involved congregants in almost no time. The church-involved Mimi is the only Mimi Hal knows.

But Papa Bill…Hal doesn’t know him at all. He died three years before Hal was born. By the time Hal was born, my mom had fallen in love again and moved out of my childhood home. Hal knew none of that.

“Well,” I picked up again. “Mimi remarried after the divorce. She was married to Papa Bill. You don’t know him because he died from cancer before you were born.”

He nodded quietly. That was a lot of information to absorb suddenly like that. Not only had Mimi been married to Grandpa, but she had been married to someone else before the only man that Hal has ever thought of as Mimi’s husband.

We don’t make it to Ash Wednesday service every year. We try to make it a priority but it doesn’t always work out. Hal doesn’t recall having ever attended before, although I know he has. I can’t help but think that this one was memorable enough to be retained.

Not Just a Ball Player

{For all my followers that got the first part of this in an email last night, my apologies! While attempting to execute a ctrl-i on my laptop to turn off the italics, my finger slipped and WordPress interpreted whatever I did as a desire to publish immediately. Oops.}

I had a favorite professor in college. I loved the way he taught, the way he managed his classroom. I loved his sense of humor, his outlook. I loved how I never felt odd or unwanted or unequal or lacking as a woman in a heavily male-dominated field of study.

He was special to me. I worked as his teaching assistant for the basic class that all engineering majors had to take. I sat in his office and talked about my future, about the world, about his past. His was the office I ran to, closing the door and bursting into tears, when an insensitive professor made a harsh comment about a personal decision I had to make as I neared graduation. He was important enough that I stayed in contact for several years after I graduated.

I don’t know for sure but I’m fairly certain he has since passed away. I lost contact at some point and don’t think about him much anymore. He’s mostly relegated to those moments in time when folks tell funny college stories to each other – he provided plenty of great fodder for such interaction.

But I’ve been thinking of him a lot today. And not really in a good way, which is something I’ve been wrestling with and is why I’m writing for the first time in weeks. Months? Too long.

Earlier this week, I was scrolling through Facebook’s friend suggestions. I don’t add new friends often. This scrolling is something I do when I’m bored and rarely results in me clicking “add.” There were few people I recognized, mostly because I had recently added 4 people who all attend the same large church. Facebook was now convinced that I might know everyone at said church. So this scrolling activity was a guessing game as to which of the new candidate friends likely went to that church.

Then I came across a guy I graduated from High School with. That’s rare too. Despite it being a very large class, I’m either already friends with people, already rejected them for whatever reason, or they aren’t on Facebook. But this guy hadn’t been suggested before – that I recall. I barely knew him; I’d say really that I just knew of him. But I remembered him being a fun guy and, especially in today’s climate, I was interested in adding a fun person to my feed. He accepted the request and the next day, I saw this:

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And that’s what got me thinking back to my old professor. You see, I know a few tall people who never had an interest in playing basketball. They are annoyed by people either assuming they do or asking if they do and expressing regret when they answer no. As white folk, though, it never appears as though the asker expects basketball to be their entire identity – just something that surely they did while working through their education.

What’s this got to do with my professor? It’s a hazy memory. It’s actually taken me a little while to decide whether I was present for the interaction or he just related it to me (I’ve settled on the latter). You see, there was a young black man in the class I was working with. He came to my study sessions and it became very evident to me that his math skills were not up to snuff for the class or, indeed, most of the engineering program.

I went to talk to the professor about it. It seemed to me that he needed some remedial math before trying to press through the program. My professor seemed to have a different perspective – one that made me uncomfortable, although I didn’t have the words or awareness to call it what it was.

He had had a conversation with the student. He had taken the man’s large hands in his and turned them over and said, “You see these hands? These are large hands. They are made for holding a basketball.” That’s the only part I remember verbatim. The rest is just an impression – he gave a comparison of the professor’s strengths (intellect that made him good at engineering) vs. the student’s (physical strengths that made him good at “ball” as the meme above put it).

While I was uncomfortable at the time and felt he shouldn’t have shared those thoughts with the guy, I hadn’t really let it reflect poorly on my image of the professor. He was just misguided and maybe had a blind spot. Now I see it for what it was. Racist.

You can quibble and say that he might have said the same thing to a tall white man who wasn’t good at math, but I have my doubts. Strong doubts. See my comments about my tall white friends above. Instead of considering that the student might have come from a school district that had not adequately prepared him, he deemed him “not smart enough.” His size and – I firmly believe – skin color painted him an athlete. Period. At no point did the professor show any interest in learning about his hopes and dreams. Why was he in the engineering program? What did he want out of life? What did he need to get there?

So now I wonder – what happened to that guy? Without some help, he wasn’t going to get through the engineering program. Not when he didn’t know how to solve two basic equations with two unknowns. I’m convinced that anyone can learn math though. What many can’t overcome is discouragement. Was he the kind of person that would take comments like that and feed it into his determination? Or was he the kind that would feel crushed and defeated and think, “Who am I to think I could become anything more than I am right now?”

White people seem to have a hard time reconciling racism in people we love and respect. We tend to only label it when it’s big and obvious: angry white men yelling “Jews will not replace us” through the glow of their tiki torches. And shockingly, not even then sometimes.

We want to explain away the day-to-day examples. We want to believe it doesn’t exist – that we are “post racial” in this country. (Anyone who still believes that now is seriously sticking their head in the sand.) I’d like to think that if you could grade a white person on their attitudes about race, I’d be above average, but what does that matter? Why should that be “good enough”? How can I even measure that?

With regard to my professor, I sometimes think, “Well, he was a really old guy. He came from a different time.” And while that might explain it, it should not excuse it. But I also don’t think one flaw in a person should spoil the whole. As a country, we are trying to come to terms with the fact that so many of our “great” Founding Fathers owned slaves.  We somehow have to hold in balance that their ideas and dedication formed this country and they deserve to be revered for that while at the same time they “owned” other human beings and they shouldn’t get a pass on that failing. (Yes, they were a product of their time but other people in that time fought to end slavery, so even then, many people knew it was wrong.) Some of us want to cling to the greatness while ignoring the slavery while others want to dismiss the greatness because of it. Is there room to do both?

We can change. Both our country and the individuals in it. I remember back in 1999. My great-grandmother was 99 years old and living in a nursing home. My mom (or one of my aunts?) was visiting her when one of the nursing assistants came in. As she left, my great-grandmother said, “That {N word} nurse is pretty good.” There was a brief pause. “They don’t like to be called that anymore, do they?” My mom responded, “They never liked being called that, grandma.” Great-grandma nodded thoughtfully. Even at that age, beset with dementia, wondering why God hadn’t called her home yet, she was learning and changing. Surely we all can too?

My thoughts on this topic are all muddled and in some cases contradictory. I know we have to do better and that includes me. There aren’t any easy answers, but the first pivotal step for white folks is to quit thinking we know it all. We don’t know the black (or brown) experience in this country. We are arrogant fools to tell them they are wrong about what they observe with their own eyes, what they experience in their own skin. We need to listen and watch and learn and grow and THINK. It’s not just the tiki-torch wielding bigots. It’s even more so all the little assumptions and slights made by each and every one of us every day.

Oh, yeah? When I was your age…

Hal has yet another loose tooth. It seemed pretty loose to me so when he walked in pushing on his lip near the tooth, I suggested that my husband take a look at it. Hal jerked away and shook his head.

“I’m not going to pull it,” he said. Then, after wiggling the tooth, he added, “Yeah, I’d say it needs another day or two.”

“Are you sure? Felt like it was ready to come out to me,” I responded.

“No,” he said, looking at Hal. “I’m more of the wait until it’s ready to fall out kind of person. Your mom is the rip it out kind of person.”

“You think I’m the rip it out kind of person?! Let me tell you…”

I then launched into the tale of my first two pulled teeth. These were stories I’ve told many times before and it dismayed me to realize that I didn’t remember for sure which was the first tooth and which was the second.

“So I was out shopping with Mimi. And Aunt May. And Aunt Susan was probably there. And Grandma Lucky and my GREAT grandma.”

Hal’s eyes were wide with wonder.

“And we were all in a dressing room together. It was a big dressing room.”

I was playing with my tooth and my great grandma asked to see it. My mom, who was very big on yanking teeth {this part now makes me think that this must have been my second tooth because how else would I know this?} warned her off and said, “Oh, grandma, no. It’s not ready yet.”

“I’ll see about that,” she said.

At this point, back in my dining room, I held up seven fingers – all on my left hand and only the pinky and ring finger on the right. “Now, my great grandmother,” I told Hal, “only had seven fingers.”

He looked over at his dad, who confirmed it with a solemn nod. Hal’s eyes went even wider.

“I can’t remember whether she used those two fingers this time or not but they were like pincers. She could grab hold of this skin under your arm {I demonstrated} and lead you wherever she wanted you to go.”

Hal scooted closer to his dad.

“Anyway, I just remember her reaching into my mouth and yanking that tooth out and saying, ‘Looks ready to me!’ I clearly remember looking at myself in the dressing room mirror, staring at the blood running down my face and all the commotion that caused in the dressing room.”

Hal was now standing partially behind his dad.

“Now, the second tooth,” I continued. “I lost that one on the Fourth of July. I know that because it was almost time to go to the big fireworks display in town and my mom insisted that we weren’t going until that tooth came out.

“I pleaded my case but she pinned me against the kitchen cabinets, reached in, and yanked out the tooth! It slipped from her fingers and fell onto my tongue. She said sharply, ‘Stick out your tongue!’ and I did and she plucked it off my tongue and we went to the fireworks display.”

Hal, now standing fully behind his seated dad and ducking down behind him, whispered in a small voice, “I’m glad I wasn’t you.”

I smiled. I didn’t have a rough childhood – definitely not. But my children are definitely softer than they would have been had they been me. Between my great grandma, grandparents, and my mom, not a lot of crap was put up with. Let’s just say they all had a perspective that you needed to be tough.

Oh, one last thing? Before I was two sentences into writing this story, Hal entered the room with his hand cupped in front of him. “Looks like today was the day after all,” he said, holding the tooth.

Affirmation. I was right!

You Have an Uncle?

My children and I were sitting around the dinner table last night, having a rare, slow evening. I asked them what they were looking forward to the most about summertime. After a bit of animated response, Daryl asked, “Are we going anywhere this summer?”

“Denver,” I said, reminding them of our annual trip to visit my husband’s family.

“Anywhere else?”

“Well…,” I said, “If your sister doesn’t get that wild card spot to Globals in Knoxville, we were talking about going to North Carolina.” I said it in a tone that hinted I was annoyed with her possible wild card berth.

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed in false excitement. “North Carolina!! Oh, my goodness! I’ve always wanted to go to North Carolina. It’s just so exciting!! I’ll totally give up Globals for that! I mean, come on. It’s North Carolina!”

I rolled my eyes but otherwise ignored her.

“What’s in North Carolina?” Daryl asked.

“My uncle.”

“You have an uncle? I didn’t know you had an uncle.”

“Yes, my Uncle Matt and his wife and their daughter Anna and her husband and their kids. Here,” I said, showing him a picture off of Facebook.

“He looks just like Grandpa Ted!”

“Wow!” injected Jane. “They must be related!”

“They are brothers,” I said.

“Well, I didn’t know! I’ve never met him before.”

“Yes, you have,” I said. “You’ve been to his house even. You just don’t remember it. You were pretty small.”

“I don’t like visiting family I don’t know very well,” Daryl said quietly. “It’s uncomfortable.”

“Yeah,” said Jane, who then started in with a loud and energetic voice tinged with that homey sweetness that older family members often use: “‘Oh, sweetheart! You are looking so good! My goodness, I haven’t seen you since you were THIS tall. You sure have grown! I remember when you could barely walk. How old are you now? Are you in High School yet? I bet you’ve got all the girls lined up waiting for you, don’t you! Quite the ladies’ man, I’m sure.’ See?” she asked, dropping the fake voice and turning to me, “I’m ready to be an old family member. I’ve got this down.”

I hate to say this, but she’s kinda right. The older we get, the more obnoxious we seem to get when we see people, especially young people, that we haven’t seen for awhile. But having had the occasional “Oh, wow! You look just like your mother!” or “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown up!” slip out of my mouth unplanned, I’ve gotta say, she doesn’t have to fake it. By the time she gets there, she’ll be doing it too.

I just hope that I can continue to stop it after the first sentence and not go on with the annoying attempts to relate and sound cool. Thing is, kids are so aloof that it seems to me to not be a very comfortable event from the other side either.

Regarding my Mother – Edith

My mother’s name is not Edith.She does not have a pension with Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust. She is not dead.

I’d be OK if her name were Edith although since my middle name is her first name, maybe I wouldn’t. It doesn’t flow well between my first and last. I’d be OK if she had a Boilermaker-Blacksmith pension – especially if it meant she’d go ahead and retire. I’d NOT be OK if she were dead. Not at all.

Fortunately for me, she is not.

The same is apparently not true for another woman who shares my name.

In July, I received the following letter. I initially thought it was a scam, but as I read on, it seemed unduly complicated and put considerable burden on me to collect the money. It was a pretty stupid scam, if that’s what it was.

Suggesting that I hire Legal Counsel isn’t something the average scammer does. Such an act is counterproductive to their objectives. It also didn’t give me an “act now or lose it forever” ultimatum or instruct me how to wire administrative fees or create any sense of urgency in me at all. Not to mention calling my mother Edith, when her name is most certainly not Edith, is not very convincing.

Edith

So if not a scam, then what was it? I Googled the Trust and didn’t find any indications of it being dubious or untrustworthy. I Googled Edith’s name and didn’t find it linked to any scams. Finally I Googled Edith’s name and mine (first and last) together and came across an interesting find.

Edith and her husband, either Fritz or Harold (or maybe one was her husband and the other her son), had a place of residence in a town not too far from me. The website also showed that there was a resident with my exact name there. First, middle, last. Another me less than an hour away. Her husband was also a resident, although his name was not the same as my husband’s name. Thankfully. That would have been too much.

So it must be this other me that Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust actually wanted to get in touch with. Not the me me, after all! Intrigued by this information, I resolved to call the other me.

A month went by without me getting around to it. We were gone for a portion of that time. I forgot about it another portion. I spent some time imagining how the conversation would go, though. Would the other me think the me me was attempting to scam her? Oh, the irony.

“Hello? Is this Jane Anne Doe? It is?! Hi, my name is Jane Anne Doe too!… No, really, it is… I’m serious…So I got this letter in the mail and I think it was supposed to go to you. I’d like to send it to you if you don’t mind giving me your address… No, really… no, wait! Don’t hang up!… Really, I’m not trying to scam you!… Wait… Is your mother’s name Edith?… It’s on the letter – that’s how I know. Has she passed away?… No, I haven’t been looking in your records… Really, it’s not a scam.”

Eventually, when resurrecting my to-do list notebook, I wrote down “Call the other me” on Sunday’s to-do list. Late Sunday, I transferred it to Monday’s to-do list. I got so little done on Monday that I just wrote Tuesday under Monday and kept the same list. Didn’t call her Tuesday either. What if after 8:00 was too late?

By Wednesday, I was determined. I would call the other me. I informed the kids I was making a phone call and to keep it down. I went to my room and closed the door. I took a deep breath, excited and nervous to finally be calling Edith’s daughter – because I had absolutely convinced myself that it was her and that this was her number.

But when I finally hit the green button to place the call, I was told the number wasn’t in service. I sat there on my bed, staring at the letter, thinking Wow. That’s kinda a let-down. Now what?

That number had been other me and her husband’s number, so I tried the number that was listed for Edith and Fritz and Harold. That number was disconnected too. I Googled poor Edith again. I found her obituary on a tribute page. Here’s what it said:

Edith was born on July 16, 1927 and passed away on Thursday, February 17, 2011. Edith was a resident of xxxxxxx, Texas.

And that was it. Her middle name was included on the header at the top of the page but there was no other information. No survivors. No indication of where to make a memorial. Nothing at all.

She was 83, making her daughter definitely older than me. Interestingly enough, when I imagined talking to the other me, I imagined her about my age. But, no, other me was probably about my mom’s age or a bit younger. Had she died too? Or moved away?

I think I’m done playing detective although I’m still insanely curious about Edith and other me. The letter tells me to write to the Pension Department if I’m not going to pursue getting paid this money. If I could send an email, I would. But if I can’t even write to my own grandmother, put a stamp on the letter, and get it in the mail, what’s the likelihood of me writing to this trust? Besides, they told me to give contact information for another person and the only contact information I’ve got for other me isn’t any good.

Maybe Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust sent the letter out to other possible descendants of Edith. Maybe there are lots of other me’s across the country. Or other Fritzes or Harolds. Or maybe they’ll just have to put the $3,121.10 back in their coffers. Either way, I wish them well.

How To Remember The Little Things

My mom always left notes for herself. Everywhere. There could be notes hanging from the ceiling fan pull in the dining room, guaranteeing she would see them since that was the main thoroughfare of the house. She’d tape notes on the inside of the front door so we’d see them as we left. Or on the door out to the garage. Or taped to the bathroom mirror. Or she might lay the note on her purse or on some other object that she wasn’t likely to forget.

I used to think she was forgetful. Now I know how smart she was.

Her notes would remind her to get something out of the fridge or to take something with her or make a phone call, some little out-of-the-norm activity that she needed to do. Or it would be a note reminding us of something we needed to do.

I actually come from a long line of note posters. My grandpa, her dad,  taped notes on the staircase banister, which was the central location of his house. These notes were often notes instructing my grandma on something she needed to do or a note for one of us coming to the house. The funny thing about his notes were that they were always typed and dated. I’m kinda surprised he didn’t sign them or have them notarized. I used to imagine that he filed the old notes away in case he needed them as evidence in a disagreement on something or for historical reference.

Despite having been raised by note-posters and understanding the intrinsic value of the activity, I’ve never made it part of my daily routine. And considering how badly I remember the minutia of life, that’s not a good thing.

While bemoaning the stacks of stuff in our entry way that my husband plans on (some day) (when he remembers) taking out to his studio, I remembered the notes.

“Maybe you need a better reminder {than all the crap in the way… I thought but didn’t say}. Maybe a note on the door so you see it on the way out.”

That put the thought in my head.

I have these Wella bars that I eat for breakfast at work and I accidentally took the entire box to work on Monday without remembering to leave one at home to eat before our half marathon this weekend. So I knew I had all week to remember to bring one back home.

Yesterday, as I retrieved one from the fridge in the morning, I thought, You aren’t going to ever remember to take one of these out at the end of the day.

Aha! I thought with a smile. A Post-It note will do the trick. But where? The fridge? My computer screen? No, I’ll get used to seeing it all day and it won’t work. Aha! On my purse!

And that’s what I did. Come the end of the day when I reached for my purse, I smiled broadly at my wild success and retrieved the almost-forgotten Wella bar from the fridge and slipped it in my purse, triumphant.

And then this morning as I pondered our upcoming race, I suddenly exclaimed an expletive. The must-be-refrigerated Wella bar from the day before was still nestled in my purse.

I guess I’m still in the beginner stages. Another note, perhaps? Maybe I should have carried the note with me and placed it on my steering wheel or back on my purse. So close, yet so far. I’ve got a long way to go before I earn my place among the great note-posters of my family.

string-around-finger-9x10

Remembering Grandma’s Grandpa’s House

We joined hands in a large circle around the island in my mother’s kitchen. There were 18 of us in all. My uncle said grace and we prepared to eat our Thanksgiving meal.

“Kids! Come over here and go through the line,” someone said shortly after the amen.

I grumbled to the person next to me, as I do every year, “Kids didn’t get to go through the line first when I was a kid. We always had to go through last.”

The person to whom I grumbled happened to be my 89 year-old grandmother. She laughed and attempted to remember how things had been handled when she was a child. She began to describe her grandparents’ house.

“Grandpa had a chair in the corner of the room,” she said. “His radio stand was right next to it. The dining table was over there.” She motioned with her hand. Her hands and words painted the picture of a cozy Thanksgiving gathering.

“The kids would run around playing,” she continued. “And eventually we’d get too loud and Grandpa couldn’t hear the radio anymore. So he’d start yelling in German.”

At this point, she startled me by uttering some words in German. I knew her parents had both been first generation American-born citizens of German descent. I had never considered that that likely meant German had been spoken around her as she grew up. I had never considered that she might know any German herself.

She cut off the German abruptly and chuckled at the memory.

“They didn’t have screens in their windows,” she said. “And I remember some of my cousins diving headfirst out the windows. They weren’t very far off the ground. But when he started yelling, you got out of the way!”

She smiled as we walked over to pick up our plates. “I don’t remember though whether we got our food first or last. I don’t remember what we ate or how we did it.”

I don’t know about you, but if she couldn’t remember it all, I’m glad she retained the radio, the German, and the cousins flying out the windows rather than who went through the line first and what they piled on their plate.