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Friday, September 30, 2016

Great

My sister Liz came over for a brief visit the other day. She was taking a little breather before she had to go in to work and seemed glad to sit down and put her feet up. At some point while she was checking texts and voicemails and making a couple of phone calls, she told me that I needed to contact her daughter. I was a little surprised. I love Becky, but we don't spend a lot of time phoning or texting one another.

I asked Liz what was going on. "I don't know," Liz said. "She called me last night and told me that she had to talk to you about something important.  She wanted me to tell you that when she calls, you need to answer. She says that when she calls, you never answer." I thought, but did not say, that no, I usually don't answer, because every time she calls it seems that she's telling me someone died. That's the type of call that you want to be prepared for. It's the kind that you let go to voicemail and you don't even listen to the voicemail until you've had at least a few minutes to mentally gird your loins, as it were.

I was getting a bit miffed, though. Why on earth did she call Liz to say that she needed to talk to me? Did she change her phone number? I hadn't had any phone calls from her recently. Did she ask Liz for my phone number? That was silly, too, because I haven't changed it in years. What the heck was going on? I asked Liz all of these questions, getting a little more peeved as the conversation went on. 

Liz got a little testy with me and my questions, telling me that she didn't know what was going on, all that she knew was that Becky had called her the previous evening and told her that she really needed to talk to me. Don't get testy with me, I thought, but did not say. I'm not the one who started this. Why in the heck didn't Becky contact me directly by phoning or texting? Why call Liz? Liz isn't my mother, and even if she was, I'm a grown woman, as is Becky.

I texted Becky, sort of a what's-up-your-Mom-said-you-needed-to-talk-to-me-about-something kind of message. I was getting really irked because Liz kept saying that she didn't know what was going on, I should just call Becky. Argh. So I talked to Liz about other things. I knew that Becky, who lives in another state, would be up and about, and when she called me a few minutes later, I answered a bit warily. I wanted to respond like Olympia Dukakis did when her character was awakened during the night in Moonstruck - who's dead?

Becky said, "Hi, I just wanted to let you know that you're going to be a great aunt!" I turned to look over at Liz, who was laughing. I called her a name. Nothing foul, mind you, I simply referred to her as a young female bovine who has never given birth to a calf. She and Becky both burst out laughing. I laughed too.

So my niece is making me a great aunt and Liz a grandmother at Easter time. Becky is doing well now that she has gotten over the morning sickness phase. Because he was away at college when all of his friends were having babies, her boyfriend has never changed a diaper or fed a baby a bottle. He needs to do a heap of learning before April. I'm sure he'll do just fine.

After I got off the phone, I told Liz that she needed to decide what she was going to be called as a grandmother. (This was interspersed with her having fits of giggles as I was still calling her a young female bovine who has never given birth to a calf.) Gram, of course, is out of the question because of Gram who raised us. It's been used thoroughly. I suggested going for a British term like Nan or Gran. We'll see. There's plenty of time for her to decide. That poopy little young female bovine... 


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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wear and Tear

My younger readers may not be able to identify with this, but those with more, um, life experience may be able to identify.

From time to time lately, I find myself wondering what in the world happened to my legs. When I was younger they were beautifully shaped and wondrously strong. I could walk all over the place, even in crummy but cute shoes with no support, and leap out of bed the next day eager for more. I could squat down for ages to converse with small children, and kneel and crawl around with the best of them. Heck, I could climb up numerous flights of stairs - nay, run up numerous flights of stairs if I wished - without my legs giving it a second thought. It was wonderful. 

Nowadays my legs aren't the lovely stems that my Gram said were so nicely shaped. The knees bulge in places that they never used to years ago. That's not the worst of it - just a moment of kneeling is agonizing. And squatting? Please! And the grinding these knees make going up and down stairs can often be heard by someone who is walking next to me. I find myself doing the one-step-at-a-time slow shuffle, something that I used to think was reserved for people who could be commonly referred to as elderly or perhaps toddlers still learning how to walk, when I go down a set of stairs. If not, the grinding will make it extremely difficult for me to walk tomorrow.

"What have I done to make my legs so bad?" I wondered. It's not like I played any sports in school (talk about someone being non-athletic!) and was dealing with repeated football or soccer or cross-country injuries. So I let my mind wander and it remembered, and it told me what I needed to know.

I remembered being a skinny girl of seven or eight years of age and Alice taking her daughters and Liz and I out to what was called The Farm, but was more like a ranch. There were a few horses, a pony, some fields of hay and alfalfa, and numerous Charolais cattle. On these occasions, five or six years before Alice and Bill had a home built on their 100-plus acres, we girls were a free work crew. Actually, we were allowed to work for sandwiches and a spot to pee behind the haystack.

Did I mention that I was scrawny? Years later, Alice's sister Jackie told me that when she first saw me I reminded her of the photos she would see of starving children, accompanied by requests for humanitarian aid. But I was expected to work, and work hard. It gave me some time to not be under Alice's thumb, unless I shirked my duties. We would do all sorts of work around the corrals and barns, hopping over the wooden fences or getting torn up trying to crawl through the barbed wire around all of the other areas and fields. I seldom came back from these excursions without getting my skin torn by barbs or picking up splinters from the wooden fences. Of course, I never mentioned these to Alice - if I had, the bandaging would be accompanied by her berating me for a fool for getting cut up. Once I got a splinter in the palm of my hand that was as large around as a wooden kitchen matchstick. I left it alone until it festered and my hand opened up, releasing the offending stowaway.

One of the hardest things was carrying around bales of hay. We would climb up the stacked bales to get one down from the top, or near the top, and carry them to another location. Bales of that size can weigh around 40 pounds, and I might have weighed 50 dripping wet and wrapped in heavy winter clothing and boots. I struggled along, balancing the bales on my thighs. Any discomfort I experienced was nothing compared to a potential beating for being a useless, lazy girl.

After I moved to Gram's, the trips to the country (sounds so very nice, doesn't it?) dwindled in frequency. Bill and Alice had a young family that lived on the place and took care of the work we had previously done. Before long, Alice dumped a dog at Gram's, one of the most aggravating dogs I have ever known. Naturally he lived to be nearly 20 years old. Alice's son Dave and his roomies had found the dog roaming on the streets of Boulder near the CU campus. They brought him home to the house they shared and, probably through benign neglect, taught him the worst of manners. 

Clyde (as in Bonnie and) would drink out of the toilets, steal food off the counters and table, and pee and poop in the house rather than outside. As I have read can be the case with black labs (he was a mix) he was afraid of the dark. He was also terrified of loud noises like thunder and fireworks, as well as getting wet. He could jump over a 6-foot fence with ease, and liked to fly over fences at any opportunity. He believed himself to be a fighter, and would try to tangle with the male dog next door. Hoss could kick his tail and slash him up without even trying.

In order to protect the dog, we had to chain him when we put him outside for, well, you know. I want to stress that he was not left chained in the yard all day, it was usually a maximum of about 5 minutes. It was one of my tasks to take him down to the chain that was looped around one of the sturdy poles that held up the clothesline. Clyde could run around without the heavy chain tangling up, and would bark when he was, as Gram would say, finished doing his business. 

That crazy dog was strong. He knew where we were headed and would try to get away from me. And when fireworks happened or rain sprinkled, I had to virtually drag him with my slight frame. If he saw a dog or cat when he was going out or coming in, he'd take off, sometimes dragging me along. I remember once when he started off and I ended up on the wet grass in my favorite brown and tan suede saddle shoes. They had a smooth molded bottom, so when we hit the grass, I slid and fell, narrowly missing hitting my head on the metal basement window well. Gram was so scared and angry that when she tried to kick the dog in anger, he fled down the stairs to the basement. Every so often, he was not stupid. 

Doing this for years made my hands and arms strong, but I think it also took a toll on my still-young but already abused knees. As the years passed and lupus became a part of my life, gout and inflammation also took their toll. A fractured tibia, with which I climbed to my third-floor apartment and back down again the next day (and which wasn't x-rayed until about three weeks later because nobody even thought of a break because after all, I was walking) added to the damage. Throw in some phlebitis and the family tendency I inherited to hypercoagulabilty (a fancy term for a tendency to get blood clots) and I guess it's not such a surprise I have challenges after all. 

I have come to realize that although my small problems with my legs may be inconvenient, I am pretty lucky after all. I still have two legs, and they are at least moderately strong. I can still walk a lot, but not without the carefree, pain-free ease of my youth. And, like Clyde, I may talk a good game, but I am not going to be kicking anyone's backside. I'm non-violent, after all. And I'm really not sure that I could lift either leg that high!


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

High in Colorado

If you think this is all about Colorado being the place to go because of the legality of small amounts of marijuana, I am sorry to disappoint you. Yes, marijuana is legal here. Instead of being sold on the streets or through friends-of-friends, it is sold in well-maintained shops by very educated staff. One can't even look at the sales floor, much less the merchandise, without proof of age and identification. It's taxed to raise money for schools and is even bringing in more than the expected revenue, resulting in tax refunds to Colorado residents. And if you're curious, for various reasons I was one of the people who voted to make it legal. 

As I said before, though, this isn't about marijuana. It's about the natural, non-drug high that is Colorado. Okay, it's about the elevation. I used to always say altitude, but I don't use that word all of the time now. When I was working at Denver International Airport, a pilot got testy with me about my Colorado Rockies t-shirt, which read, "Baseball with an altitude." I thought that it was a delightful play on words and terribly clever, but he had to get all cranky and smarter-than-thou and say that it was elevation, not altitude. Never mind that our region is commonly referred to as being at a higher altitude, or that recipes often have high-altitude adjustments. And what about High-Altitude Hungarian Flour, hmm?

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the fact that Colorado is at a high elevation. It's not something that's not constantly in the front of my mind. When you have lived here for years, you get used to it. There's little adjustments that become natural to us since the high altitude changes the air pressure. For example, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level, but only 202 degrees in Denver. So when I boil eggs, I give them a little extra time to compensate for the lower temperature. No big deal.

What we sometimes forget is that it can be a challenge for the people that my Gram called flatlanders to breathe here. An online conversation with my friend Paul, who lives in New York State, reminded me of how difficult it can be. You see, Paul had posted a photograph online of a dragon formed out of snow. This immediately reminded me of the annual international snow-sculpting championships held in late January in Breckenridge Colorado (elevation 9600 feet). I immediately told Paul that I thought he'd enjoy it immensely. 

Paul let me know that he would likely need a week or two to acclimate to the higher altitude (there, I said it!). He's been to Colorado once, and spent his time here headachey and otherwise not feeling so great. Not only is it really dry here, we also have less oxygen than you folks living at lower elevations. I actually did a bit of studying before writing this piece and found that at sea level, the air is almost 21% oxygen. When you get to Denver, it's a bit over 17% (I have rounded the numbers). By the time you get to Breckenridge, which isn't terribly high, there's about 14.5%, which is only about 70% of what's available at sea level.

I'm sorry if I've bored you to tears with these facts and figures, but it's just to show you that difficulty breathing here is no myth. And when we Colorado folk travel to lower elevations, our lungs barely have to work at all. The oxygen fairly rushes into our lungs, making them say, "Whoopie! I'm ready to go!" When I got back from a week-long business trip to Minnesota, I joked to Trent that I didn't know how people were able to breathe here. I was just teasing though, because I'm very used to it.

Sometimes we Coloradans have challenges when we go to higher altitudes, too, and so do our visitors. I am always thinking about that if there's someone visiting the area that is from a lower elevation and might have breathing problems. Altitude sickness is very real and can be dangerous, and you don't have to be on Mount Everest to experience it in its milder forms.

Several years ago, I worked with someone who had moved to Colorado from Delaware. After living here for about a year, he invited his sister to fly in for a visit. Before he left work, he told me that he was going straight to the airport to pick her up. The next day, he laughed as he told me about how the evening went. He picked her up and drove her straight to Pike's Peak (elevation 14,114 feet). Since she hadn't even acclimated to the mile-high conditions, the trip to a place with just a little over 12% oxygen was too much for her. He laughed to the point of tears over the fact that she was so oxygen-deprived that she felt sick and her lips turned blue. His behavior made me think of words like insensitive jerk and some others I shan't share in this post, but you get the picture.

This was in the back of my mind when I told my friend Paul that if he ever did decide to come back to Colorado, we could get in plenty of trouble have lots of fun while he got acclimated. I'm not the cruel type of person who finds entertainment in someone's pain or struggles. I'm more the empathetic, nurturing type. So come on over, Paul. Bring your lovely wife. We can sit around and talk or go to restaurants or any number of things. We could tour Celestial Seasonings or Coors or Budweiser. Or we could go even go into a pot shop...
 


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Friday, September 2, 2016

Fifty Years

Fifty years. Five decades. Half a century. Such a long time ago, and such a short one. The other day I searched online for a September 1966 calendar. As we all know, the calendar changes and shifts its layout of weeks and days over the course of the years. It was interesting to me, though, that the calendar from September fifty years ago is identical to the calendar this year.

Chicago, Wednesday, August 31, 1966:  A family of six, parents with three daughters and one son, moves from their Chicago three-bedroom duplex to a two-bedroom apartment. The other family living in the duplex, the owners, received an unsolicited offer to sell the home, an offer which they could not and did not refuse. After the moving was done, the four children, ranging in age from 7 to 16, walked with their mother to a local grocery store. There were no cars owned by the family; walking or public transportation were the ways they usually got around.

The mother seemed troubled. Her children asked their mama what was wrong. She finally told them that she had a terrible feeling. Something very bad was going to happen. The children, in their youthful hope and innocence, gushed that everything was fine. Nothing bad would happen. Mama didn't need to be worried. The subject faded into the background of this day of upheaval and change.

Chicago, Thursday, September 1, 1966:  The children are all asleep in one bedroom. They are awakened by the screams of their mother. She cries out to them in Hungarian asking for help. She tells them not to allow the 7 year old child to come with them. Having never heard her mother scream for help before, the child runs to the bedroom with her siblings. None of them has any idea what to expect. 

Their papa is not in the bedroom with mama. She is lying on the bed crying and writhing in pain. Her head and the pillows and bedclothes are soaked in her blood. Things become a blur. Various authorities are contacted. The father has turned himself in to the local police and left his children to find his wife who has been bludgeoned with a hammer and has a fractured skull. Years later, one of the daughters tells another that the father called her via the neighbor's phone (there was no phone yet in their new home) and instructed her to hide the hammer. On another call, he told her to retrieve it. By the day's end, the children were in different locations, the two youngest girls in an orphanage. 

Chicago, Friday, September 2, 1966:  The two girls in the orphanage, the older of whom was allowed to visit their mother in the hospital, are told that their mother has died. The youngest feels almost as if she is not really there, like this is not really happening. She doesn't know how to act or what to think. She is overwhelmed, as is her sister. What will happen to them next? What about their siblings? What about their father? 

The two girls, who are no strangers to abuse or threats, are in the care of a nun who really doesn't care about them or their fellow orphans. They become numbers rather than names. The older one is referred to as 43-19, and the younger is 43-10. The numbers are inked on their clothes and stain their hearts. They are told over and over again that if something bad has happened to them, it is all their fault for being such terrible sinners. All of the orphans are told that they are unworthy, sinful people. They are subjected to physical and emotional abuse bordering on torture. Although there are occasional sunny moments in their lives, the nun pits them against one another. She punishes one sister for the real or imagined sins of the other, and punishes other girls in the same manner. She drives wedges between them so that they feel lonely and isolated even though they are surrounded by other girls.

Denver and suburbs, 1966 and beyond:  A woman named Elizabeth celebrates her 60th birthday in July, the same month that the sisters in Chicago celebrate their 7th, 13th, and 16th birthdays. She is known to her grandchildren as Grandma Bessie or simply Gram. Her daughter Alice is married to a successful attorney, William, who was born in Hungary. 

The following year he is told by his mother about the two girls in an orphanage, girls left behind after the death of their mother, his third or fourth cousin. He insists on becoming the guardian for the girls and giving them a home. His wife does not want the children; as an artist she would prefer children that, to her, are more interesting or exotic, like a couple of girls from a Native American Reservation. When she beats the youngest girl, she often tells her this, along with other painful things to try and crush her spirit. Within two and a half years both girls, first the older and then the younger, have been sent to live with her mother. As she is sent away, the youngest, who is secretly rejoicing because she will be escaping the frequent vicious beatings, is told not to be too happy because the grandmother hated her from the moment she laid eyes on her.

Present:  The father served less than five years in prison. Rather than being found guilty of the original charge of murder, he is found guilty of manslaughter. The youngest is still upset that her mother's death came with so little punishment for the perpetrator and so much for the children. Did his case go to trial, or was there a plea-bargain? She neither knows nor cares. She will probably never feel that justice has been served. The two sisters were forced to go to visit their father after his release from prison even though they felt nothing but hate for him. The visit did not change this. The father died in 1980 and was gone for a long time before any of his children even knew he was gone. Perhaps in an odd way some justice was served.

The grandmother, who became like a mother to the girls, is now gone. The abusive Alice and her husband are also gone. The brother is also gone. The oldest sister is estranged from the others, but the youngest two are sticking together. For both of them, some degree of pain accompanies the memories that remain. Some of them are terrible, and some are worthy of smiles or laughter. They never know what will pop into their minds or when or why. But the turning of August to September has its own set of memories. The calendar cannot be denied. Sometimes years go by without it being in the forefront of their minds, but this is a momentous number of years. If this were an anniversary of a marriage, there would be much cause for celebration. Instead, this date brings reflection and sometimes surprise. Surprise to realize that a parent was lost so many years ago. Fifty years gone by, such a long time, and yet such a short one.


p.s. I am the 7 year old, and the 13 year old is my sister Liz. I love you, sister.


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