Sunday, December 31, 2017

30 year old pain

Thirty years ago I drove my mother’s stationwagon through a stop sign that I didn’t  notice, or noticed too late, or didn’t take seriously enough, and into the path of a red pick-up truck. My friend in the passenger seat was cut in a few places by flying shards of glass and sprained her wrist in the impact. The driver of the pick-up fractured a few ribs. A man driving a third car experienced whiplash. In a swerve away from the stereotype, I, the driver who caused the accident, was the most hurt. I split my head open, took the entirety of the driver’s side window in my face which ripped my eyelid nearly off, struggled to breathe through my collapsed lungs, and broke my arm in 4 close-together places just above my elbow. My head was stapled back together pretty quick, though that injury may be why I don’t actually remember the accident, putting my faith in the stories of it that others have told me. The plastic surgeon used a skin graft to repair my eyelid and sewed in what felt like a million little stitches on the left side of my face. Still, I was still picking little pieces of glass out of my cheek three months later, a phenomenon the nurse called “normal.” And the orthopedic doctor did what he could with my arm. I was in some level of a cast for almost a year. It took six month before I could move all my fingers, another three months after that before my thumb would respond to my brain’s commands. If you feel my arm, you can still find the outcropping of bone that never did heal in the right direction.

I’m thinking of this accident not because of year-end nostalgia but because my arm hurts. My arm has hurt at some point every year for the last thirty, at varying levels of ouch. But the long-lasting cold snap we have been living in since Christmas seems to be the worst thing for a thirty year old break and I have been in constant discomfort, with regular jabs of pain, for three days. It hurts more now than it has in a long time and I’m hoping that this will not be my new reality as I leap toward fifty.

Pain like this can stop you from doing things. It makes it hard to shovel snow or open jelly jars or keep a civil tongue. When you are in pain you get grumpy, you get impatient. Perhaps that’s where the stereotype of grumpy old folks comes from.  I don’t want to be that grouchy old lady that folks tolerate. I have plans for my next 50 years and they do not include family members avoiding my company.

Nor do I want to be that old lady who talks about every ailment the same way some folks comment on the weather. But I feel like, for myself, I need to acknowledge that I have this injury, that I did not hypochondriacally make it up, and that the pain is real. And, doing that, I can move toward dealing with it.

On this last day of 2017, I’m feeling the pain from thirty years ago, looking ahead to another year, grateful that I’m here to feel it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Fat and healthy

Is fat a bad thing? Inherently? Always?
I carry around a few extra pounds. Yeah, more than a few. The report from my annual physical includes the word obese and has for years now. I shop more reliably in the plus size section, though I can still often find some good pieces in the regular clothes (though it upsets me that I felt compelled to say that last part). I shy away from certain styles.
But am I unhealthy? Less healthy than thinner people?
This school year, as other teachers have fallen to the germs so generously shared by elementary students, I have barely had a sniffle (until the Christmas break, of course). I climbed a mountain in 90 degree heat with less trouble than my “more fit” peer. Though I’ve hit a slow down because of the cold and early setting sun, I usually walk 2 miles a day at a pace to increase my heart rate and usually meet both the standard FitBit 10,000 steps and my Apple Watch 600 burned calories benchmark.
But, I am fat. And I know that my choices and habits over the past 20 years are the cause. I eat too much sugar, I’m inconsistent with exercise, my muscles are weak and so my metabolism is slowed. I make regularly renewed efforts to get more healthy, without sacrificing chocolate.
At the milestones of the year - the start of spriong, the start of the new school year, and now the new year - I review and reflect and set goals for improving my health. I try not to make my goals about weight, or at least not about weight alone. I want strength to keep up with my husband on hikes and bike rides. I want to be strong enough to haul my future grandchildren around, earning the moniker of the fun grandparent. I want to live independently into old age. So, I pay closer attention to what I eat and resolve to decrease the sugar and increase the vegetables. I look at my schedule to see where I can dedicate time to exercise. I eye sleeveless dresses and pick up the hand weights to build some fashionable muscles.
Fat is a symptom of some health problems, but is not itself my health problem. I may make big improvements to my physical health by increasing my exercise consistency and decreasing my sugar intake and still not decrease my clothing size by much at all.

I’m fat, and I’m healthy. My New Year’s goal is to make more healthy choices, eve if I still shop in the plus size section.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


When I was little, my Nana called them “sewing needles” for their long body shape. As kids we heard “needles” and thought “sting” so we splashed water to scare them away any time we saw them hovering around the pool.

But dragonflies don’t sting.

When my girls were little we had Judy Allen’s book Are You a Dragonfly? In our collection. I think it was with that book that my distrust of the flying sewing needles turned to love. By then I had a garden of my own that taught me to enjoy the buzz of bees and delight in the sight of worms in the dirt. Dragonflies became my late summer friends, more abundant than butterflies and, when you stopped splashing them so you could see, just as beautiful.

In my garden now, I leave the stalks of spent lilies because they turn into dragonfly flowers in August. Some afternoons you can see ten or more dragonflies perched on the top of the stalks, waiting for the hunt or basking in the sun or meeting up with a friend. The slow dance of wings as they sit could be a signal to another, or perhaps they are just stretching. They rest, fly up, then rest on another stalk. At the end of the summer, when thoughts are focused on the start of the new school year and the butterflies start fluttering through my stomach, the dragonflies are calming. Despite my neglected yet ever-growing to do list, I can sit for long stretches watching them play around the dead lilies.

This year, it seems there are not as many dragonflies. I’m worried that the same carelessness that is harming the bees in our world is getting to them. They do not appear on the endangered list for my state, but still, it’s different.

I miss them.

My Nana has been gone for 35 years but every time I see a dragonfly I think of her. And then I think of Judy Allen’s book and sitting in the garden with my little girls. They never called them sewing needles, never splashed water at them to scare them away. But when I leave the lily stalks in the garden I feel like I am connecting the thread between us all: grandmother, author, growing girls, dragonfly.

This is my Slice of Life.
It's blurry, but there is a dragonfly on top of the lily stalk. There were 3 others in the garden.

Friday, August 11, 2017

same face through generations

Pauline, Albert, and Florence
I've been browsing through old photographs and am struck once again by how the same faces keep popping up through the generations. 

This black and white photo is my Mom with her brother Albert and sister Florence (my Mom called her "Sister"  or "Sis" for her whole life, and we called her "Aunt Sister" - it never seemed weird until I had to explain it to someone). 

It is so easy to see my siblings and I in all of those faces. 

That high forehead on my Mom, the littlest one on the left, she gave to me. I spent much of my life pushing my hair over that forehead, trying to deny it. As I approach 50 I'm finally willing to push my hair back, but you can see my bangs in the photo below (center). 

Wanda, Laura, and Wayne with Dad
That little boy in maroon pants, my brother Wayne, looks a lot like my Uncle Albert. 
And, depending on when I look at the photograph, in Aunt Sis I see my sister Wanda, my sister Brenda or my brother Lenny.

 And then there are my own little girls. Their round faces and high foreheads are certainly from my Mom, from me. In different pictures when you look fast you might think a photo is any number of cousins only to find out it's a photo of an aunt or uncle, a generation or more apart. 

My childhood was remarkably different from my Mom's, and my girls' quite different from my own, but we share these faces. 
Anya and Thea

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My mother's hands

I just got off the phone with my doctor's office to have my pinky finger looked at. I noticed two days ago that the finger was bent at the top knuckle, and swollen. It didn't really hurt, though once I noticed it it was hard not to continuously notice it. The finger has now started to hurt a little, so it seems best to have it looked at.
But, my finger is the least of my troubles right now. I've been fending off anxiety for the few days, with pretty good success for a while there. But the butterflies have had full range of my stomach for a few hours now, my shoulders are tensed, I can't sit still, and I really just want to have a good cry. There is no good reason for this panic attack, though I guess there rarely is. I mean, there's a lot going on - Thea is preparing to go to college in just over a month while battling her own issues, I'm beginning my post-graduate program at the end of August, the current president is a greedy, self-absorbed corporate tool using the presidency for financial gain at the expense of people and the planet - so, yea, there are lots of reasons to panic.
But, what I think I'm grappling with is the look of this bent little finger. My hand is starting to look like my mother's hands. And I would like very much to hold my mother's hands.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Where is home?

Unexpected questions can be difficult, even when we have an answer. I have stumbled more than hurtled in my life-time of answering questions. One that often gets me is "where are you from?" While out at a community event the other day, a local reporter asked my husband a version of this question. After Greg described Lowell as his home, even though we don't currently live there, the reporter asked him why. Greg stumbled in his answer as well.

Each time I stumble over an unexpected question, I spend days afterwards thinking of my best answer. Greg's stumble has given me the opportunity to reflect and prepare, should anyone confront me with the same question.

Why do I call Lowell home?

The easy answer is because I was born here, this is where my story started. My parents and my siblings were born here.

I grew up on the outer edges of the city, in South Lowell, near the towns of Tewksbury and North Billerica. The variety store where I bought cigarettes for my sister and Hershey bars for myself was actually in Tewksbury, though close enough for me to walk to on my own even in elementary school. I didn’t have to cross Woburn Street, so it was a safe walk. When we were very young it was called Ray’s and run by an Archie Bunker looking guy who always wore a white buttoned-up shirt and a black belt. He was gruff, and kept a close eye on us as we surveyed the candy counter, as if we would ever have considered taking a Charleston Chew without paying the coins for it. Later, Pete bought the place and he was much more welcoming and trusting. His bearded smile greeted us most days and he had no problem handing over the pack of Marlboro Lights my sister sent me in buy. It was clear I was not smoking them myself as I was always so absorbed in making the decision between something chocolate or something more sugary. (Lick-em sticks and candy cigarettes were cheaper than Hershey Bars so you could get twice as much, but some days, chocolate is what you need.)
The Variety Store on Woburn Street is completely different now. Truth be told, I’m not even sure its still there. But the mostly packed dirt sidewalk between my house and the store is a part of my home. That walk and those interactions with Ray and Pete helped to shape me. Ray’s suspicion confirmed the lessons of church and family that I should strive to be honest as I didn’t like being thought otherwise. Pete’s daily smile showed me the importance of such simple kindness as I could not continue to be mad at my brother in the face of such happiness. When Pete was in a sour mood, we all suffered.
Lowell is my home because we lived in a neighborhood with a variety store where people knew my name, or at least who my parents were. That straight path is mapped into my memory.

For some in Lowell, the city is divided into parishes. My parish was a bit mixed. In proximity, Saint Marie’s was our parish. The church was right down the street, an easy walk from the house in the opposite direction down Woburn Street from Pete’s. It was a walk I couldn’t make alone as early as I was allowed to wander down to Pete’s though. To go to St. Marie’s you had to walk across Christman Avenue where the 495 on-ramp is, under the highway bridges where sometimes teenagers hung out, and past the off-ramp. Even before the Dunkin Donuts opened at the gas station, this could be a busy road of drivers unconcerned with a nine-year-old’s spiritual journey. I didn’t walk to St. Marie’s much though, because we belonged to Sacred Heart.
Sacred Heart Church, and the accompanying school where I attended from grades 1 through 8, was on Gorham Street. It was walkable and my brothers and sister and I walked home from school plenty of times, but going to church at Sacred Heart meant we were with Dad, so we always went in the car. We passed that spot on Lawrence Street where for years the chain-linked fence was bent in where my brother drove his motorcycle nearly into the Concord River. It was kind of sad when they finally fixed that fence, but I still think of Bobby every time I cross that bridge. Most Sundays we went to the 9:00 mass which usually had the children’s choir since Dad liked the children’s choir better than the operatic voices of the adult choir. I even joined the choir for a little while, despite my Lamarre voice. Dad always loved to sing but he would never join the choir himself.
So much of my life was celebrated in that church. We were all baptized there, though of course I have no memory of any of that. I do have pictures of just about all of my sisters in white dresses my mother made for each of them, standing in front of the statue of Mary with the priest or the head nun or a grandmother after making First Communion. A few of my sisters were married there. Every Christmas and Easter and just about every Sunday of my life until college included church attendance. The priest knew us. The old ladies complimented our behavior in the pews, unattended when Dad was on the alter as a Eucharistic minister.
We buried my brother from that church, with Father Madigan calling him “Bob” and me wanting to stand up and shout at him that my brother was Bobby, my Dad is Bob so stop making it sound as if my father has died.
Lowell is my home because, even though the school building has been torn down and the church turned into condos I grew in spirit there. I journeyed from blind acceptance to determined adherence to angry rejection of the Catholic Church, landing now in a place without anger or acceptance (though I do like the tone of the current pope).

Lowell is my home because I sat at the counter in Woolworth’s to have lunch with my grandmother.

Lowell is my home because I took the city bus downtown to shop at Jordan Marsh.

Lowell is my home because I could tell the difference between the Aiken Street bridge and the Bridge Street bridge with my eyes shut because of the weird noise the metal grating of Aiken St made when you drove over it.

Lowell is my home because I know that you shopped at Saint Joseph’s shrine when you needed a first communion cross and that you could get a mass card for a funeral at the rectory at Sacred Heart, perhaps from my mother or my aunt if one of them was working there at the time.
Lowell is my home because I graduated from Lowell High School and can still sing the fight song, and so could my Dad right up to the day he died even though he didn’t graduate with his class but earned his GED there in 1978.

Lowell is my home because my grandparents and aunts and uncles and sister and niece are buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery and my brother and parents are in the Lowell Cemetery just down from the lion who my daughters and I named Ezra.

Lowell is my home because I know where things are and how to get there and even though I have lived in Westford for over 10 years, I still don’t know the best route to take.

Lowell is my home because I spent my teenage years traveling by LRTA and gratefully accepted some change to pay for my bus ride home when a stranger saw me crying at the public phone after realizing I had spent my bus fare calling my Mom to let her know I was running late.

Lowell is my home because I went to the teen health clinic that was run out of an old mill building where they would leave a message that “Susan called” so your parents wouldn’t know you were getting birth control pills.

Lowell is my home because that is what I instinctively answer every time someone asks me where I’m from.

Monday, March 20, 2017

senior discounts for busy days

The nice young lady at Dunkin Donuts gave me the Senior Discount today. And, I’m being honest when I tell you that my first reaction was not sadness or anger at being mistaken for someone eligible for AARP benefits, or even surprise. The first thing I felt was guilt. I’m not supposed to get the senior discount. I’m supposed to pay full price. Will this young person get in trouble for giving a senior discount without checking first? If I take it won’t I be cheating the company, and ultimately the workers?

After grabbing the pastry (that I ordered for my daughter, in case you’re reading the earlier post on how I want to build strength and health) she half winked and said she knew I didn’t get the senior discount, but she gave it to me. Phew, guilt trip over. She hadn’t made a mistake that was going to get her in trouble, she made a choice of her own free will.

I know what you’re thinking (because I thought it too). Another employee probably said something to her, or she noticed me smiling at the note on the cash register, and she didn’t want me to feel bad. I don’t feel bad. I don’t color the white and grey out of my hair, I have lots of wrinkles around my eyes from smiling, and I was wearing one of those Monday morning teacher blouses that gives a comfortable professionalism to my outfit. Young people don’t know how to judge age for anyone more than 5 years older than themselves. My students guess my age at anywhere between 25 and 60 and to them, that’s all the same – old. I’m 47. Some days I feel 27, some days 67, most days I don’t feel an age at all. But I digress.

When I got into my car and felt my whole body begin to give in to exhaustion, I started to wonder if I looked older this afternoon than usual, prompting the 5% savings. I got to work early this morning to prepare a few things but spent all my time trying to get the technology I needed for my first group to work. I finally got it to work, only to have it crap out on my again once the students where there, forcing me to rework my entire lesson plan on the spot. Then I had to give a standardized test to my 4th graders, on the computers (which did work, for the most part.) And then I supervised a pair of student teachers while they taught their first science lesson to elementary students. And throughout the day I comforted Lila who’s stomach hurt, I tried to help Junior find his calm and be able to stay in one place long enough to get some work done, I got help for Michael who was too upset to talk to me and too out of control to stay in class, I cleaned stray books and paper from the floor so the mouse that I’ve been seeing lately wouldn’t nibble holes in them, I searched everywhere for the master of the Math test I need to copy, I read through my notes to make sure I was ready for an Education Justice meeting tomorrow, I made a list of al the things I need to get done that I didn’t get done today, and I texted back and forth with my teenager who did not get the trip to Germany that she interviewed for over the weekend.

I was exhausted and I must have looked it.

Some days, it feels like I run all day and get nothing accomplished. Today was one of those days. But, once home I helped my daughters get ready to go to band practice and cooked a small dinner for my husband who had to run right out to a meeting, and I hopped on the treadmill for 20 minutes, and threw in some laundry, and got the dishwasher started. I was still running, but I decided to notice my accomplishments.

The on the fly lesson went well and gave the kids a foundation of knowledge I wanted them to have today. I gave the student teachers some helpful feedback. Lila felt better after some kind attention. Junior found his calm for most of the day. Michael returned to class ready to learn. There was no new evidence of visits by the mouse. My daughter knows she has much to be proud of to even have earned eligibility for that German trip. My husband was able to eat and rest before driving off. And I exercised.

I probably still look old. But I feel great.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

no Michelle Obama arms here - but a little of her moxie

I'm a few years from my 50th birthday, but I can see and feel my body aging. Yesterday morning I was shocked to see the fat in my forearms. I have always wished to have Michelle Obama arms, though I’ve never worked for them. I walk (sometimes I’m up to a jog) on the treadmill 3 - 5 times a week unless I get to walk outside. I even own a few light hand weights and have been known to do some calisthenics. But, I am not an athlete and often choose other ways to spend my time than exercise.
Still, those forearms kind of took me by surprise. And I won’t lie, I started immediately to beat myself up about them.
But part of my goal this year, still a few away from 50, is to take action. I can’t travel back in time and not eat the Moosetracks frozen yogurt with chocolate jimmies, nor would I likely make that choice should Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine become available to me. Heck, keeping on this trend of honesty, I’ll likely have a cup of Moosetacks this weekend.
My one little word isn’t about completely changing who I am or drastically altering my habits. Action for me is thinking about what I do each day and want to do each day and am hesitant or afraid to do each day and take an action regarding it. While I would like better looking arms, when I stop to really reflect on it what I really want is strength. My flabby arms are not very strong and I want to be able tote around grandchildren one day, to be able to haul my bags through the airport when my husband and I tour Europe for out 50th anniversary.

I wonder if I can focus on strength without chastising myself for all my past bad choices.
I wonder if my focus on strength can help guide me to better choices in food and activity.
I wonder if I can really accept that, while I might gain strength I probably won’t lose all the flab.
I wonder if I can ever completely see myself the way I think my dear husband does.

I was tired today, so walked at a slow pace on the treadmill. I stopped after only 20 minutes because I wanted to make sure I could get some supper on the table in time for the family to eat together before we each got to evening activities. But since stepping off that treadmill I have taken action to do things in line with the life I want to live. I read for my book club, I planned mini-lessons for my struggling students, I wrote to hone my skills. 
My arms are still flabby, but my resolve is firm.