Monday, January 28, 2013


Graduation loomed ominously over the last few months of life at the Convent boarding school.    I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do.  My mother's sister and her husband offered me a place to stay until I could get settled and make some plans for my future.  They picked me up on graduation day not because they particularly wanted me with them, but because no one quite knew what to do with me. They elected not to actually attend the grandiose graduation ceremony but to arrive later that day to collect my belongings and me. Their absence sent a pretty strong message and was a precursor of things to come. 

The Commencement ceremony was held in the very ornate Gothic chapel resplendent with pomp and circumstance. At one point, each graduate, dressed in a white, flowing, floor length gown was presented with a white rose by her mother to signify coming into womanhood. If one's mother wasn't available, we "borrowed" a relative or friend to fill in. This was a particularly emotional and poignant time for graduates and guests. It was yet another lonely time for me. I was only a few years older than the twelve year old child who walked through those doors just four short years before, but surely not yet a woman. The difference between then and now, however, was that while I was still frightened and unsure of my future, the challenges ahead would be faced alone without the loving presence of those wonderful nuns. My roommate's mom tried to fill the gap sweetly and sincerely as she kissed me and handed me my rose. It was gentle and sincere but it didn't quite fill the void. 

Nice, well-bred young women had few choices in those days. One lived at home with mom and dad, went to college, or married some nice young man. Since there was no mom or dad, Latin almost did me in grade wise, there was no money for college, nor were there any young men (nice or otherwise) waiting to carry me off, Ann and Roger won me. I was to "enrich their lives" and they were to afford me a safe transition to independence. They were interior decorators, in their 60's, with no children and driven by their careers. Their house lacked any warmth or excitement for a young girl. It was pristine, perfectly appointed, very polished and not the least bit inviting or welcoming. I didn't know them and they didn't know me. I had no clue what to expect, nor did they. It very quickly became clear I was not it. I was a royal glitch 
in their heretofore staid and orderly lives. I knew no one my own age, was anxious to get on with my life, and certainly not interested in hanging out with these two stodgy old people. It was a real challenge for all of us and not one that I met very graciously or successfully, I'm afraid. My short 2-month stay was a disaster. I was miserable and made them quite miserable as well. The best I can claim is a quiet politeness and reserve and an overwhelming desire to move on. I stayed a few months, attended a 6-week intensive secretarial school and then did the unthinkable for a young woman of those times. rented a furnished room in a small town called Pleasantville (can you believe that name for a town?)   I took a job as a secretary at an advertising agency in New York City and commuted to my one room in a private house in the suburbs. The next few years of my life were neither happy nor unhappy - they just were. I trudged along on my journey toward independence and while I didn't die of sadness, I continued not to live. 

Reflecting on the day I moved into my furnished room on my own, I realized it was my 18th birthday.   I remember thinking that I had not celebrated a birthday in all those years since my mother died. That thought didn't particularly surprise me or even make me sad. My musings  consisted of "hmmm, what a good day to be doing this. It's like giving a birthday present to myself." I was certain there was no one who knew or cared that it was my birthday. And, in fact, whether or not I had been born didn't seem to matter to an awful lot of people. I was sort of "hanging out" and not really making much difference in the whole life scene. There was no emotion in thinking about it. It simply wasn't important to me or anyone else at that time. Since there was no one around to celebrate a birthday, I had no choice but to ignore it and I learned to handle it by pretending it didn't matter. It was a strange epiphany of sorts and qualified as a Peter Pan, never-never-land thought, the kind that prompts a shrug of the shoulders and an "Oh well, so be it" reaction. 

I'm just Irish Catholic enough to believe in a guardian angel assigned to each of us during troubled times. The poor guy assigned to me had her work cut out for her. I was in limbo, a misfit, wandering aimlessly through each day. I went to work, ate, and slept with no goal other than to put down roots and find a home apart from Kenwood. Without a clue and certainly no clear plan for accomplishing this, I was running in place and not getting anywhere. Not until, that is, I literally bumped into my wonderful John, husband to be, at a party given by a friend from work. That invisible angel must have been sick and tired of my aimless meandering and decided she'd had enough. I was not yet 20 years old but I swear she literally shoved me into his arms. 

It was a 3-day Labor Day weekend and friends were looking forward to one last long weekend of fun and sun before the lazy summer was over. One of my co-workers had a summer cottage at a county park and there was a end of summer celebration planned at the clubhouse. A few of us from the office went and by the time we arrived, the party was in full swing;.  There was  lots of laughing, good music, plenty of beer, lively dancing and many very tanned, muscled and gorgeous single guys looking for a good time. 

I discovered at that party that life can indeed turn on a dime - or spilled beer! Mine turned on an explosion of spilled beer, loss of dignity, embarrassment and a very strong desire to go into a fetal position, put my thumb in my mouth and hide. 

The partying had been going on since early afternoon and the clubhouse floor was awash with spilled beer, making it a slippery gangplank challenging anyone to walk it. It was an accident waiting to happen and I stepped right up to meet the challenge. Gingerly walking across this sea of foam, dodging the dancing crowd, my feet went out from under me and I slid - not so gracefully - along the slosh and landed right at the feet of a stranger. The unexpected rap into the back of his legs caused him to fall back over me, spilling yet more beer all over both of us.  He looked over at me as we lay side by side in the mess, smiled, and said, "Wanna' dance?" That was the beginning. 

After we picked ourselves up and tried to wipe the beer from our clothes, we started to laugh. Without missing a beat, he put his arms around me and moved me onto the dance floor to the applause of all in the room. He was funny, a great dancer and very attentive and we were immediately attracted to one another. I think it's called "good chemistry." We spent every bit of time we could find together over that long weekend and throughout the next year. Notwithstanding the fact that I was desperate for love and acceptance and probably would have married the first kind and gentle man who would hug me, I truly liked this unexpected and extremely nice man. The more time we spent together, the more comfortable we became and the more we enjoyed each other. Additionally, while it's a hell of a reason to get married, raging hormones were screaming and would not be denied. Pre-marital sex was simply not an option. I may have had trouble learning Latin and conjugating verbs, but the lessons of purity, virginity and no pre-marital sex were crystal clear. I was overwhelmed with love for this sweet, caring and thoroughly good man and we married six months later. 

And wonder of wonder, I was completely and totally happy. Eight babies and thirteen years later, I was obsessed, consumed, overwhelmed with diapers, colds, runny noses, laundry, homework and the many challenges of being a young (very young) housewife and mother. I loved what I was doing and knew instinctively that I had found my way. My life was my home, my husband and my children. I knew in my heart "Whoa - this is a lot of kids ... slow down ... take a breath" - in those days blind obedience to "the Church" was the way of life for good Catholic women. God would provide and there was no need for forbidden birth control. This had been deeply ingrained as a matter of faith and conscience.  Consistent with being a good girl and always trying to please others, I brushed aside my doubts and forged ahead. 

Thankfully, there is no more uplifting thrill and sensation than to be greeted by a smiling baby early in the morning, bouncing at the side of his crib, calling for you with excitement and joy, ready to begin his new adventure. Walking into the room and iis one of life’s greatest plelasures.  It's as if a shade has been pulled up on every window to let sunshine stream in .  The room changes from a silent, hushed gray to a dancing, brilliant yellow. The world comes alive as you open that door. It's reanimated as the coffee begins to percolate. And fill the air with its sweet aroma. The dog sleeping at the foot of the child's bed stretches and yawns and begins to thump his tail on the floor in greeting. You can hear the birds chirping outside the window edd your whole body and mind overflow with love and joy. Babies are pure and unencumbered happiness. They adore you just because you are - no questions asked. They care not if you're tall or short, fat or skinny, black or white. They fill you with all the warmth and love you could ever need. When I walked into my babies' rooms each morning and saw the pure, unadulterated delight in their huge smiles, my heart and soul were filled with peace. They would reach out to me and squeal with sheer joy just because I was me and they loved me. They healed every wound, removed every scar, filled every hole and untangled all the cobwebs in my brain. Their purity and innocence melted the hardest heart, mended the most broken and replaced all despair with hope. There can be no greater gift. 

John and I never had enough money and never enough time. We often had to look through the couch cushions to find nickels and dimes to pay the milkman. But God, how we loved those kids! Ours was a happy, close, chaotic and fun family. 

I wish with all my heart that I could do it all over again. I'd be much more relaxed, I'd smile more and frown less. I would read more books and I'd read them slowly and enjoy that special quiet time with each child. I'd listen more carefully when they tried to tell me something. I'd be gentler and less rushed as I brushed their hair. I'd sing along with them as they brushed their teeth and not be in such a hurry to get them into bed. I'd move more slowly and take more time to enjoy each moment. I'd let them read the sides of the cereal boxes as they ate their breakfast and prepared for their days. I might even allow them to keep the milk bottle on the table. Their opinions, though they were only little people, would be respected and honored. I'd spend more time playing games and less time cleaning and would be much more spontaneous and willing to break away from schedules.   I could never love them more but I would tell them more often until they came to know how special and unique each one of them was. 

I was a liberated woman long before it was fashionable to be so and John always did more than his fair share of housework, shopping, tending to kids, etc. He can still polish the chrome in a bathroom better than I can. On those occasions when he sensed I was overwhelmed, he'd pack all eight kids into the back of the station wagon (usually with the mutt dog right along with them) and take them to the park or grocery shopping or just out for a ride to give me some time alone. He was a sensitive and caring man who instinctively knew when it was time for me to have a break. The two of us were a terrific team and we happily rode the roller coaster of life. The family was a powerful force of ten and those were exhilarating years for all of us. 

As adults, all kids are blessed with good health, good partners, adorable kids and they remain good friends and enjoy each other’s company. They often sit around the dining room table and reminisce about those days with lots of laughter and good humor. One of the most endearing compliments they give their father speaks volumes about this sweet and gentle man and his wonderful personality and disposition. They talk about how they loved to see him come through the door at the end of his day because "Dad was home and now the fun could begin." What a tribute to a very special man. 

But just as that sun comes up each day and the moon comes out each night;   just as each tide comes in bringing us treasures from the sea only to take them away again with the next tide, so too did those special and wonderful years move away. And as often and as forcefully as I tell myself it's absolutely the way it should be.

I mourn the loss of those precious times but will never forget the lessons taught.

There is a time to laugh
And a time to cry
And there is a time to accept
And a time to deny

There is a time to be strong
And a time to be weak
And there is a time to listen
And a time to speak


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home