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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Basket Full of Love

I love Easter, and it started right here. Right here with one-year-old Baby Jenny, her proud papa, and a bunny named Thumper.  You know you have parents who want to give you the world when they gift you with a live bunny for Easter.  I love the look on my face in this picture.  It is a look of pure, unadulterated joy and intrigue, mixed with maybe even a little bit of disbelief. Family legend is that Thumper peed on Dad's lap when the flash of the camera went off to capture this photo. Thinking about the chaos that ensued one second after this picture was taken makes it even funnier.

People talk a lot about Christmas spirit, and that's all well and good.  But in my family, Easter spirit was a pretty big deal too.  Easter was always a time of laughter and love, of togetherness and affection.  It represented an appreciation for doing the same old thing, year after year, and knowing that sometimes that is precisely all you need.

The Easter festivities always began in the same way on the evening of Good Friday.  Pot after pot of eggs would be boiled, leaving each and every kitchen window covered in unrelenting steam.  Never ones to scale things back, our family would set out to color a good six or seven dozen eggs.  The air in the old farmhouse will fill with the smells of sulfur and vinegar, smells that repelled and attracted us simultaneously.  I distinctly remember sitting at our old rickety kitchen table, newspapers laid out and every mismatched coffee mug in the house filled with a different color of dye.  And there we would sit, for hours, talking and laughing and doing pretty much the same thing we did every year prior.  There was the compulsory "watermelon egg" and the never-ending pursuit for Dad to perfect his "two-tone egg."  The last two dozen eggs were probably colored in disinterested haste, but even that was part of the tradition.

Easter Sunday always brought about a new set of delights.  We girls would don our Easter outfits, usually something pink and frilly and a little on the scratchy side.  Leaving the house practically in the dark of the night, we would head to church for the sunrise service.  We loved the sunrise service because instead of a traditional communion, we got donuts and pastries.  From there we would head to "the big city" to visit our Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat, where our cousins and grandparents would be waiting for us in eager anticipation.

Now one thing I can say about Aunt Pat, she knew how to do it up right when it came to Easter.  Long before our arrival, the adults in the family would hide dozens and dozens of plastic eggs out in the expansive yard. When we "country cousins" arrived, the annual Easter egg hunt could begin.  We would run through the yard with our Easter baskets, breathlessly exclaiming another round of excitement for each egg found. When the last of the eggs had been retrieved, the family would gather round to see what was inside them.  Many of course held jelly beans and malted milk balls, and a few held shiny coins.  Others held tiny slips of paper commanding us to do one thing or another, and our favorites were those that included these explicit instructions: "Go get $1 from Grandpa Swearingen."  Year after year, Grandpa would make a long, drawn out scene of shock and dismay at having to part with his $1 bill, and year after year, we grandkids would belly laugh at his feigned misfortune and fussing.  It was the family joke that never got tired.

There's a reason we all love tradition.  The customs we create as a family ground us and give us something to hang onto when times get tough.  I look back at my childhood, and I know it wasn't always easy.  There were hardships and worries that sometimes came in tidal waves.  But when I think of my childhood, I really don't think about the hard times much at all.  What I think about is Easter:  doing the same things over and over, and loving it every time.  Sometimes, it seems, knowing exactly what to expect is the most exciting thing of all.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

I believe it was Oprah or some other famous person who tells us what to think who proclaimed, "Love is in the details."  It has become my mantra over the years and has been a driving force behind my work, my gift-giving, and most importantly, my party-throwing.  To make things perfect, I just need a good theme to latch onto.  A theme, I tell you!  A theme will always make things better.

Many years ago, my friend Colleen and I went to The American Club in Kohler for an overnight spa excursion.  While we were there, she shared the news with me that she was going to be having a baby.  I remember how excited we were, and we sat in that hotel room in our post-massage glow and talked and talked and talked and talked.  In fact, if memory serves, we were so invested in our talking that we may have economized our time by taking a bubble bath together in the huge jacuzzi tub.  Which sounds kind of weird when you write it in a blog posted on the world wide web, but it seemed perfectly normal to us at the time.

Having worked at two different jobs together, Colleen and I had a lot of history and knew a lot of the same people.  I knew I wanted to throw her a baby shower, but it would have to be a different kind of party to include both men and women.  I picked a Friday night in September, and invited a whole bunch of people - many of whom Colleen hadn't seen in years and she had no idea I was inviting.  I still remember the little ditty I put in the invitation, too.  It went something like this:

The days are dwindling
The time has drawn near
Soon we'll be looking 
At a new baby Dier.

Your attendance is needed
A baby gift is not
But if it makes you feel better
Bring a book for the tot!

As the day of the party approached, I attended to every possible detail to make the party perfect.  I purchased a lovely little bookshelf so everyone could place their favorite children's book in it for Baby Dier. I purchased my own favorite book of all time, Free to Be You and Me.  I hired Colleen's brother-in-law Tony to do the catering and picked a fantastic array of delectable treats for the evening.  To make it a little extra special, I ordered a specialty cake from Hartter's Bakery - a delicious, double chocolate cake with a layer of raspberry filling.  This was going to be one special night.

The day of the party arrived, and I took the day off of work to attend to every last detail.  The house was immaculately cleaned and the backyard was prepped for a bonfire, because my house was really too small to comfortably fit the 25 people who had said they were coming.  Feeling confident, I looked around and surveyed the situation.  Final assessment? I was perfectly pleased with myself.

About 30 minutes prior to arrival of the first guests, there was a clap of thunder so loud it frightened the dog and then the skies opened up. Although Wisconsin is not known for having a monsoon season, we had one that night.  It didn't just rain, it rained sideways.  It rained so hard you could not see five feet in front of you. I quickly sprang into action to bring tables and chairs inside and put them in places they didn't really belong and didn't really fit.  It was going to be a cozy evening.

Colleen and her husband arrived, and soon after guests braved the unrelenting storm to come, too.  Surprise after surprise was unveiled. Your brother-in-law is catering!  Your co-workers from the homeless shelter you worked at ten years ago are here!  Your baby is getting books, all kinds of them!  Yaaay!

I took a break from the festivities to go to the kitchen and get things rolling.  I wanted people to eat and I had to get that started.  As I turned the corner and entered the kitchen, I could not believe the horror before my eyes.  My 105-pound dog Jethro - a dog I liked to say was of the "big dumb yellow variety" - had seized the opportunity to lick the frosting off two full edges of my beautiful, expensive, decadent perfect Hartter's cake. Dumbfounded, I stood and stared at it and for a moment I froze. Shortly after that, I panicked.  Then I think I might have screamed.  I quickly narrowed my choices in that moment down to only two:  I could laugh, or I could cry. Truthfully, I probably did a little of both.

As tends to be true in life, everything about that night turned out to be perfectly imperfect.  People who had not been together for years laughed and told stories and gave warm hugs to one another. Although we were short on seating space in that tiny house, we were not short on love. While Jethro was in some serious trouble that night, his shenanigans helped make a memory that would last.  And in case anyone is wondering: yes, we still ate the cake.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Story I Never Told

I remember it now as vividly as if it only happened yesterday.  It was a sunny, brisk April morning eleven long and short years ago.  I woke up at my usual time and immediately thought something was off - my then-husband was already up and out of the house.  I didn't recall him saying he had an early morning meeting, but I quickly shook it off and got ready for work in my usual way.  On the way out the door, I shooed the cat out of the way and patted the dog on the head.  I went out to the garage, got in my car and saw a gold manila envelope on the car seat.  When I opened up the envelope and looked at the contents, everything changed in the flash of a single moment - life as I knew it would never be the same.

Without a single utterance or warning of any sort, my husband had left divorce papers on my car seat.

I really don't even have words to describe the moments that followed. Shock, disbelief, panic, and rage were all hurling at me with the force of a Mac truck.   I felt a hurt so deep, so searing, that I thought I might not make it through the day.  Truthfully, I'm still not sure how I did.  I ran inside to try calling him at work. Of course he did not pick up.  I paced and I sobbed and I screamed.  I had no recourse, and in that moment, no way to know what was happening.  I have had some days in my life, days that were truly, deeply terrible. Days of loss and grief, of confusion and pain. But I've never had a day, before or since, that shook me to the core like this fateful day.

In the days that followed, I searched for answers but got very few.  After thirteen years in a relationship that was almost entirely devoid of conflict, it appeared that my cool, calm and usually collected husband had gone off the deep end.  There was an evening about ten days after the divorce-papers-on-the-car-seat incident when he really lost his mind.  One sassy question from me along the lines of, "Why do you have to be like that?" unleashed thirteen years of suppressed rage.  After a massive blow up, the likes I had never seen in this otherwise almost passionless relationship, the evening ended with him laying on the bed in our spare bedroom sobbing a deep, guttural sob - a sob I could not in good conscience ignore. Balancing my own sense of safety with all of my other sensibilities, I went upstairs and laid on the bed with him - consoling him, crying with him, caressing his hair - and promising him that even though we were in the middle of a mess right now, we would both be okay on the other side of it.  It was my last act of affection toward him, and it came from a genuine place.  It was also the last night I ever spent in that house.

If there was a victim in this story, it would make sense to conclude it was me.  He made it so easy - too easy - so I let him take the blame.  Friends and family stood by my side and made speculations about the how and the why of it all, none of which put him in a favorable light.  A few months after our divorce was final, he was engaged to a co-worker of his and all of the unanswered questions seemed to have answers. It was easy and convenient to end the story there, so I did just that.

But time has a way of simultaneously gnawing away at the hard exterior shell and softening the edges to reveal the truth. What I didn't say at the time, and really haven't said to many until this very moment, is that I hold myself 100% responsible for the demise of my marriage.  I'm not letting him off the hook entirely, because I actually believe that both people in a relationship have 100% of the responsibility for it.  But this is the story I never told.

When I was 22 years old, I met a perfectly lovely man and willed myself to love him.  Because he met everyone else's approval, I fell deeply in love with was the idea of being in love with him. The deeper I got into the relationship, the more unstable my state of mental health became.  Over time, I developed a full-blown panic disorder, with my body protesting (sometimes violently so) the choices I was making.  I ignored all of this and did what I "wanted" anyway.  Now this is not to say that he was a bad guy - quite the contrary, actually.  He is a good man, with a good heart.  For a variety of reasons, though, he just wasn't good for me. I knew it, and I married him anyway. Thereafter I invested myself in every part of my life except my marriage. I distracted myself with work and school and social opportunities.  I gave the best and most important parts of me to everyone else.  In the context of our relationship, I was moody and demanding and kind of lazy - all the while being funny and charismatic and hard-working in every other aspect of my life.  He desperately wanted children and I held back, knowing the relationship was not strong enough to handle it.  Over time, I became little more than a roommate - and kind of a pain in the ass roommate at that.  It eventually got to a point where even I really didn't like me.  The long and the short of it is, he got the worst of me.  And he got it for thirteen long years.

So the bottom line and the story I've never told is this:  he did what I never would have had the courage to do.  He examined what really had become of our relationship - not what we portrayed to the outside world - and recognized that not only was it not working, it really wasn't even salvageable.  He may not have chosen the most compassionate way to end the relationship, but he ended it with good reason and the only way he knew how.  In the end, he gave us both a chance at happiness.  And while he left me with many gifts in all our years together, that was the most loving gift of all.  Today, almost exactly eleven years later, my heart is grateful and my life is full.  I hope the same is true for him.