I’ve Done It Again. Carry On.

Being married to someone you met in adulthood inevitably results in funny conversations. What may have seemed completely reasonable to one spouse can strike the other as anything ranging from quirky to downright batshit crazy. Maybe your husband grew up in a different culture or religion, or maybe your wife was raised in a different country. Maybe your parents didn’t use dryer sheets. Maybe his parents were all about margarine. These things come up when you bring two people together and start a new family.

With my husband and I, typically some story from his youth strikes me as quirky, whereas my strolls down memory lane leave him bug-eyed and yes, declaring, wow, that is batshit crazy.

You’d hardly know from looking at me today, all put together and fabulous, that I had an….unconventional start. (Yes, I am being sarcastic. I am not put together and fabulous, although one of these days, I tell you, I’ll show the WORLD! just not today) Actually, sarcasm aside, we are about as normal as one gets anymore. Extended family who enjoy one another’s company, get together for holidays, that sort of boredom, as we do. So I understand my sweet hubs’ reactions.

And it’s not as though I tricked him into marrying me, thinking I was one thing (normal) when in actuality I was quite another. (trainwreck) It’s just that, when your experiences are your experiences, you tend to just think of them as what happened, not as an outsider might.

Which is how we landed on this conversation the other night, sparked by the craziness of the VanillaISIS situation in Oregon.

(I’m also partial to Bubba Haram, for what it’s worth. Alas, I digress.)

So the conversation goes something like this:

husband: These people are nuts! Like tinfoil hat crazy!

me: Yeah. They remind me of this family I knew, though. I wonder if they ever got social security numbers.

husband: (blink blink) Pardon me?

me: Social Security numbers. Their parents didn’t let them have them because they didn’t want the government to know they existed. They lived not too far from you growing up, actually. Although probably you wouldn’t have known them. They didn’t go to school, obviously. But I remember them talking about eating squirrels they killed on their land and how they would totally survive anything. They wore a lot of camo, come to think of it. Weird. I wonder how they got a phone at their house? I remember they didn’t believe in borrowing money. Actually, how’d they have a house? I never thought about this stuff when I was a kid.

husband: (eyes about to fall out of his head)

me: (nervous laughter) You didn’t know anyone like that, eh? 

husband: WTF?!

me: Right. I’ve done it again. Carry on.

So yes. When I was around 15 or so, I met a few, shall we say, unique folks. And my parents, being of the more free-range variety, and trusting that I was up to only good, never really worried about me. And I, being of the sheltered variety, didn’t realize just how whacked these friends were. To be fair, this was pre-google.

Some days, I think, I should write more of this down. Other days, I think no one would believe me. But suffice it to say, I have learned little by little that no, most people weren’t buds with anti-government conspiracists.

Then again, SOMEONE wrote Ron Swanson.

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Every Little Ornament Counts

Christmas, 1984. My family was living on base in West Germany, all eight (EIGHT!) of us shoved in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. We were on the top floor of three, one of six apartments per stairwell, two stairwells per building. Built in World War II, the architecture was best described as, “early oppressive Stalinist utilitarian.”

Living conditions were cramped, but the youngest three of us were small and therefore not quite as affected. We had the first bedroom when you entered the apartment, a roomy retreat with a set of bunks and my single bed. There was a door into my parents’ room from ours, and as we lived on a guarded and fenced-in base with bars on the window, they probably didn’t feel at all worried that we were the first room accessible from the front door. They wouldn’t have expected any of us to escape, anyway, as we were just not that type of children.

We were, however, the type of children who loved Christmas. And that first winter overseas, we were excited to open up the boxes of ornaments we’d lugged over the Atlantic and make the apartment as close to home as possible. That Friday night, we’d secured a tree from the only lot on base, and after getting it situated in the corner of our crowded living room, had only managed a few decorations before it was time to go to bed. The rest would have to wait until morning.

Around six A.M., the sun was up and so was my brother, Joe. While his twin snored away, his six year-old self was unable to sleep and so he shook me awake. He had a plan: we would tiptoe out to the tree and finish decorating it before anyone else woke up. They would be so excited to see a fully decorated tree!

It was a lovely plan. Truly. We had the best of intentions. We envisioned all of the thanks and admiration we would inevitably receive from our parents and siblings.

But we were two of the shortest kids you’d ever seen. And when two tiny people kneel down, they can only reach their tiny arms so far onto a tree.

And when two tiny people are overloaded on Christmas joy, they overpopulate a very concentrated section of tree branches with every ornament their tiny arms can hang.

Which is right around the time that two tiny people are pinned under a falling tree.

I distinctly remember the clinking and clanking and yes, sadly, some shattering, as the ornaments went every which way, along with our cat who had been silently judging us from her perch on the back of the sofa. My parents shot out of their room and while I’m sure they were ready to murder us, the sight of us trapped under the pine tree more than likely made them unable to stop laughing. As everyone scurried to free us and salvage the ornaments that hadn’t broken, my dad realized that the tree water had poured all over the floor and seemed to be leaking through to the apartment below us. As my mom rushed to warn our downstairs neighbors, the far more refined Bradleys with their perfect two children and their lovely sportscar, I’m sure she momentarily regretted having a big family.

I usually remember the times I was punished, and they were many. But I don’t remember getting in any trouble for this particular disaster. I do believe, however, that was the last Christmas the tree trimming was put off until morning.

fallen tree

 

Free-Range Parenting: European Edition

Living overseas is an amazing experience for anyone, but particularly for children. And getting to live on an American base offers a “best of both worlds” situation, which was the case for our family during my second half of elementary school.

As civilians, there were actually two cultures to learn: the military one and the German one. For example, each day at 5 o’clock meant stopping in your tracks no matter where you were for the playing of Taps and the flag lowering in the square. I had never seen a gun in real life, yet I was now walking to school alongside soldiers carrying impressively large firearms. Hilariously, the elementary school shared a fence with the firing range. On the one side, the playground equipment, the other side, target practice.

As these were the days before internet, another country was a mysterious thing indeed. There were fashions we’d never seen, like track pants, strange pronunciations of familiar words, like AHDIdas and CAPreeSOHnah. And there were strange foods such as whipped cream without sugar.

My parents were definitely more relaxed than my generation when it came to letting us wander about, and I know a good portion of that was the times in which we were raised. But when I think back to some of these memories at age 10, I can scarcely believe it. Recently, my best friend from sixth grade was in town and we met up for brunch. Her parents were also there, and we all told stories of those years spent on base and the crazy adventures we had.

Lara and I loved riding our bikes around, and since base was only a measly square mile, we’d often ride through the MP-guarded gates and out “on the economy,” as it was called. In the summer months, we’d bike up to the outdoor pool, which would cost about two Deutschemarks entrance and then another mark or so for an ice cream. We wore no helmets, we had no cell phones, no one made sure we applied sunscreen or monitored us from the water’s edge to prevent our drowning, and we possessed only enough language skills to say “Einen Erdbeereis, Bitte,” and of course, “Danke!” when handed a strawberry ice cream cone.

As we rode along the bike path to Vaihingen Freibad, we had to cross through a tunnel. Under the Autobahn. It was a popular place for graffiti, and I learned some fascinating words as well as saw some new symbols. I was wise enough to not ask my parents what they meant.

I know we were safe. I know we were prepared. But I can’t help but be horrified at the thought of sending my own nearly-10 year old off in the same fashion. And I know my mother would be, too! But I guess if you can play on the see saw overlooking the Rod & Gun Club and survive, what’s a little bike ride?

lara's birthday party
lara’s birthday party – my outfit, man.

Seventeen Years Today Since I Lost My Dad

My mother died a few weeks before my third birthday. When my dad passed away from smoking-related cancer, I was a few weeks shy of my 23rd birthday.

Twenty years provides a significant perspective.

For starters, I barely remember my mother: I have a sum total of two memories of her, in fact. My dad, on the other hand, while he didn’t raise me, occupies a much broader space in my memory. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my dad giving me away. The story was met with an overwhelming amount of support for which I was grateful. It was a story about what it was like for me, a child at the time, which led me to think about the fact that all of us parents were at one time children. Our own children obviously didn’t know us then, but the truth remains that a lifetime existed before we became mom and dad in the story.

I distinctly remember thinking how long ago and far away the childhoods of my parents were from my own. The stories they told were imagined in black and white in my mind to further support the nostalgia of it all. There were world wars and poodle skirts and scary nuns all rolled up into some ancient tale of yore. It might as well have been a hundred years instead of thirty. When I look at my children and realize this is how the 1980s must seem to them, it is impossible to comprehend, considering it feels like last year to me some days. Which is how my parents must have felt about an Eisenhower presidency. Strange.

Today marks seventeen years since my dad died, and instead of remembering his as my dad, I wanted to share a little from that first of his lifetimes – before marriage and children and all that I knew of him firsthand.

Aloysius Joseph Morson was born in 1938 to Mary Agnes in her home. She was 38 years old, considered well past childbearing norms for the day. Although he was her third son, she had previously been unable to pass on my Pop-Pop’s name, as he wouldn’t allow it. But Pop-Pop was a trucker and not present when my dad was born, so Grandmom finally got her wish.

Baby Brownie
Baby Brownie

My dad had a couple of nicknames when he was little, the cutest of which was Brownie, for his super dark brown eyes. This one stuck with him into adulthood, then shortened to Brown. He was Uncle Brown to his many nieces and nephews.

no smiles for school

As a little boy, my dad got himself into a bit of trouble both at home and at school. You can even see the impishness in his eyes in all of the photos. I have no doubt his charm saved him from half of the punishment, which is typical of youngest children as well. My dad was very smart, but school wasn’t for him. I’m certain the nuns and priests who taught him had their work cut out for them, including then-Father, later Cardinal O’Connor, who drove my dad to school. They were all probably relieved to not be parents after having such a student in their classes.

my dad with his dog, Mike

As a child, my dad loved animals. He had a pet chicken called Cluck-Cluck that lived in the backyard. At least he thought he had a pet chicken. Cluck-Cluck was destined for the dinner table, a fact that led my dad to steer clear from poultry from that meal on. There were always dogs and cats for pets, however, and they seemed to gravitate towards my dad.

My dad and his brother, the father who raised me, were best of friends. they were only a year and a half apart, and a full decade behind the next sibling up, so their adventures were often combined. Unlike my dad, however, his brother was much more responsible. I like to imagine they balanced each other out: one keeping the other out of far greater danger, the other helping to keep things fun and interesting. Double-date stories are some of my most favorite of the pair. My dad enjoyed telling on his sainted brother, including one particularly ridiculous moment when they showed up for a blind date with a pair of nurses. As the legend went, the father who raised me took one look at his intended date who was less than attractive, and had jumped a fence and run off before my dad knew what had happened. My dad laughed until he cried while recreating the cries of, “I’ve got to gooooo” as his brother escaped off into the distance.

My dad was a thoughtful dreamer, for sure, and he wrote my mother little cheesy love poems. They were as heartfelt as they were terrible. I have to admit, it took a lot of guts, considering the talented writer my mother was. He definitely lived to make her happy. And as cheesy as it sounds for me to say, I hope the two of them are together again, living out the life they never had time for before she died, leaving him heartbroken after four short years.

I miss my dad everyday. I wish he could have met my babies and been their Grandpa. But today I remember all the silly stories of his boyhood. And when I look at my son, who carries my dad’s name in his own, I will practice an extra dose of patience for the little charmer with the twinkle in his eye.

When a Baby Terrifies You

Being pregnant is not my idea of a good time. But being hooked up to an IV and completely unable to function affects more than just me. Which is why, when I learned that I was pregnant with baby #3 when the first two were only four and two years old, I was a bit panic-stricken about telling my parents as well as my husband.

The whole experience was tragically comic from start to finish. First, after several home negative home tests, I figured I was just having some weird health issues or something. My doctor thought the same after a negative test there, and so she ordered a blood test to check a bunch of levels including my thyroid.

Which is how it came to be that I learned about my pregnancy via email.

EMAIL.

I was sitting in the basement of the townhouse we had purchased less than a month prior, watching the littles play with their duplos and dolls, when I got an email from my doctor stating, “serum positive for HCG.” I spun around in the swivel chair, realized that the littles weren’t a good sounding board for this shocking information, and tried to calm my heart rate while counting down the seconds until I could rush up and grab a phone.

I called my sister and told her first. I asked if she wouldn’t be the one to break the news to my parents, because I just didn’t have it in me, knowing they would have to take over parenting for several weeks. We agreed on a plan of attack, and then discussed just how on earth I would tell my husband.

Lest anyone get the impression that we’re horrible people, I love my babies. So does my husband. My entire family is very “Yay babies!” in fact, but it’s impossible to ignore that having babies means a LOT of work from a lot of people.

I knew that I would eventually be excited about this baby, and that if my husband reacted poorly to the news, I would have a hard time recovering. I also knew that wasn’t exactly fair, considering I had plenty of time to get out all of my “holycowwhatthehellarewegoingtodo” crazy out of my system before he would get home from work, and decided he deserved the same opportunity to work it all out. Besides, as soon as he walked through the door, I would be on my way out to work myself.

So I decided I would write him a note. I waited until naptime, then sat down to compose the “yep, I’m pregnant,” notecard to my husband. My hand was shaking a bit, but I managed to get out the basic idea that we were having a baby, we’d work it out, and everything would be okay.

As I left for work that night, I handed the sealed envelope to him, saying, “read this after the kids are asleep.” Which he didn’t. But I guess as soon as I handed it to him, he figured what it was about. We’re pretty in tune like that.

So by the time I got home that night, my husband had gone through all of the necessary freak outs and we were able to have a few moments of happiness and excitement before getting down to the technical matters. When you have HG like I do, you only get a short window of time before it all hits the fan. And the crazy did not disappoint.

Of course, I wouldn’t change a thing, and we all can’t imagine a world without our muffins, and someday I will show her the note I left for her dad, announcing her existence.

Although I did mention to my doctor that email might not be the best way to tell a woman she’s having a baby.

my little muffins
my tiny muffins – best kind of suprise ever

When An 80th Birthday Goes Horribly Awry

My mother is a bit of a saint.

There are many reasons, but for the purposes of this story, she is a saint for her desire to give an insane 80 year-old a proper birthday celebration. A saint, but also a bit of an overreaching optimist, as fate would have it.

When her father came to live with us, pleasant yet extremely forgetful, his wife also moved to town, but into a nursing home facility. Granish, as she was named by my older brother, was sort of our grandparent, but not really, as she was technically a step-grandparent. But that is quite a sterile-sounding term, so the cutesy Granish moniker was created.

Granish had never been married before and had no children of her own. She was somewhat emotionally fragile, and not that long after marrying Granddad, she started showing signs of mental illness. Living in our house wasn’t a safe possibility, so she went to live at the nursing home where we all visited from time to time. She was a frightening character, hunched in her wheelchair, her shocking white hair always jutting out in various geometrical shapes, never letting the nurses get close enough to tame it.

There was only one occasion that my mom felt it our obligation to spring Granish from the nursing home: her 80th birthday. As far out there as she tended to be, Granish was fond of reminding us all that she was “crazy, not stupid,” and so well aware it was her birthday. My mom set the dining room table beautifully with the best dishes and even some fresh flowers, and tried to make a nice celebration for Granish.

At the top of the long dining table were my parents’ chairs as well as my Grandmom’s, while Granddad was at the complete other end of the table. Every night, after the standard grace before meals, Grandmom had taken to adding on bits of extra prayers. I’m not sure when this all started, but by this particular dinner, we were in the range of two extra minutes or so. Most of us worked hard to tolerate the extra frills, but Granddad was not accustomed to hiding his disdain and had taken to interrupting her. I don’t know if Grandmom heard or not, but she always managed to press on, determined to add in all the priests, the police, and the names of every dead friend she had, which, at her age, was an impressive list.

As Granddad had no short-term memory to speak of, I assume each evening provided a new frustration for him, but on that night he went with his standard move: yelling AMEN! every three seconds or so. But on this occasion, that of her 80th birthday, our guest of honor chimed in with her favorite mantra.

“GODDAMNIT GODDAMNIT GODDAMNIT!”

And so went the rhythmic theme song of Granish’s 80th birthday: “God bless our priests -AMEN! – GODDAMNIT! – and all the firefighters – AMEN! GODDAMNIT! – and all the souls in purgatory – AMEN! -GODDAMNIT!” until Grandmom ran out of her prayers and the rest of us dug our nails into our legs to avoid laughing hysterically at the horror of it all.

We had the good sense to not light 80 candles, at least.
We had the good sense to not light 80 candles, at least.

That One Time I Got Away With It

I used to joke that the reason I was immune to most peer pressure is that I knew somehow, some way, no matter how inconceivable, if I dared to stray from the straight and narrow, my mother would find out. Yes, my own disposition lent itself to good behavior, but were I ever tempted to rebel in the slightest, I had years’ worth of experience to know that woman was some kind of freaking sorceress when it came to her children and their missteps.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I am confident that my seemingly-omniscient mother kept me from making a handful of stupid mistakes in my teen years. I aspire to convince my own children that I know and see all, for their sakes as well as my own. The groundwork for this illusion is being built every day, in fact. (insert maniacal laughter)

But there was this one time, this one, magnificent occasion, where I got away with something.

When we were younger, my parents would host parties from time to time for my father’s colleagues. As these were for grown ups only, my dad would carry the only household television into the den, tinker with the rabbit ears until we got a decent picture, and stuff us full of popcorn. We’d watch whatever movie was available on public television and then head off to bed.

the wonders of technology
the wonders of technology – look at those dials!

On one of these occasions, we were happily plunked on the floor, probably watching Wizard of Oz, when the picture started to go wonky. We weren’t to disturb our parents, and since I didn’t have the patience required to wait until one of their periodic check-ins, I decided that I would rise to the occasion and adjust the antennae myself.

As was usually the case, the twins attempted to talk me out of my stupidity, to no avail. I was seven years old, darnit, and I could save us all. I’d seen the grown ups do this a hundred times, how hard could it be?

Being a short kid, I had a time of it attempting to even reach the long, metal pieces, so I focused my attentions on the lowest bits which stuck out of the back. I kept at it for a while, relying on my sidekicks to let me know if I was on the right track. And just as I had nearly finished saving the evening, I heard and felt a dull snap.

Complete and utter panic ensued. In my zeal, my weak little hands had broken the plastic piece which attached the antennae to the television. My heart beat fast, my hands shaking and clammy, I wonder how I didn’t pass out at that moment. We started to brainstorm plausible explanations, but came up empty. My only option was to prop it up like nothing happened and hope no one noticed.

And so we waited.

Not much long after, my parents sent us off to bed. I can remember lying there, wondering when the hammer would fall. Would it be at breakfast? Perhaps I would be woken up in the morning and interrogated? Would all three of us manage to keep the secret?

But something so completely and utterly bizarre happened that next day. I came down the stairs, walking as slow as possible, dreading the fate I would meet, and there in the living room was the television, bunny ears extended toward the sky. Was this a trap? Or had I dreamed the whole tragic mess? No, I didn’t think so. But why weren’t my parents interrogating us? No sense was to be made.

Hours gave way to days, and eventually my heartbeat returned to a healthy rhythm.  And every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of the duct tape holding the antennae on and wonder how it is that I got away with breaking it.

Finally, one afternoon after we had moved overseas and back again, I heard my parents talking as they were setting up our furniture. It was then that I had beer to thank for my fortuitous escape from punishment. It turns out that my father had one too many and decided to move the television out of the den that night before going to bed and regaining sobriety. He was operating under the delusion that HE had broken the bunny ears clean off the television!

Oh thank you, glorious, glorious beer.