Walking Through My Mother’s Life

Mom profile by Nina005The medium sized cardboard carton was waiting for me to open and sort through the contents. My mother lived to the age of ninety eight, and it looked as though she never threw anything out that she received in the mail. I had brought it back with me from the storage unit in South Carolina. It contained paper of all sorts, including old photographs, that she had seen fit to keep for many years. Until I opened it I had no idea just how long those years had been.

Now for weeks and then months it had waited for me to go through it. In an effort to motivate myself I kept moving it around. I knew it would take the better part of several days to do, and I was reluctant to set aside other tasks to address one that had no deadline. Finally I put it where I could not ignore it: right under my desk. I had to look at it every time I sat down to do anything. Finally I got tired of looking at it and set to my task.

Some of what I found was reminiscent of my mother’s life in the 40’s and 50’s: bills and sales slips from department stores, electric bills and bills for milk delivery, drycleaning, and so on. The prices of things from those days were interesting. It was both surprising and sad to see what a dollar used to buy.

The names of the stores brought back memories of being with my mother when I was small, taken along on shopping trips. To my young eyes, the department store was a wondrous place holding all sorts of interesting things to look at. She also kept paid bills for expenses related to her art and the galleries she had under her own name. I set these aside for my daughter who is planning a future retrospective exhibit of her grandmother’s art.

The quantities of letters on thin airmail paper were impossible to read. Plus many of them were in German or Spanish. The dates on some envelopes went back to before my mother married my father. It seems she had quite a collection of boyfriends and there were many letters, some I could decipher a little addressed to her in endearing terms. It amazed me that she had managed to keep and haul around that collection for so long. The earliest went back more than 70 years. I had a wonderful walk through her life and times, and I found myself happy to have been able to touch into my own memories of those days..

It seems to me that things were far more innocent then. There were rules to be followed. These had been handed down from generation to generation and applied as long as life was stable and people’s roles mostly well defined. There was more safety in living that way. There are people who wish it were still like that today, however their numbers are dwindling. Once change begins it cannot be stopped or the results will be like a cancer that devours its host. Growth often comes about with pain. However, the freedom of being out from under the rigidity of the life my mother lived with is precious. I am grateful for it.

 

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Memories of a Very Special Neighbor

Laura Dodge's Dancing Dolls        I grew up in the country, and the only neighbor I really knew was my Great Aunt Alice, because we lived in a smaller home on part of her property. There were no children for me to play with except some siblings across the street. My parents did not know theirs and I was not permitted to invite them in or to go to their house. To be fair, they were not a very kind bunch. There were two sisters and their brother, who was rather rough. They went to a different school than I did and I had very little in common with them. It is lovely to have neighbors, and once I had one who was special indeed.

I was recently able to get back in touch with this neighbor of many years ago. Her children and mine were of an age and we lived in a small town on the North Shore of Boston. In our suburban neighborhood our houses were only a few yards apart. Some days when I was upstairs, even without the windows being open I could hear her playing her recorder. A musician and an artist by avocation, she had a dachshund that she had taught to accompany her when she played happy birthday on the piano.

We were able to share only a couple of phone calls in the few months I had rediscovered her. Now has come the news that she has passed on. Memories of our years as neighbors flood back to me. One favorite is the time I was grilling a boned leg of lamb on my charcoal grill in the back yard. To my dismay I looked out and saw her German shepherd running off with it in his mouth. She bravely rescued it from him, cooked it for her family and gave me another leg of lamb that was even then roasting in her oven. Many times after that over cups of tea we laughed together, remembering.

Our children played together in our yards and she shared produce from her garden with me. Generous with her time and energy, she taught me a lot about sewing, and helped me whenever I was stuck trying to do something too advanced for my sewing machine skills. She helped me out when my younger children were born, brought food and kept me company. I was sad when she sold her house and moved away. Later after he was grown and on his own she took in my late son and as he helped her with hers, taught him a lot about gardening. I was very grateful to her for her kindness to him.

No matter how long someone you may cherish lives–and she was 92 when she passed on, it is never long enough to do and say all the things you wish you had done and said. I have to be content with what remains of my memories and of the conversations we had before she went to her final rest. She was a very special friend as well as a wonderful neighbor and I am sure many besides me have fond memories of her. A giving, sharing person, she set a good example for everyone who knew her. She lived a kind and caring life and will I am sure continue her loving ways now that she has her angel wings.

Perspective Makes All the Difference

Cherry Blossoms on a rainy dayAt the time I was born my mother was newly come to the US, a bride of less than a year. Except for my father, she was very much alone in a big city, and I was her only companion for quite a while. I have often thought that my persistently positive perspective on life may have had its roots in my trying to cheer her up when she was sad and missing her family and friends back in her home country. Over the years since I have come to understand the power of a positive perspective on a potentially negative situation or experience.

This has become essential to my work. When I tell people I am a writer, they often ask me what I write. If I say I write essays, it sounds as though I am writing from a scholarly point of view. If I say I do inspirational writing, it sounds as though I am coming from a religious perspective. In truth, what I am doing in my columns is to simply present a different or alternative point of view from that which some might take about any given situation or experience. I write to be helpful, but it is self help I write about. Helping others to help themselves is my intention and my goal.

There is little we can do about circumstances. Daily life presents us with issues and difficulties we must deal with. The school of experience is our ever-present teacher, one we cannot escape no matter what we do. I’ve often felt that maturity or adulthood truly begins when we’re willing to learn from this teacher rather than moan, groan and feel as though we are victims of fate, circumstance or those who might perpetrate it. It is a lot easier to complain than it is to “bite the bullet” and admit there might be something to learn from any given situation.

I believe the expression “bite the bullet” comes from battlefield medicine when in the days gone by the surgeon had to amputate or otherwise operate without anesthesia. After whiskey was poured liberally into the patient, a bullet was put between his jaws to bite down on as a way to keep from crying out. Whether this is actually true or not it makes a good metaphor. When our focus is put not on complaint or disappointment but on what can be gained from whatever is happening to us, coping becomes easier and wisdom more accessible.

In my own life right now I am dealing with a change in lifestyle and a need to take better care of myself. I have learned that much of what I used to take for granted, I no longer can. Exercise is not an option it is a necessity. I need to do additional work on my body to restore it to better working order. I could complain, or even bemoan my fate. Instead I rejoice that I now have a good way to lose weight, that I can become stronger and healthier with effort and that it is good and helpful to be made to do that. Therefore I bless these circumstances and state firmly that I am exceedingly grateful for them.

The Importance of Self Care

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As children we are often told to be kind, to be sharing and giving, and to show our love to others by how we treat them. We are seldom told to care for or to love ourselves. I remember as a child sending for a nurse kit from Quaker Oats. It was advertised on a radio program I listened to every weekday. I liked the idea of being a nurse. It was a way to care for others, as I was told to do. After my little kit came I bandaged up my teddy bear and treated him to a hospital stay as I played nurse in my little white cap and apron.

As young people we feel invulnerable; we can go for a night without sleep and hardly notice. Unless we have allergies or some medical condition, eating whatever we like is the rule rather than the exception. We seldom need to sit and rest after exertion but can continue on as if we were made of steel. I was in my late forties when I began to realize I could no longer treat my body as if it were some kind of machine that could go on and on.

I began to notice that if I didn’t pace myself I would need to slow down or even stop in the middle of my efforts to get everything done. This bothered, even annoyed me. I didn’t like to stop. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Then I had a real wake-up call: I got an excruciating pain in my neck and shoulder that wouldn’t go away. It took a number of chiropractic treatments and a lot of rest before I was able to move without hurting. The experience was extremely unpleasant. I finally got the message: I had been treating my body badly, and I needed to change my attitude.

First and foremost I realized I heeded to stop and rest between efforts. I also began to notice that when I ate certain foods I was uncomfortable; when I didn’t get enough sleep I was dragging. While this annoyed me, I had to admit it was important information. I realized that while it was strong and able my body needed a different kind of attention. Rather than treat it offhandedly as a machine that just needed fuel and occasional maintenance, I needed to treat it kindly, as if it were a faithful animal that was carrying me where I needed to go. I also had to accept its messages as needs and wants rather as impediments to what I wished to do when I wished to do it.

The importance of my self care grows with each passing year. Movement I used to take for granted has become an effort. There are even things I can’t easily do at all any more. But what is more important is that I remember to do what I need to do for my comfort as well as my health: Rest between efforts, meditate, take time to sit with my feet up, put in my eye drops, drink enough water, eat enough fiber, avoid what I can no longer comfortably digest. My list could go on and on, however I’ve made my point. Self care matters. More importantly, remembering to care for myself means I can continue to care for others, and that most of all is a good reason to do so.

Tasha Halpert

Lenten Discipline, Spiritual Discipline

icicles-2Regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, self-discipline can be helpful to one’s personal growth. In the days before supermarkets or even grocery stores, for people in spiritual or religious communities or congregations to find enough to eat in the latter months of winter could be difficult especially in the six weeks before Easter. The Christian religious institutions of the day dedicated this time, known to Christians as Lent to the spiritual practice of fasting. From a practical standpoint, this extended what supplies remained. It also provided a spiritual bonus to do so. Making a virtue of necessity, the Lenten observances of the past centuries helped individuals get through the scarcity of food.

When I was growing up of course food was abundant. Fasting certainly was not a necessity. I was taught that the way to fulfill my Christian Lenten obligations was to give up something I might enjoy eating. I was told that fasting wasn’t just about going without a meal or not eating meat; it could mean giving up chocolate, or ice cream or sweets in general during Lent as a discipline instead of not eating meat on certain days or whatever else might be considered appropriate.

My great aunt Alice was a woman of character and community mindedness. She was a great believer in doing good and volunteered in a number of organizations as well as gave generously to charities. She had a different approach. She believed in taking on rather than giving up something during Lent. She would assume extra volunteer work or make a special effort at that time to visit elderly or invalid family members or friends.

I have come to believe that my Great Aunt’s idea of a good Lenten discipline is more meaningful as a spiritual practice than giving up desserts or candy. However, I am not one to visit the sick, nor am I usually involved in any community activities of a volunteer nature. Instead I believe that for me to fulfill the spirit of this period I can take on a practice of deliberate focus: to enhance my awareness of gratitude and of opportunities for me to give. I can become more mindful of my blessings, spend more time acknowledging the kindness of friends and family, and be more aware of whatever opportunities may present themselves for me to be kind and thoughtful to others.

Self-discipline can consist of an act of rigorous denial or of observing and then acting as might be appropriate. One can lead a spiritual life whether or not one has taken vows or lives within a specific religious or spiritual setting. If my Lenten practice becomes a habit or enhances my ability to be more mindful, that will do me more good than giving up candy. In the process it may also help me to be more aware of when I can do someone a kindness. By prioritizing these attitudes in my everyday life, I can enact a Lenten discipline that will do more good in general than simply fasting from anything I might enjoy eating.

A Valentine to Lost Loves

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When I was eight years old my dear nurse, Emily left to get married. She had taken care of me since I was around eighteen months of age and was in most respects my second mother. She was a practical nurse. That meant besides looking after me, she helped with household chores as well as driving me where I might need to go. She was a devoted caretaker and when she left I missed her sorely. While my own mother loved me dearly, she loved me in her own way. Unlike Emily she was not a physically affectionate person. Also she had much higher expectations of me than Emily did.

When I was twelve, my friend and classmate Sally went away to boarding school. A bookish, unathletic, somewhat plump child, I had no interest in the things my classmates did, and neither did she. As a result from the third to the seventh grade we formed a team of two, and I defended her from the bullies that taunted her for her shyness. I missed her sadly. She lived in a big house by the ocean and our idyllic summers were spent swimming and playing tennis in her private court. Her freezer always held a tub of ice cream and we could make cones when we wanted. When we reached sixteen and I began dating, despite my efforts to remain close, we drifted apart. She had been my best and only friend. She remained distant.

Once I was married and had children I became friends with woman whose two boys were around the age of my two girls. We all went everywhere together. She had a wonderful voice and we used to sing folk songs at our children’s school. We even performed in a contest. Very close, we spoke on the phone almost daily. Then for some reason she became angry with me and disappeared from my life. For months I was devastated. Later on I had another friend I went to the beach with each day. Sadly, after several years she went back to Germany and never returned. By then I was beginning to learn what it was to lose someone I loved, and how to handle it; I was able to recover faster.

Throughout my long life I have had many opportunities to learn to live with loss. I had to come to terms with son’s death when he was twenty-eight, and as I grew older, my parents passing. More lately have come the deaths of others I loved. As time has gone on, these experiences have helped me learn to let loved ones go with a more peaceful heart. I have discovered that I do not need to stop thinking about them, nor do I need to regret their absence. I can take the images of them together with the memories of our time together and put them lovingly in a special album I keep in my heart. Then when I wish to I can open it, turn the pages and smile as I remember with joy the good times we had and the love we shared.

Tasha Halpert

How to Grow Your Heart Bigger

Peace Village 3 Heart.jpgVery young children share quite naturally. Who hasn’t been the recipient of a toddler’s offering of a cookie or a treasured toy? Later, children become more self-centered, and parents have to teach them to share. Then we outgrow our parents’ teaching and begin to form our own ways of behavior. At this point we may often emulate peers who may or may not be good examples of heartfelt behavior. Some, like me, inherit critical attitudes from parents or teachers, and so unwittingly continue them. This can shrink the heart.

Most of us are familiar with a character of Dr. Seuss’s called the Grinch. His heart was shrunken–too small by far. This resulted in his acting meanly toward others and because it annoyed him, trying to take away their joy. When he couldn’t, his heart grew. Most of us believe we would never try to steal another’s joy, however perhaps we could be ignoring opportunities to grow our hearts bigger. This is something I’ve had to learn and I worked hard to learn it. It’s not easy to do so; the first step in he process is to observe one’s very own smallness of heart.

For example, when I look at someone or even myself with a critical eye, observe with distaste mine or another’s extra pounds or unkempt clothing, or think negatively of my or another’s behavior and don’t catch myself doing it, I am missing an opportunity to grow my heart. I could change my thinking and reflect that they could be on medication, indigent, ill or feeling uncomfortable and instead feel compassion for them or myself. I’m aware that when I am tired or someone annoys or irritates me, it takes restraint not to snap back. Yet when I can manage to see them in a different light, it will grow my heart.

Another way to grow my heart is to not act selfishly and take the biggest, the best or the most for myself. Being generous to others is a simple way for me to grow my heart. As children we have often been taught this by well meaning parents, yet depending on how I might be feeling, it is easy to do the opposite. Then too, if I do it grudgingly or without a genuine desire to give, it may not be as effective for heart enlargement, however it can still work to my benefit. The most effective attitude is to put others ahead of oneself with joyful willingness as opposed to grudging obligation.

While it is sometimes painful to observe myself behaving in ways other than how I want to see myself, it is also worth doing. I’ve learned that if I catch myself in the act often enough, I will stop whatever negative behavior I observe. Selfish behavior, a judgmental attitude, an outlook automatically critical of others can lead to shrinkage of the heart. Generosity, compassion, and loving giving can lead to the growth of the heart. Plus there is often a return on one’s investment. What goes around really does come around. Those who practice these virtues may well reap good fortune in some way in return. While this is not a reason to be doing it, it is a nice side benefit.

Tasha Halpert