Is that you, Mother? I didn’t expect you so soon

Donegal 2004Today would have been my mother’s 91st birthday. This photo was taken at Donegal Castle, Northern Ireland in June of 2004, just weeks before she surprised us all and broke our hearts by passing quite unexpectedly. She was 79. The cane you see is hers, by the way. I was only minding it.

In the intervening years I retired, became a grandmother, and qualified for Medicare. However, the biggest change is that before I turned sixty, people argued when I told them my age. “No! You can’t be that old!” Now when I state my age, they don’t argue. It hurts, you know?

It is with thoughts of that inevitable process of aging that I wrote this piece fifteen years ago.  It first published in the Nevada Appeal on December 20, 2001.

I saw her again this morning. My sweet mother. She lives 500 miles away but there she was staring back at me from my bathroom mirror. It’s her all right; there’s no mistake.
Soft brown and gray curls, soft sags of skin, laugh lines, a few age spots. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and would introduce her to you proudly if she were standing beside me. It’s just that when she looks back at me from the bathroom mirror, it’s … well … unsettling.
So every day I spend a considerable amount of time pushing her back out of my way and finding myself, recreating the person who greets the world. The steps have become a ritual.
To my clean and exfoliated skin I apply a moisturizer with sunscreen. It’s my first line of defense, my armor against any further damage from the sun. Apparently those summers at the beach in Southern California 40 years ago have been burned into my skin as well as my memory.
Next, I sponge on the foundation. When you build a house it is the foundation that holds everything upright and straight, making it endure. This foundation just allows my little illusion to last throughout most of the day. And then concealer. It goes to work hiding dark under-eye circles from the wakeful nights that began when I became a mother in 1976. I have been collecting those little bags through 23 years, two children, colic, croup, curfews, and college.
My brows are alternately plucked and penciled, growing thickly where I do not want them, thinly where I do. Like the lawn. And of course it is made even more challenging by failing eyesight. Dime store glasses and a magnifying mirror aid in this task. Then eye shadow, eyeliner, and mascara are applied to enhance what people used to tell me were my best features, but which now lie hidden behind bifocals.
Finally a bit of blush to mimic what I can no longer trust the sun nor my innocence to produce: a rosy glow, an embarrassed flush. I’m not sure the makeup conceals much. Perhaps it’s only an attempt to reveal the person I believe still resides in this middle-aged body — someone who was considered intelligent, creative, friendly, fun and — once upon a time — even cute.
It is getting harder to find that girl with each passing year. I suppose sometime in the future the law of diminishing returns will cause me to reassess how I spend my time.
Although I had an old auntie who put on a fresh coat of makeup every night before going to bed explaining, “If I died in my sleep, nobody would recognize me.” She lived to be 100.
Perhaps one day I’ll accept these little imperfections as battle scars, as medals of honor. Perhaps one day I can wear them as signs of survival and triumph. Perhaps someday. More likely though, as aching joints and old age creep in, I’ll just be grateful for the sunrise and breath. Merely being clean will be good enough.
And maybe one day when my mother isn’t around anymore, I will even find it comforting to see her in the mirror, to know she’s close and that I’ll always have something to remember her by. Right in front of me.
Not today though. Today I will color and curl my hair, carefully apply my makeup, and accomplish a nearly complete makeover each morning. I’ll look into the mirror and see myself again and not my mother. Once the transformation is complete, I’ll put on my control top pantyhose, my sensible shoes with the orthotics, and my bifocals. I’ll take my hormones, allergy pills, vitamins, extra calcium. Even ginkgo biloba, if I remember. I’ll check the mirror once more and walk out the door accepting the fact that someday my mother in the mirror will be moving in to stay. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life. Continue reading “Is that you, Mother? I didn’t expect you so soon”

Everything changes. Again.

Warning: This post is directed to members and former members of Weight Watchers. Others may be confused by the talk of Points, the WW calculation that takes into consideration nutritional elements besides calories–things like protein, carbs, fat, and fiber. The program and formula have changed over WW’s 50 year history, causing much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Every time.

changeIn 2001, I weighed over two hundred pounds. How much over, I’ll leave to your imagination. It only took me two years to reach my goal. Am I just slow-learner or do I suffer from attention deficit issues? Maybe both? You can read about my weight loss journey here: Gains and losses go beyond the scale. But I’m not talking about that today. Today, fifteen years later, I’m talking about perspective, trust, and looking at the big picture when it comes to change. 

First, I know that the support and accountability I received from staff and other members at Weight Watcher meetings were key. Anyone can hand you a diet. That’s easy. But with WW I learned strategies to replace a lifetime of unhealthy habits with healthier ones and to make myself a priority. We commiserated and celebrated. Where else could I get applauded for losing two-tenths of a pound, eating only half a doughnut, or being able to cross my legs?
Long story short, I lost weight on the Points program, living on 19 Points a day with a few extras thrown in from a weekly slush fund we were given. The little extras were to make the program livable so we wouldn’t feel deprived. Back in those days, we still had to count Points for fruit. That seems like the dark ages now. Not as dark as the 60s, when you had to eat liver and couldn’t eat pasta, but still, dark.

I became a part-time leader when I retired from teaching. It seemed like a natural fit, passing on the lessons I’d learned and encouraging others along the path.  You can learn some of those strategies by clicking on the HH4HH tag on this page.
A few years later, Weight Watchers unveiled PointsPlus at leader training. All of our daily points increased from 19 to 26. You’d think we’d be happy. Nope. We were afraid. Everyone cried and fussed. Remember, leaders are successful Weight Watchers. We LOVED and were committed to the old program. We KNEW it worked. We KNEW we’d gain weight on this “new and improved” program. Who were they kidding? We whined,“I can’t eat that much and maintain!” and “Why do I have to change?” and “Can’t I keep going on the old program?”
What we were told, with a smile, was this: “Weight Watchers offers and supports the best program, supported by the latest research. If you don’t feel you and your members deserve the best, feel free to stick with the old program, but without our support.” Ouch.

Still grumbling a bit, we thought more about it. We realized something. With the new PointsPlus formula, while the points for some of our favorite foods (like carbs) had gone up, now all fresh fruit and most vegetables were free, as in ZERO points. Essentially what WW did was drag us (sometimes kicking and screaming) toward healthier choices. Under the old system a cookie and an apple were roughly equivalent choices, point-wise. In the new system, a cookie would cost you points, whereas the apple was free. Zero points.

Okay, I got it. I was supposed to eat more apples, fewer cookies. And I did. I also ate fewer processed foods, cut my oatmeal serving from 1/2 to 1/3 cup, and added fresh fruit to it rather than raisins. Small changes, really.

Little by little, we adjusted. More people joined WW and lost weight. And if they’d never experienced any of the previous programs, PointsPlus was WW. And as always, it worked if you worked it.

Nevertheless, time and science keep marching on, so now, along comes the latest research-based (r)evolution, SmartPoints. And guess what! This time calories, sugars, and saturated fats were added to formula, so lots of the foods in the WW data base changed values. Again!  But, once again, they gave me MORE points to eat every day. Now I get 30. (Remember, I used to get only 19!) And I still get extras every week.

If I’m honest about how I’ve worked the program over the last few years, even though my daily target was 26, I ate about 30 points a day. I also traded my Activity Points for food, so that most of my extras remained (ahem) on the table. So this “big change” isn’t such a big change. For me. I changed which tortillas and salad dressing I buy. I use the bar code scanner on the WW mobile app more often to discover the best SmartPoints bargains.

While I no longer work for WW, I do trust them to provide me with the best program. And I still weigh in at a meeting every month, because as long as I stay at goal, it’s free. And because it works.
Thanks to WW, I weighed less on my 60th birthday than I did on my 50th. So now I try to keep the big picture in mind as I adapt to this particular change and continue to take baby steps toward a healthier me.

change 1

If you love me, read me a story

read mom dad

I spent over thirty years teaching children to read, and as much as schools may have changed in that time, one thing has not–the importance of reading aloud to children. My career included twelve years as Reading Specialist, as well as years teaching kindergarten, first and third grades. I also worked in Special Education classrooms and at a private reading clinic. Now I volunteer in my granddaughter’s kindergarten class. Again and again I have witnessed the impact of reading aloud–or sadly, the lack of it–on children. Even at so-called “good” schools, in middle class neighborhoods. Children who have been read to early and often simply come to school more ready and eager to learn. Period.

read aloud vaccineOver the years I wrote many columns for the Nevada Appeal about literacy, learning, and how to raise readers. In this column from a few years ago I pose my belief in the form of a fable about two little girls, from the same neighborhood and similar family situations. You can use your own critical thinking skills to deduce the moral of the story after reading A tale of two Saras. 

Throughout my career, I often quoted Jim Trelease, author of  The Read Aloud Handbook. He is the wise read aloud guru. Even if you don’t believe me, you should believe him. His book makes an excellent gift at the next baby shower you attend. Just sayin’.




Is your child sleep deprived?


Last night about midnight, while I wasn’t sleeping, I remembered this piece that I wrote a couple of years back about sleep and the lack thereof. Heaven knows, sleep deprivation may make me a little less productive, not to mention a little crankier the next day, but to a child’s still developing brain, the impact can be long-lasting.

“Sleep deprivation has been linked to a lack of cognitive development and impulse control. New evidence also suggests a correlation with a host of problems, including memory issues, obesity, car accidents, diabetes, binge eating, hypertension, depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Click on over to read more about sleep deprived kids. There are also tips on how to fix a “broken” sleep schedule.


Catching up on my reading

Actually, I’m catching up on writing about my reading. In the two months since my hand surgery and my move into a new (to us) house, I’ve been reading quite a bit. I just haven’t been sharing much. And now, because I find it difficult to hold more than one or two thoughts in my head at once, my reviews will be necessarily vague. Kind of like me. I know I read more than three books in two months, but these are the ones I’m sharing today.

First, if you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, you must. World War II, Germany and France, again, but my oh my…a young, poor, orphaned German whiz kid whose only chance at an education and a future is to work for the Nazis and the blind, motherless daughter of the locksmith for a Paris museum. Radios and philosophy and natural science and imagination and courage beyond anything you can imagine. Brilliant.

Second, a gift. In on It: What Adoptive parents would like you to know about adoption by Elizabeth O’Toole, offers wise, sensitive and compassionate hints for the friends and family. Several relatives and friends have built families through adoption and more will, I’m sure. I felt myself cringing a bit at (dumb) questions I may have asked. Can I apologize here?  I’m SO SORRY. The main lesson here is to please respect everyone’s privacy including that of the adoptive child. The reasons why a couple choses to adopt, the means of adoption, the birthparents’ nationality (or reasons), and the terms of the adoption are really no ones business but theirs. The author’s preferred response to inappropriately intimate questions: “That’s not my information to share.” An excellent resource.

Lastly, I just finished Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming. The actor went in search of his own roots as well as the root of his father’s violent abuse against himself and his older brother. The search began because as an adult, Cumming couldn’t understand why he was so sad.
He writes “So the box in the attic stayed up there, gathering dust, neglected. Eventually I think we forgot about it completely. But the thing about boxes full of denial and years of unresolved pain and hurt is that eventually…they explode.”
Dark secrets fester and infect every experience. While the truth can hurt, not knowing can hurt more. In Cumming’s very personal and ultimately global quest to understand himself and his family, he comes to some degree of closure and peace. He offers both insight and thoughtful compassion for others who might have had similar troubles.

In case I forget…

crayonsOld age is sometimes referred to as a “Second Childhood.” Perhaps the thought is that we become carefree again as we conveniently forget our responsibilities. Unfortunately, it may also mean that once again, we are dependent on others for our care. Some of us will be forced to relinquish control of such simple tasks as dressing, eating, or going to the toilet. I think that’s what troubles me most as I age–that loss of control.

Of course, we can look to our parents and grandparents for examples of the paths our aging may take. My two grandmothers lived well into their 90s, although they’d lost most of their marbles by that time. My mom died at 79 of what I consider to be a broken heart, having watched and cared for my dad as he suffered an unknowable number of mini-strokes in the two years leading up to his death at 82. Nonetheless, we can’t see the particular road that lies ahead for us.

So I thought I’d share these notes, just in case I end up trapped inside an uncooperative mind and body.

When I visited an elderly friend in a nursing home after an accident, she didn’t have her teeth in. Imagine how demoralizing that would be. Moreover, she had no one to look after her and remind staff what she needed. So she was stuck. Toothless. While I don’t wear dentures (yet), you never know. So please, someone, bring me my teeth!

And please, DO NOT put my hair in a ponytail or pin it back with those childish plastic barrettes. I haven’t worn a ponytail since my twenties and for good reason. My thin, wispy hair makes for a ridiculous ponytail with the diameter of a pencil. Cut it short. Judi Dench short. Let it (finally) go grey, fine. But please, no ponytail, no barrettes.

Before you judge me for my vanity, let me say that my lovely sister-in-law wants someone to please (please, please…) remember to pencil in her eyebrows. Perhaps she’ll have them tattooed on before she forgets.

And if I’m confused or anxious, don’t give me drugs. Give me crayons. This simple remedy occurred to me a couple of years ago, while lying on the floor coloring and eating graham crackers with my then toddler granddaughter. I noticed how happy I felt. Contented, you know? Just a lazy, lovely activity with something and someone sweet. My mother enjoyed coloring too, and would often let housework go undone to spend a morning doodling away with me. Graham crackers and milk just add to the blissful experience. Any coloring book will do. Dora, Disney princesses, dinosaurs, I won’t care.

I want to believe that somewhere deep inside, a little nugget of my five-year-old self will still exist, remember, and calm right down.

So if you visit me at Happy Acres, I hope you bring me crayons and graham crackers. And please, make it the big boxes. I like to share.