Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fifteen Minutes

We were famous for a few minutes.   Our family of six was seated and posed in our tiny Lincoln Nebraska living-room, including our dog Scout, while the newspaper photographer silently took numerous shots of us.  A few days later we were on the front page of the city newspaper in vivid color.  It was an odd feeling to immediately recognize our own faces looking back from behind the little acrylic window in the box at the gas station that held the daily paper.

I bought the morning paper, and a few extra, and shortly after I got home, the phone started ringing.  The first call was from the pet shelter who wanted to donate dog food for Scout.  Several more supportive calls came offering money, babysitting services for our four children, group meeting times and places, and groceries.  Lots and lots of groceries.  We were overwhelmed by strangers' generosity and compassion.

We only spent a year in Lincoln.  We rented an apartment just a few blocks away from Stephen's work.  His boss had strongly suggested that a move to Lincoln would be a real gesture of Stephen's commitment and loyalty to the company, and consequently possibility for better opportunity and a secure future with them.

Previously, we had been living in Omaha for several years -just an hour's drive from Lincoln. We owned a very old home and had dug in, probably far too ambitiously and well beyond our capabilities, making improvements and renovations ever since we'd settled in and where we planned to raise our family.  But life changed very quickly and it all started with a little girl's nosebleed.

After a series of dramatic events, we discovered that our youngest daughter, Olivia, had an unusual blood disease that required frequent hospitalizations, often in isolation, sometimes in critical care, and usually required several day's stay. It was a routine we were forced into like many families who have major medical issues.  Our situation was not unique, it was just unique to us and we were managing as best as we could; Stephen had a decent job with medical insurance, and other than the long daily commute to Lincoln in a fairly reliable vehicle, we muddled through.

But then, we had to move to Lincoln.

We knew we had no possibility of selling the house in Omaha in its condition, so we shut it down, and made the 'commitment to the company' by moving close to Stephen's work and taking a year-long lease for an apartment in Lincoln that would allow pets and larger families.  We traveled back and forth on weekends to continue working and making improvements on the house, either for a potential buyer, or for our future in Nebraska. 

Three months later, Stephen was fired.* 

Things got more difficult, but mostly just financially.  We had a mortgage to cover, monthly rent at the apartment, and suddenly astoundingly astronomical hospital, medical, and doctor bills.  Someone at the Lincoln newspaper got wind of our story and thought it was a good human interest piece reflecting the concerns of those with middle income and rising health insurance costs.  We were featured since we suddenly had no job and no health insurance with serious medical costs and so we became the headline story, above the fold, on a weekday, in a Midwestern city newspaper for a day. Our fleeting moment of fame.

It took several years of treatments, countless hospitalizations and procedures, and surgery before Olivia was finally in full remission and considered cured.  Those difficult years are ones I often look back on to measure how we've come along, and remember those who we encountered along the way --many leaving lasting impressions that in some ways have influenced who we are.

One elderly lady who had been living for several years in a senior citizen apartment complex called and invited us to her storage area in the basement of her building.  In there, she had her own grocery store.  She had rows of peanut butter jars, carefully arranged varieties of dried pasta and cans and jars of pasta sauces, boxed potatoes, neatly categorized row upon row of canned beans, vegetables, fruits and soups.  Her son had built floor-to-ceiling two-by-four shelving all around her 6 foot by 8 foot allotted space and in there she had been storing surplus foods that she'd been purchasing ever since she'd moved in.  For ten years.  She explained she often invited people who were in situations like ours to visit with her.  She was a child of the depression, and found that if there was a sale on something at the grocery store, she was compelled to bring extra home for someone who could use it.  We left, very gratefully, with several bags of premium groceries for four growing young children.

We were reminded of this generous woman and her orderly and methodical ways of charity many, many years later.  When we were doing some routine grocery shopping we noticed an elderly woman with several plastic shopping bags at the entrance to the store who appeared to be waiting in the cold for a ride.  After we'd finished our own shopping and headed out to our car, she was still there.

We asked if she was expecting a ride or needed one --it was cold!  She meekly suggested that she needed one, so Stephen immediately collected her bags, took her arm and we gave her a ride home which wasn't far from the store.  When we got to her senior citizen apartment housing complex, Stephen carried her many grocery sacks in one trip and escorted her to her very small apartment while I waited in the car.

There she'd stashed what Stephen described as at least ten years of grocery purchases.  However, these were all in bags, sacks, and indistinguishable piles of disarray and chaos.  She invited Stephen in to her apartment and he set the bags of her most recent purchases among countless others of identical non-identifiable shape and abandon. She expressed her gratitude for the transportation, offering a generous contribution for our gas and the effort. Stephen left empty-handed but wide eyed with the contrast of a memory from a fairly similar scenario from years past.  Two senior women, compelled to purchase more than they themselves could use or needed, but with entirely different intent.

A couple in Omaha offered us a day free from parenting and providing.  She called in the morning, offering to take the three kids to the park and a variety of activities for the day, and returned with them tired and ready for bed at then end of the day providing soup and home made bread for supper.  It offered us a chance to sit quietly, at home, taking several naps with a very ill child, worry-free from the needs of others and meals.  It was a short, unexpected, and very appreciated respite that I often recall.

When our car broke down, our teen babysitter's family offered us their second vehicle so we could get around Omaha in winter until ours was repaired.  An older friend offered us her credit card to pay for the repairs, knowing her bill would take a month to arrive, and we could take another to pay her.

A friend at church, a plumber by trade, helped in a most generous way with labour, advice, skill, and services when we moved back into our Omaha home from Lincoln after a year of shut off water and frozen pipes.

There were a lot of people who helped us along in a variety of ways during those short years, but we try not to dwell on the hardship; it's much more pleasant to remember the generosity of others, the details of laughter and friendship, the gestures of kindness.

I hope to always remember those who are kind and understand those who are not.

* Since another family in the company who had a terminally ill child was fired at about the same time, I'll always believe that the reason for the firings was because of the health insurance costs for the small company.  I also suspect that Stephen's boss felt that his strongly suggested move to Lincoln (for a family of six needing proximity to a children's medical facility.) would be rejected and Stephen would resign.  Oh--the wisdom of hindsight.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guess What?

On several occasions over the years when I was growing up my Dad would quietly grin as he'd ask the question.  As I recall it was usually timed just as we were lifting our forks to take the first bite of a meal as we five sat at the dinner table.

"Guess What?"

It immediately made my sister cry.  My mother would set her fork back to her plate with a look of realization, steel herself, and simply state:

We're moving.

I'd be elated.  But for everyone else in the family, it meant something different.  For Dad it was a promotion, a new territory to cover for Norton Company, a better opportunity.  For my mother, it meant selling a home, searching and buying a new one hundreds of miles away, and cleaning.  Not just dusting and setting aside knick-knacks and gee-gaws to attract a potential buyer, but a thorough scouring and renewing of our house that was already in near pristine condition  -often, one we'd lived in for just a few years.

Mayflower was the contracted mover for Norton Company, and the familiar green and yellow transport truck would pull up in front of our house with three men, blank newsprint and cardboard boxes.  It was a good contract for them at our house, no doubt.  We had books, and lots of them.  Books are easy to pack and weigh a lot--benefits for the both business office and the packers at Mayflower.  Also, our house was clean.

When they pulled a chest of drawers away from the wall, there was nothing there; no dust, no stray socks or missing toy parts, no intricate cobweb structures that had housed several generations--all that was there was the footprint of the furniture in the thoroughly vacuumed carpets.  When the washing machine was disconnected, there was no lint, no detergent spills, no telltale sign of leaks that had repeatedly dripped and dried, just gleaming linoleum that was cleaner than most family's kitchen floor, all the while, my mother exclaiming and apologizing to the burly workers for the unsightly conditions, contritely suggesting that they must see some real 'doozies' of filth in their line of work.  They'd nod politely and continue with their work while she'd kneel and wipe. 

As a little kid, of course, I was oblivious to the concerns of my folks who had to oversee these operations, transitions, school transfers, mortgage approvals, title searches, interest rates, closing dates, car and pet licensing, and my siblings' emotional turmoil for the upheaval of yet another move.  My brother and sister were several years older than me and they had to leave schools, friends, scouts, bands, and familiar neighbourhoods; mostly the ties that I never had or realized being much younger. 

When a new home in a new state was ours, my mother acted as forward artillery and attacked all its imperfections, wear and tear, and the previous owner's dirt with fresh paint, and elbow grease.  Our boxes would arrive ready to start again.  We kids would start a new school -often in mid year, and then we'd do it all again, soon.  A familiar routine, each with a unique story or memory.

A vivid memory is the move from Illinois to Michigan in dead winter in the late 60's.  My sister and brother were in high school by then, and had several moves under their belts.  I was seven.  We stayed at The Mayflower hotel in downtown Plymouth, arriving tired on a blistering cold mid-winter's night.  After a full day's drive in our Volkswagen bus, we were keen to get out of the car and get some warm elbow-room in the hotel.  We walked up the wide stairs in the stately 30's era hotel, continued down a long hallway to our large 3rd floor room, and settled in.  Beds were turned down, the heat turned up.  Once pajama'd, we were ready to call it a night, but nature called and Buffy, our dog, needed one more run.  To make a quick trip of it, shirtless, but wearing his pajama pants and socks, my brother Allyn took the dog to the fire escape at the end of the hall.  Once outside, the door shut behind him and he quickly realized there was merely a two-foot square platform and he would be unable to get down to the street level carrying the dog on the iron-rung drop ladder.   Too late, he also realized that the door was now locked from the inside. They were trapped.

As the rest of us slowly let the day drift away, it didn't occur to us that the knocking and muffled yelling outside was my brother --just a faint background noise in strange surroundings.  He banged, hollered, and pounded on the thick fire door for a long time while holding a very unhappy dog who did not like being suspended several stories above ground on an open grid ironwork platform and wriggled earnestly to be freed. The pounding persisted, the yelling continued, until it worked its way to Dad's nearly asleep semi-consciousness when it occurred to him that Allyn and Buffy had been for gone quite a while.  He poked his head out of the room to look and heard -much more clearly- the imploring racket.  Back in the room, as Allyn warmed up and described his predicament, our laughter was even louder.  My brother was not nearly as amused.

That was our last move together as a family.  When I was in high school, my folks and I moved again to rural central Massachusetts.  I watched, unseen as one mover whisked away my dress-making mannequin, and with a gruff voice, said, "C'mon baby, let's dance!" while he waltzed her all the way out to the truck. It's funny, the little details you remember that made big impressions.  As adults Stephen and I moved many times with our growing family.  Those moves, too, had some stresses and unique adventures we can recall --you may have read a few of them in earlier blogs.

After Stephen and I moved from Nebraska to New Jersey in the mid 90's, our family of six stayed at an extended stay hotel called Embassy Suites.  We had a two room suite and they allowed pets.  The company that had hired Stephen was paying for the stay while he worked as a consultant.  The four kids and I went house hunting with real estate agents during the day.  At the end of the day, we'd all meet up at the heated indoor pool, enjoy the Manager's Complimentary Cocktail Hour, and the kids swam while Stephen and I would catch up.  Our spacious rooms, which had complete housekeeping services and two televisions  included a full cooked-to-order breakfast every morning in the dining-room/courtyard.  I quickly got used to the surroundings, routine --and luxury-- while we stayed there for several weeks.  

Eventually, we found a home, the kids enrolled in school, and we started again.  Justin started middle school and since the school year was well underway, he was quickly thrust into the curriculum and his science class required a few 'from home' supplies.  Justin was asked to bring a raw potato the very next day.  Not yet moved into the house, Justin matter-of-factly explained we didn't cook and didn't have any potatoes.  The teacher, understandably, took this as a lame excuse to avoid the assignment and quickly chastised him and dismissed his excuse.  Justin insisted he was being honest, and compromised that he could probably ask one of the kitchen staff for a potato.  Now his teacher --with an entirely new assumption-- wanted more information about her new student and his 'kitchen staff' and asked where he lived.  Justin simply replied,  "The Embassy."  She stopped asking questions and I think with our foreign sounding last name, it temporarily left quite an impression on her; it may have been Justin's first not-lie.
Recently, I hope, we've finally made our last move.  Stephen and I have settled in at Cleveland Place.  Here my folks, Pat and Wally, had done the spectacular and complicated forward artillery work with their battery of skills, taste and work ethic.  We have the luxury of turning the key and comfortably settling in to continue the high standards that they set. The stories and memories and friendships they shared here are abundant, and we hope to carry on those standards and traditions. Except for one.

Guess What?  Chicken Butt.