Tag Archives: Family

For Better | For Worse

by Jim and Melanie

They were married in August 1933. This picture shows them at a family Christmas potluck dinner in 1999, well into their 67th year since exchanging their vows. A week later, Mom drove the eighteen miles alone to go to mass on New Year’s Eve at the country church they always attended. Dad wasn’t feeling well enough to go.

Some at church noticed how strange it was that Mom didn’t take communion during mass. On her way home, she made a wrong turn into a driveway and got the car stuck at the edge. A farmer stopped and helped get her going again. Several miles closer to home, she turned into a farm lot with a large white building that looked vaguely like their garage at home. She opened the door of the car and starting walking down the road in the ditch. Someone saw the car with lights on and door open and alerted authorities. They soon arrived and found her. She was taken to the hospital 75 miles away. Diagnosis was a stroke. She never went home again.

See The Stroke of Midnight for more about Mom and about stroke symptoms and risks.

And more of their story…


The Stroke of Midnight

Stroke. Disoriented at church. Stroke. Lost on the way home. Stroke. “Will this happen to me again?”

December 31, 1999. The world held its breath, watching whether global computer systems would crash due to the 4-digit year problem. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law was transported from her small county hospital to a larger medical center. The computers were fine. She was not. She’d had a stroke, also known as a Cerebral Vascular Accident, or CVA.

At age 87, she insisted she would go to New Year’s Eve mass at the same church she’d attended all her life. My father-in-law wasn’t feeling well enough to go, but well enough that she could leave him alone at home for a couple hours. Later we heard from others that she hadn’t taken communion at church. It was a noticeable omission.

She headed for home afterward. She was a good driver, and I never felt unsafe when she drove. But she got lost traveling the same route she’d driven for more than 20 years, since they’d moved into town. Stopping in front of a shed on the dark country road, she tried to get in, but it was locked. Confused, she set out along the edge of the cornfield in the cold night air. It was not frigid. There was no snow. We do not take this for granted in the Midwest, this time of year.

In a rural area, people notice the out-of-place, and someone noticed her car parked where no car should be parked. Dispatch to the county sheriff, license plate number reported, was overheard on scanner by one of her sons. A grandson was called by someone else. Forces were activated; she was found.

We were able to see her the next day as she spoke with a doctor. She asked, “Will this happen to me again?” The doctor told her there was no way to predict it, but the fact she was lucid enough to ask the question was encouraging. His prognosis for her recovery was optimistic.

Discharged to the nursing home back in her own county, she recovered substantially as the doctor predicted. There were a lot of problems, though, including physical and mental ones. She recognized family and friends, remembering events from long ago, though not recent ones. The brain attack had left her with aphasia, the inability to fully understand or express speech. Conversations with family members went on, but the aphasia always made us wonder if she understood more than she could convey. Her physical needs were too complex to care for her in her own little house. She never lived there again.

February 2000

At the time the photo above was taken, she and her husband had been married more than 66 years. She was well enough in the spring to enjoy the wedding shower for a beloved granddaughter, hosted in the family room at the nursing home. But over the next five years, we lost her, pieces at a time. While at first she had good facial recognition, it wasn’t long before she only could say my name if someone else said it first. That made me a little sad, but I was heartened that she always knew my son’s name, always until the last time she called it, mistaking him for one of her own sons.

In May of 2005, her body gave in to its ongoing deterioration, and at age 93, she died. We miss her still, this remarkable woman who bore and reared nine healthy, fully functional children, who enjoyed without reservation all 21 of her grandchildren and many great-grandchildren, who accepted me into her family readily and lovingly. We miss her still.

Stroke. It can kill quickly or slowly. For the lucky ones, it is a temporary set-back. “Luck” often requires speed in diagnosis and treatment. We all need to know the signs of stroke and what to do if we suspect it.

To identify possible stroke in someone else, use the F.A.S.T. acronym.

Face: Ask the person to smile. Check to see if one side of the face droops.
Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. See if one arm drifts downwards.
Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Check to see if the words are slurred and the sentence is repeated correctly.
Time: If the person exhibits any of these symptoms, time is essential. It is important to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Call 9-1-1. Act FAST.

How can we prevent stroke? The National Institutes of Health provides stroke information that includes risk factors. These include
High blood pressure or hypertension
Cigarette smoking
Heart disease
Warning signs or history of TIA or stroke
Cholesterol imbalance
Physical inactivity or obesity

See your doctor for assessment of your risk.

A stroke is also known as a Cerebral Vascular Accident, but it is rarely an accident. The underlying conditions that contribute to risk may be present for years before a stroke. Know your risks and manage them where you can. Know the symptoms to help those around you, as well as yourself. Speed in diagnosis and treatment during or immediately after a stroke is essential.

Who is that guy?

He was handsome, with round blue eyes and dark thick lashes, his ready smile showing off his straight teeth. Time after time I saw him in the cafeteria line, and I was curious about his presence with college-aged students, his age outside the norm. He was dressed too casually to be faculty or staff, but my limited imagination didn’t help me answer the question: who is that guy?

All of nineteen, I was still a kid that summer. I was unmotivated and adrift, in college with no purpose, not in danger of going under, but riding the surface, swept by currents I couldn’t master. Summer school and the university job I held were just a means to bide my time, until what, I didn’t know.

The cafeteria was a broad expanse, pale linoleum floor underneath, long rows of tables end to end. Finding friends and acquaintances in the room was easier than one might think, as there was little to impede the view from one side of the big room to the other.

At lunch one early July day I found and sat with my friend Dan, one of the resident assistants in the dorm attached to the dining hall. “Who is that guy?” I asked, gesturing to the man twenty feet away from me. Dan looked that way.

“Don’t you know Jim?”

I shook my head. “Who is he?” I repeated.

“He’s on my floor,” he said to me, before hollering down the table, “Hey Jim!” Jim turned our way. “Hey Jim, have you met Melanie?”

Jim shook his head and smiled at me, waving hello.

A high school science teacher, Jim was in the first summer of a three-year masters program and was living on campus, the cheapest and most convenient housing for students like him. His real home was an apartment more than three hours away.

We got acquainted quickly after that, falling in love faster than good sense dictated. We ate pizza and drank beer and necked in the garden next to the biology building. We watched the Perseids meteor shower and walked around the pond, camped in the state park, rolled hedge apples. We listened to Bob Seger and James Taylor and dreamed of the day we could be together every day, not just five days a week for another five weeks.

I told my mother I’d fallen in love, something I expect she’d heard before. I told her about the two pretty little girls, ten and eight years old, and she told me it was foolish to get involved. It wasn’t the only bad advice she ever gave me.

Today we celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary. Recently someone asked how much of that had been happy. The question dumbfounded me. “Almost all of it,” I said.

I’ve heard other people answer that question other ways. Despite our age difference, despite the fact we weren’t an obvious couple, despite our differing interests, we have the important things in common. Our values are similar, our sense of humor is similar, we appreciate the same activities, the same aesthetics. He could always make me laugh. So yes, almost all of it has been happy.

We still eat pizza and drink beer and neck in the garden, walk around the pond, watch for meteors, and roll hedge apples. We listen to more blues and jazz now than pop and rock. We still love our pretty little girls, with children of their own, and our son and his fiancee.

Today we celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary. What would have happened if I hadn’t asked Dan, “Who is that guy?” What would have happened if we hadn’t been so foolish, he to get involved with a nineteen-year-old girl, me to get involved with a man who already had two children?

Today we celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary. I love you, Jim. I’m ready for 32 more.

My Youngest Brother is Gay

How I See It

I was raised in a large family on this farm in the mid-west. It was a great place to grow up with two older brothers, four older sisters, and two younger brothers. There is a twenty year spread in our ages. Dad worked the farm. Mom worked the house and us kids. We were raised to be true to the Catholic church. Eat no meat on Friday, regular confession, fast before church, take regular communion, receive all the sacraments at the proper time. Those were the rules we followed without question. We were smart and happy most of the time. We did well in school and never gave our parents undue grief. Almost never.

We lived a variety of life experiences. Some of us completed college. Some never went. Eight are legally married. Seven have children. Seven are politically conservative. Six are practicing Catholics. One is a fundamentalist christian and…

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The commissioning quilt

by Melanie in IA

Last Saturday evening, our son became an officer in the United States Air Force. I wrote this post about his journey to that point. My essay, “Flyers,” is another look from a different direction. He spent many years getting ready for that moment, and he worked especially hard the last three years.

We celebrated his achievements and the commencement of his career with family time, graduation, a party, and the commissioning ceremony. For four days the house was full with family. Our son, our daughters and their husbands and seven children, and we squeezed into our home. Son’s fiancee and other family and friends came by, also. To get ready, we baby-proofed the house to protect the kids from all of my sewing tools and equipment. And we house-proofed to protect the house from the kids!

For the party I baked dozens of cookies, as did the nearby daughter. I made double chocolate ones, as well as peanut butter cookies and lemon cookies! She made chocolate chip, chocolate with macadamia nuts, and chocolate with mint m&ms! The rest of the party food was catered by a local grocery.

While I was in the midst of getting the house ready and preparing food, I decided to do one more project. Before putting away all my sewing equipment, I pulled four fabrics to make a quick quilt.

Part of the tradition of the commissioning ceremony is that of the new officer’s first salute from an enlisted airman. Son had asked a friend, Steve, to honor him with his first salute. Steve lives in Seattle, WA, and they had worked together during the summer Son interned at Boeing. Steve enthusiastically provided Son with his impressions of the Air Force. As a military retiree, he had spent more than 20 years serving.

I asked Son if he wanted me to make a quilt for Steve, to thank him for flying 2,000 miles and taking part in the occasion. Son said, “No.” But I did, anyway.

It was a crazy plan: start a quilt on May 8 and finish by a week later. I had a pattern in mind, and the fabrics chosen that morning. And with that, I made four large Ohio stars, each 15″. Once sashed and with a pieced border, they made a quilt finishing at 54″ square.

To see the quilt and learn more, click here


by Melanie in IA

The years jumble in my mind, some years of soul-lifting joy, others of great sorrow, pain, or stress. They look like baseball cards with the year on top instead of the player’s name, a couple of images, a few stats, the cards all tumbled out of their box, out of order. Fifty-one years, 51 cards, all out of order. The stats have smudged and run, lines of text fallen off and out of place. I sort through carefully, delicately moving the text back onto the correct cards, sorting, taking in the images again.

Just like with any box of baseball cards, many of them seem ordinary, others distinguished. Cards from my adulthood, 1980, ’81, ’88, ’92, … Mom appears on some of these cards and then she is gone, 1997 the last.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom, the memories jumbled, the pain and sorrow, some joy. She died in 1997 but she spent many years disappearing, fading from view. I had so little of her, not just now, not just that she died “too soon” at age 65, but even while she was alive. I had so little of her.

When I was still a child I had some time with her. As the youngest of five children, I was the one left who was willing to go to the grocery with her, willing to shop for fabric for the costumes she made for community theatre. She taught me about the different weaves, satin, damask, homespun, taffeta, chiffon… Many of my happy memories are laced with these shopping trips.

She taught us core values of how to treat other people, teaching us real courtesy, not just manners. We learned industriousness from her example, and we all have a creative streak fed by her as well. She worked, and worked hard, child support meager, never enough to meet the needs. Creative and resourceful, she made do as well as she could, taking on homes that needed a lot of repair and doing it herself, the plumbing and carpentry and electrical work; refinishing cast off furniture; making our clothes herself; shopping at thrift shops and discount stores. Her determination always allowed us to live better than our income would have implied.

But she was not a great mother by any means, very hands-off in her parenting. There were few questions about school, homework, friends. As I grew older there were few checks on my whereabouts, no curfew, no constraints. We did not talk about my high school class schedule, my first jobs, my first serious boyfriend. We did not talk about dreams, goals, ambitions, college. I don’t know if she was simply so confident that I would figure it all out, or if it didn’t occur to her that she had something valuable to add.

Once I left for college (chosen on my own, applied for on my own, securing housing on my own) I would talk to her about once a week, if I called home. She never called me. If I needed money those first two years, she would send a check in a plain security envelope, usually with no note.

I met Jim when I was 19 and left school after another semester, marrying him the next fall. Jim and I planned our modest wedding; Jim and I paid for it. She was younger when we married than I am now.

Mom, 1981 at Jim’s and my wedding.

The next 16 years of her life were increasingly difficult. The recession and high interest rates at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s led to economic problems, her job dependent on the housing industry. She was an alcoholic, perhaps had been all along, but the disease took more of her over time.

In 1988 we experienced a family tragedy, a crime that further rent her fragile fabric. It was a difficult year in many ways, one of those “distinguished” baseball cards with stats that told stark stories. My father’s lymphoma diagnosis, the tragedy, concerns about both daughters, the birth of my son. She came to stay with us for a week after my son was born. I never had that much time with her again.

When Son was an infant, occasionally I would take him on an outing to a local mall. Seeing the other young moms with their own mothers, made me sad knowing I would never have time with her in such a casual way. We would never get to know each other the way these women did, languidly strolling the long mall aisles, window shopping and chatting.

She loved family gatherings with my siblings, our spouses and children, my step-father. Occasionally even my father would join us and was welcome. The happiness spread across her face, lighting it with the smile you see on the photo above. But the gatherings happened only at Christmas. Bringing us together for other reasons, or for no reason, was not something considered.

Her health continued to deteriorate, depression feeding the alcoholism feeding the depression. Liver damage, heart damage, ultimately leading to her death in 1997. Over the 16 years since our wedding, she had aged at least 30.

I had so little of her. She shared so little of herself. Early her parenting style was hands-off, though she had so much to give. Later she had nothing left she could afford to give away.

I think of her a lot lately. My own parenting style also is rather hands-off. Weeks can go by without communicating significantly with my own children. Holding my emotions and thoughts close, I do not share. I am confident in their abilities; I doubt that I can add anything of value; I worry about intruding on their precious time in their own busy lives.

But I wonder, do they doubt how much I love them, the way I sometimes doubted my mother’s love? Do they know how awed I am, amazed at their competence, their generosity, their energy and wit? Do they know I sometimes weep realizing how fortunate I am to be part of their lives?

The generations of baseball cards stack up with important stats for years I was married, when Son was born, when the girls got married, when their children were born. There will be more stats, more images added, more jumbled memories that will need to be moved gently back to the right cards. If she were alive, this year’s card would show 80 years since her birth. But my mother will be not be on it. She will be on none of them. For her I dig through the pile and try to bring up the happy images and memories from old cards, sorting them back into place.

There are few with her on them. I had so little of her.