Encounters in a Room

futureI sit across from you in the same room and wonder what it is you are doing. You seem to be intently staring at a slim metal box that lights up both your the area and your face when you set it on your lap and lift the lid. I hear the sound of your fingers tapping in a regular cadence on the surface of the object that is so strange to me. Sometimes I detect sounds coming from where you are sitting but nobody else it there so I don’t understand who is making them. I wish you would sit closer to me so that I might discover what it is that has so captured your attention.

I’m very old and you treat me well. I like the way you smile whenever you glance at me. I enjoy the feel of your hand gently caressing me. I’ve overheard you telling people to take care of me even after you are gone. I appreciate that and I hope that I will be as loved by the next person who takes me to their home as have been by you.

You remind me of a girl I knew long ago. She had the same features as you and she too appreciated me. Back then I was able to do more. I had not yet become as fragile as I am now. I was flawlessly beautiful. Now there are dark spots on my countenance and visible cracks and breaks in my once strong stature. I’ve heard it said that I have grown fine with age but I wish that you might have seen what I once was just as the girl was able to do.

I knew her mother Christina first. I helped Christina and made her smile for a time but she became busy with her family and her endless chores. She had little time to even notice me, but the girl never forget me. When she grew into a woman she took me with her to a new home where we got to know each other better.

I liked to watch her sewing quilts and creating intricate embroidery patterns on tablecloths. She sat humming contentedly as her fingers fashioned magic out of cloth. She was such a sweet and gentle soul and I enjoyed being with her. She and I understood each other, so I was both surprised and a bit worried when she asked you to care for me in her stead. I wasn’t sure how that would work because you were so young and hardly even looked at me.

For a long time I felt lonely and abandoned and then one day you were no longer a child, but a woman with a voice like hers and a face that was more kind than beautiful. You gave me one of the best rooms in the house and came to visit with me every single day unless you were off traveling somewhere. I never spoke to you but I wanted to tell you so much about Christina and the girl. I have a sense that you would like my stories about them if only I were able to tell them. Sadly I do not know exactly how to begin nor do I even have the voice to do so.

Christina’s house was in the woods. The lights that she had were not like yours. They were dim and smelled of candle wax and oil. She hardly ever sat quietly contemplating like you do. I’m fairly certain that she was unable to read. She was a hardy soul who did what she had to do without complaint. Her life was what it was and she was content.

The girl on the other hand worried a great deal. She seemed to dwell on the possibility of tragedy overtaking her life. Maybe that is because it so often did. She was quite young when her first husband died leaving her to raise her children alone in a time when there wasn’t much likelihood of a woman earning a decent living. Even after she met your grandfather she brooded incessantly but she always smiled when she saw me. I hope I reminded her of the times when she was still carefree and both of us were still young.

It broke my heart to see how damaged she was by her son’s death. He was her pride and joy. She never really mended after that. Maybe that’s why she sent me to you. Perhaps she felt that I would be living in a happier place and she not longer had it in her to pretend that all was well. Maybe she merely sensed that something was wrong long before anyone diagnosed her cancer. Anyway she somehow wisely knew that you would be good to me. It’s been quite nice sharing your home with you.

Some people might only see me as an object, and an old one at that. You have never treated me that way. You have always understood that I am an important part of your history and so you cherish me even though I am a shadow of what I once was.

I sit across from you on the wooden secretary that is almost as old as I am. I am silent when I so wish to speak. I once was at the center of family life as I held water or milk for lovely meals. The roses painted on my white porcelain finish were as bright and colorful as the life that I lived back then. Now I am antique whose value lies not in what I do, but in my age. I am confused by a world so different from the one in which I first lived. Times have changed and I do not always understand what is happening around me. It is only because you seem to appreciate me that I feel safe and loved. I am a pitcher, a container, a repository of the love and laughter, sorrow and hard times through which I have existed. Like Christina and the girl you too are now part of who I am. I only hope that one day someone like you will still want me. Perhaps it will be one of those boys or girls to whom you have introduced me. I hope so.

Personal Bests

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In spite of our best efforts to the contrary much of life becomes a competition. We observe from a young age that winning not only sometimes brings us personal joy but often defines us as someone worthy of notice. We are cautioned to be individuals and to follow our own purposes and beliefs but somehow we find ourselves trapped in comparisons over and over again. We hear that learning is more important than grades but are then ranked in an insidiously rigid fashion. We strive to quietly live moral purpose driven lives but watch louts and bullies being lauded as great people for accumulating wealth. We hear that accomplishment should be measured by how well we manage to take responsibility for our own personal outcomes in life but equate it with money and power instead. So what is this thing that we call success and how do we measure it? Who attains it and who does not? Why do we draw comparisons for something that should be so personal?

A strict definition of success describes it as attainment of a goal, a eureka moment when we use our resources to achieve a desired outcome. From a developmental standpoint it should be founded on a personal aim that is attainable with a bit of effort. It’s not a simple idea to define with preconceived standards. For someone suffering from depression the mere act of getting out of bed, dressing and attempting to seize the day can be daunting. Making it from hour to hour without giving up takes sheer determination and yet we rarely credit anyone who engages regularly in such struggles with the badge of accomplishment.

To think that each of us is born with exactly the same set of abilities is absurd and yet we often act as though we are. Some children come to school with intellects so keen that they barely need to pay heed to their teachers while others are riddled with learning difficulties that make achieving benchmarks painfully hard. We heap praise on the naturally gifted and dismiss the child who plods along as being irritatingly slow. Even our universities that are filled with professors who should know better award coveted spots on their rosters to those who excel on one time tests rather than basing such decisions on traits like grit.

Within the small communities of our individual lives we laud the person who accumulates wealth or titles but rarely commend the person who chooses a path of quiet service. We don’t think to equate the torturous act of overcoming an addiction with success on a job, and yet the personas who free themselves from subservience to deadly habits are as courageous as war heroes. Our society honors the women who excel in the world of work but overlook those who devote their lives to the care of family and community. Was my grandmother who taught eight children how to be upstanding citizens any less than a woman who decide to run for President?

Defining success is a tangled web of contradictions and questions that are not easy to answer. In our hearts we know that it is never just about a one size fits all definition. There are many versions of achievement that cannot be measured by preconceived notions of what that means. My grandfather spoke broken English, had little more than a sixth or seventh grade education, and lived in what would be defined as poverty for all of his life and yet it would be unwise to view him as someone who accomplished little. Indeed in might be argued that he was a giant of a man, someone of amazing attainment.

Grandpa found a way to escape the demeaning oppression of his native Slovakia. He worked and saved to bring his bride to freedom as well. His children attested to his never ending work ethic, noting that he never once missed a day on the job at a meat packing plant in spite of pains in his legs that made standing all day long a torture. With a ridiculously low income he paid for and owned his home. He kept his family fed and safe during the Great Depression. He sent his children to school and taught them to be loyal and productive individuals. Most of his neighbors viewed him as little more an outsider who spoke with broken English and struggled to keep his family afloat.

I see him as the successful man that he was. With no financial help from anyone he carved out a life for himself and his family in a land that was not always kind to him. He went to his job each and every day without complaint and worked hard while he was there. His children were sheltered from rain and cold each night and went to bed with food in their bellies. He raised them to love God and country and to be honest and productive. There is little more honorable and outstanding that any man might do. He was a great success.

My grandparents’ children became successful in their own right. Their children raised the bar even more and their children continue to push themselves to reach goals in athletics, science, mathematics, engineering, medicine, education and business. They have overcome handicaps and realized dreams that began with a man who was unnoticed by the world in which he lived. Such is the stuff of true success and reaching it is not a matter of some artificial measure, but the reality of day by day determination until each personal best is achieved. 

No Greater Love

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I have known great love. I have witnessed great love. I have wondered why some people appear to find their soulmates and others struggle to discover that thing that we call true love. I am a reader of fairy tales but I learned when I was still quite young that life is almost always more complicated than stories with happy endings. I thought my mother and father were madly in love and I am rather sure that they were, but I also know that they fought with one another from time to time. I watched an aunt and uncle divorce and then remarry as though they could not quite decide if being together was right for them. I have cradled a friend whose heart was broken by someone that she believed would love her forever. I have only recently felt the pain of a cousin who lost his first and only love of over sixty years. Love is wonderful until it hurts.

Young people ask me how one knows if love is real. That’s a question almost impossible to answer. I usually tell them to consider how being with a certain person generally makes them feel. If they time with another leave them happy they are on the right track. If that individual makes them relax and laugh the signs are good. If it seems as though they have finally found their best friend, they may be in for a promising future, but they have to think about the words of the wedding vows very carefully because it is almost certain the there will be better and worse, richer and poorer, health and sickness in a long term commitment.

Sometimes we just don’t know how the person with whom we want to spend our lives will react to difficulties. I will never forget what my grandfather taught me about love when my grandmother was dying of cancer. He never left her side. He depleted his savings. He fulfilled her every need until she drew her last breath. He was patient and kind. He pretended to be stronger than he actually felt. Sadly I have also observed people who were torn apart by an extended illness. I knew a woman whose husband told her that he had to leave because her mental problems were too hard to watch. I find myself wondering if such weakness is there all along but goes unnoticed until problems arise.

I enjoy a good love story but I hate the ones based on superficiality. We do first notice someone based more on appearances that anything deep, but true love can’t stay that way. We all grow older and frankly less attractive than we once were. We should be able to become ever closer because we are able to see the true beauty inside the person that we have promised to love not just for a time, but forever. Sometimes we have to work a bit to keep that spark alive.

One of my dearest friends had a weekly date night, For years she and her husband went out together every Thursday evening. They hired a babysitter to watch their children, they dressed up, they had dinner and talked about things other than the kids, their jobs, the family finances. They made their outing a top priority of each week and sometimes added weekend getaways to their celebration of life together. They were still flirting with each other decades after they had married.

I have learned how to love from observing and listening to those who seemed to have the meaning of commitment figured out. I suppose I’ll never forget Mike’s Aunt Elise coming to check on on her husband when he was doing some work at our house. She was concerned about his heart so she asked us to “take care of her Bobby.” I’ll always remember that the very last thing that Mike’s mother did before she had a stroke that led to her death was hug Mike’s dad and declare her love for him. Even after decades together these women still made their feelings known. We would be wise to follow their example. Love is something to be celebrated and declared often.

People don’t always agree about everything, not even those who are madly in love. It’s critical to the health of the relationship that no one person dominates the other. Whether it be politics or religion or philosophies each one should have the freedom to believe as they wish. Respect is a needed factor in forging a long term partnership. I suppose that I treasure my independence more than anything else and my husband has always honored my thoughts even when he disagreed with them. It has meant everything to me to know that our love is not dependent on either one of us bowing to the other. We are a team but we are still individual.

So what is the bottom line? Love is wonderful and worth the hard work needed to keep it alive. It requires not just trust but trustworthiness. It flourishes best when each partner supports the other with understanding but not at the expense of quashing individual dreams. It may be painful at times so it’s a good idea to create fun to balance the duties that arise. It is about regularly honoring the promises made to one another.

One of the most beautiful love stories that I have ever heard is about a classmate of mine who seemed to actually be living a fairytale existence with his wife. He was handsome and she was gorgeous. When they danced together it was magical. Their life together was like sunshine and roses until one day when she was injured in a horrible car accident that left her brain injured and her body confined to a wheelchair. She would never completely recover and her care would require that she live in a nursing home. All the while he never abandoned her, instead visiting regularly and devoting himself to her well-being. There is no love greater love than this. If we want the real thing we have to be willing to be like him. 

Where Did I Put Those Glasses?

glassesI am still able to pass my driver’s test without the aid of glasses. When I drive I have no difficulty reading the signs and keeping an eye out for problems on the road. When it comes to reading however I’m as blind as a bat. Without the aid of magnification I’m as blind as a bat. Everything on a written page literally looks like a barcode making me think of that poor fellow in an episode of The Twilight Zone who after becoming the last human on earth consoles himself with the thought that he will just read all of the books in the library until his own demise. He’s actually looking forward to living alone and having unfettered time to enjoy his favorite hobby of reading. He gathers a stack of volumes with the intent of settling down with the company of good stories when he drops his glasses and hears them shatter. The look on his face when he realizes that his situation is hopeless has stayed in my mind since I first saw that heartbreaking story.

Back then my eyes were like those of a hawk. I had no trouble with eyesight and never considered that I might one day require some kind of assistance just to be able to read a label. I first noticed difficulty discerning letters on a page when I was in my forties studying for my masters degree, In between the reading for my job and the additional load for my classes my eyes were in a constant state of fatigue. Before long I realized that I was continually squinting and holding things as far away as my arms were able to reach just to make out the print. I knew I needed to submit to seeing a doctor to find out what was happening.

I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that I had become farsighted. The doctor prescribed the lenses that I would need and I purchased a rather expensive pair of glasses that made all of my problems disappear. Unfortunately I had to remove my eyewear for all of my regular activities save for reading, so I was continually misplacing them. Not having grown up with poor eyesight made it challenging to remember to keep my glasses at hand. Eventually I lost them somewhere and given what I had spent on them I was reluctant to rush out to replace them. Instead I tried on some reading glasses at the drug store until I found a pair that made everything clear again.

I’ve never spent more than twenty dollars on my lenses but I’ve learned from experience that I can’t be foolish enough to depend on a single pair. I’ve noted that they often have a tendency to break so I carry a little repair kit, but my biggest problem is leaving them somewhere and not knowing where it was that I set them down. Now I have additional pairs of glasses stashed everywhere in case of an emergency. I’m not about to be like that poor man who for all intents and purposes became blind because his source of eyesight was destroyed.

I’ve tried a number of remedies for keeping track of those devilish pairs of eyewear that seem intent on hiding from me. I’ve tried to wear them on a chain or a leather tether around my neck but they get in the way and detract from the overall look of my fashion. Besides I suppose that they think they make me look like an old lady as if nobody would otherwise notice that I am seventy one years old. “Vanity thy name is Sharron.”

I once purchased a cute little pin that allowed me to wear my glasses on my lapel whenever they weren’t on my face. That system didn’t look half bad but the critters somehow fell off without my noticing and left me in a real pickle when I needed them. I’ve found the best defense is to always have an heir and a spare at hand so most of the time I have glasses strategically posted in various rooms of the house, in my purse, inside my car and even in our travel trailer. I won’t go on a long trip without having extra pairs just in case. In spite of my best efforts I somehow I still find myself seeking a store where I might replace the ones that have somehow escaped from me. I usually end up paying far more for the new glasses than I would otherwise do because I am desperate and can’t actually see what they cost before I buy them.

I suppose that the day will eventually come when I will need to wear bifocals or some such thing. Then I will have to keep up with my eyewear all of the time. I’m hoping that having to wear them during all of my waking hours will do the trick but I worry that I won’t be as vigilant as my husband who gets by with his single pair of glasses with no trouble whatsoever. When I think of how often I misplace my phone I feel certain that I will somehow find a way to lose even a pair of glasses that I am supposed to wear all day long.

Wrinkles on my skin and aches in my knees are just a couple of reminders that I am growing old. So far I’ve been able to push back on becoming less and less energetic but my eyes remind me that time will take its toll in spite of my denial. Of late I’ve had to wear my glasses when cleaning so that I don’t miss dirt and grime that fades away without benefit of magnification. I worry about becoming like my grandmother who shortly before her death no longer noticed that her milk had curdled or that a foreign object was in her food.

Pride goeth before the fall. I suppose it’s time to make regular appointments with an ophthalmologist and maybe even purchase some bonafide glasses with a spare to be certain that I never lose the remarkable gift of sight. For now though I’m doing quite well with the cheap pairs that have become regular features wherever I go. For the time being I’m trying to remember where I put the brand new ones that I recently purchased. I suppose I should go look for them.     

A Treasure Trove

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There is no telling what might lie inside the folds of a woman’s purse, particularly when it is a rather large one. In my own case a handbag becomes a repository for all sorts of “just in case” provisions. Of course I carry the usual suspects regularly like wallet, phone, keys, reading glasses. For quick trips I don’t need much more than that, but if I’m going to be away from home for a time I need to include some ibuprofen just in case my knees begin to ache or I feel the threat of a migraine. I almost always need a comb to rearrange my fine hair that blows into a kind of bird’s nest at the slightest provocation from wind. I generally include a pair of sunglasses to shade my eyes from the bright rays of the sun and then there’s a tube of lipstick to brighten my countenance after a long day.

In truth I prefer the “less is more” version of packing a purse these days. It’s uncomfortable to lug a heavy load around as I do my errands. I find myself cleaning out extraneous items more and more often but when I was younger my purse was akin to a hardware store. I never left home without a repair kit for my classes and a sewing kit to men loose buttons or an unexpected tear in my clothing. I carried a little notebook for writing down things that I wanted to remember or lists of things that I needed. I toted tiny cans of hairspray and a little pouch filled with first aid items. I’d bring along my checkbook and a supply of pencils and pens. In winter I included gloves and chapstick. If the purse was large enough I might even bring a book or my laptop. Like a girl scout I was ready for virtually anything.

When I was still a fledgling mom I’d have toys and bags of snacks inside my purse, maybe even little bottles of water or milk. I’d bring extra changes of clothing for the little ones just in case of an accident. My bag was like a magician’s prop, holding anything that would feed or entertain my girls. There was no telling what may lie inside.

I used to go to the movies with my mom. She was from the old school when twenty five cents got her a ticket and a little snack. The ever rising prices of things astounded her and so she found ways to save on the cost of entertainment by getting me to hide candy and such in my purse. In between her own handbag and mine we were able to bring in some rather amazing things. On one occasion she asked me to stow away some fried chicken and two cans of Coke in the folds of my handbag while she smuggled in homemade popcorn. I have to admit that there was something rather exciting about the adventure of it all and we no doubt had the best food of anyone in the theater.

After 9/11 it became less and less acceptable or advisable to carry half of a household inside a purse. I’ve lost cans of hairspray, pocket knives, nail clippers and all sorts of things during searches. I’ve learned to carefully check the contents of my purse before leaving home lest I lose something that I value. Some places insist on clear bags or pocketbooks so small that only the most essential items will fit. I don’t grumble too much because it’s all in the name of safety but I sometimes worry that I’ll get caught short in an emergency situation.

I honestly don’t know how men get by with only pockets to hold their essentials. I suppose it works because their clothing is made quite differently. I have few outfits with sewn in pouches large enough to carry even the most basic things that I need whenever I leave home. My keys would take up most of the room and my phone would undoubtedly fall out of my jeans and trousers. My dresses have no compartments at all. To eliminate purses the fashion designers would have to rethink the way they make women’s clothing. It would be revolutionary and perhaps not so popular among the ladies.

I’m a fan of nice purses but I draw the line after a certain price. I’ve been in stores where the handbags cost more than my refrigerator, and while they are lovely I can’t imagine making such an investment in an item that I will probably want to replace within a year. Besides, I don’t want to be lugging something around that makes me a target for thieves.

My favorite purse of all time was one that my husband bought for me in Estes Park, Colorado. We found it in a little shop called Craftsmen in leather. The owner designed and made each handbag with magnificent skill. It was a thing of beauty that I treasured and it lasted far longer than any such item that I have ever owned. Sadly a leaky ink pen did a number on it one day, damaging the color and suppleness of the leather. When I returned to the little shop in hopes of replacing it with a new one, I learned that the man who had so lovingly crafted fine objects had retired and sold the place to new owners. The newer proprietors had kept the name of the store but filled it with horrid manufactured pieces that did not come close to the quality that I longed to find. I still dream of one day finding another purse like that one on ebay.

I suppose that like most women I enjoy a cute and comfortable pair of shoes and a nicely made purse but these days I find that I am more and more able to fit whatever I think I may need into a smaller and smaller parcel. I’ve lightened the weight on my shoulder and opted more and more for practicality. Still, there is nothing like a truly fine purse. It creates a kind of signature for an outfit and helps to define a woman’s personality. Even better is that looking inside of it can a be a real treasure hunt.