Category Archives: My life
Last October, as the pandemic dragged on, my mother-in-law passed away.
She was 87 years-old and had been in poor health for a while, so I wasn’t surprised. At the same time, I was very surprised. Maggie was larger than life to me. She was unique, quirky, and completely different than my own mother. She was also the best mother-in-law I could have ever asked for.
Because of the circumstances, and because my husband and his siblings are private about such matters, only our family and friends were informed. There wasn’t even an obituary.
But today is our first Mother’s Day without her, and I couldn’t let it pass without paying tribute to the feisty woman who I credit for raising the man I married.
If this were an actual obituary, I’d be expected to provide the basic facts about Maggie that anyone could find on a genealogy site. I might even sprinkle in a few of her significant accomplishments. But a traditional obituary isn’t fitting for a woman like Maggie. Besides, the only interesting nugget from her early life, which I find incredibly entertaining, is the fact that, according to my husband, she once won a beauty pageant. She’ll probably start haunting me now for even making that public knowledge.
My husband tells me that his mom changed quite a bit from when he was a child to the time when I first met her. She wasn’t even called Maggie until all of her children were grown. My brother-in-law, Keith, started calling her that, and the name stuck. Growing up, she was called Marge, and, at some point, was dubbed Muff after Little Miss Muffet, apparently because she was so tiny. I don’t get the connection, but I wasn’t around back in the 1950’s either.
She never told me she was called Muff. I found out when I was attending a large meeting when we still lived in Charleston. I was sitting next to another Grand Dame, Helaine Rotgin. Maggie had worked on Helaine’s campaign for the WV State Legislature in the 1970’s, and Helaine was quite fond of her. As we waited for the meeting to start, Helaine turned to me and loudly yelled (yes, she yelled as she was getting hard of hearing)”How is Muff?” Everyone stopped and stared at me. All I could say was, “fine?” Only later did I get an explanation.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Maggie had supported Helaine, who was a die-hard democrat, and to my knowledge, the first Jewish woman in the WV Legislature. Maggie herself was a die-hard Democrat. Shortly after Trump was elected and Maggie was still living on her own, I stopped by to visit while on a business trip in Charleston. She proudly showed me the Obama button she still wore every day “just to piss people off.” She was addicted to MSNBC and spent the last few years of her life raging against Trump. Unfortunately, she died when he was still president. I can only imagine how joyful she would have been about the Biden inauguration.
But Maggie, didn’t just watch television. Up until the last couple of years of her life, she was a voracious reader. I actually met her at the bookstore where she worked for years, and I didn’t leave the store empty handed. She picked out several books that, according to her, I “had to read.” That pattern continued for decades, and I spent many hours on the phone talking to Maggie about books. Her recommendations were always stellar.
Other than reading, Maggie’s favorite hobby was going to thrift stores before thrifting was cool. She had a talent for finding the coolest clothes and jewelry then gifting them to just the right person. Generally, her gifts were random as she wasn’t one for dedicating time and energy to celebrating holidays, with the exception of Halloween. I’ll never forget taking my then three- year-old son to her house for Halloween to find her dressed up as Eminem. No that’s not a mistake. She wasn’t dressed as M&M candies. She was dressed as Eminem the rapper.
That wasn’t the only time Maggie left me speechless. My husband and I had just started dating when Maggie struck up a friendship with her neighbor, a flaming gay guy at least thirty years her junior. I adored their friendship, but I became worried when he convinced her to start breaking into empty houses that were for sale just to “have a look around.” Thankfully, they were never caught and arrested.
Don’t get me wrong. Maggie was far from a criminal. In fact, she spent a good part of her life caring for her others. In addition to raising three children, she took care of her sister for years. She also cared for both of my children after they were born. In fact, she and my son had a bond that I never experienced with my own grandparents. Of course, the fact that he could cuss around her and she would cuss right back probably helped cement their relationship,
My children were her only grandchildren, and she adored them. My husband and I must have been arguing one of the only times I witnessed her get angry with him. “Trina will always be right,” she said. “She gave birth to my grandchildren, so I will always side with her.”
Oh how, I loved that woman.
As I as writing this, my husband walked in and asked what I was doing.
“I’m writing about your mom,” I said. “You know she’d hate that,” he replied.
He was right. Maggie would hate it. But she also deserves it.
The conversation with the two strangers started with a puppy. It was an adorable, soft, fluffy, three-month old Husky with bright blue eyes that drew me to it like… well… like any dog draws me to it.
In all honesty, it could have been a mangy mutt, and I would still have stopped my bike ride to say hi. I do, after all, always carry dog treats when I am out riding my bike.
The puppy was trying to catch a quick nap while the person on the other end of its leash was engaged in conversation with a woman working in her yard. I interrupted the conversation to first ask if I could pet the puppy and then to ask all of the important questions about the puppy.
Neither the puppy’s owner nor the woman with whom he was speaking seemed to mind. In fact, their interest turned from the puppy to me.
“How far do you ride?”
“Where do you ride?”
“Don’t you think some of those roads are dangerous?”
The last question prompted a discussion about how some people can be complete jerks.
“Someone once threw a whole cup of iced tea out of their car window at me,” I told them. “It hurt because it was hurtling from a moving car, and I know it was sweetened because it was so sticky.”
“Yeah,” the guy said, “People can be real jerks. I was out jogging once, and someone yelled then through a raw egg at me. It hit me right in the chest.”
We were all silent for a moment before he said, “I had to just turn the other way. There’s no point in confronting people like that. It just makes the situation worse.”
We continued to talk about how confronting angry and rude people isn’t worth the effort. What none of us mentioned, or even acknowledged, was that the stakes were different for the the man.
That’s because the other woman and I were white. The man was black.
If the conversation had been with friends or even acquaintances, we would have addressed the issue of race. But when the man mentioned having the egg thrown at him, I didn’t ask if he thought the perpetrators were racist. When he said he didn’t engage with hateful people because he might land in jail if he got in a fight, I just nodded. And when he said that his wife doesn’t want him to let the dog out at night because the neighbors had threatened to call the police if it barked, I joked that all my neighbors have dogs that bark.
I didn’t raise the issue of racism, but I could feel it hanging in the air like a storm cloud full of rain. And even though it was obviously there – heavy and dark -we acted as though it didn’t exist.
I felt as though raising the issue would be akin to handing each of them a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker only to be handed an “all lives matter” one in return. I just didn’t have the emotional fortitude.
The issue of race shouldn’t be political because there should only be one view of it: it shouldn’t exist and when it does, we need to acknowledge and address it.
And yet, just like during my conversation with strangers yesterday, we often dance around racism as if ignoring it will make it go away.
I honestly don’t know that actually raising the issue during that particular conversation with strangers would have been appropriate. What I do know is even though no words were said, it WAS part of the conversation.
And here’s the other thing I know. That puppy? The one that brought us all together for a short period it time? That puppy loved getting attention from all of us and had no concept of race.
Maybe that’s why I like dogs so much.
I was having dinner on a friend’s deck with a group of like-minded women when we got the news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
We all reacted differently even though I’m certain we were all feeling the same way. One of us burst into tears. Another just sat silent while a third stood up and started clearing dishes. Me? I cussed. I cussed because Notorious RBG was a role model and a heroine. I cussed because I know what is at stake. And I cussed because some people I know will see her death more as an opportunity than a reason to mourn.
The following words are for those people: I may like you, but I can’t respect you.
I like you because we might laugh together or share common interests or talk about our children.
But I can’t respect you because your vision of what our country’s future holds for those children isn’t one of diversity and inclusion and equality.
I can’t respect you because you believe your narrow definition of Christianity is the only legitimate religion.
I can’t respect you because you can’t discern the difference between journalism, opinion pieces and fake news.
I can’t respect you because you share information on social media that validates your opinion even if when the information is a complete lie.
I can’t respect you because you support political candidates and listen to pundits who claim that liberals aren’t real Christians.
I can’t respect you because you are a one-or two-issue voter who makes decisions at the ballot box based on dogma rather than on the scope and impact of a variety of policies on people’s day-to-day lives.
I can’t respect you because no matter how many times someone has tried to explain the difference between “gun control” and “taking away your guns,” you choose to listen to propaganda from the NRA,
I can’t respect you because you are voting for politicians who care about money more than they care about the well-being of people.
I can’t respect you because you think patriotism is marked by saluting a flag rather than by honoring the first amendment.
I can’t respect you because you throw around the word socialism when what you are really saying is that you don’t want your tax dollars being used to provide services for people you have decided are “undeserving.”
And most of all, I can’t respect you because you are supporting politicians who have shown general disrespect and even criminal behavior toward women.
I know these words will offend some of you, and now you probably won’t respect me. I don’t care.
I’m 53 years old, and I’ve fought hard to become a strong, opinionated woman who cares about minorities and immigrants and the poor and people of different faiths.
I’m writing this because even though there are a lot of people I don’t respect right now, I couldn’t respect myself if I left these words unsaid.
Also, I’m fairly confident that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would approve.
When I was about five years old, my mother pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter so I could watch what she was doing.
She got a soup bowl out of one cupboard and a container of cornstarch out of another.
“We are going to do a science experiment,” she explained.
She poured the cornstarch into the bowl then slowly added water. When the mixture was exactly the texture she wanted, she told me “stick your finger in until it touches the bottom of the bowl.”
I tried, but the mixture was solid, and my finger didn’t even dent it.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes you can, ” she replied. “Try again.”
I poked at it again with the same results.
“It doesn’t work,” I complained.
“Yes it does. Look.” she said as she put her finger in the bowl. I watch in amazement as what had felt like a rock to me oozed around her finger.
She removed her finger and told me to try again. I did and was once again met with resistance.
“Don’t poke it. Instead just lightly touch it.”
I followed her instructions and was delighted when my finger began to sink into a gooey substance.
I don’t remember if my mom talked about the science behind our experiment, but apparently it had a lasting impact as I’ve been thinking about it recently.
From an early age, my approach to dealing with problems has never been subtle. I’ve been called blunt, forthright and outspoken. I’ve taken in pride in the fact that I always let people know where I stand and, most of the time, exactly what I’m thinking. I’m not good at quietly expressing my thoughts and then letting them soak in while I patiently wait for a response. As my husband knows, when I don’t get a response, I keeping poking until I get one.
Generally, that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, I’m not only getting resistance when I make a stab at addressing a situation, I feel as though every effort is bouncing back and bruising me. I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about that experiment at the kitchen counter with my mother more than 45 years ago.
Maybe my mom was attempting to tell me that sometimes you have to stop trying so hard to make something happen and just need to let the situation unfold. In some circumstances, that may be the right approach.
But here is my other take away from that long ago experiment: when you let things rest and happen at their own pace sometimes all you get is covered in muck.
History tells us that change only happens when people are willing to poke their fingers at the problems and keep poking until they make cracks.
I don’t need muck. I need change.
When I was growing up, my mom baked a cherry pie every February in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The tradition was tied to the story about how, as a child, the first President of the United States chopped a cherry tree with his new hatchet. When his angry father confronted him, young George admitted what he had done because he couldn’t tell a lie.
The story was the basis of many elementary school lessons, and only as an adult did I learn that the story of the cherry tree was itself a lie. Author Mason Locke Weems added it, along with other heartwarming stories, to the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington. Historians believe that Weems included the story to make Washington a virtuous role model that could influence the behavior of children.
He wasn’t alone. The history I learned in school almost always portrayed honorable men who built a perfect country on unquestionable values. In truth, the men were imperfect humans who built this country on the backs of others.
But for more than a century, history was written by people like Parson Weems, who wanted to shape it into a tool that could be used to control what people believed, and therefore how they behaved.
My elementary school classmates and I were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We used crayons to color pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria while reciting “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” No one taught us about the genocide he perpetrated on the people of Haiti.
In Junior High, I had to memorize the presidents of the United States and their accomplishments. I was taught that Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and founded the Democratic Party. I was an adult before I learned how he abused his power to remove Native Americans from their homes and was responsible for what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
In high school, the lessons about World War II covered how America helped defeat Germany and end the Holocaust. There was never any mention about the Japanese internment camps on U.S. soil.
For the most part, what I was taught was factual. It just wasn’t truthful. America may have been established on the principles of equality and freedom, but those principles only applied to white men. When the south tried to leave the United States to preserve slavery and its economy, the Confederate message was clear: equality and freedom weren’t the most important values; power and money were.
As a nation, we are still struggling with those conflicting values.
On Thursday as I was leaving work, a pickup truck stopped in front of my office. A large confederate flag with the handwritten words ‘heritage not hate” was flying from the back. I winced. I wanted to stop and ask what heritage meant to the driver, but I knew that would be pointless.
Some people think they have to hold on to relics of the past to justify their belief system.
Instead, we need to distinguish between erasing the past and learning from it.
We can still eat cherry pie on Washington’s birthday because we like eating cherry pie. We just shouldn’t eat it because we think it makes us more patriotic. Taking care of each other and honoring our true history is the only way to do that.
Nearly fifty years later, I don’t clearly remember my first day of kindergarten, but I know I was miserable and complained that I didn’t fit in.
What I really meant was that I was the only white student in my class.
That didn’t last long.
On the second day of kindergarten, Mike Donahue switched classes and joined mine.
I have a few other memories from that year: sitting on the floor at the feet of an elderly tribe member who taught us her native language; participating in the annual root feast; wearing the wing dress my mom had sewn, and being chased and taunted when I was walking home from school. My tormentors, a group of older children, told me I didn’t belong and I needed to move off of the reservation.
The next year I did. I started first grade in a classroom full of white students like me.
When I was younger, I used to tell people that, because of those experiences, I knew what being a minority felt like and that I had experienced discrimination.
I didn’t and I hadn’t.
When I complained about being the only student with my skin color, my white, well-educated parents stepped in to ensure I had a friend in my class. When I lived in a place with a very different heritage than mine, my professional parents bought a house elsewhere among people with similar backgrounds.
In other words, what I actually experienced as a child was white privilege.
I’m still experiencing it.
I guarantee that no one has ever clutched their purse a bit tighter when they’ve seen me in a parking garage. No one has ever called the police because I look suspicious when I’m walking my dog in their neighborhood. I’ve never been patted down or had my car searched when I’ve been stopped for speeding.
But I have been the person who has clutched her purse a bit tighter when she’s seen a black man in a parking garage.
And I absolutely hate that.
My parents raised me better. They taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin. My education specifically addressed prejudice. I am a licensed social worker whose professional ethics are grounded in fairness and equality. My children and friends, who are all strong advocates for diversity, expect more from me.
And yet, I’ve had those moments when my immediate reaction is to clutch my purse tighter.
Living in a racist society has influenced my reactions, but, I am still responsible for them. I am responsible for acknowledging them and I am responsible for changing them.
America should be too.
I’ve been making a conscious effort to appear as though I’m maintaining my mental health during the past few weeks. But on Friday, I fell apart. I only got out of bed when my puppy Jasper jumped on top of me insisting I pay attention to him.
Paying attention to Jasper always requires getting out of bed.
The rest of the day, my emotions cycled between anger and despair. I was feeling powerless in almost every aspect of my life. And I hate feeling powerless. I’ve always been someone who believes in dealing with problems instead of ignoring them. But confronting the biggest problems in my life hasn’t been working for me lately.
The impact of the new reality of social distancing due to COVID-19 is only partially to blame. The truth is, I’m struggling with a lot of negativity. One particular situation is getting progressively worse, and I’ve been foiled at every attempt to address it.
I loathe the thought that anyone describes me as helpless, but that is exactly how I was feeling yesterday. And since self pity has always been one of biggest pet peeves, feeling that only made me feel even worse.
So I did everything I could to “snap out” of my funk.
I spoke with a couple of friends who encouraged me. I did my best to celebrate my husband’s birthday. I posted silly photos celebrating National Siblings Day on Facebook. I took a couple of long walks. I ate healthy food and took my vitamins. I sent silly text messages. I reviewed the daily devotion I’d committed to read every day for Lent. And I cried. I cried a lot. And then I got mad at myself for crying.
This morning, I woke up to the sun shining and to Jasper once again jumping on me.This time, he didn’t need to drag me out of bed. I was prepared to face the day even though my circumstances were exactly the same as they were yesterday.
I’d like to say that, through some amazing self talk, I’d been able to improve my attitude. But that would be a lie. Instead, I think I needed a day of self pity and crying before I could move on.
That probably goes against the sage advice of any self-help guru. (I don’t know for sure since I’m as resistant to reading self-help books as I am to giving up, giving in or being deferential to people who don’t earn my respect.)
But yesterday, I was absorbed in self pity. And while it felt horrible and went against the essence of whom I like to believe I am, I think my psyche needed to stop fighting. For at least one day, I needed to put down the boxing gloves and just feel the pain of every punch life has been throwing at me lately.
It’s humbling to admit that, but it’s also liberating. I realize that I wasn’t giving up or giving in. I was just giving myself a break.
Life sometimes sucks, and despite our best efforts, we can’t always fix it. Sometimes we can’t laugh our way out of a bad mood or find the silver lining in the grey clouds. Sometimes we just have to hold on tightly while we ride out the crap storm with the understanding that this too shall pass. And it will pass even though it won’t happen as quickly as we’d like.
In such cases, a little self pity might actually be acceptable.
I am writing this on a Saturday that is the punctuation mark on what is perhaps the longest week of my life.
The Covid-19 pandemic has elicited some of the same raw emotions as September 11, 2001. Only instead of witnessing the amount of damage human beings can intentionally do to each other in a matter of hours, this week felt like watching a failed rescue attempt in slow motion. I can see a person standing on railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train. That person is not only oblivious to the danger, but he’s inviting all of his friends to join him. And that scenario repeats itself over and over again.
Because I work at a social service agency, this wasn’t a week of self isolation or working from home. I oversee four offices that provide a variety of programs, including two food pantries. So this was a week of making plans, then changing plans then making new plans. It was a week of worrying about keeping staff safe, and clients safe and volunteers safe. It was a week of witnessing leadership failure and self-serving decision making. It was a week of hearing fear in the voice of a learning-disabled client with autism who had been living in his car when he first arrived at our office. He had finally been able to get his own apartment by working two jobs at two restaurants as a dishwasher. And this week he lost both of those jobs.
All of that was weighing heavily on my mind when I took my energetic puppy Jasper to a local park for a long walk in the woods on Thursday evening. The temperature was unseasonably warm, so a lot of people were taking advantage of one of the few recreational venues still available to us. Several fathers and sons were fishing. Athletes were running around the parameter of the park. Families were walking their dogs. And several people were standing still just listening to the spring peepers.
The tiny frogs were raising their voices to welcome the evening and provide me with a reminder that no matter what is happening in the world, we can always find beauty, peace and comfort among the chaos.
Amid the challenges of this week, family and friends reached out via phone calls not just text messages. Volunteers went beyond the call of duty to make sure our clients received the help they need. My amazing co-workers never complained about the increasing demands on them. When life gets scary, there are always kind people to help navigate it.
The sky was almost dark as Jasper and I finished our walk. As the last person in the park, I stopped for one last time at the edge of the pond. I took out my phone and did my best to capture a short video of the moment. The ducks called to each other as the peepers raised their voices in a joyous chorus.
“It’s okay,” they chimed. “It’s okay.
Every time I think I’ve dealt with the most difficult person I’ve ever met, God laughs. And then another difficult person enters my life.
And every time I’ve struggled with the chaos and hurt that person leaves in his or her wake, I tell myself the same thing: “I’m supposed to learn or gain something from this situation. One day, I will look back and tell myself, ‘Oh that’s why that happened.'”
And up until now, I’ve been right.
But recently, I’ve had a hard time believing myself and in myself. This time, I’m fairly confident that even God isn’t laughing,
You see, I’m dealing with the most narcissistic and manipulative person I have ever met. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump (who I’ve never actually met anyway). However, I still respond when people ask if dealing with this person is like dealing with Donald Trump.
My response is, “it’s worse.”
That’s because most people recognize that Donald Trump is a narcissist. Those who support him obviously don’t care, but at least they recognize who and what he is.
Not so for the individual that I’m currently forced to deal with. In fact, this person is so good at manipulation that I was almost a victim of their false charm and gaslighting.
A part of me wishes I had been.
If so, I wouldn’t be so angry and frustrated, I’ve wasted too much time dealing with the narcissist’s efforts to manipulate. I’ve wasted too much energy being flabbergasted that people in positions to stop the path of destruction actually believe the narcissist instead of those who are complaining. And I’ve lost too much sleep searching the internet for ways to deal with a narcissist.
Unfortunately, all I really learned is that calling out a narcissist only makes the situation worse.
I didn’t have to Google that nugget of information. I learned it the hard way.
That which brings me back to what I’ve always told myself, “Eventually, you will look back on this situation and recognize how much you learned and why you needed to learn it.”
In the meantime, I have to find humor in how ridiculous the situation continues to be and to find solace in the fact that I have a great support system. Just the other day my husband sent me a text message reminding me to channel my inner Stuart Smalley. “You are good enough. Your are smart enough. And doggone it people like you.”
He only forgot one thing, but it didn’t come from the mouth of Stuart Smalley. Instead, it’s from that great philosopher anonymous.
“I’m thankful for all those difficult people in my life. They have shown me exactly who I don’t want to be.”
For the past few month’s, I’ve been feeling like Horton the Elephant in Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Horton Hears a Who.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, the Whos live on a speck of dust that is floating through the air, which means their entire civilization is at risk of being destroyed.
Because Horton has such big ears, he is the only jungle animal that can hear the Whos. Initially, he saves their community by putting the speck of dust on a clover so he can carry and protect it. His efforts are undermined and ridiculed by the other jungle animals, who try to destroy the clover. Horton rightly believes the only way he can save the Whos is by ensuring their voices are heard by the other jungle animals.
Nothing works until Jo Jo, the tiniest Who of all, joins the effort.
I may not be carrying around a clover, but I am carrying around a lot of concerns. I’m worried that something I’ve cared for and nurtured is going to be destroyed, and the people who could truly protect “my speck’ won’t listen.
Fortunately, unlike Horton who felt all alone in his efforts to protect his clover, I know I’m not alone. Many of us carry clovers. And, like Horton, we persevere because we have to. We are responsible for those who have less power.
Dr. Seuss understood this and passed the message on through his books. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood it and passed the message on through his speeches.
And they both understood that no voice is ever too small.
Jo Jo had a tiny voice that made all the difference to the survival of the Whos. Members of the Civil Rights movement were the voices that changed the world. And all of us can be a voice for someone who needs our support.
Be a Horton. Or be a Jo Jo. Or be both. But most importantly, be someone who does what you can to make the world a better place for others.