Friday, May 27, 2011

The Book Money

The other day Noel and I were taking advantage of a warm, sunny day by having drinks on the deck.  It was one of those magical days in May when the sun was at a perfect angle, the temperature was just right and the conversation bubbled easily.  I can’t recall how the topic came up, but I told him the story of the book money and I think it occurred to us both at the same time that it was a worthy essay topic.
My ex-husband Jon and I struggled through the University of Montana together.  I’m not saying that we did poorly in school; we both actually excelled.  I am saying that the whole process of going to school was a struggle.  We decided to go back to college after Aubrey was born even though we really didn’t have the money.  I think it was my idea.  I’d always loved school and I had let myself and my parents down by quitting when I got married.  Our son, Joe came along right after we got married and then Aubrey quickly followed.  Somewhere in there Jon and I took a night class together at our church and it reminded me of how much fun learning can be. This was during our “back to the land” phase and we tried growing our own vegetables, milking goats, raising chickens and heating our house with wood.  I also cooked on a wood stove.  It was kind of fun for a while but the novelty soon wore off. Mostly I remember that it was a lot of work and that we had to support ourselves by being custodians.  We rarely had any extra money and lived paycheck to paycheck. 
My parents watched this whole process with a mixture of interest and horror.  Joe would run by on the linoleum floor and Mom would plead, “Put some shoes on that baby.  His toes are blue!”  They would help us in small ways.  Several times they came bearing a gallon jar of milk from the dairy near them.  One autumn they presented winter coats to the kids.  Dad wanted us to come down to the ranch as much as possible, but it was difficult to leave our livestock.  Once, they wanted me to come down so badly they allowed me to bring our large cardboard box of baby chicks because I couldn’t leave them unattended.  The box sat near the wood stove at the ranch house for our entire four-day stay.  I realize now that when we visited they could watch over us and not worry that we had enough food or that Joe was running around on a cold floor with no shoes.  For my part, I think I didn’t quite realize how close to ruin we were.  We really were barely eking out an existence. 
The discontent with my life didn’t happen all at once.  It rarely ever happens quickly, I think.  Instead, it builds slowly and insidiously until one day a threshold is reached and you say to yourself, “I simply can’t do this anymore.”  I think of the steps of that process for me.  I remember staggering out to the back porch in August to get more wood to stoke the cook stove fire.  I was canning peaches and the house must have been well over a hundred degrees.  I sat wearily down on the steps and thought, “There must be a better way.”  I also remember the sinking feeling when I heard Jon tell someone, “I think I’ll probably be a janitor for the rest of my life.”  Really?  Was that what we aspired to?  Now, being a custodian is an admirable job.  It’s just not the life I had envisioned for myself.  And then I recall trying to sell spices and extracts.   It was one of those companies where you make money by signing up other people to sell.  We were entranced with the promise of thousands of dollars per month by basically doing nothing.  And the assurance of a luxury car once we reached a certain level in the company left us reeling with desire.  That car would be a leap up from our old, mint green wreck of a pickup.  Well, about the only thing that happened was that we lost a bunch of money that we didn’t have.  Oh, and the cupboard was full to overflowing with spices. 
It reached a crisis one evening when we balanced the checkbook.  Well, actually the checkbook was far from balancing.  We’d hung on by our toe nails for months and finally we reached the disaster level.  I broached the subject of selling out and moving back to town and the more we talked the more it became a reality.  As I look back, it really took no time at all to get rid of the animals, sell the house and find a place to live in Missoula.  Moving into a townhouse apartment from the country was a huge shift, but it was fun to be able to run to the grocery store or see a movie at a moment’s notice.  And then we took that class at church which awakened the desire for more.  We moved closer to the university and again, it all flowed along.  I know now that we were on the right path, and when that happens it does flow along.  It was definitely not easy, but we just kept going.
I’m pretty sure that Mom and Dad did a little dance in the dining room the day we told them we were going back to the university.  They continued to watch our struggle, but now the whole process took on a different slant.  We had goals and the future looked so bright.  They continued with the small gifts of milk or vegetables from the garden.  Dad fixed the cars when they broke down.  Mom sewed outfits for the kids.  Casey came along during that time and so we all tumbled along quarter after quarter.  We couldn’t afford daycare, so Jon would take an 8:00 class and then I would meet him at the edge of campus with the kids so that I could go to my 9:00 class while he took them home, only to return at 10:00 and we would repeat the whole process.  He delivered newspapers in the afternoon, he worked as a physical therapy aide at the local hospital on weekends and we both worked as custodians at night often alternating shifts.  We still lived far below poverty level, but we knew there was an end in sight and that made all the difference.  
We spent many an hour dreaming of the life to come.  We talked incessantly of how our lives would change.  We took walks in the university area, admiring the old architecture and wonderful yards.  We yearned to move our family into one of those houses and spoke about it as if it were already true.  To a large part, it was the dreaming that got us through.  And then there were those small gifts from Mom and Dad that often showed up just in the nick of time.  The gifts were always unexpected and so were cherished all the more. 
 We never asked them for money, but one day they came into town and sat us down at the kitchen table and presented us with five one-hundred dollar bills.  I think it was during my last year of school and Jon had just been accepted into physical therapy school.  I really don’t know what prompted the gift, but that was a whole lot of money thirty years ago, and it still is.  Dad said, “You can spend this money if you want, but we would like it if you could save it for emergencies.”  Maybe they wanted to sleep better knowing that we had a little bit of a cushion.  I don’t know.  I do know that it made me feel rich.  We put the bills in an old book and hid it on the bookshelf.  It seemed so much more real than putting it in the bank and also we could pull it out whenever we wanted just to gaze at it.  It made all the difference realizing that if the kids needed to go to the doctor or the washing machine needed to be replaced we wouldn’t be propelled into crisis mode.  And we kept the book money for a very long time.  Having it was so much better than spending it.
Gradually, school ended.  I graduated first with a degree in education and got a job as a teacher.  Jon continued for another year and a half until he got his degree in physical therapy.  He got a job at the same hospital he’d worked at as an aide.  And eventually the day came when we moved our family into one of those grand old Craftsman houses in the University area.  It was one of the homes that we had strolled by many nights on our “dream walks.”  I often sat in the living room overcome with awe that I actually lived there.  Sometimes it felt as if I were still dreaming.
So, I think about what the book money really meant and I think about my parents and their gifts of love and support.  I know now that it was difficult for them to watch our struggle.  They could have stepped in at any time to rescue us.  They certainly had the means to do so.  But, I am so glad they didn’t.  I think they knew that we needed to prove to ourselves that we could make it on our own.  There really is something to the old maxim that people are like steel…they’re both made stronger by fire.  I think about how those years helped shape the person I am today.  I know that I can do anything that I really put my mind to.  I can rely on myself and that knowledge feels so good.  And I know that having a nice house or cars or clothes is great, but I don’t need them to be happy.  My parents, in their wisdom, helped teach me that peace of mind is more often about having some money squirreled away in a book than it is about having things.  But when those things do come as a result of hard work they are so, so sweet. 
And I’ve watched my own children struggle from time to time.  I don’t know if my gifts of love and support were as well-timed as my parents’, but I’ve tried to carry on their legacy.  And I think the kids are stronger because I haven’t rescued them.  They’re all independent and proud of their accomplishments, as well they should be.  And I know that as my parents gaze down from above, they are well-satisfied.  Even though they can’t come bearing gifts of milk or book money they know that we can make it on our own.  And more importantly, we know that we can make it on our own. 
Thanks Mom and Dad.  We’re doing fine.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jose's Margaritas

Doggone it, I'm not waiting for warm weather anymore!  I'm breaking out the blender and the tequila and making Margaritas.  It's almost June and our high temp today was 44 degrees (slightly more than the Margaritas.)

This is a great recipe...easy, refreshing and not too sweet.  Some of those store-bought mixes are just too darned sweet for my liking. 

In a blender, start whirring up 2 to 3 cups of ice (I like a bit more ice than the original recipe). 
1 cup of tequila
1/4 cup of triple sec
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 can of frozen limeade concentrate
A bit of water, if needed

Salt the rim of a glass if you like, pour in the frozen concoction and enjoy in front of a roaring fire wrapped in a down comforter (well, if you live in Montana.)

Recipe courtesy of son Joe (Jose).

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dear Elva

I wanted to share this letter because many have asked to have more information about Granddaughter Margot's medical journey.  Also, I think that often we don't say thank you enough.  Perhaps you can help keep the thank you's going.
Dear Elva,
Lately I’ve been thinking about well-placed comments.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about some thoughtful remarks that you made to my son Casey and his wife Kylene several months ago.  They had just welcomed their new daughter Margot into the world.  For nine months they prepared for the birth of their first child.  They attended classes and developed a relationship with a midwife; they painted nursery walls and said prayers for a healthy child and smooth birth. And they tried to prepare for all contingencies.  But who ever does?  For instance, they were not prepared for an ambulance ride to Seattle Children’s Hospital, or for the tubes and wires inserted into their fresh, new child.  They were not prepared for the seemingly endless group of professionals they encountered who had questions or who shared test results or who gave advice.  And even though they were grateful for Children’s and those who work there they were not prepared to make it their temporary home for three weeks. 
I was out of the country at the time and had planned a trip to Seattle to welcome Margot soon after her birth.  Instead, I waited until her release from the hospital.  Every day, it seemed there was either no news or bad news as more problems were found.  The date set for going home was pushed ahead several times.  And I will always remember the day that Casey called in tears with the news that a physician had told them that their daughter had epilepsy which could worsen as she grew. 
Sometimes bad news has to be given.  Someone has to describe both the good and the bad scenarios.  Words must be chosen with care and spoken with as much understanding as possible.  I believe that is what happened more often than not during their stay at Children’s.  Yet, you do tend to dwell on the worst news, don’t you?  And after the words are spoken they often leave fear, doubt, and only partial understanding.  Casey was so distraught during one particular phone conversation that I offered to go to Seattle immediately.  Both he and Kylene decided that it would help if I did.
And that is how I came to be at the hospital for the last couple of days before Margot’s release to home.  Elva, you were “our” nurse for the last two days and I will always remember and be grateful for your easy, friendly manner.  You brought your years of experience with you every time you entered the room, listening carefully to concerns, giving focused attention and thoughtfully dispensing advice or help.  And you always left me more relaxed.  I hope that Casey, Kylene and Margot also felt that calmness. 
The day we left you recounted some of your experiences with Group Beta Strep, which was thought to be the cause of many of Margot’s problems.  I took note that you had dealt with this many times before.  You concluded your remarks with, “I’ve seen a lot of babies through the years.  I’m telling you now that your baby is going to be just fine.”  Oh my goodness, I can’t tell you how much relief washed over me just hearing you utter those words.  I’ve thought of you so many times through the last months and I have heard that assurance in my mind over and over again.  I thank you for placing that seed of knowing.  Although we hoped and prayed that she would outgrow the apnea and the seizures, every time I sent those prayers and hopes, I launched them with the conviction that you would be right.  It not only made me wish for a positive outcome, it made me believe it would be so. 
And it was true.  You were right.  Today I said good-bye to that sweet child and her parents and she really bears little resemblance to the baby who left the hospital that day.  No oxygen.  No meds.  No seizures.  No apnea.  Now we are given the leisure to celebrate the first tooth, the frequent smiles and her expressive jabbering.  Of course it could have been a different story.  I work with children who have special needs and I know that complete wellness is often not the outcome no matter how many hopes, prayers and beliefs are sent forth. That makes the happy endings all the more miraculous…all the more cherished.  And I believe that when we know how lucky we are we should thank those who helped make it so.
 And so, I thank you Elva for your part in helping our little one on her path to wellness.  Thank you for sharing your years of experience and your carefully chosen words.  At the time they meant the world to me, and they still do.  Please rest assured that her doting parents are continuing to nurture her growth.  I am in awe of the terrific job they are doing.  Thank the heavens you were right... 
Our baby is going to be fine.  Just fine.
With fondness,
Shelley Larrivee

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dearly Beloved

I was sitting on the floor coloring Jake’s shoes with a black crayon as he sat beside me waiting to polish them with a paper towel.  “Why are we doing this, Nona?” he asked. 
“Because I can’t find the black shoe polish and I figured a crayon would work.  It does.”
“No, I mean why are you polishing my shoes anyway?  They were okay.”
Why?  We were going to a rehearsal dinner last Friday and then to the wedding the next day.  I was in Missoula acting as nanny for grandsons Jake and Christian as my daughter performed her bridesmaidly duties in the wedding of her good friend, Delani.  Aubrey was also making the cake, so had quite a bit of running around and this-and-that to do.  The boys and I were hanging out together and I was trying to get them spiffed up for the event.  Finding shirts that fit and pants without holes in the knees, socks that matched and shining their shoes took a bit of time.  I also wanted to give them options, and they were really getting into the spirit, first holding up one shirt and then the next, considering if they matched the rest of the outfit.  It was actually pretty fun, but it took a while.  As I ironed and Jake polished his shoes I started thinking about what we were doing.  It really was quite a bit of fuss.  I had lost a couple of pounds, made myself a new dress and gotten my hair cut and styled. And I was just there as what Aubrey referred to as a “plus one.”  Why had I gone to the trouble?  I have been taught to honor events by dressing my best and taking care with all the preparations.  Here I was, trying to pass this on to the grandkids. 
Preparing for a wedding is such a daunting task.  I am overwhelmed by the energy that goes into the process.  Five months ago, Aubrey agreed to make the cake.  She planned and discussed, sought advice and practiced.  She fretted and stewed and vacillated from confidence that she could duplicate Delani’s chosen cake one minute to doubt that she could pull it off the next. 
She baked the layers days before.  I watched her make filling and icing and fondant and then more icing.  She worried that the piping icing would not be black enough, the fondant smooth enough and the top flat enough.  She cut cardboard rounds and wooden dowels. 
Then she gingerly transported the thing to the reception hall and finished the filigree piping just before the ceremony.  All that time; all that energy.  And that’s just the cake. 
After the first dance, the first kiss and the first toasts; after the friends and family were tiring and the flowers were wilting and the cake was reduced to crumbs, I took the opportunity to stand back in the corner of the reception hall to survey the scene.  I wondered about all the time spent wrapping chocolates with labels bearing the names of the couple or bundling heart-shaped coasters for party favors. 
How many collective hours were invested in winding white lights around pillars and posts and ironing table cloths and arranging flowers or candles and tying ribbons to programs?  How many fittings of tuxedoes, bridesmaid dresses and the wedding gown?  How many hours spent finding the perfect shoe, curling hair just so, fretting over the right make-up and polishing nails?  I wondered if it was really all worth the stress, time and money. 
But, as I watched the smiling faces of friends and family I couldn’t help but be swept away with the whole celebration.  Earlier at the ceremony, the minister asked all friends and family to affirm that they would support Delani and Christian throughout their lives.  No one hesitated.  In fact, one of the fellows sitting near me almost shouted, “I will!”  But, really the minister didn’t have to ask.  Just by showing up in their finery, bearing gifts and well wishes and toasting their good fortune the crowd showed their encouragement.  Most of these people already had a huge part in making the day particularly fine.  They were the very ones who had arranged bouquets and printed programs and hung rice paper lanterns.  If actions speak louder than words, the entire group had been shouting “I will!”  for months.
Isn’t that really what it’s all about?  We honor our loved ones by making an effort to help, to cheer, to support or to simply show up for the events that matter to them. 
I’ve been altering a wedding dress for another friend who gets married later this month.  She came for a fitting the other day, and in response to my queries about how she wanted the dress to look she kept saying, “Shelley, do whatever is easiest.”  That’s not what it’s about for me.  I will do whatever it takes and spend however much time I need to make it as perfect as possible.  I do this because I care about and I love my friends, and because they deserve my best effort.  And in doing so, perhaps I can give them a boost.  Maybe I can inject some of my energy into their new beginning.  At the very least my friends will know that I am behind them, cheering them on.  Goodness knows it’s hard enough to enjoy a lasting marriage these days.  We need the best possible send off as we embark on a new relationship. 
So, Delani and Christian…my heart was warmed by the outpouring of love I witnessed last weekend.  I wish you love and happiness without bounds.  And in times of doubt I urge you to revisit your lovely wedding in your minds so that you can again be lifted up, have your faith restored and your resolve renewed. 

As for me, I will remember that joy is found in simple things when I think about those two little boys dancing with abandon in their shiny black shoes.