16 winters ago, on a Friday evening just before a looming ice storm set in on the cold Kansas prairie, my 7 year old little girl was pulling beach towels out of closets to make a “temporary home” in a cardboard box just outside our kitchen door for a stray kitty. She had already named the cat “Katy,” so we knew she was probably going to become a permanent fixture on our 34 acres out in the country.
The following spring, Katy unexpectedly (to us “city pups,” unfamiliar with the ways of country life) gave birth to a litter of adorable kittens. For months, Isa and Mario’s entertainment focused around playing with the kittens. Vanilla ended up being the only one of the litter that survived. Katy was viciously killed by a couple of stray dogs while defending her kittens. To say we were shocked by the harsh realities of country animal life would be an understatement. The best we could do was adopt Vanilla (whom previously my husband had insisted would remain a garage cat) and bring him indoors to complete our family. And that is where he has stayed for 15 1/2 years.
These past couple of weeks, Vanilla slowly tapered off his eating until quitting completely the last 5 days of his life. We all had our chances to say goodbye, but the hardest was with his Mommy, Isa, via FaceTime from her work retreat. It’s so hard doing the compassionate thing when you’ve grown up with a pet. Isa used to come home from 2nd grade and stand on our back deck calling Vanilla’s name. Before long, he’d come running up from the wooded canyon behind our house, following the sound of her sweet voice. He was half wild (feral!) kitty and half domesticated pet and that’s how he lived until his last breath.
This morning was extremely bittersweet. We watched him stumble to the back door for a breath of fresh air after carrying him down from his last night in our bed. He bathed in the sunlight of our floor to ceiling windows in the den one last time. And if he could have mustered the strength, I know he would have loved to have hissed at Pudgey, the innocent but vacuous cocker spaniel. We loved him well. I can only hope he is on my Dad’s lap in heaven right now hearing about what a “Good Ole’ Good Boy” he is.
6 years ago this week I walked into a noon Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at Unity Temple on the Country Club Plaza, burst into tears and said, “I think I am an alcoholic.” Immediately, that community supported me and over the next 12 months I began to understand that “there is another way to live.”
As anyone who has struggled with alcohol addiction will tell you, the worst part is the period of time leading up to admitting you are powerless over alcohol. In the 2 years leading up to that day in 2015 when I finally walked into an AA meeting, I spent more and more time bargaining with this insatiable beast that was taking my life and everything I cared about from me. In the search for temporary relief from anxiety, insecurity, worry and fear, what I found was just an enormous emptiness. I was ashamed of my inability to simply stop hurting myself and others. Alcohol was on a mission to destroy my life yet I continued to open that bottle of vino fino tinto every afternoon at 5 o’ clock, the witching hour.
Living a sober life has given me many tools for navigating the scary world of FEELINGS. I used to hide from my feelings behind a big glass of red wine, but now I address my problems, if not with confidence, at least with purpose – to find a reasonable solution that does not compromise my values or boundaries.
To celebrate my 6th Sober Birthday, I want to share 6 “I Can” statements I work on constantly:
Create a life I love built on new beliefs about the person I am and who I choose to be going forward;
Live with discomfort, knowing that in the end what is meant for me will happen at the right time;
Tolerate the disapproval of someone I love, knowing that compromising my authentic self in exchange for another person’s affection or approval is self-destructive;
Accept contradictions of all kinds without the need to debate or argue;
Seek support rather than comfort when the need arises;
Support others without expecting anything in return.
Every sober breath is a gift. I have had 2,190 beautiful days in recovery. Thank you for celebrating with me!
I can’t believe I am having conversations with friends now about “Aging in Place.” 34 years ago this weekend, I packed my Subaru XT Coupe, popped in my favorite “Bob Marley” cassette tape, and moved to Kansas City to start the next chapter of my life. I started graduate school and earned a certificate in gerontology studies….an abstract concept I never expected to really experience personally (at least so soon). I would sit in mind-numbingly boring gerontology classes learning about the “Plaza Relocation Project” and Medicare, only halfway connecting with the stories I heard about the negative impacts on aging Kansas Citians when the Country Club Plaza began transforming from an aging-friendly urban oasis to a collection of upscale boutiques and restaurants to attract tourists. There used to be a substantial drug store and grocery store on the Plaza, conveniences enabling residents to comfortably transition into their later years at home instead of “care facilities.”
Beginning in the early 1980’s, long-time aging residents of high rise apartments were swiftly upended as part of a larger “plan” to make the Plaza less residential and more commercial. As a graduate student, I lived in one of the last remaining high rises near the Plaza in the sweetest studio apartment (forever my favorite) among aging residents. It had a restaurant and nail salon and was a community of people on the brink of extinction. A few years after I moved out, The University of Missouri tore it down (Twin Oaks Apartments, then dubbed “Twin Croaks” by the UMKC students because of the frequent EMS visits) to build student housing. I used to ride the elevator with visiting actors with the Missouri Repertory Theater and was often greeted by a Humpty Dumpty character getting off my 11th floor telling me, “I’d like to ride in your car!” It was a colorful life but not sustainable according to the local community planners.
Today, I think about aging in place every day. In fact, my husband and I recently tried to watch the film, “I Really Care” (Rosamund Pike portrays a corrupt legal guardian who deftly divests competent and financially stable Dianne Wiest of her decision-making rights and locks her “in a home”), and quickly turned it off in disgust and horror. That’s less than a decade away for us! Could it be us? Surely not. We have friends making decisions all across the board about retirement: one couple recently decided the Midwest wasn’t for them and moved to Florida to become boat repairmen in a coastal town. Another friend dropped her second child off at college and began her dream nomadic lifestyle of full-time travel writing and speaking. She meets up with her adult sons a few times a year at Airbnbs. In shock, I asked her, “But WHO will get the same china and tree out for Christmas each year?”. She laughed at my absurd question because she had been planning for this transition and shedding possessions that weighed her down for many years.
I know where I fall on this very important question: I am staying right where I am as long as I can and giving back to the community that has given my family so much. I will be open to new friendships with people of all ages. I will volunteer for organizations like CASA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. And I will continue the work I recently began at an outpatient medical rehab for people with disabilities for as long as I physically can. Eventually, I hope to write and publish a memoir. My husband wants to get a lab puppy and “tinker” around the house. We both want to learn Spanish. He has a huge treasure trove of family photos he plans to cull, organize, restore and possibly publish. We won’t be bored. Hopefully we will have grandchildren and we will walk with them to the creek in our neighborhood and get ice cream in a neighborhood creamery.
Imagine my delight yesterday when one of my close girlfriends who has always planned to retire with her husband on the West Coast confided, “We are going to age in place.” Immediately, I imagined us as old women visiting the Nelson Atkins Museum and dining at Rozzelle Court together. Or riding the train at the Kansas City Zoo with our grandchildren. A fellow “ager in placer ” has emerged and I am overjoyed!
At our age, my husband and I are starting to watch people shed their professional lives and chase their dreams, sometimes taking them far away. I can’t imagine living anywhere else but the Midwest. We once owned 34 acres but did not have much time to enjoy it. There may be a future acre or two with a pond and an old farmhouse also, who knows. My friend’s announcement over lunch yesterday gave me hope and inspiration for the not too distant future we have waiting. According to “Blue Zones,” a longevity research project, people who live longest move naturally (e.g., walking outdoors, gardening) and have strong social/community ties. They also eat a plant-based diet fortified with lots of legumes and nuts. I look at it this way: if I have to move my body and eat healthy foods, I’d rather do it in Kansas City with the people I love most. Happy Aging in Place!
This week I watched a documentary about the brilliant and tragic Amy Winehouse. I’ve always been a fan of her music and, as a recovering alcoholic, I wanted to get a deeper sense of what led to her death from alcohol poisoning. Not surprisingly, there were people in this talented young woman’s path who had the opportunity to help – or harm her. And they did both. I’m not saying alcoholics and drug addicts are victims, but it is notable when following a person’s trajectory of self-destruction that they are often strongly influenced by people and events. In the rooms of AA they refer to “people, places and things” that can be triggers for addicts to do self-harm. The outside influences don’t create addiction entirely; a person who slips into self sabotage usually already has internalized beliefs about their value that sends them seeking relief through the numbness alcohol and drugs offer.
Ironically, Amy Winehouse’s hit single, “Rehab,” was pivotal to her rising success. Friends had been pleading with her to seek help before she declined too far. Like the song says, her response was “no, no, no” – and that was her father’s reaction to the idea of rehab, also. As a parent, learning this fact made me deeply sad. I started thinking about my early drinking days as a teenager. From the moment I took my first sip of alcohol, I was a binge drinker. The first time I got drunk, I could have died of alcohol poisoning at my friend Isabel’s sleepover in 8th grade when I woke up covered in my own vomit without a trace of a memory of what happened the night before. I was hungover (dehydrated) for 3 days, left alone in my room and repeatedly ridiculed by my Mom. This might have been a great opportunity to educate and support, I am thinking today, with 2,813 sober days. But alas, shame was the most useful tool my parents had – it had been “successfully” used on them throughout their childhood, so the tradition carried on with me.
The picture of me is from 2016, a year after I stopped drinking and declared myself “in recovery. If you look closely, I am wearing a crescent-shaped gold pin – a tribute to my all-girls Catholic high school in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. I happened to be driving back to St. Louis when I snapped this photo, thinking about my happy days as a student in what is consistently ranked Missouri’s #1 all female private secondary education institution. I was driving home to celebrate the life of a classmate who had recently passed away from cancer. She was a wickedly smart, quiet girl, I remember. And we shared a semester working together as a team in our school’s celebrated “mock trial” experience in Senior year civics class. We were the defense team and we lost. But not because Lori hadn’t worked her hardest doing research and writing legal arguments. I remember Lori doing most of the hard work and, because she was so introverted, happily allowing me to attempt to be the impassioned and deeply persuasive defense lawyer. Lori wasn’t angry with me when we lost, even though I felt I had let her down. All those quiet hours of research and work went down the tubes the minute my fast-talking opponent (who went on to become a lawyer) opened her mouth. I froze and stumbled. I was humiliated because it was one of the few things my Dad attended throughout my High School. He had been accepted to law school himself but never attended because of family obligations. As his 7th child, I was his last hope of producing a lawyer – and I really, really did not want to let him down. I don’t remember specifically drinking over the mock trial experience – but the message I internalized was that I did not have what it took to be taken seriously in any arena. I was 17.
You can imagine, carrying that heavy burden within oneself at such a young age, how the ensuing years unfolded. I went through periods of deep depression followed by binge drinking. But I could also go years without touching a single drop of alcohol. However, whenever I would return to drinking, it was always the same: binge drinking from the onset. I was 49 years old before I was ready to face the truth: alcohol was not my friend and removing it from my life completely was urgently necessary, for myself and my family. I hadn’t considered until age 49 that I wasn’t the only one affected by my drinking. They say addiction makes you selfish – but not in the “I’m going to be good and kind to myself and think only of my own needs” kind of way. Addiction made me numb and blind. Thank goodness, all the help I have received during recovery has helped me to forgive myself for it so I can show up for my family authentically (you know, with imperfections).
Driving back to St. Louis with only 1 year of sobriety, I was hoping to connect with the people who meant everything to me in my early days of high school. I was very proud of my sobriety and eager to celebrate Lori’s life in a safe community (emotional safety happens to be super important to alcoholics). But my High School Social Studies teacher had a different agenda. Instead of greeting me with warmth, she was eager to harshly remind me that I had shown up to a school function drunk (I absolutely wasn’t) and gotten away with it and that her husband, 35 years later, still spoke about it. Ah, there was the sting of that old familiar weapon: shame. Here I was, a grown woman with children and this long retired teacher used someone’s memorial service as an opportunity to slap me down. I have thought of the incident many times in the past 7 years, and I usually become angry, although I know I should either laugh about it or feel sorry for her for being such a self-righteous and petty woman she needed to take a cheap shot 35 years later. She did not know what I was fighting in 1982 nor what the path of addiction would do to me in the ensuing 35 years. She didn’t care, she just needed to scold and be right. And guess what, people! SHE WASN’T EVEN A NUN! The nuns showed compassion and grace. Shame, ironically, had not been the style of the Sisters of the Visitation I grew to know and love. So suck an egg, Mrs. What’s-Your-Name (fortunately, I cannot recall her name so I won’t be tempted to google her pathetic ass).
Last night my husband and I sat in our favorite neighborhood bar (yes, I can go to bars now and enjoy an alcohol free beer and not “awaken the beast” that wants to drink again) when 2 police officers walked in. My husband followed them with his eyes and told me there was a person sitting at the bar with her head down. The police awakened her and, when she realized what was happening, my husband tenderly said, “She’s crying now.” The police managed to help her stumble out of the bar as she openly wept in shame and God knows what else. “We don’t know what else she could have going on,” my husband said compassionately. I began weeping out of pain for her and still cannot stop thinking of her. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t the first time this had happened. And I am damn lucky the same thing never happened to me. But I know it wouldn’t take much heartache and hard times to put me right back there. That’s why my heart aches with compassion for other addicts. And people who use shame can absolutely go straight to hell.
When the phenomenally talented Amy Winehouse died at age 27 from alcohol poisoning, she had experienced brief periods of sobriety followed by dark relapses (listen to “Back to Black” – it refers to a relationship she was addicted to in which she believes her only choice without is to go “back to black”). I think it’s the urgent neediness an addict feels when faced with reality is what gets me. In those brief moments leading up to an alcoholic’s first doomed drink, we truly believe that this time it could be different – the warmth of a numbing drink could actually give us what we need this time without harm. Amy must have thought that as she took her last drinks. And the young woman in the bar last night probably never guessed her evening would end being escorted by police into custody. She just wanted momentary relief from her suffering.
Today, as I reflect on the incident with Mrs. Told You So in 2016 that caught me off guard and produced profound shame, it stings far less than the clarity it gives. Now I know how to comfort and protect that bright and beautiful young woman who believed she didn’t have what it took to succeed. Now I know I’m truly at home with myself, however imperfect I may be. I wish Amy Winehouse had had the opportunity to live 57 years like me. And I pray the young woman from the bar meets the right people and lives into a time where she can find peace and comfort somewhere gentler than a barstool.
I am a big “marker of events” – when I recognize they are happening, that is. I say this because it is pretty easy to fail to notice something significant at first. We have to make a commitment to “notice” the important people and things in our lives. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to remain mired in the ordinary details of day to day life, reminding oneself “I will celebrate that victory later.” Sobriety has given me a sense of urgency to recognize who and what matters the most in this moment. It’s a beautiful gift I try to cultivate daily.
Yesterday was not an ordinary day for my husband. Yesterday, he said out loud the words he has quietly prepared for the past 45 years. “I’m planning to retire soon,” he told his colleagues. For this man – once completely blindsided by betrayal and financial disaster – to calmly walk in a decade later and announce his forthcoming retirement – is noteworthy and significant, indeed.
If you only recently met my family, it would be easy to believe we have always been lucky and lived well. Both are true, of course, relative to the rest of the world. Our well-being has not come without a cost, and a hefty one to my husband and our marriage. My husband is a very careful and thoughtful man – he likes to weigh every possible alternative for several months while thinking about any big change or financial decision. Planning and preparing are his superpowers. 17 years ago, several unforeseen circumstances began aligning to set in motion a decade of financial and personal turmoil no planning or preparing could have prevented. That’s why yesterday is one of the sweetest, happiest days we have ever known. We’re happy our misfortune also came with many morsels of wisdom to share with others.
When the recession of 2008 began, our family was nestled into a life we intentionally chose, “untethered” by the headaches of a big city law firm. We were living on 34 acres an hour outside of Wichita, Kansas. We thought we were comfortably situated for the rest of our children’s upbringing (they both had middle and high school in the immediate future). Mike left his big law firm practice and started managing his friend’s medical practice, less than a mile away from our home. Our lives were perfect. Until everything began to unravel.
One by one, each facet of our carefully and intentionally chosen life began to crumble. It felt like Mercury was in Retrograde for 10 years! We promised ourselves to stick together, no matter how hard things got (and they got really, really hard). We also promised to share our story to help others one day. People who know our story marvel over the fact we were able to stay married and raise two exceptional human beings. Honestly, ignorance and the ability to block out most of the terrifying details and just live one day at a time is what saved us. Mike is also a really smart man with a tireless work ethic. That saved us, also! I’m just going to highlight a few of the pressures squeezing the joy out of our lives that we survived. If you are experiencing 1 or more of these, my heart goes out to you. Please remember my family is living proof that things can change and you will ultimately be able to achieve your goals.
Business partnership/friendship When the thing you uprooted your family and moved 200 miles for stops going well and becomes something you did not expect. I watched my husband navigate a deeply painful and uncertain period with dignity and in virtual silence (so contrary to my personal style!). The difficult lessons changed enormously the way we saw the world and trusted in relationships but made yesterday’s retirement announcement much sweeter. Mike would say he got there quietly, working diligently and intentionally. If I’m being truthful, I would say our family got through this with a lot of embracing the unknown. I often asked God for an open heart and mind to allow the lessons and gifts from the pain to reveal themselves. And they did.
Homeowners Association Litigation When the majority of your time in a place is tarnished by ugly feelings between neighbors, it can become hard to live in the moment and enjoy something beautiful while you have it. And we did have something magical, if only for awhile. We wanted to give our children a carefree childhood with lots of land to have adventures on. Our neighbors believed some of that land should belong to them. So they made life uncomfortable for many years. We tried to ignore them, which mostly worked. But there were many times the ugliness bubbled over and I thought our whole lives would forever be consumed by ridiculous fighting. Since that chapter is long closed, I have the happy moments as memories to keep me warm and their petty grievances have faded. That’s a true gift of time. We both agree every time the subject comes up and we ask ourselves, “Would we do it all over again?”. Yes, we both would 100% do it all over. In spite of the horrible neighbors (a story that has been hinted at in the past and I will surely write about again in the future).
Side Business Disaster It wasn’t a great idea to purchase a gas station and hire a virtual stranger to manage it. We had more than enough on our plate raising our children, fighting the neighbors and dealing with a business partnership that was riddled with drama. For some reason, our fate was to deal with this additional stress at a time when we were already beyond our ability to handle the other stressors.
Now, 13 years after all the aforementioned challenges and setbacks, we can both truly say it has been a wondrous journey, filled with unexpected joys, blessings and friendships. We’re proud we didn’t let the myriad little things turn us away from each other or our family. It feels fantastic to have been able to build a life we enjoy from the pieces we picked up that had once been shattered. The double rainbow pictured was only visible for about 5 minutes on a recent trip to the beach. We might have easily missed it, but we did not. And that perfectly encapsulates how I feel about this moment in life: I would have been happy with just one, but upon closer examination, I noticed I was given two! What a blessing it is to notice, isn’t it?
Last night, we had a dinner conversation with our adult son about our time in the country when he was very young. I have promised to write more about it after my kids were old enough to understand and that time has come. The lessons we learned from our experience relocating to a Southern Kansas small town at the height of my husband’s legal career are many. We learned about courage and risk-taking; slowing down and integrating into a rural culture; trusting the wrong people; honesty, integrity and resilience; true friendship; humor and love; and finally, the absurdity and injustice of Homeowners Associations and local politics. All in an 8-year span in which we vowed to “slow down and simplify” in idyllic small town America. Our lessons began immediately.
Now is the time to share with our children because underlying the decision to make the dramatic lifestyle change was a rebellion against a life in constant pursuit of “upward mobility” ingrained in our generation. My husband was literally killing himself at his law firm, rarely home for the most important parts of our young children’s routine. I called him most afternoons around 4:30 and held up the phone to the sound of our young children’s wails (then 1 and 3 years old) and sarcastically asked him, “How’s YOUR day?” before slamming the phone down. Couples with young children today have “family leave” to allow the family time to nest and cement their new lives together. We had the frazzled, frenzied “corporate ladder” lifestyle- Mike literally left the recovery room after an hour or so of each child’s birth to get back to work – and the constant bitch of “billable hours.” We did not know anything different, it was just the way it was. My family was 4 hours away and Mike’s parents were already deceased. We didn’t have a support network to fill in those terrible hours when the whole family needed a break. Mike didn’t feel like his efforts at the firm were rewarded as quickly and lavishly as others around him. The lure of moving to small town America where Mike had a close friend became attractive.
This background is so important for understanding all our motivations for making such a drastic move. Looking back (20 years now!), we had such a perfect, sweet life: a darling home in an affluent Kansas City neighborhood, many close and supportive friends, a great job. I had a good reputation in my profession I put on hold to care for my children. We even belonged to a nice church. We had everything that people in their 30’s and 40’s with young families worked so hard to attain. The world just was moving so fast. We wanted to enjoy our children and slow down a bit. Mike wanted to explore a career outside of private law practice that would give him the space to be home more with our children. When the opportunity arose to uproot and start a new life 216 miles South to a town the size of our suburban neighborhood, we really only deliberated a couple of days before deciding to leap. “Don’t ever go into business with friends,” my Dad warned from the beginning. He knew what he was talking about. That’s a totally different story but coming soon, I promise!
We had purchased 34 acres of undeveloped land that had been part of our friend’s subdivision a few years before deciding to move there and start a life. Our country life was waiting for us! No sooner had we arrived that the local Sheriff visited Mike at work serving notice of a lawsuit against us by the Homeowner’s Association of Thomas Canyon Estates, the subdivision the property we owned belonged to. They wanted their “park” back, which was included in the land we bought from our friend. Lesson 1: We should have been much more astute about this potential conflict but we weren’t. We had no appreciation for the underlying anger and resentment between the residents of this small town “luxury” development (the average home price at the time for properties outside of this subdivision was in the mid- $40,000’s) and the developer, our friend, a really nice guy. We trusted a couple of really nice guys but didn’t fully appreciate, from a small town perspective, how their past behavior and reputations could impact our family. In the city, no matter what “type of guy” you are, there isn’t the level of public scrutiny/condemnation that can permanently ruin your life. There is always someone new to do business with or start a friendship with. But small towns have long memories. We learned about invisible walls of judgment that played out like silent stares in restaurants or at sporting events. I used to joke that I would be more comfortable in the most dangerous neighborhood in any city than within the suffocating confines of our judgy small town. It took years to understand and overcome it. But that’s really one of the coolest things about having survived it all.
So back to the HOA conflict. It raged on the entire 8 years we lived there. They dropped their lawsuit because Mike went into lawyer mode and responded with convincing challenges that would have led to expensive litigation (and thus a financial burden on individual households). The first HOA meeting we were invited to, Mike and I arrived and were quickly escorted to a homeowner’s basement which was packed with people from the neighborhood sitting in a circle waiting for us. They had clearly been there for quite some time and our “meeting time” had been designated to be after their pre-meeting. So juvenile! It was the last thing I expected. All eyes were on us as we were seated and the arrogant HOA President aggressively waved a stack of papers in front of my face encouraging me to “read the covenants.” Actually, their covenants stated that the park would be turned over to the homeowners as common land once 2/3 of the lots had been purchased. This magic number was not triggered until we purchased all remaining lots from our friend, the nice guy. Hence the legal showdown: did our purchase make our friend’s promise to the homeowners obsolete? Funny how he never warned us or prepared us in any way for this looming conflict. But still such a nice guy.
The HOA had tried to asses us 23 times ($2300) at one of their meetings. So Mike insisted he have 23 votes! They immediately changed the bylaws to state “one vote per owner.” I was dismayed at the ugliness and frequently urged Mike to “just give them the park,” but he refused to back down to bullies. I mean, he is a litigator! The next tactic was to go to the City and officially replat our land, which had included 23 lots in the undeveloped part of the subdivision, and make it our own separate subdivision. We named it “Tango Canyon,” in honor of Mike’s father’s side of the family from Argentina.
The HOA’s next tactic to punish us was to file a petition with the City to condemn a building on our property, “The Dairy House.” The history of the land dated back to dairy farming operation and there remained 2 outbuildings on our property used in the 1940’s and 50’s. During the years after the dairy farm sold and the land became a neighborhood development, the buildings had fallen into considerable disrepair. We thought the Kansas limestone foundation cottage (the basement was used to milk cows with a small apartment above) was charming.
The HOA argued the building had a “blighting effect” and we should be compelled to demolish it. We were hauled into a City hearing over it, only for them to discover my husband was one step ahead. He had legally designated the property as an “outbuilding.” We painted and secured it to keep out “riffraff” (local teenagers up to no good). The building remained but our conflict raged on.
I could go on for several thousand more words to detail other dramatic parts (and I will in the future) of the small town HOA drama. In the end, they won. We were forced to basically give all of the replatted land to the subsequent landowners when we sold our home because the Title Company’s position was that the subdivision covenants, and not our own legal replatting, governed the sale of the property. We would have had to have had 2/3 of the HOA members permission to sell the bulk of our land. Not only that, the Title Company required us to pay several years of previous assessments upon the sale of our land. We could have fought the matters in court (and lost because we were at a serious hometown disadvantage being “city slickers”) or do what we ultimately decided to do: cut our losses and move on.
We were looking for and expecting easy and simple and we found conflict. I was personally bitter for many years, believing myself to be the biggest victim as I tried to navigate small town life as a full fledged, respectable member of the community with and for my children. Mike and I were at odds over this because he saw it mostly from the perspective of a litigator. It took me several years to put the resentment behind me. And the beautiful thing from all of this twisted story is this: now all that remains are wonderful memories of how much our family enjoyed our land and our home while we had it.
In spite of the conflict, looking back, Mike and I are proud of what we did. We had the courage to walk away from a comfortable life in pursuit of a simpler one (even though it became much more complicated and very difficult to disentangle from ). Coming back to Kansas City with a 4th and 6th grader was no small feat, either. In fact it was damn hard. And isolating in its own way. Our children were used to unstructured time and lots of land to roam freely on. In a sense, we had to “tame” them to adapt to suburban conventions. This was painful and challenging. We have learned that those formative years in our small town where we searched for the “pause” from a complicated life, our children experienced the same kind of freedom we both had as children. While there was a price to pay financially and professionally for us, our children benefited greatly from the essential parts of a small town life we wanted to give them. They know the beauty of wide open skies and the innocence of looking forward to the county fair each summer. We met and stay in touch with some extraordinary people who became friends are really are “nice people.” And I venture to guess that hometown HOA has never had more exciting times than when the Tamburinis were in town.
What matters most to me when I think of the petty infighting over an insignificant parcel of land that represented a broken promise between our friend and the HOA is this: the land originally belonged to the Osage Indians. Any casual stroll within the canyon that ran several miles behind our home could yield arrowheads. Our friend’s land adjacent to ours had a stagecoach landing and kiln. There was rich history outside the confinement of silly HOA covenants our children were exposed to and delighted in on countless walks and adventures.
When we did return to life in the Big City, we realized, in hindsight, all the mess we had been embroiled in our small town life had somehow insulated and protected us from the state we observed some of our former friends to be in. They were richer but much less happy, many of them in disastrous marriages with children who had been over scheduled and managed from the minute they started preschool. Some had “nannies” who performed the daily household tasks I had proudly and contentedly overseen for our family. What we had lost financially from the gamble to take a “hometown pause” we gained by building a close family without constraints of too many tedious commitments. It was clear to us that we were far poorer but much happier than many of our consorts.
This whole story began with a dinner conversation led by our son last evening. Our dining room was cozy with a fire roaring as the wind and rain pelted our windows. He began talking about his earliest memories in our dining room in the big house in the country. “And every day this time of year, you could just look outside and there you’d see a buck running across our front yard.” I’d accept a decade worth of ridiculous HOA pettiness to hear him share that memory.
Celebrating with cake was always a Killion tradition
Like most women in their mid 50’s, hardly a day goes by I am not reminded of something important my Mom taught me about life but didn’t recognize at the time. She came to my rescue after a terribly bad break up when I was only 24. I was so busy taking care of this idiot, I neglected my life and my Mom found the perfect way to bring this to my attention. She wrote me several affirmations about not giving my power away. I still have her handwritten affirmations in a box and every so often I will pull them out and remind myself what she did for me. “Never give your power away!” is the one I remember the most, especially since I am now a parent of young adults. I was so busy chasing after the idea of “love” with the wrong people, I was willing to be whomever they wanted me to be. Mom often repeated this phrase, “Does he cherish you? Because you deserve to be cherished.” Maybe it was just luck, but I think also this guidance from my Mom that led me to the love of my life who does, in fact, cherish me.
Mom always had a lot of friends with a vast and colorful array of interests. She made friends easily and was often that friend who made the plans and initiated getting everyone together. The planner, organizer, reasonable “sounding board” friend. She treated her friends well and as she got older, I noticed she put effort into cherishing them. When she belonged to a quilting group, one time she brought every friend a flower and told them she wanted to tell them how much she enjoyed them while they were alive and together. When she saw someone she thought would be a good friend for me, she would tell me, “I would cultivate that friendship if I were you.” She cultivated a very important friendship for me that has sustained and brightened my life. A cousin I had never met reached out to her many years ago because she had questions about our family and she trusted Mom to be open and honest. When she asked Mom which daughter she thought she would get along with best, Mom pointed her in my direction. So my first cousin, (named after my Mom), began periodically writing to me. Today she is one of my closest friends and I cherish her. This is solely due to my Mom. Another gift I will have for the rest of my life from her.
Finally, my Mom instilled in me an unabashed love for cake. I cannot think of a time I visited her these past 35 years since I moved from home when cake was not a central part of our celebration. Her New York cheesecake was phe-nomenal! I recently made a cookbook for my children with many of Mom’s notable recipes so they will have them to cherish and pass on to the next generations. Dad often marveled at how much Mom could eat (he loved it!). When she made one of her cakes, however, you had to get in line behind Dad (this was simply understood by everyone in our family). Today, I am proud and grateful my Mom passed along to me a healthy appetite and appreciation for home baked desserts. Wasting time on food shaming is pointless. Mom taught me to cherish myself.
It’s that time of year when Hallmark Christmas Movie titles are constantly flooding my psyche. Maybe it’s because I begin watching these predictable yet comforting films in October. Maybe it’s another sign I’m getting older, but this year, more than most, I am remembering more vividly than ever those magical first Christmases of my early childhood. It would be impossible to think about those times without remembering my adorable Grandmother whose very name would make an amazing Hallmark Christmas movie title – Lillian Killion. In fact, throw in her maiden name – De Lisle – along with her girlish nickname – “Lil” – and one could conjure an image of a modern rapper (my nail tech once did, recently!). Lil De Lisle grew up to become Lillian Killion. We called her “Mim” (I was the youngest of her 9 grandchildren).
Mim was widowed before I was born so my memories begin with picking her up on Saturdays to bring her to our home for supper, a little “Lawrence Welk Show” then evening Mass. We lived in a small town in Southern Missouri – what is often referred to as the “Bootheel.” As I get older, I am struck by the fact that I truly had a Southern upbringing. This is another story, but after I started High School 200 miles North in St. Louis, Missouri, I did my very best to shed any evidence of my small town heritage. What a pity! I made this decision within days of arriving at a private Catholic school for young women. I had not understood something a teacher in class had just said, so I raised my hand with the question, “Ma’am?” on my tongue and was quickly embarrassed to death with the other students’ reactions. I traded in my Southern softness and naivete for a more popular, hard-edged “big city” persona. Or so I thought.
I remember details about my Grandmother like most children: her voice, her skin, her laugh, the smart clothing she wore, her museum-like house with the back door that played a familiar classical hymn (I could hum it but have no idea it’s origin) whenever she opened it. About 2 paces inside her back door was a refrigerator stocked with Orange Crush cola. Another 50 paces down the hall and into my Dad’s childhood bedroom was a beautiful mahogany dresser stuffed with Wrigley’s spearmint chewing gum – a bit of a stretch to reach the top drawer but I always managed it. Mim’s bathroom was all pink tile and she kept a magnifying glass next to her powder blue velvet reclining chair (though I don’t imagine her to be the reclining type) for reading important weather reports and social news from our local paper, “The Portageville Review.” I remember her giggle most of all. It was girlish. She always seemed mildly amused around me. I remember asking her how old she was one day and this came close to making her decidedly unamused. She thought about it for a second and quickly answered, “I’m seventiesh” – but in a way that left no question in my mind that I was to pry no further. I never met my Grandfather, whom I am told doted on her. A dear friend of the family told me once how endearing it was to see my Grandfather affectionately hand Mim a $5 bill and tell her to go buy herself something she would enjoy. Watching these moments must be how my charming and adorable Dad picked up one of my favorite traits – greeting me on the stairway the minute I walked in for a visit from Kansas City with $100 cash – for “gas money,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye.
This time of year, what I cherish most are the memories of holidays from my childhood and the absolutely perfectly thought out gifts I received from my dear Grandmother, Mim. Looking back, she must have consulted with my Mom to have been so on target each year. If she didn’t, then I love her even more than I thought. First, some history. I come from a large family and Mim was concerned about treating each one of my 6 older siblings and me exactly the same. Hence, the tradition of the $40.00 checks from her we all found in our stockings hung with care each Christmas morning. The first time my husband and I talked about childhood holiday traditions when we were dating he wanted to know what a “traditional family stocking stuffer” looked like in our family. He eagerly shared that in his it was a single orange. When I offered up my own equally cherished tradition, he just stared at me in silent disbelief bordering on deep sadness and pity. So much so it made me laugh hysterically at the contrast in our experiences. How could a child, he wondered, find joy in a check from their Grandmother for Christmas? Oh, quite easily, I reassured him! 26 years later, he still does not understand and this amuses me even more so now.
Moving on from the checks drafted from Farmers Bank of Portageville and signed by Lillian Killion, here is a list (in what I recall to be chronological order) of the greatest Christmas gifts of all time from her:
Tinker Bell perfume/powder set – if you don’t instantly get a hypnotic olfactory memory from this classic name then you didn’t grow up in the 70’s. I powdered and dabbed perfume just about every visible surface I could find that Christmas, thanks to Mim.
Clearly sensing my appetite for fragrance mixing, the next year Mim gave me a perfume mixing kit. Imagine putting essential oils in the hands of a 6- year old today and saying, “Have fun!” and this approximates my joy that year. I had several tiny apothecary type jars and a beginner’s lab of fragrances to work with. This kept me busy for days, I am sure. Until I decided how fun it would be to pour the perfume into the moving mouth of my “Baby Alive,” a gift from Santa that year. It was disappointing to discover that “BA” did not consume or digest my perfume concoctions the same way she did the milk and formula that came in the box.
Next came the “STEM” years, or as close to science, technology and math as girls in the 1970’s could get. My Grandmother gifted me a series of wonderful items that kept me occupied for hundreds of hours (to my parents’ delight). First, a metal detector. I took treasure hunting seriously back in 1975 and this device of scientific discovery accompanied me everywhere I went. My Mother would drop me off at the park for some real down and dirty search for valuables left behind by careless and inattentive park visitors. I don’t think I ever found anything more valuable than a beer can tab or the occasional penny, but it did not stop me from trying. Then, after a propitious visit to a nearby American Indian burial mound with Sister Arthur, my Grandmother gifted me a rock polishing machine to complement my perpetual searches for arrowhead rocks in the soybean field behind my house. I can still hear the sound of tumbling rocks inside the canister on the rolling platform and feel the anticipation of the fresh jewels I would be holding at the end of the tumbling cycle. From there, I moved on to searching for geodes for a brief stint after Jeff Brands gave a scintillating presentation about them at a 4H meeting. Alas, the enthusiasm did not last long but it was fun while it lasted.
The final Christmas gift of my childhood that Mim bestowed upon me was the best. My very own DJ station, complete with turntable and microphone! I converted Mom’s dining room to my personal radio station, spinning wax and talking about the tunes to my imaginary radio listeners. With 6 older siblings, I had a virtual American Bandstand cache to choose from so the programming possibilities were endless. The Dave Clark 5, The Archies, Herman’s Hermits and Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crimson & Clover” I played over and over!) blasted off that turntable and into my radio universe for many a contented childhood hour.
Whether it was perfume, scientific exploration or music, the gifts Mim gave me for Christmas helped shape me. Somehow, with 8 other grandchildren to think about, she knew me and delighted in my imagination. I can’t wait to see her again and hear her giggle. I will thank her for the special memories and love she gave to me at Christmas and always. Then I will ride in the backseat of our paneled Ford station wagon again as one of my teenaged sisters or Mom picks Mim up for her nail appointment, grocery store or to go to Saturday afternoon confession. The fact that she never drove a car was a unique and glorious opportunity to know her better. And I am thankful for that.
Last year, I had a remarkable opportunity to change my life and I took it. I reached out to a friend I had once volunteered for, asking her if her organization was accepting volunteers during the pandemic. I had decided not to return to my full-time job as a middle school paraprofessional and was looking for something to do maybe 2 times a week. She responded quickly, “No, but there is a job opening that would be perfect for you.” JOB, I thought? As in, 5 days a week with responsibilities, deadlines, stress, conflict, exhaustion at age 55 kind of job? To be honest, an unexpected opportunity is the way every wonderful thing has happened in my life. As scared as her response made me, my gut instinct was to move forward and maybe take the leap.
I became a Rehab Assistant in a Pediatric & Adolescent Medical Rehab with absolutely no significant knowledge of the types of conditions the patients have or the therapies they receive. I only knew how a Mother’s heart would communicate with the children and families and support the therapists providing the services. It’s been the greatest professional experience of my life. I work with wonderful, dedicated people who spend their lives working to make life easier for children with disabilities and their families. As part of the team, my role in the pandemic is managing communication between caregivers and therapists. I greet the families outside the gym where the children are treated, listen to their concerns and bring them to the therapists back inside the gym at the beginning of the day. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a communication barrier between anxious families and their children’s rehabilitation therapists and my role has been to provide a sort of “Momma Love Glue” in the situation. At least this has been my interpretation of my role this year- and nobody has complained yet.
Who else can say they actually get paid to love? To my delight, in spite of the enormous challenges of working in an intensely physically and emotionally draining environment, I go home each day with a deep satisfaction from giving everything I have and know to help people inside and outside the gym succeed. And that’s where the original thought for this post comes from: my daily journey between these two worlds. Outside the gym, where families are sitting with their concerns and perhaps taking a few minutes’ respite as their children receive treatment inside the gym. Inside the gym, where rehabilitation professionals labor to make progress each visit with patients who are sometimes sleep deprived, cranky and uncooperative.
Last week, as I reached to assist a boy with cerebral palsy walk into the gym, his Mom offered a gentle reminder: “Remember: Be good. Work hard. Have a good time.” Her son repeated his Mom’s words enthusiastically as he set off to join his friends in our summer day camp. 12 hours later, after tumbling into my bed exhausted, I woke up, tearful, as I often do, at the memory of that precious scene I had the privilege to witness the day before.
Inside the gym, on this same day, I realized I had created a mess of our schedule by overlooking a couple of teammates’ vacations. Suddenly, because of my poor organizational skills, we were scrambling to make a plan to provide a safely socially distanced and supervised lunch for our patients. Inside the gym, our daily challenge as a team is to solve problems quickly so therapy can continue moving forward. We pivot a lot! So much my head is spinning sometimes (I literally have vertigo this summer). In all these pivots that sometimes my oversights have caused, NOT ONCE has a teammate judged, harshly criticized or humiliated me. My friend, our social worker, smiles and says to me, in my frustration, “Use your resources, Joan.” And that I have.
Last week I got to plan a tie-dye party for some of our adolescent patients. My husband dug out a tarp from our garage (he’s been a silent part of the team!) and I gathered some pillowcases and t-shirts for the kids to choose between for their colorful creations. Fortunately, I had a young volunteer who calmly accepted my plea to read through the instructions and provide the kids some structure (not my thing!) so they could finish the project in less than an hour. When it was over, and each kid had their project properly labelled and put away for the weekend to dry, I was flooded with another rush of awareness that my job has been to bring love and fun in an otherwise intense situation for children and families. Tomorrow, I get to be there to enjoy the scene as the kids take the rubber bands off their tie-dye projects. Tomorrow I get to love again.
I had the same 24 hours each day everyone else in quarantine had. Yet I did not take on any major projects. My yard is still a disaster. I never baked sourdough bread from scratch. I couldn’t even manage to find a lousy blue lightbulb to place in my front porch light to show support and gratitude for frontline workers. What I did do was escape with my streaming services. And today I share my favorite 27 escapes with a one-sentence description of why each rang my bell.
In the Documentary Category, the Covid Winners Are
“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” – a delightful journey through Hollywood Icon Rob Reiner’s final years of finding meaning and purpose through friendships, nature, laughter and creativity.
“Finding Vivian Mayer” – a fascinating discovery made by an estate sale junkie leads to unraveling of decades of world-class street photography taken by an unknown and elusive woman who nannies for a living – posthumous fame is always a thrill and a bummer all at once.
“Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives” – a heartfelt, passionate tribute to a genius in the music industry who discovered Pop Icons like Whitney Houston – you’ll never get her music out of your head again, like ever.
The Always Reliable Masterpiece Theater Winners are
“Beecham House” – who cares what the storyline is, feast your eyes on 2 hottie brothers prancing about a gorgeous estate in colonized English India.
“Flesh and Blood” – a crime thriller told through the perspective of creepy neighbor and one of my favorite British Actresses, Imelda Staunton – she watched this family of 3 dysfunctional children grow up and now she narrates the story of their upending by Mom’s creepy new boyfriend.
Popular Series Winners
I still have not been able to get into “Queen’s Gambit” – here is a short list of my Covid faves –
“Little Fires Everywhere”- Reese Witherspoon vs. Kerry Washington in a suspenseful drama where class and privilege are the backdrop for 2 women coming to terms with their life choices in middle age – there just is no better mean girl than Reese!
“Mrs. America” – Cate Blanchett as Phyliis Schlafly is absolutely mind-blowing – I even found myself sympathizing with the woman I was taught to believe was the anti-Christ, You.Will.Love.
“Ozark” – The best cast of any contemporary thriller, hands down. Nobody drops an F-bomb like Ruthie and could we love Jason Bateman more?
“Tiger King” – this got so sad and dark I wasn’t able to watch the last episode which is rare for me – the underlying message for me is to let go of grudges and bad juju before they consume you!
“The English Game” – Who cares about the history of football or soccer or whatever the hell you wanna call it – Edward Holcroft in a tuxedo is possibly the closest thing to God I have ever experienced.
My Favorite Covid Acorn (“Old Lady TV”) Dramas
“Blood” – Broody Adrian Dunbar returns home after the suspicious death of his wife to make amends with his children and manages to make things worse – but looking sexy as he does it!
“Doctor Foster” – Suranne Jones is the meanest, smartest, most self-destructive woman scorned you will ever meet.
“The Split” – A family of ruthless female divorce lawyers with secrets – I paid $29.99 for this one because Nicola Walker is one of my favorite smart British actresses and does she ever deliver in this one.
“Sommerdahl Murders” -OH.MY.GAWD Peter Mygind is the hunkiest Dane solving crimes on a tiny island and trying to win back his long-neglected wife’s affections, your heart will go pitter-patter!
“A Suitable Boy” – a modest Indian family in the 1950’s attempts to marry their youngest daughter and protect their financial future – but she has ideas of her own.
Movies, Mostly Older Ones, That Kept Me Covid Company
“On Golden Pond”– when life has me melancholy, I find myself longing for an escape to this enchanting pond and the comfort of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn’s long-burning love (and their bratty daughter, Jane Fonda).
“Emma” – the 2019 version of this Jane Austen classic – Bill Nighy steals the show as Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, a delightful tale in every respect.
“Little Women” – the modern interpretation of this classic tale by Greta Gerwig makes my heart ache for the March sisters as they seek to fulfill their personal dreams and ambitions in a socially suitable way – plus Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet’s unrequited love story will pierce your soul.
“Babette’s Feast”– I first watched this film on a hot date with my English Professor from UMKC in 1987 after dining on Greek food so of course re-watching it in my middle age is a yearly sojourn to that time as well as a deep dive into the souls of the spinster sisters and their French maid – Isak Dineson will forever be my favorite writer of all time!
“Remains of the Day” and “Howard’s End” – Because Merchant Ivory, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins – ole!
“Nanny McPhee” – Another cast I absolutely adore, Colin Firth as the loving and befuddled widower rescued by Emma Thompson is one of the sweetest, most charming tales I have ever seen.
“The Good Liar” – My oh my, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan at their very best, never underestimate a woman’s ability to deceive.
“Ladies in Lavender” – every time I watch Judi Dench fall madly in love with the strange young visitor I get a little sadder, such a bittersweet and beautiful tale.
“Pillow Talk”– This is the ONE and only movie I watched with my husband because, DORIS DAY and his 1960’s youthful awakening, right?!
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” – Widow Blythe Danner gets a second chance at love with Sam Elliott – who cares if the story is good, right?!!
“The Meddler” – Oops I lied, I watched this one with my husband, also, because SUSAN SARANDON playing a meddling Italian widow describing how she foibled making spaghetti for her Italian in-laws is a hoot, plus she gets a second chance at love with security guard J.K. Simmons and sparks doth fly!
I hope you enjoyed my incomplete list of time-wasting, utterly purposeless but delicious consumption of stories during this Pandemic Year. Go Grab your Roku and STREAM. Happy Holidays.