Talking ’bout Generations

Generation 1 grinning from ear-to-ear while hugging generation 3--I love grandma's smile

Generation 1 grinning from ear-to-ear while hugging generation 3–I love the smile

Upon reflecting on spending Saturday morning with Great-grandparents, Grandparents, Parents, and child, the continuum struck me as profound.  I now have five close friends who are grandparents.  Everyone of them says being a grandparent is the best experience in the world–they don’t actually have to say that, the look on their faces says it all.

Perhaps it brings a sigh of relief knowing that you can pass the baton and let your child be the one who does all the hard stuff while you sweep in to blow raspberries on baby’s belly or to spoil a toddler with cookies at breakfast or let a ‘tween do something they’re not allowed to do with a wink and a shared secret never to be told to your children?

Sleepy face on Generation 4

Sleepy face on Generation 4

I am reminded of my own grandparents.  My father’s parents were born before the turn of the century–the 20th, that is.  My father was a late comer in their lives, born when they were in their 40’s.  By the time I arrived on the scene, they were nearly 70.

They were still fun people, albeit moving slowly, until I was about 12 or so.  We saw them twice a year, living about a 10-hour drive away.  Grandma always baked for us.  She made fancy homemade cakes for my brother’s birthday at Christmas.  But what really got us excited wasn’t the cake.  It was her marshmallow treats.  We had never had them before my grandmother made them for us the first time.  She set the standard.

My grandmother also made the best strawberry preserves I ever ate in my life.  Grandma’s strawberry preserves were so darn good, I still drool whenever I think about them.  I used to regret not learning from her how to make them, but now I think the memory of those preserves is sacred.  Grandma’s secret ingredient in all her recipes was an infusion of love.  Eating her goodies was like a sacrament–the embodiment of all that she hoped to pass down to us.

Generation 3 holding generation 4 and looking like only a proud papa madly in love with his baby girl can look

Generation 3 holding generation 4 and looking like only a proud papa madly in love with his baby girl can look

My grandfather did not bake.  Rather, he was just downright silly.  He was world-class when it came to horse play.  Whether it was chasing us around the house (irritating Grandma with our shrieks of joy), bouncing us on his knee, or pretending to steal our noses, Grandpa’s genuine goofiness was a crowd pleaser.

The most poignant moment of visiting Grandma and Grandpa always came when we waved goodbye.  Armed with a bag of candies to get us safely home again, we waved out the back window of the station wagon and watched Grandma bury her tear-streaked face in Grandpa’s shoulder as we disappeared from view.  I asked my mom once why Grandma always cried when we left.  Mom said something about Grandma missing us when we’re gone.  I didn’t figure out until many years later that it was because every time she said goodbye, she thought it would be the last.

Generation 4 rebooting

Generation 4 rebooting

Meet Up

Surely this is Olympus?

Surely this is Olympus?

Today was full of nostalgia.  It started off with a visit with friends.  One of those friends is a young woman I’ve known for 23 years now–since she was 7.  I didn’t realize I’d known her for 23 years until we sat down and figured it out over breakfast.  But there I was, flipping back and forth in my mind between the 7 year-old Karen the day I met her and the 30 year old wife and mother sharing breakfast with me.

Karen and Chris

Karen and Chris

It was the first time I met her new daughter, just born in March.  She’s a happy baby.  Smiling and cooing and doing cute baby things.  I will have photos from today eventually, but I need to get them downloaded and post-processed first and I forgot my card reader–I’ll have to find one tomorrow.

Since I don’t have new photos to post, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane from the last time I saw my friend and her husband.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 3 years since I last saw them.  We went hiking with them in Montana when Pat and I were out for a visit.

IMG_8111One of the things Pat and I did while we were in Montana was take a helicopter ride over Glacier National Park with some other dear friends who accompanied us on part of the trip.  We flew over the mountains, above the clouds that surrounded the peaks.  I think of these photos whenever my young friend talks about her job.  She’s a paramedic and flies on life flights over the same mountains I paid to see.

I sometimes visualize her in an emergency medical chopper over these same mountains.  I am part jealous and part afraid.  Such beautiful sights so often, and to get paid to see it to boot!  On the other hand, it seems like such a dangerous thing to do, rushing out into this unforgiving landscape in a tiny helicopter to try to save someone.  I am impressed all over again every time I think about it.

Sun breaks through

Reconnecting with this friend and her extended family (4 generations were at breakfast together) reminded me how wonderful family is.  I found myself missing my own family as well as this adoptive family I was able to spend the morning with immediately upon leaving.

I started winding through history, remembering cute things Karen and her twin sister and younger brother did when I spent 2 summers babysitting them.  I also remembered all the hard times having this group of people in my life helped me through.

I managed to slip back into the present moment enough to enjoy one of the nicest parts about meeting the whole family:  getting to watch Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, Great-grandma and Great-grand dad all making faces at the newest addition to the family.  They were all adorable in their face making approaches.

No--we are not climbing that

Baby Mom

I love the photo of my mother in her formal.  It’s such a crazy dress!  But what’s most remarkable about that photo is that it could have been taken a few years before her death–she looked so much the same.  It’s hard for me to see that she’s a college student when I look at the photo.

I also love the last photo of her sitting next to her niece.  Her niece is older than her.  How many people are born already an aunt?  There is a story about one of her uncles, when in his 50‘s, out on a work run with a co-worker.  When he realized they were close to my mom’s, he asked his single and much younger co-worker if he wanted to meet his niece.  The co-worker protested that he wasn’t dressed appropriately to meet a girl.  The uncle assured him his niece wouldn’t mind. When they went in and met my mother, the co-worker was highly disappointed to discover she was an infant.

My mother was a beautiful baby with big, bouncy curls in her hair.  People used to stop her mother in the street and suggest she stop what she was doing and take my mother to hollywood immediately.  Supposedly, Grandma didn’t want that kind of life for my mom, but I suspect she really just couldn’t imagine it as a real possibility.

Regardless, my mother was a favorite.  An adorable baby surrounded by adults who oohed and awed over her.  At least that’s what I imagine her childhood was like.

Her cousin, Carl, was certainly a favorite.  I guess it was mutual.  The photos of the graduate are him.  He looks very happy to have been a favorite of my mother’s.

She loved her relatives, all of them, so much that I could only imagine them treating her like a special pet.  The one regret she shared with me when I was old enough for her to start to speak of her regrets was that we lived so far away from extended family.

She described her childhood as though the center of it was a door constantly swinging open as another family member came through.  My childhood was very much the nuclear family variety.  I tried to imagine a constant parade of aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins marching through the kitchen and found it vaguely disturbing.  I guess it’s true that children don’t know what they’re missing.

The first two photos could have been of me when I was younger (if I were dressing for a 50’s party).  It reminds me of when I walked out of a back room into the living room of my parents house right after my mother’s wake.  One of our visiting family members got a shocked look on her face as I approached and then suddenly, realizing her mistake, said out loud that she’d thought I was my mother.  Now, I would be grateful to look like her.

My Mother’s Mother

I stumbled across these old photos I scanned into the computer years ago.  They tell a story of hope.  Hope that a person can start over again in the middle of life.  The first two photos are from my grandparents wedding day.  They were in their 40’s, not far off from my age now.

In all the family lore I heard about my grandmother’s history, I never heard how my grandparents met, why they fell in love, what made my grandmother marry my grandfather.

The story that took center stage on my mother’s side of the family happened long before my mother was born.  It was the story of my grandmother’s survival.

My grandmother emigrated to the United States either from Hungary or Germany–the family lived in both places–when she was about 7, if I recall correctly.  I remember being told she had about a 3rd grade education, so I’m not sure if she went to school in the US after she got here.  Wherever she immigrated from, her family spoke German.  I know this well because many years later, when she was losing her mind, she reverted to speaking German again and couldn’t understand why no one knew what she was saying.

The story I was told was that my grandmother had 6 babies starting when she was 16 and the last when she was 24.  2 of them did not survive.  When she was about 26, with 4 young daughters, she awakened one morning to find her husband dead in the bed next to her.

In the same year, her mother died and her distraught father committed suicide.  Orphaned and widowed and left with 4 young children to support on her 3rd grade education, she turned to the Catholic church for support and turned her children over to a home for children so she could work as a live-in maid.

I don’t know the story as to how she got out of that line of work.  What I do know is that her children remained in the Catholic home until they graduated from the 8th grade, each having to choose between becoming a nun and leaving the home at the age of 13.  Only one of my aunts became a nun.

However it happened, my grandmother ended up on the church steps in these photos smiling on the second wedding day of her life.  They were still poor, but my grandfather supported my grandmother, leaving her free to take care of my mother when she surprised them by appearing so late in their lives.

What this story needs is a happy ending.  I’m not sure that it has one.  I remember my grandparents mostly as bitter, angry people.  We saw them only for about 6 days of the year most years, but their screaming arguments were what we most remembered.

Yet, my grandmother was still quick to smile and laughed often.  Maybe her happiness just looked different from what I expected?

Christmas Aftermath and Unabashed Silliness

I repeat the start of yesterday, rising before the sun and sitting alone in the living room watching the lights on the tree.  But this morning, I reflect on Christmas yesterday.  The remnants of wrapping paper remain on the floor.  I have yet to turn on the news to see if world peace was achieved.

Instead, I think about the crazy toys we picked out for my nephews, 18 and 19 years old.  We got funny whistles that play when they are turned over and the whistle slides through a tube.  I laugh as I recall my nephews trying to synchronize their whistles to play a chord.

We also got them a Pokey and a Gumby–I was pleased when each took a few moments to contort them into ridiculous poses.  But my favorite was when they opened the cheap mustache kits and each adhered a fake mustache to their faces.  The oldest resembled Charlie Chaplin with the thick, squarish mustache he picked out and the youngest looked like a silent movie villain with the skinny mustache he tried on.

While we did get them each a gift they wanted in addition to these silly finds, I suspect it will be these toys they remember with a smile when they tell their kids about the Christmases they had.

I grow serious for a moment and do a mental check on how I did with judging.  I am pleased that I noticed every time I was judgmental.  I think about what triggered a judgmental response and recognize that I am guilty of the things I judge the most harshly.  I am reminded of a friend of mine who told me he was a horrible gay basher until he came out of the closet.  As if we somehow distance ourselves from our own guilt by harshly condemning others for what we want most to hide about ourselves.  Hypocrisy is not my friend.

I wonder for a moment if “coming out of the closet” about my own secrets would somehow free me from this tendency to judge.  But I recall that my friend did not leave his judgments behind by revealing his sexual orientation; rather he changed sides on who he thought was right and wrong.  Perhaps he was ashamed of having been cruel.

Rather than follow in my friend’s footsteps, then, I decide I will simply stay with noticing when I am judging and letting it go.  This was quite effective yesterday.  Instead of getting worked up and angry, I simply noticed I was judging and moved on.  It may have been my most peaceful (and silly) Christmas yet.

I’m happy with my progress even if it wasn’t perfect.  I was freed to focus on creating silliness in the here and now instead of talking about (and getting upset about) things in the past or things imagined.

I decide I need to amend my wish for this holiday season:  peace, love, joy, and unabashed silliness.

A Little Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day.  And today, I am full of thanks.  I remember reading once that it’s easy to be grateful when things are going well, but the trick is to be grateful when they’re not.  Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, this is an easy year to be grateful.  I count my blessings as we make our way from Chattanooga to the Smokies, where we will spend the long weekend.

We arrive at the lodge right around 1PM.  The Thanksgiving buffet has just started.  We get checked in, drop a few things off in our room, and then head to the dining room.  We walk down the buffet table checking out each dish, trying to decide what to leave room for and what to skip.  The inn keeper tells us there’s a menu printed on the table that lists all the dishes.  I laugh and tell him that would be great if I’d brought my reading glasses.  He laughs and we continue to peek at the food.  In the end, the preview was a wasted effort on my part.  The only dish I skip is the salad.  I take at least a small spoonful of everything else.  I will try it all and be grateful for the chance to try something new.

At least, that was my intention.  My swelling gratitude trips a little when I take a mouthful of whipped sweet potatoes and discover pieces of celery hiding in the mix.  A personal favorite complicated by an unexpected flavor.  I have to pause and figure out what I’m eating.  When I realize there is celery in my potatoes, I am both shocked and relieved. After all, celery is edible and I like it, but it is a surprising ingredient in sweet potatoes.  I return to gratitude and enjoy selecting the next bite of food.

In the background, a large family eating their Thanksgiving dinner together joins hands and one of the men at the table says a long and loud prayer.  I suddenly feel like an eavesdropper overhearing a private conversation.  It somehow feels wrong to me to hear this family sharing their form of gratitude.

My own sense of gratitude is a bit strained.  I refocus on the food, which is wonderful if different.  I think about the fact that I didn’t have to cook, we didn’t have to drive very far, we have a comfortable place to stay, and, best of all, we’re in the middle of the Smokies with a spectacular view.  If we had family or friends with us now, that would be the only thing that would make it more perfect.  But part of me feels like we’re missing the most important thing.  Then, I decide that instead of missing them, I will think of each of them.  I hold each family member and each friend in my mind for a moment, feeling gratitude for their presence in my life.  It’s a centering experience, reminding me of what’s important to me and how much I have to be grateful for.

When we finish eating, we go outside to take in the view.  We take a slow stroll in our city clothes along a short path to the Sunrise Viewpoint.  We pause to sit in a porch swing hung along the way.  We sit and talk over a leaf blower, a workman approaches, clearing all the leaves off the path.  He turns off the blower when he sees us, but we tell him to go ahead and finish his work.  He removes the leaves from the entire length of this short trail.  Given that this is a dirt path through the woods, I’m a little surprised that they blow the leaves off of it.  I am wearing my favorite new boots and would prefer that they didn’t since the leaves would prevent my boots from getting muddy.  When we continue our walk, I step carefully, trying not to let my boots sink into the dirt.  I am reminded of someone recently commenting that they had a hard time imagining me roughing it.  This comment surprised me at the time, but as I imagine what I look like in my urban clothes gingerly stepping around the mud, I think to myself, “Oh what a difference a change of clothes can make!”

At the sunset point, there is a deck with adirondak chairs to sit and watch the sun come up.  There’s a lovely view of the lake and mountains below.  Even better, there’s a bell hanging from a post with a mallet to strike it with.  When I give the bell a tap, it rings out with a sound that makes you think, “Ahhh.”  If peace were a sound, this is what it would sound like.  It rings on and on in a growing sort of sigh.  I am amazed at how long it continues from one gentle tap.

We sit for a bit, but then head the opposite direction towards the sunset point.  The view is less open from the sunset point and I want to get back to the lodge so I can capture some of the end of sunset, so we hurry back, me still trying to keep my boots from getting muddy.  After shooting, we find a spot to sit and relax where there is still some sunlight that keeps us warm.  As we sit and absorb the last rays of light, a group gathers  on a deck above and starts singing hymns.  Unfortunately, while some individuals seem to have good voices, as a group, they are painful to listen to.  We decide to head inside.  We enter the warm lobby and, after dropping off my camera, head to the bar.  With a glass of wine, we sit in front of the fire and relax until it’s time for dinner.

As we sit and unwind, I think again of friends and family and how much fun it would be to have them all here now.  Well, maybe not all at once.  I have the overwhelming urge to tell them all I love them.  I end up posting on Facebook instead.  I’m sure there’s an expression for posting on Facebook when you are overly emotional and possibly a little tipsy.

After sandwiches and dessert, we retire to our room and decide we might as well go to bed.  It’s been an amazingly relaxing day.  In fact, I can’t recall having ever had such a low stress day.  Another thing to be grateful for.

But I lay in bed awake, feeling a little guilty for having this day.  I decide to call my parents, but discover I have no phone signal.  Since the lodge does have WiFi, I send them an email instead.  It’s still early enough where they are that they are probably just now eating Thanksgiving dinner anyway.  Pat sends his mom an email while I write to my dad.  I feel a little better now that we’ve at least made some contact.  Then I check my Facebook page and feel like I’ve stayed in touch with my friends all day.  i decide Facebook is another thing to be grateful for.  Then, I set aside my mobile devices, roll over, and do my best to fall asleep, feeling grateful for a warm bed.

Seeing Eagles and Shooting Soccer

It’s our second day visiting my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew in Indianapolis.  We are at a lull in the day where each of us has found our own way to entertain ourselves.  I am working on photos.  Paul is doing something related to work.  Megan has gone for a run.  Scott is off somewhere.  We have a few hours before we will reconvene to go to the next soccer game.  Pat is the only one devoid of entertainment.  He wants to do something fun and he wants someone to do it with.

I ponder this for a while.  While Pat used to do things on his own quite often, they typically involved having a workshop and building something.  It’s not the kind of interest that you take with you when visiting others or even relocating temporarily.  His tools are being used by a friend instead of in storage, but they remain in Columbus.  It dawns on my why he wants to go back to Columbus so frequently.

In the meantime, my brother gets up and finds some sort of game for the two of them to go outside and play.  It looks like Jai Lai, which I would have never heard of except that we had a restaurant in Columbus when I was a child named “The Jai Lai,” so we all learned what it was.  Since Paul has taken care of entertaining Pat, I return to my photos.  Sorting through the shots from yesterdays soccer game is a challenge.  I actually had many decent shots (given that my goal was to shoot my nephew), but they mostly look the same.  I missed the crucial moment many, many times.  For example, when my nephew scored, I couldn’t get my lens turned fast enough and ended up with shots of the grass.  I have a new respect for sports photographers.  But now, I have hundreds of similar shots that really should be discarded because they are dull.

Pat suddenly returns to the room I’m working in all excited.  He tells me that he and Paul have seen an eagle diving into their neighbor’s yard and that I should come outside.  While I’m somewhat skeptical that they saw a Bald Eagle diving out of the sky in the middle of their suburban neighborhood, there have been eagles nesting by their neighborhood lake, so this is not as far fetched as it would have been even 5 years ago.  The only part that is at all surprising to me is that a Bald Eagle would choose to hunt rodents when there is a lake full of fish just a block away.  I make a mental note to google Bald Eagle eating habits later.

When I step outside, I am surprised by the bright sunshine.  While the weather was improving yesterday, it’s downright perfect now.  I suddenly regret that we didn’t decide to go for a short hike before the soccer game.  Instead, we walk the streets of my brother’s neighborhood looking for an eagle eating something.  We never spot that eagle.  Pat doesn’t take nearly as much interest in birds as I do, but he is interested in birds of prey.  So, when he tells me the bird they saw was much bigger than a Red-tailed Hawk, I tend to believe him.  But, now it’s getting close to time to leave, so we return to the house to get ready to go.

When we get to the soccer fields, I haul out my big lens again on it’s monopod.  As Pat and I settle in at the sidelines, a father sits next to us and says, “Are you with the Indianapolis Star?”  He points at my camera.  I assume that the Star is the local paper.  I laugh but before I can say anything, Pat jokes that we’re from the Chattanoogan some-name-he-made-up and that this game is getting big coverage.  The guy laughs mightily at that–this is a co-ed recreational soccer league–and says, oh, yeah, big, big game!

As I practice zeroing in on my nephew as he plays goalie (making my job much easier) the first half of the game, I periodically pause and look around.  It’s an interesting shift when I am thinking only about shooting a subject and I’m looking through a telephoto at that subject, and then I suddenly look outside the lens and allow the full scene to enter my consciousness.  It’s a good analogy for tunnel vision, I guess, which is, of course, an analogy for narrow thinking.

I think about one of my least favorite corporate expressions that’s being overused these days:  “Laser Focused.”  Remaining “laser focused” allows me to shoot my nephew without getting distracted by the pretty leaves across the field, the crooked lines drawn on the field, or even the ball.  But failing to look around causes me to miss all of those things, including who’s actually winning the game.  I experiment with looking for other things to shoot when the ball is at the other end of the field.  This creates an interesting tension between keeping an eye on the ball so that I know when my nephew is likely to be back in action and peering down that telephoto lens at some other subject, when I’m most likely to miss what’s going on in the game.

Then, Pat points out a big bird circling over the woods across the field.  I had seen it and dismissed it as a vulture because of its size.  Now, as I look again, I realize that it is not a vulture, but I can’t tell what it is.  It’s too far away and I don’t have my binoculars with me.  We watch it circling and then it suddenly tucks it’s wings into a shape you would expect to see on a military fighter plane and dives towards the earth at break-neck speed.  Pat sees a white head and is convinced we’ve seen another Bald Eagle.  I’m less convinced.  I didn’t see a white head (although it could have been a juvenile) and I’m still not confident that eagles commonly hunt on land.  I make a second note to google eagle eating habits.  However, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a hawk that big or one that dove like that.

I hope that it was a Bald Eagle.  I remember the first time I saw one in the wild.  It was 1992 and I was on a trip to the East coast of Maine.  At that time, I’m not sure if there were any places closer to Columbus, OH where you could see a Bald Eagle in the wild than the East Coast of Maine?  DDT destroyed the population.  It’s unbelievable to me that I was able to drive 15 minutes from our home in Columbus to a metro park to watch a nesting pair of Bald Eagles for the past two years and that my brother has a pair nesting in his neighborhood.  It’s one of those stories of hope that makes me think it’s possible to correct the damage that we’ve done and restore some sort of balance to the ecosystems we depend on.

But returning to the game, I get to practice panning (a lot) when my nephew plays defense in the second half.  Turns out, panning it pretty difficult when you’re following a subject that is unpredictable.  I also get to use an autofocus setting that I don’t use often–it keeps refocusing as your subject moves.  It’s a little tricky to get used to, but a couple of my shots come out reasonably clear (out of about 100).  I definitely need more practice!  It’s funny that I’ve been trying to learn this hobby for about 7 years now, but I’ve been so sporadic that it’s like I have to start over each bout of shooting–I even have to get the manual for my camera out and relearn what’s what periodically.  Oh well, at least it’s a hobby that’s likely to last a lifetime.

After watching my nephew’s team win their second game of the end-of-the-season tournament, we all head home.  We pack up the van and we take two cars to dinner.  We eat at an Indian restaurant that’s on the way out of town for us and not far for everyone else.  Pat and I will drive to Columbus straight from dinner.  I am dubious about eating Indian–I like Indian, but it doesn’t always like me–but I order something mild.  As we say our goodbyes, I am suddenly sorry to be leaving.  For a moment, I ponder what it would be like to have a close-knit family that lives within a couple blocks of one another and walks in and out on a daily basis.  Then, we get into the van and go on our way.