Category Archives: Family

What ‘Merry Christmas’ can really mean

Every year, for many years, I have mailed off roughly the same Christmas gifts to my siblings: a funny dog book or wall hanging for my sister Penny, who dotes on her four dogs; “crazy Cat Lady” trinkets to my oldest sister, Debbie, a cat lover whose husband used to volunteer at a shelter to help socialize feral cats for adoption; and a Minnesota-themed calendar or T-shirt or hat to my brother in Boston, who likes to showcase his Midwestern heritage.

They, in turn, would send me boxes of See’s candy, wax-wrapped aged cheese, frosted cookies in a holiday-themed tin — gifts that I appreciated but really do not need.

This year, I decided, would be different. Crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t appear dismissive of their past efforts, I emailed my siblings before Thanksgiving and asked that, in lieu of material gifts, they give to one of two nonprofits in my name: a local community services organization for which my husband and I deliver Meals on Wheels every Friday and a feminist policy-based organization that is gearing up against threats to Roe v. Wade.

“With the pandemic pressing in on us again and racially based divisiveness rocking our country, I am more aware than ever of the privilege we were born into and from which we continue to benefit,” I wrote.

“To that end, David and I respectfully ask that you take any money you would normally spend on the lovely gifts of food you send us for Christmas each year and instead donate that amount in our names to one of these causes.”

Each of my siblings generously supported the food shelves, youth employment and senior classes at Keystone Community Services, one noting that our father and stepmother received Meals on Wheels for a time. Soon after my initial request, I wrote again, saying that I would like to donate to their favorite causes and elevate the reach of Christmas beyond its consumerist underpinnings.

In the process, I got to know my sisters and brother better. Just as a budget reflects a company or a country’s core values, where a person chooses to donate money says a lot about that individual’s priorities, and about how they see themselves.

Access to the outdoors

My younger brother, L.J., showed himself as the Bostonian he has become since marrying a native of the city some 28 years ago. “Please donate to the Rose Kennedy Greenway,” he told me. “It is a great urban park that adds a lot to downtown Boston.” The public space and programming commits to “providing a park environment that is welcoming to racially, culturally, and economically diverse residents and visitors,” according to the website.

With food trucks, fitness classes, fountains and open green space — typically concentrated in the more affluent neighborhoods of our nation’s cities — the Greenway looks like an inviting place for people of all ages, abilities and economic classes to play and hang out.

An ADA-compliant carousel at Rose Kennedy Greenway makes a “spin” safe for everyone.

I’m not surprised that equity and inclusion in the natural world is an important value to my brother — raised, as we were, in a community with ample municipal and state parks and in a family that prioritized fitness and outdoor exercise — but we’ve never discussed it. Less politically liberal than I am, my brother revealed a side of himself I otherwise might not have seen. “Thanks for donating,” he said, pronouncing this philanthropic gift exchange “a nice idea.”

Dog-friendly diet

My sister Penny’s overt, over-the-top love of dogs is a running joke in our family. We love to recount the time her father-in-law said that after he died, he wanted to return to Earth as one of Penny’s pampered dogs, the ones who get soft-serve cones at Dairy Queen and homemade dinner so enticing that I once mistakenly ate it myself.

No surprise, then, that Penny’s choice for my donation was Colorado Pet Pantry, a food bank for pets that allows low-income people, or those whose luck has temporarily turned, to keep their animals rather than surrendering them to shelters.

Colorado Pet Pantry is a food shelf for animals whose owners might otherwise have to give them away.

“Being the dog lover that I am, I’m drawn to charities for pets,” she said. “This charity is unique in that it helps people to be able to keep a beloved animal they maybe otherwise couldn’t. That just spoke to me as a nonprofit worth supporting.”

What matters most

The morning after Christmas, I survey the leftovers in the fridge and determine that I can take a break from cooking that day. I recycle the plain brown wrapping paper that my younger son used on his thoughtful gifts of books. I force myself out, despite the cold, on my daily dog walk, trying to counteract the intake of overly rich food.

No Amazon boxes to break down and recycle. No cursing at the amount of plastic wrap that shippers use. No pondering whether to freeze or give away the pounds of candy and exotic edibles that my husband and I, as older empty nesters, do not need to consume.

Instead, I look over the website for the Retreat Center of Maryland, a 5-year-old organization that aims to bring yoga and other wellness practices to people with autism or Parkinson’s disease and other populations that the industry historically has not served. This is my sister Debbie’s choice for my Christmas gift, a nod to our mutual love of yoga. One of her neighbors, a volunteer yoga teacher in prisons, serves on the board.

My stepsister, Mary, my only sibling still living in Minnesota, chose Vine: Faith in Action, which matches volunteers with the needs of people ages 60 and older. In-person and online exercise classes and programs on topics such as diabetes, financial exploitation of seniors and healthcare directives have helped the Mankato-based organization continue to grow and serve.

“I want the gift of time,” I used to tell my sons every Mother’s Day. Now I want this practice of Christmas donations to become a tradition, bringing to life a quote commonly attributed to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church in which my siblings and I were raised:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

As a Unitarian, I no longer celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Still, I watch myself get caught up every year in the trappings and trimmings, the whirlwind of shopping and spending. Today, as December draws to a close, I can say, “Merry Christmas” and mean it, knowing that my brother and sisters and I shared what I believe is the true Christmas spirit.

Dog bites woman: lessons learned

Getting injured tends to make me reflective because it forces me to sit still, which I don’t do well. Even at 62, I value movement and action — to a fault, I am finding as I grow older.

Suffering a dog bite at an off-leash dog park, a juicy and unexpected chomp to my bare left calf, has left me hobbled, bleeding, aching, afraid, exhausted and unable to sustain my usual pace. I sought medical attention, after initially resisting, and two days later succumbed to the first round of rabies shots.

Mia_2019

Mia, my beloved Animal Humane Society rescue, gets ready for our morning run.

Here is what I’ve learned from the ordeal:

1. Posting on social media can turn bad luck to good advice: “You should have called Animal Control immediately,” said my experienced older sister, also a dog lover. “They would have impounded and quarantined the dogs.”

Problem is, I was so rattled, calling the authorities did not occur to me. What now? “At this point, I would ask the police to visit the dog owner,” my sister told me a day later. “She needs to be deterred from coming back to the dog park.” Numerous others on Facebook agreed. One even speculated I could be awarded $5,000 to $10,000 per puncture wound through the woman’s homeowner’s insurance. Well, maybe.

2. Trusting people based on superficial qualities leads to speculative results. The first question I asked the woman who insisted her dog only “scratched” me was whether her animal’s shots were up to date. “Of course,” she said. She looked trustworthy. But what does that mean? Turn over that rock, and out slither some stereotypical assumptions.

“Diana,” likely not her real name, was articulate and well dressed. She drove a nice van. She seemed friendly, approaching me later in the park — along with that damn dog! — to see whether I was alright. Again, being rattled and bleeding and in pain, I did not think to say: “Call my cell phone, so I have your number.” Instead, I texted myself the number that she told me, and this apparently trustworthy, friendly looking woman lied.

3. “Tough it out” is an ineffective strategy with an animal bite. Among the advice on Facebook, which I ignored for three days:

  • “You need proof that this animal is vaccinated.”
  • “Get to a doctor with that wound stat.”
  • “I didn’t go to the doctor when a dog bit my finger and ended up having surgery for an infected finger bone. My primary-care doc said to always get antibiotics.”

Ego can drive these decisions, especially as we get older and want to prove that we’re still strong and healthy. I remember a woman 10 years my senior telling me that she feels more “vulnerable,” physically. Not me! I arrogantly believed I could heal on my own, if I kept the wound covered and kept up my usual pattern of walking 14,000 steps daily. Bad plan, as the nurse practitioner affirmed when she prescribed amoxicillin for my weeping wound.

4. Short-term physical pain is worth long-term peace of mind. Because “Diana” gave me the wrong phone number, because I failed to follow her to her van and photograph the license plate, I had no way to reach her. Therefore, I had no way of proving that her dog had current vaccinations.

A doctor said the risk of rabies was low, given that the apparently cared for dog was at a dog park, not some crazed animal foaming at the mouth, To Kill a Mockingbird–style, that leaped out of the bushes on a jogging path. The Department of Health said otherwise. The only way to ensure I would not get rabies was to get the dreaded rabies shots. “I think the DOH is butt covering,” I told my oldest sister, the pragmatic one. “Maybe so,” she replied, “but rabies is fatal if you get it.” A quick Google search proved that to be true.

And the shots? Not nearly as painful as folklore would have it — or apparently, as invasive as they used to be. When I heard that the initial injections were in the wound, I pictured a doctor plunging a needle straight into the bite site (which remains painful to the touch eight days post-trauma). In fact, the doctor inserted the needles horizontally in the skin next to the wound, on either side, and then energetically rubbed the bite site so it could absorb the serum. That was the worst, and it was over quickly.

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Gabby, our rescue puppy from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas

5. Keep the faith. “Here’s what I know,” wrote a former colleague on Facebook, a man who recently traveled across several states to buy a hunting dog. “There are many, many more bad dog owners than there are bad dogs.” Of course, he’s right.

One woman warned me about PTSD, predicting that I may never be able to return to dog parks. Another offered to connect me with a therapist who specializes in “dog-bite trauma.” I’m not afraid of dogs, which I have owned for most of my life. What I am wary of is lackadaisical dog owners — ones like my neighbor who lets his golden retrievers walk unleashed on city streets, reassuring passersby that the dogs are friendly.

I never intended to sue “Diana.” What I wanted was an apology, an acknowledgment of the pain I suffered and an offer to pay my medical bills. I wanted her to make things right, and she failed me. But I won’t give up on dogs, not today. Not ever. I need their love and loyalty in an increasingly hostile world.

‘Emerging’ into a new stage of parenthood

“All I can do is feed him and listen.”

I have repeated that sentence like a commandment, a mantra — a helpless prayer — since my younger son moved back home in February. Only 22, he had his heart broken when his longtime girlfriend left him, their apartment and the shared life they had built. They had been together since they were 15 years old.

This past Monday, they would have left for a four-week excursion through Europe, where he had planned to propose. “You will look back on this as one of your life’s most significant losses,” I have told him, acknowledging both the worth of his former girlfriend (whom Nate’s dad and I loved, too) and the depth of his pain.Millennial T-shirt

Since Nate moved home, he has graduated from college with honors, increased the hours at his part-time job and gradually built a new circle of friends. He and I have taken long walks and had soul-searching talks. I iron his shirts. He helps pay a few bills.

Repeatedly I have asked myself whether I am helping or enabling him. Truth is, I don’t know. My late mother had Dr. Spock (“and Dr. Penn,” she would say, referring to the general practitioner who delivered her five babies). But I have no guidebook for how to parent a young adult, and neither do my contemporaries.

Consider:

  • A majority of young adults live independently in only six of this country’s 50 states, according to 2015 U.S. Census data. Minnesota is not among them. That compares with 35 states a decade earlier.
  • Social scientists have coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe this uncertain, often scary period between adolescence and functioning without parental support.
  • Conversations with my female friends increasingly involve whispered worries about our young adult children. The son, 27, who lives at home because half of his income goes to child support; the accomplished daughter whose tumultuous relationship could affect her career; the promising college graduate who may be with the wrong woman, though his mother feels powerless to help him see it.

“I thought I was done, and technically I am done, but you have these concerns,” says the mother of the young man whose sons she is helping raise. Her son left home after high school and did not return until he had a college degree. “I really didn’t think about him on a daily basis,” she says. “Now it’s lying awake till he comes home at night. It means letting go and trusting that he’ll find his way, and that’s hard.”

Navigating a new terrain

Helicopter parents? I find that label too dismissive. Instead, Nate and his dad and I are three adults renegotiating the rules in a household that had been an empty nest.

My husband claims I have reverted to “Mom mode” since our son moved home four months ago. I see myself as trying to guide him through the grief and toward a productive life that will help him feel useful and happy.

“Both adult sons and adult daughters reported more tension with their mothers than with their fathers, particularly about personality differences and unsolicited advice,” reads a report about a study of parent and adult child relationships by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “It may be that children feel their mothers make more demands for closeness or that they are generally more intrusive than fathers.”

Since Commencement weekend in May — when my son flew to Portland, Oregon, with his brother rather than face his former partner at their college graduation — I have been thinking not only about what I owe him. I have been pondering what he is teaching me.

Three conclusions, so far:

  1. Worry does not serve him. Tempting though it is to twist and spin about Nate’s future, it is his problem, his journey — his opportunity. “Worry is a lack of faith in the other and cannot exist simultaneously with love,” writes Duluth-based yogi and author Deborah Adele in her book The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Principles. “We need to trust suffering and trust challenge and trust mistakes; they are what refine us when we don’t run from them.”
  2. Learning crosses generational borders. Just as Baby Boomers can choose to learn from Gen Xers and Millennials in the workplace, I am intentionally seeking my son’s perspective. Yes, I raised him, shaped his values and oversaw his education, but it is arrogant to assume that I still have a “one up” role. He has nudged me to examine how much I invest my identity in work and helped me see that mothers have no monopoly on wisdom.
  3. Risk is its own reward. The notion that a person has to marry, choose a career or have children by a certain age can become its own self-constructed prison. I wish I had taken more risks as a young adult, so why am I uncomfortable with my son doing so? Having him home again has taught me to hold my tongue, withhold judgment and resist my tendency to manage or fix.

As I approach the final third of my life, I want nothing less for my son than I seek for myself: courage, accountability and resilience.