My mother-in-law was no stereotype

Monday evening, my mother-in-law died.

Bouquet from yard in vase made by young Wildebeest, given to Alice on day before her death.

Contrary to what books and movies would have us believe, not all mothers-in-law are control freaks who believe no one is good enough for their sons. Some are kind, loving, and supportive.

It didn’t feel that way at the start. The first time I met Alice was when Zippy brought me to his parents’ home in Colorado for Christmas in 1988. At the time, he and I had a long-distance relationship between our two California cities. When it was bedtime, Alice showed me where I’d sleep, which wasn’t where Zippy was sleeping. I remember the depths of loneliness I felt lying in that room in an unfamiliar house filled with people I didn’t know. Loneliness plus resentment for the uptight mother of my boyfriend.

That’s the first and last thing she ever did to upset me. No exaggeration. And after I got to know Alice, I realized her decision to put me in that bedroom by myself wasn’t a comment on me or my relationship with her son, but because she didn’t want to make assumptions.

Alice welcomed me with open arms and later extended her endless love to Wildebeest and Zebu. If Alice was a stereotype, it was as a devoted grandmother. She genuinely loved spending time with her grandchildren. Wildebeest told me a story yesterday about the time Alice and Stu took care of Zebu and him for a weekend while Zippy and I went out-of-state for my high school reunion. He’s foggy on the details — maybe he and his brother were fighting over a toy or complaining of boredom — but he remembers it was the only time Grandma got mad at them.

I believe it. Alice was the queen of easy-going. She loved family and friends, and was always the first to laugh at herself. She’d do something — such as accidentally sitting on her camera in the church pew at her other son’s wedding — then let out her trademark “woooo,” followed by a giggle. One time, she agreed to help me make curtains for the boys’ bedroom. After many, many laughter-filled minutes trying to figure out how to thread the sewing machine needle and bobbin, we gave up and called her capable seamstress neighbor who set things right while Alice and I laughed some more.

Once, Alice agreed to accompany me to a doctor’s appointment where she stayed out in the car with the boys. Toddler Zebu was still very attached to me and didn’t handle separation well. When he began crying, Alice struggled to get him out of the car seat, growing more confused as his wailing reached epic proportions. In later years, Alice told the story of how Wildebeest leaned in at that moment to say, “Read the directions, Grandma.” She then read the instructions on the car seat and was able to release Zebu and calm him. But in her telling, all credit went to Wildebeest.

Alice was generous to a fault. She feared and disliked cats, yet cut out cat pictures for the birthday cards she’d make me. When she flew to Alaska to help out after Zebu was born, she told me to let her know if any of her behavior bothered me. She said this knowing that the recent visit from my own mother had caused more problems than it alleviated. Once, after Stu and I had a spirited conversation about our differing political views, in which he was literally hopping mad and called me a communist, Alice forced him to phone me the next day to apologize. Honestly, I thought it was pretty funny seeing my father-in-law so wound up, but Alice didn’t want to risk hurt feelings. Family mattered.

Alice was nineteen when she had Zippy (Stu was twenty-one). Alice had four children by the time she was thirty, a mind-boggling realization when I had my first child at 30 years and barely considered myself mature enough to be a parent. Over the years, Alice and Stu apologized to their kids for supposed mistakes they’d made and opportunities they hadn’t provided. But from my perspective, that young and very poor couple accomplished a miracle: they raised four well-adjusted children who not only loved their parents very much, but also love and support each other.

Over the three weeks following Alice’s heart surgery at the end of July, those four children worked together to help their ailing mother. They coordinated efforts so Alice, who was deaf and suffering dementia, would never be alone in an unfamiliar place. Under increasingly scary and difficult circumstances, those four hung together in their shared goal to ease their mother’s discomfort.

And now Alice’s smile and laughter are only memories. Our hearts are shattered, but I’m deeply grateful for the years I had with my mother-in-law. My wish for her now, wherever she is, is that there are buffets rather than menus. Because for her many fine qualities, Alice struggled to make decisions. Eating out with her was a study in patience. But maybe there are menus and waitstaff. In which case, as Alice was fond of saying, “I hope it all works out.”

Recycled memories

Years ago, I used to begin each day writing three pages in longhand,  per Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” It was stream of consciousness writing done via a fountain pen and legal pad that usually morphed from scribblings about my life to the plot and characters of the novel (my very first) I was working on. I loved that ritual and don’t remember why I stopped in the early 2000s. But because I struggle to throw out “documentation” of my life (in large part because my parents saved very few items from my childhood), I stored those years of legal pads in a filing cabinet in our basement where they remained until today when I took an empty cardboard box into the storage room and began emptying the contents of that file drawer.

Image by Dmitriy Gutarev from Pixabay

At first, I averted my gaze, knowing how easy it would be for me to get lost in my words. Instead, I focused on tearing sections of paper away from the cardboard backing. Pad after pad was disassembled before my gaze somehow landed on the bottom of a page where I’d written about Wildebeest’s last day in soccer the day before. Apparently, in addition to ordering a team photo we’d also ordered a trophy for him despite misgivings about participation trophies. I wrote how Wildebeest was so thankful for the trophy he nearly cried as he said, “it makes me so happy.” Or maybe he said “it’s perfect.”

I’ve already forgotten the exact wording.

And that’s what panicked me as I stood this morning in the storage room next to the half-filled box of loose Morning Pages: the knowledge that I was about to recycle so many memories. For a moment, I considered going back through all those pages to extract every one that offered glimpses into my life with Zippy and our two sons. Such as the (May 1999) pages written the morning I’d gotten up at 5:00 a.m. in order to go to the Fillmore Auditorium to get in line for Bob Dylan concert tickets, and the next day’s pages in which I recounted how Zippy and the boys brought me croissants to where I waited in line and that it was Bob Dylan’s 58th birthday which I was celebrating by happily gazing upon the tickets I’d just scored. All those pieces of my life there on those legal pads.

But it wasn’t only highlights I came across as I tore paper from pads. I also read some angry words about Zippy. A scathing unsent letter to my father. And a shame-filled accounting of how I’d temporarily kept our sick dog, who was wet and muddy, outside our tent before coming to my senses and bringing her inside. Those Morning Pages also had the power to pull me back into places I didn’t need to revisit. Deep down, I knew there was no need to reopen wounds.

It’s all a moot point because as I write this, Zippy returned from the recycling center. Those six or so years of documentation are now officially gone from my life. I’m mostly at peace with my decision to let it all go, but admit to still having some twinges of regret. Undoubtedly, I’d documented some funny things the kids said. Fortunately, I don’t need those Morning Pages to remember Zebu pulling off his socks and saying “Mell my dinky toes.”

Honoring Bob

This past weekend, a whole lot of people gathered to honor and celebrate my brother-in-law‘s life.

I’ve known for decades that Bob was a stellar human being (one of the very best on the planet), but it was still incredible to hear that sentiment expressed over and over again. Every single speaker mentioned the very things that made me love Bob so much: his kindness and lack of judgment, the way he listened so that you felt heard and valued. His generosity and tenacity in his lifelong fight for tenants’ rights and consumer protection. How he used his sense of humor and intellect to punch up, never down. His passion for life and love for his family. His enormous heart.

I laughed and cried throughout the program.

Many comments resonated throughout, but one theme in particular spoke to me: Bob never turned cynical or stopped hoping and believing in a better world.

I felt called-out because this country’s collapse and slide into fascism while the so-called “better party” is in power has made me hugely cynical. I’ve been tempted to give up. But Bob never gave up on justice. He continued fighting for society’s vulnerable and voiceless, up until the very end of his life. If I’m to truly honor Bob’s life,  I must do the same.

I love and miss you so much, Bobaloo. Rest in power, brother.

Sunday Confessional: not this time

It’s good I have photographic proof of flowers that bloomed in my garden over the past two Mays, because they’ll have a hard time showing up this year in my weed and grass-choked beds.

May 2, 2020

For the past month or so, I’ve either had to wear a splint on my left-hand ring finger or tape that finger to the middle finger in order to immobilize it. I strained the tendons badly (at least, that’s what I’m guessing) while trying to rotate our compost tumbler that sits on casters (the tumbler we built in order for me to know how to write a how-to book for young readers)  and so haven’t done any bed clean-up in front this spring. One-handed gardening is above my pay grade.

As we returned from a walk just now, I averted my gaze from our front yard. Poor little perennials, struggling to push through the dead and mess I can’t remove. Zippy has no time or energy for yard work because he’s working hard to finish the van build and the quotes we received from clean-up businesses were very high, so the mess will remain.

Lucky for me, vinca is a hardy little plant.

May 7, 2021

It always finds a way to make its presence known.

Tranquil memories

Despite the scattered evidence of beavers’ handiwork, I recall the tranquility of this spot. We didn’t see any beavers that day, but their lodge is visible where the water comes to a V at the center of this not-great photo.

Uncompahgre National Forest. July 29, 2019

That was a good hike and beautiful day with Zippy and Emma, and I’m grateful for the memories.

Bad news good news

Earlier this week, I wore my Marmot raincoat while walking in the rain and by the time I got home, my shirt collar was soaked. Turns out the inner coating is deteriorating. Bad news.

Good news: Marmot has a solid warranty policy.

Bad news: despite my obsessive habit of keeping ALL receipts (which came in handy several years ago when the tent we purchased from REI in the early 90s had a broken zipper and REI fixed it at no cost), I have no record of the Marmot raincoat purchase. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Not on paper or electronically.

Good(ish) news: I’ve narrowed down the year of purchase by locating a photo of me wearing said raincoat while camping on June 11, 2019. And while that photo was low-quality, this one was taken at the same time:

State Forest State Park. June 11, 2019.  (Photo by Zippy)

I may or may not get my raincoat replaced but, in the meanwhile, can gaze at this lovely image and relive some happy memories.

Update: Bad news…looking for that raincoat photo was too much focusing activity for my eyes and I’m now feeling sick to my stomach. The good news is that despite this setback, I am making progress with my various therapies.

Crowning glory

It’s snowy and gray out my window, so I went in search of a little color and warmth. Enter the Queen’s Crown.

August 28, 2019

I photographed this on a hike at Square Top Lakes and am warmed by its colorful and intricate self. My identification research tells me that the succulent leaves turn red in the fall and you can just see the tips beginning to turn. This wildflower is very lovely, but I’m glad we’re currently headed into spring rather than autumn.

Rest in power, brother

Late Wednesday night, my brother-in-law died peacefully after a six-year battle with illness. Bob has been in my life since I was 12 or 13 years old — the vast majority of my time on the planet — and I’m struggling to adjust to a world without him.  I last saw him in person in March 2020 right before the pandemic hit hard and while I don’t remember specifics of any conversations, I’m positive there was much laughter. Bob and I always laughed.

Well, not always. Back when I was still a kid, my younger brother and I took the train from Wisconsin to Minneapolis where Bob and my sister were living at the time. Within minutes of our arrival, I managed to knock the tea kettle off the stove and make a big mess. When Bob pretended to be mad, I took his gruffness seriously and withdrew into myself. It took a while for him to convince me he’d been joking and throughout the rest of our lives, he’d tease me about our Teapot Dome Scandal.

I found ways to get back at him, though. During one of the many trips he and my sister and sons made to Colorado, I snuck a random item in Bob’s luggage right before he left. Ha, joke was on him! Except the next time he visited, he returned with that random item and locked it to the rod in our coat closet. Eventually, he gave in and provided the combination.

Another trip, he caught a later flight to Denver than the rest of his family and while someone distracted Bob at the baggage claim area, I grabbed his duffel bag off the carousel, removed his contents, and replaced them. When Bob unzipped his “oddly light” bag, he discovered a plastic pig mask staring up at him from a bed of popcorn. (Full disclosure: Bob wasn’t quite as enthused by this prank as the rest of us.)

While our relationship was laughter-based, it was deeper than that. Bob was my safe refuge. Our interactions were stress-free because Bob accepted me for who and what I was, without judgment. (With the exceptions of giving me shit about wearing socks with my Tevas and never ironing my clothes). I gravitated toward him whenever we were in a group setting. Bob was friendly and easy to be around.

He could also be intense, as in his commitment to health and strength. We frequently ran together (Bob easily transitioned from sea level to exercise at Colorado elevation) but that wasn’t enough for him, not even on vacation. He’d also lift weights, do yoga, push-ups and sit-ups, and climb 14ers. Bob was lean and mean his entire life.

Bob mid-yoga pose in August 2007.

Bob was devoted to his family. Here he is with my sister and their sons in 1994. They came to Alaska to visit during the summer, but didn’t think to pack for winter.  🙂  (My sister and nephew are each wearing one of my hats, the other nephew is wearing Zippy’s hat, and I think that’s my oversized jean jacket on Bob — but note that he’s bare-headed and impervious to cold!) Two vivid non-Bob-specific memories from that visit: the younger nephew, who was only six, carried his own pack the entire steep hike up to the Harding Ice Field AND that hike included my only black bear sighting of the six years I lived in Alaska.

A chilly tour of Kenai Fjords

Bob loved kids — his own and everyone else’s. Here he is conversing with Zebu.

And patiently enduring the construction of a stuffed animal tower on top of his head.

Bob was also a fierce advocate for people he’d never met. He was a lawyer who used his powers for good. Even while undergoing treatment, he led tenant meetings and fought for housing justice. In myriad ways, Bob worked to make this world a better place. I admired him greatly. And loved him even more. A quick search didn’t turn up any photos of the two of us and I’m too raw right now to dig deeper. But that’s okay because his smile and voice are imprinted on my heart.

Rest in power, Bobaloo.

Round and round we go

Despite today’s frigid temperatures, spring is around the corner, and I’m warming myself with memories of a hike in the open space last June. We’d gotten lots of snow last winter and so the flowers were magnificent.

Here’s a burst of color from a type of blooming thistle that’s probably invasive and somewhat annoying when it scratches my legs as I run past on the trails. But pretty, right?

June 24, 2021

I don’t have the time to identify these yellow wildflowers because, well, there are sh*t-tons of yellow wildflowers. But it’s a lovely little wheel, isn’t it?

Here’s another probably-invasive thistle which is also scratchy-scratchy when I run past, but right now reminds me of a burst of warm, pink sunshine.

Lastly, here’s a delicate specimen that, despite its straight-forward appearance, defies identification. White and yellow wildflowers definitely test my skills.

This latest snowfall is priming the ground for another glorious wildflower display and I look forward to exploring with my camera in a few months.

Warm memories

We cut our neighborhood walk short today due to rapidly falling temperatures. When we left the house, it was about 39 degrees.  Approximately ten minutes later, it was 28 degrees. At least, that’s what Zippy’s phone said when he checked it. As for me, I couldn’t see much of anything because my cold nose was buried in my neck gator which then caused my glasses to steam up. All this to say, I’m craving warmer weather right now and making due with looking at summer hiking photos.

Here’s some flora and fauna from a Square Top Lakes hike:

Rocky Mountain Parnassian on a Wild Aster.  August 28, 2019

Ahh, I can practically feel that sunshine on my shoulders.

 

Sunday Confessional: lost and found

Today I took advantage of the last day of warm weather before the coming week of frigid temperatures and spent time outside cleaning flower beds. The last several years I’ve kinda been on a gardening strike and let things run wild. That laziness plus the neighbors’ enormous, beautiful pine trees that loom over our yard, distributing tons of boughs, needles, and pine cones, resulted in quite the mess.

In fact, as I excavated the debris I came across something I’d temporarily forgotten was there: our cat Lebowski‘s grave marker. I’d tried in vain to locate it in January when Zebu was here. Even though I knew where it was, I couldn’t find it beneath the layers of needles and cones. That saddened and made me feel a bit disloyal to my feline friend. So when my hand brushed against the slab of flagstone this afternoon, I experienced a moment of confusion followed by a flood of memories.

Lebowski was a wonderful cat.

The Dude in June of 2009

This photo is a bit misleading because he was an indoor cat although I let him outside with me now and again for supervised outings (and he spent his final months outside with me as much as possible). What isn’t misleading about this photo is that The Dude was a very large fellow.

I’m grateful to have located his grave again. Unfortunately, the words and dates we’d inscribed on the flagstone have worn away, but the marker is now in full sight and I intend to keep it that way. In honor of our magnificent Lebowski, temporarily lost and now found again.

Color me nostalgic

Here’s a little color for anyone who needs it right now. These photos were taken on July 15, 2021, on the Oh Be Joyful Trail outside Crested Butte, Colorado.  I don’t have the energy to research the first two species (so if anyone knows, educate me :)).

This last is Fireweed which I first grew to love while living in Alaska.

Another hiker was crouched next to a patch of them along the trail that day, photographing the blooms with the biggest smile on her face. “This is my favorite flower of all,” she said.

Joyful, indeed.

Still shining her light

Today is the selection meeting for the Writing Roosters Scholarship for the Michelle Begley Mentor Program. Michelle was a dear friend and critique partner who created an amazing mentor program for the Rocky Mountain kidlit community. When she tragically died in a car accident, our critique group established a scholarship fund in her name. Each year, we get together (zoom again…sigh), along with Michelle’s mother and two sisters, to discuss applications and select a mentee to receive the $500 scholarship.

This year, we have ten applicants! I’m still writing notes for our meeting that begins in less than an hour, but wanted to document this event.

July 3, 2021

The sunflower is nearly as beautiful as Michelle whose light still shines on through her legacy to our writing community.

Sunday Confessional: I invited myself over

It was 35 years ago today that Zippy and I had our first date. At the time, I lived in North Hollywood and he lived in Bakersfield. It was a tough time for me and I desperately needed to get away from my tiny apartment for a day or two, but was living in poverty and couldn’t afford anything. I knew Zippy through my brother (they’d gone to college together) and we’d recently reconnected via several  phone conversations, so I brazenly invited myself for a visit.

Bakersfield is no one’s idea of a getaway, but I was thrilled at the prospect of being somewhere else. When I arrived that Friday evening (knuckles scraped and bleeding as a result of my hand slipping while prying a very stubborn lid off a bottle of the engine additive needed to keep my poor old car running), Zippy suggested we go hear some live music. Chris “Hammer” Smith and his blues harp were at Suds Tavern which was located in the Wall Street Alley. The tiny place used to be a fire station and fire horse stable, and reeked of character. And cigarette smoke (of which I was a contributor, ahem). We had so much damn fun, drinking beer and dancing dancing dancing. During Hammer Smith’s break, we ran across the alley to Guthrie’s Alley Cat where there was a pool table and even cheaper beer, then dashed back for more live music.

Guthrie’s Alley Cat

Fast forward: I ended up moving to Bakersfield for two years (before we moved to Anchorage) and we logged a lot of hours dancing at Suds and shooting pool at Guthrie’s. Turns out, plenty of people thought that alley was in  “the bad part of town” and stayed away. To my mind, that scene was one of the shining lights of that hot, dry, and dusty city. I was thrilled when I met a fellow teacher who shared our love for that alley.

Alas, Suds is no more.  It’s apparently now a restaurant called Two Goats & The Goose and, because I couldn’t find a photo of Suds, I’m including this image to show the exterior (with an accessibility ramp that was not present in the 80s).

Turns out, Guthrie’s Alley Cat is still in business which makes me very happy. All these years later, I’m very glad Guthrie’s was part of my introduction to Bakersfield. Mostly, though, I’m grateful Zippy graciously accepted my self-invite.

Twofer Tuesday

Here are two of my favorite things: honey bees and lavender.

July 18, 2019

We still have a few late-blooming stalks of  lavender (this photo was taken a couple summers ago), but not a lot of bees around. Which is why I was surprised over the weekend while reading outside on a bench I’d pushed up against the side of the house to avoid the wind. Surrounded by concrete and brick, engrossed in the pages, I became aware of a faint buzzing that got louder and louder. A honey bee flew next to my outstretched leg before landing on my arm and then my chest. After a brief pause there, it flew to my collar. Much closer to my ear (bzzzz bzzzz ). And face.

Bees fascinate me more than freak me out, however, I admit to feeling a bit nervous about this buzzing visitor. Still, I maintained my calm, congratulating myself on the chill attitude. Until . . . the honey bee moved down to the end of my sleeve and crawled in my sleeve. Chill attitude officially over!  I shrieked and shook my arm to dislodge the bee, which seemed to take forever due to the layers I wore.

When the bee safely flew away-away, I chided myself for panicking. And then I remembered the terrifying bees-in-clothing experience I had years ago, and cut myself slack.

Fortunately, this latest bee interaction was entirely friendly and bees still rank among my very favorite things.

Twofer Tuesday: feathered friends

This Red-winged Blackbird and Mourning Dove shared a tree as the sun went down on our first day of camping in Moby, the Great White campervan, in late April. We were walking around Lake Hasty (John Martin Reservoir State Park) at the end of a lovely day when I spotted them.

April 28, 2021

We receive many doves (Mourning and Eurasian-collared) here at our backyard feeder, but Red-winged Blackbird sightings are more rare. I have childhood memories of them singing their beautiful song as they perched on cattails along the train tracks.

I’m posting this picture to commemorate the end of our camping season. Yesterday we unloaded Moby in preparation for a trip to the shop to have a pop-top installed. Next year, we’ll be able to stand up inside. Can’t wait to get back out there to bask in the glories of the natural world.

Because she loved sunflowers

Michelle would have been 51 years-old today. Here’s one of the many sunflowers in my yard that remind me of her spirit and generous heart.

July 3, 2021

Thank you for brightening my life with your friendship, Michelle. I’ll keep tilting my face to the sky and endless possibilities.

Wordful Wednesday

I photographed this Black-billed Magpie at the beginning of the pandemic when I escaped to the open space with a blanket, binoculars, and my camera. It’s not a particularly good photo, but it captures the elegance of a magpie’s flight feathers. I remember the emotional boost I experienced while watching and listening to this bird and the other magpies. They were so raucous that day and I felt honored when several gathered in a tree close to my blanket, squawking and carrying on.

April 1, 2020

Yesterday, I shared some sad magpie news. Today I’m filled with sorrow over that senseless death, but also gratitude for my many magpie sightings, visits, and interactions over the years. They never fail to enchant.