Author Archives: Cheryl L. Ware

About Cheryl L. Ware

I grew up in an oil-field family — Dad worked for Sun Oil Company from 1946 until 1982, when he retired. My dad’s family is from East Texas — has been in the same county since before the Texas Revolution. My mother’s family has deep roots in South Louisiana going back to 18th century immigrants from France and Germany, to 19th century Acadians from Nova Scotia, and to 1851 Ireland. I have a Ph.D. in English and taught composition, introduction to literature, and American literature at McNeese State University from 1981 to 2011. I love to read and to travel. I cherish my family, friends, pets, and laughter. So just how did I end up making jewelry? The journey in short: I retired in May 2011 as a Professor of English at McNeese State University in Lake Charles,Louisiana. My father worked for Sun Oil Company, so we moved around, though not as much as many others. We settled in Egan, Louisiana, in 1956. That's where my brother and sister and I grew up, and that's where I found myself as I became a caregiver for my father. I'm teaching again at McNeese, part-time only. Making jewelry was a hobby I'd started a few years prior to this, and over time, the hobby has become an avocation as much as teaching was and is. It is an expression of me, of my love of color and texture and shape and design -- just as teaching is an expression of my loves of writing, of nonfiction and fiction and poetry, of the human experience across time and culture. The hobby grew from one technique or two (wire-wrapping and setting calibrated stones and cabochons in purchased findings) to include working with metal clay (firing with a torch and using a kiln), to traditional metal-smithing. I'm hardly a master of all, but an enthusiastic learning, continuing to read, take workshops, and refine and improve my skills. It's a journey that reflects my many interests -- reading, traveling, teaching, writing, painting, even sewing and crocheting. Creativity in one area feeds others, I've found. My jewelry hobby used to be something I could contain in a few boxes. Now it consumes a room. It's also now a business. I've been selling at area craft shows and fairs. This website is a new venue for my jewelry. It is also a work in progress! Follow me on my journey here on my webpage. I'll be offering jewelry of different types and materials, across a variety of styles and prices. I hope you enjoy learning more about me and my jewelry.

Naming, Family Language, and Why I Called My Mother Mother

I’ve been thinking of my dad most of the weekend, since the Richards family reunion was on Thursday and I was surrounded by many relatives.  In the small group, though, I was acutely aware of who was not there — Dad, in particular.  How he would have enjoyed seeing us gather together and talk and laugh.  So many stories were told, and so many people came up to me to let me know how he was missed.

As I enjoyed my cousin Barbara’s two grandchildren all weekend, watching them play and squabble and sleep, I remembered so many times at the farm with Barbara and her brother, Jim, and our cousins Mike and Charlie, and my brother Phil and sister Kay.  Phil and Kay were enough younger that they weren’t around so much at first.  But the five older cousins managed to do a lot of exploring and have a lot of adventures in the many visits to our grandparents and the farm.

Driving up to the farm on Friday and back on Sunday, I heard Dad’s running commentary from the many trips we made during the last couple of years, when I did the driving and he got to enjoy the scenery.  Names of roads, locations, buildings — so many times he had a story about something or someone he knew.  Now, though, I drive it by myself and remember.

This weekend was filled with food, and laughter, and lots of stories.

One of the many things that I thought of this weekend was how families create their own language of sorts, or at least their own phrases and names for things.

Take, for example, the simply pacifier.  For many people, it’s a “passie.”  In our family, it’s had other names.  One was “foolie” — because it was meant to fool the baby.  Another (coined by me, as a toddler) was the term “a-wee.”  I have absolutely no idea why.

I do remember using it, though.  And was old enough to remember sitting in the back of our car, window open, fitting my finger in the ring only to deliberately pop it out of the window.  I would then demand another, and when Mother drove to the store, was able to go and pick out my next one.

In those days, pacifiers were easily lost.  Later, you could find them with strips of elastic or fabric attached, along with a safety pin of sorts — you could pin it onto the baby’s clothes so that you didn’t lose so many of them.

This weekend, though, I got to see one that Barbara’s granddaughter Katie has — it is attached by fabric to a small stuffed animal.  For Katie, this is her “baby.”  I found this out when Barbara asked her “Why’d you spit out your baby?” When I burst out laughing, so did Barbara — and that’s when I started to think about how families use language and how silly and ridiculous that can sound outside the family.  But isn’t that part of the richness and the flexibility of language?

And isn’t that one of the ways that we humans learn the suppleness of words, their meanings and use, and language itself?

Within families, we also use different terms for parents and grandparents.  For Colton and Katie, their grandparents right now are Papa and Gaga.  Thus I began to call Barbara “Lady Gaga” on and off all weekend.  Their great-grandmother, my Aunt Jean, is Gigi (GeeGee)– for Great Grandmother, of course.

For Kay and Phil, Barbara and Jim, Mike and Charlie and me, our Ware grandparents were Grandmother and Granddad (or when we were young, Granddaddy).  Though I didn’t know my Grandmother Ware’s parents, I refer to them as the rest of the family (those who knew them, especially)  refer to them:  Papa Richards and Mama Richards (or Fat Mama or Big Mama, which was ironic because she was so tiny).

That’s pretty straightforward.  But on my mother’s side it becomes a bit trickier.  I called my mother “Mommy” and “Mama” when I was little, but as I got older, I began to call her Mother.  I couldn’t use the term “Mom.”  That was already in use — I apparently chose that as what I called my maternal grandmother, Ella.  My reasoning, it seems, was that I already used Grandmother for Grandmother Ware, and could not use that again.  It was too confusing, I thought.  And if I called her Mom, then everyone else had to follow suit.

Why, then, did I choose “Mom”?  Well, that’s because her parents were known to us as “Old Mom” and “Old Pop.”  I’ve heard some of my mother’s cousins write those as O’Mom and O’Pop because of the Irish ancestry.  But to me and my family, they were Old Mom and Old Pop.  Thus my grandmother Ella became Mom.  And Mother couldn’t be Mom too.  So she became Mother.

Now, though, if I’m with my cousin Carolyn (her mother and my mother were sisters), I switch between Mom and Grandmother, because she called our grandmother Grandmother.

And if family names are common, think about how to distinguish one from another. That’s when nicknames appear.

That happens in Dad’s family.  With the name James, in fact.  Granddad was James Franklin Ware.  He and Grandmother named their first son James Ernest Ware.  Grandmother’s sister MaryLou named her son James Richard.  My dad’s sister named her first son James Michael.  My Uncle James named his son James Lane.  My Aunt Mildred’s second son, Charlie, named his son Michael Joseph. I forget how many other Jameses there are in addition.  Those are just the ones in our immediate group that I’m around or refer to a lot.

To others, then, Granddad might have been Jim, or Uncle Jim.  My Uncle James was sometimes Big Jim or Jim or James.  My cousin James Richard (actually James Richards, it turns out) is generally known as RIchard (though I often call him James Richard as others sometimes do).  My cousin James Michael is Mike.  Charlie’s son is, to his friends, Mike, but within our family is Michael J.  Uncle James’s son is known as Jim, though we often call him Jimbo, which is what we called him when we were growing up.

When my brother Philip was born, Dad resisted using the name James again — yet wanted to name Phil after his own father.  So Phil was Philip Franklin.

My cousin Barbara was named Barbara Jean; her mother is Iris Jean.  Barbara’a daughter is Larissa Jean.  Larissa’s baby is Kathryn Jean.

Me?  There are no other Cheryls in the family.  There is, though, another Lynn.  My dad lived for a while with his maternal Uncle Earl, who had a daughter named Sarah Lynn.  Sarah Lynn was a baby when Dad lived with them in the 40s before WWII.  But she remembers his living with them.  And on Saturday, the two Lynns had their picture taken together.

My sister Kay Darlene?   When Mom (that’s my grandmother Ella, remember?) ran a boarding house, she had a boarder named Kay Darlene, and Mother always loved that name and remembered it.

And of course, because Mother was Catholic and we were brought up in the Catholic Church,  I had to have other names, since there was neither a Saint Cheryl nor a Saint Lynn.  Hence my baptismal name:  Cheryl Lynn Maria.  And add my chosen confirmation name:  Theresa.  I am Cheryl Lynn Maria Theresa Ware, as far as the Church is concerned.  Kay and Phil didn’t have to have extra names — Saint Catherine (Kay) and Saint Philip (Phil) sufficed for them.  I guess I needed all the help I could get.

Dad was Henry Theophilus Ware.  He was named after his two grandfathers:  William Henry Richards and Theophilus Valentine Ware.  He was known has H.T. in the family. When he was growing up, his family and friends called him “T-Bone,” and sometimes I heard that called out to him.  Dad’s best friend called Dad “H-ee”  — as in the letter H, then ee. If someone called him Uncle H, then that’s either Mike or Charlie (his sister’s two sons).  Other nieces/nephews/great-nieces and great-nephews refer to him as Uncle H.T. or even Uncle T. If someone called him Hank, I knew that person knew Dad from work.

Though I call my dad’s sister Aunt Mildred, he often referred to her by her childhood nickname — Rip. One of the things she could do as a kid — and still can do, I suspect– is manage an ear-splitting whistle that I’ve always admired. Maybe that’s the source of her nickname.

Mother was Irene Braxton Steele.  Her middle name was her biological father’s.  Her last name was the name of her stepfather Charles Steele; when she was 18, she had her name changed and had him adopt her.

Which brings me back to names.  I had more grandfathers than many people.  I had Grandad Ware.   I had Grampa Charlie (Mother’s adopted/stepfather).  And I had Poppa (Mother’s stepfather, my grandmother Ella’s fourth husband).

As families have become so complicated in the 20th century, we adapt to fit the needs of naming.  With blended families, the need for flexibility is clear.  My mother’s family — because of my grandmother’s four husbands and my mother’s two stepfathers — was just ahead of the curve, I guess.

At the reunion this weekend, the oldest cousin was there, Minnie V.  She’s 97.  And she’s named for her mother, my great-grandmother Richards, known as Mama Richards, Minnie Vela Pickett Richards.

Names are just one of the many things that tie us together, along with our memories and stories, food, tears, and laughter.

Sometimes I think that one reason I fell in love with William Faulkner (he was the focus of my dissertation) was that I knew those complicated family trees, that convoluted genealogy.  I lived them.

As I sit and think about family, and how we talk, and how we name, I sit and smile.  Just as I sit and listen to my older cousins tell stories, I now sometimes find myself being one of the storytellers, to the younger generations of the family.  That’s just how it goes.

Next year, we’ll try to remember to bring poster foam boards and put them up for creating family trees, one for each Richards child.  That’s on the advice of Sissy, my cousin Mike’s wife.  That’s James Michael, not Michael Jay.

Confused yet?  Got it all straight?  Good luck with that.

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Traveling to the Past: Farm Livin’ on the Ware Farm

Today in a bit I’ll be heading to the Ware family farm.  My grandfather bought the land in parcels, ending up with just over 140 acres of East Texas red dirt.  He managed to keep it through the Depression.

The farmhouse we have today — the one I’ll be staying in tonight — was only built in 1939-40.  Dad moved into it as a high school senior.  Until then, the family had not had a house with electricity, running water, or plumbing.  Neither of the two wood houses they lived in prior to 1940 still exists, but we know where they were.  The first was quite primitive, with a packed dirt floor, as I recall Dad saying.

The house they moved into in 1940 had three regular bedrooms and one small room that held a 3/4 bed; it also had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a bathroom.  Family stories about the bathroom are quite funny.  Granddad, it seems, wasn’t convinced that it was hygienic to have the toilet so close to the kitchen, but Grandmother (who one of my dad’s first cousins refers to as “a progressive woman,” was determined to have it.  She won.  The bathroom was built, adjacent to the kitchen.  But Granddad built an outhouse and, I understand, used it for a while before he gave in about hygiene.

That house ended with the bathroom and kitchen — both had doors leading to a small porch that stepped down to the backyard.  However, after Granddad sold timber in 1956 or so, he built on an enclosed back porch, a small room for storage, and one more bedroom, large enough to hold two double beds and a crib.  That back porch enclosed the well that we used for water.  Though the well was connected to an electric water pump, there were times when we had to haul water from it by hand.  Only in the 1990s did we get “city” water.  That’s kind of funny, in a way — we are five miles or so out of the “big” town of San Augustine, which has a population of maybe 2500 people.  Only in the 1970s or 80s  did we get connected to the gas main — until then we had a propane tank.

This is the house now:

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The farm is very much in the country.  I tell people it’s in San Augustine, but that’s not quite true.  It’s in San Augustine County, but it’s not in town.  It’s five miles or so out of town, in a tiny community called Bland Lake.  It’s country, clearly:

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There’s a lot of pasture land now, and our barn’s still standing.  Sort of:

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Both my grandparents’ families were from this area.  The Wares came to this area in the 1830s, just before the Texas Revolution.  Some other ancestors on that same side came about the same time.  My grandmother Ware’s family, however, were relative newcomers — they moved to San Augustine in 1900, leaving Barbour County, Alabama, for an area that friends had already moved to, and wrote back about.

San Augustine and Nacogdoches, Texas, have an ongoing disagreement about which is the oldest settlement in Texas.  San Augustine is also known as the point of entry for the border area between it and Louisiana (known as No-Man’s Land).  The town is also known for feuds along the lines of the Hatfields-McCoys.  With a violent past, it had its last shootout in the 1930s, and my aunt and grandmother were in town when that happened.  The problem was considered serious enough that TWOTWO — Texas Rangers were sent in to take care of it.

Granddad farmed with a horse and mules.  Only when he sold the timber in 1956 did he buy a tractor — and a new truck — and build on to the house.  The main crop was cotton, of course.  He also grew corn and potatoes and watermelon.  I can remember helping to pick corn and get potatoes.  I also remember getting in trouble for plugging watermelons with my older boy cousins — until Granddad put a stop to it, sternly.  He sold most of them for cash, another source of income.

Grandmother had her “truck patch.”  Most farm wives did.  Hers was, at its peak, pretty large.  I remember going up and down rows of peas and butter beans and other vegetables, sweating, with my little bonnet on that she’d made.  She always wore her own bonnet, long sleeves, and gloves — ladies didn’t get tanned, even farm wives.  She also milked and gathered eggs.  I loved to help with that — though I couldn’t milk worth anything.  Gathering eggs was much easier, and feeding the chickens was a neat chore.

My grandmother didn’t have a washing machine until the 1950s — and we still have it.  It was a ringer-type washer, and I was always fascinated by it.  We don’t use it, of course — but it still sits in the shed.

Dad and his brother and sister helped out, as farm kids did, and they’d laugh as they told us what it was like to run barefoot on the hot dirt as they picked cotton.  They’d tell us about using a kerosene lamp to read and study by.

By the time I was born,  none of the three kids was on the farm.  Dad worked for Sun Oil Company and lived in Beaumont.  Uncle James worked for Sun Pipe Line and lived in Louisiana, though he ended up in Beaumont as well.  My Aunt Mildred lived in Fort Worth, where she and her husband and two boys lived; she’d moved up there during World War II to work in a war-related plant, as so many did.  None of the grandchildren ever lived there either.

Grandmother died in 1962; Granddad died a couple of years later.  Yet the farm remains in the family.  For Dad and his siblings, this was home.  For us grandkids, it’s not home, but it’s special.  We spent many hours roaming the pastures, playing in the ditches and barn, and wandering where we weren’t always supposed to be.  One of my earliest memories, in fact, is here — when Dad was in the hospital in Beaumont for goiter surgery, I was at the farm with my grandparents, and feeling very lonely.  I can remember lying in bed in the fireplace bedroom, looking out the window at the pasture, and crying.  Granddad came in to hum to me and comfort me.  I was, at the time, probably 3.  This view is close to what I remember, though it’s in daytime, not night:

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Over the years, we’ve worked on making the house safe and comfortable.  We get together several times a year there, working on one project for three days or so each time.  It’s work time, but also family time.  We take turns being responsible for meals, and we sit around at night and talk a lot.  And laugh a lot, too.

Though it isn’t a working farm, we lease out pasture to a cousin’s husband; he runs cattle on it.  Since he’s there every day at least once, we are comfortable knowing that someone has an eye out for us.  If he doesn’t look at things, another cousin (who lives just down the road), drives by and keeps us informed of any activity, especially related to oil or gas-related lease information; he’s the county surveyor, too, as his dad (my dad’s first cousin) was.

It’s a small county, after all.

This weekend is the weekend of the Richards family reunion.  Grandmother Ware was a Richards; her father began the reunion tradition.  Until this year, it was always held on Labor Day weekend.  Now, we’ve moved it to October, when it’s a bit cooler.

There were, I think, 12 Richards children — my dad had something like 35 first cousins just from the Richards side.  Grandmother’s last sister died in 2010– at 104 1/2 — and she wasn’t the youngest.  Now the first cousins are the eldest, and I’m in “the younger generation” in their 60s.  Of course, there are a lot of our age- group’s children and even grandchildren by now.  It’ll be interesting to see how many turn out tomorrow; attendance numbers have fallen over the years.

When I hit the road in a bit, I’ll be driving for three hours or so, with one stop to rest my legs a bit.  I don’t take the same route we always traveled, though — that route takes me on two-land roads, twisting and turning through Louisiana and Texas.  Instead, I head up to North Louisiana to Many on a four-land road, much improved.  At Many, I take my break, then head west over Pendleton Bridge into East Texas, and finally take the two-lane road to San Augustine, out of it, past the small church and cemetery where Mother and Dad and Phil and other family members are buried, and then turn left on a farm-to-market road to the farm.  I’ll unload the food I’m bringing for tonight’s supper and for tomorrow’s reunion.  I’ll unload my small suitcase and put it in the fireplace bedroom that Dad always used.

It’s not that far, in miles, but it’s a long trip in memories and laughter and tears.  I can’t wait.

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Thursday Thoughts on Balancing Blogging, Other Writing, and Life

I haven’t been writing the blog every day — and was worrying about that.  But then I realized that my worrying was pretty stupid, really.

I mean, the goal of daily writing was my own.  It works out sometimes, but lately it hasn’t.  I’ve been running the road, and then I’ve been cocooning.  Sometimes I don’t have anything to write about, and to push it would be ridiculous.  My schedule, after all, is my own — and so are my goals.  It’s okay, I’ve admitted, to take short breaks from some things, like blogging.

What really is the purpose of the blog?  Communication, mainly.  And my needs to communicate aren’t always the same.  Nor are my days always the same.  Or my ability to get internet service.

I guess I’m saying I am adapting yet once more to myself and my life.

There are so many things to consider, to discuss with friends, to do.  Time to visit and linger.  Time for crafts and hobbies.  Time for family.  For travel. And many things to write about.

But some days, like today, I’m just sort of blank.  This week has been about so many little things.  That’s not bad, not at all.  I have time for all of those “little things” now, time that doesn’t have to be carved from precious spare time, from teaching and grading.  Sometimes, even in retirement, a little break is absolutely necessary.

I’ve been doing a bit of housework.  I’ve had regular doctors’ appointments to keep, meetings to make.  I’ve met my friend Myra to make jewelry (and will again this afternoon).  I’ve been meaning to call and schedule a repairman/service call for my refrigerator because the freezer isn’t working properly, but I’ve put it off until today — when the washer decided to join the “I don’t want to work” list.  The agitator isn’t agitating.  It just jerks.  So I made the call — for the two jobs — and next Thursday I’ll be waiting.  I want to apply for my Social Security benefits, so I looked for my Social Security card, which I’ve had for decades.  Can’t find it.  It’s put up somewhere so safe that it is hiding from me.  But I can’t get a replacement card because of the government shut-down.  However, I can still make an appointment and apply for benefits without it, so I did.  

Some days, I think I spend more time scheduling things or making phone calls than anything else.  Sometimes I can’t even manage that — for example, I’ve been trying to call my pharmacy to order refills for two hours now, but when I try, the line is always busy.  

This is a week where I’ve frantically searched for missing things — like my Social Security card — without any luck.  That list includes two rings that are very precious to me, not for their actual value but for sentimental reasons.  My frustration level has not eased.  I am berating myself pretty regularly for my carelessness. On the other hand, I’ve found the legal papers I was looking for. Guess I’m batting .300 or so, at least this week.  Some weeks it’s better; some it’s worse.

Organizing and straightening always occupy part of my time.  This week has been no different.  I spent some time in the office trying to group together things, trying to label things so that I can easily put my hands on them.  But when you couple that with looking for items you can’t locate . . . doubly frustrating.  I don’t want to destroy the place looking for things, so I try to be methodical and organize as I go.  Mild success, as in Monopoly where I at least Pass Go.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to read a lot.  I’ve worked on jewelry and made some things with the precious metal clay. Last night I went to the first monthly meeting of our new local Silver Clay group.  We hope to share our learning and our new addiction.  Yesterday,  my second kiln firing was both success and failure — thus an opportunity for learning more.  I fired six pieces at the same time yesterday — two pendant and earrings sets.  One pendant broke, as did two earrings — but not a matching set.  I’ve kept the pieces so that I can try to find out what caused this.  I am, after all, a rank newbie at this, and not having a digital kiln is a handicap.  I can see a purchase in the future. . . but for now I’m waiting for a digital pyrometer that I ordered.  In the meantime, I’ll make some more things and use the butane torch.  It’s all part of the learning curve.  Plus I’m keeping a notebook about this so that I can see what I’ve done, what works, and what doesn’t.  Without analysis, how will I know?  My analytical mind at least still functions, trained in decades of teaching and grading.  This afternoon, I’ll meet Myra and take my wires and stones and work on earrings as well as wire-wrapping stones and cabochons. 

Regular domestic chores, playtime, visiting with friends, planning on family weekend and shopping for cooking for that.  That’s this week.  Tonight I’ll have to cook and chop chicken breasts for chicken salad as well as boil potatoes for potato salad — both of which I’ll actually finally put together at the farm after I get there tomorrow.  At least nine of us will show up there tomorrow, so the small kitchen gets crowded fast.  Using the stove and oven gets to be a trick with all of us working.  If I arrive with the cooking part done, then all I have to do is assemble the two salads, which can then be refrigerated.  The potato salad will actually get assembled on Saturday morning, right before the reunion, which is at lunchtime.  

I’ve got to pack for the weekend too, and load that into the truck.  Since I’ll be hauling back a riding lawn mower, I need the truck and tie-downs for this trip — and then on Sunday I’ll drive to Egan to unload the mower.  And switch vehicles.

Not that I’m complaining — I’m just amazed, as I frequently am:  just how, I often ponder, did I manage to work?  Of course then my stress levels were at DANGER WILL ROBINSON level — there isn’t a red color strong enough to label my stress levels.  Those are nearly non-existent now.  It’s funny — I always heard people saying this, and now I’m one of those people.  But it’s true, you know?  Time is now mine — but it fills up so fast!  And the calendar has dates filled in; nearly every week has something to prepare for.

In the end, though, I’m savoring all of it.  That I can wake up, decide to go back to sleep, and just get up when I’m ready still is such a treat.  That I can stay up all night reading — without having to haul myself out of bed the next morning to teach classes and go to the office — is a joy.  If I want to come here to my home office, type or work on papers or bills or make phone calls and notes — fine.  The pets follow me and keep me company.  If I want to wash dishes or put on laundry — I can do that whenever (except now, when the washer’s gone on shutdown along with the government).  Some days the sheer opportunity to live in my house, to go from room to room and chore to chore, with breaks for reading or naps — just a new and wonderful experience.  Before May 2011, I still had chores and personal errands and appointments, but I also had to teach and grade and see students and take care of Dad.  

Now — for the first time ever, I think, other than occasional vacation weeks or weekends — I am simply living in my house.  It isn’t a place where I sleep and crash after work and/or between semesters.  No it is part of my life in a very different and interesting way.  It’s easy to fall into the hibernation mode where I stay home and work and sleep and play.  Sometimes, I think if I didn’t have to get to the grocery store and pet store I might never leave the house.  Sometimes, I joke (sort of), I know that I could be one of those cat-ladies who never leave home.  I’d just have to have dogs with my cats.  

My hibernation mode never lasts more than a week at best, and usually only a few days — but now I can indulge it.  Home is, for the first time, truly the center of my life.  I go out from it to the world, and come back to it, and it’s all new.

I’m sure I’ll write most days, though perhaps not on the blog every day.  The blog is still an important part of my new life.  I have manuscripts I want to revise, too, and submit.  And editing/writing jobs occasionally.  But the blog is a kind of publication, really, one that is welcome.

Balancing all the elements that make up my life is an ever-changing, on-going process.  But without the element of teaching/grading/working for a living — not really stressful.  

I’ve blithered on enough for today about blogging and life. 

Time to gather up my supplies and go outside, get in the truck, and head for McDonald’s to meet Myra.  Then grocery store time so that I can cook tonight while I watch television and pack.

Since the farm seems to exist in a near-black hole as far as cell towers are concerned, I hope to blog from there.  If I can’t manage that, I’ll be back on Monday.

Blog on.

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Caregiving, Then and Now

One of the most common results of being a caregiver is exhaustion — and I don’t think I was unusual in my depth of exhaustion.  Both while my dad was alive and after he died, I found it nearly impossible to get beyond the exhaustion.  Even now, at times, I find myself succumbing to some form of it. 

 

For about a year and half, I taught and took care of Dad a lot; I spent a lot of time driving. Though I didn’t commute every day for the entire time, I felt as though I were never sleeping enough.  Certainly the last semester I taught, when I did basically live with Dad and drive to Lake Charles, I never got enough sleep.

 

But the exhaustion was more than simple sleep deprivation.  I’d have to grade essays when I had no desire to, no energy for.  I’d prepare for classes.  Teaching itself was actually energy-producing; I always found myself on a kind of “high” after classes.  The energy of the classroom itself energized me.  In fact, I usually found it difficult to sleep after a night class.

 

That energy, though, sustained me temporarily.  When it dissipated, I felt even more tired. There was a kind of rebound effect.

 

Because Dad was pretty mobile while I was still teaching, I was fortunate that he could self-care more than he was capable of doing later.  That meant I could sleep a bit more.  I did, though, begin to do more of his housework.  I went to all of his appointments with doctors.  I could rely on friends to help get him to dialysis. 

 

It was as though I were living two different but overlapping lives – as I believe I really was.  Perhaps the energy level and the exhaustion level depleted at twice the rate as a result.  It was fitting the two together that took care and attention.  This also meant that any other life that was mine took third place at best. 

 

But that last semester I taught, I was driving him to dialysis on some days, or picking him up.  That alone shaped my schedule three days a week.  Weekends weren’t really enough time to rest, either, since they were filled with errands for both of us.  I’d try to keep my own house in Lake Charles going.

 

At Dad’s, I experienced more than one kind of exhaustion.  One that I hadn’t anticipated was a side effect of Dad’s television-watching habits.  First of all, as with a lot of older people, Dad had hearing issues — but he refused to get hearing aids.  As a result, he’d turn the television’s volume up pretty high.  I couldn’t escape it. And I tried, believe me — I tried. 

 

Another problem:  I really couldn’t stand some of the shows Dad loved.  Just why he watched “Polka Party,” I couldn’t figure out– but he did.  Every time it was on, he watched it.  I came to hate amateur polka music.  I’d try to drown it out by putting my earphones in and blasting my own iPod, but it was never quite possible to eliminate that annoying sound.

 

Dad loved sports, too — and while I enjoy some sports, some of the time, he loved any sport, any time.  So if there was a game on, he was watching it.  Loudly. Sometimes, I’d watch with him, but I spent a lot of time trying to ignore the games.

 

Dad’s love of news was in fact a spur to my own.  However, by this time he narrowed what he watched, and my own taste was not his, especially when it was blaring out at the volume it did.  Diatribes screamed from the television screen in the living room while I cringed in my bedroom, desperate for relief.  Dad slept in his chair, oblivious to it all.

 

I had a television, but even if I turned it on, it simply added to the cacophony in the house.  Sometimes, I’d watch a portable DVD player with a headset.  At best, these provided momentary alternatives of noises.

 

When I was still working, just being out of the house was a relief.  But after I retired, the only escape was when I ran errands. 

 

Sometimes, the cacophony overwhelmed me and I simply wanted to cry.  Sometimes, I did cry, quietly, tears streaming out of my own frustration and exhaustion.  But I’d have to dry the tears, wash my face, and leave my own room and bathroom.

 

By the time I retired, I was already doing all of the driving.  Once I was retired, I basically moved in with Dad, and my routine shifted again.  Retirement meant full-time work, just at Dad’s.  I did the errands, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning.  I had to work with his time constraints, of course.  So if he had to be at dialysis at 6:30 a.m., I got up an hour earlier, to get him something to eat.  I admit, though, that I got to the point where I’d get up and throw on clothes maybe 15 minutes before I had to leave.

 

Living at Dad’s meant living in the bedroom I’d had since I was 16.  It hadn’t grown any larger.  It had been improved, however, when my brother Phil built in lovely closets on the outside wall, flanking the one window.  I managed to find workspace and storage space for myself.  More and more of my clothes and craft materials were now in Egan, and I had to impose some order.  In the corner of the living room, I set up a computer desk and that became my office space.

 

In truth, though, I was making a life there as best I could.  And it was, I think, a good thing, a reminder that I can adapt relatively easily.  It also served to remind me just how much I loved my own home.  I missed it, but didn’t regret the move.  It was necessary, and I was free to become a full-time caregiver. 

 

Just as I relinquished long periods of time at my house in Lake Charles, and from my friends and routine there, I also had limited control over my daily time schedule.  My time and my routine resulted from Dad’s.

 

Dad had dialysis three days a week, Monday/Wednesday/Friday, for three-and-a-half hours. His dialysis shift was the early shift, and I’d need to be there by 10:15.  If everything had worked out, he’d be out about 10:30, but sometimes it might be as late as 11 or 11:15 a.m.  It all depended on when Dad got in his chair, whether anyone (or Dad) had trouble with bleeding, etc.

 

Some days I’d go home and try to nap.  Other days, I did the shopping and other errands.  But that was my morning, three days a week.  Once Dad was home from dialysis, I’d try to get him to eat something before he fell asleep.  And sleep was just about all Dad did on those days.  I’d read or spend time online.  I’d try to make some jewelry.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dad would be more alert and ready to visit.

 

Weekends were when I could have some time, if Kay came down, and I’d go to Lake Charles.  That’s when I’d try to have coffee with friends and keep in touch.  Otherwise, I slept.

 

As Dad became less able to take care of himself, after he fell, I had to dress him.  Once he was in rehab, I was overseeing the renovations of his house.

 

My time was never really my own.  I no longer determined how my time was spent, not in any major ways, or at least only occasionally.  My life felt as though it had simply disappeared.  As necessary as that was, and as glad as I was to be able to take on the role I did, I still felt the loss of so many things that I had come to take for granted.

 

The physical exhaustion was primary, and I suspect is for everyone who is a caregiver.  But the emotional exhaustion was not quite something I anticipated.  I had no idea that I’d get to the point where I simply felt numb.

 

By the time Dad died, I generally hadn’t slept for more than a couple of hours at a time.  Kay spelled me on weekends, which certainly helped.

 

Even after Dad died, I didn’t recover immediately.  I know it’s different for everyone, but I found myself recovering in stages and in different ways.  Initially, I was busy with legal work.  Then I went to Greece for three months and essentially hibernated.

 

My return to Louisiana after that respite in Greece was spent with yet more hibernation.  I still slept a lot, but I was able to catch up with friends at leisure. 

 

Only at the end of 2012 did I seem to return to myself.  My energy came back.  My emotional rollercoaster was over. I no longer felt lost and as though I were losing my self and my life. 

 

Now I could craft my own life in retirement.  And that’s been wonderful.  On Saturday night at a poetry reading, a friend said that I was glowing.  I don’t know about “glowing,” but I know that I am happier and more content than I’ve been in a long time.

 

Certainly there are times of stress, times when I want to do nothing more than sleep.  This weekend, I found, was one of those times.  I’ve spent a lot of time cocooning here in the house. 

 

But on the whole, that state of thorough exhaustion, physical and emotional, has passed.  My down times are short-lived, and I can simply enjoy my alone time.

 

I woke up this morning and knew I’d spend the day inside again.  But tomorrow?

 

I’ll be up and out by 8, meeting a friend for early morning catch-up time before he goes to work.  I’ll try to catch up with another friend whose father had a small procedure today.  I’ll have my jewelry stuff with me and work some.

 

Now I just am caregiver for me.  Finally.

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Traveling and Time for Observations

So I missed writing yesterday.  I slept most of the day — sort of like the day after a migraine, only for sinus issues.  I completely forgot about writing — and just slept.

But I took a lot of time yesterday to think and today as I tried to move and organize some digital photos from this summer, I realized that some of the time when I travel I simply sit and watch what’s going on around me.  Certainly I watch people — that’s always fun — but I also enjoy quieter moments when I focus on landscape and (often) cats.  And dogs too.  In Athens they’re everywhere, wandering around, lying in the shade under trees or on steps or by stores.  I found that it was similar in Istanbul, too.  Birds flying — and sometimes landing — also provide me with lots of opportunity for observing and thinking.

These are just random events, tied together by nothing other than my presence.  They’re there for anyone and everyone to see, if only people take the time.

You expect to see cats and dogs in the country, but somehow it’s a surprise when you first realize just how many cats and dogs wander the streets and neighborhoods in Athens.  It’s a huge city, filled with cars and motorcycles, trolleys and buses.  Yet look around you.  One dog seems to show up at all the demonstrations in the center of Athens at Syntagma; it’s recognized — and even has had its photograph published.

SIt on a bench or at the cafe in the National Gardens — there are literally dozens of cats there.  People bring food to them.  Dogs live there too, and are well fed.

Even when I walk on the street, I can look down and there’s a dog or a cat lazing in the shade — whatever shade it can find — on a sweltering day when the sun is beating down.

At the site of the Agora, on the street, they sprawl, the Acropolis above them.

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Or across the street, at one of the sidewalk cafes where I sit and have a cool drink, one perches on a concrete block.  The waiter who serves me stoops to pet it and put some food and water down.  It is a kitten, really, and he smiles.  He clearly knows this cat.

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On the other side of the Acropolis, where I sit one day waiting for a Hop-On Hop-Off double-decker bus, I first notice the flowers blooming in among the rocks and near-bare dirt.  Then I watch as a small bird lands, ignoring me as it looks for bugs.  In a bit, the bird hops onto a water faucet and dips its head and beak downward into the faucet itself, seeking water.

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Even at home in the apartment,  I see cats.  They wander the few apartment buildings and the courtyards, sometimes resting in the greenery and flowering vines that provide my balcony with a semblance of a garden.  Sometimes, as this summer, if I leave a balcony door open, one will wander into the apartment and look around.

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Usually I’m able to walk away from these cats and dogs.  I’m not usually tempted to stop and take any home.  Not usually.

But on the island of Spetses in summer 2009, one kitten clearly had other plans.  I was sitting at a cafe near the harbor, enjoying a diet Coke.  From the side of the cafe, a small kitten crossed the pebbled walkway, zeroing in on me with certainty.  It dodged the feet of the people passing by to head straight for me, winding around my ankles, rubbing against them, then hopping into my lap.  I made the fatal mistake of petting it.  It purred.  I petted it some more.  It then climbed up my arm and curled around my neck, settling on my shoulder like a scarf.  How could I turn it away?  I couldn’t.  I took it back to my room.  I then walked back to town and found food, later located a pet store and bought a carrier.

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Friends and I discussed a name for her — for she was a female.  I thought of Bouboulina, a heroine of the Greek War for Independence; she was from Spetses and there’s a statue of her.  Unless I called her “BooBoo,” though, no one stateside would ever get that name, or remember it.  Thus I came to settle on the name Homer.  Yes, I know that we generally accept that Homer the poet was male.  But maybe not — maybe, just maybe Homer was a she.  At least, that’s how I came to name my new pet Homer.  Homer traveled from Spetses with me on a Flying Dolphin, drove from the port of Pireaus in a taxi to my apartment, and made herself at home there.

Once there, Homer made herself at home.  She quickly discovered that she enjoyed the computer — and the warmth of it.  She still does.

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In Athens, a friend recommended a vet, who saw Homer and wormed her.  Homer adapted to being an indoor pet pretty easily.  She slept on my chest.  After a week, I realized that Homer had given me something quite different — something no other pet had ever given me.  Ringworms.  It took several weeks — and various creams and strong drugs — to clear up her gift.

She traveled back to Lake Charles with me, in her carrier, under the seat in front of me on two different airplanes.  She was quiet and no trouble.

And even after I returned to Lake Charles, I had a flare-up and had to see my dermatologist.  I also had to treat the other four animals.  Thanks, Homer, for a memorable treat.

Now Homer is acclimated to life in Southwest Louisiana, living with two other cats and two dogs.  She thinks she’s the queen of the universe.

I may look at kittens now, but I resist, no matter how cute they may be.

One of the things that I miss most when I’m away for several months (even a few weeks):  my own pets.  I worry about them.  Friends send me photographs to reassure me that they’re okay.  This past summer, some dear friends took my dogs for the three months I was gone.  Their chihuahua wasn’t thrilled, but she put up with them — as long as they recognized she was boss.  But every day they got to go out into the sun, sleep in the shade, get serenaded to by guitar.  They had a good time.  I just missed them.

So when I see the dozens of cats and dogs roaming Athens, I get a bit of my pet-fix soothed.  At the same time, I worry, too.  Life is precarious for these free-wheeling animals.  Dogs, especially, face dangers; if people don’t like them, or think they make too much noise (even if they’re someone’s pets, in a fenced yard), they’ll toss poisoned food for them.  It’s horrifying to me, imagining the loss.  On islands, some years, there are reports of packs of stray dogs becoming dangerous, or perceived as being so.

Here we have animal shelters and even the pound.  There, though, there are no such things.  Nor is it legal to round them up, to dispose of them.  So they wander, subject to the kindness of those people who feed them and to the cruelty of those who mistreat and poison them.  It’s a confusing attitude, I confess.

Yet the last couple of summers, I’ve noticed more Athenians with dogs on leashes — small dogs, big ones, you name it.  Maybe it’s a popular thing now, to have a pet in the city, one that’s pampered and walked.

Not far from my apartment, on Filolao Street, there’s a pet shop.  The owner puts out some cages on the sidewalk some days for people walking by to look at and perhaps stop and purchase the rabbits or the birds in them.  Song birds are popular here, on balconies and even at shops and tavernas.  Soft bird song often follows you as you walk, though you’re not necessarily able to see the birds.

At times, I stop and take photographs of the dogs or cats or birds.  I’ll probably never see them again, other than these months that I’m in Athens.  But next year, or next visit, there will be others, certainly.

I like to people-watch, true.  It’s probably the voyeur that we all secretly harbor.  It’s fun to listen, to watch, to imagine relationships and entire scenarios from the snippets we understand, the interactions we glimpse.

But life’s not complete without the context.  And even in a metropolitan area like Athens, there is life beyond the human scope.

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Dreams to Remember

Naps are something I almost never took while I was working, except if I were sick or on vacation, or if I were very tired. They were part of childhood, long abandoned to adult all-day schedules.

On vacations, though, I indulged in them. I’d run errands, perhaps take walks, or go sightseeing. Naps were for refreshing myself. And in Greece, they are just part of the culture. Indeed, when I was there on sabbatical in 1996, I was told not to call anyone between the hours of 4-6, and maybe even 2-6. Those were private, reserved for naps. Or perhaps for other private things. I quickly became addicted to those naps, but once I’d return to the U.S., there was no way to work them into a U.S. work schedule, especially an academic one. Not that I’d abandon them, but they became part of weekends or visits to the beach or at Dad’s. Lying down with a book, reading, and drifting off for a relaxing nap became a hallmark of true relaxation.

Now, though, I can take them whenever I want — if I’m home and not out and about. That’s what I did today. A sinus headache nagged me all morning and I couldn’t shake it. I simply tried to work despite it, taking a few ibuprofen and drinking some water. My brain seemed sluggish and fuzzy — I just couldn’t really focus for long on anything.

After spending some time on the computer, and time straightening up work space for crafting, I slipped into bed, between freshly changed sheets, and read for a while. I woke up a few hours later, headache gone.

But with the nap came dreaming, and when I woke up I was in one of those states where the dream is so real that it was difficult to tell what was dream and what wasn’t.
The dream wasn’t a bad one; just the opposite.

I’d been dreaming about Dad. I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I just knew that when I woke up, I felt warm and comfortable, almost as though I’d been hugged.

Before I knew it, I’d rolled over and picked up the phone to dial Dad’s phone number. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t. His phone has been disconnected; for the first time in decades, that number doesn’t belong to the Ware family. I could dial it, but don’t know who’d answer. It’s probably been re-assigned, of course.

Holding the phone, I was simply aware that I was once more empty, lost. I didn’t have anything pressing to talk to Dad about — not any crisis or problem. I just wanted to chat, to see how he was, and to connect. The phone couldn’t do what I wanted it to do.

Those moments when the desire is to connect to a parent or another loved one who’s dead, when we’ve forgotten that they’re no longer with us. That desire somehow rises despite our consciousness that they are gone, overrides it, negates it.

My brother and sister and I were fortunate in our relationships with Mother and Dad. We liked them as well as loved them. We enjoyed spending time with them. It wasn’t a chore or an obligation that made us visit them or pick up the phone and call them.
Now, though, Kay and I are left, without Mother or Phil or Dad. We have each other, and though we snip at each other and disagree, we also cherish each other. We text and email every day, since she’s not able to talk on the phone while she’s at work. We talk every few days also.

But today, wanting to talk to Dad was just overwhelming when I woke up. Naps are lovely, but sometimes awakening from the dreams that accompany them is bittersweet.

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Freedom and Structure: Retirement Realities

When I retired, I thought, I’d be free to travel when I wanted to.

Wrong. Here I am, wanting to take a trip this fall, and realizing that I really don’t have time when I can schedule anything — not for a while. Maybe in November, if I can manage.

True, I’m not working anymore, so theoretically I have all of this free time. Yet I find that I have committed myself to a few things that mean I need to be around here. A writing project of about 100 pages due in November, a couple of short editing jobs, and 3-week program to conduct at a local library. In addition, I’m trying to get some improvements finished in my kitchen.

Now these are things I’m happy to do, things I want to do — the long writing project in particular is a step in the direction of establishing a writing and editing business that I’ve set up; the shorter projects are also part of that. While the smaller projects can be done from anywhere, the long one needs to be done near here, so that I can consult when needed. The library program is something that I love doing — I get to lead discussions with a group of people who want to read and participate. These programs are part of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities series called RELIC — and I’ve participated in them since the late 1980s.

Really what I’m adjusting to is the reality of my retirement. I enjoy some level of commitment to some things. Perhaps that will change, but for now such participation is fun for me and keeps me intellectually stimulated.

Just recently I took two workshops working with precious metal clay. A couple of years ago I started making jewelry using sterling silver wire, semi-precious gems, and sterling silver findings. In reading, I became interested in PMC, and even began buying materials and tools. But the two workshops really got me excited, and I’m now part of a small number of women here who are also interested in it. So we’ve formed a group that will meet once a month with an experienced instructor/artist from Lafayette. I’ll probably join the state group as well and hope to take more workshops not only in precious metal clay but in other jewelry-making techniques. Such a commitment might seem contradictory if I want to be free, but it’s actually a reflection of a long-held interest in art and in crafting. Only now, in retirement, can I indulge myself to this level.

Only as recently as last spring I was looking online for classes that I could find in Texas or Louisiana, classes related to making jewelry. And four weeks ago, the perfect opportunity happened, right here, and it has led to new possibilities that beckon.

Clearly, “freedom” has evolved in its meanings for my life. Freedom not only applies to the time for travel. It also means freedom to explore the many artistic interests I’ve had little time for during a career I loved. If I want to take a workshop — or a series of them in another town where I have to stay for a few days or a week — then I can.

“Freedom” also lets me get up and meet friends for coffee, only to linger for hours as other friends drop by the same place between classes or for lunch. That’s what happened today. I meant to be at McDonald’s for only a hour or so, but ended up staying for six hours! By the time I left, I’d made some earrings, started practicing wire-wrapping a stone, and had great conversations with friends. Though some days I have obligations that set my agenda for the day, this morning I only had one set-in-stone obligation (bloodwork before my doctor’s appointment next week) and thus I could let my day unfold as it would. That’s a luxury.

Other days the freedom is to stay up all night if I want to do so — whether reading or writing or working on jewelry or watching television. If I want to do that, and then go to sleep at 4 or even 5 a.m. and then sleep late, I can do that.

Certainly there are some things that create a structure in my life. There’s one day a week when my friend Patty comes to help me at the house, cleaning and working on organizing and straightening. Some days I stay and work with her on a project. Some days I stay but work in the office. Other days I take off and run errands or meet people.

Structure has an entirely different meaning for me now. For years, the dominant structure revolved around university — the semester itself, my teaching schedule, and grading and preparing. Simultaneously, my dad’s needs structured my time. Summers were for a long time the only long-term period of time that I could carve out as mine, the time when I traveled to Greece for two to three months.

Maybe I’m still feeling my way here in this new life. I know I’m still having to adjust my expectations about all sorts of things. Most obviously for me is my adjustments to the timeframe in which household projects and renovations can be completed. Earlier in the year, I anticipated that two major projects would be done by the end of the year. Now I’m not certain of that. The kitchen project advances slowly, since my handyman works here in between his other job.

Some days I’d like to take off and head to the beach but can’t if he can be here working on the kitchen for a few days. I have to adapt.

Right now, I’m hoping he’ll be able to work here again soon — it’s been almost a week now since he worked. And then it was one day in a week. Though I’m frustrated, I’m learning to shrug it off. The kitchen will be finished. I just no longer am certain when that will be.

The other major project, having sheetrock installed in my living room, might happen. I’m looking now for a quote on that. If I can afford it, I hope to have that done. If I get someone other than my handyman to do that, then he can finish the kitchen and perhaps in November put insulation in my attic.

Fingers crossed.

Freedom to travel was perhaps the only real notion of my retirement goals. Now that I’m actually retired, though, travel is one of the many goals that are emerging.

Fortunately I’ve always been adaptable. For years now I’ve said that my “f” word was flexible. Indeed, I had to be flexible, given the competing responsibilities of caring for my dad, working, and trying to have my own life. Now I still must be flexible, able to quickly adapt expectations. My friend Charles says to remember this: “I’m a willow. I can bend.” And that’s true.

Freedom? It doesn’t mean a life without structure or commitments. It does mean, though, a life where the structures and commitments are those that I choose.

Today I was free to take hours to visit with friends, to work on some jewelry, and then to come home and try out the small kiln for my precious metal clay work. I fired three pieces. Tomorrow I’ll take them out of the kiln (they’re done and it’s off), clean them, and see how the kiln worked. I’ll move the kiln back to the office area (it’s on a cart). I’ll put up the folding table I was working on in the living room since it isn’t really solid enough for a secure, stable workspace.

And I can do that at my own pace, while Patty and I work around the house. Then I’ll meet Myra again to work on wire-wrapping the stones. Maybe I’ll branch out and try a cabochon.

I don’t have to decide that now.

That’s freedom.

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Libraries Without Books?

So last week in San Antonio a new library opened and there were articles about it on CNN and other news sites. Why was this such a newsworthy event?

It’s a library with no books. A modern library. A very expensive facility — a digital collection. I know it’s probably the harbinger of future libraries, but it’s just somehow wrong to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the digital possibilities — so many collections and archives are digitizing rare books and manuscripts and that is making research much easier. l enjoy the ease with which I can use academic search engines from anywhere. And how much better can it get when you can actually get to download a file of an article rather than having to physically search for it and copy it? Oh, it’s truly wonderful.

Look at how librarians are now called “information specialists” and how they must be technologically tuned in.

But I confess to missing things like a real, hard-copy card catalog. Yes, digital catalogs and specialized academic search engines are convenient. These save much time and speed up research. I spent many hours with paper MLA bibliographies and then wandering the stacks for journals to copy articles from. And hours at the card catalogue. Certainly the time saving alone is a blessing. Yet nothing can match the physical act of flipping through the cards to discover books related to what you’re searching. That’s not something that happens with a digital academic search engine. Many times, I serendipitously discovered material by sheer accident because I just looked at the cards near the one I needed.

And when there are no physical books, no stacks as we’ve known them, there’s no wandering through and making random discoveries. It’s certainly highly efficient, but it’s less fun, at least for me. I mean, once I had the call number I needed (after using the card catalogue and coming up with a list of possible books), I’d head for the stacks with that call number. But I’d wander to other shelves with similar call numbers to see what I’d missed. Again, many times I found real treasures this way.

I am typing this on my iPad mini, which has a Kindle reader. The convenience and space-saving possible with an e-reader and e-books are a real boon, especially for someone who travels a lot. Yet there’s nothing quite like a physical book for the sheer tactile experience of holding the book, feeling its heft, turning the pages. And with your own books (those for research), you have the freedom to make notes, to underline. I know that e-book readers have those features, but still making notes this way isn’t as easy or as natural.

After a career teaching literature and composition, I have acquired more books than I ever dreamed about. True, I’ve purged some. But there are probably thousands in my home. Many I’ll never use to teach from again. I could and might purge some of those. Some of my younger teacher friends might be able to use some.

In the end, though, I find it difficult to follow through with ridding myself of all of them. They’re just too much part of me — not just part of my career, but truly part of me, of who I am.

Books — physical books — have a presence. They offer themselves to us. Well-used and worn, they reflect our own lives as we age. In decorating magazines, I see far too many beautiful libraries with books that are beautiful — and that are pristine. They’re not used. They’re part of the “look” rather than authentic. The spaces look nice, but ultimately too neat and not really usable.

No, books in my house have a very different look. Most shelves have double rows of books, one stacked on top of another, or even double-double stacked shelves. And I have grouped books in a way that is useful — to me. American literature certainly dominates — with an 8×4 foot bookcase for 17th-19th centuries and half of another 8×4 bookcase for 20th century books. A smaller bookcase has yet more books, on theory, that I can’t reallly categorize. British lit — especially Shakespeare – can be found on other shelves. There are a couple of small bookcases for poetry. There’s a huge old library bookcase with novels and some textbooks. And then there are the two bookcases for Greek-related literature and language. Science fiction and mysteries live on wallshelves. Craft books are elsewhere in the house, as are my Greek language textbooks and workbooks. And then there are the books on other topics I’m interested in.

Periodically I have to remove the piles of books from my bed and return them to their proper homes. I mean, I do need room in the bed for me and for the pets.

So libraries are places that I have many fond memories of. My first library book card, for the Crowley Public Library, opened the world for me. I had the use of the school library at Egan Elementary (which had books for up to 12th grade even after the high school closed), but that wasn’t good for summertime. I’ve used libraries in every place I’ve lived. I have even managed to get into the Reading Room at the British Library.

Reading about that new library in San Antonio made me a bit sad. Books, after all, have shaped my life — as they have for so many people. I know this library will be efficient and useful. But I’m not sure it will be fun and a place of discovery.

That’s the loss.

Since this is Banned Books Week, I think it’s appropriate to think about the role of libraries in our lives and our communities. We can pick from books and magazines; they are not censored. That’s a joy many people don’t share.

Maybe I’ll go to the library tomorrow and look through the stacks.

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Monday: Mother and Family History

Tonight I was watching a new show on PBS — Genealogy Roadshow.  There were several short segments with people seeking to find something out about their respective families.  Then came a young woman who’d never known her father; apparently he and her mother had not married, and he died shortly after her mother had become pregnant.  This story stopped me from looking at my email or from thumbing through various craft books on precious metal clay.

It was so close to the story about my mother — up to a point.  But I couldn’t stop watching, and listening, and imagining my mother as this young woman related her story.  I’ve been thinking of Mother ever since.

When I was 7, when my younger sister was born, Mother had some allergic reaction to a medication she was given.  She nearly died.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hospital “lost” the records, or whatever — but never could anyone find out what Mother was so dangerously allergic to.

Shortly afterwards, within months, Mother began having panic attacks, severe ones.  In the terminology of the 1950s, she suffered “a nervous breakdown” within the year.  A psychologist became part of our weekly routine; she went to her psychologist, came home, and Dad would take me for a long truck ride to try to explain to me what was going on.  The psychologist worked in tandem with a psychiatrist, and he prescribed a tranquilizer that Mother took without fail for nearly eighteen years.  There were years, though, when I didn’t trust her or her “moods”; I was much closer to Dad, who kept the family together when many men would have left her and the three of us children.  He explained to me, at age 8 and 9 and 10, what I could barely really understand, but he wanted me to know that she didn’t hate me.  I grew up in a lot of ways, and had to be a little adult.  I resented that she was different, that I had a different mother from the one I’d known before the breakdown.  I loved her too, but I was too young to really understand or comprehend my own emotions, much less hers.

She improved over time, functioned, and never had to be committed.  Our relationship through this is another story altogether.  By the time I left home to go to college, we were both glad, and our relationship improved greatly.  We became closer, and talked more.  We were friends.  In my 30s, I was old enough finally to let all my negative emotions about her go, to just love her and see her as a person.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, when I was 21, my mother’s step-father died.  She went through another near-breakdown and I learned the truth about her own background.  My perception of her changed and over time, I’ve come to see her so differently.  This is where tonight’s Genealogy Roadshow connects.

Until I was 21, I believed that my mother and aunt were both daughters of my grandmother Ella and my Grampa Charlie, a Swedish immigrant.  He and my grandmother divorced and she later remarried Glenn, my mother’s step-father.  When Glenn died in December 1972, the story I’d grown up with changed.

My grandmother Ella had been married not twice but four times.  Her first marriage, at the age of barely 15.  This marriage produced my aunt.  My grandmother Ella left her husband when, we were told, he’d thrown battery acid at her.  She was maybe 16 1/2 by then.  Young and striking, with dark auburn hair, she remarried soon.  This second husband disappeared when she was pregnant with my mother, who was born a few months after Ella turned 18. Ella was pregnant when his car was found by the Neches River, abandoned, with his lunch still on the seat.  The story went that he was in trouble over gambling.  Or perhaps had been the victim of union problems.  The mystery shaped my mother’s entire life.  Thus my mother never knew her biological father.  

When Mother and my aunt were still toddlers, Ella married a third time — she was perhaps 21 by then.  This was Charles Steele, the man I knew as Grampa Charlie and thought was my biological grandfather.   So the family story went, Charlie didn’t want to settle down in one place and by then both the girls were ready for school.  My grandmother moved home to Beaumont, and Charlie didn’t.  They divorced but remained friends.  Ella remarried when Mother was in junior high school; this was Glenn, her fourth and last husband.  They were married until Glenn died in December 1972.  

Glenn’s death apparently meant that for whatever reasons (and I don’t know and can’t ask Dad now because he’s dead) Mother had to pull out her adoption papers.  This is when I learned that when she was 18, Mother had her name changed and had Grampa Charlie legally adopt her.  Since my grandmother was apparently the black sheep of the family because of her four marriages, Mother was always afraid of people knowing “the truth.”  Yet we’d moved to Egan when I was 5 1/2, and Egan was where my grandmother’s family was from.  I’m sure that moving there in 1957 had been difficult because Mother was moving into a very small town, one where everyone knew Ella and her history.  

Mother was afraid of my reactions; she knew that Dad had told me so that I’d understand why Mother was having the most difficult time I’d seen in over a decade.  I didn’t care — in fact, I told her, I thought her biological father was just a son-of-a-bitch.  My words without embellishment.  It made no difference to me in how I thought of her or Ella.  I didn’t think less of them.  In fact, I thought much more of my grandmother than ever before.  (Oh, she could make me angry, too, don’t get me wrong.  But maybe that’s because, as my sister often says, I’m a lot like Ella.)

A few years later when I moved to Beaumont, where my grandmother lived, she was very careful to sit me down and tell me “the truth,” expecting me to be shocked.  She was surprised, to say the least, that I knew already.  Why was she so careful to tell me?  She was afraid that someone in Beaumont would spill the beans, would be cruel.  She was also quick to assure me that she and Mother’s father had been married; she brought the marriage certificate with her to prove it.  Once more, I told her just what I thought of him, and told her that I loved her and was proud of her.  

Only after that did I begin to hear just how cruel some of Mother’s family had been to her.  Some of Ella’s brothers, and other cousins, had ridiculed Mother and her sister over and over.  They were made to feel ashamed.  When they went to school — a parochial school — they were further ridiculed by nuns.  

So by 1978, I’d come to understand my mother on a very different level.  The deeply rooted anxiety disorder that plagued her for her entire life, that could shake her to a nervous breakdown, had a context now that made sense.  

And then in the fall of 1979 or spring of 1980, her world and Ella’s changed once more.  And not in a good way.

That’s when Ella decided to write to get my mother’s father’s service records.  He’d been a Marine in World War I.  In a very typical fashion (for our family, at least), Ella wrote the letter pretending to be Mother.  The response shook her and broke her heart — and, I am convinced, made her give up on some level.  Ella became an old woman in ways I’d never thought possible.

My biological grandfather had not died in 1926, but in 1956, in Oregon, where he had a heart attack while working for the railroad.  My grandmother had the service records, with the facts, and also learned that he’d remarried.  Since he’d been married once before he married Ella, this was his third wife.  Yet on his service records, he claimed only two wives, not three, and claimed no children. 

My parents came to see me in College Station, where I was in graduate school at the time, and told me what had happened.  Mother was very disturbed, and I was angry.

For years, Mother knew that her biological father’s family lived in the Beaumont area.  They’d in fact given my grandmother $1000, I’d been told, for the baby.  They perpetuated the belief that he was dead.

In truth, he’d left a pregnant wife who was barely 18.  He was somewhere in Texas for a while.  I have found him listed in the 1930 census as living in Houston.  At some point he moved to California.  At all times, though, his family knew he was alive and they kept in touch.  Apparently he even returned to Beaumont at times for visits.

Tonight’s story of the young woman brought all this back to me.  Here she was, talking about a father who’d not married her mother, who’d died before she was born.  Yet at no time did she show any sense of being ashamed — and she shouldn’t have.  Whether she’d experienced anyone who ridiculed her or her mother, or made them feel ashamed, I don’t know — this wasn’t part of the short segment.  That in itself was striking.

What a contrast to my mother and grandmother.  Both had been made to feel ashamed of something that was not their doing, or their fault in any fashion.  Ella had survived being abandoned, pregnant; she had less success at 70 or 71.  I wish I’d been able to talk to her more about this, but that wasn’t possible.  What I could and did do, though, was — for the rest of my mother’s life — let her know I was neither ashamed nor embarrassed by her history.  

In fact, as I have said, I found even deeper love and greater pride in my grandmother’s ability to take care of herself and two small girls, to make a living, to work and be a smart businesswoman.  She was a waitress; then she was a manager of the diner; she was once held up by Bonnie and Clyde.  She then ran a boarding house.  When she married Glenn, she continued to work.  During World War II, she worked in a munitions plant and drove a forklift and heavy equipment.  By the time I was 10, she was the manager of an elementary school cafeteria.  This was no weak sister, believe me.  And her advice to me, all my life:  be able to take care of yourself, even if you marry.  

As for my relationship for Mother, this only made me see her quite differently yet again.  I think our relationship deepened, and I could talk to her about her father as I couldn’t bring myself to talk to my grandmother.  

I’m curious about him, about his family and background.  I’ve done some research; I know, thanks to the internet and genealogical databases, far more than I did ten years ago.

And frankly, my opinion of him hasn’t changed.  He was a son-of-a-bitch.

The young woman tonight didn’t have quite the same story.  Time and culture had changed so much between her birth and my mother’s.  During her segment in the show, there were photographs of her father.  Near the end of the segment, she was told that the photographs had come from her cousin, who then was brought out and introduced to her.  A family connection was made.

That I was in tears by the end of that young woman’s segment might not surprise you.  It surprised me, though.  Why, I’ve since wondered, did it move me so?

Because my mother never got the kind of recognition that she needed and deserved from her own father’s family.  She had to live her entire life in the aftermath of abandonment and denial.  And in her forties, having adapted to what she had believed for her entire life was one reality, she had to deal with a heartbreakingly different one.

All families have stories.  Many also have secrets.  And family stories are important.  They might get changed or embellished or kept secret for many reasons.  But at some point, they need to be told.  Secrets can be devastating.  The aftermath can resonate for generations.

So this is for you, Mother.  Your story is nothing to be ashamed of.  I am proud of you and Ella.  And thankful to be your daughter.

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Sounding The Day

Sunday mornings were always lovely before I retired.  Generally only on Sunday morning could I sleep late, since Saturdays were often for errands that couldn’t get done during the week.

Now, I don’t usually set the alarm clock at all unless I have an appointment to keep.  Sundays, though, are still quite special.

Most people who live near me still work, so on Mondays through Fridays they must wake up and get to work.  This means that though I can lie in, they can’t, and thus as they leave for work, their cars provide a steady background of motor sounds.  Not all cars sound the same, so the sounds vary.  Often during the week, other sounds add to the mix — the heavier rumble of the garbage truck, for example, or of lawnmowers and trimmers.  Occasionally horns pipe into the atmosphere.  

As the day goes on, bells and sirens join the noises that populate the area.  Radios or CD players turned up to maximum volume not only blare music but their turned-up bass often sends vibrations through my floor.  I can feel the pumping, throbbing both in my ears and through my body.  

On Sundays, though, as this morning, it’s usually quite different.  No one will be out too early mowing or trimming.  So nothing really stands out.

Rather, I awaken slowly, aware of little other than my own breathing and the snuffling of my dogs.  The rhythmic slap of the fan blades softly rotates above me.  As I turn to my side, the sheets rasp a bit, barely audible. If the sheets are crisp, as they were this morning, the sound is sharper than it is after the sheets are softer, a few days on the bed.

If I want, I can simply roll back over and allow myself to drift back into the dream state.  

So it went this morning, as I drifted into and out of dreams, into and out of consciousness.  Slowly, slowly, I allowed myself to surface fully.  

Once I waken, I lie there, just feeling the luxury of my body nestled into the mattress, my head resting in its hollow in a pillow.  My eyelids flutter open and closed, light entering my awareness, further waking me up.  When I’m ready, I’ll open my eyes and look around me.  The dogs are still curled on the bed, one at my hip and one often on the pillow behind me.  Homer, the cat, lies on her back with one paw thrown over her eyes, not unlike my own position at times.

When I’m ready, I begin to engage with the world.  No sounds, still, other than breaths and fan blades and sheets rustling.  Not until I reach over and grab my phone and then my iPad mini and sit up, disturbing the pets perhaps, and prop up on the pillows against the wall behind the bed. 
Now other sounds come: the click of the phone slide as I push it to open my phone and check email.  The metallic snick as I lift the cover from the iPad mini.  

As I click on newspapers and other websites, mechanical sounds multiply.  I am awake,  in the world, but still without many sounds.  No television.  No music.  No voices.

Then the dogs awaken too, and Homer.  Their morning yelps and barks and meows require me to engage in two-way conversations, at last.

Silence is broken. But gently.  

At this point, I’m still cocooned.  The silence and then the soft sounds that follow it calm me, comfort me, soothe me.  Sometimes, I simply stay home all day without any television or radio, without talking to anyone other than the pets.  Those are the days when I can regain some balance, blocking out the cacophony that too often bombards me once I’m outside the doors.

This afternoon, when I left to meet my friend Myra at McDonald’s so that her three-year-old could play while we visited and worked on jewelry, was a reminder of how much cacophony really disturbs my concentration.  And my calm.  There we sat, and two or three minutes later entered several other young boys — a couple of them clearly more than three years old (the limit for the climbing tubes).  Yet they proceeded to climb up and scoot down.

And to raise the decibel level beyond belief.  They yelled.  They shouted.  They squealed.  Four young voices in tandem, pitched at a painful level for the other (adult) people in the play area.  It was amusing at first; I forget just how inventive young children can be in calling each other names.  Nothing vulgar, just kind of funny.  But then the shouting and yelling and squealing escalated.  The parents of the other kids seemed to have simply vanished — they certainly didn’t call their boys to behave better, as Myra frequently reminded her son to do.

No, they just continued to disturb us.  My head hurt before too long.  My ears actually ached with certain pitches.  I realized that I flinched at times.  

I have no idea how long that went on.  It felt as though it lasted for hours, though I know it was less than an hour.  Then a little girl entered the room, and the volume immediately dropped.  Interesting development, to say the least.

Once the volume lowered and the squealing diminished, I stopped hunching and flinching and found myself relaxing again.

When they all left, though, I was glad.  The very air itself stopped vibrating around us almost immediately.

Once I returned home, I sought out more silence.  I was only ready for Sunday night television about two hours ago.  My ears still needed a bit of a rest.  

Now, I’m aware of the television in the room beyond the office.  There’s clock ticking on the desk behind me as I type.  Outside, there’s a sort of background hum from traffic; I can’t hear that from my bedroom.

Tomorrow I’m sure I’ll get out, visit with friends, talk a lot.  There’ll be chatter in the coffeeshop around me.  I’ll hear the traffic noises from Ryan Street on a work day.  

Tonight, though, I’m savoring my quiet space.  I’m ready to turn off the television and wind down with some reading before I turn off the light and go to sleep.

Once more, the sounds will soften to breaths and to fan blades.  I’ll sleep well.

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