Category Archives: family

WWLD

A group of us – cousins, second cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles – were assembled in my sister’s basement for the Milwaukee version of Cousins Weekend.  Somewhere in the course of normal conversation, my cousin’s wife Brenda revealed the impossible:  She was (accidentally, so she claims) growing dozens and dozens of mushrooms in her yard and garden that looked just like a penis. Waves of uncontrollable laughter ensued.  Joke after joke was made about Brenda spending a little too much time out in the yard and asking why she was seen applying lipstick before tending to her flower beds. Each new person entering the basement meant that the the telling of a new and more embellished version of the story was required. It was, as they say, the gift that kept on giving.

I took a break from the nonsense to head upstairs where things were a little less raucous.  There sat my Aunt Lois, quietly visiting with a couple of other family members and looking perfectly content.  I asked how she was doing, and she said that hearing her family’s laughter wafting up the stairs was all she ever hoped for.  And you know what?  It was.  (Never mind that she would have been appalled at how un-ladylike our conversation was.  That is beside the point.)

The kind of togetherness our family has doesn’t just happen by accident. It is nurtured, cultivated, and harvested by skillful hearts – hearts like that of Aunt Lois.  Hearts that love their family so much they remove all the seeds from the cubed watermelon in the fruit salad they have lovingly prepared for that day’s feast. Who does that, you ask?  Aunt Lois – that’s who.  It is a love so precious and so rare that it is truly like no other.

Tonight the news of Aunt Lois’s serious health challenges have the whole family scared to bits, because she is the pillar we all gather around.  My cousin and I keep checking in and riding waves of tears and laughter together.  We are all thinking that we don’t even have to stop and ask ourselves, “What Would Lois Do?”  We already know – she would kneel down and faithfully pray.  And so is just what we are doing.

Oh Tannembaum

I love seeing the inside of homes, especially once I get to know a person. I think a home is reflective of who the person is.  Are they messy?  Neat? Layered?  Readers? Entertainers?  There is so much you can tell in just a quick walk-through….I guess it really appeals to the nosy side of me.  I love my little home, and per my own assessment, I would have to think it says this about me:  Colorful! Whimsical! Bright! Modest! and Hyper-organized!

As I was trimming the tree today (as in decorating it, not anything involving a power saw), it occurred to me that one’s Christmas tree may also reflect the individual to whom it belongs.  There are people who go all out, year after year – new decorations, new theme, new levels of extravagance. There are people who have more than one tree – a tree for every room, even!  And then there are people like me, who delight in having the same old tree, year after year.  I like tradition to include a little of the expected and the ordinary.

So as I reflected on this today, I realized that this is what my Christmas tree says about me:

I like convenience.  My friends and family tease me because I love all things convenient.  And really, if you have the option, why would you not?  I pay someone to mow my lawn – a life-changing decision I made three years ago.  I have my Chinese food delivered to me rather than going out in the elements to get it myself.  So a few years ago, in line with my adoration of convenience, I decided enough with this “real tree” nonsense.  It doesn’t suit me.  It’s hard to find a good tree, and even a “good tree” can be a “bad tree” once you get it home.  It’s too tempting for the cats to use as a scratching post and knock it over (which of course has really happened).  Real trees drop needles everywhere that are still sticking around by the 4th of July.  I broke down after a few years of resistance and got an artificial tree. Three easy clicks and a flip of the switch and voila!  Convenient holiday cheer.  I love it! There is no turning back.


I am a sentimental fool.  Putting up the tree is a walk down memory lane.  I have ornaments from my childhood.  I have ornaments that friends gave me.  But some of my favorite ornaments of all are the ones my mother and grandmother made for me.  I have a set of ceramic holiday mice that are in all kinds of silly holiday situations interspersed throughout my tree.  They warm my heart and remind me of my humble roots.  This one sleeping in the matchbox is my all-time favorite.

I love to travel.  There are a whole bunch of things I like to do in this beautiful life of mine, but traveling is near the top of the list.  I love to travel to a new city and spend four days tearing it apart, finding every tiny little thing that city has to celebrate.  In the past, I used to buy all kinds of things when I would travel.  Over the years, however, I’ve simplified.  I now typically buy myself just one thing when I travel:  a new Christmas ornament depicting that place.  So now, years later, my tree is filled with all kinds of happy memories.  Each year, it is a delight to remember trips from the past and unwrap the new ornaments I’ve acquired for the year.  The new ornaments always go front and center on the tree. This year I added Seattle and Multnomah Falls, which is just outside of Portland, Oregon.  Such happy memories!

I am loyal.  I hope this is something the people closest to me know and understand…deeply.  I think loyalty is very important in this complicated world.  In any relationship – family, friends, colleagues – there will be times when the relationship may be tested. Times that are hard or unpleasant where you have to stand by one another.  I am that friend.  I will come see you at the hospital.  I will bring a platter of Jimmy Johns sandwiches when you move.  I will listen to you tell your tales of woe over and over.  And, it turns out, I will still hang you on my tree year after year, even when one of your legs fell off.  (Sorry, Northshore of Lake Superior Santa – you may be an amputee but I still love you.)

I have a sense of humor.  Maybe I don’t take life seriously enough, but really – if you are not laughing, what is the point?  I don’t get being anything other than happy, if I can help it.  And so, I try to add a little whimsy to everything I do.  I like to be a little weird.  I like to crack jokes at inappropriate times.  I like to work the room.  It’s just who I am.  When it comes to my Christmas tree, I like to think that the Elvis ornament I got in Memphis (one of the most fun trips I ever took with my best friend) really sets the tone.  Love you. Elvis.  And for the record, I could not agree more – we could use a little less conversation and a lot more action.

So all of that being said, Christmas is a time to reflect on all that matters. The life I’ve built for myself is full.  It has love and laughter and meaning. It’s funny how something as simple as an ordinary tree can depict all that, and yet somehow it does.  So from my house to yours…enjoy this wonderful holiday season.  Here is my tree in all its glory:

Rocking Chairs and Gold

When my sister was five years old, she used to sit at the old upright piano in our formal living room and belt out made-up songs for hours on end. The fact that she was not able to read a note of music or carry a tune did not dissuade her in the least.  The songs ranged from the pragmatic “School Bus” (lyrics:  “School bus, school bus, here comes the school bus!”) to the soulful “Rocking Chairs and Gold” (lyrics:  “Rocking chairs and gold, rocking chairs and gold, rocking chairs and gold”).  Her songs would reverberate throughout the whole house, and even though they barely made any sense, we all knew one thing:  they came straight from her heart.  Since the songs didn’t really make sense, we could assign our own meaning to them.  I believe that the classic “Rocking Chairs and Gold” was about holding close to you the things you love the most.

I must say, that’s what I love about my sister: she does everything with heart.  Not one to mislead you in any way, Jess calls it like she sees it.  She gets away with it, because she does so with love. But one thing is certain, you can always count on her to be honest. She’ll tell you if you have something stuck in your teeth, if those pants do in fact make your butt look bigger, if you are being an unreasonable diva or if that man is all wrong for you (all things she has probably told me at one time or another in the 35 years she’s been part of my life).  I find great comfort in being surrounded by such plain truth.

I find great comfort in it, because if I know one thing for sure it is this:  I don’t know it all.  Nope, that’s right – you heard it here first.  I don’t have all the answers.  And so, knowing that, I find it rather important to surround myself with people who will put me in check.  Now I’ve worked with leaders – plenty of them, in fact – who really dig being surrounded by a chorus of “yes men.”  They dig it so much that they seem to insist on it.  I guess it somehow strokes their ego to have everyone one around them telling them how brilliant they are.  But here’s my take on it:  If you are agreeing with me all of the time, then you must be lying at least 50% of the time.  And the problem with that is – I don’t know which 50% of the time you are lying.  So then I don’t know what’s real and what’s not, and everything has very quickly become a jumbled up mess.  Who needs it?

So I say, save it for someone else.  You want to give me a compliment? OK, but please make sure it’s sincere. But in the next beat, don’t be afraid to tell me like it really is.  It might hurt my feelings (I am a sensitive soul, don’t you know) but I promise you I’ll get over it.  And right after I get over it, I’ll be grateful you had my back.  Anybody can blow smoke up a skirt, but it takes real fortitude and character to dish out some tactful truth. But that, my friends, is what you do when you really care about somebody.

And to that, I say:  Rocking chairs and gold, baby.  Rocking chairs and gold.

Ordinary Days

Sometimes a memorable night is followed by an ordinary day.  I find that most often when this happens, it is precisely what I need.  A little extra sleep, a few odd chores, lunch with my family and a day of shopping together.  Shopping that includes $563 worth of savings at Kohl’s on behalf of my sister – talk about expecting great things!  And while there was nothing particularly remarkable about this day (aside from my sister’s Kohl’s associate stacked up savings), it was perfectly lovely.  In fact, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Ever have that happen – a day where you revel in the very ordinary? Ordinary is a beautiful thing.

A Real Turkey

About two weeks before Thanksgiving, Mom started concocting a plan. She had that twinkle in her eye – the one that heeded warning:  “Watch out, everybody.”  She and Dad put their heads together and with each exchanged idea, the laughter became more uproarious.  They were working up quite a scheme, those two.

I heard more laughs and hushed talk of logistics in the days leading up to the big holiday.  I didn’t pay much attention to any of it – I was only 11, after all.  Those two were always up to something, and I needn’t bother with it.  Besides, I had matters of my own to attend to.  You know, cutting Barbie’s hair, playing games of Sorry with my imaginary friend, setting up a barbershop for the cats in the hay loft.  Important stuff.

The night before Thanksgiving, Mom sat me down and carefully reviewed the next day’s plans.  We’d be spending the holiday with Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat – this much I already knew.  That was standard fare.
This time, cautioned Mom, we’d be spending the night.  I was down with that – more time to play with my cousins.  But there was one more thing Mom wanted me to know, and I had to promise to keep a secret. My interest piqued, and my eyes grew wide.  Mom paused, looked me in the eye, and told me all the details behind her cockamamie scheme.

Thanksgiving Day arrived and we didn’t miss a beat.  We packed up the van and headed to the “big city” – bearing in mind that any city seems big when you live on a farm outside a town of 700 people.  An hour later, we were at the door of Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat’s house – their big, gargantuan, larger-than-life house complete with seven bathrooms.  We cousins promptly made our way to the basement where the rec room awaited us.  The grown-ups did their grown up things, whatever those were.

And then the moment came.  The moment I had been warned about, and the moment that would be locked deep in family history forever more. Early in the afternoon, the mansion’s doorbell rang, and Uncle Alan went to see who might be there.  There before him in the circle drive was a yellow taxi cab idling, its driver standing at the door to explain he had a most unusual delivery for the family.  Uncle Alan arched an eyebrow, and more of us gathered in the foyer to see what was going on.  The cab driver returned to his car, pulled out a crate and headed straight to the door.  The Dr. Alan Swearingen family had just become the unexpected recipient of a live turkey.

The crate with the turkey bore no message and the cab driver was unable to offer any explanation about its sender.  Not knowing what else to do, Uncle Alan accepted the crate and the turkey was placed in the garage. Hours of debate followed about who would do such a thing.  Why on earth would anyone think they wanted a live turkey?  And whatever would they do with it?  Mom, Dad and I kept a poker face.  It was the first time in my life I had been given permission to tell a lie.  My cousins tried to divide and conquer, cornering me to ask if my family – known country bumpkins – had arranged for this strange turkey delivery.  I assured them with a very straight face that we had not.

And so, with no other choice before us, we sat down to enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner and partake in our usual traditions.  It wasn’t until the next morning – long after the colossal feast and even after every last piece of crystal had been carefully placed back in the china cabinet – that my parents ‘fessed up.  Yes, indeed, the whole turkey hoax was us.  And aren’t we funny?  I must admit, I think Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat thought a little bit yes, and a little bit no.  But you had to appreciate Mom and Dad’s chutzpah, there was no disputing that.

The hour ride home seemed long because – let’s be honest – this time we had a live turkey in a crate in the back of the van.  We played the events over and over again among each other, laughing harder each time. It was officially the first time I had been let in on the joke.  I was grateful to be right there with them, too.  I truly was.

So all of that is to say…Happy Birthday, Mom.  You left us way too soon. But know this – I carry you in my heart every day.  And that twinkle in your eye?  It found its way to me.

Friends

I once had a friend, now an ex-friend I suppose, who was trying to explain to me why she no longer saw it fit to be my friend.  It was the first time I had ever had a friend break up with me, and my heart actually felt like it was breaking.  Her reasons didn’t make any sense to me; she had recently found God and felt that our values weren’t aligned.  (The whole thing struck me as a very un-Christian-like scenario, but apparently the irony was lost on her.)  Anyway, in the course of conversation (I am telling you, it really was like a break-up), she said that her whole life she had never been able to maintain a friendship outside of her family and her husband.  Hearing that helped me understand the circumstances a little better, since apparently she was doing to me what she had done to every friend previous to me – no matter how loyal, how charming, how wonderful they were.  (Because dammit, I am loyal, charming and wonderful.)  It also made me sad for her. Really, really sad.

I would never denounce the importance of family – I adore my family. Family grounds you and is the foundation upon which everything else in your life is built, when done right.  But friends, I believe, are equally important. Family, generally speaking, is required to include you and to love you, warts and all.  Friends do not have the same set of obligations.  Friends can come and go as they please – and they often do – and therefore you must be lovingly attentive to them.  You must make yourself a little bit vulnerable, a lot available, and put in some hard work and sacrifices if you want to keep them around.

I’ve often said that it is difficult to make good friends – I mean really, really good friends – as an adult.  In our younger, formative years it is easy.  We have school and sports and activities of all kinds where we can meet people. We also have less definition of our inner selves, and quite honestly probably aren’t as picky.  But as we get older, we have fewer venues to meet people naturally and more stringent views of the world and how we fit into it. So to have friends, be it a solid few or varied many, is a precious and beautiful thing.  My friends are one of the many ways I know my life is truly blessed.

I have friends – two of them, actually – who have known me since I was five, went to school with me from elementary school all the way up through college, have been my friends in every major era of my life, and are still my very dear friends today.

I have friends who I am only recently getting to know, and I can’t wait to know them more fully.

I have friends who have been at my side on both my darkest and happiest days.

I have friends who do the same work as me and understand how important and difficult my life’s work is.

I have friends who started as mentors, and are still mentors but are also friends today.

I have friends with whom I have gone through difficult friendship moments, but we worked through it and still love each other fiercely today.

I have friends who are also family, and even if we weren’t related I would still choose them as friends. (Hello, favorite sister and brother-in-law!  Hello, frousins!)

I have friends who are not technically family, but really are my family in every sense of the word.  (Hello, logical family!)

I have friends who make me laugh about the silliest, most mundane things, such as the merits of the Oxford comma and whether jello is a salad or a dessert.  (Same friends, two equally passionate debates.)

I have friends who know my darker side and love me even so.

I have airport friends.

I have friends who share my passions and my annoyances.

I have friends I can sit with in quiet solitude.

I have friends I can spend hours with discussing every possible thing under the sun.

I have friends who would not judge me if I stoop (lower my moral standards) on a stoop (a small raised platform).  Not only would they not judge, they would think it made for a good story.

The bottom line is this:  I have friends.  Lots and lots friends, fulfilling lots and lots of needs.  And to this, I say – bless you, my beautiful friends.  You are my life’s greatest treasure.

Bless His Heart

At the age of 60, Harold still had enough physical stamina to be of good use on his youngest son’s hobby farm.  He and his wife would pile in the Buick and make the three hour trek for long weekends of painting, building fences and planting gardens.  The days, though hot and long, gave Harold a sense of accomplishment.   What his son lacked in physical capabilities because of his chronic medical condition, he made up for with vision and passion.  It was an honor for Harold and his wife to support their son’s dreams and help bring that vision to life.

The summer days on this small Iowa farm had air that was so thick you could practically chew it.  The morning grass had drops of dew big enough that they could visibly be seen – from a distance, no less. Undaunted, Harold put on his coveralls early in the day and headed down the steep hill to the barnyard, where he and his family would spend the day building a new corral for the horses.  A lunch of ham sandwiches and lemonade would be delivered by Harold’s granddaughter at high noon, with additional deliveries of ice cold water in the Coleman water jug being made on the hour. This heat was nothing to mess with, and everybody knew it.

At the end of the day, Harold and his son admired their accomplishments and made a list of tasks to be done the next day.  Soon after, Harold made his way back up the steep hill toward the house – this uphill trek being perhaps the most challenging part of any day spent working in the barnyard.  One foot in front of the other, he told himself, but each step proved more challenging than the one before it.  Struggling and straining, Harold stopped at the midway point and rested against a fence post to catch his breath.  His thoughts began to race, and worry set in that something was terribly wrong.  He didn’t call for help, though the thought did occur to him.  He worried that his 60 year-old body may be giving out on him.

Harold slowly and painfully made the rest of the long haul up that hill and arrived at the back porch of the farmhouse, breathless, red-faced and spent.  His daughter-in-law greeted him with a look of concern. “Something’s wrong,” Harold said.  “I don’t know what it is.  I think I might be having a heart attack.”  Ever the caretaker that she was, his daughter-in-law helped him into the house and plunked him down a rickety old kitchen chair. She gave him a big glass of ice water and a cool washrag for his forehead, keeping a watchful eye on him as sweat ran down his face.

Harold’s daughter-in-law insisted that the first order of business was for him to get out of those hot, sweaty coveralls.  The two of them decided that a long, cool shower would do Harold some good.   His daughter-in-law, also overheated after having spent the day in the kitchen canning pickles and beans, agreed to get the window unit air conditioner running in the den so Harold could relax in the recliner after his shower and continue to cool down.

After his shower, Harold came out of the bathroom in his shorts and undershirt.  As was usually the case, he was whistling a tune and laughing to himself.  “You sure seem to be doing better,” said his daughter-in-law, now feeling at ease that the threat of a medical crisis had passed.  Harold sheepishly confessed that he was sure he was not having a heart attack. It turned out, Harold had spent the afternoon barely able to move his legs because the elastic in his underwear had broken, and his underwear had fallen to his knees underneath his coveralls. The mystery was solved, and a new story was added the family archives.  It would be delightfully shared at family gatherings for decades to follow.

Harold was my Grandpa “Fox” and my family has a million more stories like these.  He was goofy, silly, full of laughter and the kind of guy who admitted that were it not for bad luck, he might not have had any luck at all.  He spent a lifetime modeling the art of self-deprecation.  He also taught all of us the subtle distinction between being the butt of a joke and being its punchline.