Summer Without a Swimsuit

No, this is not a post about skinny-dipping!  This is a story about tanning, or, rather, the lack of it.  I remember two of my older sisters lying out in the sun for hours, slathering

Chico and me on the farm
Chico and me on the farm

themselves with baby oil infused with iodine (yes, really.)  The quest for a golden tan was the primary pursuit of any summer.

I was always ghost-pale, and a real tan was never in my scope.  Nevertheless, I tried, covering myself in SPF 6 and feeling virtuous that I wore sun protection.  When I was in high school and college, I spent the hot part of my summer days on the farm lying on a lounge chair in the sun on the front walk, sweating in 90-degree-plus heat and humidity.  My faithful German shepherd panted underneath my chair for a while, then moved to the shade.  He only re-emerged to drink the last drops of Nehi orange from my bottle (one of his tricks.)  And the end result for me was never better than pale beige.  Fortunately, I couldn’t stand the pain of a sunburn, so I did tend to give up and go in when I felt my skin get hot.

Twenty years later damage began to appear, but not at first from sun exposure.  I had been given X-ray treatments and sun lamp treatments for acne as a teenager.  The dermatologist who spotted my first basal cell carcinoma said those treatments were probably the cause, but that sun exposure didn’t help, and I should never have worn anything less than SPF 15 in the sun.  But who knew, back then?  It was a dermatologist who gave me the treatments that did the damage, and thought it was cutting-edge.

So the end result is I’ve had several skin cancers removed, and I’m now in the land of large hats and SPF 50 every day to prevent incidental exposure.  This is the first summer I can remember where I didn’t even put on a swimsuit and cover myself in a waterproof coating of sunscreen to get wet in a pool on a hot day.  It just seemed like too much trouble for too little enjoyment.

So unless I rush out at the end of the day today before the pool closes for the season, it’s my first summer without a swimsuit.

Squirrels As an Economic Model

I was reflecting on the fact that I haven’t won the lottery yet, and thinking about my retirement savings strategy.  Everything was rosy when I was making six figures, but recent years have been very challenging to say the least.  My more affluent friends are not Sciurus_carolinensis[1]too worried; my less affluent friends are as worried as I am.  We joke about living under the bridge in a box, or moving to some backwater where rents are cheap, but it’s really not funny.

As I often do when I’m thinking of something unpleasant or looking for a solution to a problem, my mind went back to ancient stories.  Aesop’s fable, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” came to mind as a model for savings.  But who wants to drudge like a poor ant all day, just for the safety of an ant’s nest?  And what about the queen, sitting up there and being waited on hand and foot?  The grasshopper’s life looks much more attractive.  But he will die when the winter comes.  The ant won’t take him in.

Then I thought of another model.  What about squirrels?  Sure, they are squirrelly, and they can be terribly destructive if they get in your attic and go to work on nest-building.  But they wear fur coats, and they play a lot.  They always seem to be having a good time.  And they put away a lot of food for the cold months.  They seem to have a nice balance of work and play.

So the squirrel is my new model.  I have the “play” part down.  Now if I can just find some more nuts to stow away!

My Last Aunt

My father was born in 1913, toward the middle of a family of 10 children.  Mother was born in 1916, in the middle of a family of five children.  I am the youngest in my family of

Aunt Agnes at 90
Aunt Agnes at 90

five, 19 years younger than my oldest sister. So I grew up with a multitude of aunts and uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and even a couple of great-aunts in addition to my grandfather, when I was small.

I only have one aunt left out of all that multitude–27 aunts and uncles by blood or marriage when I was born (one had died young), and just one surviving now.  Aunt Agnes is 90 years old, born in 1924, Daddy’s youngest sister and 11 years younger than he was.

My sister Sherrie and I went to see her a few weeks ago when I made a quick visit back to Tennessee.  Aunt Agnes is still living on her own at her insistence, and with the assistance of her two children who take turns visiting every day and checking on her.  They wanted to get someone to live with her, but Aunt Agnes wouldn’t agree to it.  They had to take her car keys away a few years ago after she had a wreck and narrowly avoided a really bad accident.  She had a stroke a few months ago and recovered well, but she is unsteady on her feet now and has trouble with her short-term memory.

Aunt Agnes has always been a curious combination of unconventional and conventional.  She stayed in a painful marriage until her husband died, probably because divorce was shameful to her and her family.  Yet she worked at Fort Campbell as a civilian employee for many years, raising her family as a working mom.  Not a common thing in the ’50s and ’60s, even in the ’70s!  She’s always been devoted to her church and is a firm believer, but never to my knowledge cast aspersions at people in her family (like me, and some others I could name) who did not always live the way good Southern Baptists are supposed to live.  With her, family comes first, and her fondness for a relative goes a long way, even with a wayward niece like me.

Since the stroke she’s lost her appetite and has become quite thin and frail.  While Sherrie and I were there, Sherrie asked her if she wanted to have lunch.  Aunt Agnes had forgotten it was lunchtime.  She mentioned how she missed going to Captain D’s after church on Sunday, so I went through the drive-through and brought back that nasty, salty, fried fish for us all.  She ate maybe three bites.

I was surprised to get a card from her this week–I wasn’t sure if the stroke had affected her ability to write.  Inside was a perfectly clear and coherent note, and a $20 bill to pay for the lunch.  “Do not send the money back,” she wrote, and underlined it.  In her mind I’m still little Connie.  She’s the last one to remember me that way.

 

The Wind in the Trees

A few weeks ago I went back to Tennessee to visit my sister.  She lives with her husband on a 400-acre farm about an hour from Nashville, in a two-story house which his great-great-iPhone Photos 028great (maybe more) grandparents on his mother’s side built somewhere in the 1800’s.  It’s been modernized considerably, but it still has painted brick walls and a large front porch with posts.  The windows are tall and narrow, as was the fashion back then.  I suppose the cost of glass had something to do with that, too.

When you’re inside the house, you could be in a suburb anywhere.  With air conditioners, ceiling fans, a dishwasher, a media room with recliners, satellite TV and internet, and cellphones, you’d never know you were in the country.   But sitting on the front porch brought it home to me.

The porch is wide and long, with comfortable furniture and hanging plants.  The yard and porch are shaded by several ancient trees, oaks and pecans.  The gravel driveway winds under the trees to the road, less than a quarter-mile away.  The distance is far enough that I couldn’t hear the sound of traffic, and there didn’t seem to be much other than the occasional tractor or farm truck.  My brother-in-law’s tractor shed is in a field next to the yard, but the fields they farm are across the road, so there was no sound of tractors or mechanical work.

Sitting on the front porch with my sister, feeling the breeze, the only sound was the rustle of summer leaves, green and supple.  We watched a rabbit hop slowly across the yard from one covered spot to another, wary of hawks or a neighbor dog.  A bobwhite called from the field. Later in the day I walked to the fence on one side and spotted a snake in the grass, curving its shiny black body to move swiftly in a straight line, intent on some mission under one of the oak trees.

Hearing the wind in the trees took me back to evenings on Aunt Lou and Uncle Floyd’s porch, listening to them talk with Mother and Daddy and tell stories.  That porch was on a wood-plank dogtrot house, not at all like my brother-in-law’s family mansion.  But the smell of cut grass, the birds calling and the wind in the trees will always take me back to childhood.

 

For Mother’s Day

My mother died almost 10 years ago, at a pretty advanced age given her state of health.  I always miss her, I always will.  Here’s a list of things I would (or wouldn’t) do if I could

Fronie Bowers Jones
Fronie Bowers Jones

have just a few hours with her again.

I would listen to her and not lose my temper, sniff or complain.  Even when she narrates everything she’s doing as she’s doing it, or comments on every single thing or person we pass in the car!

I would hug her more often.

I would bring her little luxuries more often than I did.  I tried to bring small presents, especially jewelry, whenever I traveled somewhere exotic or new, and she loved that.

I wouldn’t tell her that I hated salmon croquettes.  They were her favorite, so she thought they had to be mine as well.

I would believe her advice and act on it.  Well, maybe not.

I would break that bushel of green beans she promised to Aunt Eunice and only grumble once.

I would understand why she spoiled my brother, and why she never stopped trying to change me into a different person from the one I am.

I would kiss her soft, old, wrinkled cheek.  That would be best of all.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, and to all of us who ever had one!

 

 

The “Go Home” Button

I’m now doing a commute by car to Long Island, an hour or more each way depending on traffic.  There are a number of alternate routes, some more obscure than others.  I was aware of a few of them but I’ve learned a great deal in the past few months from the Traffic

Chico and me on the farm
Chico and me on the farm

Alert function on my GPS.  It’s nothing fancy, a refurbished Garmin Nuvi, but I’ve learned to listen when it yells, “Severe traffic ahead!  Recalculating!”

It has taken me on scenic tours of parts of the Bronx to avoid traffic jams, some a lovely surprise like Pelham Bay Park or the Moshulu Parkway, which winds around in back of the Bronx Zoo, and others where I wished I had an armed guard riding shotgun with me.  It sent me through Queens in a snowstorm, winding through a few ethnic neighborhoods and then ending on the LIE (Long Island Expressway, for my non-New-York readers.)  I found out later it avoided  a car fire on the Cross Island Expressway.

All in all, it’s a learning experience, if an exhausing one sometimes.  My favorite function of all is the button on screen labeled “Go Home.”  Wherever I may be, I can touch Go Home and the satellite will guide me, around traffic and obstacles, the fastest way home that it sees.

On these long drives I get into a contemplative mood (unless someone cuts me off) and I have started wishing for a “Go Home” button in my life.  Sort of like Dorothy clicking her heels in the “Wizard of Oz,” but I’d like to be able to go through time and space to places, times and sometimes people when I felt safe and loved, or pleased and happy, or just content, and revisit them again.

I guess that’s a function memory serves.  But I would like to see Mother frying chicken, walk with Daddy to the tobacco barn, my dog trailing behind and startling birds or rabbits, or listen to my uncle Jesse (known as Fatty because he was so thin as a boy) playing guitar and singing old songs.  I’d like to eat my first meal in Paris, in a faded bistro with a fat old German shepherd eyeing my dessert.  I’d like to be back at Bear Lake in the summer on the pontoon boat with the cooling breeze of the boat’s motion.  I’d like to be there.

Until someone invents a time machine I’ll have to keep working with memory, and trying to add more to that vault of good feelings, and trying to forget the bad ones.  Peace out, and have a good week.

March Madness and My Mother

A girls basketball team from 1922 (not my mother's team)
A girls basketball team from 1922 (not my mother’s team)

When the NCAA playoffs roll around I think of Mother every year.  She was a huge college basketball fan.  Her favorites were Kentucky, and, after I went there, Tennessee.  Even after she had had strokes and was in the nursing home she still liked to watch the March Madness games.  She couldn’t say much about the games but her dark eyes were alert as she watched the boys run up and down the court.  She liked the women’s games, too, once they started televising them.

Mother played high school basketball herself at Woodlawn School, a country school which didn’t even grant a diploma when she and Daddy were there.  Girl’s basketball in those days was a different animal from now.  In fact, it didn’t change until 1970.

Girls played in half courts.  Let me explain.  Your team’s defense couldn’t cross the center line, and your team’s offense was on the other half of the court and couldn’t cross the line.  The opposing team had the same restrictions, so as a defensive player your entire object was to get the ball to your offense at half-court so they could run and score.

I think the logic was that girls couldn’t or shouldn’t run the length of a basketball court.  Can you imagine?  But, honestly, this was the accepted method for girls to play (in baggy uniforms and mostly covered up.) By 1970 people were getting used to the idea that girls were not delicate flowers.  I mean, how do you think a man would hold up in childbirth?  Seriously.

I was always sorry Mother never got a chance to play full-court basketball.  When I was a kid she would shoot baskets with me, but she was very heavy and got out of breath pretty fast.  I can imagine her as a willowy young girl, racing down the court and shooting.  She would have been pretty good.

I am Woman, Hear Me Roar

Gloria Steinem, 1971
Gloria Steinem, 1971

I’ve been reading Gail Collins’s book, “When Everything Changed:  The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.”  It’s a really interesting, well-researched story.  What amazes me, however, is that I was there and participating in the change for a good portion of this history.

Along with my friends, my sisters, my boyfriends, and classmates, we were all part of history and didn’t even realize it at the time!  At least, I didn’t think of it as changing history–I thought of what I did as standing up for myself and trying to make the kind of life I wanted.  More accurately, I knew what kind of life I didn’t want, and was determined to go a different way.

I didn’t want to be stuck on a farm doing hard physical labor and dependent on my husband or neighbors to drive me anywhere, like my poor mother.  Item #1 on the independence agenda:  Learn to drive!  I’m flabbergasted that fewer kids are learning to drive now.

I wanted to learn, to get a good job, to support myself.  Item #2 on the agenda:  Go to college.  Mother and Daddy were in strong agreement with this.  Their whole intent was for us kids to have a better life than they did, and college was the road to that.

I wanted to make a good living, travel, see the wide world.  Item #3:  Graduate degree.  I think that’s where the reality of the change I was pushing for really hit me.  My class at Wharton was 28% female, and most of the male percentage was not very welcoming (except the ones who were looking for high-earning wives.)  One guy said to me, “You know you got in under a quota.”  I asked him what his GMAT score and GPA were, and he wouldn’t tell me.

That was just the beginning of what I had to face in the business world–and still continue to face.  Women have made tremendous strides, but we still get paid less for the same work.  We still carry more responsibility for family and home while working more and more hours.

I used to get alarmed when I saw young girls continuing to play dumb to attract boys.  I’m glad that more of them are strong enough to not play those games.  The real lesson from the women’s movement for all women is:  Be prepared to take care of yourself.  The old social contract of the stay-at-home wife and breadwinner husband was irretrievably broken by bad economic times in the 1970’s, and there is no going back.  Even without equal pay for equal work, we still gotta work.

The other lesson I think we’re all still trying to learn is to respect ourselves, be kind to ourselves, and stop blaming ourselves when life is not controllable.  As women, we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

A Winter’s Day

This was the Halloween snow of 2011!
This was the Halloween snow of 2011!

Snow days are not what they used to be for me, and for most adults, I think.  This winter has been extra-super-awful so far, all across the country for the most part.  It’s rare for businesses to shut down and for the governor to say, “Stay off the roads!”  So most of us have to try to get to work through the aftermath of snowstorms or spend hours in traffic (or on stalled trains) trying to get home.  I end up tired, cranky and sore from shoveling my car out of its parking spot.

When I was a child in Tennessee snow days were a rare treat.  Even an ice storm was welcome as long as the power didn’t stay off very long.  If we got one or two per winter we were thrilled.  Mother always said, “You won’t be so glad when you have to stay in school this summer,” but summer was far away.  A day out of the normal routine was well worth making up in May.

Once the snow stopped falling we usually managed to get out and visit my aunts and uncles on the neighboring farms.  Daddy’s truck could go most anywhere once he put the chains on.  He made sure everyone had groceries and would make runs to the little store at Stringtown, which never closed for anything (except the owner’s whim.)

Often Aunt Eunice would have us up for lunch, for her version of chili spaghetti, made in a crock pot.  Don’t ask!  It bore no resemblance to either dish, but it was tasty and warming on a cold day.  Mother and Daddy would then play Rook with Aunt Eunice and Uncle Tip, while I read a book.  Then we would slowly grind our way down the hill in low gear all the way home, the chains on the tires smacking the pavement.

If it was cold enough I would get to let our dog in the garage for the night, which was a huge thrill for him.  Normally he slept in his doghouse, or in warm weather he slept in a hollow he dug below my bedroom window.  He was never allowed in the house per se.  Mother thought having animals indoors was dirty and was impervious to pleading on this subject.

I remember getting up early the next day and listening to the radio to see if school would be out again.  I don’t think we ever got more than a couple of days in a row.  So I’d have to get bundled up and stand out at the bus stop in the dark, waiting for the sun to come up and the bus to come.  Back to normal again–with hopes for another snow day soon.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Mother and Daddy at home on the farm
Mother and Daddy at home on the farm

I always get contemplative at this time of year.  I think we all go into the new year hoping for the best, making resolutions, looking for better days.  Most of us think, “If I could lose 20 pounds, my life would change for the better,” or “If I got a new job, everything would be great!”  We look back as well.  Remembering the bad times and the good, progress made or lost–I think of that Bruce Springsteen line, “One step forward, two steps back.”

A lot of us have had to face a new reality during the years of the Great Recession and afterward.  The old life is not coming back.  That job, that money, that ease of living, will not be ours again.  It’s the new normal, and unpleasant as it may be, we have to adjust.

Like most people in their 50s, I didn’t expect this.  But when I remember my parents, I see that it happened to them as well, for different reasons.

Daddy worked for several years for a government contractor driving ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) into the tunnels where they were stored after the warheads were assembled.  Yes, that’s really what my dad did for a living!  But when the Vietnam War came about, gradually the cold war lost emphasis, government spending for nuclear “defense” was cut–and Daddy was laid off.  His life was never the same.

He was reduced to doing hard physical labor, unloading trucks and carrying meat in to the commissary freezers at Ft. Campbell, KY when he was in his late 50s.  He had a heart attack and couldn’t do that job any more, so he drove a school bus.  All the while he was farming our small farm.  He died of his second heart attack not long after I graduated from college.

The good news in all this was, he loved the farm and was never happier than when he was feeding the cows or driving the tractor.  We managed to keep our house and the farm despite mortgages, and when Daddy died there was property to sell so Mother had something to live on.  It was never carefree or easy, but we had family and friends and fun.

So when I feel like whining I try to remember that this is a new cycle and I’ve been given a second chance to keep going, to make this life work.  And hopefully to have some fun along the way!