Sacrifice

Growing up, I remember what it was like to have my father away on tours of duty while he served his twenty years in the Air Force. My siblings and I accepted it as a way of life–we really knew no other. But I do remember envying friends who had fathers at home all the time. I do remember wishing he was home to attend a band concert, fix a bicycle that had broken, or help me with homework. I remember longing for him to be home, so we would be “normal” again.

When he did return, the time always flew too quickly before it was time for him to return to duty.

As a child, I never really thought about what it was like for my parents, especially my father.

My mother did her best to raise five kids on her own, but there were times she succumbed to the difficulties and the loneliness. I remember an argument she and my father had once when he was preparing to leave for another trip. He’d just finished packing a tennis racquet when she said, “Looks like you’ll be working pretty hard with that tennis racquet. I think you like getting away.”

In the last 6 months, as I’ve been reading dozens and dozens of letters my mother and father wrote to each other from 1957 to 1976. Those years encompassed most of my father’s 20-year service. Through their words, I’ve discovered and “experienced” their sacrifice.

Here are a few excerpts from letters my dad wrote to my mom:

11 February 1961

Dearest,

I just this minute got some mail from you–the Valentines. I’m so happy, and they mean so much to me now. Please kiss my darling girls for me. I do think of you–that’s all I do. I get a lump in my throat a dozen times a day, and even tears in my eyes. Believe me.

# # #

2 March 1961

Hello, Darling,

Tonight is movie night but I am missing it. I’d rather write to you! Mainly I’m writing this particular night because I want to this go back on the C-54 which is leaving in the morning. That way you will get it a lot sooner. I hope you are getting mail a lot better than I am getting yours. I have not had a single letter in 13 days. I tell you, it gets pretty hard to take.

How are the children doing? I hope they are not too much trouble to you. Do they speak of Daddy often? I hope so. I hope they will remember me when I return.

I’ll close now, my sweet. I miss you very much. I’ll be so glad to see you again. Please write soon. Be good to the girls.

I love you,

Bob

# # #

5 August 1965

Hello Darling,

It sure was nice talking to you last night. I was kind of worried not being able to get a hold of you. Why didn’t the baby sitter answer? Anyway, I had given up getting a hold of you and went to sleep. I had just dozed off when you called.

Boy, I’ll tell you, Honey, these first two days have been tough. I can’t remember ever being so lonesome for my family. It isn’t that I’ve been gone that long, but it hurts to look ahead to the next ten weeks. Sure seems like a long time now, but I’m sure it will get a little easier as time goes on. It had better, or I’ll never learn anything at this school.

Yesterday about dinner time, I’ll swear if I could have talked to you, I would have said, “Get in that Pontiac and head for OKC.” But I calmed myself down and told myself that this was our decision–stick with it.

I just want to say that I love you and miss you so very much. I wish I could prove it a little more when I’m around home. I know you must miss me, too. (I hope so.) But at least you have the children. (I can hear you laughing at that remark!)

But try to appreciate them. I miss them so much.

Lots of love,

Bob

# # #

These excerpts are but snippets of the variety things they wrote about. In a time before email, cell phones or the internet, they maneuvered such challenges as car repairs, taxes, gifts, relocations, health issues, problem teenagers (me), checking account balances, insurance–you name it. But amidst all the mundane goings-ons of married life and parenting, there were many, many expressions of love and longing.

Because they are letters my mother kept and gave to me, most of the letters are from my father to my mother. Fortunately, I know some of what my mother was thinking and feeling both from the few letters I have that she wrote, and the responses my father wrote.

The letters are treasures. I’ve learned more about about who my parents were, beyond just being parents. They were a husband and wife, full of long distance longing and reunions that sometimes didn’t live up to the mountainous expectations that had built up while they were apart.

I regret that it took me so long to read the letters. Why I didn’t is a whole other post . . . or maybe a book. (Working on it!)

There are many kinds of sacrifice, and the separation of families is certainly one.

Thank you for your service, Dad. Thank you for your letters that have shown me you missed us as much as we missed you.

And thank you, Mom. I know it wasn’t easy raising five kids with my Dad halfway around the world. Most of all, thank you for saving the letters and giving them to me.

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Wabi Sabi Black Forest Cake

Tonight is the first gathering of a couples dinner group Steve and I joined. Each month, a couple hosts a dinner in their home and decides on a theme. Each couple brings an assigned course based on that theme.

This month’s theme is German and Steve and I we were “assigned” a dessert. I immediately thought of German Chocolate Cake–it was one of my dad’s favorites. But I decided to google “German desserts” to find something a bit more “exotic” that I might attempt.

This lovely dessert caught my eye. Black Forest Cake.

“Is it too ambitious?” I asked myself, noting it had 19 separate ingredients. Recipe HERE.

I reassured myself. “You can do it! After all, it’s a dinner group, right? Surely nobody would bring a dessert from a box or worse, a bakery!” My internal cheerleader was working hard to convince myself to give it a try.

I had two weeks to gather everything I’d need for the cake. First, from Amazon, I ordered extra special cherries, cherry jam (not preserves!) and Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Then, last week, I convinced myself I needed a real baker’s mixer, not the puny hand-held mixer I’ve had for years. I could hardly (1) hold the mixer, (2) add ingredients and (3) scrape the bowl with only two hands, right?

So, on our weekly trek to Costco, I purchased this red beauty.

At $400, it does just about everything (IT BETTER!)–even makes pasta! (I make pasta from scratch about as often as I bake a cake from scratch.)

When the day of reckoning arrived, (today), I woke at 5:45, raring to get started. I read each step–at least twice, because I’m so good about misreading or reading out of order.

“Alexa, play Yanni,” I commanded, figuring Yanni was good baking music.

As I slid the three cake pans into the oven, I thought, “Gee, this isn’t so hard. Everything is going perfectly. Just perfectly.” My mouth began to water thinking of eating it.

I set the timer for 23 minutes, opened the oven, pressed the top. It bounced back. I stuck a toothpick in the middle, it came out clean.

“Perfect!” I thought, smiling.

I took the cake out of the oven, placed it on the counter to cool for 15 minutes–even set the timer for that.

I set out the cooling rack and waited. 15 minutes. Just like the instructions said.

I flipped the first pan over.

The cake wouldn’t come out. “Dang,” I thought. “Didn’t I use enough Pam?”

I pounded it on the counter and finally, it came out, less a tiny piece from the edge that was extra stubborn coming out of the pan.

The, the 2nd layer. A bit more stubborn. I ran a knife along the edge and pounded it on the counter, then pounded harder. Finally, it came out. In three pieces. Double-dangit.

I took a deep breath and repeated the process with Pan #3. Except I pounded it harder. And harder. Finally, I had to dig it out of the pan.

You can tell which layer is which. I promise.

I texted a picture to my neighbor friend, Judy, who last night told me Aldi sells German Desserts when I confessed my concerns to her last night. She reassured me with enough “frosting glue” nobody would ever know, and it would still taste good.

I replied that I’d slathered it with enough Cherry Bourbon that perhaps nobody would notice, or at least wouldn’t care.

At this point, I wanted to text my dear friend and Baker Mistress Patty to ask her what I’d done wrong, but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate the question at 5:30 a.m. CST.

To make a long story short (if it’s not too late) here’s the finished product.

With purposely low lighting and just the right positioning maybe it doesn’t look so bad. But, from this angle, it doesn’t look lopsided and you can’t see all the gashes.

So, how about this?

So, about now, I’m thinking, “Do I make a trip to Aldi to get a prettier dessert?”

To which I reply to myself, “Practice what you preach. Wabi sabi. Wabi sabi.”

If ever there was an example of wabi sabi, it would be my version of Black Forest Cake. What beauty can be found in it, pray tell?

Here are but a few things I came up with:

  1. I got a pretty new mixer out of it.
  2. Other dinner guests probably will remember me at the next dinner. (Oh, she’s the one that brought that cake.)
  3. They will also surely be able to tell it’s homemade. (Of course, depending on how it tastes, that may not be a good thing.)
  4. I developed a taste for cherry bourbon.
  5. I get to try out my new cake transporter. (I can always say the cake was damaged in-transit.)

Last but not least, it gave me a good reason to write. And considering my lack of motivation to write lately, if that’s not beautiful, I don’t know what is.

AUTHOR NOTE: If any of bakers out there have any helpful advice on how to avoid the problem that turned this cake from perfection to bleh, feel free to comment!

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Welcome to This Wabi Sabi World, Penelope

I was honored to get to spend a week with my daughter, Andrea, and her family in the days before and after the birth of their daughter, our granddaughter, Penelope Rose Miyoko. It was a beautiful experience, though yes, with 4-year old brother Jack and 2-year old brother, Harry–both energetic, intelligent and independent little boys, it brought to mind the philosophy of “wabi sabi.”

Wabi Sabi: a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight; to find beauty, even in imperfection.

I’ve written many essays about this “philosophy,” some of which I hope to one day include in my book Wabi Sabi World. (My blog post, “Wabi Sabi Love”)

Here’s the first family picture with little Penelope:

And here’s a peek at behind-the-scenes leading up to this photo:

On the way home from summer camp the day Penelope was born, Jack was sitting in his car seat behind me.

“Grandma,” he said.

“Yes,” I answered.

“We’re the luckiest family in the whole world.”

“You sure are,” I replied, the lump in my throat cracking my voice.

True, the days that followed were filled with little challenges, or “imperfections.” Jack crying because we didn’t have ice cream for dessert. Harry running away because he didn’t want his diaper changed. Harry knocking down the Triceratops that Jack had worked so hard to build. Too much TV because I was also trying to work some of the week, and the ensuing arguments over whether to watch Blippi or Paw Patrol.

I’ll admit, getting the boys into bed at times felt like dragging myself to the finish line of a marathon, but there’s nothing like the sweetness of holding them in my lap while reading to them at night. Well, now that I think about it, walking into their bedroom in the morning might top that–seeing their smiles and hearing Harry say “Hi, Bop-bop!” (Translation, Hi, Grandma!) Or hearing Jack say, “Hi, Grandma. Guess what I dreamed about last night?”

And of course, there was the pure joy of holding my daughter’s daughter.

Today, while listening to an interview between Ezra Klein and Margaret Atwood, I heard Ezra Klein talk about “wonderful problems”:

It’s very hard to live as if you know it’s true that the problems I have right now are wonderful problems to have. It doesn’t mean that on some level they’re not problems–I mean, my son was up every hour on the hour overnight–and, whatever, I have all the little difficulties of life, but it is hard to imagine how I will look at myself and my own lack of gratitude at times, but it’s hard to live as if you know how good your life truly is. It’s just a strange thing about being human.”

Andrea and James will certainly have such “wonderful problems” in the weeks and months ahead. We all get tired, we lose our patience, we whine, we laugh, we cry, we love, we run away, we come back for a hug–all on the road between welcoming a new one into the world and saying goodbye to another.

It’s just a strange thing about being human. It’s wabi sabi.

Posted in aging, attitude, Family, gratitude, wabi sabi | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Letters – Part II

One of my biggest concerns in writing my memoir is what family and friends will think about some of the deeply personal things I am writing. Though we presented ourselves as a “perfect” family (thank goodness there was no Facebook back then!) we were far from it–as are most families.

We had problems, some that trickled down through the generations, but I love both my mother and father and have always believed they did the best they could with what they had. Though I think our story might hold some value to others, if only to my future generations, I feel protective of my parents and my siblings, which makes it hard to push forward with our story.

Perhaps you’ll understand why with this condensed excerpt from my memoir-in-progress:

Misfires

I pressed my pillow against the car window and leaned my head into its feathery softness. Sleepy, but in a half-awake state, I wondered once again. What would prompt my mother to drive to a lake in the pre-dawn hours, her station wagon packed with five kids who’d rather be tucked in our beds at home?

Not our station wagon, but it looked just like this.

Cigarette smoke drifted from the front seat of the car as Mom pushed in one of her favorite 8-track tapes. This time, it was Tom Jones singing his sorrowful song, “Without You.” I’d heard it so many times I’d memorized every single word and began to sing along in my head.

Without you, there can be no tomorrow.

No more rainbows to follow

If you should go.

My siblings and I often found relief from surreptitious stresses with humor, so, as if watching a drive-in movie, I giggled to myself at the absurdity of the scene and its accompanying musical score. Throughout our childhoods and even into our adulthood, my siblings and I laughed plenty about some of the crazy things our mother did, a release directly proportional to stress, uncertainty or helplessness.

But at twelve, I was on the cusp of teenagerhood and all the passions and longings that arrive with it—the crushes, the desire for acceptance. As the humor faded, I began to have an awareness that beneath the silliness of these drives to the lake, somewhere in Tom Jones’s mournful melodies, lurked something sad and dark.

I felt helpless to do anything about it and certainly could never have asked my mother about it.

But I did plenty of wondering.

Was it because she missed my father when he was away on his trips? Or did she resent being left behind—the taskmaster to five children, while my dad was the knight in shining armor upon his returns home?

There were plenty of times she’d complained about his leaving–yelling or crying about his going off to some exotic land again while she was left behind with five kids.

“Looks like you’ll be working pretty hard with that tennis racket you’re packing,” she’d protest, pointing to the suitcase on their bed.

Usually, Dad was stoic, like a slow-moving assembly line, moving his clothes from the bed to the suitcase, bed to the suitcase. Occasionally, he’d reply with a simple, “Honey, you know I have no choice. This is my job.”

I, too, made my unhappiness known, once. Just once.

Life was always better when my father was home. Maybe because my mother was happier. Or maybe because when he was home, he’d share the responsibilities of five children. Whatever the reason, she didn’t spend so much time in bed. We ate meals together. The laundry was done. We felt “normal.”

And we didn’t take midnight drives to the lake.

When my dad was home, the house “hummed” like a well-tuned engine.

So, I always felt sad in the days preceding his departure, knowing our “well-tuned engine” would begin to misfire and stall when he walked out the door.

One day, my sadness spilled out as snark. “You’re just leaving because you don’t want to be around us,” I sassed.

A whack. A sting. A burn on my cheek. Like a hungry mouse, I’d wandered too close to the trap. It snapped. Hard. I stared at my father in disbelief. He’d never slapped me before, and to my recollection, he never slapped me again.

Grabbing his hand, he turned away. “Don’t you ever say that to me again.”

Still, I never completely got the thought out of my head. It must have felt good to get away from the chaos of our home. After all, I often wished for it myself.

But I never verbalized it again.

When I first wrote that passage, I hesitated to “let the world know” about those “silly” midnight drives to the lake. I hesitated to expose my dad for slapping me across the face. All the little dysfunctions of my family.

But, as I’ve begun to read and sort the letters in the box my mother gave me decades ago, it’s as if both my mother and father are continuing to speak to me, explain to me, teach me–even though they are both gone now.

They were not just our parents. They were human beings. A young couple with struggles, longings, pain, desires, and problems that often interfered with, if not overwhelmed their parenting.

Following are just a couple of excerpts out of the dozens of letters from 1957-1974:

These excerpts give a glimpse into but one of the challenges they faced as a married couple–the frequent separations due to my father being in the Air Force.

Their letters have shown me their human experience of loneliness, insecurities, money problems, desires, challenges brought by my siblings and me, anger, hurt, but most of all, love and longing, written in page upon page over decades when often, all I saw was the yelling and screaming between the two of them as their marriage deteriorated, and the migraine headaches that kept my mom in bed for years.

As a teenager, I must admit that all I cared about was how all of that impacted me. When I first started writing my memoir, the “voice” in the story was that of the teenage girl who wished her parents were more “normal,” more “perfect.”

These letters are a gift–a treasure, really. The words shared in them over the decades have brought tears to my eyes, especially as I go back and listen to all those songs we used to laugh about on our drives to the lake. Now, as an adult who has loved and lost, I understand these two people beyond their role as my parents.

I still worry about over- and openly sharing such deeply personal stories and letters. I’ve been told by mentors to just write the story without concern for what others may think of it–easier said than done. But my mother gave me these letters for a reason. And before my father died, I asked him how he would feel if I told our story honestly. He told me to do it. He had nothing to hide.

I hope, with all of the flaws and sins of my past, I can one day say the same to my children.

In Part III, I’ll write about a 48-year old secret — a huge surprise I found among the letters.

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Letters – Part I

When was the last time you sat down and took the time to hand-write and mail a letter?

Do you remember the anticipation of receiving a letter by “snail mail?” Holding it in your hands as you wondered what you might learn from the words written inside, before carefully opening the triangle flap on the back? Or perhaps you ripped into it excitedly, as I sometimes did?

Did you first devour every word, perhaps searching for what you hoped the letter might say, flipping page by page, before reading it again and again to savor each word?

Was the stationary sometimes scented? If it wasn’t, perhaps you might have spritzed it with your favorite scent, if it was for that “special” person.

In the house where I grew up in California, our front door had a mail flap in the middle. The mailman would simply lift the flap in the door and drop all of our mail straight onto our living room floor. When a train roared down the track a block from our house, the metal flap would vibrate with the rest of the house.

Upon arriving home from school, I’d open the front door, running over the mail splayed on the floor. I’d close the door and kneel, gathering all the mail into a pile before flipping through the stack one-by-one to see if I’d received anything. Most days I was disappointed, seeing only bills or advertising, which I’d toss onto the kitchen table.

One mail-related memory still makes me smile. Our dog, Chim, a scruffy little terrier, would bark when she heard the mailman’s footsteps. She’d growl and attack the mail as it came through the mail slot, grabbing those evil envelopes and shaking her head back and forth. Snarling, she’d defend our home mightily from the paper intruders.

Those handwritten treasures didn’t always come in the mail. Sometimes they were dropped in my high school locker. Or perhaps they were written on the back of a senior picture, or inside a hand-delivered birthday card or yearbook.

I have many other memories of hand-written notes and letters—things I took for granted and never really thought about. In fact, I didn’t even take the time to assume we’d always have letters, because . . .

Why wouldn’t we always have handwritten letters?

Then came email.

I LOVED email at first–instant gratification! Though I no longer had to wait weeks between writing and response, emails, too, had an aura of anticipation. And it’s true, they’re as permanent as the sender or receiver wants them to be. I probably have more letters I’ve received by email than I do those I received by “snail” mail, simply because they’re easier to keep, and I know precisely where to find them.

But lately, I’ve felt something was lost when email came along and we quit hand-writing letters.

Years ago, my mother gave me a box of letters. She told me they were old letters between my father and her. It was sealed all around with tape, and she asked me not to open it until after she was gone.

And so, it was packed away, practically forgotten. After my dad died last year, we packed up our house and moved from Dallas to Cleveland. While unpacking boxes in our new house, I came upon the box of letters. I placed it on a shelf in my office, waiting for the “right” time to open it and start reading.

The “right” time arrived a couple of months ago when, while writing my memoir, I thought I might find some interesting details in the letters. Inside the decades-old cardboard box, I found not only letters between my mother and father, a few dating back to before I was born, but also letters from my siblings and me to my dad when he was away on his overseas Air Force assignments.

Reading these treasures, I learned much of my family’s history that I either never knew, had forgotten, or had remembered differently. I began to realize how much was lost when we transitioned from handwritten letters to email.

In my next post, I’ll share excerpts from a few of these letters. Perhaps you, too, will understand why I’ve decided to start hand-writing and mailing letters again.

Posted in Family, Letters, nostalgia | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments