Making the case for girlfriends (If I could talk to my mother today)

I would have girlfriends today if for no other reason than that my mother didn’t, and I viewed her life as lacking in that one very important way.

Of course I think of my own mother this time of year, and I remember sadly the way she died.  ALS is a scary ending.  She was already widowed by then and was lost without him.  Those years before she left us are difficult in memory even after more than a decade.  During that long time of being bedridden, no girlfriends came to visit.

And not a single solitary girlfriend crossed my mother’s threshold in all the years I lived at home.  Her husband and her work were everything to her.  She talked about school chums, but I never met any. 

Maybe her own mother would be the closest she had to a girlfriend, if by that you mean telling each other nearly everything.  But there was more competition there than support and I wouldn’t want  a relationship like the one they had – not with a friend and not with a mother.

At the end of her life, her accomplishments were (I hope) what she had as comfort.  Professional colleagues phoned – singers and musicians and fellow evangelists.  But no girlfriend called.

It’s not because we’re going to die eventually that we need girlfriends.  It’s not just so we have them available for bedside vigils. It’s because of the ways they help us live.

Everything is easier with girlfriends and when the going gets rough, even if a girlfriend can’t make the trouble go away, her presence makes it better.  Boyfriends and husbands and other relatives can be a comfort, but perhaps because the language between girlfriends doesn’t require translation, understanding is immediate.

Not just for mothers, but for all women, I wish us more time to appreciate girlfriends – both old and new.  For anyone who’s lost a girlfriend – through moving or death or attrition of any kind, go find a replacement right away.

Ó Anita Garner 2009

 

Water bottles everywhere

Water water everywhere. We take it with us wherever we go.  First it was water bottles.  And sports drinks.  Then coffee cups.  Now all of these show up at any time. 

I’m a bit amused at all of us acting like we’ll perish from dehydration if we don’t have a water bottle to hold onto.  

I’m pretty sure that if we all worked out vigorously at the gym (who are we kidding about how often that happens?) we could drink enough water there to satisfy our thirst and make it home. 

We could probably get from home to work without liquid reinforcement. Maybe even to the grocery store. Or to pick up the kids.

A few years back, I noticed something odd in church on a Sunday in L.A. in a celebrity-strewn pew.  Several famous people who famously arrived at church in play clothes – one of the attractions of our particular congregation – brought their water bottles right inside.  At first they just held onto them, like a security blanket or some kind of talisman. 

Within a few weeks, more bottles appeared and people opened them and swilled. It was disconcerting. Picture this:

The pastor says,

“Let’s sing hymn number 47,”

and before we can turn to “How Great Thou Art,” bottle caps have to be put back on, bottles placed on the pews, while the pianist plays the introduction.

A guest singer steps up to the microphone and the congregation takes a swig. Heck we didn’t even get a chance to address whether or not we should be applauding the soloists (a big back-and-forth discussion in a congregation of performers) before the issue switched to whether liquid refreshments belong inside the sanctuary. 

Then, sure enough,  coffee cups showed up – the paper kind with the hot-holding band around.   It was a good half hour into worship before those cups were drained and put on the floor.  I saw members of the volunteer cleanup committee chasing them down the aisle later, since once emptied, they tended to roll toward the altar.

Oh yeah, I’ve got my water bottle in the car now. It’s one of the new ones that doesn’t leach harmful stuff.  I’m still congratulating myself for not buying the 24-bottle pack of disposable (except evidently not quickly biodegradable) kind.

My water bottle isn’t a necessity, so is it more of an accessory?  It may miss the mark, since a bottle attached to a hand is not as aesthetically pleasing as, say, a good pair of shoes. 

What does our water-carrying habit reveal about us?  That we’re the thirstiest people in the world?  That we are the fittest, most athletic people around?  Or that today we are super-embracing our need to be nurtured?  

I don’t have an answer. I’m just saying.

Ó Anita Garner 2009

Toddlers Rewrite Everything.

While I drive, the little girl in my life sings me some songs.  In the middle of lyrics about, say, the wheels on the bus going round and round, she tosses in a line or two from adult songs she’s heard.  Songs about heartache or other grown-up feelings.  It’s always a surprise to hear which phrases resonate with her.  A typical re-write goes like this:

“The wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round.

And my heart misses you forever and I want you to come back right now.”

When she’s not singing, she tells me stories.  She draws in a big breath, indicating something dramatic is about to occur, and begins, 

“Awe duh sodden.”

It takes a couple of seconds to figure out the words, but her emphasis helps.

Ohhh.  “All of a sudden…”

What follows are a whole bunch of sentences, spilling out in a rush, about three pigs or Belle from Beauty & The Beast, or Cinderella or Spiderman.  She starts off fairly true to the version she’s heard, then changes direction and lays down a new plot point.  Something like,

“And Cinderella stayed in the little house and the wuff couldn’t blow it down.”

Just as she’s hooked me with this twist, she announces, 

“The end.”

I teach her songs from my own musical library.  She likes a song to fit into a category.  If you don’t clarify, she’ll ask what kind of song is this?  On the way to school, I say,

“Let’s sing a morning song.”

She’s fine with that.

I start with a tune from Annie Get Your Gun (not too subtly trying to teach  some Broadway tunes) 

“Got no diamonds, got no pearls. 

Still I think I’m a lucky girl. 

I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

And with the sun in the morning and the moon in the evening, I’m all right.”

She can only take this much before the urge to re-write hits her.  She says she will now sing that song for me. Away she goes,  with an approximation of the melody and a new version of the lyrics, 

“I don’t have any jewels.  I’m not happy.”

Terse.   To the point.

Irving Berlin it’s not, but it’s not bad either.  With the pre-schooler rewriting, a Broadway show would be over in about 15 minutes. 

Ó Anita Garner 2009

Taco Bell, How Do I Love Thee?

Oh Taco Bell I love you, yes I do.  I will hear nothing of the whispers against your kind.  Your bright bell sign draws me in when my day is full and my stomach is empty. 

How do I love thee? 

Let me count the ways.  This won’t take long, because a very few ingredients are responsible for fulfilling all the promises of your menu.   

Ground beef.  

Cheese.

Lettuce.

Tomatoes.

Tortillas.

Beans.

Sour Cream.

Red sauce.

And now there’s chicken.

I love that so many things can be  assembled from your magic ingredients.

In different shapes.

Soft or crunchy.

Oddly comforting.

Your  drink bar returns the power to the button-pusher.  Pick the size of the drink cup.  Fill it with ice.  Push the iced tea spigot.  Move along and push for lemonade.  Mix them together.

In California we call this drink Arnold Palmer. 

I call it perfect.

With all things Taco Bell.

Ó Anita Garner 2009

Moving brings out the (fill in the blank) in me.

A person can learn a lot about herself by the way she handles moving.  Over these past few days of removing my belongings from one place and depositing them in another, several of the traits I like least about myself came marching along like those famous dwarfs carrying their going-to-work-tools. 

As I jockeyed for a parking spot and unloaded the car several times, I bumped smack into new-neighborhood patterns and when I finally sat down, exhausted, in the one chair that wasn’t piled with stuff, here they came, all the Moving Dwarfs: Impatient.  Tired.  Fussy.  Even a little bit Bossy.  Oh and turning the corner right now, here comes Whiny.  

On one my first trips from old house to new, I pulled up in front of this charming cottage in the canyon and a woman hurried toward me.  She didn’t say hello.  She said, “Are you moving in?”  (Note for later reference; at no time did her conversation include the question “Do you need any help?”)

I smiled and said yes.  She said, without a smile  (and I’m putting this at the top of my list of things never to begin a sentence with)  “Just so you know…”  She went on to tell me not to park in that spot – ever – because someone two houses down likes to use it.  Here’s another thing she said, and another way a person should never start a conversation with new neighbors:  “Around here….” 

I forget what rules of the neighborhood followed, but it doesn’t matter – the unwelcome was complete. 

What followed was the worst of me.  I responded crisply, with two words – “Duly noted”  – and trudged on past her.  Was that my grandmother’s voice I just heard coming out of my mouth?  The voice that used to say “Don’t take that tone with me little missy.” 

Now, days later, I remind myself that every neighborhood has at least one member of the greeting committee who lays down the rules.  It’s just that I don’t respond well to that kind of hello.  Instead of the me I like to think exists most of the time, the nice person who gives people the benefit of the doubt, I responded like one of the Moving Dwarfs listed above. 

After a strong cup of coffee and a glance outside through one of the many windows that add to the charm of this cottage, I am a different Dwarf:   Calm.  Even Contented.  

Outside my kitchen window, three giant redwood trees stand.  I am awed by them and filled with gratitude knowing that while I go about my everyday duties, such beauty stands sentry nearby. 

In front of the house, a pushy neighbor.  In back, the reason I moved here.

Ó Anita Garner 2009

Bulking Up – Is Fiber The Superhero Of Nutrition?

Fiber is the word we hear everyday, a word that was never once spoken aloud in my family until recently.  Dietary fiber is considered one of the most important ways to maintain good health. Fiber discussions are everywhere and that leads to fiber guilt. Now when friends get together, we’ ll often check the fiber content of the muffins before choosing one.   (We don’t always choose the one with the most fiber, but we feel obligated to check.)

The earliest mentions I remember of better living through fiber were worded in euphemisms and had to do with specific bodily functions.  It was mostly older people in my family discussing their bodies as a form of social interaction.   We knew that Gramma’s second husband needed more bulk in his diet.  She told us so in great detail. I’m still not all that comfortable with such in-depth knowledge of other people’s bathroom habits, but it’s too late now.  The conversation is multi-generational and public.

Fiber crossed over into general chat territory when it began to be marketed as a way to lose weight. Overnight, fiber was a food celebrity.  Hello fiber, goodbye fat.  In case you missed it, evidently the world runs on fiber.  They’d been trying to teach us this for years (food pyramid, etc.) but when the sermons switched to how certain kinds of fiber whoosh the fat right out of our bodies, we paid attention.

I saw a show on PBS called “Brenda Watson’s Fiber 35” about how you can change your world by eating that many grams of fiber a day.  It seems a bit ambitious for me.  I counted up and I’m lucky to get 20 grams a day right now.  It looks like I’d have to quit working in order to achieve 35.  But it is getting easier, what with fiber-added everything.

I’m conducting my own very skewed research.  I’m eating only fiber-added foods that taste good.  The nutrition/snack bar selection is huge, but I’ve found only one brand so far that tastes like real food.  I’m enjoying the new sugar-free, low-calorie fudgsicles with fiber added.  There’s a creamy yogurt with several grams of fiber and, of course, a mountain of bread loaves.  I’m trying them all.  (A bread lover doesn’t have any trouble eating bread.)  So far the ones with “double fiber added” are still best used only for toast.

Kashi and Fiber One are the two brands that consistently taste good (all their products I’ve tried so far) and have heaps of fiber.

Like most of us, I’ve developed the label-reading habit.I know, for instance, that when I bring home a bag of Cheetos, it’s not going to bulk me up in the good way.  I still eat Cheetos, but now I’m free to enjoy them with absolutely no expectations.

Ó Anita Garner 2009

Breaking Up With A Friend

Here’s a question that comes up a lot lately:  Do you still hear from her/him?  It used to feel like a badge of honor to say I’ve had the same friends forever, but some of them just don’t fit anymore.  I still cherish a few friendships that have endured through decades , but not all the people I used to know are people I want to be with today.

When we were younger, we clumped together.  Birds of a feather for various reasons and various causes.  We formed parent groups, church groups, hobby groups, business associations and community activist groups.

Today I’m not big on belonging to several groups.  The ones that help create community for a reason – those still feel valid.  But continuing to get together just because it’s what we’ve always done – that doesn’t work so well.  And why, I wonder, am I such a wuss about accepting that friendships don’t always fit forever?

Sometimes we fall out of touch and find we’re just fine that way.  Then, maybe because it’s so easy to do on the internet – we reconnect, only to learn it’s different this time.  A few sentences after hello we might not have anything else to talk about.

Letting go of relationships doesn’t happen without guilt.  I find myself making excuses more often to skip seeing that person.  The answer’s right there, but it seems almost too simple to accept.  History alone isn’t enough.  Seasons change.  Values change.  People change.

My friend, Catherine, who recently celebrated her 92nd birthday, approaches this in the most realistic (almost clinical) way.  She says we need different kinds of relationships at different stages in life and not only does she let go of the ones that don’t fit anymore, but she quickly replaces them with people who do.

Surely I’ve been replaced in the lives of people I used to know and looking back, it was done so skillfully that it seemed a natural evolution.  But I agonize over these things.  I wish someone would tell me how to accomplish what Catherine does without leaving bruises.  

 Ó Anita Garner 2009

Embracing The Generation Gap

It feels right that there are differences between generations.  I like the gap.  It’s enjoyable being with younger people and then it’s sometimes a relief  being with people  who begin sentences with “I remember when.”

When I was in my teens, we didn’t call the progression from child to adult anything at all.  We weren’t “teenagers” or “adolescents.”  We were sometimes “youth” (how’s that for an impersonal label?) but mostly we were somebody’s kid.  Since our generation didn’t have its own name, we didn’t call the spaces between generations anything special either.  We had no “gap” as such.  That term began to be tossed around more during the blooming season of flower children when we cautioned the world not to trust anyone over 30.

By then it was too late to distrust my elders.  I was already looking forward to being older.  I admired women in their 30’s – thought they had all the answers.  I couldn’t wait to look like them, dress like them, and somehow achieve their mysterious sophistication.  It seemed to me then that they owned something I needed.

Now adolescence is prolonged so that sometimes a new generation doesn’t get started at all.  We’re chipping away at what I always considered a natural distance between kids and parents.  Terms like “re-juvenile” and “boomerang babies” describe some in their 30’s and 40’s who either never quite launched from the nest, or because of various factors end up living back with their parents for a time.

The sticky part is that while these grown children were away, some of their parents were taking good care of themselves, eating right, exercising, developing new interests, trying on different things and closing the gap even more, making it tough to tell who’s who in a household.

I embrace the concept of generations helping each other, and during these tough times, we see some families deciding to stay together, returning to an earlier model of more than one generation living in the same house. 

But I’d hate to see the differences between generations obliterated completely.   Nature acknowledges distinct seasons, and it feels natural that we should too.  It is a comfort, especially during trying times, to check in with the generations that came before us and realize that this too shall pass.     

Ó By Anita Garner

Other People’s Kids

“All unattended children will be given espresso and a free puppy.”

                                          ….sign in a shop window

I sympathize with the owner’s wry sentiment.  It’s a tiny store with narrow aisles and plenty of kids roaming among the knick-knacks. I’ve been known to avoid stores entirely until the kids go home.  It’s not their fault.  Kids are doing what comes naturally – testing the rules, wandering away from their parents, bumping into things  and picking up breakables.  If their parents look away for a couple of seconds, kids will leave the store with the goods.  That’s how they sometimes behave. 

I was always the person annoyed by screaming babies on the plane.  Sure I knew they couldn’t help it, but since I’d pretty much raised mine, I deserved a break,  so whenever possible, I changed seats. 

I like kids but I was never anybody’s Universal Mama.  I didn’t try to befriend every child I met and didn’t ask to hold every new baby.  I enjoyed raising mine more than anything else I’ve done so far, but after she took her own steps into the world, I was content getting back to my own life.

A few years ago, sitting in the boarding area at San Francisco International, a baby screamed and the parents couldn’t comfort her.  Something inside me shifted.  My first thought was not the usual – I hope they don’t sit near me on the plane.  Nope.  This time it was  – why aren’t those parents taking better care of that poor little thing?

The small town I live in is full of children.  Every other person in the checkout line is attached to a stroller.  One day I found myself making direct eye contact with a spiky-haired toddler with a messy face.  I don’t know what manner of sticky cookie had attacked him while his mommy shopped, but he grinned at me through the gook and I grinned right back at him and felt a pang when he left the market.

One day you’re minding your own business, steering clear of noisy kids and all of a sudden every child  – everybody’s child – becomes precious. 

Maybe the universe prepares a whole bunch of us for on-call nurturing duty because a new batch of vulnerable beings arrives every day.  Nature has been known to turn unusual species into willing caretakers so that babies and puppies and kittens and all manner of helpless creatures will find care when they need it. 

Ó Anita Garner 2009

What does “Aging Gracefully” Mean Anyway?

I just came back from spending the weekend with a girlfriend in a nearby town.  (Yes, we still call ourselves “girlfriends” after more than three decades of adult friendship.) When we have a girls’ weekend, we talk constantly, eat out, critique every movie, TV show, book and nutrition plan we’ve heard of, and inevitably, the subject turns to how it feels to be this age. 

Becoming a grandmother isn’t what made me realize I’m aging.  It started when my last parent passed.  That’s when I first listened to whispers of my own mortality.  Every morning, one of the whispers says, “Better get moving.  Get to doing.”

Occasionally I don’t feel all that graceful when I wake up and parts of me don’t work as well as they used to.  (Knees, I’m talking to you.)  At first I’m ticked off, but by the end of the day I ask myself, what did you expect?  Things aren’t brand new anymore.

I learned nothing from my upbringing about aging gracefully.  My mother’s only advice about the passing years was to encourage the use of more moisturizer so boys will like you.  She considered all men potential boyfriends and in her teens she married a man who, through some combination of mercy and grace, turned into a grown-up husband who behaved like her sweetheart all the days of their lives.  He raised his wife along with us kids while she clung tenaciously to the role of teenager, even in the face of some gritty realities.

When I got my first mailer from AARP, I jumped right into their arms.  There I was coasting along in the vague category of ‘somewhere past her mid-forties” and as long as my grown daughter wasn’t around, nobody knew for sure.  Then came that AARP card and full disclosure set in.  It felt like a kind of freedom.

I asked my mother once on a particularly significant birthday, did she feel any different?  She said what we’ve all heard a million times, that she still felt 18 inside.

I’ve had several significant birthdays of my own since I asked her that, and now I know what she meant.  And she was also right about the moisturizer.  Much more of it is required.

Most days I don’t care whether taking good care of my skin (I still do it) makes anyone like me better, because another surprise benefit of getting older is that it doesn’t matter as much what somebody else thinks.  I wish my mother had allowed herself that perk.

During this latest girlfriend weekend, we agreed that aging doesn’t feel like a cause for despair, but instead it feels like a gift, something we get to do if we’re lucky. Aging gratefully is something I wish my mother had understood.  

Ó By Anita Garner 2009