Quite Something

Archive for the ‘Health and Aging’ Category

Getting to Know Dad

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Here is my tribute to the Greatest Generation, in honor of all those who were killed and injured at Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today. First published in The News & Observer in 2007, it feels like an appropriate offering for today:

I was born in 1957, just twelve years after WWII ended. Like most Baby Boomers, as a youngster I was interested only in things that were new and hip. Bell bottoms, Levi jeans, Carole King records. I’m the youngest of eight children, so my parents were older when I was born. Middle-age parents with old-fashioned ideas were sometimes hard to bear.

By the time I was old enough to be aware of world events, the cultural revolution of the late sixties was going on. One brother had served in the Air Force in Korea; another was in the Army in Vietnam. To me, WWII was ancient history.

My father was a brilliant, but quiet man. He was a good dad. Like most men in his generation, he spent the majority of his time working hard in order to pay the bills and put food on the table. He wasn’t much on talking and, like a typical teenager, I wasn’t that interested in his life anyway.

Until it was too late.

We found his love letters several years ago while helping my mother pack to move to an independent living residence. Over fifty of them, by the time we were finished. Romantic, engaging, and inspiring, they revealed a side of him we had not known. They were filled with words of encouragement for my mother, telling her to keep her chin up during the troubled times. Perhaps they were also the words he needed to hear?

Embedded in the letters were also bits of history, details about his naval officers’ training and the progression of the war. Reading them, I felt such a mixture of emotions. Grief, for the opportunity, now lost, to know the real man. To hear his stories in person. To ask questions. Yet profound joy in the physical permanence of the letters. His beautiful handwriting, his struggles, his undying love for my mother.

Why didn’t he tell us that he’d been a “Ninety-day wonder” who trained almost every waking moment for months in order to join the war as soon as possible? That, as a young ensign, his best buddy was Wellington T. Mara, later the long-time owner of the New York Giants. He never mentioned Key West or Miami, where he was stationed, or blackouts, or rationing, or war bonds.

We never heard about “The Sylph,” the Navy yacht on which he trained for a few days despite seasickness fears. I wonder if he knew that the antics on the TV series McHale’s Navy were derived from Earnest Borgnine’s real-life experience as a first-class gunner’s mate aboard “The Sylph?” Dad didn’t tell us anything about the gyroscopes he studied at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for four months, training he never got to use because of an apparent Navy SNAFU. And although we’d watched the movie PT-109 together, he never once mentioned that he headed the section base that repaired the PT boats.

I guess to him none of it seemed worth the telling. It was just his life. All that had been long ago, when he was a much younger man, doing his duty during wartime. I’m sure he didn’t consider himself to be extraordinary, or to have lived through extraordinary times.

I’ve spent the last two years transcribing the letters and reconstructing the story of my parents’ early life together. My mother is 88 now, but she has an amazing memory, especially for that time period. Unlike him, she’s a born storyteller. I was able to verify much of what she told me via the Internet. I even located a copy of a Collier’s magazine from March 28, 1942, which featured the men of the Prairie State, the ship he trained on.

Together Mom and I went through bins of mementos, newspaper clippings, and photos. We found Dad’s Navy yearbook, The Sideboy, and a dance card from the ship’s farewell ball the night before his graduation and their engagement luncheon. No longer ancient history to me, this was living history, my history.

My dad was never awarded any medals, but I know he was a hero. They all were. The men who died, the men who lived, the women who went to work, the ones who waited at home and rolled bandages for the Red Cross, the WACs and the Doughnut Dollies.

Suddenly we’re the middle-agers, and many would argue that we’re still self-involved. But I think we know that the Greatest Generation is leaving us, and before long it will be too late to thank them for their sacrifice and tell them how fortunate we are to have known them.

What can you offer?

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I’ve been having a pull-back week this week. It’s kind of like a mental health day, only longer. On emotional overload after my uncle’s funeral, and after seemingly every one of my close friends has had some kind of crisis, I finally had to pull back. To limit phone calls and emails and invitations in order to process some of what I’ve taken in. Death often causes us to do this. To look at how we’re living, to see if we have our priorities straight and our “house in order,” even to the extent of updating our wills and health care powers-of-attorney.

Before I learned about the death of my uncle, I had been struggling with a career decision. An agent expressed interest in my first book, Thinking About Therapy. She wanted to try to sell it to a mainstream publisher–every self-published author’s dream–except that, in her opinion, re-marketing it would require pulling it off my website. At first glance, it seemed like a no-brainer. I could have an agent! One who doesn’t intimidate me, is passionate about my topics, and returns my phone calls.

On the other hand, I had a visceral reaction when she mentioned pulling the book, especially after the enormous effort that went into redesigning my website last fall. Add to that the fact that I’m getting some traction on various fronts online, and the timing felt completely off. It would have meant switching gears, perhaps even backtracking. In the end I decided to decline the offer, although we left the door open for working together on future projects.

Then, this week, the webmaster for an online magazine for women responded to my request to blog on their site. A few weeks ago they had put out the word that they were looking for bloggers, and, in a high-energy moment, I had signed up. They sent me an application, and asked if I was interested in writing a regional or national blog. As my husband likes to say, “Is that a trick question?” Don’t all writers want as much exposure as possible? At any rate, the application asked me to explain what I thought I could offer to their readers.

Isn’t it amazing how hearing the right question can set your brain straight to the task of answering it? Part of my emotional funk this week has been due to a lack of focus. Self-published authors face a dizzying list of shoulds. In order to build an audience and sell books, we are told that we should blog, set up book signings and speaking engagements, send out books for review, write magazine pitches and sell articles, create book trailers, mine the web. And, oh, by the way, write the next book. I’m guilty of switching haplessly from one to the other, sometimes getting overwhelmed in the process.

Which brings me back to the “What can I offer?” question. I know the big-picture answer because I’ve done a lot of work in this area and I have a personal mission statement: “To inspire others to live a more joyful, purposeful life.” I want to share my personal experiences with other people, particularly women, in the hopes of saving them some of the emotional struggles that I’ve been through.

I just needed to be asked the question again. Refocused, I know where to put my efforts going forward. I have a feeling that, as a result, next week is going to be one of those pull-ahead weeks.

As Greg Anderson says in his uplifting book Living Life on Purpose, “You have a mission in your life…Truly, the world has need of you…You are here, now, where you are, how you are, given the personality you have, with the unique abilities you possess because this is your moment to contribute to the world.” 

How about you? What can you offer to the world? Do you need a pull-back week to figure it out?

Take all the time you need. We’ll wait.

 

The milkman

Friday, June 20th, 2008

We lost another WWII veteran today. My uncle, John Stanley, who was 98, served in the Navy on the U.S.S. Texas as a gunner’s mate. Like most of the men in that job, he lost much of his hearing while doing it. On my last visit out to Denver, where he and my aunt lived, he showed me his medals, and an amazing picture of a kamikaze plane just about to crash into the ship behind his.

You know all those old jokes about women falling in love with the milk man? Well, that actually happened to my Aunt Winnie. Uncle Johnny drove a milk truck and he delivered the milk to her house at 5:30 every morning. He fell for when he was 20 and she was 14. The story goes that, because of his affection for her, he left her a small bottle of chocolate milk every day as a treat. Unfortunately, her brother John woke up first, drank the chocolate milk, and never mentioned it to anyone. Uncle Johnny had to wait for two years to date Aunt Winnie, because she wasn’t allowed to date until she turned 16. They were married when she turned 21, and have been married for 71 years! They have seven children.

Uncle Johnny was a numbers man. After the war he got a job selling Prudential insurance, the perfect job for him. He had an incredible memory, and loved trivia. Every time we saw him, he would say something like, “Do you know how many bricks it took to build the (fill in the building or structure)?” Of course we’d have no idea, but he’d tell us exactly how many bricks. Or how many men it took to build it. Or how many man-hours. The numbers were always in the millions, but he’d remember them down to the last digit. He was an affectionate guy, and would always hold my hand when he talked to me. He loved to sing, and made up songs about working the milk route.

For most of his life he was strong and healthy, but he had occasional, bizarre health issues that would have set others way back. Not him. He was blind for an entire year when he was a senior in high school, until his dentist figured out that a wisdom tooth was pushing on a nerve. Once they removed it, he could see again. In his mid-80s his vision was failing again, and he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor which needed to be removed. He had to shop around to find a doctor who was willing to anesthetize him at his age. We were all very nervous about the surgery, which was quite serious, but he was undaunted. Of course he came out of it with flying colors.

The last time I saw my aunt and uncle in Raleigh was a few years ago, when they flew in to visit my mom. I have an image of them in my mind that I’ll hold on to forever. The two of them were in a guest room in the residence where my mom lives. They were sitting on a bench at the bottom of the bed, side by side, like birds on a telephone wire. The bench was pulled up close to the TV so they could see and hear it, and they were holding hands, as always.

Uncle Johnny was a lifelong Catholic, and up until two years ago when he had a stroke, he was still acting as a Eucharistic Minster at his church, giving out communion at mass. He was also still driving, and attending weekly Rotary meetings. He contributed to his country, his family, his church, and his community in ways too numerous to mention. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

So long, milkman.

  

Bill, Angie, John, and Winnie

 

This photo was taken in 1992, at my folks’ 50th wedding anniversary mass. My mom and dad, Bill and Angie, are on the left. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Winnie, my mom’s sister, are on the right.

 

The miracle of the brain

Friday, May 16th, 2008

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Everything upside down

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

“Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long life.”
                                                                                         Daniel Francoiseprit Auber

 

My mother said a funny thing the other day. She was frustrated that her sewing machine was acting up, and she said, “I know I threaded it right. I’ve been doing it for centuries.” She’s nearly 90, and it probably does feel to her like she’s been doing some things for centuries.
 
Her machine has been giving her trouble since she had it serviced a month ago, but she sounded defensive, as if I would question her skills. The thought hadn’t occurred to me, and I wondered at first why she felt the need to explain herself.

It made me think about what it must truly be like to be her age, to have people question what she is doing and how she is doing it. Even without Alzheimers, older people become aware that, over time, they are losing the ability to do things they once knew how to do.

As we watch our parents age, it’s easy to get impatient. We experience the changes in terms of how they affect us. They start to repeat themselves. They lose things. They don’t pay their bills. They forget to take their medications. They become, for us, like another one of our children, and we begin to speak to them in the same hassled tone.

We truly forget that it will happen to us one day too. And it will, if we live long enough. There’s no getting around it. Imagine for one minute what it must actually feel like to have your child treat you as if you were the child. To have them remind you of things, explain things to you, drive you places, speak to people on your behalf.

I’m going to try to hold that picture in my head the next time I visit my mom.

 

About Elaine

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Elaine Luddy Klonicki is a freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her column “Box of Chocolates” appeared in The News & Observer. Elaine has written three books: All on Account of You: A True WWII Love Story, Thinking About Therapy? What to Expect From “The Talking Cure” and Captured Words: A Sentimental Journey. She is one of the co-editors of A Taste of Taffy: Samplings From the Triangle Area Freelancers. Through her writing, she shares with others the skills she has learned for living a joyful, purposeful, and inspired life.