Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

The One Who Got Away

I ran down to the grocery store last week to pick up a few things and was confronted by the past.  The voice of Judy Collins singing Both Sides Now was playing over the sound system, and I immediately wondered if the song conjured up strong memories for anyone else in the store. It was the summer of 1968. I was fifteen and working as a waitress at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. The summer program was allegedly “work-study,” which basically meant that when we were not waiting on tables or cleaning and setting up our stations, we were expected to attend classes taught by a rabbi who was actually a terrific fellow and teacher. The waitresses and waiters earned about $100 for the summer and tipping wasn’t allowed.  I’m not exactly sure why I wanted to spend my summer that way, but I suspect I saw it as an opportunity to be with two of my best friends for the whole summer. Since I was entering my senior year of high school in the fall, I was too old to be a camper at sleep away camp and too young to have a position as a counselor.  And I wanted the freedom that was only possible when I was away from home. My parents were on-board because the waitress position promised a supervised situation in a camp that was committed to Jewish traditions, something that was especially important to my Holocaust family.  So, off I went, ready to work hard, study Jewish history and religion, and hopeful that I would still find adventure.

Adventure found me the first week of camp.  In the midst of the first week of grueling training in a hot kitchen and equally hot dining room, someone whistled at me. I was carrying a heavy tray loaded with dirty dishes, but I managed to turn and look at my admirer—an impossibly handsome (and clearly non-Jewish) boy who was on top of a ladder in the kitchen.  He boldly winked at me, and I blushed before throwing him a look that was intended to deter his advances. In retrospect, I am chagrined by my own biased audaciousness. He was so evidently not one of my tribe (I knew this because he wasn’t wearing Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt), so I rejected him on those grounds alone although I still managed to take a quick inventory of his looks. He was lean and muscular, dark-skinned, jet black hair crafted into a style that James Dean would find enviable, and green eyes so striking that I stared. I also stared at the “wife-beater” tee shirt (that no Jewish boy I ever knew would or could wear so well) beneath the open short-sleeved shirt that had a pack of Kools tucked into a rolled up sleeve. A cigarette dangled from his full lips, and he smiled at me in spite of my indignant look. My heart raced as I hurried away. Later, I told my girlfriends about him, saying, “Can you believe his nerve?” They shook their heads in unison, equally shocked. I kept a vigilant eye out for him the rest of the day. Wherever I turned, he was there, watching me, patiently waiting me out.

It turned out that the boy (and two other boys from him hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey) had been hired to work in the kitchen.  My admirer was the kitchen steward and had taken the job for the pay, thrusting himself into a world that must have been even more unfamiliar to him than he was to me. And he did it all with good cheer, donning a yarmulke during prayers before meals and respectfully keeping quiet when appropriate. But he was never quiet in my presence. He slowly inched his way closer and closer to me until one evening at a staff party, he appeared in skin tight jeans and insinuated himself close enough to me so that I was almost dizzy with desire. My friends, still apprehensive about his “type,” amazingly found themselves immersed in conversation with the two other boys from Bayonne.  It was a night that turned everything around for me.  I stepped over my initial first impressions and into a place where nothing matters more than what your heart tells you. By the week’s end, he was walking me back to my dormitory and chastely kissing me goodnight though I was long past that, arching my body toward his whenever he came close. And when he kissed me, really kissed me, the first time, I was already head over heels in love.

Once it became clear that we shared the same feelings, our days were defined by when we could finally be alone. All day long, we passed each other in the kitchen, our hands grazed, our eyes locked, but we went about our jobs, fueled by the knowledge that in a few hours we could be together, stretched out alongside each other in his room under the kitchen, where we talked and laughed, and kissed and touched, seemingly endlessly and passionately. I was far less experienced than he, but I held onto my virginity with determination in spite of cues from my body that begged to be indulged. But that is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is not even about a boy and a girl from worlds so different that they never would have met if they had not wound up in this remote corner of the world during the summer of 1968 and discovered how very much they same they really were.  The story is about people who come into our lives and leave an indelible impression.

Our romance continued into the year ahead. We met in the city, staking Washington Square Park as our spot.  The weather never deterred us, and we walked the streets, ducking in here and there for a coffee. In good weather, we headed up to Central Park, looking for privacy behind a tree or anywhere where we could be together. The next summer I went to Israel, and he prepared to start college. We wrote each other often and met in the city a few more times even after he became engaged, and I began to date the boy I would eventually marry.

I’m not sure how it came to pass that we lost contact. I couldn’t say for sure what was in the last letter either of us wrote, but years turned into more years. From time to time, I thought about him, wondering what had become of that boy I had so loved and hoping that life had rewarded him. I also lost touch with the two girls who had been among my closest friends. That estrangement took longer to evolve, but by the time I was in my twenties, one of those girls had completely disappeared from my life, making a cameo appearance to pay a shiva visit when my father unexpectedly died. Years after my son was born, the other friend took offense to something I said, and I nothing I could say or do seemed to change her mind. She told me she no longer felt the same way about me, and that was that. In retrospect, I think she simply needed to leave everyone behind and start fresh somewhere else. She did just that, and I glean from the Internet that she has a fine position in a different state. Both women had married (I was at  both weddings) and divorced many years ago, and I don’t think either ever remarried or had children. I wonder if that is a source of sadness in their lives. I hope they have found enough happiness to sustain them. I knew those girls from the time I was ten. I still wonder why they chose to separate themselves so dramatically from the people who cared for them so much. It remains a mystery.

I wonder now about the long-term impact on our lives of people who are a strong and consistent presence before they disappear forever. The Internet has made it possible to know the whereabouts of most everyone, and it can be up to us to decide whether or not to bring the past into the present. It’s a challenging decision and one that is probably always acted on impulsively. I contacted one of my old girlfriends when my last novel came out. I sent her the postcard, announcing its release, but I never heard back from her.  I decided that was answer enough, and I let it be.  But that boy, well, he moved in and out of consciousness over the years, coming to the forefront whenever I saw Dirty Dancing or watched a repeat of Happy Days and fell in love with the Fonz all over again. I thought of him whenever I passed the sign to Bayonne or realized that the “remote corner of the world” we had claimed as ours was really very close to where I now live. He has remained a strong and positive presence in my life because he was so precious to me. I loved him the way you can only love someone when you are fifteen and the days are marked by when you can finally be alone. In my quiet moments, I sometimes remember the way his hands memorized the lines of my body, the way he whispered his love for me, and how I thought I would die if he left me.

I know we have moved on to different lives. I can tell from his address that he is still married, as I am. I know he has children. I am also a mother. And I feel fairly certain the he has his memories as I have mine.  I know that if we saw each other, forty-some-odd years later, it would be as if time had not passed.  I would want to tell him that he was the sweetest boyfriend I ever had. He made me feel cared for and loved and protected in a way that has yet to be replicated. How could it be?  I would never again let anyone own me the way I allowed him to own me because secretly it felt so good, so right, to relinquish that control. It was our secret, his and mine. And I feel fairly certain it still is.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

When Feeling Is First

My mother used to sing a song intended to lull me to sleep, but it almost always gave me nightmares. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the verses were from My Yiddishe Mamma, a song that was ultimately immortalized by everyone from Yosef Rosenblatt to Tom Jones.  But when I first heard the song, I was a terrified toddler who understood Yiddish (and German) and was certain the song was about her own fragile mother:  “In vasser und fayer (Into water and fire)/Vollt sie geloffnfahr ihr kind (She would have leapt for her children). As my mother sang, I pressed my face into my pillow, willing the song to end.  I never told my mother how much the song frightened me.  Instead, I envisioned my mother riding ominous waves (I knew she couldn’t swim) and braving raging flames to bring me to safety.  The images were horrifying because even at such a young age, I instinctively knew that it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother never suffered again, and certainly not because of me. Even the slightest objection to the song might make her question my love for her and, after all, as the song warned, “Nisht halt’n ihr tayer (Not loving her dearly)/Dos iz geviss der greste Zind” (This is the greatest sin). I seemed to always know what was expected of me. We all did, all the children of Holocaust survivors who had been born to make up for what their parents had endured, shouldering our responsibilities with quiet fortitude. We understood that our lives were the only justification our parents had to explain why they had lived when others had died.  We were born to prove Hitler wrong, and we took our legacy seriously.

In spite of all this, I had a happy childhood. I always felt loved. My friends were always welcomed in our home; my parents were gracious and warm hosts to everyone. My father supported the family as a waiter though his trade was a furrier. And my mother did all sorts of jobs, sewing scarves by the piece, inserting stamps in glassine envelopes for a local business, anything and everything that would make “a few extra dollars.” When it was financially possible, my wishes were met. Nevertheless, I worked after school all through high school, first as a cashier in a grocery store and later as a representative for Bell Telephone. On some level, I always knew my mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, the Transnistria Death March, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. I knew my parents were proud of me. I was a good student. I never gave them cause for worry even as I embraced the Sixties, trolling the clubs in Greenwich Village with my friends and experimenting with drugs. I was a proficient and convincing liar. I learned how to keep everything to myself.  I never showed any outward signs of sadness or anxiety because I knew it would unleash my mother’s disbelief. “What do you have to be unhappy about?” she would ask. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and there were no Nazis in pursuit. Indeed, what was there to complain about? I learned to be invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

Many years later, some time after my father died prematurely and unexpectedly, my mother discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the “Love Doctor,” an inspirational writer and speaker, and she learned that it was important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” It is true that I was initially uncomfortable with her newly discovered determination to express her love. At first, I mumbled some halfhearted response, ever dutiful and eager to assuage any pain or doubt she might feel, but I struggled with this reinvention of my mother who had taught me to put one foot in front of the other and carry on regardless of whatever obstacle might present itself.  It’s likely that I did not fully embrace the Love Doctor’s theories until I became a mother and understood I had never truly understood the depth of love. Motherhood softened me, gave me the ease to express love more openly. Nevertheless, there was always that voice that warned me of the potential consequences if I allowed myself too much emotional freedom. An open heart was risky business.

The only time I came undone was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Although we lived across the street from my elementary school, I was terrified that I would not make it home in time if Russia dropped a bomb. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that I would be separated from my family and never see them again. I had heard too many stories about parents and children brutally torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. During the Cuban Missile, I ran home from school, breathless with fear. I kept all my most prized possessions—my gold charm bracelet, my Barbie doll, my library books, my diary, and a pack of Necco candies that, admittedly, I had to replace quite often–in a pillowcase, ready for a hasty departure at a moment’s notice. My father suspected my fears though I don’t believe he really understood the depth of my terror. Still, he saw me freeze whenever a plane flew overhead. From time to time, he would wink at me, trying to lessen my panic, reassuring me with a quick hug. But I never openly admitted that my life was framed out by what I perceived as a series of fortunate events that had kept me from the same fate as my parents and the countless family members who had died during the Nazi siege of Europe. I was invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

My turning point came in December 2009, just days before my mother passed after years of physical and mental decline, and a protracted period during which, bedridden and silent, she gazed at the television, refusing to even acknowledge anyone’s presence. Ever the survivor, she opened her mouth for food when the spoon was brought to her lips. Throughout these years, women to whom I am forever indebted cared her for her with loving and gentle hands. I could not bear the thought of my mother knowing additional harshness or indignity. It was, perhaps, the darkest time I had ever experienced. I had watched my mother’s decline with a combination of sadness, rage, and frustration when it suddenly occurred to me that this woman who had been shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love, did not know how to die. Oddly, I thought of how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school, and I saw her, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. The woman in the bed bore almost no likeness to that once beautiful, vivacious woman who had allowed me to fall asleep in the living room that also served as my parents’ bedroom, knowing I would sleep fitfully until I heard my father’s key in the door. This was the woman who nightly heated up food for my father when he came home at three-thirty in the morning from the restaurant where he worked  (a task she never seemed to think was odd). Now, after years of orchestrating her care and tending to all her needs, she needed me to help her die. I stared at this woman who barely resembled my mother, and I began to sob, openly and uncontrollably. I was unleashed by pain and sadness. I implored her to let go and die. “It’s time, Mommy,” I said. “You have to go.” I reassured her that, “Daddy is waiting for you. Your parents and sister and brother will be there. You can go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” None of that seemed to move her. And then, I said, “I’m begging you, Mommy. Let go. I can’t do this anymore. Do it for me.” For the first time in months, my mother turned to face me. I saw recognition in her eyes, and I saw pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and the depth of her love stunned me. I held her close and stroked her still smooth and soft skin. She died three days later, in her own bed, and in my arms, taking her last peaceful breath against my chest.

I have had time since my mother’s death to contemplate how love and the way we express it changes the way we move through the world. I continue to wonder what it is that compels us to use restraint when part of me believes we should always run toward love with reckless disregard for the consequences. I know the answer, of course. Life is complicated by the choices we have made, the responsibilities we have assumed and continue to shoulder. And people are inherently afraid, as I continue to be, of what might happen if we simply let go. Sometimes, however, I find myself caught up in a flurry of emotion so expansive that I am unable to contain the feelings. I am still uncomfortable with showing vulnerability, expressing too much love, too much longing, too much of anything. Lately, however, when that happens, I remember my mother’s expression that last time when she was the most alive she had been in months, and I am reminded of the power of true love.

My mother used to sing a song intended to lull me to sleep, but it almost always gave me nightmares. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the verses were from My Yiddishe Mamma, a song that was ultimately immortalized by everyone from Yosef Rosenblatt to Tom Jones.  But when I first heard the song, I was a terrified toddler who understood Yiddish (and German) and was certain the song was about her own fragile mother:  “In vasser und fayer (Into water and fire)/Vollt sie geloffnfahr ihr kind (She would have leapt for her children). As my mother sang, I pressed my face into my pillow, willing the song to end.  I never told my mother how much the song frightened me.  Instead, I envisioned my mother riding ominous waves (I knew she couldn’t swim) and braving raging flames to bring me to safety.  The images were horrifying because even at such a young age, I instinctively knew that it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother never suffered again, and certainly not because of me. Even the slightest objection to the song might make her question my love for her and, after all, as the song warned, “Nisht halt’n ihr tayer (Not loving her dearly)/Dos iz geviss der greste Zind” (This is the greatest sin). I seemed to always know what was expected of me. We all did, all the children of Holocaust survivors who had been born to make up for what their parents had endured, shouldering our responsibilities with quiet fortitude. We understood that our lives were the only justification our parents had to explain why they had lived when others had died.  We were born to prove Hitler wrong, and we took our legacy seriously.

In spite of all this, I had a happy childhood. I always felt loved. My friends were always welcomed in our home; my parents were gracious and warm hosts to everyone. My father supported the family as a waiter though his trade was a furrier. And my mother did all sorts of jobs, sewing scarves by the piece, inserting stamps in glassine envelopes for a local business, anything and everything that would make “a few extra dollars.” When it was financially possible, my wishes were met. Nevertheless, I worked after school all through high school, first as a cashier in a grocery store and later as a representative for Bell Telephone. On some level, I always knew my mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, the Transnistria Death March, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. I knew my parents were proud of me. I was a good student. I never gave them cause for worry even as I embraced the Sixties, trolling the clubs in Greenwich Village with my friends and experimenting with drugs. I was a proficient and convincing liar. I learned how to keep everything to myself.  I never showed any outward signs of sadness or anxiety because I knew it would unleash my mother’s disbelief. “What do you have to be unhappy about?” she would ask. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and there were no Nazis in pursuit. Indeed, what was there to complain about? I learned to be invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

Many years later, some time after my father died prematurely and unexpectedly, my mother discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the “Love Doctor,” an inspirational writer and speaker, and she learned that it was important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” It is true that I was initially uncomfortable with her newly discovered determination to express her love. At first, I mumbled some halfhearted response, ever dutiful and eager to assuage any pain or doubt she might feel, but I struggled with this reinvention of my mother who had taught me to put one foot in front of the other and carry on regardless of whatever obstacle might present itself.  It’s likely that I did not fully embrace the Love Doctor’s theories until I became a mother and understood I had never truly understood the depth of love. Motherhood softened me, gave me the ease to express love more openly. Nevertheless, there was always that voice that warned me of the potential consequences if I allowed myself too much emotional freedom. An open heart was risky business.

The only time I came undone was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Although we lived across the street from my elementary school, I was terrified that I would not make it home in time if Russia dropped a bomb. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that I would be separated from my family and never see them again. I had heard too many stories about parents and children brutally torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. During the Cuban Missile, I ran home from school, breathless with fear. I kept all my most prized possessions—my gold charm bracelet, my Barbie doll, my library books, my diary, and a pack of Necco candies that, admittedly, I had to replace quite often–in a pillowcase, ready for a hasty departure at a moment’s notice. My father suspected my fears though I don’t believe he really understood the depth of my terror. Still, he saw me freeze whenever a plane flew overhead. From time to time, he would wink at me, trying to lessen my panic, reassuring me with a quick hug. But I never openly admitted that my life was framed out by what I perceived as a series of fortunate events that had kept me from the same fate as my parents and the countless family members who had died during the Nazi siege of Europe. I was invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

My turning point came in December 2009, just days before my mother passed after years of physical and mental decline, and a protracted period during which, bedridden and silent, she gazed at the television, refusing to even acknowledge anyone’s presence. Ever the survivor, she opened her mouth for food when the spoon was brought to her lips. Throughout these years, women to whom I am forever indebted cared her for her with loving and gentle hands. I could not bear the thought of my mother knowing additional harshness or indignity. It was, perhaps, the darkest time I had ever experienced. I had watched my mother’s decline with a combination of sadness, rage, and frustration when it suddenly occurred to me that this woman who had been shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love, did not know how to die. Oddly, I thought of how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school, and I saw her, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. The woman in the bed bore almost no likeness to that once beautiful, vivacious woman who had allowed me to fall asleep in the living room that also served as my parents’ bedroom, knowing I would sleep fitfully until I heard my father’s key in the door. This was the woman who nightly heated up food for my father when he came home at three-thirty in the morning from the restaurant where he worked  (a task she never seemed to think was odd). Now, after years of orchestrating her care and tending to all her needs, she needed me to help her die. I stared at this woman who barely resembled my mother, and I began to sob, openly and uncontrollably. I was unleashed by pain and sadness. I implored her to let go and die. “It’s time, Mommy,” I said. “You have to go.” I reassured her that, “Daddy is waiting for you. Your parents and sister and brother will be there. You can go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” None of that seemed to move her. And then, I said, “I’m begging you, Mommy. Let go. I can’t do this anymore. Do it for me.” For the first time in months, my mother turned to face me. I saw recognition in her eyes, and I saw pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and the depth of her love stunned me. I held her close and stroked her still smooth and soft skin. She died three days later, in her own bed, and in my arms, taking her last peaceful breath against my chest.

I have had time since my mother’s death to contemplate how love and the way we express it changes the way we move through the world. I continue to wonder what it is that compels us to use restraint when part of me believes we should always run toward love with reckless disregard for the consequences. I know the answer, of course. Life is complicated by the choices we have made, the responsibilities we have assumed and continue to shoulder. And people are inherently afraid, as I continue to be, of what might happen if we simply let go. Sometimes, however, I find myself caught up in a flurry of emotion so expansive that I am unable to contain the feelings. I am still uncomfortable with showing vulnerability, expressing too much love, too much longing, too much of anything. Lately, however, when that happens, I remember my mother’s expression that last time when she was the most alive she had been in months, and I am reminded of the power of true love.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Every Woman a Heroine

I write about women because I understand them, and I love them, admire them, and appreciate them. Shobban Bantwal seems to share these insights, as well as these feelings. She has written a book about a woman, a woman with an important story to be shared. Her compelling story transcends everything else.

A Middle-aged Heroine?

Shobhan Bantwal – author of THE UNEXPECTED SON

In my books, which are primarily commercial women’s fiction with romantic elements, I have portrayed protagonists from young to middle-aged—21 to 50 years old and a few in-between. I believe a protagonist should be someone the reader can connect with, and if a writer succeeds in creating a character that readers can relate to and root for her/him, then age really does not matter.

A woman’s journey is what my stories are all about. Depending on circumstances, a very young heroine can easily have experienced a lot of what life can dish out. A lifetime of experience can be gained by a woman who marries very young, has multiple children, weathers abuse or neglect or widowhood or illness.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to life experiences. My own late mother was married at 14 and had lived with a bunch of difficult in-laws and raised her first two children in their grim household while my father was away, first at medical school and later in the military during World War II. During all those years, my mother’s life was full to the brim—a lifetime of experiences crammed in a span of a few years.

My mother was a strong, intelligent woman, who handled her responsibilities, trials, and tribulations with dignity and kindness. She managed to raise five daughters in a male-child-obsessed society that disdained women who produced girls. She gave each one of us, her daughters, an outstanding education, and despite her own staunch Hindu faith, taught us to appreciate other religions and cultures. Most of all, she instilled in us self-respect and a sense of humor. Her life alone could make an excellent biography.

My latest heroine in THE UNEXPECTED SON is a 50-year-old woman who has realized most of her dreams, but wakes up one morning to a shocking truth—a truth that turns her cozy world upside-down. Suddenly she is forced to face her dark past at the risk of losing her happy marriage and her beloved family.

Young or old, beautiful or ugly does not matter in a good story. I believe that a credible protagonist going through interesting life experiences is what makes a compelling plot and keeps the readers turning the pages.

A Note From Shobhan – Information about my books, video trailers, contact, photos from India, reviews, contests, and recipes is available on my website: www.shobhanbantwal.com.  All my books can be purchased at any retail bookstore or online bookseller. For more information about The Unexpected Son virtual tour, visit http://bookpromotionservices.com/2010/07/02/unexpected-son-virtual-tour/

August 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

To Young Women Everywhere

I came across a photograph of my friend Claire and I from the summer of 1969, the summer we spent touring Israel. I was sixteen, newly graduated from high school, and Claire was eighteen, almost nineteen.  Because I had skipped two grades, all of my friends were older. I was fortunate that I was always physically mature for my age because it made it easier to fit in with my peers. The photograph was taken at Eilat, Israel’s southern most city, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea. Claire and I are horsing around in the water. I am perched on an inner tube, wearing a skimpy black and white bikini, and a huge smile. My wet hair is plastered to my head. I appear to be trying to help Claire onto the tube as she struggles in the water. She is laughing. A golden tan makes her look especially alive. We both look very happy. We had been camping on the beach for several days with my cousin and her friend, both Israelis. Eilat was incredibly beautiful. We were incredibly beautiful. When I stared at the photograph, I remembered my reaction when I first saw the photograph more than forty years ago. In those pre-digital days, you had to bring in the film and wait for the pictures to come back. I didn’t want anyone to see this particular picture because a little roll of fat was visible at my middle. I remember thinking that I looked “so fat.” In fact, I look remarkably healthy and sexy in the way that only a buxom (does anyone use that word anymore?) sixteen-year-old can look.

In those days, I was always trying to hide some part of myself—my large breasts, my full thighs, my something, anything. Several years later, a friend in graduate school told me that I look like a “Renaissance porno queen.” I laughed, but the description made me uncomfortable. While I never had any shortage of male attention, I never really felt beautiful. Certainly, most teenagers feel awkward and self-conscious, a lamentable condition that continues to perplex me.  I carried my doubts into young adulthood and while I knew my friend’s apt description was meant as a compliment, I was embarrassed by his observation. I was foolish where I should have been proud. What I would give today for that former body of mine… there are no words. And that is why I have a message for young women everywhere. I want you to look in the mirror and marvel at the tautness of your skin, the way your breasts stay high on your chests, and the lovely and luxuriant thickness of your hair. Stand naked in front of a mirror and appreciate your beauty, savor it, and celebrate it. It merits your admiration.

These days I often think of all the times I was self-conscious about my appearance. I wanted to look like Claire. She was the perfect Sixties girl—tall and thin, long, straight, dark hair, and legs that began at her neck and just kept going. I had a crown of wild, curly hair. I also had a formidable chest, and curves that belonged on an older woman. It was a body that emerged when I was fourteen.  I bemoaned my appearance every time I allowed myself to take a peek at my naked self. Shopping was difficult. My mother was adept at letting out the darts in blouses and dresses that were invariably tight. I straightened my hair, wore clothes that hid my full breasts, and dieted constantly, even though I was not fat (What I regret is not learning to exercise early in my life and taking some form of exercise into adulthood. Stand warned all you young beauties: exercise will prolong your beauty, and whether or not you believe me, you will be sorry if you don’t learn to exercise now). I wanted to look like Twiggy or Cher, the role models for beauty in that era of peace and love. I wasted so much precious time on that hopeless fantasy.

If I could go back to those years, I would flaunt my voluptuousness with abandon. I would never have straightened my hair. I used a horrible smelling product, Curl Free, that made my hair coarse and lifeless. At night I would pull my hair up into a ponytail, roll it backwards onto an empty frozen juice can and secure it with long, metal clips. For good measure, I often ironed my hair on the ironing board, using my mother’s iron and a damp towel. My poor mother would monitor this process, fearful that I would set myself on fire!  I would have looked more kindly on my body instead of wishing for thinner thighs, longer legs, and smaller breasts. The good news is that I have finally come of age. In some ways, I am the woman I wanted to be then even though I still do not resemble even a vague proximity of Cher or Twiggy, or even my friend Claire.  The main difference is that I am now comfortable with myself, a remarkable achievement. I practice yoga six times a week, and I ride a stationary bike at least three times a week. I feel fitter than I did all those years ago.

I write about women like myself because it is what I know and love best. We are friends, and wives, and mothers, daughters, and sisters. The women in my novels, WILLING SPIRITS and THE SINNER”S GUIDE TO CONFESSION are also the woman I am still becoming. I am ever mindful of how times passes, how much I have yet to do, and how grateful I am that I no longer straighten my hair. Of course, I am still critical of body, but I express that criticism with gentleness and humor. I know who I once was, and I know who I am now. It was good then, and it’s better now.  Still, I wish I had been s bit wiser, a bit more aware of how ephemeral youth is… I wish I had enjoyed my body rather than pass judgment on it with such harsh eyes. I wish I had loved myself more.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | Sinner's Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits | , , , | 2 Comments

How do we prepare for our parent’s death?

Lillian Brummet will be visiting my blog today with a guest post on grief. Lillian is  the co-author of the books: Trash Talk and Purple Snowflake Marketing, author of Towards Understanding; Host of the Conscious Discussions talk radio show, manager of two blogs & a bi-weekly newsletter (www.brummet.ca)

How do we prepare for our parent’s death?

So many of us just do not want to face a parent leaving this world, yet we all must face it at some point in our lives. Some of us lose our parents very early in life; others have the joy of parents hanging on long enough to share time with their great-grandchildren. As our parents age we can’t help but fearing that one day they will no longer be with us, and what then? That question is on our minds even if our parents are in the best of health. And if they are ill – the thoughts that go through our minds can be exhausting.

I’ve lost both biological parents and a beloved stepfather – two of whom took their own lives. The tragic loss, although expected, was devastating. You see, my mother and her husband were terminally ill and had been chronically ill and in pain for more than 20 years before they decided to end their lives. The last 10 years of their lives were an opportunity to explore deep feelings, speak of the unspeakable and learn to be able to let go. I’d like to share some of the tips I’ve learned from this experience.

The first thing people in terminally ill conditions need from their children (or others around them) is closure – the act of discussing things or forgiving things that we hold in our minds can be so very healing and without it we would be plagued by ghosts and regrets when that person is gone. So deal with it now, while you can. If you cannot speak the thoughts you have, perhaps write them down in a poem or letter and share them that way. Let the person know what they have meant to you, the ways they have bettered your life, the things that you’ll always be proud of them for. They need to hear this… and you need to share it, whether you are aware of it now or not.

Ask questions for family history both medical and any stories they may be able to share. Prompt the individual to speak of their experiences by asking them about the schools they went to, friends they had, or what they did when something happened. Another great way to prompt story sharing is to go through the photos with them. This can be very helpful to the individual, as they feel valued and that their life had more meaning. You can try using a voice recorder for the stories and information and then transcribe it later as time allows.

Terminally ill people need to know that their last wishes will be taken care of. So make sure that you discuss this with your loved ones. This is a wrenching time for those of us who will be left behind because the length of the grieving process is increased. It can be very difficult to speak of, or help prepare, things like Living Wills and Power of Attorney and Estate Wills, but it must be done. Know the location of important paperwork, bank records and debts – and assure the loved ones that their friends will be taken care of. This is so important. As the executor of my parents’ estate, I asked them to leave me a letter of detailed instructions to follow so that I would not have to make decisions in the middle of grief. This was an incredibly helpful tool for me, and left my mind free of doubts or second thoughts on decision-making.

After they left this world, and the police called – the whirlwind of grief really struck hard. I just crumpled at first, and shook and sweated and shook some more. I think I shook like a leaf nearly constantly for over a week – it was physically exhausting. The family needed support, they needed closure, they needed togetherness – the lawyers and tax people and the government needed things, the realtor needed things… The travel and the constant list of to-do’s was almost a relief to me since I could experience the grief in smaller bouts in between the distractions. Delegating activities to several family members helped with the family gatherings, funeral arrangements, travel arrangements and so forth.

Grief plays havoc with your immune system; it is important to have vitamins supplementation – especially anti-oxidants like Vitamin A, C, E, and so on. Drink plenty of water too, since you’ll be loosing a lot through perspiration and grief. Grief can also play havoc with one’s emotions; I found I just wanted everything to go away and would have teenage-like fits over the smallest things. Exhaustion leads to an increase of impatience, anger and frustration can quickly come to the surface, and then there were days when I can’t stop thinking of their death, or their suffering.

At these times, my husband will take me out to nature where we would walk in the dwindling snow of the approaching spring, or sit by a lake and watch the water and walk the beaches in early summer, or stroll in the cool shade of the forested mountain trails. This was so healing for me… just to breathe fresh air and get out from under the emotions one is left with.

It has now been 7 months since their passing – and while the intense grief is gone, I still feel moments when the loss hits very hard and yet other days go by where I hardly think of it. Most of the paperwork is completed, except for the government who is notoriously slow at processing things. My mother’s family has settled back to their lives and her friends have been taken care of. There is nothing left to do but move on in life.

My parent’s lives (my mother in particular) contained a great deal of suffering and tragedy – their depression and hopelessness, their bitterness towards the end of their lives will always be a sadness for me. When my mother died, when the bullet entered her brain, I was doing dishes and at that moment I burst into song – a childhood song we used to sing together. I could remember every line of that song, even though I hadn’t been able to recollect most of it before. It was at that moment, or soon afterwards, that I decided that I wanted to live for them… really live. Not just every day living, but enjoying every scent, every sunbeam, every flower.

* Author’s Note: I hope my story will help some of Phyllis’s blog readers in their own lives, that you will find some way of providing more comfort to those in your life who are facing death or illness. If I were to leave today’s readers with one single piece of advice for this time in their lives… it would be to be patient with yourself, and to be patient with others too.

August 5, 2010 Posted by | Grief, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

A Forgotten Fostering Venture: Dianne Ascroft

Dianne Ascroft is a Canadian writer, living in Britain. She has been freelance writing since 2002. Most of her writing focuses on history, arts/music and human interest stories. She particularly enjoys interviewing music personalities and has had the pleasure of chatting with a variety of people including former Bay City Rollers lead singer, Les McKeown and the classical singing trio, The Priests. Her articles have been printed in Canadian and Irish newspapers and magazines including the Toronto Star, Mississauga News, Derry Journal, Banbridge Leader, Senior Times and Ireland’s Own magazine. Hitler and Mars Bars is her first novel.

Dianne started life in a quiet residential neighbourhood in the buzzing city of Toronto and has progressively moved to smaller places through the years. She now lives on a small farm in Northern Ireland with her husband and an assortment of pets. If she ever decides to write her autobiography the working title will be Downsizing.

Hitler and Mars Bars is the story of a remarkable child and era. Set in war-torn Germany and post-war Ireland it is the tale of German boy Erich’s struggle to keep his dreams alive in an alien world.

Growing up in a Children’s Home in Germany’s embattled Ruhr area Erich knows only war and deprivation. His beloved mother’s disappearance after a heavy bombing raid leaves him desolate and desperate to find her. After the war the Red Cross transports Erich and his younger brother, Hans, across Europe, with hundreds of other German children, to escape the appalling conditions in their homeland. Erich and his brother find new lives in Ireland but with different families. During the next few years Erich moves around Ireland, through a string of foster families, experiencing the best and worst of Irish life. He finds love and acceptance in some and indifference and brutality in others. When a farmer and his wife welcome him into their loving home and re-unite him with his brother he finds the family he craves. But his brief taste of happiness is dashed by circumstances beyond his control.

This is the story of a German boy growing up alone in Ireland. He dreams of finding his mother. He yearns for a family who will love and keep him forever. He learns his brother is his ally not his rival. Plucky and resilient he surmounts the challenges his ever changing world presents.

A FORGOTTEN FOSTERING VENTURE

by Dianne Ascroft

In America, Britain and Australia thousands of children are fostered each year. Each of these countries has a well developed system that oversees the care of these children.

Fostering, caring for a child who is not your biological or adoptive one, has been implemented in various ways through the ages. For centuries it existed in a much less formal structure than the current system. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries industrialization and urbanization changed people’s lifestyles, creating an increased need for foster care. Grandparents, other relatives and sometimes unrelated adults raised children when parents were unable to do so. The mass evacuation of children from British cities during the Second World War created a new form of foster care provided mainly by unrelated adults.

Nations usually provide for the needs of the children within their jurisdiction. But, after the Second World War, the devastation in some European countries rendered them unable to do so. So organizations in several western European countries took children from the stricken countries to be fostered in less damaged places.

One such initiative, Operation Shamrock, an Irish Red Cross project, aided German and French children.

Conditions in the war ravaged countries of continental Europe were appalling after the Second World War and many people, especially in Germany, were near starvation. Irish people were particularly moved by the plight of the children and, as a result, the German Save The Children Society was formed in October 1945.

In March 1946 the Irish Red Cross, on behalf of both organisations, applied to the Allied Control Council, the military governing body for Allied-occupied Germany, to bring one hundred German children to Ireland. The request was approved and on July 27th, 1946 the first eighty-eight children arrived. By April 1947 over four hundred children, aged between three and fifteen, were in Ireland. Most of them came from the devastated Ruhr area, which had been heavily bombed by the Allies during the war.

On arrival the children were taken to the Red Cross Centre at Glencree, Co Wicklow where they were cared for by nurses and Red Cross workers. Malnutrition and other health problems were treated, and when their health improved sufficiently, they were placed with foster families. Each child was fostered by a family of the same faith as himself. The children received good care and nourishing food. Language barriers were overcome and the children settled into their host families. Most of them formed strong bonds with their foster families and many were loath to leave them when the time came to return home.

At the end of the planned duration of the three-year project, between April and September 1949, most of the children were returned to their families in Germany. They returned home healthy and happy though many missed their foster families. Approximately fifty children, for various reasons, remained in Ireland permanently.

This fostering project was a very worthwhile humanitarian effort. Over 400 children were brought to Ireland and cared for, with very few reports of mistreatment. After three years they returned home much healthier than when they arrived. It was a resounding success for the Red Cross and many children, who may not have done so in their homeland, survived and thrived.

Despite its value and success Operation Shamrock is rarely ever mentioned in Irish history books and has not received the recognition it deserves. Several years ago a man who was fostered under this scheme told me his story. I was fascinated and my curiosity prompted me to dig deeper into Operation Shamrock. After talking to people who were involved in it, Irish families and the children they fostered, my head was filled with their stories. I couldn’t forget what I’d heard and wanted to bring these events alive for others. So I wrote an historical fiction set during the era. My novel, Hitler and Mars Bars, tells the story of Erich, a child who finds himself far from home and plunged into a new life in Ireland.

Thank you for inviting me to tell the story of the forgotten fostering venture, Operation Shamrock, on your blog today, Phyllis. If readers would like to know more about Hitler and Mars Bars and Operation Shamrock, please visit my website at www.dianne-ascroft.com.

July 26, 2010 Posted by | reviews, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Big Babies

The subject of grown children is one that I have explored in Willing Spirits, as well as in The Sinner’s Guide to Confession. It is a subject I revisit because motherhood, in all its dimensions, is a subject very dear to me.   I know motherhood. I remember each of its stages, and so I can convey this in ways that other women, other mothers, can relate to. Just as we mothered our infants, then our toddlers, and then each successive stage, we now mother our grown children.  The women in my novels are all mothers.  These are the women I understand best.  I explored what it was like to be the mother of a grown child in my writing before I was ever in that position. I allowed my characters to make mistakes, just as I continue to do.  And I allowed them to grow, just as I have.  Parenting a grown child may not be as filled with the wonders of getting to know a newborn, but parenting a grown up is equally rewarding, and often more interesting.

There is a Yiddish proverb that says, “Little children disturb your sleep, big ones your life.”  I always find great wisdom in proverbs, and this one is no different.  My son suffered from colic and chronic ear infections the first year of his life.  I dreamed about sleeping.  My husband and I quickly learned that the only way we would sleep was if we brought our baby into our bed.   And so began our covert journey to a family bed which, in retrospect, resulted in some of the sweetest moments of early parenthood. Aside from all of this, Isaac was a delicious baby, and I mostly treasured my time with him.

As he got older, the demands on my time increased proportionately, but I continued to take my role into stride, writing while he napped, first with him strapped to my chest and later in furtive spurts between drop offs and pick-ups, preparing meals, teaching, and everything else that mothering entails. I was consistently happy in my position.  Motherhood suited me, and I was blessed with an easy child. He was a serious student, an enthusiastic learner, a creative thinker and always curious. He challenged me daily, but he was never combative or difficult.  We sailed through his teen years with none of the scars so many families must endure. When Isaac left for college, I was initially overwhelmed with loss. I wept inconsolably, peered longingly into his empty bedroom, and felt adrift for the first time in eighteen years. He was on the road to adulthood, and I felt abandoned.  I wanted my baby back. I wanted to feel the weight of his sturdy little body against my chest as he slept. I wanted to put my lips against his downy curls and inhale the scent that was uniquely his. I was bereft. Nothing had prepared me for how it would feel to let him go and to reconfigure the spaces in my life. I cried in the grocery store, when I did the laundry, and after I opened the door to an empty house. The adjustment was daunting, but I succeeded in embracing my new life with considerable pleasure. I contribute a large part of that transition to accepting that my son no longer needed me the way he had and to welcoming that change for both of us.

My son is almost twenty-six, an age that both delights and mystifies me. Sometimes I can see the traces of the little boy in the way he laughs or in his expression when something delights him. But he is no longer a little boy.  There are boundaries now (as well there should be), and even if I occasionally step too far over or indulge an impulse to stroke his bearded cheek or plant a stray kiss on his forehead, he has moved well into another phase of his life. I am privileged that he continues to ask for my opinion, that he comes home often, brings his friends, and now his girlfriend (a choice that confirms my sense that I did, indeed, do a very good job of raising him).  I feel a sense of calm in his presence because he is a man I know I will continue to be proud of no matter what he does.  Parenting a grown child can be delicate. I offer advice when I am asked though I have also been known to provide an unsolicited opinion here and there in spite of often deserved objections. I know that what I think matters to my son, but I also know that he is often right where I am wrong, and I do not hesitate to acknowledge this.  Our relationship continues to evolve, and I continue to know that there is nothing that could wedge itself between us, mostly because I would never allow it to happen.  He is my son, albeit my adult son, and I grow with him, ever mindful of how lucky I am for that journey.

June 21, 2010 Posted by | motherhood | Leave a comment

Female Nomad and Friends by Rita Golden Gelman

I went to Safat, a beautiful and mystical city in Israel, for the first time when I was sixteen-years-old, so I was especially drawn to that particular piece in Rita Golden Gelman’s wonderful anthology of essays, Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World. I am happy to host this collection today and hope you will find the pieces as inspirational and interesting as I did! You will find an excerpt from the collection following the publication information below.  Enjoy!

Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World – From the author of the international bestseller, Tales of a Female Nomad, Female Nomad and Friends is a moving anthology of essays that celebrates traveling, connecting, and eating around the world. Also included are more than 30 travel-inspired, taste-tested and author-approved recipes.

Rita Golden Gelman is the author of Tales of a Female Nomad and more than seventy children’s books, including More Spaghetti, I Say!, a staple in every first grade classroom. As a nomad, Rita has no permanent address.  She is currently involved in an initiative called Let’s Get Global, a project of US Servas, Inc, a national movement deigned to bring the gap year to the United States. Learn more at: www.letsgetglobal.org

We invite you to join s on the Female Nomad and Friends virtual tour. The full schedule can be seen at http://bookpromotionservices.com/2010/05/17/female-nomad-tour. You can learn much more about Rita Golden Gelman and her work on her website – www.ritagoldengelman.comReprinted from “Female Nomad and Friends” by Rita Golden Gelman. Copyright © 2010.  Published by Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

WHAT HAPPENED FOR CHANA

Jan Bayer

Each of the four holy cities of Israel represents one of the four elements, and Safat is air.  I’m a Gemini.  Maybe that’s why I felt so peaceful there.

A walking tour with my guide, Shlomo, my first morning in town, made the history of Safat come alive. He sent chills up my spine with legends about the ancient synagogues, rabbis, and battles as he pointed out the bullet shells still embedded in the old city walls. I tried to hide the tears that welled up in my eyes from the overflow of emotion.

During the first four months of my six-month-long trip around the world, I visited Japan, China, Thailand, Bali, Singapore, and Egypt.  Along the way, I learned some of the history of each of the cultures, but no history had come so alive as the one I heard from Shlomo that morning in Safat. I realized in my traveled-out stupor that what I was learning now was personal the story of my own people. My energy felt renewed.

Because Safat is an artist’s colony, I was drawn there to visit fellow painters.  After Shlomo’s tour, I wandered through the galleries of this hill town built of stone. It was there that I met Chana. She radiated a peace and confidence that I admired. She was sitting in the doorway of the Hassidic (Orthodox) Art Gallery, and when I said hello, she answered in English. We began to chat and soon discovered we were both Americans. She invited me to sit next to her and her story began to unfold.

Chana, who was thirty-seven-years old, ran the gallery with her artist husband. In the tradition of married Orthodox Jewish women, she wore a wig to cover her hair in public. I saw a shiny new wedding band on her finger.  Chana, as she now called herself, had grown up in a Christian family in Cleveland, Ohio. She confided she had always been drawn to Jewish friends, but didn’t realize until five years ago that she herself longed to be a Jew. She told me, “I was born with a Jewish soul but had to be raised in a non-Jewish family so I could make this journey of discovery.”  In Cleveland, she began to study and convert but couldn’t meet an Orthodox mate there with whom to share a religious life.

So two years before I met her, Chana had decided to move to Jerusalem. With the help of the community there, she studied and worked.  The matchmakers sent her to meet prospective spouses in different towns all over Israel.  Eventually she was sent to Safat.  When she met Yacov, her husband of four months, she knew at once he was the one.

At dusk a few evenings later, the town square was lit up like a stage set.  A large circle of us were dancing to Israeli folk music. Afterwards, I ran into Chana and met her husband, a bearded man wearing a traditional black coat and hat. They said they were hoping to be blessed with a child soon. Later, over tea at Chana’s home, I told her that I  longed to re-marry and was eager to find a life partner.  I wondered how she’d had such fast results in finding a husband and a new life in Safat.

She said, “I knew exactly what I wanted and prayed to God for it.” She added, “Here in Israel, especially in the holy city of Safat, one is closer to God than anywhere else on earth.”

I believed her. Then she added that the most direct pipelines to God are from the Wall in Jerusalem and from the old cemetery on the hillside of Safat where the most famous rabbis and scholars are buried.

“How morbid,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  Chana then told me that when she was sent to Safat by the matchmakers, they told her she must go to the cemetery and pray. She had already met two men in Safat, but she wasn’t interested in either of them. So under pressure from friends, she forced herself to go to the cemetery. She felt self-conscious–everyone knows what a single woman is doing in the cemetery.

Her prayer was apologetic. “I made sure to tell God that I wasn’t so desperate to find a mate that I had to come to a cemetery to pray for a husband.  I had only come to please my friends.  I assured God that I knew He had already heard my prayers.  It was all right to answer them in His own time.  I could be patient.”

Then Chana told me that two hours after this prayer, she was introduced to her future husband, Yacov!

I didn’t sleep well that night. I woke up at seven, before the heat of the summer day set in, and followed my map down the hill on the rocky winding path to the old cemetery. My whole body was trembling. Near a secluded grave site I hid behind a tree and made my speech to God: “This is Jan here. Chana sent me. You answered her prayer so quickly. I want to pray for a husband too.  But there’s one difference between Chana and me. I…………………………am desperate!

P.S. That was many, many years ago. The question is, of course, Did it work? The answer is, No. Thank God. I’m happily single.

Jan Bayer also tells the tales of her travels through her vivid oil paintings. Grateful to have inherited both the travel gene and artist gene, much of her creative inspiration has come from living, studying, and traveling around the planet.  During her twenty-five years as a professional artist, Bayer has sold her work through galleries on the East and West coasts. Now living in southern California, she can be found painting on the cliffs above the sea or indulging in another passion–eating burritos.  View Bayer’s paintings at her website: www.sdvag.net/B/JanBslide.htm or email: beingjb@gmail.com (when writing, please put “Chana” in subject line)

Reprinted from “Female Nomad and Friends” by Rita Golden Gelman. Copyright © 2010.  Published by Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

We invite you to join us on the Female Nomad and Friends virtual tour. The full schedule can be seen at http://bookpromotionservices.com/2010/05/17/female-nomad-tour. You can learn much more about Rita Golden Gelman and her work on her website – www.ritagoldengelman.com

June 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Beginning, Not the Middle

When I was in my early teens, I was at my friend Claire’s apartment one evening. We were getting ready to go out, and Dina, my friend’s mother (who passed many years ago) was watching. It was the Sixties, and I was a hippie-type, not in the least familiar with make-up or anything that smacked of the “establishment.” Dina was Cuban and extremely glamorous. She had gorgeous, long legs (something I never had and always wished for) and a beautiful figure. She used a cigarette holder, wore skintight capris, and always heels, typically mules that I found incredibly sexy even when I was only ten.  She must have been younger than I am now. I idolized Dina. She looked the other way when we smoked cigarettes and made us wonderful, strong, dark coffee.  I thought Dina was spectacular. That evening, she studied me as I brushed my hair. Cigarette smoke swirled around her head, and she smiled at me through the haze. “I can’t wait to see you when you’re thirty,” she said. “That’s when a girl really becomes a woman.” Of course, I had no idea what Dina was talking about, but I never forgot her words. Thirty seemed so old to me then. Now, I wish I had a chance to go back and truly appreciate the ripeness of the beauty that those years bestow on a woman. I know a number of young women in their thirties. As I was, they are all busy with newborns and toddlers, juggling many different roles at once. There is no time to savor in the fullness of their womanhood; there is hardly time for a shower and clean clothes. From the vantage point of my fifty-seven years, I relish the smoothness of their taut, unlined skin, the thickness of their hair, and the speed with which they chase after their children. These thirty-something women seem like exotic creatures to me now. I am happy to merely be in their presence, but I am neither envious nor sad when I am with them. This is their time. I’m having my own time, and it’s called, rather blandly, middle age.

I don’t think the term does this time of life the justice it deserves. I do not feel as though I am in the “middle” of anything. On the contrary, I have the sense of being on the beginning of yet another journey. I have the battle scars: my knees often ache, my hair is not as luxurious as it once was, and my skin, well, what middle-aged woman doesn’t pull back her face just a little as she glances in the rear-view mirror, remembering what it was like to look like that. I think back fondly on the years when I couldn’t walk down the street without creating a stir (and that was in just jeans and a tee shirt and absolutely no make-up), but I don’t mourn my youth. I have too much to celebrate now to waste time dwelling on the past.

In the last year, I have committed myself to yoga practice with intensity unparalleled to anything else I have ever done except for my writing and, most importantly, raising my almost twenty-six-year-old son. He is my greatest achievement. I did a good job, and I am proud of that. However, yoga practice has taught me to care for myself now in a way I never have in the past. This fifty-seven-year-old body can now do a split, a full wheel, a shoulder stand, and a myriad of other poses that I would not even have attempted until now. I think the confidence and determination that I have developed in yoga has inspired me to try poses no matter how difficult they seem to be. I know that eventually I will succeed. I want to do well in yoga. I want to be stronger. And I take pleasure in how persistence pays off. This all translates to other areas of my “middle-aged” life. I don’t feel the same sense of urgency about everything that I did in my twenties and thirties. I have more trust in myself and in my wisdom. I recognize the person who looks back at me when I gaze in the mirror, and I feel more kindly toward her. I see a body that gave birth (and has the stretch marks and pouch to prove it), a face that has known much pain and loss, and eyes that have shed tears of sadness and joy. I have lived, and I plan to live much more. I continue to feel sexually vibrant, intellectually curious, and eager for new experiences. I do not believe that middle age suggests that I am unable to know the thrill of passion or the satisfaction of being understood and valued by another. I anticipate the wonders of being a grandmother some day. I have more novels to write, more countries and cities to visit, and more people to love. And I believe it will all come to pass because I will make certain it does.

In my novels, Willing Spirits and The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, I write about middle-aged women who are wives and mothers, daughter and sisters, lovers and friends. The “friends” part is really important, especially as we move through these years. I would be lost without my girlfriends. I know all the women I write about because I am all these women, and I have had all these roles, managed them in spite of their clamoring for equal attention. But these women are also struggling, (as I have and continue to do) to sustain happiness and to make sense of their lives. They want to know more passion; they want to be more of who they are, never less. Sometimes, they succeed; other times, they crash miserably with devastating consequences. I love these women because they always keep trying, Just like me. I feel very certain that if Dina were still alive, she would tell me from the vantage point of her advanced years, that I will never really come to know myself as a woman until my fifties… my middle age. And she would be quite right.

June 9, 2010 Posted by | Sinner's Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits | , , | 2 Comments

Lorene Burkhart Shares “Tips to chart your doctor patient relationship”

Women normally have to take control of the medical decisions for the family. We know that can become more complicated as we mature and our health concerns are more varied and complicated.  Lorene Burkhart, the author of Sick of Doctors? Then Do Something About It!, share tips to help us get more control over health care for ourselves and our families.

Tips to chart your doctor patient relationship

Lorene Burkhart

How many of you have ever been either sick of your doctor or sick of the system? It hurts, doesn’t it? As painful as it may feel, reality is it is up to us—the patient—to figure out how to work with our doctor by developing our own bedside manner. How? As a women in my 70s I’ve learned the hard way what it takes to develop a solid relationship with my doctors. I’d encourage you to try these tips.

1) Shop for Your Doc

Let’s think for a minute about the three parts of the medical system. They are the patient, the physician and administration – hospitals, insurance, pharmaceutical companies, etc. Which of these three do you think wields the power? Probably none of you guessed the patient because you have let the system make you feel powerless. But think of it like this – doctors would not have a business without us. So shop!

Ask for a “Meet and Greet” appointment. Usually 15 or 20 minutes is all you need. Bring your list of questions starting with, “Tell me about yourself.” (It might be a good idea to tape it because you probably won’t remember all of it.) Expect to learn about schooling, attitude regarding off-office hour calls, number of years in practice and even references. Remember, you are the customer. You have choices!

Not comfortable? Keep shopping. You have choices!

2) Speak Up!

In a study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, diabetic patients who were taught to be more proactive with physicians ended up feeling healthier and actually being healthier. Within a month of learning to become more involved and willing to negotiate with their physicians, the patients showed statistically significant improvements in their blood sugar control without an increase in medication.

Afraid to speak up? Why? What do you think will happen? The doctor will fire you? I don’t think so.

What are you supposed to say to the health professional? What have you told everyone within shouting distance about how you, your child, your spouse, your family member feels? Speak up and tell the doctor!

2) Be Prepared

Another study at the University of California at Davis discovered in a group of more than 500 patients that the major determinant of patient satisfaction was “patient activation.” That means patients asked questions, initiated discussions about what was going on with their health and discussed topics of importance—even if they were unrelated to the medical visit.

So what it comes down to is being prepared and honest with your doctor.

Take with you a clear, concise explanation of what you think are your medicinal issues. Doctors are scientists. They want the facts. Instead of saying… I think I have… describe your symptoms in factual statements. I have been coughing and my throat is raw. The doctor is the expert. Let him or her hear your problem and come to their professional conclusion.

One way I keep myself prepared for medical visits is with my own medical notebook for those times when I go visit a new doctor. It’s not fancy. It’s my medical history, tests and so on. When doctors need background—it’s all right there.

Join us on the Sick of Doctors? Then Do Something About It! virtual tour. To learn more about the tour, visit http://bookpromotionservices.com/2010/04/26/sick-of-doctors-tour/. You can also learn more about Lorene Burkhart and the book at http://www.burkhartnetwork.com/. If you would like to be a host on this tour, contact nikki @ nikkileigh.com

June 7, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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