Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, but with the all the current crises, it is a challenge for me to feel very patriotic. The more I try to keep up with the latest breaking news, the harder it is not to get bogged down and stressed. To avoid the constant “headline stress disorder” this week, I decided I would focus on something positive instead. Since most celebrations are necessarily curtailed this year, I’ve been thinking about Independence Day celebrations past.
While a little girl, my family lived out in the country on two green, green acres that were pretty much our world. Having grown up on a farm, my mother knew how to drive, but we rarely went anywhere. I guess the idea of loading up a bunch of kids and trying to corral them through an outing was not an appealing prospect. In retrospect, my early childhood may have prepared me for being in quarantine. We didn’t have Amazon to deliver everything to our door, but we did have a milk man and a bread man. And our big outing of the week was a trip to the gigantic Kroger grocery store in LaPorte, nine miles away.
Fourth of July was the highlight of our summer. After breakfast, we would pile into the family station wagon and head into LaPorte for their annual Fourth of July Parade. It was best to arrive early to stake out your place on the sidewalk edge with your blankets. Rumor has it that when I was really little, I hated the noisy jet flyover and all the firetruck and police sirens. My dad would walk me away from the action for a bit, returning for the marching bands and floats with girls in colorful formals throwing out handfuls of candy. I marched in that parade on more than one occasion. Initially as a Sears Stepper, proudly marching down Lincolnway with my group, trying to keep in line and hoping my sweaty little hands didn’t drop my baton. Mrs. Sears was my first-grade teacher and she and her daughter Norma, an Indiana baton-twirling champion, were my baton twirling teachers. A decade later, I marched in that same parade as a member of the Cougar Cadettes, a high school drill team. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the Cougar Cadettes. Just know, we were hot! Following the parade we would head home, often with Aunt Ruby and Uncle Ike, for a family picnic in the yard. I remember watermelon, hot dogs and all the soda we could drink. Like so many other things, that parade is canceled this summer for the first time in 74 years.
When Mr. Smith and I moved to Kendallville, Indiana with our three young sons we weren’t aware of the fact that each Fourth of July there was a huge firework display down at the lake. We lived on Diamond Street that led you straight to Bixler Lake. Our tradition became an afternoon picnic with friends and family, complete with hot dogs, watermelon and flag cake. After eating, we would grab a blanket, walk down Diamond Street and stake out a place to watch the fireworks. The summer of 1977, our oldest son was on a class trip to France and missed the annual celebration. Over the Fourth of July he was sick, most likely a case of food poisoning, so he stayed at his French hotel that day while the rest of his group went site seeing. His feeling lousy led to a touch of homesickness. As a gift to his mother, Emmet was keeping a journal of his trip. He wrote in his journal that day that he wished he were home; he wanted a hot dog and mom’s famous flag cake! He of course survived and we’ve spent many a Fourth of July together, but not this year.
On this Independence Day when we won’t be celebrating with family or friends, I decided to write a note to Emmet’s sons, telling them the story of their dad’s trip to France and missing Fourth of July with his family and made a request. Though they probably don’t need it, I sent them a photo of a flag cake and the directions, asking them to make one for their dad since I can’t be there. I also asked for a pic of the finished creation.
When scrolling through Facebook and Instagram and seeing friends getting together with family and friends, often sans masks and social distancing, I wonder if I’m being too careful. Then I see articles like Eighteen relatives test positive for coronavirus aftersurprise birthday party. That strengthens my resolve to do what I can to keep my family safe. In fact, I think it’s my patriotic duty. Mr. Smith and I will pass on the hot dogs this year, but I think we’ll have some delicious, juicy watermelon. And I hope Emmet will be getting flag cake this year, lovingly made by his three amazing sons.
There have been many milestones in the journey of my life. Some conventional – first kiss, first job, marriage, having children, becoming a grandparent. Other milestones have been rich life lessons – leaving home, surviving disappointment, gaining some self-awareness and autonomy, and realizing my parents are real people.
With my 65th birthday barreling down, I experienced another milestone. I signed up for Medicare. My wallet now contains my crisp, new Medicare card, my Medicare supplement card and a shiny red AARP card! There was a time in my life when I thought of 65 as over the hill. Now I think of it as just settling into the best years of life.
Many friends have told me that I am “aging well”, but what does that mean? To age well, do we have to look younger than our age? I am looking to be a better version of my younger self, not a younger version of my current self. Despite our ageist society, I see aging well as living a purposeful and creative life. I want to be open to new ideas and adventures, often stepping out of my comfort zone.
I still want to dress well and have the energy to hike a mountain trail with Mr. Smith. I still want to be seen. One problem with growing older is that you are often treated as if you are invisible. My sister and I were shopping one day and approached the counter for her to purchase a pair of pants. She must have really wanted those black and white houndstooth pants because she tolerated the rude salesperson who directed all her questions and conversation to me, ignoring my sister who was actually making the purchase! This is never acceptable, besides the person assisting us was a mature woman and should have been aware that older doesn’t mean invisible.
As my pandemic 65th birthday approaches, I know it won’t be the celebration I once envisioned. I will spend the next month thinking on how I can make it memorable. Champagne, cake and Mr. Smith come to mind. And what’s a birthday without gifts??? For my 65th, I plan to give myself the gifts of better perspective on life, more self-confidence, and letting go of old grudges. And should family or friends choose to add to my gift pile, all the better! Gifts from the heart are always the best. And of course, I never say no to jewelry, especially jewelry from the heart!
Mr. Smith and I made a quick trip to Philadelphia this week. Between Wilkes Barre and Philadelphia, the quickest route is the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension which runs through rural areas of mountains, forest and farmland. About halfway, you travel through a long tunnel that runs under Blue Mountain.
Normally views of the rolling landscape, rivers and rock cuts keep Mr. Smith entertained, but this trip he found something else that captured his attention. Every time we passed someone pulling any sort of a travel trailer, often with several bicycles strapped to the back, he would wistfully say, “They’re going camping.”
I have been camping with Mr. Smith. We went camping on our honeymoon almost 42 years ago. I had camped a couple of times as a kid with my parents or the girl scouts, but never with my beloved. He grew up going on a two-week camping adventure with his family every summer and was eager to continue the tradition with his new bride. We were two kids with no money for fancy hotels, so we borrowed his parents’ pop-up camper and headed into the wild.
With stars in my eyes, I said why yes, I’d love to go camping at Wilderness State Park. Wilderness is near Mackinaw City, Michigan. We drove down a curvy narrow road that seemed to go on forever before reaching the entrance. We were greeted with 26 miles of beautiful Lake Michigan lakeshore and an abundance of coniferous forests. We stayed a couple of nights, taking a day trip to Mackinaw Island and whiling away one lovely afternoon sipping cold beers in a bar in Mackinaw City, marveling at the fact that we were married.
Then we headed for Neys Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. There is no denying the natural beauty of the park, albeit rugged. This is where I discovered Mr. Smith’s love of sunsets and his pleasure in photographing them. We were doing ok for a couple of nights, hiking during the day and building campfires at night. Then came the morning we woke up a bit chilly and looked out to see everything covered in snow. It was August! I don’t consider myself a hot house flower, but my honeymoon visions had veered more toward us lying on the beach sipping cold drinks and listening to the waves, not brushing the snow off everything and wondering if we had another sweater we could put on.
I may be a planner, but Mr. Smith is a problem solver. He took one look at my not so disguised dismay and hustled us into the car and out to breakfast. Heading back from breakfast, he pulled over to the side of the road to use a pay phone. Yes, it was the time before cell phones and when you were out camping and need to make a call, you used a pay phone. The closest big city was Thunder Bay, Ontario. He called a travel agent there and booked us into the Canadian Pacific Hotel. We went back to the campsite, packed a bag and headed into Thunder Bay. The hotel was lovely and we swam, sat in the sauna, drank champagne and feasted on a lobster dinner. The next day we headed back to the camp site, hooked the camper back onto the car and headed home.
We eventually bought that honeymoon camper from Mr. Smith’s parents and took a couple of wonderful camping trips with our sons. I do prefer a nice hotel with an en suite bathroom but must admit sometimes camping facilitates experiences you won’t get any other way. I will always treasure the memory of lying on a sandy Michigan beach one night with our boys, watching their faces as they experienced a spectacular meteor shower.
The honeymoon camper is long gone. Our boys are now grown and vacationing with their own energetic families. We’ve come full circle and it’s back to just Mr. Smith and me. I know Mr. Smith well enough to realize that while he was looking longingly (lustfully) at the people heading out camping, he was thinking about his retirement years. He has shared many of the places he would like to visit when he has unlimited free time and that some of those places are best appreciated from a campsite. At this point in life, will I help him pack and send him off into the wild on his own, or will I throw caution to the wind and join him in his adventures. We shall see, Mr. Smith. We shall see.
There are many different kinds of fathers. Some are present, some are absent. They can be fun, serious, engaged or aloof, each giving what they are capable or willing to give. This Fathers’ Day has led me to think about my own dad. My late father was quiet and thoughtful while sometimes allowing his mischievous side to show through. There’s the story of my parents’ first wedding anniversary when he came home with a new garbage can as a gift for my mother, something she had requested, but hadn’t expected as an anniversary gift. He had been a bachelor until he was 37, but you think he would know better. Five kids were watching with delight when he presented the shining bin. When she opened the can, tucked inside was a beautiful bouquet of long-stemmed red roses along with a giftwrapped bottle of perfume and Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates!
When my parents married, my mother already had five children from a former marriage. There was no plan to have additional children, but then there was me and boy was my dad surprised! As a young child, I was a daddy’s girl. As I grew into a teenager, my contentious relationship with my mother strained my connection with my dad, but there was never a doubt in my mind that he loved me. His presence and stability were attributes I took for granted. Luckily the passing of years and my older siblings have helped me see him for the gift he was in my life.
My sisters have always been gushing fans of my father. My sister Suzi while attending her first prenatal visit and documenting her health history, spent several minutes providing Dad’s health information before she remembered, “Oh, sorry. That’s my step-dad.” To her, he was simply Dad and I know he didn’t think of her as a stepchild.
Jeanne has always been a tremendous champion of my father. Having been without that wise, kind and reliable father presence in her life, she reveled in finally having someone who would discuss the world with her and listen to her opinions.
But it was my older brother who had the strongest effect on my latent appreciation of my father. In his retirement, Danny developed a huge interest in genealogy. During one visit, he shared an album he had put together. In it he had an individual page for several of his closest relatives. There was one for his birth father in which he simply said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.” No drama, no harsh words, just moving on. Then came the page on my dad, technically Danny’s stepfather. There he talked about the enormous effect Dad had had on his life and how he still missed him. I was used to my sisters’ effusive admiration, but my brother’s quiet comments spoke more loudly to me than my sisters’ vocal admiration ever had. I am grateful to Danny for the shift in perspective he gave me.
And I’m grateful that the older I get, the more I can appreciate all that fatherhood entails. For many years of young motherhood running the household and having primary care responsibilities of our three sons, fatherhood sometimes looked like the better gig. Similar to my brother giving me the perspective to better appreciate my father, growing older has given me the perspective to appreciate the importance fathers can have in their children’s lives. As I watch my three sons as fathers, I have the vantage point of seeing all they bring to their children’s lives. And every so often, I see my own father’s mischievous side manifested in my sons. Happy Fathers’ Day to all the fathers, father figures and stepfathers. May we have the perspective to understand they often are worth their weight in gold.
Life here in Pennsylvania is beginning to open up, but Mr. Smith and I are still sticking pretty close to home. When we were choosing our new home, one of the attractions was the location and being able to go down the elevator, out the door and have several lovely restaurant choices nearby. Sadly our two favorites have been closed for nearly three months, but a couple of others that had been pick up only, are now serving at outdoor tables. The tables are six feet apart and the servers are wearing masks, but I think one day soon Mr. Smith and I will find ourselves embracing the new normal and dining a deux.
There ain’t no words for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair!
On Friday, our county will enter the ‘green phase’. That means the phone lines at my hair salon are ringing off the hook. At this point, you can leave a message and they will call you back to schedule. Operating at 50% capacity, they have scheduled 246 clients and are working on the remaining 936. I’m holding off. Still in the decision-making process about whether or not I’m going gray, I stumbled across the balayage method of hair coloring. The technique involves hand painting hair in a sweeping motion with a brush. I had never even heard of it, but apparently it’s extremely popular, giving you a natural effect that is low maintenance. I’m hoping I’ve found my transition tool! Has anyone ever used this technique? In the meantime, I’ve been using my scarves as my newest hair accessory to fashion turbans and more.
It makes me nostalgic for my bandana days!
Every rose has its thorns…
One thing that has helped me weather the quarantine without jumping out our 10th floor windows is keeping fresh flowers around. Many, many years ago when I was the young mother of three active boys and on a tight budget, I ran into a friend at the local grocery store. My eyes were immediately drawn to the fresh cut blooms in her basket and I told myself someday that would be me. And now it is. This week’s purchase was a bunch of white spray roses. I broke the bunch up into several small vases to go in different rooms. I have become quite fond of keeping fresh flowers on my bedside table.
Not so random acts of random kindness.
Mr. Smith and I were the recipients of a lovely act of kindness this week. When I opened the door on Monday to head to the grocery store, there was a box from California. An old friend (many years of acquaintance, not an old man at all!) had sent us a box of avocados that he and his wife had handpicked at from a neighbor’s grove who were sharing their bounty. Thanks Joe!
Our granddaughter Olivia also received an unexpected kindness. Mr. Smith’s thoughtful sister Patrice had seen a Facebook post by Olivia’s mom spot lighting Olivia’s new interest in embroidery.
So, what does a kindly great aunt do? She packaged up some of Great Grandma Pat’s embroidery tools and projects and sent them to Olivia, making her day!
And if you are in need of a book suggestion, I just finished reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Named one of the best books of 2018 by NPR, it interweaves past and present to explore our capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of upheaval. I liked it!
I did it! I wrote a serial story. It has been a wonderful distraction for me during quarantine. Has Libby found her birth parents? Is Frankie her sister? Here’s are the answers. Thanks for reading.
A Mother’s Gift – The Conclusion
Jack’s face suddenly froze. His thoughts abruptly changed from solving a mystery to wondering if in fact this young woman was his daughter and why he was never informed.
Before Libby or Jack could speak, a nurse bustled in and told the visitors it was time to leave. “If all Libby’s tests are good in the morning she will be released and you can have this family reunion at home.” Libby, Frankie and Jack all looked at the nurse, puzzled. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Libby is the talk of the floor being admitted with just that list in her pocket. And you two look like sisters, I just assumed. I’m so sorry.” Jack and Frankie quickly said goodnight to Libby and headed home, each of their minds swirling with questions.
Libby was still for a moment, trying to absorb the implications of this new information. Thankful to have her cell phone back in her possession, she considered calling Aunt Beth. But seeing the fourteen text messages and three voicemails from Carolyn, she knew who her first call needed to be. Carolyn answered on the second ring. “Oh my God! Libby, are you ok?” Even though she was still feeling a bit shocked, Libby smiled at the love and concern in her friend’s voice. “I’m ok. And I hope you don’t have a hot date tonight, because I really need to talk with you.”
At the very same moment Libby was basking in the comfort of being able to talk with her friend, Jack was being confronted by his daughter. “I can’t believe all the lectures I have listened to from you about safe sex and now I find out you had a kid while you were in college and never even told us! Does mom know???”
“First off, IF Libby is my daughter, her mother never told me. I didn’t know so of course your mother doesn’t know! Frankie, I know this is overwhelming, but at this moment I really need you to take your brother Adam out for pizza while I have a private conversation with your mother.” Frankie begrudgingly collected her little brother and headed out for dinner while Jack grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses and asked his wife, Julia, to join him on the patio. “So, who is this mystery woman Frankie is all excited about? Have you got it all worked out?”
Jack sat quietly for a moment, looking at his wife. The two of them had supported each other through the ups and downs of life for over 20 years, but he wasn’t sure how she would react to this news. “This mystery woman’s name is Libby. She came to New Bradford searching for some relatives she found through 23andMe. There are still some unanswered questions, but there is a strong possibility that she is the daughter of someone I dated my freshman year in college and a strong possibility that I am her father. Julia, I had no idea. I only dated Beth for a few months before she abruptly broke up with me and left school.”
Julia was silent, sipping her wine and looking out over the flower beds where she spent countless happy hours working, admiring the fruits of her labors all while trying to grasp what her husband was saying. Her husband, the father of her children, had a child with another woman! Jack took her hand saying “Julia, please talk to me.” “I think I’d like to be alone right now.” She went upstairs to their bedroom. closing the door firmly.
Jack remained out on the patio, reeling from the day. Had Beth had a baby and not told him? What if she had told him? Would they have married and his life taken a completely different path? He couldn’t imagine not sharing a life with Julia and their two cherished, albeit somewhat indulged, children. Frankie returned from dinner with her brother. Adam, oblivious to the situation, said hello to his dad but quickly returned to the TV room to play video games. Frankie asked, “Where’s mom? Is she ok?”
Before Jack could answer, Julia came into the kitchen and Frankie quickly wrapped her mom in a warm hug. It was obvious her mom had been crying and honestly, her dad didn’t look much better. “Frankie, I think your father and I need a little time alone to hash this through.” Frankie knew her parents had had the occasional disagreement in the past, but this was on a whole new level. Realizing the need for her parents to talk, Frankie was uncharacteristically agreeable. “Sure, mom. I’ll go hang out with Adam. I know this is all crazy, but for what it’s worth, Libby seems like a really nice person.”
With the dim hum of Mario Cart sound effects in the background, Jack and Julia returned to the patio. Jack couldn’t believe how awkward he felt in a place that had offered the two of them comforting intimacy on so many evenings. “Julia, I am reeling from this new information too. But I dated Beth before I even knew you. I was 19 years old!”
“I understand all that, just please put yourself in my position for a moment. This is a bit out of left field, not something I ever expected. When you see all the stories about finding your father/mother/siblings as a result of DNA testing, you never expect to be one of those stories. But I know you love me and we’ll figure this out. What is your plan for the morning?”
While Jack and Julia discussed what the next day would hold, Libby and Carolyn were finishing up their conversation. Libby had filled Carolyn in on all the new developments. They discussed in detail everything Libby knew about her Aunt Beth. Libby had no memory of any tender moment between them that would lead her to think she might be her birth mother. If pressed, Libby would describe her as politely disinterested at best. After spending the last five minutes of their conversation with Libby finally convincing Carolyn that there was no need for her to make a trip to New Bradford, they said good night with plans to talk the next day.
Despite the hour, Libby knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep until she made another phone call. It was early evening on the west coast when she rang her Aunt Beth. The sounds of the hospital and the traffic outside all faded away as Libby tried to find the right words. “Hi, Aunt Beth. It’s Libby. I need to talk with you.” There was a moment of silence before Beth responded, “All right.” Libby explained all that had happened since their last phone call. She told her about ordering the 23andMe kit, receiving the results, coming to New Bradford in search of people who shared her DNA and finding Jack Easton. “He said the two of you dated his freshman year in college and then you broke up with him, left college, and never contacted him again. With the 23andMe results and the fact that the two of you knew each other in college, are you and Jack Easton my parents?”
Libby realized she was holding her breath, waiting for Aunt Beth to respond. “Ever since your last phone call when you told me your mother had shared with you that you were adopted, I have been expecting this call. I did give birth to you, but I was never your mother. When I became pregnant my freshman year of college, I was totally freaked and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had no intention of following the path of marriage and motherhood, I was eager to get my college degree and go conquer the film business. It was our mom, your grandmother McCarthy, who brought up the idea of my having the baby and letting Elaine and her husband adopt it since they had been unable to conceive and wanted a child. The more she talked about it, it seemed like the best solution for everybody. Elaine’s attorney handled the private adoption and when you were three days old, we all signed the papers. It was the right thing. Elaine had every maternal instinct I did not. I still remember the look on her face when your grandma but you in her arms. I transferred to UCLA and tried to forget it ever happened. So, I’m not sure what you’re looking for. I know I was never an attentive aunt and I never thought I could be a mother to you. I barely remember Jack Easton. We were not some great love story, just a couple of dumb young kids floundering in our new-found freedom of college life.”
Libby took a deep breath and responded, “When this started, I was looking for answers. I wanted to understand why my birth parents put me up for adoption and now I know. I’m not looking for anything from you that you don’t want to give. You’re right, Elaine was my mother and I’m not looking for another. If you would like to get to know each other in the future I’m open to that, but if there’s no room in your life for that, I can accept that. I’ve had a really long day Aunt Beth. I’m going to let you go and try and get some sleep. Take care.” Libby hadn’t been expecting to be received as the long-lost daughter, but she’s hoped for a warmer response to her phone call. She had never given birth, but she was pretty sure she would have at least some curiosity about her child, feel some sort of connection.
Morning came and with the morning Jack and Frankie returned to the hospital. Jack and Julia had talked and decided that with the 23andMe results and Jack’s acknowledgement of his relationship with Beth, there was no question that Libby was Jack’s daughter and Frankie and Adam’s sister. They also talked with Frankie and Adam, reassuring them that while they had been a happy family of four, they knew there was room for Libby in their lives. Julia suggested if Libby was released, Jack invite her to stay at the house for a night or two. Libby was touched by this unexpected kindness, but said she was going to spend the night in a hotel before starting the drive back the next morning. “Well at least come for dinner. Please! You do need to meet my mom and we do need to talk more.” Frankie’s gentle pleading was hard to resist and Libby agreed to come to dinner that night.
Dinner was not the awkward affair Libby had feared. Julia had prepared a delectable meal of roasted salmon, fresh veggies and orzo. The Easton family did all they could to make her feel welcomed. They kept the conversation light, talking about a local festival coming up, Adam’s baseball team, and Frankie getting ready for her first year of college. After a yummy dessert of raspberry custard kuchen, Adam excused himself to go to a friend’s house down the street. Over coffee, Libby shared with Jack, Julia and Frankie an abbreviated version of her conversation with her Aunt Beth. Jack offered to try contacting Beth, but Libby preferred to leave the matter alone. Per her earlier decision, she returned to the hotel for a restless night and left on her drive back to West Grove shortly after daybreak.
Over the next month Jack and Libby exchanged a few emails, getting to know each other. If Jack was restrained and measured with his correspondence, Frankie’s correspondence was the total opposite. Hardly a day went by that Libby didn’t receive a text, an email or at the very least, a selfie of Frankie waving hello. While reviewing floral orders for the next day or perusing catalogs for holiday items, Libby would often hear her phone ping. There would be a note from Frankie just saying hello or wanting to know Libby’s favorite food, favorite movie or book. All the attention from Frankie helped counterbalance the fact that there had been no further communication from Aunt Beth.
July turned into August and Carolyn turned 30. She celebrated by throwing herself a beach party. Libby helped with the setup and decoration, complete with tiki torches, lanterns and trellises decorated with fresh flowers and strung with party lights. And another party was being planned. Frankie would be leaving for college the end of August and Jack and Julia were hosting a goodbye barbeque. Libby was particularly touched that her invitation arrived with a handwritten note from Julia inviting Libby to stay at their home. She also shared that Frankie would be very disappointed if her new “sister” wasn’t at her party.
Libby again left bright and early on a Sunday morning to make the drive to New Bradford, but this time there was no apprehension, just happy anticipation. Frankie squealed when she saw Libby arrive. She proceeded to drag her around the party, introducing Libby to all her friends as her new big sister. There was delicious food and a sound system with a play list that had something for everyone. The guest of honor, looking cute as a button in her cornflower blue sundress, had a ball.
Later that evening after the other guests had left, Libby found herself sitting at a table out on the patio with Julia and Frankie. Jack brought them a cold bottle of Pellegrino to share and glasses of deliciously cold, crisp chardonnay for Julia and Libby. He went back into the kitchen to look for a post-party snack for them, although how they could be hungry was a mystery. Libby couldn’t help but envy the easy family dynamics of the Eastons and love for each other. “I’m happy to be here and grateful that you invited me. It makes me miss my mother even more and the times we shared. I think that I was hoping for some of that family connection when I reached out to Aunt Beth. Perhaps someday.”
Julia turned in her chair to look directly at Libby. “Libby, I know you were taken aback by Beth’s matter-of-fact response when you asked if she was your mother. For your own sake, I’m hoping you can come to accept that she did the best she could at the time. And if possible, I’m hoping you can see what she did as a gift. Her gift to you and to the woman who loved and raised you. Motherhood is challenging under the best of circumstances, and at 19 it seems she was totally unprepared to be a mother.”
The three women sat with their thoughts for a moment. Frankie was the first to break the quiet. “I know I am a lucky girl with a good life. I’ve never sat around thinking something was missing, that something else was needed to make my life complete. Finding out I have a sister is simply a bonus! I’m so excited about getting to know you better. So from where I sit, Beth gave you the gift of Elaine. Then Elaine gave you the gift of me!”
At this point, Jack came out with a plate of leftover hors d’oeuvres and his own glass of chardonnay. “It’s been quite a summer. Julia and I are sending one daughter off to college and hopefully getting to know another daughter better.” Julia added “I agree! One daughter is great, two daughters are wonderful.” Libby looked around into the kind faces at the table. It had been quite a summer. She had gone from feeling rejected and unwanted after receiving her mother’s letter, to feeling grateful and extremely lucky. And Frankie almost had it right. Beth had actually given Libby two gifts – life and Elaine. But her beloved mother Elaine’s gifts were innumerable, and, yes, those gifts included the exuberant, sweet Frankie!
“So, hold the phone, your real name isn’t Stormy?” This is the text message I received from my daughter-in-law, Becky, after she read last week’s midweek musings written by my sister Jeanne. She was shocked that there was something she didn’t know about me and wondered if I was harboring a myriad of secrets. She even (jokingly) inquired, “Did you kill a man?” I assured her there were no murders in my immediate past. But her questions started me wondering. It is really necessary for other people to know everything about you to feel connected, or are we allowed to maintain a little mystery.
Thanks to social media, we can express ourselves in a snap via Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat and more. A friend or family member thousands of miles away can instantaneously see what you are having for dinner or who you might be dining with. We can observe what others are wearing, reading, drinking or who’s hooking up. Social media also allows people to express themselves through blogs (like myself), personal websites and online portfolios. If you want to share your world, in the age of technology there are no boundaries.
Luckily, we are able to choose to be as private or as public as we want. While I love blogging and the discipline it requires, I never want to be over exposed. I’m cognizant that the world doesn’t need to know what I’m thinking at every moment and I’m grateful for this medium that allows me to express what I want while keeping some thoughts to myself.
While thinking about this post, I asked Mr. Smith if he thought I had maintained any mystery in our relationship and he responded “Oh, yeah.” So, I asked what about the fact that he always says he knows me like the back of his hand. “I know the parts of you that you let me see. Even after 41 years of marriage, you still have some surprises tucked away.” So I have maintained some mystery and Mr. Smith has maintained some charm. How cool is that?
Soon after her mother’s death, Libby finds out she was adopted. She decides to search for her birth parents, but not finding any information through the adoption agency, she decides to sign up for 23andMe in hopes of finding some relatives. After receiving her results, she decides to set out on a road trip in search of answers. In case you haven’t been following along and want to read more, you can find Part One here, and Part Two here.
A Mother’s Gift – Part Three
The butterflies in Libby’s stomach started shortly after loading her overnight bag into her silver Prius and setting off toward the unknown, a town where a group of folks shared her own DNA. Winding her way down I-80 through the rock cuts and the amazing vistas of tree-covered mountain peaks and green valleys, she tried deep breathing and visualization to relax. The breathing helped a little, but visualization was useless. There were so many different scenarios that could play out on her trip, Libby wasn’t even sure what she wanted to happen. Would she find a loving family that would welcome her into its bosom, or would she again be rejected? Would she find the people who shared her DNA?
She exited I-80 and headed south, trying to distract herself by singing along with Lizzo. Passing a sign that said New Bradford – 15 miles, her stomach did a flip flop and she was relieved to spot a sign for a rest area and quickly signaled to exit. No sooner had she pulled into a parking spot then she was out of the car and vomiting into some bushes. Taking a deep breath, Libby headed for the women’s room. She splashed cold water on her face and stared at herself in the mirror. The entire situation seemed surreal, what was she doing seeking relatives she didn’t know. Yet, despite her queasy stomach, she was determined to forge ahead. She felt she needed some answers.
Highway 79 led her directly into the middle of the town. New Bradford was a quaint, tidy burg, complete with a town square and a 1930s tall brick courthouse. Libby noticed a mural in the square with a map of the town, so she pulled over and parked. Looking around at the people on the street for a moment, Libby wondered if any of them were on her list from 23andMe that was folded in her pocket. She hopped out and crossed over to study the large map, although she had no idea what she was looking for. In addition to the charming painted mural, there were paper maps available with the layout of the town, so Libby grabbed one. Feeling droopy from the drive, she decided the first thing to do was to check into her hotel and shower. Heading back to her car, she realized she was hungry and began studying the map for a restaurant. Deep in thought, she stepped out into the street.
Sometime later, Libby woke up feeling thirsty. Then she realized she hurt all over and her head ached. Was that a cast on her arm??? Opening her eyes fully, she realized she was in a hospital room although she had no idea how she had arrived there or even where she was. “You’re awake!” She hadn’t noticed the young woman sitting in the chair beside her bed until she spoke. In jean overalls and hair tied up in a pink bandana, she clearly wasn’t a nurse. Libby managed to croak, “I’m sorry, who are you?”
Libby’s visitor popped up and said “I’m Frankie Easton. Well, Frances, named after my Grandma Frances. The nurses found my name on a paper in your pocket. I should let the nurses know you’re awake!” Frankie went off to find a nurse while Libby tried to fight her way out of the fogginess. The last thing she remembered was looking for a place to have dinner.
The nurse was happy to see Libby awake and talking. She explained to Libby that she had stepped into the street and in front of a car and had been hit. An ambulance had brought her to the hospital. “You didn’t have any identification on you and were unresponsive. The only thing found was a list of names in your pocket and that is why we contacted Frankie.” After assessing her vitals and asking a couple more questions, the nurse went off to update Libby’s chart.
Frankie had stayed in the hallway while the nurse was with Libby, but now she poked her head in and smiled. “I don’t think I know you, but you look very familiar. I’m so happy you’re ok because I’m dying to know why my name was on a list in your pocket. Maybe because my dad’s a newspaper guy, I always want to know the who, what, where, when and why. I don’t think there’s ever been any intrigue in my life, so now I’m very curious.”
“I need to go. I need to find my keys and my purse. Where is my car?” Libby winced with pain as she sat up and swayed as she tried to stand. Frankie caught her and gently eased Libby back into bed. “Let me help. Do you remember where you parked? I can go look for your car and your keys and purse.” Libby remembered pulling over near the town square, but that was it. After determining the type of car and the license plate, Frankie was out the door. On her way, she called her dad. “You are not going to believe what’s going on! I’m in the middle of a mystery.”
Jack Easton took his eyes off the computer screen where he was reviewing tomorrow’s front page and gave his excited daughter his full attention. Frankie filled him in on the details and told him she was heading down to the town square to try and find Libby’s car. He left the newspaper office and was out the door and heading to the square before Frankie hung up.
Libby’s silver Prius, sporting a couple of parking tickets on its windshield, was easy to spot. Frankie was already opening the driver’s side door when her father arrived. There on the front seat, she spotted Libby’s purse, keys and a half full bottle of Fiji water. After a quick exchange with his daughter and despite some misgivings, Jack agreed to drive Libby’s car back to the hospital. Frankie was eager to introduce him to Libby and despite some reservations, his interest was piqued. Why on earth did the mystery woman have his daughter’s name on a list in her pocket?
Libby felt she had barely closed her eyes when Frankie was back with all the verve of a medieval knight returning from a successful quest. If she could have presented Libby’s purse on a lance, she would have. She proudly presented her dad, introducing him as “newspaper editor and father extraordinaire!” For a few moments, the room was filled with chatter about finding Libby’s car and retrieving her possessions, but the conversation quickly died down and all eyes focused on Libby. She knew they were trying not to ask about the list of names that the hospital had found, but awkward curiosity filled the room.
“I guess it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. This is really hard for me, but here goes. My mother passed away on March 28. When I met with her attorney after the funeral, he gave me a letter from her. Turns out I was adopted. I had no idea and was devastated.” At this point, tears started to roll down Libby’s cheeks. “Short version, I signed up for 23andMe looking for anyone who might be related. That’s what brought me to New Bradford. I’m not even sure what I was going to do here but getting hit by a car was not in any plan. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to drag you into my drama.”
Frankie quickly stepped to Libby’s bedside and handed her a tissue. “I’m so sorry about your mother. It must be awful to lose your mom, but I’m also excited that we might share DNA. I’m just really confused on how that could be.”
“I don’t know. All I know is that my birth parents were from Pennsylvania. And here I am in Pennsylvania, not sure what to do next.”
At this point, Jack Easton spoke up. “Libby, what was your mother’s name and where did she live?”
“My mom’s name was Green. Elaine Green. She lived in Chicopee, Massachusetts. That’s where I grew up.”
Frankie stayed close to Libby, quietly trying to wrap her mind around this mystery and to figure out why Libby looked so familiar. But her father had more questions. “Libby, was your mother married? Did she change her name when she married? Do you know her birth name?”
“Yes, my mother was married. My ‘father extraordinaire’ passed away just over five years ago. He was a wonderful man and I miss him every day. My mother’s name before she married my father was McCarthy. She grew up in Pennsylvania about 100 miles from here but lived her entire married life in Massachusetts. I was adopted when they had been married about eight years.”
Jack was still baffled by the situation and asked Libby if he could see the list of DNA matches which had his daughter’s name right at the top. Looking over the list, he became more puzzled. All the names on the list were relatives of his and Frankie’s to one degree or another. “Obviously we are related, we simply need to find out how. I don’t know your mother. Did she have any siblings?”
“There’s my Aunt Beth, but she’s much younger and lives out in California. I hardly know her.”
Jack was very quiet for a moment. “I dated a girl my first year at Penn State whose name was Beth. Beth McCarthy. After a few months, she abruptly broke up with me and left school. I never heard from her again.”
There was silence as the three people in the room absorbed the implications of Jack’s information. Suddenly Frankie blurted, “Are you my sister???”
Many thanks to my sister Jeanne for providing a guest post for today’s midweek musings.
What’s in a sobriquet?
It’s the same but not the same. I suspect we all notice when reading an article or a book and a character is mentioned that has the same name as our own. Our names are very personal to us and yet others share it. We might wonder if they could also share any of our other attributes, like stargazers who believe all persons born under a specific astrological sign share similar characteristics. Do all Alices like science or all Kevins care about the environment? Are all Mindys quick to fall in love, or all Ralphs always standup guys?
Many of us have a list of famous or not so famous folk who share our name. As a young girl with the differently spelled name I was delighted to learn that Joan of arc’s real name was Jeanne d’Arc. As a teen I discovered Jeanne Crane and then Jeanne Moreau but Jeannes were few and far between. Later living in France, I discovered Jeanne was an extremely common French name and learned to stop turning every time I heard someone call it out in the street.
Of course, my sister Stormy almost never saw her name in print until a recent presidential scandal. She has had to explain her name uncountable times. Her father, an avid reader, was reading some 1950s tome about an inspiring woman doctor titled ‘A Woman Named Storm’. He was intrigued by the character and the name so when his first child was born, he immediately began calling her Stormy much to my mother’s chagrin. He had argued to have it on her birth certificate but mom insisted on naming her after his long dead mother. But it’s stuck and except for school teachers and an angry mother that is the name she has been called and learned to love. She eventually changed it legally.
Recently I have noticed the name Emmet frequently. My nephew, the creative director at National Geographic is an Emmet. When he was born, I was surprised at his new name. It seemed old-fashioned for a newborn. But he grew easily into his name and his old auntie has discovered dozens of eminent men who share his name including the great football player who shares both first and last name, Emmet Smith.
Emmet’s brothers share their names, Elliot with writer T.S.Elliot and Adam with Adam Smith, the economist. The question is do you like or admire your name sharing other or did your parents name you for someone who has become infamous.
Our own mother had an extremely odd name, so uncommon that her children only discovered it as a small town in northern Africa. That is until 2009. The unusual name my mother disliked suddenly became known countrywide, Zella. Sadly, she died before her name became known and popular as a women’s activewear brand. She would have enjoyed it.
Names are funny. Many youngsters and teens, especially females it seems, say they hate their names and fantasize about their wished-for name. Some brave souls actually change their moniker to one of their own choice. But as we grow, most of us adapt to fit our names or some nickname variation and are comfortable or accepting of our parents’ choice.
You met Libby last Sunday. Her life was turned upside down when she learned her beloved mother had kept the fact that Libby was adopted from her, only disclosing the information in a letter given to her after her mother’s death. Here is the second part of her story.
A Mother’s Gift, Part Two
Fleur de Lis was deep into the annual Mothers’ Day madness leaving Libby very little time to obsess over her adoption. Every holiday in a flower shop brings the intricate dance of figuring out exactly how many dozens and dozens of fresh stems to order so that every customer’s request for a special bouquet for mom, grandma, aunt or mother figure – all white flowers please , colorful spring mix, classic red roses – can be filled without having a glut of flowers left over.
Libby and her staff survived the holiday, but not without Libby thinking of the mother she had just buried. The past couple weeks of working long days, she had almost forgotten the DNA test kit until it arrived in the mail on Wednesday. Opening the white box, she examined the contents. The saliva collection tube, the funnel lid and the tube top. Never in her life did she think she would be spitting into a tube, registering it online and mailing it off to be analyzed. But in for a penny, in for a pound. Libby followed the directions to the T and popped it in the mail the next day. The accompanying literature stated she could expect her results within 3 to 5 weeks. To Libby it seemed like a lifetime.
A watched pot never boils. Even now, Libby could hear her mother saying those words to her when she had been impatient for something to happen. When Libby would sit staring at the phone willing it to ring, her mother would find a chore for her to do to pass the time. Her mother’s heart had been kind, but she didn’t indulge idleness. Libby tried to heed these words now and stop constantly checking her email for the results of her test. She forced herself to stay busy. The shelves of vases and other floral necessities in her beloved flower shop had never been neater. She spring cleaned her apartment, her closet was Instagramable, and when her dentist called with a last-minute opening, she got her teeth cleaned. She and Carolyn went on a hike each Sunday, checked out a couple new restaurants in town and saw two movies. The one chore Libby had been putting off was going through the boxes she had brought from her mother’s. As week three of waiting became week four, she decided it was time to rip the band-aid off. She invited Carolyn over for Thai takeout, a bottle of Portuguese wine and sorting through the mementos of her mother’s life.
Amy Winehouse was singing the blues on the stereo, there was a chilled bottle of Vinho Verde on the coffee table with two glasses, and a wall of storage boxes awaiting sorting and purging when Carolyn arrived. Libby had been avoiding the trip down memory lane that was contained in those boxes and was grateful for Carolyn’s company. She was also a little apprehensive of what she might find. If her mother had kept her adoption secret, had she kept any other secrets? She fervently wished she could unknow that little secret, but that wasn’t how life works.
The first thing was ordering their dinner. They decided to split some pad Thai so they would have room to share some dumplings and spring rolls. With dinner ordered, Libby put her wine down and grabbed her box cutter to open the first box. Her mother’s storage closet had been full of boxes all neatly labeled. The boxes had a theme and that theme was “Libby”. She and Carolyn started pulling papers out, examining the keepsakes Elaine had treasured enough to pack and store all these years. “Oh my goodness, she must have kept every slip of paper you scribbled on!” They opened several more boxes before dinner arrived and they were all the same. If Libby had colored or written on a piece of paper, Elaine had saved it, often dating the item. There was a poem she had written in third grade and a book report on The Cricket in Times Square from fifth grade. If Libby had created it, Elaine had kept it. “Well this makes it pretty simple, we just need to trash all this stuff.”
Luckily at that point, the doorman buzzed to say their dinner was on the way up, providing a welcome diversion. After opening up the steaming, delicious smelling cartons and divvying up the food, the friends settled into their dinners. Other than the music, which was now Adele, the room was pretty quiet, each woman lost in her own thoughts.
Twenty minutes later, Carolyn set her plate down and turned to face her friend directly. “Libby, you are my best friend but now I’m putting on my attorney hat. I believe you need to put this ‘opening boxes only to throw out all the contents’ mission on the back burner. You never destroy evidence halfway through a case. There is still too much unknown. If in the end you make a conscientious decision – not a rash decision – to trash all this, I’ll rent and pay for the shredder. Now, do you have any chocolate?”
No chocolate, so they cracked open their fortune cookies and read their fortunes. “Oh, please. ‘When you can’t find sunshine, be the sunshine!’ I’m sure that’s how people think of me at the office. I walk down the hallway and they say, ‘Here comes Sunshine!’” Libby wasn’t sure about her fortune either. ‘Make each day your masterpiece.’ Did it refer to her floral designs or did it mean stop making a mess of your life?
With an agreement to put a halt to sorting through the boxes until they had more information, the friends said goodnight. After Carolyn left, Libby went back to obsessively checking her inbox. She didn’t have to wait long. Opening her email the next morning, there it was. The much-anticipated, dreaded email from 23andMe welcoming her and telling her her reports were ready. Her heart was pounding as she sat frozen. Curiosity quickly took control and she clicked on the message. After logging in, she clicked on her DNA Relatives report. She couldn’t believe there were so many. There was someone out there who shared 24.4% DNA with her! Several people listed as first cousins. There were possible second cousins, third to fourth cousins! She was excited and terrified at the same time. Clicking on the different relatives, a curious theme started to develop. Over ten of her matches lived in the same town, including her 24.4% match. When she googled the town, she discovered it was about 30 miles south of Pittsburg. Before heading to the shower, she printed the report and texted Carolyn to see if she could meet for dinner.
They met at Toscanos where the mouthwatering smells of garlic, tomatoes and baking bread helped to calm Libby’s nerves. Carolyn studied the report off and on through dinner, taking breaks to digest the information. Libby thought this must be part of what made her such a great attorney. She didn’t rush to conclusions. While quick to absorb information, Carolyn tended to let it percolate for a while before making any judgments. The waiter cleared their plates and both women ordered dessert and a cappuccino. When their coffees arrived, Carolyn was ready to address the list. “So, what do you want to do? Are you going to contact any of them?”
Libby’s head had been spinning all day with thoughts of what she was going to do with her new information. And she had made a decision. “No, I’m not going to email anyone. I’m going on a road trip. I’m going to go visit the town where so many people I share DNA with live, it’s only five hours away. I’m leaving Sunday. After that, I’m not sure.”