Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Tribute

Many families have a shadow member, a beloved lost relative who lives on in faded photographs, family stories and continuing tears.

George Walter Curtis, my mother's younger brother, is a prominent shadow figure in our family. Forever young, forever missed, he haunted my youthful imagination.

I remember one summer, while visiting my grandparents' Kansas farm, I explored the attic of their house with my cousins Jack Hill and George Taylor, who had been named for the uncle he never knew.  I opened a drawer and pulled out a little box. Opening it, I saw a medal -- a Purple Heart. "Oh," said my cousin George, taking the box and closing it gently.  "Don't let Grandma know we saw this. Don't ever mention it to her. It will make her cry. That's Uncle George's Purple Heart. Both Grandma and Grandpa can't talk about George Walter without crying, even after all this time. So please don't say anything."

I kept quiet. 

But at home, George Walter was a real presence. My mother, who sometimes talked of him with tears in her eyes, told me stories of a sweet little boy, eight years younger than she, who loved to play hide and seek, but would always blow his cover by hiding in the same place -- his mother's sewing machine cabinet -- and by singing "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" while he waited for his sisters to find him.

                                             George Walter Curtis - 1922

She told me that my grandfather not only adored him, but saw George as a vital link to the future of the family farm. From an early age, he did chores eagerly, learning every aspect of the farm's operation. He was an excellent student and star athlete, both in high school and in college, where he majored in agricultural science. 

                                          George Walter at age thirteen

He enjoyed life to the fullest -- whether he was working on the farm or playing with his new little niece Caron, named for my mother and the daughter of my mother's closest sister Evelyn. He loved to spend time with her and dreamed of starting a family of his own once the war was over.

                                                   George Walter and niece Caron - 1943

World War II loomed large in his immediate life plans. He became a Lieutenant in the Army Air Force and was a B-24 navigator. He wrote enthusiastic letters home from his training base in Texas -- how swell his fellow airmen were, how he had met a nice girl, how they liked to go to church together.  He was delighted when he got leave that would allow him to be with his parents for his mother's birthday on July 27 and his 24th birthday on July 28 before he left to rejoin his unit on July 30, 1944 for the long trip to England and combat over the skies of Germany.

                                 The last goodbye - Lt. George Curtis and his mother Gladys 

On October 6, 1944, his plane was shot down over Germany and George was hit by a stray bullet. As they prepared to abandon the flaming aircraft, a buddy dragged George, in his parachute, out of the plane. But George was dead before they reached the ground. 

For a farming family to lose an only son was a disaster. But the emotional toll was far greater. My grandfather, a kind and gentle man who loved his family dearly, never recovered from his loss, retreating into memories and quiet grief, as he continued running the family farm until his death in 1963 at the age of 78. While my grandmother enjoyed her daughters and warmly embraced her grandchildren, there was always the grief, the quiet moments alone, when the tears would come again.  And she would relive some of the old and chilling fears when, in another time and another war, three other loved ones went to war: my cousin George in the Navy, cousin Jack in the Air Force, flying transport planes from the U.S. to Southeast Asia and my brother Mike, whom she raised through adolescence,  in the Air Force, flying F-4 fighter jets in combat over North Vietnam. She welcomed them all home safely.  She lived to see Mike go to medical school. She lived to pass on to him a few of the keepsakes from her father that she had saved for her son who held her tight one late July day and then boarded a train, never to return.

The generation in the family who knew and loved George directly is quickly passing.  His entire immediate family is gone: his parents and all three sisters. Of the next generation, only Caron, born in 1940, knew him and felt the warmth of his embrace.  When she thinks back to those hazy, long-ago memories, her eyes fill with tears.  And those who came soon after, but too late to know him directly -- my cousins Jack and George, my brother Mike and me-- all of us born between 1945 and 1948 -- grew up feeling a bit of the grief our grandparents and parents felt, the void he left in the family, the heartbreak of the loss of this very special -- and very typical -- young man.

                             Cousins united in memory, from left: Caron Hill Roudebush,
                             George Taylor, Kathy McCoy, and Jack Hill
I was reminded of the loss, the sacrifice, the promise that once was when I visited the cemetery in Toronto, Kansas, the small town where my mother and her siblings grew up, on Memorial Day in 2007 with my cousin Jack. There was a moving ceremony with an honor guard made up of elderly World War II veterans, all of whom knew Uncle George well.

                                The Honor Guard: George Walter's cousins, classmates
                                and peers - Memorial Day, Toronto, Kansas - 2007

                            Clockwise, from top: cousins Jack Hill, Candace Sherman, 
                            Leslie Sherman and me, Memorial Day, 2007 at
                            Toronto, Kansas cemetery where Uncle George is buried.   

One of the Honor Guard, Leslie Sherman, was George's first cousin, at the cemetery that day with his daughter Candace, one of my favorite relatives. He told me that he also had been Uncle George's college roommate and felt his loss in so many ways, on so many occasions throughout his long life.  As they do every Memorial Day, Leslie and Candace had already decorated the grave that Uncle George now shares with his parents.


Seeing Leslie with Candace, I thought of all the life experiences that George Walter had missed: the church-going girlfriend who just might have become his wife, the cherished children, the farm lovingly tended, the blessing of growing old close to the land and to the people he loved most.  I thought how such a vibrant young life had been snuffed out in a minute, one of the many millions of precious lives lost in World War II and in all the wars to follow.

And I thought of the extension of grief, of missing him and loving him from one generation to another and then another.  And we, who loved him but never knew him, bowed our heads in silent prayer as a soft, warm breeze blew and a bugler played taps in the distance. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Secrets of Long, Happy Marriages

A news flash from the U.S. Census Bureau this week reported that the number of people in long-lasting marriages has increased over the past decade.  Some 55 percent of married couples in the U.S. have been together at least 15 years and 35 percent have celebrated their 25th anniversary. The Golden Anniversary 50 year plus couples comprise six percent of the married population.

Of course, we all know that a marriage that lasts decades is just part of the equation. Many of us have known long-married couples who could barely tolerate each other or who divorced after many years together.

And I saw many couples during my years as a marriage/family therapist who were ready to bail out of their relationship at the first sign of trouble or serious disagreement.  They had no tolerance of the occasional distance or discomfort that comes with any intimate relationship.

So who are the people who not only stay married for decades but who travel happily from youth to old age together?

I would love to hear the thoughts you have on the secrets of long-wedded happiness! For every couple, there is a unique story.  But it seems that there are also some characteristics that enduring relationships share.

Based simply on my own observations as a therapist, as the resident of an over-55 community populated by many happy, long married couples and as a partner in a marriage that has reached the 34 year mark today, here are some of the characteristics I've seen and experienced that the long and happily married seem to share:

  • They tolerate the small annoyances with a spirit of generosity.  As a therapist, I heard many complaints about partners who didn't squeeze the toothpaste right, who told the same story twice, who have different standards of housekeeping and the level of outrage over this was intense in couples headed for trouble.  The long-married, on the other hand, seem to accept, even come to enjoy each other's quirks.  My husband Bob will listen to me tell the same story for the 200th time and, bless him, laugh just as heartily the 200th time as he did the first time. He says he is delighted by the consistency of my stories.  (A friend and co-worker who used to travel on business with me, on the other hand, could be driven to the screaming point by the second repetition of a story.) When someone remarked to our next door neighbor Larry that sometimes his wife Louise will start a parallel conversation when he begins to speak, he smiled fondly.  "But if she waited for me to finish what I had to say, she might forget what she had to say," he said. "I don't mind at all. I enjoy her spirit -- and hearing her talk!" And one has the feeling that their parallel conversations, in a very real sense, are like singing in harmony together.
  • They team up in adversity.  While a life crisis can drive a conflicted couple apart, bonded couples combine forces to deal with the crises and difficulties that come to all of us. Bob and I have survived many of these -- deaths in the family, career transitions, illness, depression, adversities. One of the greatest challenges to marital teamwork is when a crisis happens as the result of one of the partners making a mistake. Supporting and troubleshooting, rather than simply blaming, is a sign of true partnership. Early in my relationship with Bob, when we had big dreams and little money, a major celebrity approached me about ghostwriting a book for her, offering me a sum of money that seemed incredibly generous then. When it appeared that I had blown the deal by inadvertently offending the celebrity, Bob embraced me warmly.  "We don't need that $10,000 from her," he said. "We were fine before she came to you and we'll be fine if she storms away. What matters is that we love each other and we're hard workers and we'll do just fine in our life together." And he was right.  His loving support actually gave me the courage to walk away from the project when I realized that accepting the deal would have been a horrible mistake.  And life went happily on with my true partner.  
  • They don't panic during rough times.  I used to do therapy with a couple who, every time they were upset with each other, would threaten divorce. It hung between them as an ever-present threat, making their marriage seem tenuous and temporary.  Happy couples know that the times of depression and distance and anger aren't lasting and, in many instances, are opportunities to learn more and grow closer in the process of weathering the storm. Having faith in each other and in the relationship they have built over time helps partners over the rough spots that are simply part of life.  One of the greatest gifts I received before Bob and I were married was a letter from Barbe Schellhardt, who is married to Tim, one of my dearest friends from college.  She told me that if we could realize that marriage did not make one immune from depression, loneliness and other states endemic to the human condition, Bob and I would have a chance at long-lasting happiness and, indeed, she was right.  We feel depressed or lonely or sad for any number of reasons throughout our lives -- and if we see this as part of being human instead of automatically blaming our partners -- we do, indeed, have a chance to grow old together.
  • They make each other smile.  A sense of humor is a great asset in any marriage -- and so is the desire to please each other. I see so many acts of kindness, so many quietly thoughtful gestures in the long-married couples who live in our community. There is an innate graciousness between the partners and, at the same time, an ability to laugh about things younger people might find hard to take.  At the pool, we laugh at ourselves and our inevitable signs of aging, with the knowledge that we're cherished by spouses who remember when we were young, slim and firm -- and who love who we were and who we are. The partners know when to tease and when to reassure -- and when to maintain a gentle silence. 
  • They're committed for life, no matter what.  Growing together -- and growing old -- in a marriage doesn't mean gliding along in perfect harmony without missing a beat.  When I was young, I used to see long married couples take to the dance floor, whirling around so easily, anticipating and flowing into each graceful step -- and imagine that I would do that quite automatically with my future husband.  However,  after 35 years together -- 34 married -- Bob and I have not yet managed to cut such a figure on the dance floor.  Having learned to dance at a girls' school where I always had to dance the role of the guy, I can't follow to save my life. Bob hates wrestling me around the dance floor. While we have plans to take dance lessons and learn this gliding thing while we can still move, our inability to project grace and harmony on the dance floor in no way detracts from the grace and harmony of our relationship that has been built through love and hard work over the decades. Our roughest years of marriage were the early ones -- the ones people so often consider the blissful honeymoon years.  We struggled with the baggage of past relationships, conflicts with my parents, fear, insecurity and immaturity. And as we struggled together through those rough early times, it became clear that while life wasn't always easy, we were going to be living it together.  And the longer we lived and the more we learned through all of our life experiences, the more our happiness and our solid commitment grew.  We both agree that these last ten years -- as we've faced the challenges and joys of growing old together -- have been our happiest ever.  
Despite the poetic invitation to "grow old along with me.....the best is yet to be!" none of us have any guarantees. We don't know whether the best is yet to be -- or whether our best day ever is today or if the best is in the past.

But those of us fortunate enough to be growing old with a cherished mate or life partner know that, whatever comes, we'll be there for each other with love.

Best wishes to all of the long-married couples whose love has survived and thrived through decades of life's ups and downs.

And happy 34th anniversary, Bob.  Loving you and feeling your love has been the greatest blessing of my life.

                                                    Bob and Me - May 28, 1977

                                                   Bob and Me - May 28, 2006

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Relics of Our Lives

I happened to open a box in the garage the other day and glimpsed history: it contained some mementos from my parents.

There was the slinky black dress with sequined roses on the bodice, circa 1940, that was my father's first gift to my mother. And a double portrait of my parents in their high-flying youth -- my mother as a flight attendant for American Airlines, my father as an Army-Air Force pilot.



There were the letters and cards they sent each other during their courtship -- during the young and hopeful times I never knew.

There was my mother's career scrapbook, with clips of news stories, publicity photos (including one with and autographed by Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady at the time) and ads where my mother -- one of the first American Airlines flight attendants hired in the 1930's -- gave product endorsements for everything from milk to hair conditioner -- and changed her name from Ethel to Caron in the process.


                                         Publicity shot of my mother Caron (1) and stewardess pals
                                                   Aggie Spence (c) and Mae Leslie (r)

By mid-life, we accumulate not only the keepsakes of our lives, but start to inherit others' treasures.

When I was in my twenties, my mother used to remind me about my high school and earlier treasures clogging a closet at my parents' house. Now my parents' keepsakes have found a home in my closets and garage.

It's so interesting what we choose to keep, which souvenirs from the lives of those we have loved and lost, stay with us.

One of my most cherished souvenirs from Aunt Molly's life is a plastic parrot alarm clock. She loved anything with a parrot motif -- and I gave her that little alarm clock for Christmas many years ago. Even though she was retired by then with little use for an alarm, she was delighted. She would hold the parrot on her lap and push the button to trigger the alarm: "Awk! Wake up! Wake up! Uh-oh! WAKE UP!! Ohhh! Good morning!" And she would throw back her head and bray with laughter. I can push that little button now, watch the parrot squawk and flap its wings and remember her laughter with love.


Some of Aunt Molly's souvenirs tell tales of sad family history.  Molly was only four years old when her father died in Mexico, seeking treatment for a debilitating illness. Her mother, whose grip on sanity and sobriety loosened considerably after she lost her husband, couldn't tell Molly or 8-year-old Jim, my father, that their Daddy was dead. She told them that he was on an extended business trip -- then packed up the family and moved from Tucson to L.A. so that Jim could work as a child actor in movies and in vaudeville to support the family. (Alcoholism killed her while Jim and Molly were teenagers and my father worked multiple jobs to put both himself and Molly through college at UCLA.)

In an old trunk from Molly's attic, I found a letter from her to her Daddy, written in childish script from Los Angeles, when she was eight years old:

"Dear Daddy: I love you and miss you so much! Please come home soon from your business trip. I'm writing our new address for you so you'll be able to find us. Love and kisses, Molly"

It would be another year before Molly learned that her beloved Daddy was never coming home.

When my brother, sister and I were kids, we heard a lot of fascinating stories about their much loved Daddy.  They told us about their father winning a Carnegie Hero Medal for rescuing a man from a well filled with poison gas. They said that he didn't feel he deserved the honor because the man died a day later, and  so he evaded the Carnegie awards committee, traveling to China, South America, through Mexico and finally to Tucson, AZ where the committee finally caught up with him and gave him the medal plus $1,000 to buy a home. He settled down and married the next year, starting a law practice in Tucson that was dedicated to fighting for the rights of under-served minorities like Native Americans and immigrant Chinese. We used to take all these tales with a grain of salt, thinking that this was probably the fantasy of children who had lost their father much too soon.

But, while Bob and I were cleaning out Aunt Molly's house after her death in 2004, we opened another trunk from her attic and found evidence that those tales about their father were true.  There were 100 year old newspaper clippings reporting his brave deed and flight from the Carnegie Commission. The clippings described him as a law student at Northwestern University -- my alma mater. I had never known that he went there for both undergraduate studies and law school.  Then I found a picture of him and was shocked. He looked eerily like my brother Michael -- tall and lean with facial features that were startlingly similar. Then, under the photos and clippings, I found a little box and opened it. It was the Carnegie Hero Medal, finally awarded in 1911.  I gave it to Michael. Somehow it just seemed fitting.

                                          Henry Patrick McCoy  (age 33) with baby Jim in 1913

                                               His look-alike grandson Mike McCoy (age 62) with baby Maggie - 2011

Mementos from Bob's parents surround us. They were wonderful at needlepoint and made us beautiful holiday ornaments that we treasure to this day -- hanging them high on the tree so that none of our three cats can steal and savage them. Paintings done by Bob's father and framed needlepoints from his mother hang on the walls of our new house -- as they did for decades in our California home. Both have been gone for so many years now. But their memories linger daily in their beautiful craftwork.

                                       Christmas 2010 with ornaments made by Bob's parents

                                                    Painting by Bob's father, Bob Stover, Sr.

                                                    Needlepoint by Bob's mother Alberta in its place of honor

I wonder who in the future will treasure these momentos as we do? Who will hang Bob and Alberta's Christmas ornaments on their Christmas trees? Will anyone claim and keep The Dress? My mother's career scrapbook? Aunt Molly's plastic parrot?

And sometimes I wonder: what will I leave behind that someone else will treasure? Will it be a funny artifact of my life? Some pictures? Some of the books I've written? My treasured LP's that Aunt Molly gave me for Christmas when I was 10 -- of Cyril Ritchard, whom I adored, reading "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass"?  Or perhaps the childish novels I wrote about happy orphans in my father's unused desk diaries when I was six or seven? Or the audio recording my father made of me at the age of three, telling him family stories and talking him into such a stupor that he fell asleep during the recording, snoring loudly? Or none of the above?

Maybe the best memories I could leave behind are moments of kindness, caring and love. When I really think about that, memories of what we do are so much more precious than the stuff we leave behind.

Quite beyond the artifacts I keep of those I've loved and lost, I remember my mother's loving arms, her endless patience and contagious optimism, my father's funny and poignant stories and his encouraging me to write my own stories as soon as I learned to read.

I remember Bob, Sr. and Alberta Stover as the best in-laws I (or anyone) could have had. Their loving acceptance, even though they sometimes found me puzzling (like when I chose to keep my maiden name rather than assume theirs) was unwavering. Although marital happiness eluded them, they rejoiced in ours.

 I have so many loving memories of Aunt Molly -- dashing with her into the sea, pulling each other into the surf and laughing, sitting by her side on the beach or just relaxing on the porch in the summer as she made up witty poetry that I memorized at the time and, years later, wrote down to surprise her one Christmas, having every holiday, every day she shared with us somehow brighter because she was there.

                                         Aunt Molly and me - Christmas 1981 - as she rediscovers some
                                         of her old "just for fun" poetry composed when I was a child        

Maybe the best mementos aren't stored in boxes or hung on the walls. Maybe the best life relics of all are the warm memories of love and pain and laughter shared, memories we keep in our hearts forever.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Your Money and Your Children: Setting Limits

While relaxing in the community pool the other day, I overheard a group of long-time residents talking about the growing number of foreclosures and short sales in their neighborhood.

"Well, Jim and Sally just went into foreclosure," said one.

"Kids drain them dry?" asked another.


Even with all the uncertainties of the housing market, foreclosures have been unusual here because most residents arrive with cash from the sale of a previous, more expensive home and buy their inexpensive retirement home outright. Mortgages are unusual in a community where most of us live on a fixed income.

I listened, horrified, as the group recited a sad litany of homes lost because retirees took out mortgages to help their kids.

In some cases, it seems, they stepped in to help when an adult child was out of work or in a health crisis.  In other cases, they seemed to have helped financially out of love and habit: to help their kids buy homes, to pay for grandkids' private schooling or college, to bail an adult child out of trouble with a mortgage or overwhelming credit card debt.

A couple on the edge of the group told me that they had paid cash for their house and had loved being mortgage-free. "But then our daughter went to college and didn't like the dorm and didn't want to share an apartment, so we took out a mortgage on our house here to buy her a condo and then our son wanted a house. He's kind of adrift and unmotivated and we thought it would be good for him to have roots in homeownership. So we took more money out of our house here and bought him a house. He's paying us back as he's able."

As they talked, I couldn't help but wonder: how much is too much? When do you help and when do you hinder an adult child's progress toward full independence with monetary gifts or generous loans? How much can you give your kids without jeopardizing your own independence?

While it can be a pleasure to help the kids and grandkids, either to get out of a crisis or to have something they could not otherwise afford, there is a limit. Each one of us has a very personal limit, to be sure. Some parents are willing to make major sacrifices in their own lifestyle to help their kids -- and this is a clear and firm decision -- and the right choice for them. Some parents, however, seem unable to say "No" to kids' requests for money. Continuing a pattern that started in their working years, they readily finance their adult children's wishes -- to their own detriment.

One widowed mother has never been able to say "No" to her only child, a son in his early forties.  When she decided to retire at 65, she took her pension in a lump sum. As soon as she had deposited it in the bank, her son begged her for a down payment for a house. His mother, who was living in a modest rented apartment, made a substantial down payment for his house, bought him new furniture and a new car.  After the giving frenzy was over, her nest egg was nearly gone.  As a result, she went back to work. Now, at 76,  struggling with health problems, she is still working, still living in her modest, rented apartment and hoping to make another attempt at a very frugal retirement sometime soon.

A relaxing, golf-playing retirement in a resort community isn't everyone's dream. Some people I know retire to help with the grandkids. Some prefer to live frugally so they can help -- or leave something for --their children and grandchildren. And some prefer to keep working indefinitely to help finance their children's dreams.

I have a dear friend with four adult children. Two of them are self-supporting. Two of them are professional actors, still struggling,  in their late twenties and early thirties,  for their big breaks and they need help from Dad.  He is happy to give it. Although he occasionally complains that "I have never made so much money, or had so little left over", he takes great pleasure in facilitating his children's dreams. He likes his job, didn't have his heart set on retirement anyway and can't imagine not helping his kids at this point. "I truly believe in both of them," he says. "They're so talented and they work very hard -- not just at acting but they also have part-time jobs.  They're not slackers. They just need a little help here and there. How could I not? It's a choice I make without question and without any regrets."

The limits of a parent's ability or willingness to help obviously are based on very personal and individual circumstances. But there may be some general guidelines to consider.

How much money can I afford to part with permanently?  Many parents lend money to their kids with the belief that the kids will pay them back in regular installments. Sometimes that happens. Some young adults are highly responsible and make paying parents back a major priority.
But in many cases, it doesn't get paid back -- especially if the money is bailing an adult child out of financial trouble.  Those who get in over their heads with credit card debt, for example, have an unfortunate tendency to repeat the financial crisis.  And if the financial problems have been a confluence of unfortunate events from too much mortgage or credit card debt coupled with unemployment or a major illness, it can be a very difficult process for the adult child to get back on his or her feet.  
Before lending money to an adult child, ask yourself if you can afford to part with this money permanently -- and then act accordingly.

Why is he/she asking? A major illness or loss of a job is one thing. Asking for money to fulfill a want rather than a need is quite another.

To mortgage one's retirement home to buy a house for an unmotivated drifter of a thirtysomething son or buy a college age daughter a condo because she doesn't like dorm life or to raid retirement savings to bail kids out of credit card debt once again sounds less like kindness and more like sheer lunacy.

Does a college student disliking dorm life or an adult son wanting a house constitute a real emergency?

Consider the fact that a college student can learn a great deal about sharing, about tolerance and about building relationships from living in a dorm.  Many kids today, used to having their own rooms, balk at sharing a dorm room with another. But, once the discomfort begins to wear off, there is much to be learned and enjoyed in living at close quarters with a non-relative.

An unmotivated drifter of a thirty-something son telling you that he wants a house does not constitute a financial emergency.  If an adult child really wants a house, he or she can work and plan to buy one on his or her own. By all projections, house prices will be depressed for some time to come.  It might give new motivation to the drifter.

Sometimes a request -- for college tuition money for a grandchild, for example -- can feel like an emergency, but may not be.  College is more expensive than ever, but some schools are excellent and affordable. Your child's or grandchild's future isn't jeopardized by passing on an expensive Ivy to attend a state school. One recent study, in fact, showed that major corporations preferred to recruit from state schools more often than private schools, with the rationale that students who could thrive at a large state school had the motivation and discipline that the companies were seeking.  Also, keep in mind that, while the kids can get grants and loans to finance college expenses, there are no loans for retirement. Although graduating from college without debt is optimal, in reality, most students these days do rely on student loans. And life goes on.

Keep this in mind, especially if you get money requests from adult children whose financial woes seem to be constant: If kids can't support themselves now, while working, will they be able to support you when you're out of money?

Some may need credit counseling from an accredited agency more than another loan from the Bank of Mom and Dad.

If I can't help with money, can I help my kids in other ways?  Look for alternative ways to help. Can you care for grandchildren while your son or daughter job hunts or works at a temporary part-time job that doesn't pay enough to cover child care? Can you help a child or grandchild research sources of college scholarships, grants or loans? Can you help an adult child to work out a plan or budget to get him or her out of a financial mess? Could you find a credit counseling agency, check it out and encourage him or her to sign up? Would you be willing to have an unemployed or financially strapped adult child move back home for a certain amount of time? There are so many ways you can help without breaking your own bank account in the process.
Give of your time. Give of your expertise. Give loving support.  But don't give away your own financial security. You're not doing anyone a favor.

Level with your kids and learn to say "No" with love. Sit down with your kids and explain what's possible and what isn't.  Your being financially independent is to their benefit as well as yours. Determine what you can afford to give them, if anything, and stick firmly to that.

It is one thing to sacrifice when you're working.  But sacrifice on a fixed income is a whole different matter. When you get under, it's very hard to get back.

One woman the group in the pool was discussing the other day retired to this community with enough cash to buy a beautiful home. She had a healthy savings account. Life was good for about two years. "And then," said a former neighbor. "Her kids started draining her dry. She mortgaged the house to get money to help the kids, after using up her savings. She lost the house about six months ago.  Now she's living in a single wide trailer in a wretched little park down by the railroad tracks. And she's down to living only on her Social Security. So things are pretty tight."

Sometimes saying "No" can be the most loving move you could make.  Throwing cash at an unmotivated or irresponsible adult child does no one any favors.  And using your irreplaceable money to finance whims and frills just doesn't make sense. So your granddaughter would like to go to an exotic destination for spring break or to Europe as a graduation present? Europe may have to wait -- until she is working and can afford to save and plan the trip herself. Maybe a more modest Spring Break destination could be ultimately more satisfying. I remember my college spring break trips well: I could only afford a train trip to visit my grandmother on her farm in Kansas.  It evoked some snickers from my dorm mates. But I remember those times of sitting and talking with my grandmother and the joy of those moments with much more warmth and clarity than some of my former classmates recall their exotic trips after all these years.

When you find your limit and need to say "No" to your adult children, remind them that your continuing financial independence is an advantage for all. Not having to support you financially in your old age is a major benefit for your children.  And let them know that, while you may not be able to offer support in cash, your love and your emotional support are forever.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reunions: Why? Why Not?

                                       Eileen Loubet Adams and me - May 2011

Eileen Adams, a dear friend from high school who graduated the year after I did and shared many of my youthful interests in journalism and theatre, and I have a pact: we don't go to our high school reunions without each other. That way, we always at least have the pleasure of each other's company. (Lately, we've also had the bonus of being reunited in Arizona when she flies from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area to visit her sister in Tucson.)

Our reunion pact began about 25 years ago, after each of us had a disappointing 20th class reunion. Eileen found herself at a table with the only other people from her class attending the reunion: the class priss (who later evolved into a terrific, feisty woman who is great company) and two strangely silent twins who stared down at their plates during the entire luncheon and barely uttered a word. My class had an equally uneventful 20th: four of us showed up. One classmate, in the midst of a painful divorce, drank the whole bottle of wine at our table and promptly fell asleep. Another, whose three-year-old daughter sat under her chair whining during the luncheon, told me that she was frankly puzzled by the feminist movement. "I love doing for my husband," she said. "Shining his shoes is one of my greatest pleasures in life." And my third classmate pitched me on liability insurance policies.

Eileen and I agreed that these gatherings had to get better. For our respective 30th reunions, we did mass mailings and phone calls with excellent results, especially with Eileen's class. A good number of her 40 classmates showed up, some of them coming from Mexico and Central America. The celebration was wonderful at the school luncheon, but it really gathered steam when we hit the bar of the Pasadena Hilton later on -- and partied until the wee hours of the morning. We shared memories of our school years. We told of our adventures and challenges since. We laughed. We cried. We laughed some more. It was a triumph.

Subsequent reunions, while a little more sedate than Eileen's 30th, have been delightful. While it may have something to do with a greater number of classmates attending, it may also be due to our evolving selves. As time goes by, we are less likely to judge, more inclined to reach out with loving acceptance.

Now Pennie Eiban, one of my classmates, has launched a Facebook page to get the Class of 1963 geared up for our 50th reunion in two years.  Already we're enthusiastically exchanging emails and catching up.

With anticipation running high already, I mentioned how I was looking forward to my 50th reunion to some friends here in Arizona and was surprised at some of the reactions:

  "I don't care about those people I knew in high school. Why would I want to see them again?"
  "I don't want to go to hear people brag about their lives."
  "I'd only go just to thumb my nose."
  "Why would anyone even want to go to a reunion anyway? The past is past."
  "The only reason people go is curiosity -- seeing who looks older or fatter than anyone else."
  "Revenge would be a reason...a chance to say 'Hey, you assholes! I'm more successful than you!"

 I listened with wonder to these reactions.  In many ways, the reactions are understandable. All those commenting had attended large high schools. If you attended a high school where it was easy to get lost in the crowd, where cliques ruled, where you were shunned in the lunchroom, a reunion could well be a re-introduction to personal hell or, perhaps, a boring day with relative strangers. But for those whose high school years weren't particularly horrific or who were fortunate enough to attend a smaller high school, a reunion can be a wonderful.

 I admit that I was especially fortunate. I was a day student at a small Catholic girls school that was primarily, at the time, a boarding school with an international student population. There were only 44 in my class, 200 in the entire school. It had a familial feel. The nuns were kind, affectionate and, in some cases, delightfully eccentric. There were some fellow students I loved dearly, many I liked, a few I didn't know well. But I would welcome the opportunity to see any and all of them.

Eileen and I agree that our reason for attending reunions is quite different from seeking comparisons or settling old scores: we want to reconnect with people we greatly enjoyed a long time ago and to remember a certain time and place in our lives. It wasn't the happiest time of our lives nor was it, for either of us, the worst.  It was simply a time when we were young and hopeful and scared and self-conscious and silly. And it is wonderful to catch a glimpse at a reunion or, in our class of 1963 preview in Facebook, of the strong and interesting women we all have become.

It's true that sometimes reunions can be a shock. Time passes while your image of old classmates is frozen in time.

Several years ago, my MSJ (Master of Science, Journalism) class of 1968  from Northwestern University decided to have a reunion weekend in Evanston, near Chicago.  It was a small class and I knew some of my classmates from our undergraduate days at the journalism school and others had become friends during that intense graduate year. I wanted very much to attend, but Bob and I were in the process of buying our home in Arizona at the exact same time, so I wasn't able to go.

However, one of my dearest friends, Tim Schellhardt -- who was a classmate for both undergraduate and graduate programs -- did attend. He told me later that he was directed by the restaurant's hostess to a private dining room. "I looked inside and there were all these old people there," he told me. "I didn't think that could possibly be our class reunion. I turned around to go check when one of the oldsters got up and yelled 'Hey, Tim! It's us! Come on in! You're in the right place.'"  Once he recovered from the shock of our classmates' -- and his own -- aging, he enjoyed himself immensely.

He said he was struck by the gentleness and humility in the room . People were simply happy to see each other alive and well -- and eager to share updates on old classmates who could not attend. "So you were very much there in spirit, dear friend," Tim told me later. "There were several of us competing to give the update on what you've been up to and everyone was happy to hear your news."

I thought back to that tough graduate year -- when I was in the accelerated Master's program, working several jobs, living in a quietly unhappy relationship with a roommate and experiencing my first real romantic heartbreak. I remember crying myself to sleep nearly every night.  And I thought about how wonderful it was that people remembered me kindly from what was, for me, a pretty miserable year.

Maybe remembering each other kindly and reconnecting with joy and with the enhanced insights of age is the whole point of a reunion.

There is something incredibly sweet about reconnecting with friends from youth.

Shortly before we moved to Arizona, I enjoyed the first ever reunion of former 'TEEN Magazine staff members -- people with whom I had worked for the nine years between ages 23 and 32 -- and I was not only happy to see these people, the best co-workers I ever had, but I was also delighted to see how wise, how kind and how compassionate they were in maturity.

And there is special joy in friendships that have been consistently close through the years. There is Pat Hill, my classmate from kindergarten through high school, who has remained a lifelong friend. There is Mary Breiner, whom I met when she joined the staff of 'TEEN in 1972, fresh from a decade as a nun, and whom I've loved dearly ever since.

And there is Eileen Adams, whose life then and now, has been quite different from mine, but who has been, nonetheless, a kindred spirit for more than 50 years. Eileen, the youngest daughter of a wealthy French businessman who moved from France to Tucson when Eileen was just an infant, lost her mother to cancer when she was only 8 years old. She was sent to boarding school while still in grade school. Then and now, she is both smart and wise, hard-working, deliciously funny. Her wealth has not shielded her from tragedy. She not only lost her mother at an early age, but also lost her beloved younger daughter Andrea several years ago, when Andrea was only 30.  She works as hard at volunteering -- for the Red Cross, for computer literacy, for the local police department -- as most people do at their jobs and is dedicated to philanthropy and philanthropy consulting. And she lives her life -- through tragedies, challenges and joyous times alike -- with incredible grace, courage and humor.

During a weekend together earlier this month, Eileen and I found ourselves in stitches over old memories.  She alone in my life today remembers how I evolved from quiet and shy to actively involved as my high school years progressed. I remember the name she gave her first car. We both remember her complicity in sneaking an article (in a last-minute switch at the printer's) into the last edition of the school paper that I would edit -- an article written by my classmate Suse Harper-Yates expressing the staff's appreciation. Eileen followed me as editor of the school newspaper and as drama club president. One year apart, we both scored the leading role in our high school's traditional Christmas pageant -- that of evil King Herod, in full beard, wielding a wicked rubber dagger while ordering the execution of Baby Jesus.  Over nachos at a local Mexican restaurant, we recently recited alternate lines of Herod's dramatic execution orders -- proclaiming ourselves "dueling Herods" and amazed that we still remembered -- and we laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks.

It's true that the past is past and that reunions can't make us young again. But they can reconnect us with people who share a part of our youth and who, under the best of circumstances, can look back with laughter and affection as we embrace each other anew.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Blessing of Blogging

I had an "Aha!' moment this past weekend while reading Susan Jacoby's book "The Age of American Unreason".  While I found the book fascinating on a number of levels, one chapter in particular brought back some painful memories of changes in traditional publishing. And it made me rejoice anew over the opportunity to blog.

Although we've never met, Susan and I have had somewhat similar career paths: both of us were successful writers for the top national women's magazines in the Seventies and Eighties, both making excellent livings until the late Eighties/early Nineties, when things began to change.

We had both enjoyed writing longer articles on serious topics -- like Susan's articles on domestic violence and on the status of women in the changing Soviet Union and my pieces on many aspects of psychology, social trends and health. But suddenly, in 1989 or 1990, editors began to request much shorter articles -- "because women don't have time to read long articles anymore". Susan was asked to cut some articles she had already sold to magazines in half before they could be published. And when some of the magazine editors came to us with assignments, they were suddenly about less substantial or frankly embarrassing topics or light-weight, embarrassing treatment of substantial topics.

Susan's moment of truth, which she details in her book, was an assignment from a new editor at a magazine where she had written a number of high quality articles. The assignment -- "Men Who Like to Watch Their Girlfriends Masturbate" -- was a red flag to her that she needed to switch her literary efforts to a different venue.

My moment of truth came around the same time when I got a call from an editor at a major women's magazine asking me to write an article on verbal abuse in marriage.  I accepted the assignment immediately, pleased that I could write about something that had impacted my own life -- watching the verbal abuse my father heaped on my mother for so many years and the terrible toll it took on her spirit and quality of life -- though I chose not relate this personal experience in my article.  I researched the piece thoroughly, talked with some top clinicians about this type of domestic violence, and submitted the article.

I soon received an exasperated phone call from the editor. "Kathy, you obviously didn't understand what I wanted," she said. "I wanted a FUNNY, kind of edgy article about verbal abuse. You took it much too seriously.  You need to lighten the piece up."

I was aghast.  "We are talking about abuse, right?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "But abuse doesn't have to be a dark thing. It can be funny, don't you think? Give it another try."

Skeptical, I tried a somewhat lighter touch. The result wasn't funny, but it was tamer, blander.  But it still wasn't enough.  The editor sighed and said "We'll send you a kill fee and assign it to another writer." It was the only time in my career that I ever had an article "killed" and collected the kill fee (typically 25% of the agreed upon price of the article if the writer of a firm assignment can't complete the article to an editor's satisfaction.)

About two years later, I received the article file back -- complete with my research and interview transcriptions -- with a note from the editor saying "Two other writers couldn't make this article funny either. And since you were our first choice, we thought we'd send you back all your material so you might sell this to another magazine if you like."

But by that time, my other magazine contacts were also asking for shorter, lighter articles -- and I had started back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. And, like Susan, I had focused my writing efforts on books rather than magazine articles. So the material sits in a file to this day.

Perhaps I'll take it out and try again some day with some other magazine. Or maybe I'll blog about verbal and emotional abuse.

Certainly, the problem still exists in many marriages. There are so many ways that behavior ranging from verbal and emotional abuse to carelessness about others' feelings can poison treasured relationships. Verbal abuse can kill the spirit and love and hope. Emotional abuse is at least as painful as physical abuse. It is certainly no laughing matter.

During a recent conversation with my brother Mike, who, bless him,  has always read my writing enthusiastically from the time we were children, I mentioned that perhaps I might try writing some magazine articles again. The revitalization of some of my old favorites and the arrival of magazines like "O" and "MORE", among others, on the publishing scene has been encouraging.

He looked surprised. "Why?" he asked. "Blogging seems so much more satisfying. I love the fact that you're now writing with your own voice, writing exactly what you want. Remember how some of those magazine editorial committees used to drive you crazy chewing over some of your articles? Remember how indifferent some editors were to topics you felt -- and knew -- were important? Remember some of the stuff you wrote just because you needed the money? Well, you don't really need the money anymore. But what you have with blogging is a chance to say what you really think and feel, in your own time and in your own unique voice. It doesn't get any better than that!"

I felt suddenly lighter, suddenly joyous, and immensely grateful that I have lived long enough to see and experience the technology that makes instant international communication possible.

While I still have some books I need to write and perhaps some magazine articles as well, I will approach these projects with a stronger, more present voice and a renewed life perspective -- because of what I'm learning every day in the world of blogging. And if these forays back into the world of traditional publishing don't pan out, I still have a voice and a place where I can write and be myself.

I rejoice in being able to share my thoughts and feelings -- and to read and appreciate the authentic voices of others -- in the blogging community. What a wonderful opportunity to learn and to grow as a writer and as a person. It really doesn't get any better.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gray Divorce

While the disintegration of the 25 year marriage of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in the headlines the past few days, many other even longer marriages are quietly coming apart, out of the glare of the public spotlight, but nevertheless impacting thousands of families nationwide.

How and why do marriages of many decades come apart just at the time when the task of raising children is done, when the busy working years are coming to an end, when it's time to relax and enjoy life?

There is a rich backstory behind every late life marital breakup. But, in my work with couples and in observing the trajectories of friends' marriages, these breakups are rarely impulsive, rarely a matter of late middle-aged craziness.  Sometimes the marriage ends when two dedicated parents realize that they have little in common except the now-grown children and no mutual interests to bind them as they rattle around their empty nest.  Sometimes radically different retirement dreams or reactions to retirement can come between partners. The causes of a late-life marital crisis and divorce, however, are most often in crises of decades past.

For Peter and Lisa, friends of mine since college, the signs of trouble came early: only a few years into their marriage, she called me in tears. After the birth of their first child and the declining health of his parents, who lived with them, Peter had started drinking heavily. That evening they had argued -- and he had hit her. Though he was immediately aghast at his own behavior and apologized profusely, she was
shocked and scared. We talked into the night. The crisis passed. His parents died. Their two kids grew up. They both enjoyed very successful careers, financial security and the luxury of two homes -- one near the kids and grandkids just outside Minneapolis and the other near a sunny beach in Florida. Retirement bliss seemed pre-ordained.

The first signs of trouble were notes from Lisa talking about how happy she was in Florida, but how depressed Peter was, how difficult it was for him to step away from his prestigious position, how he was feeling at loose ends, how he missed being away from Minnesota. He felt washed up. She felt ready for new adventures. The most ominous sign of trouble was an email about a year ago: they had separated, with Peter returning to their northern home, Lisa staying in Florida.

A few months later, she told me the full story: how Peter's drinking had never really stopped for the 43 year duration of their marriage and how it escalated in retirement. After he became so drunk and disorderly at a friend's wedding that the police were called and he was arrested for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer, she decided she had finally had enough. After years of quietly living with his drinking, his verbal abuse and his mood swings, Lisa decided that she wanted to live her remaining years in peace, with the happy socializing and volunteer work that defined her retirement dreams. She said she had stayed with him for so long for the kids, for the good of his very public career and because, for so long, she had hoped that he would be able to get sober and that life would be different. She came to realize that the only life she could change was her own -- and that ending the marriage was her best chance for a good life.

Another friend, Betty, had an unusual but seemingly workable marriage with a husband Jack who was a corporate CEO. When his company moved to Chicago, Betty and Jack agreed that the best move -- at the time -- would be for her and their teenage children to remain in Laguna Beach, Ca. so that their daughter could enjoy her senior year with her friends and their son could continue with his surfing and playing with a band. The arrangement appeared to work well. Betty and her husband met for romantic weekends in Chicago or at resorts in between or in Laguna. The kids thrived, grew up, went to college and on to successful careers. Betty became a member of the school board, an officer of the local symphony and immersed herself in a variety of volunteer projects. Then Jack's company merged with another and he was forced into retirement. He came home to stay. And suddenly there was trouble.  "He orders me around and wants his meals served right on time while he sits around all day with the t.v. clicker in his hand," she told me, angry tears running down her cheeks.  I observed that he might be depressed. She shook her head. "No, he's fine. He's happy as can be. I'm the one who's going crazy. "

A few months later, they went to a local marriage counselor and not long after, she filed for divorce after 46 years of marriage. Two years later, I saw her at a social event in Orange County. She was radiant, looked 20 years younger.  She was eager to share the details of her new life: in addition to continuing all her volunteer work, she was learning body surfing, line dancing, and was dating a considerably younger man. She said she felt happy for the first time in years.

Not all older couples who are unhappy with their marriages have the means or energy to divorce or to start anew.  My mother-in-law Alberta simmered with resentment toward her moody, non-communicative husband of 48 years. Yet she was dependent on him in significant ways.  Despite living in the Los Angeles area for well over half a century, she had never learned to drive.  She used to    pull me aside at family gatherings and whisper urgently: "I can't stand him! One of these days, I'm going to fly the coop!"  I would squeeze her hand and say "Well, Alberta, that's an excellent reason to learn how to drive." She would nod in agreement -- but she never did.  And when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer a few years later, she told me that, looking back over her life, her only regret was not divorcing her husband years before.

And not all gray divorces are by mutual agreement. One devastated patient I saw for several years was a wife of 40 years who was left behind and who, because she was so dependent on her husband to make decisions for both of them, even in divorce, she lost everything -- and was living in a rented trailer with too many cats, few prospects and persistent feelings of hopelessness.

At a time of life when so many obligations -- to children, to parents, to careers -- have now diminished, many feel that now they have a last chance for happiness, even if that means being alone.

There are some, of course, who consider an escape, weigh the consequences, and decide to stay in a less-than-happy marriage. Another college friend I'll call Dave has been married for 42 years and is the proud father of five loving, successful adult children. He and his wife have been at odds for many years, but the family is a close one, enjoying a full array of holiday traditions, vacationing together as a family every summer at a beachfront condo, enjoying the grandchildren.  When he considered filing for divorce, he envisioned the family divided, with no more full family holidays or summers by the shore, with grandchildren visiting grandma and grandpa separately -- and the scenario broke his heart. It was painful to stay married, but even more painful to imagine splitting up a large, loving family.

Those of us married for decades know that marriage isn't easy, that there are highs and lows, times of wonderful intimacy and times of wounded distance. But many of us have been fortunate -- with the partners never giving up on the relationship at the same time, willing to work hard to help love endure, committed to each other's happiness and well-being.

But some relationships truly need to end.

After 35 years of daily struggling, my parents consulted a lawyer about a divorce. He told them that they couldn't afford to live apart, so they continued to live together in stress and hopelessness until they both died, much too young, four months apart.  I'll never forget my Aunt Evelyn, my mother's favorite sister, looking down at my mother/her beloved sister lying in the coffin. Evelyn's eyes filled with grief and fury.  "Your father killed her," she said at last. "He killed her as surely as if he had put a gun to her head. He killed her spirit. He killed her hope."  I nodded sadly in agreement.

Leave or stay? Live on with the familiar or take a bold step into a new, uncharted future? Each choice an aging person in an unhappy relationship makes is very personal, very painful.

But there are times when leaving a stressful, unhappy marriage is not only life-enhancing, but possibly life-saving.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Reflections on Mother's Day

There was a time when I hated Mother's Day. It reminded me of all I had lost. My mother died much younger than I ever imagined she would -- when I was 35 and she was 66. My only pregnancy ended too soon and with heartbreak. The Mother's Day celebrations and the assumptions -- checkers in grocery stores, waiters at restaurants, co-workers who didn't know better all wishing me a happy Mothers's Day -- definitely hit a raw nerve.

Then, gradually, I began to think of past and present blessings instead of focusing on my losses.

There have been lingering memories of my mother -- whose voice I haven't heard in more than 30 years. She was wonderfully down-to-earth with an endearing dash of whimsy. She never failed to surprise us -- sometimes positively, sometimes not.

There was the time when, stripping sheets on laundry day, she discovered the diary of sexual fantasies that my brother, then about 12 or 13, had written and stashed under his mattress. Delighted, she took it to our father and read whole passages aloud as my brother cringed in the background. "Listen to this," she said, beaming with pride. "His writing is so vivid, so wonderfully descriptive! He's really a gifted writer, don't you think?"

She was enthusiastic, supportive, and, through all the pain and chaos of her later life, loved all three of us immensely and unconditionally. She had tremendous warmth that prompted people everywhere she went to confide in and befriend her. Though her life wasn't easy, she never lost hope and faith in the future. And I feel blessed to have loved her -- and to have felt her love.

My feelings about Mother's Day also began to shift as I focused on the blessings of the present.

Some years ago, Mike, Tai and I started honoring our beloved Aunt Molly, who had never married or had children of her own, but who was, in a very real sense, a third parent to us as we were growing up. We would take her to a Mother's Day brunch at her favorite restaurant, give her cards, gifts and, most important, our undivided attention on that day. Although she was often the focus of our social lives individually, Mother's Day was a time when we honored her together -- with Tai traveling from Seattle for the festivities. And when she died at 86 in 2004, although her death was in January, we held her ashes until Mother's Day, when Tai could fly down to L.A. and we buried her beside her mother, who had passed away when Molly was a teenager. Although there were tears, there was also a lot of laughter as we read some of her poetry -- she was an award-winning poet and television writer -- during the graveside service and reflected on all the joy, all the adventures, all the wisdom she had given us over the years. And we felt blessed.

Thinking about some very special women who were and are dear friends and mother figures to me has made Mother's Day a happier occasion, too. I think of two very special nuns -- Sister Rita McCormack, who was a young teacher at my elementary school, and Sister Ramona Bascom, whose first year of teaching high school was my senior year. Both brought so much warmth and comfort to my youth followed by lifelong friendships that have meant the world to me. And my mother's two sisters Evelyn and Ruth were so loving and emotionally present in my life in the years between my mother's death and their own. I remember these four very special women -- the sisters still living, my aunts now deceased -- and I feel blessed.

It has been comforting, as well, to see my siblings Mike and Tai become parents. Although, due to geographic distance and a significant age gap, I haven't been able to be nearly the aunt to Nick or Maggie that Aunt Molly was to us, I delight in their existence and their growth.  Aunt Molly was only 27 when I was born and spent weekends and every vacation with us. I was 45 when Nick was born and 64 when Maggie arrived in the world. I may not run along a beach with them,  romping in the surf, but I quietly cheer them on as they grow into unique and very special people. And I feel blessed to know them.

And there is one young person, related not by blood, but bonded forever with love, who brings joy to each Mother's Day.  Ryan Grady was 9 years old when he came into our lives, as Bob's third -- and most loved -- Little Brother in the Big Brother's program. From his first meeting with Bob -- when he sang "The Glory of Love" in the car on the way to play miniature golf -- Ryan was a delight.  If we had been blessed with a child, we couldn't have asked for a more wonderful boy.  He loved to talk and shared many of our interests in literature, music and psychology. He was smart, loved to argue recreationally and had unusual tastes for a little boy. The first Christmas we knew him, he surprised us with his gift request: a print of Monet's lilies "in a good frame".  He used to laugh and tell us "Well, I was born to other people whom I love a lot, but, face it, I'm your kid!"

We were not surprised when he suddenly told us, in the car on the way to a college fair when he was 14, "Hey, guys, I love you so much and I just want you to know...I'm gay!" And when he grew up and met Sean, his life partner, we rejoiced in having another fine young man to love.

Ryan is now a 27-year-old graduate student in social work, well on his way to becoming an LCSW. With his warmth, compassion, keen insight and excellent sense of humor, he'll be a terrific therapist. Although we now live too far away to pop in and out of each other's homes quite the way we used to, Ryan calls regularly -- and never forgets our birthdays, Father's Day -- or Mother's Day. Getting that call from Ryan to wish me the best and say "I love you." makes that day I used to hate something quite special.

My mother is gone. And I'll never be a mother. I've never had the joy and challenge of raising a child from infancy to adulthood. But to share in the pleasure of watching a delightful young boy grow into a gracious, giving young man has been one of the sweetest experiences of my life. And I feel immensely blessed.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sweet Zoey

                                                       Zoey Woelfert    1994-2011

April was an especially cruel month for our friends who have lost beloved animal companions.

Only a few weeks ago, I wrote about our former next door neighbors losing their beloved cat Vilula and about the very special cats Bob and I lost in the past few years. And soon after that, I had an sad email from my high school friend Suse who told me that her cherished dog Sparkly had passed away and that she was comforted only by the knowledge that Sparkly lived with her adoration on a daily basis and that she hoped her once lively pet was "herding sheep on the Rainbow Bridge."

Now pet loss has come closer to home again: Jay and Linda, our neighbors who live two doors down from us here in Arizona, lost their sweet 17-year-old cat Zoey on April 26.

Bob and I had the pleasure of caring for Zoey and her two feline sisters Alice and Phoebe while Jay and Linda were on vacation last October and we fell in love with Zoey in particular. She greeted us warmly when we arrived for twice daily feedings and her patience as we measured out the medicine for her thyroid condition into her food was amazing.  Jay told us that she would answer to her name and also to her title "The Finest Cat in Arizona". And we soon realized that the title was quite apt. She was a treasure.

Zoey and Jay had a long and loving history. He adopted her from PAWS Animal Shelter in the Seattle area in 1995. It was love at first sight when Jay spotted the one-year-old stray.  She happily settled into Jay's home and his life and was at his side during some major life transitions including his marriage to Linda, two homes in Seattle, then a move to Arizona -- first to Cornville, then to Tucson, and finally to their new home in Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch near Florence.  Zoey's good nature and fervent love for Jay made each transition and move an adventure and a joy as she delighted him and Linda with her quirky feline sense of humor.

Jay especially enjoyed her silliness, her funny little routines like a mad dash through the house after using the litter box, dipping her paws in her water bowl and then licking the water off.  She found pleasure in so many things: chasing leaves blowing in the wind, sitting in front of the refrigerator purring, greeting Jay and Linda when they came home.  A large cat -- 18 pounds in her prime -- Zoey had a tiny meow and a big purr.  She purred the most when Jay was around.

He was the center of her world. Frankly, she could take or leave her feline companions. She tolerated and even came to like Alice, an unwanted cat that Jay adopted some years later. But for Phoebe, Linda's cat who had come into the family when Linda and Jay met, Zoey had only contempt.  Besides Phoebe, Zoey didn't like vets (except a vet in Tucson who had treated her during her difficult 7 year battle with thyroid disease) and took a while to warm up to strangers. She really didn't need a lot of people or animals in her life because she had Jay.  When he left the house, she would wait by the door for him. When he worked outside in the yard, she would watch and paw at the window, begging to be let out to join him.  Of all the pets that Jay has had throughout his life, Zoey was the one who was most special, who truly captured his heart and well earned the title "The Finest Cat in Arizona."

Lately, her illness, which she had battled so stoically and courageously, began to overwhelm her increasingly frail body. All of us in the neighborhood worried. Was she eating again? Could she walk better today? Her condition fluctuated over the last few weeks, but, sadly, that last week, her systems began to shut down.  Finally, Jay knew it was time.  His heart breaking, he took her back to the one vet she could tolerate, that wonderful doctor in Tucson, who helped end her suffering as Jay held her in his arms. The last image she saw as her eyes dimmed was Jay's loving face. It was a fitting, if heartbreaking, end to a very special love story.

Such endings are so very painful and stay with us much like the loss of other beloved family members. I know Jay will miss Zoey forever and the only consolation may be that he gave Zoey a wonderful life and did everything he could for her -- including the hardest thing of all: letting her go.