Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My Half-Empty Nest . . .

A rare occurence these days
For twenty-five years I had a full nest. My two girls commuted to and from college every day and spent plenty of time at home studying, watching television, leaving clothes and shoes around the house for me to trip over and a sink full of dirty dishes to keep my hands sanitized. Nothing much changed from their transition from high school to college. We still managed to have dinner together as a family most nights and exchange stories about our day, our friends, and the ups and downs of life. But one day my older daughter graduated from college and went to work. She was missing all day, every day. Then, three years later, my younger daughter graduated and got a job working the second shift at a lab. My daughters are two ships passing in the night. They went from seeing each other all the time to maybe one or two evenings a week. Our regular family dinners have been slashed to once a week. And although I know I am lucky to still have them “home,” I still miss us all being together. I miss watching my girls interact with each other. What’s a half-empty nester to do?

I hate setting the table for two or three, when there should be four of us sitting there. Sometimes I have to rearrange my daughters’ seats so there isn’t an empty seat separating three of us, and making the absence of the one that’s missing that much more obvious. I change my meal plans for dinner based on which one of my daughters will be eating with us. They each have their preferences and I try to accommodate whomever is home that night with something they will enjoy. I have to make extra of certain meals because I need leftovers so my younger daughter can have her “dinners” at lunchtime the next day, before heading out for work. The “leftovers” also fill in for my older daughter’s hot, healthy lunches for work, since she hates sandwiches. So now, instead of planning nice family dinners, I have been relegated to a short-order cook.

When I dust and vacuum the floors, there are no feet that need to be lifted, no shoes to pick up. I just go about my business in a house that is so quiet that the eerie noise from the refrigerator motor is all I can hear. There’s even less laundry. My older daughter has decided to take care of all her laundry herself even though I tell her she can add items to the family hamper. I can buy less snacks because there is no one home to eat them. The sink doesn’t get full of dirty dishes during the day. As soon as a couple of breakfast mugs are washed, the kitchen is closed pretty much till dinner. In fact, the whole house stays a lot cleaner, a lot longer, when I am the only one roaming through the empty rooms. I guess I should be happy.

It’s not like I miss the extra dust, laundry or dirty dishes. We could all do with less of those things. But I do miss the reason for the extra work. Those not so little feet going up and down the stairs to get their laptops, are now running around an office. The hungry little mouths opening refrigerator and cabinet doors looking for snacks are waiting for their lunch break. Today, as I walk into their rooms, I fix the slightly askew comforters on beds that were made in haste, not out of laziness, but out of a rush to get to work. I close the wardrobe closets that were left half open after the day’s outfit was selected. I adjust the couch pillows and see the jackets that were thrown haphazardly on them last night are gone this morning. And there goes the refrigerator motor cranking its “American Horror Story” noise.

I remember watching the movie “Marty,” starring Ernest Borgnine, years ago. It’s a great movie about a single guy who is still living with his mother into his thirties. One day his mother is talking to her sister about the “empty nest.” Here is what Aunt Catherine had to say (in her Italian accent):

“These are the worst years, I tell you. It's a gonna happen to you. I'm afraid to look in a mirror. I'm afraid I'm gonna see an old lady with white hair, just like the old ladies in the park with little bundles and black shawls waiting for the coffin. I'm fifty-six years old. And what am I gonna do with myself? I've got strength in my hands. I want to clean. I want to cook. I want to make dinner for my children. Am I an old dog to lay near the fire till my eyes close? These are terrible years, Theresa, terrible years . . . It's gonna happen to you. It's gonna happen to you! What are you gonna do if Marty gets married? Huh? What are you gonna cook? Where's all the children playing in all the rooms? Where's the noise? It's a curse to be a widow, a curse! What are you gonna do if Marty gets married? What are you gonna do?”

Okay, maybe things are as bleak as Aunt Catherine makes them out to be, but some of her words do hit close to home. I guess I better start preparing myself for the full empty nest and figure out the answer to Aunt Catherine’s, “What are you gonna do when your girls get married? It’s a gonna happen to you. What are you gonna do?”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mind Your Own Business . . .

"Mind your own business . . . it’s a very popular expression, but I don’t even know what it means. Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t mind my own business. Maybe it’s my nature or maybe it's a learned behavior I acquired from my mother. My mother’s policy was just like New York City"s terrorist slogan, “If you see something, say something." Only in my mother's case, she took it a few steps further: “If you hear something, say something,” if you know something, say something,” “if you feel something, say something.” My mother didn’t need much in the way of provocation to add her two cents, whether the situation concerned her or not. I find myself doing the same thing more and more and yet I don't feel that I am a meddler.

And what’s the harm of it really? I’d rather say something and risk someone may get angry with me for butting in, than for something to happen and regret not saying anything at all. My intentions are always good, at least I think so. My advice is always free. People can always ignore what I tell them if they don't want to hear it; just ask my daughters, who are both very skilled at letting my words go in one ear and out the other. In their defense though, they do get a lot more of my unsolicited counsel than anyone else I know.

I guess you can look at not minding your own business two ways. On the negative side it can be perceived as “butting in” when the matter doesn’t concern you. Some people might reason you only have a right to say something if the issue directly affects you, if not, don’t add your two cents. Sometimes people can misconstrue “butting in” an being nosy or invading their privacy. And there are many times people just want to vent their frustrations and aren’t looking for help or solutions at all. To this last group, I must apologize for my valiant problem-solving efforts. I am a nurturer and "fixer" and can't help myself until all is right with the world.

On the other hand, if you see someone struggling with something and you feel you can offer some good advice or kind words, is that a crime? Not minding your own business, when you have purely good intentions, can be a blessing to someone else. It can be very helpful or comforting. Their struggle may not be your business, it may not affect you at all, but what if you can help them carry that load or even lighten it a bit? How much easier would it be to just walk away and say or do nothing? There would be no risk of meddling, interfering, or invading privacy if you keep silent and ignore the problems of others. It’s much harder to step up and offer a helping hand . . . a hand that one day you might even need in return. This is why I don’t mind my own business. If I see someone drowning, I am going to try and throw them a life preserver or a rope. They are going to know that someone cares. They might appreciate the concern even if they don’t need any help. And if it becomes a problem for them, well then they can always tell me to mind my own business and maybe I will.

Friday, October 3, 2014

White Privilege Is Just Peachy . . .

Crayola's Ethnic Box of Crayons (1992)
What color are you?

I often learn a lot of things from my daughters during our little chats. For example, the other day I was having a conversation with my older daughter. She was telling me about a friend of hers, who is conservative, and doesn’t feel racism is still an issue or that there is such a thing as white privilege. She told me about their conversation and what she said to him. She explained it’s not always the big or obvious events that show racism and inequality is still an issue. She said sometimes it’s the little things that we take for granted. For example, she said, did you ever realize that band aids are “flesh” tone, but only made for the color of white people’s skin. There are few, if any, flesh tone band aids made for people of color. Then she went on to explain that even in cosmetics, white women have a wide range of colors to choose from, while cosmetics for black women are much more limited and, if they need other shades other than those available, those are considered “specialty” items. She told me, with some satisfaction, that she could see her point was getting across. I learned something too from my daughter, and started wondering what other little subtle ways racism is embedded in our society without “us” even realizing it. And by “us” I mean white people, because I am sure this doesn’t go unnoticed by people of color every time they need a band aid.

I checked on my daughters claims, and of course, as usual, she is right. Band aid skin tones and the lack of make-up for women of color are two very real examples that show being white has its privileges. So I did a little reading of my own. The “nude” bra is also an example of racism because the only skin tone it matches is Caucasian. I’ll be honest and say this never crossed my mind until now. I recall bra shopping with my daughters and the sales clerk corrected me when I told them they need white bras to wear under light or sheer clothing. The clerk said, “Actually they should wear nude.” And since that time we no longer even look at white bras. Now I wonder what she tells a mother who has a black daughter? What color does she wear under sheer clothing? Does she tell her to wear a black bra? If so, that would be equivalent to my girls wearing white bras. There are no “nude” bras for woman of color.

And, I don’t often buy pantyhose these days, but when I did there were plenty of “nude” shades to choose from. So many in fact, that I would get confused. Still, I would always manage to find shades to match my tanned summer skin, as well as my pale winter look, without a problem. And another thing I noticed, but it never struck me in this way before, is in the hair care aisle. There are so many hair products for white women in every product imaginable, that it takes me forever to pick out what I need. I can find my hair care products everywhere too. This is not true for ethnic hair care products. If you even are able to find them in a store, the section is very small and limited. Ironically, I have learned over the years from black friends I have had, that their hair is more fragile and takes more care to maintain and keep healthy. So where are their hair products hiding?

Remember when Crayola had a “Flesh” colored crayon? I never cared for the shade, but as a kid I used it to color all the people in my coloring books. I read that back in the 60’s, Crayola changed the name to “Peach,” when it was challenged during the Civil Rights Movement. And then, thirty years later, Crayola created a set of eight crayons to cover “all” skin tones . . . only problem is, it doesn’t. In fact I don’t anyone’s skin that matches most of those colors. But, on a positive note, at least Crayola recognizes everyone isn’t “Peach,” unlike the band aid, fashion and cosmetic industries.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Hunt for Boots . . .


Every couple of months we use the excuse of going to the mall to make a family day out of it. We shop till we drop and then go have dinner. Saturday was one of those days. Both of my girls needed new boots for winter. I thought it would be a good idea to get out early in the season so they would have a nice selection in their size. My older daughter has a small foot, so they don’t order too many shoes in her size. My younger daughter has a popular size foot and that size tends to sell out fast. I thought I came up with the perfect strategy to shop for boots before the rest of the world figured out winter was around the corner. We all have a job on this mission. My daughters pick out and try on the boots. I offer some petite criticisms on the boots and the situation. My husband carries the boots.

First stop is at JCPenney, where we have had luck before. My younger daughter finds two pair she likes and wants to try on. I take them up to the clerk. Problem. There is only ONE clerk in the whole department who is trying to get several customers shoes while tending to the cash register. We put the boots down and decide to look elsewhere and/or return later. Off we go to Steve Madden to check out their boots. Both my daughters find a pair they like after four or five sales clerks ask us if we need help. No shortage of help here! As soon as they find boots a clerk is right there to go get them each a pair. My younger daughter is lucky, they have her selection in her size in stock. My older daughter is not as lucky. They do have her size, BUT it’s the display pair which we can clearly see is scuffed up and scratched. She doesn’t want to pay $200 for damaged boots and I would kill her if she did. The salesperson says it’s a popular style and it’s flying off the shelves. She wants to give her 10% off the display pair to make the sale. My daughter says no, it’s not worth it. So the clerk comes up with a plan B. They will call other stores and see if one of them has the boots in stock and then they can mail them to the house. Fine. I mention to the clerk we do not want a display pair from another store. They call around and finally find a store that has them. My daughter hears the salesperson say are they the “display pair?” because the customer has a problem with our display pair being scuffed. Now my daughter is annoyed that they are making her sound crazy and also because I told the salesperson we don’t want a display pair from another store. After twenty minutes the transaction is complete and the boots should be here in a few days, hopefully undamaged.

Now we return to JCPenney, and it seems they have a second clerk on the job in the shoe department. We find the boots my daughter liked and ask for them in her size. The short, black pair fits fine, the tall gray pair seems impossible to get on and the zipper sticks. I talk her out of getting the gray pair. It takes her long enough to get ready for work without spending an extra 20 minutes trying to put on these boots. Besides, I have a feeling the zipper will break in a week’s time, so we leave with the one pair. We will return in a couple of weeks or so and try again. But, seriously, it shouldn’t be so hard to get boots in September!

To complete this “boot” mission, we end up at The Cheesecake Factory, where we all enjoy a nice dinner and some family banter. Then we order a couple of slices of cheesecake to go. Now we are all satisfied.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reconnecting With A Friend . . .

A gift from a friend

I have been talking to people on the internet from the moment my computer was up and running with AOL back in 1999. So a few days ago, when I was messaged on Facebook out of the blue by someone asking if I was the person they chatted with over 13 years ago, my mind drew a blank. She told me her name and where she used to live and said we had lost touch after 911, but it wasn’t ringing any bells for me. I wrote and asked for more specifics, but she probably felt she had the wrong person and didn‘t reply. I trusted her memory more than mine, so I started to think back. I was getting a vague memory of a young mother, in her twenties, with a son. She was very sweet and seemed to be struggling with something. She needed someone to talk to. Not everyone has someone to talk to. I replied once again asking if she was a young mother with a son. Still no answer. She must have thought she had the wrong person. I wasn’t 100% sure either, but something told me she was right about it being me.

As fate would have it, my brother came over yesterday and a memory crossed his mind which was totally unrelated. It was also something that happened online years ago and I went to get my notebook where I had jotted notes on this incident. On the page next to those notes were the woman’s name, address and phone number! That was all I needed to confirm we had known each other years ago.

I soon recalled how I chatted almost every morning with this young woman. It was hard for her to open up. Then I remembered a gift I had gotten in the mail long ago. It was a small basket with note stationery. I have kept this gift in my kitchen all these years. I even had a few pieces of the stationery left. I took a picture of it and sent one last reply with the photo. I asked if she was the one who had sent me this gift and told her how I still had it.

It was then that I received a reply. She said that she did send it to me all those years ago. She told me I had sent her a Christmas ornament, with a friendship inscription, that she has been hanging on her tree every year. She said the reason she wanted to contact me was to thank me for being so sweet to her when she was going through a hard time and say hello. Her son has grown up and she has moved, but she has often thought about me all these years. We caught up briefly on what has happened during these 13 years and then she said she never forgot my kindness. And with that, we wrapped up our brief conversation.

We may talk again, we may not, but I was very glad to hear from her and to know that she is happy now. You never know what a few minutes of your time and a few kind words can do.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Domestic Abuse: It's All In the Family

Ray Rice is making headlines for abusing his wife in an elevator back in February and being released from the Ravens. I have to wonder what took so long? Is it really because the owner and team didn’t see the entire video? Is it all about damage control and disassociation from the scandal? Maybe something good will come out of this by shining a big spotlight on the epidemic of domestic abuse. It may even save some lives if it causes other women seek help before it’s too late. But it makes me wonder when did it become “acceptable” for men to hit women?

This situation brings to mind a story I have heard over and over again in my own family. My maternal grandfather was an abusive man. He came over from Sicily in the early 1900’s with no money. He brought his wife and children here for a better life. He also brought with him the accepted “right” that men in his culture had to beat their wives and children. I often heard my mother and her siblings tell stories of how their mother was beaten for basically no reason because she was a “saint.” My grandfather would go out gambling and drinking at night. My grandmother would worry and sit at the window waiting for him to come home. When he found her sitting at the window, he would accuse her of waiting for another man. Then he would fly into a drunken rage and beat her for this imagined offense. My grandmother was pregnant fourteen times, but only had seven children. It’s been said she was beaten while pregnant and lost seven babies. In those days there were no shelters and divorce wasn’t an option. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to grow up in a household with that kind of abuse and chaos.

The fact is that my grandfather also beat one of his sons. My uncle worked in a bakery to earn a little money to help support the family. He was very young at the time (maybe around 8 years old). He had to be at the bakery at four in the morning and help stack bags of flour. Often he would fall asleep at the bakery, from sheer exhaustion, after doing his job. He missed school once too many times. The truant officer went to see my grandfather about the problem, causing him to miss work. My grandfather was very angry and beat my uncle, kicking him with his heavy work boots. The other children were too afraid to come to the defense of their mother or brother. My grandmother often prayed aloud for ten years of peace after her husband’s death. She died almost ten years to the day after my grandfather died.

When my mother married my father, a marriage arranged by her mother, she told her mother if he ever touched her in an abusive way the marriage would be over. My father also came from Sicily with his culture and beliefs ingrained in him. One day, during an argument early in their marriage, my father raised his hand at my mother. Before he could lay a finger on her, my mother took off and went straight to her mother to tell her what happened. My grandmother stepped in and talked to my father. Whatever she told him, nothing like that ever happened again.

As for my grandfather’s legacy of abuse, none of his sons were abusive, as far as I know. None of his daughters married abusive men. The cycle of abuse ended with my grandfather. Thank God.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Plagiarism: An Ethical Dilemma

Years ago, when I was taking graduate French classes, there was a student in my class, a young French teacher, who was caught by one of our professors for plagiarizing his paper. The professor had called him up after class and was visibly angry. I couldn’t hear the verbal exchange, but word soon spread as to what it was all about. Plagiarism is very serious ethical charge against a student at a university and it places the professor in a very uncomfortable position. I distinctly recall that this professor made a point of emphasizing that plagiarism would not be tolerated and it was also boldly stated in the syllabus she handed out the first day of class. It’s no wonder she was angry.

The student’s case was still pending when I met up with him again the following semester, in another French class, with a different professor. We were assigned papers once again and also had to present them orally in class. I couldn’t help but be curious if he had learned his lesson or had once again plagiarized someone else's work. Who would be so arrogant to even think of trying it again and jeopardizing their education and job? On a whim I used one of the tools that is designed to find plagiarized work online. Within a few minutes I had found that he had taken an article and claimed it as his own. The article was several pages long and fairly dated, so it wouldn’t readily appear on the top of a Google search. However, I searched for the specific words that he had read in class and was astonished to find a paper that was identical to his. He hadn’t just taken a few paragraphs or ideas, he had taken the whole paper in it’s entirety, word for word. The only things he changed were the name of the author and the date. There I sat, in front of the computer, overwhelmed by a moral and ethical dilemma. I wished I had never done the search because now it placed me in a bind and I was torn about what to do. I knew what he did was wrong, but he needed this degree to continue teaching. I also knew that a second blatant act of plagiarism, with the first still pending, would certainly be cause for expulsion from graduate school and the French Master’s Program.

I agonized over what to do for a while. I didn’t know where to go for advice. Then I thought about Googling “What to do if you discover a student is plagiarizing.” That search turned up a professor’s blog on plagiarism, and he had included his email address for readers. I decided to write to him about my dilemma in detail and ask his advice. I needed an objective opinion from someone who understood all the ramifications any action on my part would have and, at the same time I knew I didn‘t have to take the advice if it didn‘t feel right about it. I received a compassionate reply to my email not long after. He said it was evident that I was struggling with this issue and explained to me how plagiarism affects education and how serious a violation it was etc. He advised me not to get personally involved as the “whistle blower.” Instead, he suggested that I create an anonymous account in order to email the professor the link to the plagiarized work and leave the rest up to him. In the end, after some careful consideration, that is what I decided to do.

I still feel bad about exposing this student’s academic crime and the consequences that likely followed. At the time I felt that he had more than likely been using other people’s work to get through college and that these two incidents were probably not the only times he had done so. Sometimes doing the right thing for the right reasons doesn’t always make you feel good. However, thinking back on it, I feel it was the only thing I could do.