Dismantling the Bench

Nestled under the pine tree was a rustic heavy duty five foot wooden bench. A sitting spot for kids waiting their turn on the diving board. For over ten years the bench fought against the elements. Snow, ice, hail, and summer sun grayed and pitted the wood. Year after year, the bench a fixture, just was. Cumbersome, awkward, and weighty, a few simple pieces of wood. A forgotten backdrop of many photos.

Engraved on the back of the bench in large letters was, In memory of George and Mary K Smith. When I became the recipient of this bench the letters were in front. I promptly turned the bench slats around. I didn’t need a constant visual reminder of my parents though I was pleased that I was the beneficiary of the bench instead of my siblings. I felt like I had pulled something over on someone. The fact was, no one wanted the bench or had a place for it. Heavy as it was.

Recently, our backyard was being landscaped. Pines removed. I yanked at the bench to drag it from its place. The bench complained and its right leg crumpled. Other joints also appeared ready to give way.

Would I miss the bench?

I tugged and jerked the bench to the side of the garage. Returned to retrieve its leg.

After a couple of weeks, I called the neighbor to see if he would use his chain saw to take apart the bench. That seemed to be the quickest and easiest way to discard it.

Wood shavings and a small pile of wood were in a corner of my driveway when I came home from work. I couldn’t believe that such a burden was reduced to so little.

Little by little, week by week, I fed the pieces into our waste container. I was careful not to overload the bin and have the waste be rejected. Now it is gone.

What I didn’t know was at this same time, our homestead was being sold. When I learned of this, I felt a punch in my chest. It’s finally done, I thought. It really happened. Our homestead is no more. Like the wooden bench the farm is gone.

I had no financial stake in the homestead. Only emotional. What I miss is in my heart already. Aunt Kate, the pond, a sledding hill, the smell of popcorn, ice cream bars in the freezer. Those memories I can always draw on.

If it was Aunt Kate’s name on the bench, I’m not sure I could have ever let it go.

August Travel

During the drive from home to being away, my mind travels extra time merging memories of past trips with plans for the next weeks. The years that pacifier inventory and gentle shampoo were critical has slowly morphed into double checking the packing of face creams, medications and comfortable shoes. Very slowly, but with determined forward motion, until time starts happening instead of moving. 

Corn grows as far as the eye can see along the highway. Rivers and ponds look high for a second or third year. Construction has moved about twenty miles further south than the prior trip, but large trucks are still annoying in the cone-formed single lane. Too early for lunch, breakfast’s beverage wanting out, the discussion changes from the morning news and towards where to stop for a comfort break or whether to push on for an early burger. 

August has always been vacation month for our family. What started out of necessity because of participation in post-season youth ball tournaments grew into tradition. Kids would get new sneakers and fresh summer clothes to avoid back-to-school shopping after returning home. Vacation in September is sweeter once untangled from kid schedules, but some places close Labor Day weekend making it hard to rent a kayak or find a soft-serve cone after time on the beach.

Weighted down by sun screen and sun prevention clothing, watching birds swoop into the water for food and parents with preschoolers playing in the shallow spots, I remember a skinny teenager in a two piece subconsciously flirting with a boy, an older teen stranded with a car breakdown near a forbidden quarry, a honeymooning young woman and all the years leading to this person in this moment. Feet resting in shoreline water, a comfy chair, an umbrella and a book. Storing up another year.

The Clock is Ticking for All of Us

Monday, November 10, 2036.

That’s the day I’m expected to die according to DeathClock, billed as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away.”

While I don’t believe my death will occur on that particular day and do hope I’ll live quite a bit longer than age 79, I find myself thinking both about the quantity and quality of the years I have left, no doubt prompted by the fact that I will turn 65 in a month.  

On the short end of my projected lifeline, I think of my parents, both of whom died at age 70, my dad after a year-long battle with lung cancer (no surprise as he smoked for 50+ years) and my mom in an instant from a heart attack linked to Vioxx, the drug she was taking to help manage her arthritis (a drug reported to triple the risk of heart attack). If I die at their age, I have five years left.

On the other hand, if I live as long as my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather, I have 25 years left.

Either way, I hope to stay mentally, physically and emotionally healthy so that I can spend my time doing things I enjoy and making a difference in the lives of others.

The desire to do so has got me thinking back to one of the best books I read in 2020: Die with Zero: Getting All You Can From Your Money and Your Life by Bill Perkins. Thanks in large part to it and to a financial coach I recently hired to help me shift from saving for the future to enjoying my money—and my life!—now, I am finally beginning to do so.

So whether my death comes next year, in 2036 as predicted by DeathClock or, as I hope, years after becoming a healthy centenarian, I am determined to hear the ticking clock as a call to action rather than a countdown to my final days. I hope you are as well as I’d love to have you and all Word Sisters along for the journey.  

Connections

Tomorrow I’ll join my extended family for a weekend gathering we jokingly call ShrinerFest. Because of COVID it’s been three years since my three siblings, their children, grandchildren, my sons, and all of our spouses have gathered, although I did see my siblings in person last year. In the intervening time, many important events have taken place off-stage, away from the full circle of family.

One niece announced her engagement. A nephew got engaged to a woman some of us haven’t had the opportunity to meet. Our two sons married in small COVID-style weddings. A niece and her husband welcomed their first child earlier this year. My second oldest brother and his wife had a rough year. She and their son-in-law experienced bad fractures requiring surgery and rehab. My sister-in-law also had a close family member die of cancer.

Despite the distance (we are spread across five states) we’ve all done our best to stay connected via text and calls. We’ve congratulated each other about joyful events and commiserated about the hard times. We would have preferred to visit in person, but we did what we could manage, and our connections stayed strong. 

I expect our weekend together will encompass lots of storytelling, silliness, and good food. Cousins who are scattered across the Midwest and are still getting to know each other will likely bond over fantasy football or the best way to cook a Beyond burger. No doubt we’ll talk about wedding plans and new houses. 

My two older brothers, younger sister and I will fall into familiar patterns. Although our interests, politics, and religious views aren’t always aligned, we’ll focus on what we have in common and try to avoid topics that jangle nerves! 

As always in this group of 25, there will be emotional cross-currents. Sometimes grievances might get aired quietly off to the side (Why’d she say___? I can’t believe he did that!) After all, we are still family and although there is a lot of love, there are also strong personalities. 

As we drive away I expect to be tired, but I’ll let the good moments sink in. We’ll talk over whatever changes—for better or worse—we see in the extended family. I might be shaking my head over some new development. But no matter what, I’ll be grateful we were able to be together again, fostering connections and cementing our ties.

My Personal Abortion Story

It’s personal. How could it not be? It’s my body. I was 14 years old. In 1973, abortion had recently become legal in Minnesota. I didn’t know that. What I knew is that the doctor had just told me that I was pregnant and asked if it was one of my brothers.

I didn’t question why he asked me if it was one of my brothers. That would come years later when I made an appointment to request a copy of my doctor visits and health history. Then, I was on a search to claim myself. Bear witness to that teen girl who had raised herself up on the exam table and screamed, “No!” My abrupt movement viciously scrunched the white parchment paper underneath me. I was overcome with fear. What must have I looked like to him?

I saw a similar expression on his face when I asked for my medical records. Fear. I wasn’t there to hurt him. What I really wanted to know is why he asked me if the pregnancy was one of my brothers.

“I ask everyone that,” he said. I knew that not to be true. By then I was able to trust my senses.

The truth of my pregnancy is that it likely was one of my brothers, but it could have been someone else. I didn’t know.

That mid-summer morning when I was 14, the doctor quickly left the room and called my mother who was at home. She had dropped me off for the doctor visit, saying, “Call me when you’re done.” I was complaining of stomach pain.

Waiting for her to arrive at the doctor’s, I leaned against the sunny part of the brick building. My stomach didn’t hurt anymore. I couldn’t feel anything. I was in freeze mode. I thought about my options. How I could run away, leave town, walk the opposite way from home. Take the side roads and make my way out. I’d still be pregnant. I nodded at my mother when she pulled up.

“I wish it was an appendicitis,” she said on our way home. She never asked me about the pregnancy.

My father was summoned to their bedroom. Phone calls were made. Then I was beckoned. “You’re going to have an abortion,” my mother said. All I felt was relief. She was going to take care of this problem.

Before my mother died, she told me that she wished she wouldn’t have had that abortion. I didn’t correct her by saying that I had the abortion, not her. She was dying. I’m guessing the Catholic priest didn’t give her absolution, which caused her regret. She said the abortion took her a year to get over.

I have no regrets. Not an iota of sense that I murdered someone. That I am a killer. That I’m going to hell. If any of that was true, I would know it. I spent 30 years in therapy getting to know myself. I’d know.

When I feel sadness, it’s not because I had an abortion. It’s sadness for the child, teen and adult who was left to navigate her past, present and future.