Letting Go Gracefully, Without Regrets

Contemplating my 50th high school reunion got me thinking about friendships, acquaintanceships, and people I’m no longer in touch with.

I’m a person who stays connected. I make the calls, send the emails, arrange the visits, and keep up the connections. For years. But I wonder, When should I simply loosen my grip and let a friendship or acquaintanceship slide? Couldn’t I say to myself, We were friends for a certain moment in time and now that time has passed? It’s OK to let go gracefully without regrets.

I think I’ve done that with my high school friends. 

I’m mildly curious about a few people. There was the cute redheaded guy I daydreamed about in math class. We ran in the same circles, but never dated and with time I became infatuated with other guys. He later became an architect and developer and now is one of the wealthiest members of the class. 

I might enjoy talking with a brainy basketball star who was a good friend for a few years. She sat near me in several classes because our Catholic high school seated students alphabetically. However, even during college while I still lived in Toledo, we’d grown apart.

A dark-haired acquaintance who had a big voice and an even bigger laugh also comes to mind. We hung around together during school musicals—she was a performer and I was the costumer.

I’m curious about another dark-haired classmate in my advanced English class who became a nationally known journalist. We ran in different crowds (hers cooler than mine), but it would be fun to talk politics with her now, except she isn’t attending either. 

I felt a pang to see a close girlhood friend listed among the deceased. We parted in 6th grade when she moved to a different neighborhood and got interested in boys. I was still shy and awkward then, not ready to date. We’d let go long ago, but I was sorry to read she had been in poor health for years and was no longer married.

A friend who went to a different high school said her 50th reunion was the last one she’ll attend, because future reunions will involve classmates needing walkers and talk of who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer disease. 

Her insight bolstered my decision to skip my 50th reunion. I’d rather remember my classmates as we were—young, high-spirited, and barely aware of life’s harder realities.

Hiding Out

Porcelain, cardboard, tin, and plastic Jack o’ lanterns grin from a ledge in the laundry room. I moved them to the basement the morning after Halloween along with candy corn lights and a gauzy witch that cackles when someone walks past. Here’s my sad secret, Halloween is nowhere near my favorite holiday. I find it kind of scary for other reasons.

In Luxemburg, WI there was no trick or treating. We wore our costumes to school and at night a parade happened on Main Street. Candy and substantial treats were thrown from the town’s firetrucks. Many of the town’s 400 or so residents, including many who drove in from their farms, stood on the sidewalk to collect the goodies.  Then everyone joined the parade for about a six block walk to where a bonfire burned at the fairgrounds. Adults and kids partied and danced way after a school night’s normal bedtime.

When we moved to Milwaukee my mother declared her children were not going to ring strangers’ doorbells to beg for candy. She called the city’s Halloween traditions dangerous. And she wasn’t going to encourage others to ring our doorbell. So instead of a parade or walking the neighborhood with other kids, our parents took us to a shopping mall for the special treat of dinner out. If stores offered a treat bag, we were allowed to accept. 

My brother managed to weasel out of the family outing after a couple of years. He claimed he was going to help a friend distribute candy so the parents could walk with younger siblings. I snuck out one year with a girlfriend whose mother called to invite me to a sleepover party. It was a ruse because they felt so bad that I had not experienced the joy of running around in the dark with a pillowcase to collect candy. 

Only I didn’t really find it all that fun. I heard my mother’s disgust with kids begging for candy and caution about the city’s danger. I was kind of afraid of scary costumes and decorations. I worried my parents would drive around the neighborhood and recognize a cheerleader wearing white tennis shoes as their daughter. By high school Halloween parties frequently included booze or pot which weren’t my thing.

Fortunately, I was great at disguising my fear of Halloween from our children who adored the holiday. A granddaughter’s enthusiastic participation in anything connected to Halloween is awesome. I still decorate and usually keep a treat bowl filled, but I’m more comfortable spending Halloween in the basement reading a book.  

Life in Reverse

I’ve never been super orderly or systematic, but for years, filing papers seemed like the responsible thing to do. Before computers and the Internet, you needed hard copies of financial, health, and school records. Digital wasn’t an option. Sometimes the only convenient way to access a how-to lore was to keep a photocopy of it. As part of an office redo, I’ve been sorting, tossing, and shredding old paper files. Although some of what I saved makes sense, a lot of it is baffling. 

1972 – High school diploma from the pre-digital age when paper was the only valid proof.

1976  Where’s my college diploma? Good thing I don’t have to prove that anymore.

1979  Graduate school grade reports. Why?? And inexplicably, grade slips from three management classes my father took.

1978 – A photocopy of copyright information (pre-Internet). I suspect I hoped to publish something worthy of a copyright. 

1984-85 – Wedding catering quotes. I truly don’t know why I kept these. Maybe I thought the information would be helpful when my sister married. Years after our wedding, when I rediscovered the file, I kept it for its entertainment value: Miss Lucille’s Catering: hot buffet with two meats, one kind of potato, one vegetable, a salad, and dinner rolls for $4.75 per person. Plus $1.50 for china, silverware and linen service. Despite the reasonable prices, we went with another caterer, but I didn’t keep that!

1988 and 1991 – Proposals to work remotely after our sons were born. WAY before corporations were flexible with working mothers. I outlined a plan to return to full-time work after my maternity leave. I would work mornings at home and afternoons in the office for several months. I’m still surprised and grateful I got to do it. Twice.

1992 – Landscape plans for our old house. We haven’t lived there for 5+ years. Why’d I keep them? Maybe because I put a ton of sweat and love into those gardens, a passion that developed after our second son was born in 1991. Gardening was a creative outlet that didn’t require a babysitter.

1995  2006 – Vendor contracts and confidentiality agreements. I was in business from 1992 – 2010, but either companies didn’t require agreements or I quit saving them.

2005 – Records from breast biopsy #2 and #3 – stereotactic then excisional. I don’t know why I kept the details from this painful time. Maybe to remind myself how lucky I’d been?

2008 – Adjunct teaching contract from St. Thomas University’s Master of Business Communications program. One class, one semester: $4050. Even then, it wasn’t much money.

2013 – Yellowed copy of a Star Tribune review of an anthology in which I had an essay.

This ephemera maps some of what I thought was valuable, but I wasn’t saving the right stuff.

The real treasures are the snapshots from the 1920s and 1940s tucked in with some of my mother’s Medicare records. I also found four thin files of family history written by my parents, sister, and me. 

My grandma and grandpa. I’m guessing from their big smiles, he
was returning from WWI. On the porch is my great grandma, a woman I never met.

If only my file drawers held more of what’s precious—my parents’ belief in education. The hopeful start of my parents’ and grandparents’ loving marriages. Irreplaceable stories about immigrant ancestors. 

My parents’ wedding in 1944 during WWII–Aunt Corinne, Mom, Dad, Grandma & Grandpa
(also shown above).

Artifacts

I’m at an odd intersection. The familiar objects from my childhood look like history to the rest of the world.

In the Before times when I casually shopped, I’d spot artifacts from my childhood at antique stores. Huh?!? Toys like Barbies and transistor radios, kitchen items like Pyrex bowl sets and milk glass spice jars, decorations like ashtrays and the glass swan currently on my buffet are . . . old enough to be collectible. Antiques. 

More startling was the realization that the purpose of those childhood objects will soon be obscure. Who fills decorative jars with spices anymore? When I was growing up, most homes had several ashtrays. Now they’re rare. 

I value antiques from my grandmothers like Depression glass decanters, silver trays, cut glass salt cellars, aprons, and dresser scarves (what I prefer to think of as ‘true’ antiques). Their quaintness and the memories they call up appeal to me, but I rarely use them because they are so high maintenance. If I want younger family members to appreciate those antiques, I’d have to explain their purpose and tell stories about people they’ve never met. 

Bringing the objects and the people who used them to life is hard, but here goes.

Last week I made a pecan pie from scratch using my grandmother’s old wooden rolling pin. Although I never made pie with her, she was the one who liked to bake, so I feel that connection when I use it. I floured an old embroidered linen towel and rolled out the crust on it, which brought to mind one of my grandmother Mimmie’s housekeeping tips.

She was from an era when women were expected to embroider towels, pillowcases, and dresser scarves (pretty cloths that covered up a lot of a dresser top to protect the wood—a lot of energy went into protecting furniture in her day). She or one of her sisters embroidered the towel which also had to be starched and ironed so it would look nice while hanging in the kitchen. 

As a girl, I wondered how I was supposed to use such a fancy towel. Mimmie showed me her secret: dry your hands on the part that doesn’t show—the part that hangs closest to the wall on the towel rack. That way the pretty ironed front would stay nice for a few days. No surprise that I use terrycloth towels in my kitchen!

Beyond the ‘antiques’ in my life is the realization that my lived experiences are also the stuff of history, but that’s a story for a different day! 

What’s the oldest thing in your house? Does anyone besides you know what to do with it or why it matters?

Keeping Track

I come from people who keep track of everything: groceries to get, bills to pay, upcoming events, the day’s experiences, and past events.

As a young woman, my mom kept a diary that noted what mattered in her days: starting a novena and that a guy she was dating was kind of full of himself (they were happily married for 67 years anyhow). WE’RE AT WAR! she wrote in December 1941. Later in life, she recorded the weather daily on small pads of paper she kept next to the sofa. At her funeral, my cousins told me my uncle (her brother) had also kept meticulous notes—some about his garden, others about the weather. We marveled at the shared habit.

When my mother-in-law recently moved, at least 20 years’ worth of journals turned up. I was aware of her habit because she often asked how to spell something we’d served for dinner. Cioppino or ratatouille. She enjoyed keeping notes about what we ate and did during visits.

I’ve gotten an extra measure of documenting genes. Off and on since high school, I’ve kept personal journals in which I work out confusing feelings. I also make entries in a gratitude journal to remind myself of what’s good and right in my world despite the pandemic and trying political times. I document garden plans—what’s planted where and ideas for next year’s garden. I have lists of books I want to read along with books I’ve already read and what I thought of them. When dieting, I keep track of my exercise and meals.

I’m not alone in those habits, but for me, it doesn’t stop there. I have a ridiculous number of notes in my phone app. Supposedly 194 of them, but that can’t be right! Poems I like, blog ideas, writing tips, ideas for pottery projects, a list of lawn chemicals that won’t harm birds and pollinators, the steps for starting the snow blower. The notes go on and on!

My reasons can be practical. I want to remember something or find it quickly, and my phone is always with me. I tell myself I’m being efficient and orderly . . . but maybe ‘obsessive’ would be more accurate! Other times, keeping track is an emotional impulse. My personal and gratitude journals help me maintain equilibrium.

The habit of keeping track intrigues me. I think there’s something universal, something beyond the practicality of grocery lists, receipts, and calendars. The same impulse that leads people to document their lives on Instagram or Facebook, keeps me writing extensive notes and ongoing journals. It’s what caused my relatives to make daily diary entries.

As far as I know, my mom didn’t consult her weather notes after the fact. My uncle might have looked up which kind of tomatoes did well. I don’t know if my mother-in-law refers to her notes to remind herself of a previous year’s Christmas dinner. I suspect she doesn’t.

I believe the impulse to keep track is a way of saying, “I was here. My life matters. To me.”

What do you keep track of?