This Is Not the Life I Asked For

Lonely Widow

I’m a transplanted Kentucky woman who was raised to take care of a husband and children, be a good cook and a gracious hostess. In addition to those accomplishments, I earned a master’s degree and taught at a Detroit suburb high school. My school teacher husband and I had a happy traditional marriage, a colonial home, a summer place, two cars and two beautiful, well behaved children. We had solid plans for a perfect life. And then brain cancer swooped in. Our son, Jay, was 10 and our daughter, Holly, was 8.

 Suddenly our plans crumbled as we waged a physical and emotional war we thought we’d never have to face. Such challenges happened to other couples, especially those who had lived long lives, right? Wrong.

Yes, I begged God not to toss me into that lonely, silent group of widows at church. And I begged him not to take my children’s father. How was I going to raise them alone? How was I going to teach our son to be a man?

But God didn’t answer my prayers the way I wanted, the way I begged. Instead, He wrapped me in His arms and whispered, “I am here” even as I watched my husband die. And He was with me when I drove home from the hospital to tell two little kids their funny, loving, faithful dad had died.

The days after the funeral blurred. But even though I wanted to stay in bed and never face the world again, I had two youngsters who needed me. They had lost their dad physically; they mustn’t lose me emotionally. So each morning, I made myself face the day, take care of Jay and Holly, get them to school and then get myself to my own classroom. And during those dismal early days, my constant prayer was that our heavenly Father would be real moment by moment and not be like the many people who muttered, “Call me if you need anything” and then forgot about us. And I also asked Him to please bring His great good out my great pain. I didn’t know what that meant then, but I trusted Him—and have continued to do so. What a difference that has made.

Married friends often ask me to describe the life of the single mother.  They usually don’t want an honest answer, so I provide this word picture: “It’s like walking a tight rope while juggling.” If they ask for details, I’m happy to talk at length. But that conversation doesn’t happen until they—or a beloved relative—face the situation themselves.

So what basic things have I learned during this life I didn’t plan for and didn’t want?  First, we don’t get over grief, we get through it. And we do that by putting one foot in front of the other and hanging onto the Lord. Secondly, and most importantly, our heavenly Father hears our cries and brings His good out of whatever we give Him. We do not pray to air!

I hadn’t planned on encouraging other widows, specifically single mothers. But here I am. And even though I didn’t choose this life nor this ministry, I am grateful my heavenly Father has provided me with numerous opportunities to wrap understanding arms around other hurting women. One of those opportunities is just ahead at the first Widow’s Weekend at Sandy Cove Conference in North East, Maryland on March 6-8. If you are a widow, come join me, Gayle Roper, Betty Southard, Nan McCollough and Ann Downing. And be prepared to be encouraged by five widows who understand.

For additional information: http://sandycove.org/events/widows-journey

 

Posted in appreciation, encouragement, God's presence, grief, helping others, single mothers, single parenting, single-parent families, widows

Dare to be the Bold Button

000_photo

What are your thoughts as we approach the New Year? Are you excited about fresh opportunities on future unblemished days? Or are you concentrating on the all too rapid end to another year? Are you determined that this year you will follow through on annual resolutions? Or do you wonder, “Why bother?”

If that final question is the one you’ve chosen, I understand. I’ve had years like that, too. But I refuse to stay in the emotional rut. As midnight December 31 chimes on my antique clock this year, I’m determined to hang onto Psalm 138:3–“When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted” (NIV).

Being “bold and stouthearted” doesn’t mean we are arrogant or self-centered. It just means we know who we are in the Lord—and we refuse to give in to paralyzing thoughts of inadequacy. Have you ever felt inadequate? Oh, I have! In fact, over the years and despite my supposed accomplishments, I struggle with who I think I should be as a Christian woman. After all, shouldn’t I be slim, silent and musically gifted? Well, none of those attributes describe me.

But I’m learning to encourage myself with the delicious thought that our heavenly Father creates individuals and not assembly line robots. Yes, I need to take care of my health and keep working on my weight, but it’s okay to be who I am.

As a fun reminder, I have on my desk a pint jar filled with old buttons. I found the jar in an antique shop one day when I was convinced I’d never fit the “proper woman” mold I felt others required of me. Two button jars were displayed on the store shelf. The first jar held perfect tiny pearl buttons. The second was filled with mismatched buttons of various colors. I pulled the second jar from its spot and smiled as I remembered my great-grandmother, Mintie Farley, who let me play with the contents of her blue mason jar during our Kentucky farm days. My five-year-old fingers would separate the buttons into various color piles and line up the big metal ones.

There in the antique shop, I turned the jar to study the pink buttons perhaps from a baby’s garment, the coarse browns from a worn-out work shirt, and the bright blues maybe from an old Sunday dress. But the button that captured my attention was the bold red, green, and purple square button that may have fancied up an otherwise drab winter coat. As soon as I saw that one, I took the jar to the cashier—and ignored the container of perfect pearl buttons.

Now, whenever I get into a “I’ll never be perfect” mood, I need only to look at that jar to be reminded life would be boring if we all were the same. So if you are a bold red, green, and purple “button” like me who doesn’t fit in the pearl-button world, rejoice! All of us are needed—and fit—in God’s perfect, interesting plan. Happy New Year!

 

Posted in antiques, appreciation, Bold, button jar, confidence, counting blessings, courage, encouragement, perfection, pleasing others, Psalm 138:3, self-esteem, self-talk, Stouthearted

Everyday Guilt–and a Cat Named Petey

Petey Cat 1993

How are you at dealing with everyday guilt? If you are a mom like me, you know what I mean. Guilt over not hanging outside Christmas lights. Guilt over giving your child’s teacher a gift card for Christmas instead of hand quilting a delicate red and green table runner. Guilt over hiring someone to make your child’s costume for her spring concert instead of making it yourself. Guilt over not being able to take off from work to accompany your child on his field trip. Guilt over not having a spotless house. Guilt over not doing everything you think you should do.

Ah, guilt. Silly, energy draining guilt. I carry more than my share. How about you?

Yes, I know I’m not supposed to allow everyday guilt to overshadow the many tasks I do well. Yes, I know I’m supposed to follow the wise directive of Philippians 4:6—“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

But I still struggle. And being a single mother doesn’t help one bit.

My children, Jay and Holly, quickly figured out I can handle a crisis but I can’t handle guilt. Not only have they used that whenever it was to their advantage, but that’s how we got Petey—-the tiger cat who took over our household—and the critter in this photo.

For months, they had been asking for a pet, especially since they remembered our previous animals. At first, I patiently explained my work schedule and their school activities, saying it wouldn’t be fair to an animal to be left alone so much.

They’d counter with the argument that a cat likes being left alone. I again said no but with less patience. Sigh.

Then a litter of kittens was born in a garage down the street. Each afternoon, the neighborhood children gathered to watch the antics of the little creatures and analyze the varying personalities.

At home, our dinner conversations were filled with details of which kitten was the cutest, which one was the most clever, which one was the most playful. I remained unimpressed.

When the furry critters were old enough to go to new homes, Jay and Holly thought they had the perfect argument: “The owners are giving the kittens away. They’re free!”

I shrugged. “You might as well learn right now there’s no such thing as a free cat. You have to buy food and toys and take it to the vet. Believe me, all of that costs money. The answer is still no.”

10-year-old Holly looked at me with sorrowful eyes. “How come when we ask you for a kitty, you always say no? But the first time we asked Daddy, he said yes!”

I rubbed my forehead, searching for an answer. But I knew I’d lost.

“Go get your cat, Holly,” I said.

Both kiddos were out the door almost before I finished the sentence.

That’s my story of manipulation through guilt. I’d love to hear how you face similar guilt-riddled situations.

Posted in cats, children, everyday guilt, single mothers, single parenting, single-parent families

Believing Makes It So

Mama 1966 - Copy

Even though I’m a card-carrying member of AARP, I still ponder the wisdom my maternal grandmother, Mama Farley, possessed. The world undoubtedly saw her as a simple Appalachian mountain woman, but her strength and understanding of life rippled out to all who knew her. And even though she never had read Henry Ford’s quotation of “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’ll be right,” she understood the power of confidence.

In fact, she summarized the King James Version of Proverbs 23:7a—“For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”—with her own interpretation: “Believing makes it so.”

As a classroom teacher, I read a study stressing the importance of helping children believe in themselves. I’ve forgotten the study’s name, but I do remember it involved giving students a test and then reporting to the teachers higher scores for those students who had received the lowest ones. Since the teachers believed the students could do a better job—and told them so—the students believed it also and lived up to those expectations.

Mable, an elderly friend, modeled this principle in her late eighties. She had raised her family, helped her widowed daughter raise hers, and then decided it was time to do what she’d always wanted: get an education. Because she believed she could accomplish her dream, she did exactly that. Her major? American history, of course! When she died in her nineties, she was making plans to start her master’s degree.

If our dream seems unachievable, we can look at it another way. Barbara regretted not getting an education but, at 43, she wasn’t about to sit through four years of teen classes. Then she heard about the GED (graduate equivalency degree) that would take the place of her high school diploma. Within a month of passing the test—on the first try—she signed up for classes at the local college and was working toward her dream of becoming a nurse.

And we shouldn’t hesitate to add so called silly things to our believing lists, too. As Jean approached her seventieth birthday, she regretted lost childhood activities, particularly roller-skating. Something inside her demanded she call the local rink to check on lessons. Though she was the oldest one in the afternoon class, and was decked out in knee and elbow pads and a helmet, she skated! And she didn’t break anything in the process. Once she’d tackled that goal, she decided to enjoy the next item on her list: joining a hiking club. Since her list was lengthy, she soon stopped worrying about age.

Maybe it’s time for us to look at old dreams with new eyes and new plans. Will everything turn out the way we want? Well, no. But if we don’t try, we’ll never give life to our dreams. So let’s take a deep breath, grasp our heavenly Father’s hand and step forward. Remember, “believing makes it so.”  I’m ready.

How about you? What dreams are you ready to grab?

 

Posted in ancestors, Appalachia, appreciation, confidence, counting blessings, courage, education, encouragement, faith, families, grandmothers, Kentucky, mentors, perseverance, self-esteem, self-talk

A Cheerful Lesson From an Underground Worker

Macy's 1987 Thanksgiving Parade

Ever feel unappreciated? Ever wonder if anyone notices your efforts? I’m sure all of us have felt that way at one time or another. But the years have taught me that even little actions can make a big difference to the people we encounter. So when I’m meandering toward self-pity over the latest what-does-it-matter challenge, I remember a long-ago elevator operator.

A couple of years after my husband’s death, my two young teens and I moved an hour north of New York City—and 800 miles away from all that was familiar—so I could join the editorial staff at a Christian magazine. At the end of our first year there, we ventured down to Broadway to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In the past, the colorful floats, numerous marching bands and giant balloons such as Superman and Garfield had been part of our Thanksgiving mornings but only through TV. That day, we enjoyed being with thousands of other families who cheered and clapped in the November temperatures. The best part of the day, though, proved to be an enthusiastic subway elevator operator.

Our first few months in the new state had taught us that New Yorkers are used to sharing space whether in cafes or on public transportation, so their usual attitude was one of polite indifference. Thus, as we pushed the button for the elevator, we expected a silent descent to the next level. After all, for long hours each day, the operator is trapped in that box under the city streets, breathing air thick with fumes and dirt. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d been somber or even grumpy as we boarded his elevator. But this man surprised us.

“Hey there!” he said. “I bet y’all had fun at the parade. Where ya from?”

I was startled, but managed to say, “Mount Kisco. About an hour north.”

“Nice little town,” he said as we reached our requested level. As he opened the door, his parting comment was “Y’all come back and visit us again real soon. I love ya.”

We managed to mutter our thanks as we headed toward the subway train. As we walked, we could hear him singing as he strolled in front of the elevator and waited for his next passengers.

Even these years later, I smile that he chose to bring joy instead of grumpiness to those of us who shared his day even for those few minutes. And what a gentle challenge his memory is. What if, instead of fretting about daily irritations, I chose to give the people around me a reason to smile?

You see, I’m convinced our little actions can make a big difference to others. Once we understand that truth, then we can look for ways to put it into action. So, what do you hope others see as they watch you? Yes, moment by moment, we do make a difference.

Posted in appreciation, encouragement, Macy's Day Parade

What I Wish I Could Ask My Dad

Mitchell Picklesimer, Sr. at 24 in WWII

On this Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada, I’m pondering all my dad and others like him endured as they fought in various wars. And I wish I could go back in time and find a way to get my dad to talk more about his experiences in the South Pacific during World War II. But that’s impossible. Now I understand the truth of the statement from the late author Alex Haley: “Every time an old person dies, it is just as though a library has burned.” So I ponder an old photo of my dad standing next to two of his Army buddies. Who were the other men? What’s the bombed-out building behind them? What was the date? Did the other men survive the war? But I can’t ask Dad because he died several years ago—and took almost 80 years of personal experiences, world history and family memories with him.

Over the years, I did ask him about the war. But like most men of that generation, he didn’t talk much about those experiences. At least not to his children. Or maybe I didn’t know the right questions to ask. So I concerned myself with my own little world of getting an education, marrying, teaching in a Detroit area high school, raising children—and visiting the folks every other weekend. One time, Dad and I were talking about my having worked as a civilian secretary for a ROTC Army unit while I was in college. Remembering some of the ridiculous orders I innocently had obeyed, such as being sent by a captain to “procure” items from the major’s office, I asked Dad, “What was the worse command you ever received?”

His eyes took on a far-away look, and I barely could hear his reply: “Fix bayonets.”

In that moment, Dad was no longer in his living room, but in some long-ago jungle in the South Pacific. He didn’t talk for the rest of my visit, so I decided I wouldn’t ask about the war again. I regret that decision now and have many, many other situations I wish I could discuss with him.

A while back, I asked several friends what questions they wish they could ask relatives who have died. One friend would like to know more about her father being raised in an orphanage; another friend wants details about her mother’s childhood during the Great Depression; a co-worker wonders about the two children her mother gave up after her first divorce.

Yes, we all have unanswered questions. Sometimes we didn’t know how to ask about the tough situations. Or maybe we were caught up in our own challenges and thought our parents always had been this old. Now, suddenly, the years have passed, and we find an old photo triggering questions that never can be answered. But rather than linger in regrets, I’m determined to ask details from older cousins and remaining aunts–now. We all need to ask those questions while we can. Getting the answers may require a long phone call or even a visit. But the results will be worth the effort. How about you? What questions do you wish you could ask?

 

Posted in aging parents, courage, families, regrets, veterans, World War II

Sweet Birthday Memories

5-month-old Jay March 1973

What special memories do you associate with birthdays? Do you smile as you ponder a long-ago celebration? I like remembering my 34th birthday when my husband surprised me with a gathering of dear friends at our Michigan supper club.

How about the children in your life? What scenes make you smile? I still ponder my daughter Holly’s 8th birthday when she and several classmates decided to decorate cupcakes with elaborate frosting designs. And I remember when Jay, my then 11-year-old son, asked his friends not to give him a gift at his party but to bring a dollar for missions.

In fact, today is Jay’s birthday. And while I rejoice at this milestone, I am mindful he now is older than his dad, my husband, was before brain cancer swept in and changed our family forever. But I have choices: I can concentrate on what we as a family have lost or on what we have left. So on this special day, I again choose to ponder our many blessings. And I invite you to stroll down Memory Lane with me—and perhaps remember special birthday moments in your own life.

On our happy October day years ago, the doctor said, “Mrs. Aldrich, you have a son” just as my baby howled at having been forced from his warm, dark sanctuary and thrust into a cold, noisy, brightly lit room. And I marveled at how those howls stopped as the perfect little human thrust his thumb into his mouth, took two or three sucks and then discarded that activity in favor of more howling.

The two nurses tending him chuckled and turned to me. “I’ve been a nurse for 14 years, and I’ve never seen a baby suck his thumb so quickly,” one said.

“And split it out so fast when he realized it wasn’t yielding anything,” the other one said. “You’ve got a smart little feller.”

I smiled. No argument there.

Now I’m remembering his impish grin as he’d feed his breakfast oatmeal to our Scottish Terrier, MacDuff. And his glee as he took his first steps into my outstretched arms. And the name Ollie Duck he gave his baby sister, Holly, when we brought her home. And how as a 4-year-old he rode the red and yellow Big Wheel cycle up and down our sidewalk for hours at a time. And the endless Knock-Knock jokes. And his love of reading in fourth grade but resistance to book reports. And his sweet bedtime prayers.

Yes, I wish his dad had lived to see the fine man our son has become. I know his dad would be proud of his college degree and chosen profession—and would congratulate him on his choice of a wife. And they would enjoy discussing politics and religion and economics. But those scenes play out only in my imagination.

I’m back to choices. I can lament the lost experiences or I can rejoice in the Lord’s Presence and how He helped us build a new life as a family of three. Thus, I choose to smile at the many good memories my mind and heart hold. By concentrating on what I have left instead of what I have lost, I see the joy in each new day. And that makes birthdays all the sweeter.

How about you? What birthday memories do you ponder? I’d love to have you share those with me on Facebook.

Posted in appreciation, birthdays, children, counting blessings, families, God's presence, single mothers, single-parent families, widows

Thank you, Doris Schumacher

Doris Schumacher winter 1972

Has someone ever changed your life with just a few words? Years ago, that happened to me. In fact, a three-minute conversation gave me the vision to get an education. The summer before I entered seventh grade, I met Doris Schumacher, a teacher visiting her elderly Aunt Minnie, who lived across the street from my family and for whom I often ran errands. Back then, schoolteachers frightened me because they didn’t have to be politically correct and several had ridiculed my Appalachian speech patterns. Thus, I immediately was intimidated by Doris, too.

But she smiled and said, “Aunt Minnie tells me you’re going into junior high this fall. Tell me, what do you like to study?”

I was surprised by her question. I usually heard only “How’s school?” from adults. But I stammered, “I like to read, and I like history.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “I teach eighth-grade English and social studies in Minneapolis. What do you like to read?”

Two direct questions from an adult? Again stammering, I told her about the books I had read the past week. “Good choices,” she said. Her Aunt Minnie entered the room then with the letters she wanted me to mail. As I said goodbye, Doris said, “I assume you’re nervous about going into junior high. Don’t be; you’ll do just fine!”

The conversation maybe had taken only three minutes, but by the time I walked across the street and up our front steps to check in with my parents before the errand, I determined to be a teacher someday “just like Doris!”

Decades ago, no women in my extended family had attended college, so my announcement was new territory. But I pulled the dream into my heart and, with God’s grace and my perseverance, gained the B.A. and M.A. degrees that gave me 15 years in a Detroit-area classroom. Later, those same degrees opened the door for me to pursue an editing career and rebuild my life after my husband died.

Doris is in heaven now, but she and I maintained contact after her dear aunt’s death. In fact, her letters and calls encouraged me through college, my teaching career and even as I entered the editing world. One snowy morning, as we chatted over long-distance phone lines, she commented about how far I had come since my school days.

“You’re a big part of that success,” I said. “You gave me the vision to go to college.” Then I began to tell her about the long-ago meeting.

She interrupted me. “No, dear,” she said. “The first time I met you was when you were 15 and with Aunt Minnie at the hospital after she’d broken her hip.”

“Oh, no, Doris,” I insisted. “I was 12. You visited her in August before school started. You stood by the oak table in her front room. The sun was coming through the lace curtains and . . . .”

She interrupted again. “Oh, my dear,” she said. “I don’t remember that at all.”

I chuckled. “It’s okay, Doris,” I said. “That morning only changed my life!” And, truly, it did.

Perhaps you wish you had met a Doris early in your life, too. Oh, I wish you had! But if you didn’t have a Doris, you can be a Doris—and your kind words may change a life. Just as they changed mine.

I would love to hear your stories of the power of encouragement. Please share them on FaceBook or LinkedIn.

Posted in children, confidence, education, encouragement, helping others, mentors, perseverance, self-esteem, self-talk

Give Yourself a Not-So-Silly Gift

The Doll

What are your thoughts about giving yourself a gift? As my friend Marian and her 72-year-old neighbor, Ruth, browsed in an antique shop, Ruth gently picked up a doll with soft hair.

“I used to have a doll just like this when I was a little girl,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. Gradually, Marian pulled the story from Ruth:

“I named my doll Hannah. And I loved her as though she were the little sister I’d always wanted. I was just learning to sew, and I was excited about the wardrobe I would make for her.

My father was the pastor of a small church, so we had very little. But it didn’t matter; I had Hannah. Then one afternoon, my parents came into my room while I examined scraps of material. One pink piece was just large enough to make a jacket for Hannah.

I looked up at my parents. Both had a this-will-be-good-for-you look, as though they were about to give me some awful tasting cough medicine.

Then my father told me he had visited a poor family that afternoon who had a daughter about my age. “She’s never had a doll,” he said.

My heart froze.

My father continued, “So we want you to give her your doll—as unto the Lord.”

I shook my head. But my mother took Hannah out of my hands.

Shame on you for being so selfish,” she said. “You have so much.”

I didn’t see that I had so much. I only had Hannah.”

As Ruth finished the story, tears were running down her cheeks.

Marian hugged her and said, “Buy this doll for yourself.”

“What?” Ruth stammered. “Buy myself a doll? I’m too old for such nonsense.”

Marian shook her head. “No you aren’t. Buy the doll. Sew those clothes now that you wish you could have sewn then.”

Ruth smiled and bought the doll. Sometimes she looks at it in the rocking chair in her bedroom and wonders if maybe—just maybe—it’s the real Hannah.

Your gift to yourself doesn’t have to be a long lost doll. Maybe it’s time to buy that big box of crayons your parents couldn’t afford when you were in elementary school. Or perhaps you need to replace the white shoelaces in your walking shoes with neon green. Go ahead and give yourself that silly gift. And smile as you realize it isn’t silly at all.

I would love to hear your thoughts about Ruth’s story or, better yet, your personal experience with giving yourself a not-so-silly gift. Please share those thoughts with me on Facebook or LinkedIn.

 

Posted in antiques, confidence, encouragement, gifts, self-talk

Our Past Is Not Compelled to Cloud Our Future

Peanuts Cartoon--the PastDo you ponder long-ago scenes, sometimes with regret? Me, too. In fact, I have a yellowed Peanuts cartoon with which I identify. In it, Charlie Brown is on the pitcher’s mound as Lucy hands him the ball.

“Sorry I missed that easy fly ball, Manager,” she says. “I thought I had it, but suddenly I remembered all the others I’ve missed.”

As she turns away, she says, “The past got in my eyes.”

Sigh.

One morning shortly after I clipped the cartoon, I lived Lucy’s attitude. I was playing doubles tennis with a new partner, Iris. I missed a perfect forehand, then grumbled and apologized, embarrassed I had performed poorly.

I missed the next shot as well. Again, I apologized.

Iris said softly, “Play the next ball, Sandra.”

The next ball? Of course. I had been so intent on mentally replaying the missed shots that I missed the next ones—just like Lucy.

Unfortunately, I identify with the past getting in my eyes in more than just sports. But I’m learning. For me the first step is to ask the Lord to help me look at the event again, ask His forgiveness if needed and release the scene to Him. Memorizing Philippians 3:13 has helped, too: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,”

The image of “straining toward” the future instead of being bound to the past makes me take a deep breath and smile. Yes, freedom is just a prayer away.

I’m interested in what you think about the power of the past. What insights do you have for friends who dwell on long-ago scenes?

Posted in confidence, encouragement, regrets, self-talk | Leave a comment