A bite-size piece of memoir for Mother’s Day

Dad served on the town recreation board for years when I was a kid. I was thrilled. Was I already civic minded? Was I proud of him being involved in community volunteer service? No, these were not the reasons.

Once a month, the “rec board” gathered for a supper meeting in town hall. Lucky for me, the perks of being an only child kicked in.

Mom took me out for Chinese food at the “Golden Dragon” every time Dad was attending the meeting. The front of the restaurant was a regular small-town cafe, but passing through the beaded curtain at the back, you entered the enchanting dining room. Dim light, Chinese lanterns, white fabric table cloths, stemmed water glasses, leather-bound menus, and wooden chopsticks waited. Mom and I regularly had arguments at home but once a month, over wonton soup, egg rolls, and Cantonese chow mein, we called a truce.

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P.S. Happy Mother’s Day Mom! This one’s for you:

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“Bite-size memoir” is a chunk of memoir just 150 words long, no more and no less.

It was first initiated several years ago by Lisa Reiter on her blog: https://sharingthestoryblog.wordpress.com/

If you enjoy writing but haven’t the time to get into a bigger project, or you are just starting to write, give it a whirl.

150 words may not seem like much, but have another read of the memoir above. Think about how much you learned about me, and my family,
in one little “bite”.

I love pizza, yoga and my Mom.

You cannot be on social media today without being reminded tomorrow is Mother’s Day in Canada. Like Christmas, Mother’s Day is not a day of celebration for everyone. For many it is a day of remembrance due to the loss of a mother, if not through death perhaps through estrangement. Sadly the reality of life is that days of celebration are not all-inclusive. Even those who are a mother themselves, or those who have a mother, may have reasons not to celebrate.

I do not take the fact I still have a mother for granted (she is nearing eighty, though without a doubt I know she’d rather I say she is just over seventy-five), but as I am reflecting upon Mother’s Day I realize I don’t think I’ve really ever told my Mom what it is I admire the most about her. Today is that day.

My Mom always told me when she finished high school she had only three choices of career: secretary, nurse, or teacher. She was not good at typing and did not want to work around blood, so her choice was obvious. Because there was a serious shortage of teachers when she graduated high school, she became as they were called back then – a “six week wonder”, attending summer school in preparation to teach a class right away in September. My Mom began teaching school in a small rural community in the late 1950s when she was just seventeen years old. She graduated high school at a young age because she had skipped a grade in school.

The fact that she took on the responsibility of teaching, and did the job well is amazing enough, but the fact she continued to do so for decades until her retirement in her mid-fifties makes it even more so. While teaching full-time she also completed her Bachelor of Education degree doing evening and summer school classes. Later in life when I discovered Mom was a life-long insomniac it boggled my mind to realize it had not been easy for her to get up early every school day, teach all day, make supper at home, then continue her own studies in the evening. She had, and continues to have incredible willpower. To me, that strength and perseverance is her most admirable characteristic.

Though some might say it was not so difficult (after all she only had one child of her own) Mom had her share of other worries during the span of her career. By the time I became a teenager, Mom had lost both her parents within a span of two years. Her Dad’s death was a long suffering one due to pancreatic cancer, and her Mom’s a sudden, unexpected one due to a smouldering house fire. Mom’s only sister (separated and with no children of her own) was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer, surviving for years but often requiring emotional support especially during prolonged hospital stays. Mom never took a leave of absence during these difficult times but continued with her teaching responsibilities, filling familial ones in between.

Another example of Mom’s willpower was when she decided to quit smoking. She had started as a teenager. Remember, back then doctors didn’t even advise pregnant women to stop the habit, and they even smoked inside the medical clinics and hospitals. However, when it was discovered that smoking increased cancer risk, Mom signed up for a seven day smoking cessation workshop for seven consecutive nights. I was around eleven years old then; I still remember she was grumpy and short-tempered for a few days. She was successful though, she never smoked again.

Likewise, when the news reported butter was not good for you and caused high cholesterol – BOOM – Mom stopped eating butter. Mom was diagnosed with osteoporosis at quite a young age, in hindsight probably due to having undiagnosed celiac disease for years. Learning it was important to build bone density via weight-bearing exercise, she began to walk regularly and joined a Curves gym when it opened in her community. During inclement weather she walks indoors on the treadmill. Prior to Curves closing she had registered around 900 workouts, most done in her seventies. I know few people of ANY age who are so diligent with their exercise and nutrition habits as my Mom. When she decides to do something, she does it, period. Without a doubt her strong willpower has served her well. I want her to know it has not gone unobserved.

A few weeks ago I asked my Mom to read a story I’d written for a short story competition. After reading it she sent me an e-mail saying she “loved it”. I asked her to tell me what she loved about the story. It wasn’t enough for me just to hear she loved it, I wanted to know why. I wanted to know she actually loved it, and was not just saying that without reason (except for being my Mom).

We live in a world where the word “love” gets thrown around frequently. Don’t get me wrong, that IS a good thing. I love pizza and can tell you why. I already told you a few blogs ago why I love yoga. Telling someone we love them has extra meaning when we let them know exactly what it is we love about them. According to palliative care experts, at the end of life what people most want to know is that their life mattered, had some meaning, and that they were loved. I don’t think we should wait for the end of life.

I love you Mom. Now you also know one of the reasons why.

A diagnosis that is hard to swallow…

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“If I gave you a cracker right now, could you chew and swallow it without water?”

Struck by the oddness of the question the Rheumatologist asked, I nevertheless thought about it only a fraction of a second and answered a sure “no”.

Why would he, a Rheumatologist, be asking such a question when I had been sent to him because of my ongoing complaints of sore joints, aching muscles, relentless fatigue and some vague irregularities in common blood test results?

I had seen this specialist once before. He had conducted a brief physical exam at the time, with special attention to my joints and muscles. He assured me I was completely healthy and he had no concerns. However, he sent me off to the lab that day after my appointment because he wanted a few specialized blood tests done. About ten days later he called asking me to come in to see him again for a more thorough examination, as there were some “indicators” in my lab work but he did not elaborate on what they might be.

This visit he started by looking in my mouth. I simply thought he was going to do a complete exam head to toe. After asking me about my ability to swallow a cracker he told me that my mouth was extremely dry, with barely any saliva in it all. I had never thought about it, but as he told me this, I knew he was correct.

This week someone asked me if dry mouth was the first symptom of Sjogren’s I experienced. I replied initially I thought it was not but rather it was the unrelenting fatigue alongside muscle and joint soreness that brought me to the doctor over and over again starting in my thirties. Looking back however, I suspect I may have had Sjogren’s as a teen or possibly as a child.

I remember being quite young and putting butter on my crackers when I ate them. As a teen my Mom looked at my toast and asked sarcastically, “You think you have enough butter on that?” I now realize I needed the fat on my crackers and toast so I could swallow them easily. My Mom had also wondered how I could wander around the house brushing my teeth and not be drooling frothy toothpaste all over. It is all clear now; my mouth was simply very dry for a very long time.

Further evidence of the dry mouth problem was that I had numerous cavities as a child / teen and was subjected to extensive dental work for fillings and crowns. As a young adult, my dentist said “You must have been a real grunge mouth when you were younger?” Thinking back, I realize as a youngster I was probably not as meticulous as I am now about my oral hygiene. I certainly know now how many foods adhere to my teeth; even something as simple as a single bite of a cracker or bread can cling to my teeth for hours since I have so little saliva.

Lack of saliva can increase risk of choking as well. At times I have had a miniscule piece of romaine lettuce or carrot get stuck on the lining of the back of my mouth or throat, strongly adhered, difficult to get back up or go down. Even with a drink sometimes it will cling, requiring me to eat a bite of something else in hope of it catching that fragment along with it to swallow.

The Rheumatologist had explained there were tests which could be done to confirm the Sjogren’s dry mouth diagnosis (lip biopsy, unstimulated salivary flow rate, etc.) but he said in my case they were absolutely unnecessary; a visual check combined with the blood tests, and other physical complaints was all he needed to be sure.

He explained I tested positive for ANA as well as the Sjogren’s specific antibodies SS-A, and SS-B in my blood therefore I indeed had Sjogren’s Syndrome. I had not an imaginary, psychosomatic illness, but a real one that had shown up in my blood explaining the symptoms I had been complaining about and reporting to doctors for years.

In that moment I was relieved, as well as excited to have a diagnosis at last. Little did I know then; in the coming years I would discover the diagnosis would be difficult to swallow in more ways than one.

*Note: Sjogren’s is not the only reason people experience dry mouth. Hundreds of medications (both prescription and over the counter drugs), cancer therapy, tobacco use, and nerve damage are a few of the other main causes of dry mouth. It should be noted that dry mouth is only one of many possible symptoms of Sjogren’s. For more info visit: http://www.sjogrens.org or http://www.sjogrenscanada.org

Playing Princess

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Fox stole, crinoline, satin and organza dresses, rhinestone jewellery, lace veil, and beaded drawstring evening bag; what more could a woman want? Or a little girl. My youngest auntie would dress me up in all this out-dated paraphernalia from some treasure chest in my grandparents’ house. I had no idea whose wardrobe and accessories these were to begin with, definitely not my grandmother’s as she was a plain dresser. I did not care; to me they were all mine! My Dad suspects they were left behind by Great-Aunt Lily who lived in California for awhile. I was only about four years old when Auntie Louise and I started this fantastical game of dress-up, but I remember bits and pieces of it to this day. To my delight, a couple of years ago my parents found photos of me in splendid bliss as “the princess” and “the bride”.

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This is another piece of “Bite-Size Memoir” ( memoir in 150 words – no more, no less) a writing project initiated by Lisa Reiter.

To learn more about it go to:http://sharingthestoryblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/bite-size-memoir-no-8-dressing-up/

Big money, little glamour!

Opening up the white business envelope to see my first paycheque nestled inside was a thrill not to be forgotten quickly. Though minimum wage, it was still three times what I was paid for babysitting kids in our neighbourhood, which was one dollar per hour.

I thought the salary was glamorous, but the work was not. I was one of six students hired to do janitorial work after school each day at my high school.

Every day immediately at dismissal bell we headed over to the janitorial room to pick up our heavy industrial vacuums and rolling carts of cleaning products to get busy vacuuming classrooms, emptying wastebaskets, dusting, cleaning blackboards, and worst of all scouring the washrooms.

The only real perk was the privilege of reading the graffiti on the walls of the boys’ washrooms before we had to wash it off, always hoping never to see our own names.

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This was yet again another morsel of “Bite-Size Memoir” initiated by blogger Lisa Reiter.

Each week a prompt is given for a 150 word ( no more, no less) piece of  memoir to be written.

Check out more here: http://sharingthestoryblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/bite-size-memoir-no-6-first-jobs/

On a pot hole & a prayer!

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Being an only child, my mother tended to be rather protective of me.

I grew up in an era when people did not wear seatbelts because most vehicles did not even have them. My mother’s rule to keep me safe in a vehicle was that I must always sit in the backseat, even if there was only the driver and myself in the vehicle. I respected the rule. Even if I was going two blocks down the dusty main street with my Grandpa in his Volkswagen Beetle to the Co-op grocery store in our small prairie town, I still had to sit in the backseat as though I had my own personal taxi driver or chauffeur.

So, it came as no surprise to me that the night before, and again on the morning of my departure on an out of town car trip with my piano teacher, my Mom reminded me: “Don’t forget to sit in the backseat.” I assured her I would, as my Dad pulled our car up to the side door of the convent to drop me off at 8:30 a.m.

I was going to the music festival in Lac la Biche, with my piano teacher, a Catholic nun, as well as another nun from the convent and three other girls. We were all from the same school, all in within a grade of each other, and we all took piano lessons once a week from Sister Komery, or Sister Canary as I called her behind her back.

I think as long as I assured my Mom I would sit in the back seat, she had no other worries, being that we were travelling in a bulky, four-door dark blue Buick sedan with a nun at the wheel. How much safer could one possibly be?

All four of us girls, the two German Michelles – Meirer and Schmitt, and the French farm girl Agnes Flaubert, and I were wearing summer dresses, and white knee socks for our debut playing piano solos on the music festival stage. Neither of the nuns wore habits anymore. They were dressed in conservative wool skirts, blazers, polyester blouses with plain, but prominent crosses on chains around their necks. Both Sisters wore wigs on their heads, necessary my mom had told me, after wearing habits for so many years and not having good hair anymore.

Being experts in efficiency, the sisters quickly had us getting in to the car. Immediately I said I was willing to sit in the middle of the backseat, no one disagreed, so in I climbed to my spot. Being a large backseat of a sedan, with just three eleven year old girls in it there was plenty of room for each of us.

The back seat fabric was irritating; scratchy on the back of my legs and knees. I had a sudden longing for the soft fuzzy grey seat covers in my Dad’s car. I guess the nuns felt no need for seat protection since they rarely had children in their vehicle. They did not need to worry about some kid dropping popcorn or pop on it at the drive-in as my Dad seemed to be obsessed with.

The smallest girl, my best friend Michelle M. had been directed to sit in the front between the Sisters. She was short enough that I still had a view out the windshield over the top of her blonde head.
I could also see a small metal statue of Saint Christopher stuck on to the dashboard of the car. Saint Christopher is the saint to keep travellers safe on their journey. Dangling from the rear-view mirror was a blue-grey rosary.

Sister Komery started the motor of the car, but she did not put it in gear.

Before I could even begin to wonder what was possibly wrong, she said: “I will say a prayer for a safe trip.” Quickly but quietly, she mumbled out about a three sentence prayer in ten seconds, the only words I really caught being “Jesus. Please. Safe. Trip. Amen.”

No sooner was the “Amen” out of her mouth, Sister Komery slapped the car into gear, jammed her foot on the gas, the tires spun briefly on the gravel, then as they grabbed hold sent us flying forward in our seats and down the convent driveway towards the highway.

With the car set so quickly into motion, then the thump of it off the driveway curb onto the highway below, the rosary on the rear-view mirror was set swinging. There went the crucified Christ back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Sister Komery was a very fast aggressive driver, with no apparent reason for being so. We were in no danger of being late, leaving in plenty of time for the hour and half drive on the highway, which started out on pavement then turned to gravel for over half of the trip.

Once we hit the gravel road she steered back and forth attempting to dodge deep pot holes, keeping the same speed up as on the paved road.

Even though all the windows were up in the car, the vents must have been open as the dry smell of dust penetrated the interior of the car, overpowering the scent of the lavender talcum powder I had smelled on the nuns as we got in the car. I could taste dirt on my tongue, my throat was parched.
The lack of fresh air along with the constant rattle and pelt of large stones hitting the undercarriage of the car beneath me were slightly sedating.

When we would hit a pot hole directly I was jolted back to the moment. The crucified Christ dangling in front of me jumped up and down, and then He went back to swinging back and forth until the next unavoidable pot hole.

I sneaked a quick look through the rear window behind me. All I could see was dust. No road, no sky, no scenery whatsoever, just thick brown dust.

This was not how I expected a nun to drive.

In what was probably record time, we arrived at our destination. The ride back home began exactly as we began that morning, and again I watched Jesus bounce and swing all the way.

I never knew a nun could drive like a bat out of Hell. I realized I now knew where my uncle got the expression “Jumpin’ Jesus”. He must have taken piano lessons at the convent too. Amen.