Category Archives: girlhood

The cost of Free Lunch

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Monday, YALSA, the young adult librarian services arm of the American Library Association, awarded the 2020 nonfiction award to Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch a small book that left a huge impact on this reader. The memoir tells the story of Rex’s first semester of sixth grade in Texas. He’s just entered middle school, a milestone for which he was very excited. He’s a hardworking and bright student who loves to read and values the routine of school. In addition to his schoolwork, Rex shoulders a tremendous amount of responsibility at home caring for his 2 1/2 year old brother and preparing meals since his mother “doesn’t cook.”

 

And, he’s poor. Really, really poor.

 

Rex lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and their child, in a two bedroom apartment in which all of the furniture items can be counted on one hand. Rex sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag, storing his meager wardrobe of ill fitting, but clean, clothing in cardboard boxes left over from the family’s most recent move. They move a lot.

 

There is never enough food in their home, but the threat of physical, emotional and verbal abuse fills the otherwise empty rooms. Grocery and school supply shopping expeditions are balancing acts between getting what is needed and not angering a mother who rages against every perceived societal injustice with a loud and confrontational voice.

 

Reading Rex’s words on the page prompted memories and strong feelings for me. We were poor, too. While my mother never was abusive, she also was not particularly interested in the emotional needs of her own children or sensitive to the pressures of fitting in socially. I just don’t think she had the resources to explore either of those avenues.

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I shared Free Lunch, along with Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s National Book Award Finalist graphic novel memoir, last week with my 7th grade students. The theme of the presentation, and the books I pulled, was families. I talked a little about the infinite number of household compositions that can be encompassed by the word Family. I told the kids about the embarrassment Ogle felt about his home situation and poverty and explained that I knew what he was talking about because of my own experiences growing up in a single parent household, being dependent upon welfare, and receiving free lunch.

 

When I was a kid, there were times when we had to devise ways to heat up food (pre-microwaves) when there was no gas for the stove. Hot water wasn’t always available and sometimes in the winter there was no water whatsoever because we had neglected to leave the water dripping on cold nights and the pipes had frozen. Most of the time, in home laundry was a luxury we didn’t have and I have memories of clothing drying near the wood burning stove upon which we were dependent for heat. 


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Hours of my childhood were spent in the overheated offices of the county social services building waiting as my mother reapplied for assistance. I learned at an early age that toilet paper, soap and aspirin were all considered nonessential and thus not able to be purchased with food stamps. And the embarrassment of free lunch? I’m very familiar with the shame of having to publicly admit that my family did not have the means to provide me with a midday meal.

 

My lesson finished with a “blind” book selection activity in which I asked students to close their eyes, reach into a bin filled with assorted books and withdraw one. As they lined up to perform the task, I explained that none of us get to pick the family that we’re born into and I requested that they sit down for 5-7 minutes with their randomly selected book and just read. Following their quiet reading, they had the option to borrow the book or opt for an alternative title. The choice, just like what might come next in their own lives, was theirs to make.

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Throwback thanksgiving

Pies from Debbie’s Kitchen, Albany NY

When I was a kid I had faux aunts and uncles. There were no true relatives (that I knew about) in the States, so my mother provided close friends who functioned on some level as family. It was a laudable attempt and there were some good people in our lives during those years, some of whom remain to this day.

One of these families, the Ls, had the most multi limbed family tree in the my world and I loved the holidays we shared with them over the years. Dinner usually included all of the following: the married couple, (about the same age as my mom), and their daughter, who was a toddler when we met, his son from his first marriage, joined by her two children from her first marriage. Also present, her first husband with his son from his second marriage. And the three of us.

It seemed like the most exciting, bizarre and totally normal holiday gathering ever. The traditions all blurred together, Jewish, Italian American, German, and the food was crazy – lasagna, bagels with lox, ham and fruit cake. Thinking about those days always makes me smile big.

Yesterday, for the first time in a few years, I had Thanksgiving dinner with friends. It was very low key and comfortable. We brought desserts and a savory vegetable casserole to join the bounty that was already present. While we didn’t play backgammon for boxes of Marlboro Reds, (as I might have decades ago with “my” extended family), we sipped far better wine than in those long ago days, with a mood which was comparably mellow.

My first attempt at curd – Cranberry Curd Tart from the NYT.

At the table was my UG* and his children. And his children’s mom and her partner, along with her partner’s parents and her brother and sister in law. Looking around the table and seeing the threads that tied us all together, I couldn’t help but smile at the familiarity of the situation.

We recreate the chaos with which we are most comfortable. (I use “chaos” here to suggest a familiar dynamic with lots of activity, not as an indication of lack of control.) There’s a vibe or pace that we try to replicate, whether it’s conscious or not, because that’s what we grew up knowing.

Sitting at the dining table with a bunch of people who, through the years, have chosen to share their lives with one another, defines the holidays for me, even more than turkey and cranberry sauce. The combination of common histories and yet-to-be-explored future activities is what I was raised on and yesterday was the first time I felt that familiar energy in a long time.

It was a good holiday.

How was yours?

*don’t ask me what it means, it’s a private joke term of endearment

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Filed under aging, Albany, Boys, Christmas, Dinner, drinking, Eating, family, Food, friends, girlhood, holidays, Local, love, marriage, musings, Observations, relationships, upstate New York, Wine

Jersey girl birthday

Or, The Story of the 35th Anniversary of My 18th Birthday, Jersey Shore Style

F7603EE7-FF2E-4B6C-9287-B2717F42DEA6I sought this photo out for a post over at CivMix and every time I look at it, I can’t help but smile. What in the world gave that high school dropout with zero prospects the nerve to look over her shoulder with such an assured gaze?

For the life of me, I can’t remember feeling half as confident as I appear in that photo. I was in love. I know that. M1 was making me smile and I was happy, not knowing where I was going, but glad to be exactly where I was.

I’m fairly certain that picture was taken in the summer of 1984. I know it was on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. My hair was permed and glazed. I believe the shade was called “fuchsia plum” and my hair looked wild under the bright lights.

That was the last time I was on the beaches of New Jersey, until last weekend. Thirty-five years later, I was finally back on the beaches of “the Shore,” which was what we called the New Jersey coast where I grew up.

F306957B-791C-41CF-AB3B-1288B73BD5B9On this recent trip I felt more so much established, certain of my value. I knew I was a catch for far more than a coquettish glance. The swagger in my step currently comes from the knowledge that I am, without a doubt, capable, independent and resilient. My gaze is direct instead of coy and, while my hair may be fading into silver, I feel more confident in myself than ever before.

I look back at that photo and can’t help but consider all of the decisions I’ve made between then and now. Some good, others not so great.  I’m so happy to know that I wouldn’t alter a single one of those choices because, if I did, I wouldn’t be where I am right now and it’s a damn good place.

Sunday, the day after my 53rd birthday, I laid on the beach soaking in the rays of the sun. I wore a two piece bathing suit, something I wouldn’t have done when I was 18 because I would have been concerned with how I looked to others.

On this particular day, though, I realized I didn’t really care how I looked in a bikini, because it was all about how the sun felt on my skin. And it felt great.

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Filed under aging, birthdays, girlhood, musings, road trips, Summer, sunday

O Captain! My Captain

I’m no army brat, so the term captain isn’t one I use with any frequency. Which is probably why I took note of the fact that I did indeed use the word twice in a single evening recently. Both were in the “proper noun” category, meaning a place and a person, (of sorts) and both have left me feeling reflective. I’m not complaining, it’s not a bad way to be, particularly as my academic years winds down.

So, the first occurrence was related to a mega reunion, involving many graduating classes, which occurred last weekend. While the event initially sounded fun and worthy of a drive “home,” as the date approached it began to feel less and less appealing. I don’t like really big crowds and I didn’t think I would know many people there. My immediate classmate cohort had been a freshman class of 65 which the much larger class(es) we were merged into, in a neighboring district (we didn’t have a high school in my town), had either absorbed or spit out. What was the point of driving 100+ miles to talk to people with whom I wouldn’t necessarily have engaged 35 years ago?

But, then I started seeing the names of the people who were making significant effort to get to Orange County and I reconsidered. I still didn’t feel comfortable going to the large, and probably loud, outdoor party on Saturday, but there was an interest in a Friday evening social at a local place that everyone there had memories of hanging out at during our late teens and twenties.

The get together was held at the Captain’s Table, a joint where softball teams celebrated after every game, win or lose, when we were kids. It was very much a roadside burger and beer stand, with barstool seating and, as I remember, hinged wooden windows that could be dropped at the end of the night. I learned to like beer there, something I had to do because it was the cheapest alcoholic beverage at the time and I was saving my money to travel.

Friday night’s mixer made me shake my head many times, none of which were particularly bad reasons. I shook my head to clear cobwebs and hopefully recall a long forgotten name. Or history. What was our connection? Shared academic classes? Parties? Did we hang out? Where do you start when you’re talking with someone you haven’t seen in 35 years?

There were, of course, some Laker friends whose names are pretty much etched on my heart. Those people? We really know each other and our histories have been entwined for decades. It takes no effort to remember our shared memories, families, or joint experiences and I’m always happy to see them anywhere. That part is easy.

I stayed at the Table long enough to catch up with a couple of people, eat a burger and drink a beer. That was really all I could manage since I needed to drive north again to spend the night with friends in New Paltz. I left feeling a twinge of regret for

1. Not arranging my schedule better to accommodate staying later and
2. Just not being more comfortable with a crowd.

My takeaway from the happy hour is that I really need to either work on my social skills or avoid placing myself in situations like this in the future. I’m pretty certain that I felt similarly after the last big get together. Maybe I just need to accept that I’m not the reunion type? How do you manage similar events? Any techniques you’d like to share for making reunions more meaningful?

Now, if you’re thinking my second captain of the night was a Captain Morgan and Coke, you’re wrong. It actually involves an adorable addition to the household of friends – a new puppy! Captain is a cocker spaniel who has stolen the hearts, and the shoes, of his new parents since he arrived a couple of weeks ago. It’s been a while since I’ve been around a puppy and I almost forgot how cute they are and how much work they can be! Although Captain is ridiculously adorable and easy to be with (even when he bites my toes), I sincerely salute both of this weekend’s Captains and wish them health and longevity.

 

 

 

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Filed under aging, drinking, Eating, Events, friends, girlhood, musings, relationships, road trips, Schools

Alabama getaway

I am so tired of the abortion debate. Not like too exhausted to continue to fight for women to have control of their own reproductive choices. No, that isn’t it at all. I mean, like so weary of having to argue with people who believe that they have the authority to dictate what any woman can do with her body. The kind of tired that makes a person angry and liable to snap. Like hangry on a massive dose of steroids. Yeah, like that.

Circa 1982

 

 

To me, taking responsibility for an unintended pregnancy as a teenager meant terminating because I knew I wasn’t responsible enough to care for a child. I had no education, no career and no partner with whom I wanted to raise a child. My life style then was far less moderate than my current one and the pregnancy, as I said, was unplanned. That eventual child would not have been provided with its best start and caring for a infant, with potential birth defects, certainly would have been far beyond my capabilities as a high school student. My choice was the best one in my situation.

It was no body’s* business but my own, and only my soul, if there’s such a thing, will bear the scars of my choice. Just like it’s my body, it’s my karma or damnation. It has nothing to do with you, so don’t try to make it your business.

It’s not about YOU or God. Not everything is.

I’ve never claimed to not wonder, or think, about what that embryo may have grown to become. I’ve always been convinced that the aborted baby was a girl and, after being fortunate enough to birth three sons, I’m ok with the universe fucking with me like that. That being said, I have zero regret about my decision and I truly believe that the energy that was gathering cells together within my body, went somewhere else in the universe. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have a close female friend who is essentially the same age my child would be and I appreciate that her own mother was in a position to welcome her into the world in a way that I could not. She is a gift.

So, while I’m more than tired of hypocritical politicians, men who seek to exert control over a woman’s reproductive decisions and people who care more about the life of an unborn child than they do of one that is living in horrendous conditions, I will not ever rest on this issue. Promise.

*get it? MY body

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Being comfortable in the skin you’re in

(I considered placing a warning here for male readers, but that would be a disservice to any guys who may appreciate skincare. Like my son.)

How do you care for your body’s biggest organ?* Do you moisturize? Exfoliate? Tone? Protect it from the sun? Or maybe you’re low maintenance and just allow it to breathe? Let’s talk about a skincare routine and preferred products.

But first a little history… I was raised by a seamstress who sold Avon on the side and have been devouring fashion and beauty magazines since middle school. I have a distinct memory of sitting in front of a mirror on the floor in my bedroom slathering my face (And neck! Do not neglect the neck!!) with some product, probably from Avon, and hoping that my freckles might fade. They didn’t disappear, but eventually my shame in having them did.

Since those days, my skincare routine has gone through countless revisions. There were the Clinique 3-step years  which ultimately were ended by the 3-sons years. Who has time for 3 steps when they’re raising children?! I moved on to Philosophy’s Hope in a Jar,  a facial cream that has the one-two appeal of great fragrance and a lovely light consistency. It came, however, with a price. That stuff was a bit of a splurge!

In recent years I’ve been a fan of the Origins  skincare line. Again, the products smell amazing, but additionally the ingredients seem to be thoughtfully sourced and the price was more palatable. The array of options – light to heavier formulations for different seasons, cleansers, gentle exfoliants and eye creams all seemed to work for me and I’ve been pretty happy with the condition of my skin. But…

This year I decided to go in a different direction. I wanted to explore some low budget drugstore items to see if my skin responded differently than it does to the more high end lines. I’d like to simplify the number of potions and products on my shelf, but I am even more interested in economizing on my skincare purchases. Right now, I’m experimenting with Cerave (originally nicked from the bf’s medicine cabinet) with SPF for daytime use and First Aid Beauty (FAB)  for night time. I think I’ll continue to use my Bliss** face wash and Origins toner  but would certainly consider a new eye cream if you have a recommendation.

As far as the rest of my skin, although there are times I wish it could be a little thicker, I’ve been told it’s remarkably soft. Nivea for life.

How about you? Do you have a skincare routine to share?

*that’s your skin btw, fellas

** we take our bliss where we find it, people!

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Finding your voice to Speak and Shout

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, originally published in 1999, is one of those books that has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago. This YA novel relates the story of a high school freshman, Melinda, who is ostracized by her peers because she calls the police while at a party during the summer after eighth grade. What no one other than Melinda knows is that she called for help because she had been sexually attacked by an upperclassman. She told no one. She did not speak.

Recently, I read the graphic novel edition of the title and was completely taken in by the story again. Updated to include social media, cell phones and other contemporary details, the story translated beautifully to the visual medium of a graphic novel. Our copy has already disappeared from the collection, a sure sign to librarians of a book being a winner. We have two more copies on order.

The latest title written by Anderson is Shout, an autobiography written in verse and, again, it is exceptional. Subtitled “The true story of a survivor who refused to be silenced,” this book tells the story, at last, directly from the author’s perspective without the protection a fictional character can provide. It is raw and harrowing and at times deeply sad, but there is a thread of defiance that is awe inspiring. The story manages to span a time period from World War II to #metoo and has left a mark upon me that I suspect will remain forever.

Below are a few of the lines that stole my breath.

 

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