Bring Us Your Ancestors

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My great grandfather, Leslie Fairchild aka Leslie Kelly

Back in my college days, one of my classmates suggested that a good salve for writer’s block was contemplating one’s ancestors. He reminded me of this once by saying “Bring us your ancestors!” from a second story window as I walked on the sidewalk below. Since I could hear but not see him, I first worried that I was having a command hallucination, which would have been a serious complication of the major depression that was descending upon me at that time. To my relief, he confessed that he was the one who spoke those words as soon as I walked into the classroom.

I avoided doing much research or writing about my ancestors because I was afraid of what I might find in studying them or the feelings I’d develop while writing about them. Would they seem perfectly functional in comparison to me, making me one of the original screw-ups in my family tree? Was it possible that some of them were infamous, casting my problems in a kinder light in comparison? I also considered that I might have no feeling whatsoever for my ancestors, the possibility I feared most, yet another experience that did not penetrate my unsentimental core. I was seldom sad while depressed. Instead, I felt numb like a limb fallen asleep, full of pins and needles.

Recently I dared to dip into the subject of my ancestors, and the discovery of one of my ancestors was compelling enough to me to cut through the concerns I had in the past. In discovering him, I understood that there was no point to judging my ancestors, for if they had lived their lives differently, I would not exist. There is nothing like finding out that the existence of me and nearly half of my close relatives depended on the drastic choice of one person to drive this point home.

My great grandfather Leslie appeared on a bicycle at his future in-laws’ farm in Middlepoint, Ohio, around 1926, and offered his work as a farm hand. While working on that farm, he was a man with no proof of his past, yet he quickly wooed and married my great grandmother. They had three daughters in the next few years, one of whom is my paternal grandmother. In 1936, the family of five was farming at night to escape the July heat and were in a car accident on the way home. Leslie and two of my great aunts lost their lives in that accident. My great grandmother and grandmother were critically injured in that accident as well. Inquiries were made to a town in Michigan that Leslie claimed as his hometown. No one in that town knew him.

Until this year, the only mementos we had of him were his death portrait, his hat and his long johns. His origin was a mystery that my family attempted to solve several times in the intervening years. Little did we know that in Michigan there was another family who knew his beginning and had been searching for information on his end.

Since I doubt that I will soon stop wondering why he did what he did, I will not linger here on the details of how I found him. I’m sure I will write of this matter again, as I have before. I discovered that in 1923 that my great grandfather became a missing person in Minneapolis. He left his home, where his first wife, his mother and five surviving children were living, stopped at work to collect his paycheck, and did not go home again. He had lost two children to a measles outbreak three years previously, so he originally had seven children in his first marriage. Since he left so many close relations behind and made no contact with them, the authorities presumed he was dead, yet he lived thirteen more years under a different last name in another state.

As his origin was revealed, we discovered that he was truthful on some details. He really had been born and raised in Michigan, just not in the town he mentioned. He offered his actual birth date and mother’s name on his second marriage certificate. What he did not reveal is staggering, that he left a beautiful wife, a loving mother and precious children behind. I can only imagine what forces inside and outside of him led him on this course. He did not live long enough to reverse it. He spoke of taking his second family to meet his relatives in the months leading to his death. I can only imagine how he might have negotiated that reunion.

This revelation healed a part of me. For years, I felt like I was the one who was out of place, a changeling or foundling child in mind if not in body. I am relieved to know that I was not the outlier. Now that I know more of my great grandfather’s story, it’s like a long awaited piano tuner has finally arrived and restored a piano fallen out of tune long ago.

 

The Fashion Fiasco of 1987

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By the time of my ninth grade Christmas, my parents had long given up the ghost of my belief in Santa and let me put a limited wish list on layaway at a discount department store. I chose four Beatles albums, some sensible tops and a pair of pleated plaid trousers. This was at the height of the high, tiny waisted pants era, and I was at my most vulnerable to the influence of teen fashion magazines like Sassy and Seventeen. Relying on my own taste alone, I had previously bought a hideous intarsia sweater that had the words “Ski Bunny!” knitted in black on a yellow background, so I was up for trying the styles promoted by such magazines. They had touted plaid britches as a back-to-school necessity, and it didn’t matter so much to me that I’d be four months late to that trend by Christmas.

I now doubt that anyone but a mannequin had a body suited for those pants, but at the time I felt that they were a mandatory indictment of my shape, one I deserved if I wanted to partake of future trends. Family legend has it that I was born shaped like an accordian. This isn’t entirely false. After losing considerable amounts of weight, I still look a bit like an accordian but with fewer folds.

The waist on the plaid pants was so small I had to choose a pair two sizes larger than usual, making me look as if I were wearing loud pantaloons. After opening them on Christmas morning, I wore them only three times. The first two times it seemed as if people were trying to see me without seeing the pants. I revisited the experience of being seen-yet-not-seen a few years ago when I went grocery shopping in a pair of Stewie lounge pants.

Dryer shrinkage had doomed the plaid pants by the third time I wore them. After struggling to button them, I sat down on the stairs at home to wait for my sister to finish getting ready for school. This was a day we were free from wearing our school uniforms, and all such days were an opportunity to show our fashion sense and flair for maximum big hair. All of the hair spray in the air made me sneeze, and the recoil of that sneeze ripped the button from my pants. As the button ricocheted off two walls, I was spared the infamy of having worn those absurd pants to school. I had already given others enough fodder for embarrassing nostalgia by wearing “Ski Bunny!” for class picture day and for my dateless appearance at that year’s Homecoming dance.

I have been relatively immune to fashion in the intervening years. Every year has an absurd, ill-fitting trend. Even though I have worn every size from 4 to 24 over the years, I still have not had the dimensions for easily finding clothes that fit well. I don’t know who the industry has in mind when their ever shifting sizes are created. I used to think that I had a hard time finding flattering clothes because I was overweight, but I’ve had the same problem at a healthy weight. I have the best luck buying clothes at thrift stores, finding nearly new apparel that didn’t fit someone else well enough.

 

A Recipe for Cheap Diet Soup

I have a few recipes for inexpensive, diet-friendly dishes. Back when I was broke (not so many years ago), I made a goal of seeing how little money I could spend on cooking and still create something nutritious. This soup was part of that quest. The butter can be omitted, but I think adding a little fat helps with flavor and nutrient absorption. Of course, this recipe can be varied. I’ve found that mushrooms and a 1/2 cup of cooked barley are nice additions.

  • 8 cups chicken broth (boullion may be used)
  • 1 lb carrots, sliced
  • 1 bunch celery, sliced (include the leaves if you love celery)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 lb dried kidney beans, cooked
  • 1 bay leaf (optional, really enhances the flavor of the soup)
  • 1 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 1 T butter

Melt the butter in a dutch oven and cook the onion over medium heat for five minutes. Next add the celery and carrots and cook for fifteen minutes more. Adding the remaining ingredients and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Remove bay leaf before serving.

I plugged this recipe into a recipe calorie calculator at caloriecount.com and these were the results if the recipe were divided into 12 servings:

recipe calories

 

How I Lost 115 Pounds and Kept it Off

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I have maintained a 115 pound weight loss for four years. I would like to share my strategies for two reasons: to help others would like to achieve similar results and to renew my goal of keeping my excess weight off. The hardest part of sustaining weight loss is determining how much focus needs to be devoted to that effort. I admit that I have not found an easy formula for setting this priority, but I know that it needs attention every day. I have learned that I was overweight because I have little sense of proportion regarding food and physical activity. For example, if I do not make a list of what I’ve eaten, I will just keep on eating. Likewise, I won’t move enough without a record of the exercise I’ve done.

Based on my experiences, I think there are many ideas in circulation about weight loss that are discouraging. The darkest one is the notion that it should be done quickly. It is better to think of weight loss like paying off a long term beneficial debt, such as a mortgage or student loan.

My journey also leads me to doubt common ideas about how restrictive a diet needs to be. I think the intensity and duration of exercise suggested is probably inflated, too. I have rarely eaten less than 1500 calories a day. Actually I average eating 2000 calories  and walking 12,000 steps a day. While I was losing weight, those numbers were closer to 1800 and 15,000. I also gradually worked up to those numbers needed for me to lose weight.

Here is a list of what has helped me manage my weight:

  1. Keep a Food Diary and Count Calories – Calorie information is widely available online and on food packages. After a while you will gain a good sense of estimating calories.
  2. Use a Pedometer – At first just use it to get a baseline of your physical activity then gradually increase your steps to 10,000+ a day. You may be pleasantly surprised at how many daily steps you can sustain. Then try some more intense exercise like an elliptical workout or strength training. This last part isn’t absolutely essential, but you may find it feels so good that it helps you stay dedicated to watching your weight.
  3. Limit Restaurant Meals – I try to limit take out meals to once a week. I aim to spend the majority of my food dollars at grocery stores. It is easier to stretch your money and calorie budget by making your own meals. The portions of ready made meals at the grocery store are usually smaller than at a restaurant, too.
  4. Short Term Failures are Inevitable – I think it is impossible to eat right all the time. I have had many bad days with food. I have repeatedly gained and lost the same ten pounds. I try not to see these setbacks as signs of doom. I used to do that and yo-yo dieted my way to 260 pounds as a result. Keep trying, even if you have a bad day, a bad week, or a terrible month.

There are Divine Things More Beautiful Than Words Can Tell

Walt Whitman appeared in the best dream I ever had. About twenty years ago, I had the persistent shroud of depression despite treatment and was also a bit broken hearted over love unrequited. I had dropped out of college because I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of managing my time effectively and setting the goals necessary to complete my degree. I was working retail, too, which I found so miserable that I felt my time in the store should count as credit for time served in Purgatory.

I felt hopeless, but then I had a dream that was like a thunderclap of grace. In the dream I was walking on an Israeli beach with Walt Whitman, who looked rather apostolic. He told me that all is not either good or evil, but there is also folly. He recommended patience and compassion in dealing with folly, which can be mistaken for evil.

Then I seemed to be beamed into a review of my life akin to common stories of near death experiences. In my life review, a voice told me that in life we see through a glass darkly and that this was a chance for me to see my life as it is seen in Heaven. As I watched interludes from my life, I saw no reason for sadness, regret or strife. I watched what had seemed to be awful misfortunes in my life as a parent proudly watches a baby learn to walk. Even what was regrettable was still watched with love.

I cherish the memory of this dream as something that has helped sustain me through the years since. From time to time, I feel a moment of the ineffable peace, love and grace from that dream, and I am reassured that all will be well.

Garnishment

Yesterday I read a post on Facebook that stood in refreshing contrast to the shame culture I see too often online. Not a week goes by before I see some news story that has been fowarded ad infinitum, appended with hundreds of judgements of the subject of said story. A classic one is something I classify as Mother of the Year, a tale in which a mom does something to disqualify herself absolutely for such a title, as least according the Court of Internet Public Opinion.

I am weary of all of this mob fury. I worry that it is going to spill into our interactions on a more intimate scale, that it could become commonplace for folks to get group whippings online over petty disputes.

In contrast to these public judgements, I sometimes witness great shows of support for misfortune. I have wondered if the internet community would be so supportive if the adversity was due to something that could be judged negatively. Yesterday I read that one of my Facebook friends was relieved to have finished paying a debt through wage garnishment, and the responses were refreshingly supportive. I thought he was brave to admit the experience and pleased that others cheered him for satisfying his debt.

I would prefer to read that instead of the usual shame-on-so-and-so stories.

The Wolf

I suppose that my taste in music should not be trusted because my hearing is poor on one side. There are only two acoustic settings in which I can truly enjoy a song, while using decent headphones or listening in a car. In other places I lose too many sonic details to engage my attention fully on music. While I can hear enough to decide whether a song merits a closer listening, I cannot “lose myself” in a song if I hear it on TV, on a stereo, etc.

There have been many songs I have wanted to listen to repeatedly for a time,  like a musical serial monogamy. I like to exhaust the captivating feelings a song provokes until eventually it holds me spellbound only occasionally. One such song is “The Wolf” by Mumford and Sons.

Like any work of the imagination, the meaning of a song is open to interpretation, and I am biased toward finding if a song could be a soundtrack for someone I know. Ordinarily there is not much point to explicating a song as if one were writing a term paper on a poem. While it is not uncommon to hear a tune and temporarily adopt it as a theme song, it is more unusual to listen to a song and consider that it could capture how someone else might see you. This is the case with my impression of “The Wolf”.

As I listen to this song, I think that it is about loving someone who is prone to anxiety. The person loved can get so mired in fear that they may be not be fully engaged in the relationship or life beyond their worries. The first time I heard it, I was struck by the notion that it could describe what it is like for my husband to love me. There are times when I am stuck in the reverie of imagining small or major catastrophes and lose sight of him. I worry that he will grow weary of hearing me explain boundaries that help me ward off the things that bother me, such as avoiding left turns whenever possible. I appreciate his compassion for my issues, and this song reminds me that I would benefit from trying to take his perspective. That is one of the healing aspects of love, the opportunity to see things through someone else’s eyes. With the anxiety I have at times, it is a relief to borrow a different vantage point for a while.