After years of neglect, my 55-year-old body is complaining, loudly. Combined with my apparent inability to diet (I end up obsessing about food and usually end up gaining weight), this is creating a problem. Other than a few blips along the way, the last time I was very fit was when I worked at Barnes Hospital and ran each day at lunch — approximately 32 years ago. Hmmm. So, I’ve decided to set a worthy goal: to go from couch potato to completing a mini-triathlon in one year, (or maybe two!) I also decided to use this blog to chronicle the journey. Day one starts tomorrow!
When you grow up watching your mother cut up two or three hot dogs and mix it with a can of beans and some ketchup to feed a family of nine for dinner, you don’t think of yourself as privileged.
The notion of privilege also seems foreign when you grow up hearing tales of Catholic quotas at Iowa University’s sororities and fraternities, or “Irish need not apply” signs faced by immigrant ancestors.
The penal code enacted by the British against the native Catholic population in Ireland is remarkably similar to laws in the United States that made educating slaves a crime.
So, it was interesting to attend a seminar at Greensboro’s new International Civil Rights Museum that discussed white privilege and other racial matters.
Yet I’ve often recognized that the GI Bill helped pay for my father’s education and my parent’s first house. My mother came from a family that valued higher education for women so much they moved across country to attain it for all five daughters in the mid 1800s.
My family faced discrimination and prejudice because they were Irish, Catholic and poor. They had too many kids, crammed into too little space and they talked funny. Many assumed they were drunkards, given their ancestry — a charge that hit home more often than not. Others assumed they were lazy, stupid and couldn’t be trusted. Sadly, the rhetoric of hate hasn’t changed all that much. Just ask Arizona.
So, my ancestors didn’t have it easy, but they also enjoyed many privileges accorded to those with white skin that weren’t accorded to those with brown or black skin.
The GI Bill that moved my family from a poor city neighborhood of Irish and Italian immigrants into the college-educated, middle class suburbs was stopped by redlining and other legally sanctioned forms of discrimination against African-American GIs.
The college education my mother received led to a home that valued books and trips to public libraries, museums, parks and other community resources. My mother read to me; she read to all of us. She introduced us to music and song and culture and manners and taught us which fork to use and how to look people in the eye when introduced.
My mother refused to let us say, “Yes sir” or “Yes ma’am.” She thought such terms were demeaning to us, and after all, weren’t we as good as anybody else? Ichoose to use those terms now, as a sign of respect. They don’t have any power over me. I’m not worried, as my mother and ancestors were, of anyone confusing me “with a shanty Irish maid” or a “scrubby Dutch” – our two main heritages.
Yet I also recognize that words have power, and that privilege is best viewed from the vantage point of those who don’t have it than those that do. Most white people, myself included, don’t like to hear about white privilege. Not wanting to hear about it, doesn’t make it any less true.
Politicians like to say that education is a priority and that children are valued in this country. As steep budget cuts spawn teacher layoffs nationwide, such claims ring increasingly hollow. In our district, more than 53 percent of the children live in poverty, as measured by the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Currently, we’re seeking more faith and business partners to help fill backpacks with food so fewer kids go hungry whens schools are closed. For many, their only nutritious meals are served at school. These are the same children who don’t have access to doctors, dentists, medicine, warm clothing and stable housing, at least not on a regular basis. There’s no doubt these students can learn and achieve at high levels. There’s also no doubt that they’re going to need more support along the way than their more affluent peers whose childhoods aren’t marked by the daily struggle to survive. These supports take resources, like longer school days, longer school years, smaller class sizes, more technology and classroom tools, and more adults who believe in them. Yet here we are, contemplating how to do more with less.
Like most working parents, there are days – let’s be honest, weeks – when I could really use a clone or the ability to bi-locate simultaneously. If I stay home with a sick child, I have the nagging suspicion that my work is suffering. If I’m at work instead of at mychild’s basketball game, I feel like I’m earning a spot in the Bad Mother Hall of Fame. This challenge has only been exacerbated by living and working in two different cities. To keep things really complicated, periodically I throw in some additional travel for business or assorted family crises and extra deadlines for trade journal articles. Bad weather simply adds a bit more confusion to the mix. I tend to thrive on chaos, so most of the time my life is manageable. There are days, though, when there simply aren’t enough hours to get it all done. Having worked freelance, part-time and fulltime at various points during the past 25 years, I’ve found work-life balance an elusive concept.
Finding joy in simple things is an unappreciated gift, one my daughter, Erin, possesses.A warm smile, lunch out, a pleasant bus ride, a few friends and family members to call — it doesn’t take much to make a great day for Erin. Today she happily reported that she had an email address at “work” and was learning to use it. Erin teaches me daily that embracing life is a choice, one we must make anew again and again. Her capacity for love is so uninhibited and exuberant, yet the world would judge her as mentally deficient. Even the more politically correct developmentally disabled misses the point — do we look at what’s missing or do we focus on what’s there?
When you lose someone you love, as I did last week with the death of my 85-year-old father, your world is forever divided by a new sense of before and after. For me, time is standing still, even though the earth has rotated six times. I now view the world as before and after my dad, the “last man standing” of his clan’s generation, died.
There’s no doubt Dad was ready to go, and his death, while not exactly unexpected, was still a bit of a surprise. Like the EverReady bunny, it seemed he would go on forever, despite failing health and medical setbacks that would’ve stopped lesser beings years ago. So on one level, we knew, I knew, it was coming. On another, parentless at 50, I still feel like an orphan, adrift without my anchors in a choppy and often turbulent sea.
For all his challenges, and they were as legendary in our family as his accomplishments, my dad was the rock of our family. He was the one we went to in times of crisis and trouble; the one we shared our triumphs with as well. A B-24 bomber pilot during World War II and the former vice president of power operations for Missouri’s Union Electric (now Ameren UE), he was a member of that Greatest Generation who forged a life out of nothing with his head, hands and heart.
Loyal to his country, his faith, his company, his wife and his family, he served UE for 40 years. He was a tough man; some would say arrogant. He was also brilliant and complicated. He could be moody and withdrawn at times, full of Irish bravado, wit and charm the next. He negotiated deals with the toughest union bosses and won their respect; he never forgot how it felt to have nothing and made sure that the workers’ voice was heard at the executive table.
Under that tough exterior was a softy who’d tear up at the drop of a hat. While his success in business was impressive — it’s not every kid who watches their father debate a Senator and later vice-presidential candidate on air pollution control policy — what I’ll cherish most was his devotion to my developmentally disabled sister.
He visited Francy, who is blind and mentally retarded, every two weeks and spoke to her by phone weekly. When he could no longer walk, or even bend down far enough to put his shoes on, he still kept going. The attendants would bundle her out to the car and they’d drive through somewhere for lunch and visit. Then he’d drive the windy rural roads back home and get himself, somehow, back into the house.
They saw each other for the last time at Christmas. And while it didn’t seem particularly memorable at the time, they did get to say their goodbyes. Dad died five days later. I’m sure he’s drinking beer and singing Irish songs in heaven with his brothers and sisters while my mom plays the piano and my grandparents smile and nod. I hope heaven likes it loud. The McLaughlins are a raucous bunch. Tall tales will be told and retold, and the truth (as well as a few tenor notes) will get stretched almost — but not quite — beyond recognition. But, oh, how the angels will laugh.
Basking the afterglow of a Christmas filled with laughter, fresh-baked cookies, melt-in-your mouth beef tenderloin and thoughtful gifts, I marvel at how blessed we are.
I also wonder if we’ve done enough for those who go without and acknowledge that by simply asking the question, I’ve also provided the answer.
Living in two cities, with jobs frozen statewide and separated more than we planned on and for longer than anticipated, it’s easy to slip into disgruntledness.
Yet having jobs we enjoy, jobs with meaning as well as the rarity of paid benefits like health insurance and retirement, are more than many can lay claim to this holiday season.
So I find myself feeling a bit guilty for harboring petty complaints while others go jobless, hungry and homeless.
My grandmother, a college graduate during a time when educated women were a rarity, always said that education is the one thing no one can ever take from you. Having lost her husband and her home to the Great Depression, she knew that jobs, social status and other accouterments of an upper class lifestyle were fleeting possessions at best.
Public schools and public libraries were free, however, and she made good use of them. She relished in learning, and passed that zeal to know to my mother, who passed it along to me.
It pleases me to no end that my daughter has become an avid reader. She’s on the path to a life of constant discovery and continual surprises — the ability to travel the world without ever leaving home.
So if I could wave my magic wand and give all the world a gift this Christmas it would be two-fold: the gift of a caring, competent adult to lead every young person through childhood and the gift of books and the ability to read.
That’s why I’m excited that our school district is going to launch a community-wide campaign next month to get more adults and more books in our students’ lives. They desperately need both.
I’m also very proud of my brother and his wife who have adopted five beautiful children who might not have had a chance for a full life, and my brother and sister-in-law who recently became certified to serve as foster care parents. That’s something my husband and I might explore once our children are grown, with a special focus on children with disabilities.
I’m convinced that if we had both of these things in ample supply, we would have much less hunger, homelessness and despair, and maybe even peace on earth.
It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry. And kids can’t get five servings of fresh fruits or vegetables a day if no one sells them in their neighborhood. Our bodies need good food, fresh air and plenty of exercise to power them. Our brains need less TV time and more books, board games and hands-on activities. Our hearts and our spirits need more conversations and connections with caring, competent adults. School days and years need to be longer, not shorter, so kids have more time to learn the vast amount of knowledge and skills required today. Class sizes need to smaller, not larger, so teachers can individualize instruction for more students. Children who struggle to learn need the best teachers. Schools with the most challenges need the nation’s top principals. Yet many of the students we serve in our public schools, particularly those most impacted by poverty, aren’t getting enough of any of these. Then we wonder why they’re not all on grade level? Children are incredibly resilient. They can overcome any obstacle. But they need more help from the adults in their lives, in their schools and in their communities.
Having just returned from a mini-family reunion in Florida during the T-Day holiday, I’m filled with thanksgiving for our robust and extensive clan. With just one side of our family represented, and not all members able to attend, we gathered 31 folks of all ages, from less than 12 months to 80 years old! What a treat to see four different generations together. Who needs video games, computers, Ipods and other technology when you have dozens of cousins, a beach, water and plenty of snacks. It is good to feel rooted, connected and a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Sun-lit red, gold, yellow and orange set againt black trunks and dusty browns paint my heart with gladness. Even rainy, wet days dripping with cold can’t dampen God’s handiwork. There are few things more beautiful than North Carolina in the fall. Worries recede; anxieties about children, health, bills, jobs, paychecks lessen.