Sisters

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babymeWe were a family of three daughters: the big sister Johanna, the middle sister, Eleanor and the baby, ME!

It seems that my parents were “pleasantly surprised” to find they were to have another baby. After all, their two girls were 10 and 7 and the family was (they thought) complete. To prepare the girls for the new arrival, without explaining the obvious, my mother had a jar of change “to save up for a baby”. Hannie (the German nickname for Johanna)  when she needed a few extra pennies, helped herself to the contents of the jar. When she was caught, my mother threatened “that now maybe they wouldn’t be getting that baby!”  That didn’t really bother either girl too much because they didn’t see the necessity of getting a new baby anyway.  Luckily, with or without money, my family got ME!

Although we certainly had our own personalities, we were known collectively as the Dreimaderlhaus, from the title of a Viennese opera by Franz Schubert, meaning home of three daughters. My mother loved to sew matching outfits for the three of us and herself, which I loved, and of course, my oldest sister hateddreimadrlhaus. What 14 year old wants to be seen dressed like her 4 year old sister? We pretty much guessed my father, Karl, always wanted a son (hence the name Carolyn) but my mother was definitely happiest with three girls!

Even though we had that age difference, I adored my sisters and always tried be like them. I probably spent my life trying to “catch up” to what they could do. One thing we did together though,  was THE DISHES.  Every night after dinner Hannie washed, Eleanor dried and I put away.  At some point we started singing while we cleaned up. I can still see Hannie, soapy fingers in her ears, singing melody, while Eleanor sang the harmony. It’s the only way Hannie could stay in her part!   I still can’t sing “The First Noel” at Christmas, without hearing the three of us.

Of course, growing up together as sisters we had our moments. We could really have issues with one another, but fighting was one thing my father would not abide. Expressions like “I hate you”,  “you’re crazy” or “drop dead” were never said more than once. I can’t imagine any curse words could have been considered worse. Respect for our parents and each other was the unspoken rule.

Still, we did manage to ‘have at it’ sometimes. Hannie was very strong-willed, Eleanor was the good one and I, of course, was the baby. Too young to hold my own, I  always sided with Hannie against Eleanor. But by the time I was ten Hannie got married and I was on my own to deal with sisterly disagreements. Sometime  during this period we developed the expression “palomino fury” . When said by either sister, the argument was over, no hard feelings, we both saved face. Neither of us remember the exact origin, but accept it is one of those special connections only sisters can have.

Some families, for a myriad of reasons, spread across countries and continents and family ties are stretched. My mom left her three sisters in Germany when she immigrated here at 18. I know she was homesick for them her whole life. My sisters and I were very lucky. We all got married and raised our children on Long Island. We each had a son and a daughter, so the cousins grew up together too. Holidays were always celebrated together and we still sang our repertoire while doing the dishes at Thanksgiving.

We are two sisters now. Sadly, Hannie died of cancer at only 57. It was devastating to our parents to lose their oldest daughter, and heartbreaking for Eleanor and I to lose our sister.. Being of the same generation, in the same family, sisters know each other even better than their mother does. A sister shares a part of your life that no one else can replace.

When I think of all the blessings I have to be thankful for – and there are many- my sisters are at the top of the list. .

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What I Know About Aging

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MollyGetting older is certainly better than not. That being said, It is still hard for me to accept some of the consequences of “getting” older.  Turning 40 ,50 and even 60 didn’t bother me at all. At forty I was just hitting my stride: mom, teacher, entrepreneur, volunteer. I had enough energy for everything I wanted to do and more. By 50 I felt accomplished, successful, able to handle the unexpected challenges I faced in that decade. And 60 was a breeze!  A second chance at love, marriage, grandchildren, travel, opera at the Met, and enjoying the rewards of our past efforts and responsible lifestyle.

And then 70 dawned on the horizon. Its effect was subtle, no big, noticeable changes at first. Just a slow, quiet metamorphosis of my body and lifestyle. A bad knee here, an expanding waistline there, shortness of breath when I least expected it. I consider myself a healthy person, a combination of good genes and (fairly) healthy living.  But in spite of all I think I am doing, the signs of aging continue to  encroach.  Sometimes I ignore it all, chastise myself for not pushing through a pain, while other days I accept “I’m just not what I used to be”. It’s a constant battle between working hard to stay young and relaxing into acceptance of who I am now.

Two years ago we moved to a 55+ community and I admit I had second thoughts about living with “old” people. Of course I qualified to live here 15 years ago, so my neighbors aren’t necessarily older than me! But one thing I learned by living here is that it’s definitely more fun to play with kids your own age!. Aside from sharing stories of our past, remembering favorite foods and family celebrations, we laugh over failing body parts, brain farts and changes in daily lifestyle. Anytime a few of us get together over a glass of wine, or an afternoon at the pool, the laughter is infectious. Our kids couldn’t possibly have more fun – they just haven’t lived long enough!

My granddaughter, Emily, turns 21 today and will celebrate all that’s great about becoming an adult. I will celebrate my birthday this week too – with mixed feelings of apprehension and gratitude. My birthday wish is for increased optimism, acceptance, humor and the wisdom to know when to rely on each one.

First Generation

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As a child of immigrant parents I was born into the title of First Generation American. There were millions of us in the 1930’s and 40’s. Our parents were mainly from European countries that had suffered famine, depression, war or persecution.

KarlIn 1976, as we celebrated our nation’s Bicentennial, Newsday did a series of articles about immigrants to NYC. When a reporter showed up at my father’s door and asked to write his story, my dad decided it was time to tell his daughters the whole truth.

It seems his first “immigration” to America  was as a 19 year old stowaway!  With inflation, the paper money he was paid in Germany was worth practically nothing. The only thing he could think of doing was getting to the United States to better himself. His father was a restauranteur and dealt with a lot of American seaman, so my father borrowed $20 from him and said a quick good bye. Using his worker’s pass from North German Lloyd, he boarded the crews’ gangplank on a ship leaving for America. He blended in with all the others leaving and then hid out in the men’s room cubicle at night and  under a blanket on a deck chair during the day. He befriended a steward and for six of his precious dollars, got leftover food from the kitchen for the rest of the voyage. Upon reaching New York, he hid in an air duct when the doctors and immigration inspectors came on board.

“Then I put on the steward’s white jacket, grabbed two suitcases, put down them down on the pier . . . And all of a sudden I was in the United States!”

He immediately found a job at a machine shop and worked there for 3 1/2 years. He worked hard and decided to return to Germany and re-enter legally. He decided to turn himself in, get deported back to Germany, and apply for legal re-entry as soon as possible. He was  surprised that although he was in fact deported, he was made to pay his way back home! Earning money here was a good thing, but also came with responsibilities.

“The second time when I came, I saw the Statue of Liberty from the railing. This time I was not in an air duct.”

A few years later he married my mom, also a German immigrant and settled in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Having grown up by the sea in Bremerhaven, it is no wonder that our family  lived right at the entrance to New York Harbor.  As a little girl I walked with my dad along Shore Road to watch the comings and goings of the big ships.

My dad was a very quiet, conservative, follow-the-rules kind of guy, so he kept his secret all those years. His daughters, on the other hand, thought he was very dashing and brave. We cherish his story and that part of our family history.

My parents raised us to be proud Americans, to work hard, and above all, respect all people.  They are the ones who have truly made me who I am today.

Get a Puppy?

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When was the last time you wished you had a baby so that you could get up every four hours to care for it? I recently read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, about a woman scientist who studied an Amazonian tribe wherein the women bore children right through the end of their lives. My first thought was, “Why?”  I loved having babies back in my twenties, but I don’t have that feeling anymore!

Until we decided to get a puppy. When our dog of 15 years had to be put down, we both agreed “no more dogs”. We are carefree, we travel, we have new furniture, we’re done.

And then we met a friend’s dog, the sweetest Aussiedoodle named Zoe. I remember the words well:  “We’re not getting another  dog, of course.  But if I WERE getting another dog, I’d want one just like Zoe”. Six monthsMollyChairFinal later Molly was born of the same Australian Shepherd and Cinnamon Poodle. At eight weeks old she was ours. I was almost embarrassed to tell my passionate daughter who rescues dogs, that I had paid for a “boutique” dog from a private breeder. But I was in love, and love makes you do crazy things. Besides, our other dog had been a rescue, so I only felt half-guilty.

Our  tiny bundle of fluff took over our household in May, 2010. We diligently followed HER schedule, fed her special food, got up every four hours to take her outside, and even signed her up for puppy kindergarten twenty miles away. My husband loved to tell people that it was important to choose a good preschool if you expected to get into a good college. We had the best time going to classes, teaching her manners (B+) and a few tricks (A). She isn’t perfect in all areas, but neither were my kids and they turned out just fine.

Through our Rotary Club, Molly was certified as a therapy assist dog and brought joy and comfort to people in nursing homes, rehabs and children’s reading programs. Time constraints eventually made us give that up, but she is still a delight to my neighbors and grandchildren.

I’ve read that dogs help you live longer and I can certainly believe that.  A little challenge and aggravation is good for the brain. And my husband always says, “Pretty couches are nice, but they don’t meet you at the door.” I think it’s obvious who else is really in love with Molly!

We are lucky to still be able to travel as much as we wish because my friend, who owns “sister” Zoe, and I have a reciprocal agreement to invite the dogs to Camp Casey or Camp Leyboldt, when either of us travel. The dogs get excited just seeing the suitcases appear!AussieSisters

Get a puppy when you’re 65+? Go for it! Why give up the chance of having a longer, happier life?

Note: Molly and Zoe are blue merle Aussidoodles  from Doodlesville.com

On Being Grandma

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FamilyThis is the title that is one of my very favorites. As much as I loved being a mother, being a Grandma is even better!

My mother was “Oma” to six grandchildren. As both my sisters lived on Long Island, ours was a closely knit family. My children grew up sharing holidays and events with their four cousins. Sadly my oldest sister passed away before she became Grandma, but my middle sister was blessed to have two. I was so anxious to have my own little ones, that my daughter started telling people “My mother wants grandchildren so much, she doesn’t care if I get married first”. Now that wasn’t true, of course, but I wouldnt be lying if I said that once she was married to John, I couldn’t wait for the babies. I encouraged them, by making them a king size wedding quilt with a note that read, “ This is a very serious quilt, meant for some very serious business.”

Emily, Ben, Jakob and Rebecca, my four beautiful, talented, intelligent, charming grandchildren proved that every stitch of that quilt was worth it.

I titled myself, “The Shoe Grandma”. I bought the christening shoes, first walkers, Mary Janes, school shoes, first sneakers and Emily’s prom shoes. I admit I dropped the ball when the boys outgrew their sneakers faster than I could replace them. When they were little I could take them to town and get them fitted. Now they’re pretty much grown and shop on their own.

Twelve years ago I became “grandma” to Tyler, Victoria, Julia and Alex, four more beautiful, talented, intelligent, charming grandchildren, when the Leyboldt’s accepted me into their warm and loving  family. Now there were eight cousins to sleep over on weekends and have Grandpa’s Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast. One year we refinished the basement for the kids and the Cousin’s Crib (their name) was born. Family dinners now included snacks, crafts, games and hockey table for the cousins, and hors d’oevres and cocktails upstairs for the parents. They even published their own newspaper announcing the birth of Zach, cousin #9. Now I am the very proud Grandma to nine great kids!

For ten years, our Christmas gift to our family was tickets for a train trip to the city, Grandpa’s sandwiches  on board, and a play or musical event in NYC. They’ve been to Broadway, off Broadway, the Nutcracker and Opera at the Met.  (Fred is sure we’ll get at least one opera-lover from the bunch). When, on our first trip, Fred’s grandson Tyler asked,  “If Grandpa Fred married Grandma Carolyn, would we all be cousins?” , our wedding date pretty much followed.  Our wedding invitation was sent by the grandkids, inviting our friends to the wedding of their grandparents.  They were our wedding party and the whole family joined us for a honeymoon week-end at Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York. Nothing has made Fred and I happier or prouder than to be grandparents to this amazing group of young people.

ACCEPTING THE UNEXPECTED

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Path to Monet's GardenWhereas some of my titles I chose or earned, there was one I didn’t expect and couldn’t quite get my head around: widow. To me, widows were old ladies in black dresses, sadly stepping from one day to the next. Then, in 1998, I unexpectedly became a part of that group. My husband, Charles Bachsmith, died of pancreatic cancer. When a customer at Patchworks asked if I knew of house that a widow on Greene Avenue might be selling, I carefully thought of each of my neighbors and couldn’t think of anyone. It wasn’t until she had gone, that the realization came, that she meant ME!

Like many others before me, I got through the first weeks. My sympathetic friends invited me to dinner, neighbors sent beautiful cards and messages, everyone was very supportive. But when I was alone, at dinnertime, night time, party time, anytime – I had only my self. I had to create a another new me to fit whole new situations.

At first I felt numb, then angry, then sad, then guilty for not doing or being all I could be while my husband was ill. When I got tired of thinking about it, I thought I was ready to move on.

I sold my small car and started driving his new, bigger one. I stayed long hours at Patchworks, organizing everything that wasn’t glued down. When I was home I organized, cleaned out his things, rearranged the rooms. Something I learned from that experience is that everyone grieves in their own way. Some save their loved one’s things as a sort of memorial, and some clean out and create a new space. Both ways are right. We each handle our grief personally and should never let others dictate what we do, or make us feel guilty about how we do it.

I took on a project for my Rotary Club that sent me to Brazil for a month. I bought myself a ticket to Paris and London and went away again, by myself. I was a woman on a mission: No grieving, get on with life, keep moving! I “crashed’ a year later and ended up with a wonderful therapist from Hospice who helped me slow down, breathe and really deal with all my feelings. She was my saving Grace.

I recently answered a question posed in a workshop I am doing with my sister. What one thing has happened in your life which seemed bad at the time, but ended up being part of a bigger and better picture? Without a doubt it was my husband’s death. It was my darkest time. But the good that came out of it was that I became more independent, more thoughtful, more resourceful, more grateful for every day and every person in my life. I set about to build my business and embrace my passion. I enjoyed my children and grandchildren. I traveled with a friend I met at Hospice. I re-created a happy life and a happy me.

AH, SPRING!

Everything else can wait, while I breathe the fresh air, put my face up to the sun, and enjoy every minute of this beautiful day! Without a doubt, Spring is my favorite season.

After a particularly gray, cold, snowy winter I couldn’t wait to plant some sturdy pansies in my window box. And this week, the drift of daffodils I planted last September burst into yellow glory! DaffodilsMy small, neat garden actually makes me as happy as the big, sprawling one I left behind two years ago.

So fast forward to who and where I am today.  I’ll fill in a few blanks as I go along.

In the Spring of 2012, during a visit to our financial advisor, the question was raised as to what we had planned to do with our current home if one of us was alone? What would we want to do now, to plan for the future?

Fred and I had been married 10 years by then and our combined families had grown to include nine grandchildren. We’d hosted family holidays, sleepovers, lots of guests, lots of dinners. Could we give all that up? The answer by then was, “Yes”.  The grandchildren were getting older and so were we. Not old, mind you, just older. It was time to change our focus and do some of the other things still on our bucket list.

By the time we finished dinner that night we had already decided it was time to think about moving to something smaller. Something that took less work, less of our retirement savings, and something that either of us could someday manage alone. We wanted to travel more and have fewer responsibilities.

We would begin the arduous process of downsizing. Just the thought of paring our two lives down to our simplest wants and needs was challenging. Except for the fact that we were both on board with it, and that I LOVE to plan, de-clutter, re-organize and re-decorate!

First we had to find a place that suited our requirements: 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, all on one floor. A garage, outdoor living space and room for a garden. Sunrise Village, a 55+ community right in our community, filled the bill. On June 11th we looked at #11 Revere Drive and put an offer on it that night.  It happened to be my birthday, so I figured the Universe was sending me a message. I’m big on listening to the Universe, especially when it fits my plans!  The offer was accepted and we were on our way to creating a whole new life for ourselves.

Spring is a wake up call. A time to shed the sluggishness of Winter. A time to make a plan for a better you. You’re certainly not going to pick up and move every Spring. But you can de-clutter a room, or plant a small garden. Tap into your creativity or begin a new health regimen. Embrace change, celebrate the Spring in a new you.

It Started With Mom

My mom was the original Martha Stewart. Before housewifely endeavors were raised to magazine and television status, she kept a lovely home on a very limited budget. Spring and Fall brought major housecleaning chores, but also new curtains, alternating rugs, slipcovers and kitchen decor.  No clutter, makeshift repairs or marred walls. She even had my dad stencil a design down the hallway, way before it became an AC Moore DIY project.  The window boxes on our city porch were always planted with big, red geraniums. Meals were served in separate dishes, never from the pot or microwave. I thought all potatoes came with parsley garnish.  And my mom could knit, crochet, embroider and sew.  After the hardships of the Depression and WWll, with all their sadness and angst, my mother enjoyed the time she could sit with us and teach us the handwork she loved to do. Later on, I became the one who loved to sew as much as she did.

I made my wedding suit, my maternity clothes, dresses and overalls for my children, and one disastrous sport coat for my husband.  Some projects are just not worth the effort. In 1975 a friend who lived in Iran gave me a small quilted wallhanging she learned to make while there.  Color, fabric, design and sewing! What could be more enticing? A passion was born that still entices me today. In 1976, to celebrate the Bicentennial, I made my first quilt. In red, white and blue, it was perfect topping for my son’s bed. I  was still teaching first grade, when the following summer, a friend and I decided to open a fabric/quilt shop in Sayville. Okay, so add another title – I said I had boundless energy! My sister said it was because I wanted to own all the colors of all the fabrics. She was probably right about that.

Saying you’d like to have a business and actually doing it, takes quite a few more steps than we envisioned.  Another friend, who owned Sweezy’s in Patchogue, was nice enough to mentor us and introduce us to fabric contacts in the city.  Don’t forget, there was no Google to help us get going in those days!  We approached three banks for loans, putting up our teaching careers as proof of our financial security, but not one was interested in giving us a business loan without our husband’s signatures and our homes as collateral.  That didn’t suit two independent women of the Seventies, and so we drew up a fourth plan and approached a bank with a woman manager. That worked!  We got the loan, established credit, and went on to successfully open our shop, Patchworks, in 1977. In 1978 we opened a second shop in Stony Brook.  A few years later we dissolved the partnership. I kept the quilt shop in Sayville and my partner re-defined the Stony Brook shop as a children’s store.  For ten years I continued teaching and had a store manager to oversee the business when I wasn’t there. in 1988, when she decided to move away and retire, I decided to leave teaching and run the business full time. I loved teaching first grade, just as at one time I loved being pregnant and having babies. But, for me, nothing is the right fit forever.

Most important, was the encouragement I got from my mom. Where other people couldn’t believe I’d give up a good, stable job like teaching – for a pipe dream like quilting – my Mom was behind me all the way. I know now that she would have loved to have started her own business, but times were different and she didn’t have that choice. I did. 

Owning Patchworks, teaching the skills I loved, and sharing my passion with other women, were some of the best years of my life. My experience as a teacher was invaluable in business. Teachers have to “sell their subject” everyday to keep their students motivated. So do retailers. There were many challenges, much to be learned and lifelong friendships established.  I have never looked back and said “I wish I had never been an entrepreneur and owned my own business. That experience too, has made me who I am today.

STUDENT, TEACHER, WIFE, MOTHER

Some of the titles I earned in my life attached themselves seamlessly, just as a matter of course.  When I was in fifth grade, my neighbor Lisalotte Oberdurster (who could forget that name?) graduated from SUNY Oswego, became a teacher and let me help her do her first classroom bulletin boards.  Then and there I decided I wanted to be a teacher too. In 1964 I graduated from Oswego and bought my first car. l got my first job, teaching elementary school art in Sachem School District. I rented a cottage in Ronkonkoma with three other girls and was on my way! A year later I married Chuck Bachsmith and we bought our first house in Sayville.  By our second anniversary I had a dauScan 1ghter, Kristina. Eighteen months later, a son, Erik.  I thought someone should pin a gold star over my hospital bed because I had created the perfect family, the perfect life, in just four years!

It was the Sixties, and things were changing. All of sudden women could do more than “just”  be wives and mothers. We could do that and have jobs and careers too!!  (What were we thinking??) Enter “SuperMom” – able to get the kids to the babysitter, go to work, food shop on the way home, make dinner, throw in a load of laundry, read to the kids, and get ready for work the next day! Oops, and don’t forget – be a loving wife and partner. But I had that chance – and I took it.

Mine was the a perfect career to integrate with family life. How lucky was I that I had in-laws nearby who would babysit, that I had a husband who didn’t mind that I went back to teaching (the bonus of a double income might have helped), and that I could do it all?  I was 27 and had boundless energy.  Oddly, none of my friends were re-entering the job market yet, so there was some guilt about not being a stay-at-home Mom. There was teasing by some, even hurtful comments by a few. But I knew what I wanted, what was right for me and my family. That expression “if mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy” , wasn’t written by a fool!  A generation later, the pendulum began to swing back a little. My daughter expressed some doubt that she had chosen to be a stay at-home-Mom. After college, and a stint working in NYC, she made a decision too. Unlike many of her friends, she chose not to pursue an outside career until her children were older. I strongly encouraged her choice. She was a great mom to four happy children.  She had that chance  – and she took it.

It doesn’t matter what lifestyle you choose for yourself, as long as it creates a happy life for you and the people you care most about. The important thing is to consider your options and have enough faith in yourself that you’ll do what’s best.

For me, Grandma and Grandpa were the best babysitters, teaching was the best career choice. For our family, it worked. Sure there were some things I would have done differently. Sure there were times when I wish I had been more involved my children. But I have never looked back and said,  “I wish I hadn’t been a wife, mother or teacher” That was me then and why I am who I am, now.

How Did I Get Here From There?

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Daughter, student, teacher, wife, mother, entrepreneur, community leader, Rotarian, grandmother, widow, lover (TMI for my kids), 2nd wife, stepmother, photographer, Senior. Whew, that’s enough titles for more than one lifetime. But, really, I’m probably like so many millions of other women who find themselves re-inventing themselves over and over again. Note: To be politically correct, I’m not leaving men out of the group. But remembering a teacher who once told me “write what you know about” – I can only write from the female side of the fence.

So, here I am now, hoping to find a way share some of what came before, what made it all work and what makes my life so pleasurable and productive at the age of 71.

I guess it was the title Senior that made me consider if there might be more to look back on, than to look forward to. The fact is, I haven’t thought of myself as a Senior since college, when it was a compliment, something achieved, an exalted title. Now, I was avoiding that title because it was attached to aging, elderly, Medicare, and retirement communities. I started noticing that news reporters on TV would say things like “An elderly man of 72 was hit while crossing the street.” Really?

That’s when I decided that titles were just that – titles. And titles had always, and could always, be traded in for a new, more current one. I am still some of the things that I listed in the opening paragraph, but I’d like to add one more: writer. I am looking forward. I am using what I’ve learned, to learn something new. And sharing what I’ve learned, to inspire others to create the life they still want to have.

I hope you will join me on that journey.