Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Life and (Sometimes Strange) Times of A Veterinarian's Wife

I learned THAT from my Daddy

In the few spare moments when I am not scolding my cat, “Symon Francis O’Toole” for gnawing on our couch or sticking his tongue in the toaster, I teach dance fitness for Jazzercise.
The past couple weeks I’ve opened my classes with a song called “Leader of the Band,”  written by the artist (once again) known as Prince and his former love Sheila E. The song is a tribute to her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo.

It’s a fun, rousing number with lots of bongos and congas and, as it ends, Sheila E. laughs and lovingly says: “I learned that from my Daddy. I love you, Pops!”

My own father died five years ago tonight, lingering just an hour or so after his hospice nurse told me it was safe to go get some rest because “tomorrow may be a long day.”

He’d lifted his eyebrows at me in response to my: “I can be back here in 10 minutes if you need me Daddy-O.” That eyebrow waggle was the only movement he’d made in three days. I believe he was telling me to leave because this was the one journey I couldn’t take with him.

I’d taken lots though. I’d ridden with my father on his tractors and in his trucks and on the back of his little Suzuki 90 motorbike. My favorite ride was on his Bolen’s Husky snowmobile. He bought the machine on a whim with part of the $1,000 he won for an idea he’d placed in the “Suggestion Box” at the Oldsmobile plant where he worked. 

My parents were always financially cautious people, so such a grand and impulsive decision was shocking. I stood beside my mother as he told us what he’d done, stopping after work to make the purchase before he’d even come home. His eyes were joyful.

I’m not sure what she wanted to say, but eventually Mom just nodded and smiled and said: “I told you your suggestion was a good idea.”

Stunned, I went to call a friend to tell her the fabulous news thinking that if this could happen in life it was entirely possible that anything could. 

While my Dad mostly read our hometown newspaper or his Knights of Columbus or Lion’s Club magazines, my Mom was enamored of the Spencer Gifts catalog, always threatening to buy some trinket or other. The only thing she ever purchased was for Dad: a nose-hair trimmer. 

The trimmer was a small silver cylinder with a blade inside. The idea was to insert the little device in your nostril, turn the end and . . . viola, your disgusting, unsightly nose hairs would disappear down the tube. 

I was in the living room watching our new Quasar TV when the screaming began and Dad rushed down the hall in our three bedroom ranch yelling: “Dammit Millie! How the hell are you supposed to use this thing?”

He’d gotten the “insert in nostril” part right, but must have twisted the tube too vigorously. Instead of getting a nice, clean trim the hair became entangled in the blades and the device was dangling, painfully, from his nose.

Despite what he always  said when he shared that story, I know Mom would have been happy to help him if she could have stopped laughing. 

My father was a natural athlete so he must have felt odd having a child who had not one ounce of competitive spirit. Still, he hung an ancient basketball hoop on the door of our granary and the two of us would sometimes play games of P.I.G. on summer nights.

Once he also created a makeshift chin-up bar from a piece of old pipe and hung it in the gap between the granary and the barn.

The impetus for the bar was the annual “Presidential Physical Fitness Test,” otherwise known to every chubby, gawky and uncoordinated kid in America as “Hell Week.”

Back in the ‘70s girls didn’t need to do actual chin-ups. Instead we simply had to hold ourselves above the bar without dropping for several seconds. For me, it may as well have been an hour. 

My long-suffering gym teacher would hoist us until our chins were above the bar then back quickly away. Some girls essentially hung there looking bored waiting until the necessary time had passed then dropping elegantly to the gym floor. Others quivered and shook, slowly losing control and sinking down. Since I had no muscle to engage, there was no discernible difference from my trip up and down, it was one clean move without even a hitch at the top. Some years my teacher tried twice, but she never tried three times. 

So Dad built the bar and worked with me a little each day and I eventually was able to stay on top for just a few seconds . . . which would be a great story and a wonderful ending, except only the first part is true. Dad did work with me but I was never able to master the skill. And the only part of any of this that is important is: “Dad built the bar.” 

He probably guessed I would not be successful, because he could tell I really didn’t care and wouldn’t put forth the effort. But, as in all other aspects of his life, if there was anything that could be done to help someone, the outcome was hardly the point. It was the effort that mattered.

One of the things I admired most about this man I loved so dearly was his singing voice. It was clear and melodious and true. On car trips he would sing “The Old Grey Mare” “Oh Johnny” and, my favorite “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” 

His voice was impressive to everyone who heard it, even more so because he had endured a speech impediment following a case of Scarlett Fever when he was a child. He spoke with a significant stutter for most of his adult life, which, ironically, all but disappeared as he aged, developed Parkinson’s Disease and the rest of his body became shaky. 

The other day I was teaching “Leader of the Band” and I missed a cue to my students because I was thinking about all the things I could say I learned from my father. Besides his lifelong lessons in kindness, generosity and selflessness, I narrowed it down to this . . . 

Every so often it is just fine to make a grand gesture. Take pride in what you have accomplished and understand it is OK to be just as kind to yourself as you are to others.

It’s absolutely fine to spend time on things that may not be successful at the time. Weak little girls may one day remember your lessons and learn to take pride in their strength, even if it never wins presidential approval. 

None of us is perfect. You may as well sing. 

And finally, for goodness sake, if you need your nose hair trimmed, visit a professional. 

Love you Pops. 

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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Life and (Sometimes Strange) Times of a Veterinarian's Wife

I wish my veterinarian could clean my teeth

I wanted to like her, I really did. 

And, on the surface, she was distinctly likable, winsome even. Her practice seemed nice, as well. Their brochure made going to the dentist seem spa-like and relaxing. 

Plus they sent me a “We-want-to-get-to-know-you!” form, which was very thoughtful.

It’s just that I have a long and sad history with dentists and dental hygienists so . . . “No!,” I said to her (silently). “I will not be taken in by your pleasant manner, your tawny skin, your chic bob and those pearly white teeth. I will especially not be taken in by those teeth.”

“The thing is,” I said (aloud) “I really, really don’t like going to the dentist. I wrote that on my form actually. Twice. I never went to a dentist until I was 12 and then I had a dozen cavities. Also, I once had a shoddy dentist who performed a root canal without any anesthetic. I swear to you, no anesthetic. He said it wouldn’t work anyway because of all the pus, but I think he was just trying to save money. Did I mention I wrote all this on my form?”

She nodded sympathetically. She smiled. She said: “Tsk, tsk you have had quite a time, haven’t you? Here, lets ease you back in the chair, maybe if you could loosen your grip a tiny bit on the armrest and uncurl your toes?”

Then she turned her back to me for a moment, apparently to reach for her Dremel and scythe. When she swiveled back around, I swear she had a fang. 

Self-awareness is one of my two good traits. That’s how I know that as a dental patient, I’m a complete nightmare. Apparently, I grow an obscene amount of plaque and that’s why hygienists go after it with everything just short of TNT and a blowtorch. 

I try to be regular for my six month cleanings but I’m usually four or five months late mostly because it takes that long for my gums to stop bleeding and my head to stop pounding from the last episode. 

It took 43 years for anyone to mention maybe I should consider having my teeth cleaned more often than every six months since I’m such a breeder of plaque and scum. 

That seems reasonable to me so I now plant my face in front of my husband’s every couple of weeks (normally when he’s not busy and just watching sports) give him a huge smile and ask him if he sees any disgusting yellow build-up. 

He knows what to look for because dentistry is what he does all day, every day. His patients are animals, but I’ve seen the care, concern and kindness he and his staff use on them. 

I wish they could clean my teeth. 

A few years ago I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and saw the status of a friend of mine who posted that while she knew her beloved pooch was “in the hands of a good doctor” (Jim) she was sad thinking about her buddy on “a cold metal table.” 

I messaged her to tell her that her dog was actually surrounded by heated towels and resting on a cuddly blanket. and one of the staff would no doubt cradle her on their lap while she woke up and they ate their lunch. 

Also, during the procedure she was blessedly asleep. 

Jim recently suggested sedation dentistry for me, actually. He was polite about it, but rather firm, for some reason.

“I just think it would be beneficial. You don’t ever seem to have very good experiences at the dentist.”

“The fact that I don’t have good experiences isn’t really my fault. You know my history. If you've forgotten, I have a form I can show you.”

But, I’ll think about it. 

I last had my teeth cleaned in April, so going on the “more often than six months” timeline I could ostensibly shoot for August or September, but why wreck what’s left of summer? October would be exactly six months, but I hate to spoil Halloween and my birthday is in November and then the holidays are always super busy. 

Check back with me next February. 

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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Life (and Sometimes Strange) Times of a Veterinarian's Wife

©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Well, smack me in the head with a hard boiled egg . . . and other heartwarming stories about family

Several years ago, at a reunion, a group of cousins stood gazing at a sepia portrait of a few of our long deceased female relatives. Perhaps I should say we stood gazing . . . in horror. The women were gaunt, pale and stern with wispy hair and beady gazes. 

In their defense they had survived the potato famine, relocated to a different continent, and did not have the luxury of lipstick, Instagram filters and, apparently, Vitamin D. Still, they looked like a coven.

I turned to my cousin Kathleen, who calls the women “the dried apple sisters” and said: “This is one time I’m glad I’m not genetically related to you.”

Normally, though, I’m sorry about that. My cousins, on both my mother’s and father’s side, are generally kind, hardworking, talented and wacky. There is that one guy, but when he’s around, I just whisper to whoever is nearby “I’m adopted, you know.”

Wacky means a lot to me. If you’re part of a family that isn’t a little bit bonkers, I feel sorry for you. I’m glad I don’t know people like that.

Our friend Hope is like that. Her name isn’t really Hope, and she and her fun-loving relatives don’t care if I use their real names, but there are a few restaurant owners and church guild women out there who just might care a great deal. 

Hope doesn’t know how the tradition started. She asked her father and he doesn’t remember either. But at some point, years ago, her family decided the proper way to honor their newly deceased loved ones was to steal salt and pepper shakers from the funeral dinner. 

They designate a different relative each time and someone apparently distracts the person dishing up the ham and scalloped potatoes long enough so the designee can stuff a salt and pepper shaker into their pocket or purse.

“Then we haul them all out during holiday dinners,” Hope says. “And, someone asks you to ‘please pass the Uncle John salt?’” 

It can be a bit disconcerting, since the fine china or sterling salts and peppers might sit next to a pair of those little cream and brown plastic diner sets.

“That’s when we know who really didn’t do as good a job on financial planning,” Hope says. 

Another example is a painful one, emotionally for our friend C.P. and physically for her husband. C.P. is the daughter of good friends of ours. She’s beautiful, has exquisite taste and refuses to bow to societal conventions. When she felt her boyfriend was taking too long to make a move toward matrimony she proposed to him. 

Because he’s a smart man, he said yes and subsequently she introduced her fiance at a family Easter gathering. When he politely reached to shake hands with one of her relatives the guy smacked him in the forehead with a hardboiled egg. It’s apparently the traditional welcome for newcomers.

You just can’t make that shit up as my friend, Wade, would say. 

Speaking of him . . . Wade and his husband, Gary, love dogs. Wade is the author of several memoirs and has a novel on the way. He was also the driving force behind a book of essays by well-known humorists called “I’m not the Biggest Bitch in this Relationship,” with a portion of the proceeds going to The Humane Society of the United States.

The couple have had three dogs in their many years together -- Marge, Mabel and Doris -- and the ladies have always been treated as highly valued family members. The pooches are so treasured, in fact, that Wade and Gary designed their own vocabulary to communicate with the girls. 

When she was a pup, they took their first dog, Marge, to obedience school, where she refused to obey the normal “sit” command responding only to “itty-bitty-boo!”

No kidding, at Wade and Gary’s house “itty-bitty-boo” means sit, “git-um-good-ums” means “eat your food”  and  “stinky-winky-woo” means “time for a bath.”

Ostensibly, a conversation could go like this: “Doris, come here and itty bitty boo, sweetie. It’s stinky-winky-woo time. We’ll do that and then you can git-um-good-ums!” 

Our family doesn’t have a special language to communicate with the pets but the rumors you may have heard are true, we have composed songs for each of our cats. 

I have no idea how this insanity started. My husband and daughter will blame me and they’ll probably be correct. But, don’t let them tell you they don’t sing along. 

Our most badly behaved feline, Symon Francis O’Toole, actually has two songs. At least once a day, Symon will walk into a room and I’ll sing: 

“Symon Francis O’Toole. Symon oh what a fool! He’s Symon, he’s Symon, he’s Symon Francis O’Toole!

There is also this little gem: “Spumoni, Spumoni, the worlds most wonderful cat! Spumoni, Spumoni, who can argue with that?” At which point Jim and Molly yell in unison: “Everyone!”

I know. I have no idea how he got the nickname “Spumoni.”

I read an essay once about the complicated thought process one journalist went through to develop a lede the opening paragraph of a newspaper story, and I think developing a blog is the same sort of thing. Some small, nugget of information or emotion, some micro-thought whips frantically around my brain and burrows in like a tick until I can create something that makes sense. 

In this case it’s the illness of two of my father’s friends. 

My father died almost five years ago, but two of his best friends are struggling with health issues this winter. I’ve been to visit them at a rehab center, and a hospital ICU. 

I remember them at my parent’s home, visiting, joking, playing cards. I see them by my father’s side at the freezing cemetery when my mother died and again, during his many illnesses during the last two and a half years he lived without her. 
These are two elegant, wonderful gentleman but I wonder, if I asked them if they could recall some crazy stories from about own families. I’m sure they could because we all have those stories.

C.P’s family lost it’s beloved patriarch a year or so ago and I went to the funeral. Eleven of the egg-smacking crowd got up to give eulogies. Eleven. Then, one of the man’s friends stood up and spontaneously began singing “Oh Danny Boy,” acapella. It was an odd moment. It was a gorgeous moment. 

We need a little of that day-to-day craziness to help us through the tough times, which seem to come again and again, and again, the older we become. 

Thank goodness for all the egg-laying chickens and salt and pepper shaker manufacturers of the world. 

And, if we’re not the sort of clan that wants to resort to minor theft or assault with a quasi-dairy product, we can always just sing a spontaneous song to our cat or wrap our arms around our dog and whisper “wuboo” into her silky ear. Wade and Gary say that means: “I love you.” 

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Friday, January 30, 2015

The Life and (Sometimes Strange) Times of a Veterinarian's Life

Regrets, I have so few

My mother was a busy, determined, no-nonsense woman who understood the value of multitasking. 

When it was time for her to explain sex, she did it while I was trapped in the car . . .  on the way to church. 

It was a brilliant maneuver. She could look straight ahead, I could look straight ahead, and it was over in 12 miles. 

Granted, one congregation member, glancing at my ashen face, asked if I was getting the flu, but at least I had that hour to pray for the salvation of a species which thought THAT was better than watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on a Saturday night. 

Car talks are still valuable. My daughter, Molly, and I have many meaningful discussions riding along in my Ford Flex. Recently I talked with her about my regrets. I don’t have many, at least I don’t have many small regrets.

I certainly understand the philosophy behind regrets and why some people find them useful. Right about now Tom Brady, for example, is likely rueing the day he picked up a football instead of becoming a press secretary, or perhaps not. But the past is the one part of my life I try not to pick apart. 

When I was 19, my journalism professor, Dr. Schram asked to speak with me in the hall after class. He’d attended Northwestern University and knew some people. He thought he could get me a scholarship to the respected journalism program.

“Thank you, so much,” I told him, with the bravado possible only in 19-year-olds and presidential hopefuls. “But my boyfriend is here in East Lansing.”

My boyfriend became my husband, my husband became my daughter’s father and we built the beautiful, flawed life we have today. No regrets.

I’m embarrassed about the perm I had from 1986 until 1990, but I don’t regret it, it simply makes me appreciate the Brazilian blowouts I get today; though the makers of that product should probably regret the name. 

The only true, big regrets I have are the five individuals I’ve harmed or had a part in harming in my life. I know there are exactly five because I mentally pre-write my blogs while sitting in the bathtub and for some self-flagellating reason decided to tally them the other day. 

It’s not something I would advise. 

My big, small regret

If I was forced to choose a small regret, however, there would be this: the great Arizona highway incident of 2005.

We’ve had fabulous vacations in our marriage, but we’ve also experienced what must be more than the average number of terrible trips, mostly because a loved one became critically ill and we were forced to come home early or manage medical care from afar. This happened at least four times in the span of seven years; our relaxing on a beach seemed intrinsically tied to someone we cared about being loaded into an ambulance. Making vacation plans became traumatic and relatives begged us not to go anywhere if they felt the stirrings of a heavy cold.

Our absolute worst vacation was spring break of our daughter’s sixth grade year. Jim’s parents spent each winter in Arizona and asked us to visit; apparently not understanding our jinx. Two days before leaving, Jim threw out his back, necessitating daily trips to a chiropractor once we landed and red-lining all the horseback riding, tennis and hikes on our agenda. I injured my hand on a big water slide at our resort. Molly lost her glasses on the lazy river, which judging from the scratches across each lens when we finally retrieved them, wasn’t so lazy at all. 

Jim and I fought daily over these seemingly minor incidents and our fights led me to stomp away sobbing and Jim to wince and clutch his lower back.

Then we hit the highway. 

Jim’s father, Fred, was an adventure seeker. A veteran, former pilot and police officer he was also an avid traveler and he loved showcasing the beauty of places he and his wife, Doris, discovered. 

He wanted to show us the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Forest, so we piled into his van, with at least two of us -- Molly because she was young and me because I was apparently very stupid -- not realizing just how HIGH cliff dwellings are located.

The trip up was long and winding and grueling. We were all happy when Fred said we could go back the shorter way.

Once we were on the road, however, he turned around and said: “I should have told you. It’s shorter but it’s a bit steeper.”

It was more than a bit steeper. It was sphincter-clenching, sweat-inducing, terrifyingly steep. It was two lane, no guardrail, gravel edged, make one false move and plummet-to-your painful-death-on-jagged-rocks steep. 

The vista was potentially also the most beautiful thing we have ever seen. Fred pointed it out, repeatedly, gazing into the distance, showing us  the sun and the shadows on the ochre mountains.

What we knew we should do, during that terrifying ride, was focus our attention outside ourselves and the death van and appreciate the majestic “wish you were here” views. 
What we did, instead, was scream.
“DAD Would you please watch the road?” Jim, shouted. 

“PLEASE?” I echoed. 
Molly simply gave a little yelp and flung herself face first onto the back seat of the van. 
Fred laughed, but seemed puzzled. I worry he thought we would have felt more comfortable with a younger driver, he was in his 70s at the time. I worry we hurt his feelings and made him begin to question whether with the passage of time he was not the same man in the eyes of those he loved. 

So, that’s my big, small regret. I wish I would have thought to say this:

“It’s not you. It’s not your age. We know you have been a brave man and you are very capable. Our reaction is based on the fact that we are damaged physically at this moment and because our physical bodies hurt we are emotional and are over-reacting . . . though frankly it wouldn’t be a bad idea for ANYONE to keep a bit more of an eye glued to the road ahead in these conditions. Still, we want you to know we trust you . . . and those cliff dwellings were just marvelous.”

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Life and (Sometimes Strange) Times of a Veterinarian's Wife

Standing on the corner, watching all the squirrels float by

This is what is probably important to understand: I’m afraid of many things. Every plane I am on . . . going to crash. Every snotty-nosed store clerk with a cough . . .  obviously there to give me the flu, which will, ultimately, kill me as well.
It’s possible that I could blame this on my mother, because she was also a bit paranoid. Except, I’m pretty sure it was me who caused her to be that way.

Standing in my bedroom at eight-years-old, packing my little pink and white suitcase for a (car) trip to Arizona on spring break, I burst into tears and sunk to my bed with a dramatic sob. 

Mom (rushing in, dish towel in hand): “What in the WORLD is going on?”

Me: “I don’t understand why we have to LEAVE our home and drive across the entire COUNTRY to see Uncle Fred and Aunt Nina! We’re all probably going to die in a car accident and then who will feed the horses and the dog and the barn cats?”

Mom: “Oh, for goodness sakes. You’re such a silly goose. Honestly!”

But, I could see her look of concern when she left my room.

Mom always told me it is never the things we worry about that do us in. Ergo, I’ve made it my life’s mission to worry about everything

It’s a lesson the squirrels could have used to their advantage. 

You can probably read about this on-line, if you’re inclined. Just search something like: “Butt loads of squirrels found floating down the Grand River.” 

It happened ten years ago or so. My husband, Jim, and I were walking along the Grand Haven boardwalk which runs along a lovely channel which leads to Lake Michigan, admiring the gorgeous night, when three or four squirrels floated by.

“What the hell?” Jim asked. 

“There’s more,” I said, pointing. 

And there were. Lots more. The boardwalk is two miles long and for it’s entire length, squirrels floated and swirled by us in a macabre water dance. It was, disturbingly, fascinating. 

I’m not sure anyone ever figured out exactly what happened to the squirrels. Theories were bandied around about pesticides and electrical currents, but the thing that stuck with me was that those squirrels probably woke up that morning, scratched their furry squirrel crotches and thought something like: “What a beautiful day. I just can’t WAIT to eat a nice acorn and maybe take a walk by the river.”

There has been a full moon this week, a full “super” harvest moon actually, and because it was so lovely and big and impressive and orange I gave it a lot of compliments on my Facebook page, which it apparently didn’t like because it has paid me back with a whole bucket filled with crud. 

And not just me, pretty much everyone I know has had a tough week; some with small problems, others with huge, heartbreaking, life changing issues. 

Which is what always brings me back to reality: the problems of others. 

Possibly the strongest person I’ve ever known died a year ago today. Her courage in the face of tremendous physical discomfort and pain was a thing to behold. She greeted each day with a grin and marveled at the tiniest moments of beauty. There was never a time when I asked her how she was feeling when she did not say: “Other people have it much, much worse.”

It’s a philosophy I’m going to try to adopt in her honor. Because, really, until the day I’m in the same position as those squirrels, I’ve got it awfully good. 

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Friday, February 7, 2014

The Life and (Sometimes Strange) Times of a Veterinarian's wife

For my mother and father, Millie and Jim Eddington, who would have celebrated 68 years of marriage on February 9. 

“A little bit . . . around the whiskers”

One of the most touching books I ever read is “My Mom!,” by novice author Molly Eddington Moore. 

At six pages it is charming and  -- in my opinion -- very well-reasoned: “I love my Mom, she is so beautiful! I love her! She is good at her work she is realy good at her job.”

There is also a hot pink illustration of a serpent of some sort and the following: “She loves anmazes. She dose not like snaks.”

Since I have always enjoyed snacks, I was confused until I realized my little daughter was writing about my affection for animals, but not snakes. 

Her book solidified something my veterinarian husband, Jim, and I have often discussed, that parents pass along the value they place, or do not, on animals to their children at an early age. 

My own parents were both animal lovers, but they came about it in very different ways. 

Dad grew up on a farm and walked a mile each day to class with his buddies -- a smudge-faced, dungaree-attired, little bunch. Dad’s faithful mutt waited patiently outside the one-room school during the day and romped back along the country road with the boys each afternoon. 

If it all sounds a bit Tom and Huck, that’s what I envision as well. 

One fall day, as they neared his house, Dad spotted one of his family’s pigs in the pasture and, being youthful, naive, and naughty, goaded his dog to: “Sic ‘em.” 

The race around the field that followed was slap-knee hilarious to Dad’s little posse of ragamuffin buddies. Until, that is, the pig keeled over, apparently from a heart attack and they all slunk home. 

The really big problem ensued when my father went about his after-school chores and homework but didn’t tell his financially strapped family, who might have been able to use the pork, had the poor animal not been left in the field the better part of the unseasonably warm afternoon and evening. 

That night, Dad listened as his father talked to a neighbor who, hearing of the event called and screamed through the (newfangled) telephone: “Ed, why don’t you just knock that darn fool up side the head. He’s never going to amount to a damn thing!”

Dad, the kindest man I’ve ever known other than my husband, always laughed a little sadly, when he told that story. I know his sadness was more about what he’d done to the poor pig than the neighbor’s assessment of his own future. 

Conversely, my mom grew up in downtown Detroit. The unlikely pair met during WWII when they were both working at an ammo plant in Plymouth, Michigan -- my father had been labeled 4F due to a severe speech impediment --  married and moved back to dad’s hometown in 1950.

It must have been quite a sight, my mother with her red lipstick, fancy manicures, platform shoes and peplum suits moving from the big city to a town of only a few hundred people. But, always pragmatic, she happily ditched the suits for denim coveralls and began raising chickens and collecting barn cats and scruffy dogs.

She’d had a Fox Terrier named Brownie when she was in her ‘20s. Brownie, the way she described him, was sort of a forerunner to the little dogs celebrities carry in their purses today; she pampered him, groomed him, and carried him everywhere with her. 

She took him on vacation to a friend’s cabin once and when the hostess served up heavy, wet pancakes fried in bacon grease and floating in syrup she managed to sneak hers off the plate when the woman turned around and hold it under the table for Brownie who rushed up, took a whiff and ran away yelping, just as the lady returned, leaving mom holding the dripping pancake.

Despite his treachery, Brownie was the dog all others were judged against. If  Mom liked a dog, it was because she felt it bore at least some small resemblance to her old pal.

“Kelly is very cute,” she told Jim when we adopted our first pet from the Humane Society a few years after we were married. “She must have a bit of Fox Terrier in her.”

“Mom, I don’t think so. She’s a doberman,” Jim told her.

“Yes, but I can see it, a little bit . . . around the whiskers.”

Kelly has been gone a long time now and her Frisbee-chasing successor Sophie Zenkman, as well. And, Molly’s pet chinchilla, Priscilla, to whom my mother would bring dried cherries and ziplock bags of Cheerios; she passed away last September. 

Our family dog these days is a goofy greyhound named Gabbana Huffington. Gabbi was one of my father’s best buddies in the final years of his life -- his banana sharing, hand nuzzling pal -- but my mother never met her. 

Still, we know Mom would have loved Gabbi from the start. She would have tilted her head to the side to get just the right angle and said: “Yes, but I can see it,  a little bit . . . 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Life and (Sometimes Strange) Times of a Veterinarian's Wife

Getting chummy with Sinatra and the gift my aunt gave me

I’ve never had a bucket list. 

That’s a little surprising as I make "to do” lists for an ordinary day that include bullet points like: “get groceries, mow grass, clean soul sucking cat box and . . . get chummy with Sinatra.”

I always put the ‘Sinatra’ thing on because it’s a joke my husband and I share and, sometimes, he reads the stuff I write.

Once I achieve each bullet point, I cross it off with a huge flourish. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. 

If I do something that’s not on my list, for example get the oil changed by the knuckle dragging, surly mechanics down the street, I always put  it on my list -- “dealt with the mean-spirited Quaker Oil jerks again, which is why I should have watched when Dad tried to teach me to how to do it myself in ’78” -- simply so I can cross it off.

If I had a bucket list, I would have already drawn a line through “travel in Ireland, dance on a stage, write a book, marry the love of my life and raise a wonderful child.” 

Still on the list would be: “travel in Italy, publish a book and figure out a way to temper the horrific effect of gravity on the body of a middle-age woman.

Nowhere on my list would it say: “give eulogy for one of the people you have loved most in the world without turning into an emotional basket case.”

But now I’ve done that, also.

My Aunt Dorothy -- who loved the Red Wings, the Tigers, Pepsi Cola and her family --  died a week ago, today. When discussing end of life issues she apparently asked that I be among those to speak. I recoiled when I heard that, but now I consider it among the best gifts I’ve ever received. 

Pretty much everything I’d want people to know about Aunt Dorothy is in the text that I delivered last Friday, and I’ve included below so, perhaps, even more people can benefit from her amazing spirit and absolute refusal to indulge in self-pity.

I know she’d like that. 

What I should mention, however, is something everyone at the service knew but you probably won’t and that is for the last many years of her life, my beloved aunt walked at a 90 degree angle because of severe skeletal issues and many, many surgeries. 

Yet, 14 days before she died, she walked her grandson down the aisle at his wedding, smiling broadly, exuding joy. 

That walk was breathtaking. So was she. 

I will miss her terribly, but am grateful to share why she was such an important force in the lives of all who knew her. I hope you are also touched by her strength and courage.

Eulogy for Dorothy Schlief/Sept. 13, 2013

I was blessed with the opportunity to read Ted’s beautiful message as well as the lovely words you will hear in a few minutes from Cheryl and I was reminded of one of the first and most important rules I learned in journalism school: When a story is really important be sure to get it confirmed by at least two sources. 

Well, this is a very important story. You’re getting it from three.

When I was in sixth grade, I was playing on the schoolyard swing set with a little girl named Stacie, who I had never played with before. 

“You know,” Stacie said, when we stopped swinging to drag our Keds in the dust. “You’re really nice.”

“Thanks!” I said. “You’re really nice, too!”

“It’s really fun to play with you.”

“It’s really fun to play with you, too!” 

“I can’t figure out why my mother said I should never play with you,” she said.

I was stunned: “Well . . . Why would she say that?” 

“I’m not really sure,” she said. “She just said you were an orphan and you don’t live with your real family.”

Today, of course, from the vantage point of all these years I would have a different response than I did then. I would tell her that, from my experience, a “real” family has nothing to do with biology . . .  and everything to do with love.

But . . . I was 11. So, what I actually said was something like:  “Yuh-huh. Do too!

I am Dorothy’s niece and Goddaughter. And, while she was not was not my biological aunt she was certainly my real aunt.  

My real aunt taught me to read. I was staying with her family for a few days and had brought along my little board book: “Sally Squirrel Gets a New Hat.” 

“She’s only four, but she can already read that,” my mother told her, proudly.

But, Aunt Dorothy knew better; I couldn’t read that. 

I could memorize the words and flip through the pages at the appropriate time. But I couldn’t read that.

So Aunt Dorothy sat with me and showed me the words and had me sound them out and taught me to read that. It is one of my first memories.

Good readers become writers. I eventually became a writer. 

It was also during that visit that Aunt Dorothy put me down for a nap. Instead of sleeping that day, I’m told I redecorated her bedroom by peeling the wallpaper from her walls. 

She never scolded me. Probably because, in her world, it was a minor infraction 

One of my cousins had already set fire to her house the year before. 

I asked her recently if she was upset by the wallpaper incident and the fire and she told me: “Oh, no. You were just children. Plus . . . it gave me an opportunity to remodel the house.”

I was a guest at Aunt Dorothy’s home at that time because my mother was hospitalized. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing a mastectomy. 

What I didn’t realize until recently, was that in the three or four month period prior to my visit, Aunt Dorothy had also lost her own mother as well as her husband, the father of her three children. She was only in her 30s. 

Yet, she welcomed me in with open arms, taught me to read and ignored the whole wallpaper thing.

When I was 19 I told my Aunt Dorothy that my, stingy, uptight, college roommate wouldn’t let me turn up the heat in our apartment or hang any pictures on our walls. Shortly after, I got a care package from her in the mail, it contained a dear little print in a frame, to put at my bedside, and footie pajamas, so I could keep warm.

On Tuesday, a few hours before she died, I held Aunt Dorothy’s hand and she was obviously trying to communicate something to me. I lifted the oxygen mask from her face and apologized: “Aunt Dorothy, I’m sorry, I can’t quite understand what you’re saying.” She looked me in the eye -- a little sternly I thought -- concentrated very hard and said: “PEPSI!”

“Pepsi! She wants Pepsi!,” The cry went up as a dozen people - daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren, scurried around madly. You’ve never seen a group of people move so fast; and one of us is a marathon runner. It took awhile, but we found the Pepsi and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. It was her last meal.

She gave me a lot of gifts. But, perhaps the best gift my Aunt Dorothy gave me was this: 

Though she was often in physical discomfort, there was never a time when I called her or came to visit that she wouldn’t reply to my, “how are you feeling Aunt Dorothy?” with: “Well, my foot hurts a little bit or my back hurts a bit, but I look around and there is always someone worse off than myself.”

Grace under pressure. Courage. Selflessness. Aunt Dorothy. 

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