The Great One

It’s been so long since I’ve written anything here. For two years I wrote copiously, for the eyes of my classmates and instructors, while my other “voice” for writing–the non-technical, memory-preserving voice–languished. Now it seems like I’m unable to write anything anymore unless it’s out of a sense of necessity.

Well, tonight I feel a different sense of necessity. I come stumbling back here, looking for a sense of healing in writing as I once felt. My heart is feeling fragile and cracked as I think about a world without the matriarch of our family.

My grandpa’s older sister, my great Aunt Betty, has been a big fixture in my life for all of my 38 years. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in her magical duplex, with the pink carpeted bathroom and the Narnia-esque door hidden in the spare room closet leading to the attic. The attic was full of rodents and 60s-era toys, the ones her two sons, my dad, and his sisters played with as they grew up. Aunt Betty was always a bit appalled that we were so fascinated with the attic, what with the critters and all, but I swear that was part of the thrill. I remember playing on her back steps, or under the fruit tree in the back yard. There is a picture of me with my cousin-somehow-removed at age three or so sitting on the “davenport” that still sits in her living room, in that very duplex with the dark wood banister, 35 years on. There is still the little porcelain statue of the man and the woman with the balloons, and the little niche where the phone sat. As the years moved forward, inevitably, we got taller and less interested in the attic. I became ever more enamored of Betty, and her gentle, quiet husband Vern, though. When Vern died I was in college. Driving late at night with my dad, a huge, white-winged owl swooped down just in front of our car in the dark stretch of Wisconsin forest road. Inexplicably, there was no impact and, though we screeched to a halt and turned back to look, the owl was not in or near the road. It was as though it had simply vanished. Or, if you’re like me and taken with wild flights of fancy, it was just my great uncle Vern letting us know that everything was alright on the other side.

For the longest time, I didn’t want to sit in his chair. It felt intrusive. But after enough visits, and enough stories from Aunt Betty, I just knew it was okay. It became one of my favorite places to be, because I felt closer to him and I saw her, at least a little bit, from his vantage point. And if it hadn’t already been completely obvious before, I knew for certain now that she was a force of nature, a thing of true beauty.

Great Aunt Betty, Mary Elizabeth by birth and Bant Betty by Shultzification, was as close as I got to a paternal grandmother. My grandpa did his best to stand in for both himself and his long-deceased wife when my brother and I were growing up, but his big sister came to be a surrogate grandparent and I couldn’t have chosen better, though in fact I made no choice. She was just always there, asking questions and listening to me as though I were a fascinating girl, discussing books and music and sharing some of my family history that my grandpa found too painful to discuss. As an adult, I mined her for information and she was generous and patient with my unquenchable curiosity. We shared a wedding anniversary (very auspicious indeed!) as well as a love of strawberry rhubarb pie and books. She read a dozen books a week, brought to her in an overflowing bag by volunteers from the library. She did crosswords. She fought anyone who ever tried to pay a restaurant bill in her presence. She called my grandpa every day for years, and even though he hated talking on the phone he answered, which is noteworthy. She also loved the Cubs and baseball until it got too slow for her, and then it was all about March Madness. She was a working mother back when that was still a novelty, a loving wife, a soft landing place, a tough cookie, and at times the glue that held things together. In other words: a fully-realized, complicated, and amazing woman.

For some years toward the end of my grandpa’s life, he lived on the other side of the duplex from Betty. Once when Joe and I went to visit him, and after Betty arm-wrestled my grandpa for the dinner bill, we went back to her place and played a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit. I don’t remember who won, but I do remember that she missed not one thing. It felt so strange, yet oddly comforting, to go back to the “other side” for bed that night, in the mirror image of the home I’d known for years as hers. I loved to think of my grandpa living at 1616, and her at 1618, looking out for one another. But after awhile, they couldn’t move around much. So Bob and Betty would each knock around on their own side of the duplex, and call each other at least once a day, never seeing each other but always knowing their sibling was right there with them anyway.

(I never wanted to take a sledgehammer to a wall so badly in my life.)

All this rambling is just to say that 100 years, almost 101, is a darn good run. But when you’re the best Bant Betty around, it’s a gift to the whole world to have had you with us all this time. And even though I might not see your lovely, soft, smiling face anymore, I know you’re just on the other side of this wall, knocking around, looking out for me nonetheless.

Here we are with the Great Gal herself!

Categories: Mostly Me | 3 Comments

To Boldly Go…

Well, Maxwell, today you are twelve years old.

You.

Things are so different now from when I started this blog in 2009 or so. For starters, I had to ask your permission before writing about you and putting it out there, because now you are “out here”, and aware of things, and it really is just the respectful thing to do. (You obviously granted permission, or I’d not be doing this public declaration.) As we drove yesterday, talking about this entry and your birthday, you expressed amazement at getting here…to twelve, I mean. “I used to dream of being twelve. I can’t believe it’s happening tomorrow!” I asked why twelve, what’s so awe-inspiring about age twelve? You said its proximity to thirteen makes it very attractive.

Your last day of elementary school.

And while you’re in a hurry to be a teenager (status, you said…and to no longer be called a “kid”…are big draws), I can’t help but do such a Mom thing and remind you to enjoy the here and now. There is a lot to be said for exactly where you are!

No, really! Being twelve is fine!

No, really! Being twelve is fine! Emo Max and Emo Iguana at El Morro in San Juan, 2015

For starters, now that you have all the adjustment out of the way, middle school is proving to be awesome for you. You are having a chance to stretch your brain in wonderful new ways. We always knew you were a math whiz, but you have spent all year really blowing us (and your super-Ace math teacher) out of the water. You work hard for it, to be sure, but part of why you work so hard is because you like it and you like feeling successful. Who doesn’t? Who knows, maybe you’ll become a full-time mathematician after all. Other subjects have evolved into interests, too…history, for one. You completed your very first foray into MN History Day, making it all the way to regionals (honorable mention!) by playing James J. Hill with aplomb. And gym…who knew? I don’t think you expected to enjoy it so much. But as I assured you, it’s all about showing up and doing your best, and you’ve got that skill in spades.

The Empire Builder of St. Paul. And F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Empire Builder of St. Paul. And F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But your backpack, your room, your locker (probably)? Oy. I guess you fit the Einsteinian model of messy, absent-minded professor in all respects. Good thing for technology; the ability to submit your work electronically definitely pays off.

You are just…easily absorbed, shall we say?…by the inner workings of your mind. Your imagination is as vibrant as ever, though your interests have shifted somewhat. You are a big fan of anime and manga. You love Sci-Fi and Star Trek. We bonded big-time over Harry Potter this year, and I just can’t get over how fun that was. You tell these incredible stories, full of detail and whimsy…my special favorite being the tale of the firefly and the gnome that you told us under a starry sky in a tent in NC this summer. You are still constantly, constantly reading (though now you’re always on the iPad. The danged thing.) You continue to be a caring and responsible big brother, who helps me more than I can say. If all heck is breaking loose, I feel like I can at least count on you to meet my eye over the fray of the shorter members of the family as though to say, without words, “Can you believe this?” It’s a sanity-saver. For both of us, I think.

See what you have to put up with?

See what you have to put up with?

We traveled a lot this year! First we went on our big summer road-trip to the southeast US, then just last month our family vacation (reward for putting up with FIVE YEARS of college-student parents, first one then TWO of us!) to Puerto Rico. By land or by air (haven’t tried sea), you enjoy exploring new places. You reported that your favorite parts of the road trip were visiting the City Museum in St. Louis and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. And the pizza. As for Puerto Rico you said, “Can I be honest? My favorite thing was Church’s Chicken. And cable TV. The beach was pretty nice.” So: food. Travel, and eating.  I get it: you’re a growing boy.

Off the charts at the apple orchard, fall 2014.

Off the charts at the apple orchard, fall 2014.

Case in point: you will likely be taller than, or at least as tall as, I am by your next birthday letter.

Already taller than Grandma! April 2015

Already taller than Grandma! April 2015

Sure, I am amazed at the way your body has grown, from the 8-pound, 21-inch package we brought home from the hospital to this tall and sturdy guy you’ve become. How does a body do that, in twelve short years? But more incredible to me, now and always, is how you’ve developed from the tiny, helpless baby who needed to sleep close to me, who needed us for every. thing. to this totally capable and amazing and compassionate and independent person. Someone who rides his bike where he chooses, who is learning to advocate for himself at school, who gets his own food and cleans the bathroom and who thinks these big, deep thoughts about life and shares them so eloquently.

How’d you get up there?

With you baby cousin, summer 2014.

With you baby cousin, summer 2014.

A skilled player and all-around life of the proverbial party.

A skilled player and all-around life of the proverbial party.

Your first State Fair trip. Did I mention there was food?

Your first State Fair trip. Did I mention there was food?

Training your brothers well in the art of pulling faces. Down at the lake, 2014.

Training your brothers well in the art of pulling faces. Down at the lake, 2014.

You astound me. Even in the moments when we engage in eye-roll stand-offs, you make me so proud. Exasperated, perhaps, but always, ALWAYS proud. That I was selected for the honor of raising you will always bring me up short. Oh stop rolling your eyes at that, I totally believe your spirit chose me and I’m grateful for it, OKAY?!?

You’re the first, and I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy to blaze the trail. But I hope that I had one iota of the grace you’ve had in facing down the challenges, first in line, and breaking us in. You go boldly where no one has gone before (with these two parents, anyway) and bless you for it. And I know you already know everything, c’mon MOM…but let’s us keep learning and growing together, okay personality-twin? I know I’m better for it, and I hope you will be, too.

A man of the world.

A man of the world.

Love.

Mama

Categories: Max | 2 Comments