The Treat Bags

For much of my daughters’ early lives I was an at-home mom. Their dad worked overnights and was the low man in seniority, so he didn’t get a lot of nights off. And when he did, he was usually too exhausted to go out and do anything. So our kids rarely had sitters and if they did, those sitters were Grandma or an aunt or a cousin. Our kids grew up with the security of knowing mom and dad would always be home.

Over time I became an elected official and eventually my obligations required that I do some traveling once a month. Usually I was gone one or two days but sometimes I was gone for as long as five nights. With their dad working overnight and me traveling, we had to get an overnight sitter. Again, usually a relative, but still not the usual routine. To kids who were used to having Mom home all the time, that separation caused a lot of anxiety. And for the youngest daughter, she wasn’t old enough to comprehend what it meant that I would be gone two nights or five.

To help the youngest one with her separation anxiety, I began a tradition of putting together small, inexpensive treat bags for each night that I would be away from home. I didn’t spend a lot of money on the contents or the bags. I used the same brown bags we used for school lunches. I bought inexpensive candy or other treats in bulk and divided them up among the bags for each of the four girls for however many nights I’d be gone. Sometimes I bought little puzzles or coloring books to put in the bags. Each bag had one of the girls’ names written on the outside; each bag was stapled shut; and each day’s four bags were clipped together. One bag for each daughter for every night that I was away from home. The girls usually opened their bags after school or at supper. The youngest would watch the pile of treat bags on the kitchen counter grow smaller with each passing day and could quickly discern when I was coming home. When the bags were all gone, she knew we would be reunited the next day. A simple system that eased their anxiety.

I hadn’t thought about those treat bags in years but was reminded of them in recent days as I became aware of separated families, not knowing when, or if, they will be reunited.


Unfinished Business

For the last several years, the changing colors of the leaves triggers me to ask my four daughters, “When can we get together for Christmas?” Every time I ask that question, no matter how I preface it, how I disguise it, the question becomes a catalyst for a civil war among the daughters. I almost didn’t ask the question this year—it’s been such a godawful year for my husband and me—but duty called. I’d like to report there was a different response this year but I’d be lying. In fact, the ache of disappointment is greater than it has ever been.

Going through this drama each autumn, I’ve come to know that there are a lot of people out there who do not talk to siblings and a few who don’t even talk to their parents. Having spent seventy-five percent (or three quarters, and that’s not an exaggeration) of my life without parents, I would give anything to have my mom and dad back for just one day, or even one hour. I cannot fathom any circumstance that would cause a child to choose not to talk to his or her parents. It is beyond my comprehension even though I know it happens.

Siblings, on the other hand, are different. I am the youngest of eight and there are a couple of my siblings that I do not talk to more than once or twice a year. And when we do talk, the conversation is stilted and awkward. If we were not siblings, there’s not a chance in the world those people would be included in my inner circle of friends.  So as it regards siblings, I have empathy for my four daughters. They did not choose to be related. However, I know without a doubt, if my parents were alive, all of us would be there for Christmas.

In the midst of the civil war that erupted about ten days ago, my daughters Rose and Emily debated the definition of family. Daughter Kate’s husband is allergic to cats and Kate’s house is the only one without a feline. So Kate wants to have Christmas at her house, which happens to be more than two hours away from everyone else. Rose suggested Kate hand out Benadryl and get her family to my house to celebrate the holiday. Emily accused Rose of being insensitive and said “family doesn’t treat family like that.” And so it went.

The thing that is most troubling for me is the fact that all four of my daughters gather at their dad’s house on Christmas Eve and at their grandmother’s house on Christmas Day. “We’ve always done it this way.” So when their dad and I divorced, I compromised and held my Christmas celebration on other days. When really didn’t matter to me. We’ve gathered as early as the first weekend in December and as late as the middle of January. It’s the gathering of my four daughters with me that matters. So why can they gather at other people’s houses but not at mine? Why can they agree to gather as a group with other family but they can’t agree to gather with me? What do I bring or not bring to the equation?

It’s a riddle I’ve been trying to solve for years with no success. The older I get, the greater the disappointment and the deeper the hurt. I have the wisdom of knowing I have fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me. My four daughters can’t comprehend that at their young ages. And since they have yet to lose a parent or a sibling, they have no comprehension of how life turns on a dime, how short our lives actually are.

Oldest daughter Kate is now 32. She’s a mother herself and plenty old enough to understand unconditional love, and yet it’s Kate who is the biggest antagonist. This year she drew a line and will not be celebrating Christmas with me and her sisters, prompting Rose to call her a “self-righteous, self-centered, holier-than-thou bitch.” Like that would help.

Holidays are always so stressful, so filled with emotions. We battle the stress of buying presents, telling ourselves we’ll deal with the overspending in January. We exhaust ourselves by hurrying and scurrying while getting everything ready for the ultimate December 25 deadline. We fight disappointment at not getting something we wanted or frustration and anger when a somewhat inebriated sister-in-law says, “Wow, I didn’t know you were pregnant. When are you due?” With all the noise in the mix, it’s no surprise that we lower priorities with family. Family is loved ones, safe, reliable. If family gets hurt feelings, they’ll still be family a month from now and you can circle back and say, “Hey, sorry about that. I was having a bad day.” But I’m here to tell you that sometimes, you can’t circle back.

Down the Rabbit Hole

June solstice? Already?! I nearly missed it. Seems I slipped into a hole a few months ago and one thing after another drove me deeper into the darkness. I wish I could say I had fun or that I lost weight or I won…anything. Nope. But I did learn a few things.

I confirmed that I’m not ready to die; I still have unfinished business and I still have some fight left in me. I learned that people cannot get rest in the hospital, laying in a bed or sitting in a chair watching your spouse lay in the bed. I validated the fact that after all these years I still love my husband and want to stay married even though he aggravates me more than once each day.

The biggest surprise came in understanding and accepting the fact that once in a while I need to put myself first instead of last. Okay, maybe more often than once in a while. It’s going to take me some time to create new habits. Awareness and acceptance are the first step.

On this longest day of the year, I see the light, and I’ve made my way up from the depths to the rabbit hole opening. I’m even putting my head out. Wave if you see me.

The Case of Corporate Cancer

The words in my mind are loud and constant, but my tongue and my fingers have not moved. My eyes have been capturing images and my ears hearing sounds, both connecting with my brain, communicating all kinds of things, and yet my voice has been silent. For weeks, months, this has been going on.

Indeed. Life has been a challenge for some time. I thought about writing, even attempted it, then pulled back. News from others I interact with made me realize my problems are miniscule and the connection from my brain to my fingertips wouldn’t work. Black on white wouldn’t type. Feelings of self-disgust over self-centeredness overtook everything else.

A coworker’s mother has been battling cancer for the last couple of years. She was doing better, but then complications showed up in early November. This coworker rushed to her mother’s side and began the long wait. About that same time I learned that another coworker who has been battling ovarian cancer came down with the stomach flu right before Christmas. She is still fighting for her life a month later. The other coworker’s mother lost her battle this week. Last week, my boss’s mother lost her battle, which had begun just a month ago.

With all this death and dying going on, what do I have to complain about?

The facts are, I have been working nine- and ten-hour days since mid-August. Despite the fact that my workload has increased by more than 60 percent since I started my job four years ago, there is no help coming. I wear the hats of three positions in the company I work for, and I have no backup. If I were to be hit by the proverbial bus on the way to work one day, no one could pick up where I left off. My guess is it would take someone nearly a year to learn my job because that’s how long it took me to learn it when I joined the company. Honest! My first day on the job my boss told me that he could give me a list of my responsibilities and the deliverables I needed to produce, but he could not tell me how to do the work. All he could offer me was advocacy. He would get me whatever I needed, just as soon as I figured out what that was. I thought he was teasing me. He wasn’t.

All of last year I didn’t take any vacation time because I knew it would be too painful to come back and deal with the backlogs. I did take off three days, one at a time, scattered months apart, for personal business not for fun or pleasure. Out of desperation for a break, I finally told myself to take the two weeks off over Christmas and New Year’s. That’s generally a slow time and I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. One month later I am still not caught up.

Some time ago I explained to one of my brothers that in the duties of just one of the hats I wear at work, I open and process more than 300 emails each day. On busy days, that number climbs to 400. He didn’t believe me. He argued using the logic that if each email takes 2 minutes and I have a slow day of 300 emails, then that’s 600 minutes except that an eight-hour day has only 480 minutes. Exactly. “That’s nonsense,” my brother declared. “If you worked for me, I wouldn’t allow that,” he said. I don’t work for my brother.

My former boss understood my predicament. He saw the big picture and advocated for me, regularly sending me home on Friday afternoons. “Get out of here,” he would say. “It’s not going anywhere and you need to see some sun.” My former boss left the company in September. I learned quickly that he alone had the big picture, despite the fact that he was a couple of rungs below the executives. In his absence it’s been fascinating to watch the void open up and the black hole suck out the life of the company. I never would have believed one person—and a non-executive at that—could have that much impact on the energy and life of a business. It’s been an eye-opening experience.

When I first joined the company, there was excitement and energy and passion. In the last five months, there’s been a slow degradation of all of that. Now there’s a heavy feeling of resignation, that we’re all stuck there without hope.

A couple of weeks ago one of my coworkers quietly told me she was tempted to bring in a bunch of sage and burn it to cleanse the office of the bad spirits. I’ve been wondering where a person can buy bundles of sage in the middle of winter.

Shortly after my former boss packed up and left, I picked up a job search, looking for a chance to try out an “unknown”. Experts say the economy is improving and there are many jobs. They lie.

With all the disease and deterioration and lack of leadership in the company, it’s hard to find an ounce of hope. I know it’s moments like these when true leaders are created, but I’m afraid they’ve all left.

Similar to an Arab Spring, I think some of us should join together and create a Corporate Spring. We could protest and lobby for a true-eight hour workday, for the flexibility without repercussions to use our earned vacation time, for managers who are advocates with peripheral vision. Wait, didn’t someone do that once before?

I just remembered, I have a sage bush in my back yard. I wonder if I can harvest that in winter.