Tag Archives: old friends

Whaddya Need?

23 Mar

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve suffered from a serious personality defect most of my life. This condition probably stemmed from me playing the leading role of anxious pleaser daughter of an alcoholic father/ middle girl child between two boys in my own personal After School Special that ran for most of my childhood. As I grew up, I completely bypassed any opportunity to be a part of the “me” generation in order to focus all of my energy on making everyone else happy. In a nutshell, I’ve been incapable of putting my own needs in front of others since I was about ten years old.

I’ve only just discovered (thanks to a good therapist) that I did this so that I wouldn’t have to face my own painful feelings relating to the experience of living in the chaos of an alcoholic household. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s always been easier for me not to deal with painful emotions. And it’s worked pretty well for about forty years. But as I face the second half of my life, I’m realizing that it’s just not working for me anymore. I want to feel—even if it hurts!

It’s utterly exhausting trying to please everyone all the time, and truthfully, it just can’t be done. This is the year of turning fifty, and I’ve finally realized it’s time for me to pay attention to me. Thanks to some life-altering experiences that have taken place in the past few years (the pivotal one being my daughter being diagnosed with cancer) I’ve begun to do just that—I’m finally starting to try to figure out what I want, whether it be writing again after thirty years of self-imposed literary exile, or even just choosing what I want to cook for dinner.  I’m finally seeing that taking care of my needs and doing what I want to do is not only best for me, but it’s best for those who love me.

Let me give you an example of the struggle I face when thinking about doing something for myself. First of all, I need to let you know that I’m the least spontaneous woman on the face of the planet. I’m a complete homebody and rarely go anywhere, preferring to stay home and putter about the house and garden. But this past weekend, I did something totally out of character. I left the kids and husband, got in my car alone and drove five hours north to Bass Lake (near Yosemite, California) to spend three days in a spectacular lake-front cabin with nine of my junior high school girlfriends (you can read how we met here https://allegronontanto.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/my-girls/) to celebrate that we’re all turning fifty this year.

Now most of you wouldn’t have thought twice about going, but I, on the other hand was my usual pathetic worry-wart and worked myself into a tizzy about whether or not I should cancel my Friday and Saturday piano lessons. I fretted about not showing up to play piano during the church service on Sunday, and I got anxious about leaving my youngest daughter for the first time. I knew I couldn’t miss this reunion for the world, but I wondered 1) how in the world my family would get along without me, and 2) who was I to think that I deserved to do something enjoyable just for me?

But the thought of missing out on this reunion weekend for any reason was just too unbearable, so I rescheduled lessons and managed to figure it all out. Friday morning, I dropped the kids off at school and hit the road.

It was a soothing and quiet drive to the lake—it was incredibly peaceful with no one asking me for anything, no one telling me what to do—I was free to stop and get coffee and listen to whatever I wanted on the radio. Yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong—that I didn’t deserve to be so blissfully happy. Why in the world did I feel guilty?

I arrived at the lake house to a clamor of squealing teenage girls masquerading as fifty year-old women and almost burst into tears of gratitude that I was actually there with all of them. The house, with its view of the lake and surrounding pine trees was more beautiful than I could have even imagined. I took a deep breath and decided to let it all go—all the useless worry and guilt and angst that I’ve held onto for so long and just be. If this house on the lake wasn’t the perfect setting to relax and regroup, well then, I might as well give up the dream right then and there.

“Whaddya need, Jessie?”                                    

I had been rifling through the kitchen cupboards of the lake house, looking for a loaf of sourdough bread on which to make a sandwich, when my friend, Corrine yelled those foreign-sounding words at me from across the dining room.

At first my girlfriends and I all cracked up, because it was so hilarious at the time—the way Corrine said it so loud and fast, like she was an impatient New Yorker and it was her job in life to figure out what I needed at that precise moment and then tell me where to find it. It became our pseudo-mantra for the weekend— when anyone was looking for something, or even if they looked contemplative or distant, we’d all shout, “WHADDYA NEED?” in a gruff, nasally voice. It was actually quite funny.

It may seem like a silly thing—having someone ask you what you need—but as women with families and relationships and responsibilities, we aren’t often asked what it is we need. How truly magnificent it was to hear someone ask me what I needed! And for me to ask my friends the same question back, over and over, even if it had become somewhat of a running joke, meant something to them, too.

As the weekend went on and the conversations became more personal and intimate, all of our hurts and secrets began to spill one by one like little droplets of red wine onto the spotless white tablecloth. It was useless to try to wipe up the stains—it’s nearly impossible to clean up all of life’s messes, no matter how hard we scour and scrub.

There was some deep and serious stuff revealed around that table—painful and devastating tales of sadness and loss were told involving our husbands, our children, our siblings.  As we talked and laughed and cried, I suddenly felt less alone. I began to understand that every single one of us was dealing with some sort of pain. Every woman at that table was still just a little girl inside, worrying about the mess they had in front of them, and how in the world they were going to clean it all up.

This is why I love turning fifty. Our differences have become less defined. All of us are getting older and our bodies are not what they once were—wrinkles and gray hair are our common denominators. But it no longer matters now—superficiality and vanity has flown the coop like a couple of squawking chickens. We’re at the point where we can truthfully admit to each other that our lives are not perfect and that we’re vulnerable and scared and often sad, but that’s okay. We can lay it all out on the table and feel safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to be judged or criticized. We recognize our own fragility and imperfections in each other and that’s what makes our love for one another even stronger.

A storm blew in on Saturday night and the rain pounded the roof like an arsenal exploding above us. It suddenly stopped in the middle of the night and I thought the tumult had finally passed. The next morning it was eerily quiet as I awoke to a soft cotton blanket of snow wrapped around the lake and mounds of creamy whipped frosting on the trees. A late spring storm had dumped over a foot of snow on the lake.

The snow sparkled like quartz rock in the early morning sunlight. I went out on the deck and breathed in that cold clear air and thought about how the worry and anxiety that I carry around on my back and in my heart were gone for the moment. My pain had been covered up by the blanket of love and support offered so freely by my friends.

“Whaddya need, Jessie?”

I know that the snow will melt eventually and reveal the dirt and dust underneath it—I know that there will be many more of life’s messes to clean up.  But at that moment, staring at the beauty of that uncontaminated white snow, I know I’m part of something so miraculous I can barely put it into words. I’m part of a group of women who love me for me, and that’s just what I need.

And I don’t have to think about anything else except that the love we share is like the newly fallen snow—glorious and pure and full of grace.

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My Girls

18 Dec

For the first three weeks of seventh grade, I threw up every day in the girl’s bathroom. As I made the solitary ten minute walk to school in the cool morning air, I tried to fight the rising nausea, but the closer I got to the junior high school campus, the more nervous I became.

The minute I pushed open the heavy door into that stuffy, claustrophobic bathroom, I knew there was no turning back. The geometric pattern of the tiled walls was like a woozy trigger that made vomiting inevitable. My hands gripped the toilet seat as the scent of teenage B.O. and the noxious fumes of sewer gases swirling up from the floor drains literally pushed me over the edge. I would retch up my breakfast into that stained porcelain bowl like I was making an offering to the deity of junior high school popularity.

No, I wasn’t bulimic (we didn’t even know what an eating disorder was in 1974) nor was I pregnant (I fantasized about my first kiss, but sex? Gross!) I was just your typical, run of the mill, anxiety-ridden twelve-year old adolescent girl. I was so afraid of not fitting in that my nervous stomach would clench and gurgle and produce enough stomach acid for me to upchuck my Cheerios every morning in that lonely, isolated bathroom.

The transition from the safe confines of my elementary school to the junior high was not a smooth one for me. My grade school friends had formed their own clique—one that I didn’t feel a part of anymore. For the first time in my life, I was basically friendless.

For a while I was desperate enough to hang out with the “Loadies” as they were called—the pot-smoking, greasy haired kids who would sneak out onto the field during lunch and take furtive drags on the cigarettes they had pilfered from their parents. I even managed to swipe a pack of Maroboroughs from my dad’s top dresser drawer and hide them in the pocket of my oversized blue nylon windbreaker. Standing on that grassy field, the wind whipping my wavy hair, I self-consciously hiked up my bell-bottom hip huggers that were uncomfortably tight. I wanted so badly to be a part of this group—or any group for that matter. My hands shaking, I fingered the puka shells around my neck as I offered my pack of cigarettes to the group.

“You first,” one of the tougher girls said, eyeing me suspiciously, her contempt of me clearer than the Bonnie Belle lip gloss she wore on her full lips. “I bet you’ve never even smoked in your life—have you?”

“Yes I have—since last year,” I stammered, an obvious lie.

She struck a match, expertly cupping her hand around the flame and lit the cigarette dangling unsteadily in my mouth. I took a quick look around to see if any teachers were watching and took a puff without inhaling the smoke. My eyes watered as I fought off the urge to cough. It was foul.

She watched me, her thick lips stretching into a rubbery sneer. I held the burning cigarette awkwardly between my raw, nail-bitten fingers, pretending that I knew exactly what I was doing. Her face was pinched like she had just sucked on a lemon. I knew she hated me, but I didn’t know why.

“Yeah—right,” she sneered, the pimples on her forehead turning a deeper shade of magenta under her feathered bangs. “You’re a real pro—aren’t you?”

She knew I was a fraud. I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a good girl. Callous laughter spilled out from the rest of the group; their own relief apparent, for she had chosen to devour me with her acidic sarcasm instead of one of them.

The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. She didn’t even try to hide her disgust with me as she flicked her still burning cigarette down on the grass and headed off the field.

“Later, chick,” she said, and with a flick of her head, permanently dismissed me. Her entourage trailed behind like her like a scraggly parade. I hung back, ashamed. How pathetic—I couldn’t even make friends with the reprobates.

But all hope was not lost, as the very next day, I found my girls. Or should I say—they found me. It happened so effortlessly that I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The girl I sat next to in English class invited me to eat lunch with her group. After class I followed her out into the sunlight to meet her friends. In front of the library, a continuously shifting circle of lovely girls flitted about, chattering excitedly like little yellow finches at the birdbath.

One of them was hosting a make-up party at her house the following evening and was inviting the others to attend. Oh, they were so beautiful—confident and stylish in their flowing hair, knit sweaters and fitted Ditto pants.  I thought they were perfect.

I stood back, mute with admiration, just waiting for someone to wonder what the heck this unlovable, awkward misfit was doing there, trying to break into their tight circle. One of them turned abruptly to me. I waited for her to ask me what I was doing there.

She gave me a genuine smile. “Do you wanna come to the party, too?”

I was so shocked that all I could do was nod up and down like my head was attached to a spring.

I had been accepted by the flock, and although I didn’t know it then, it was for life.

From the GVJH Yearbook: Front Row: Kathi, Michele, Me, Holly, Kay, Corrine, and Julie. Row 2: Pam, Row 3: second from left: Shelia. Last row: second from left: Lauri.

It’s been over thirty years since that fateful day at Goleta Valley Junior High. Through slumber parties and high school football games, school dances and trips to Hawaii, all of us have remained friends.  Months can go by without a word between us, and yet when we see each other again, time has been erased like we spoke just yesterday. We always pick up where we left off. We’ve been in each others’ weddings and rubbed each others’ swelled bellies at baby showers. We’ve cried together over the painful loss of a parent. We’ve cried even more after the unexpected death of a child.

Last week I had dinner with my girls. It’s Christmastime, and we’ve make a point to get together during the holidays no matter how busy are lives have become. As we gathered in the back booth of a downtown restaurant to eat, drink wine, and exchange gifts, the atmosphere around us began to expand, encasing us in a light of pure loveliness. In no time, we became those chatty, vivacious girls from seventh grade.

As we passed plates of decadent desserts around the table, we gossiped, hooted with laughter and shared the sweetness of our histories together. We’re all approaching fifty, and most of us are at a crossroads in our lives—looking back at where we’ve been and wondering what the heck we’re going to do with the next fifty years. We fiercely love our partners and our children, but admit to each other that sometimes it’s much more difficult to be a mother and a wife than we ever imagined. We openly reveal the pain we feel over the fact that our children have not followed the precise path that we’ve laid out for them—and about how challenging it is to push them out of our nests and release them into their own lives.

It’s true we’re aging. Every year we find more gray hairs. The crow’s feet around our eyes have deepened over time. Our skin has become a little less elastic and our hair a little less lustrous. But within ourselves, we feel as young as teenage girls. And if you look closely, you’ll see that our eyes still shine as brightly as they did back in seventh grade.

We may mourn the loss of our youth, but as we approach our fiftieth birthdays, the need to be something other than what we are right now melts away like the Christmas morning frost on the front lawn. We’re finally able to show each other our limitations and inadequacies without fear of judgment. We’ve made a myriad of mistakes throughout our lives and certainly haven’t lived up to our own expectations or fulfilled all of our dreams, but we understand that this is what life is about—making mistakes and learning from them. After all these years, we’ve grown up enough to realize that because of our imperfections, the deeper, more exquisite beauty within us has allowed itself to be revealed.

I keenly remember that shy, twelve year-old girl with the nervous stomach who stood in front of the junior high school library that day, hoping against hope to find a place to belong. I never imagined that a group of such pretty and spirited seventh grade girls would take me under their wings and make me part of their flock. But I guess they saw something in me that day—that in truth, I was really just like them, insecure and shy and afraid to spread my wings. I just wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, as they did. They pulled me in, and through their acceptance and love, humor and grace, gave me the chance to fly.

Merry Christmas, Girls. God bless us everyone.