Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Memoir Workshop

The Art of Remembering Memoir Workshop resumes on January 5th at St. Paul Lutheran Church from 3:30 - 5:30. Open enrollment. Your Life is your journey. Your journey is your story. Your story is your legacy. It's time to tell your story.


When the new millennium began, we still lived on Pine Street in Anaheim in a little house at 408 where a family took root and children were raised. While a lot of our friends moved up and out of their "starter" homes, we clung to Pine Street, two blocks from my mother, one block from Pearson Park and a few short blocks from St. Boniface Church for twenty years.

The the decade of the 80's included our courtship, marriage and the birth of our two children. It brought the death of my father and the accompanying onslaught of grown up realities. We moved to Pine Street in the midst of this in 1983.

We saw the decade of the 80's come and go as our children grew from infants to pre-school and early elementary school students at Zion Lutheran School across town in east Anaheim. Straight down Sycamore Street, my mother picked them up from school every day of their school-aged lives, first in her beloved Buick station wagon, and later in her Buick Century. Mother tended to drive Buicks. She also tended to drive like she owned the road. Gunning it, she would have to be described as a lead foot. Arriving in the parking lot of Zion Lutheran nearly an hour before dismissal so that she could get "her" parking space - a ritual observed not only by our children, but by the teachers and staff at Zion.

Mother picked them up every day because I could not. I spent every afternoon at the Servite Theatre where my Tri-School Theatre Program began at 3:30 rehearsing the musicals of my youth - driven by boundless energy and an unquenchable thirst for excellence. While my children grew up on Pine Street, I grew up on La Palma Avenue, honing my skills and pushing the limits not only of myself but of my students.

Mother was not the only surrogate for my children. We had Marlin. In our little house on Pine Street, Marlin" lived in" - sleeping on the fold -out couch that was a wedding present from Steve's parents. Marlin cooked and cleaned, did laundry and kept our lives in order despite the chaos that engulfed us. A true success story, Marlin worked as hard as anyone I've ever known, loved my two children like her own - two boys- still in Guatemala with Marlin's mother. Tousling the blond heads of her blue eyed charges, the dark pools that were the eyes of her sons wept for their mother for nearly two years.

Despite Marlin's loneliness, it was a good arrangement for all of us. Marlin became a part of our family and Marlin's family, an extension of ours. On a work visa, Marlin eventually earned her green card. The day her boys arrived at our home on Pine Street after a harrowing journey, was one of profound celebration. The bond between our families was solidified, along with a history that included a neighborhood and town that was growing increasingly Hispanic. The multi-cultural influence on our children was one of their greatest gifts - a by product of having stayed on Pine Street.

While we did not recognize it at the time, our son played little league on a team on which he was the only non-Hispanic player. Our children grew up grounded without the glitz of south orange county or the suburban sensibilities of more affluent north orange county developments. Theirs was a privileged life compared to the largely lower income, working class families of the little league team and stood in sharp contrast to the one bedroom, immaculate apartment in gang-infested Anaheim in which Marlin raised her sons. A Christmas eve visit for Guatemalan tamales was part of our routine. It would only be when our son began playing water polo in high school, that we would come to realize that his upbringing had been absent club sports and private coaches. It had included something deeper that would stay with him for life.

The decade of the 90's wrought havoc in our lives and was the reason we clung to the security of our little home. A life boat in a raging sea, its walls sheltered us from the ravages of a business in ruins, near foreclosure, my clinical depression and profound grief. AIDS showed up at our doorstep in the 90's along with the terrifying realities of unemployment. It brought Cayucos and a tradition of family vacations with my life-long friend Mugs and her family. It brought awareness of self-care, massage, therapy and journaling.

Despite the wolves at our door, our children grew up secure in our little home. My prayer answered. "Please God, do not let all of this negatively affect my children, our marriage or our spirits." While our spirits had their ups and downs, we virtually came through the nineties a bit battle weary, no doubt scarred, but in tact. I remember thinking, "Good riddance to the 90's". But new stability and renewal was just around the corner. This decade brought significant change to our lives including an entree into the world of media giants like the Los Angeles Times, and more first hand experience in the ongoing decline of print media. From yellow pages to newspapers, the story of our family will be inextricably tied up with the collision of old and new media. This tension would eventually be our daughter's launching pad into the world of digital publishing in the new millennium. In the last year of the 1990's , our daughter began her high school career and I attempted to end mine. Unsuccessfully.

As we rang in 2000 at my childhood home on Resh Place around a bar that was the centerpiece of the house, a decade of great change awaited us. We bought a boat. Sailed a boat. And discovered recreation in our lives. Our son began high school and water polo in 2002. Our daughter graduated from Rosary in 2003 and moved to Seattle for her university and travel abroad experience at UW. With her move, came ours - in a two step process from Pine Street, sold at top dollar in a housing market that had exploded - to Resh Place with my mother, whose memory was fading - to the long desired "big" house of our dreams in a new development in Fullerton. From 2200 square feet to 3500 square feet, owed in great measure to the size of my new bathtub, at long last we said goodbye to our family home on Pine Street and my childhood home on Resh Place that had been my mother's home for fifty years.

With this move came heart ache and struggle. Mother's condition was worsening and so was her temperament. As feisty as she always was, her dementia made for unreasonable battles, and temperature settings of over 80 degrees. The physical and emotional toll of our cohabitation eventually reached a boiling point. She gave up driving the Buick, a painful turning point that I manipulated, feeling villanous and heart broken as I watched her perplexed face through the glass of the testing room at the DMV. I knew she'd fail. I prayed she'd fail. It was without a doubt one of the saddest days of both our lives. My mother loved to drive her Buick.

With the thrill of a new home, new appliances, a kitchen the size of Chicago and an address that announced renewal, a crushing blow befell us within months, when the Los Angeles Times began its seemingly endless series of layoffs which included Steve's. It was a devastating afternoon when I took his call in my spacious bedroom, only 3 months after moving in and weeks after I had finally walked out of the stage door of Tri-School Theatre to pursue other creative ambitions. I remember we all cried.

Instead of the life boat of our little house on Pine Street, we were cast adrift with a hefty mortgage, unemployment and Alzheimer's. Our son's clever, water polo- inspired email address seemed to echo our situation, "barely buoyant". With fear tightening its noose it seemed as if fate was dealing us a repeat of the 90's in this decade of the 2000's.

But with the years, comes seasoning. We had developed skills and had already survived a down turn. While this one was frightening because the stakes seemed so much higher, it was less devastating on virtually every level. We sold our boat, now a luxury we couldn't afford. But this was balanced by the successes of our children, the joys of our daughter's study abroad and the resilience and know- how of Steve's experience in the world of "new media". We barely missed a beat. He was nearly instantly contracted as a consultant and while this period included a several month stint in Philly, it also provided exposure and opportunity. It contributed to our son's decision to go east for college to Villanova. A decision that would be reversed in only a year, but which contributed to the achievement of his dream to attend USC. Eventually, it brought a wonderful chapter in Steve's career with Freedom Communicatons and the eventual move to Media Span where all of his entrepreneurial and corporate know how have come together in fulfilling, challenging and creative work.

The first decade of the new millennium took me on a journey through the world of elder care, caregivers, and once again, hospice. It took my mother first to Brighton Gardens Assisted Living and then to the Alzheimer's residence at Avalon. It took her to her ninetieth birthday and me to the side of her death bed serenading her gently with "The Irish Blessing" as she drifted toward her eternal home reunited once again with my father and two brothers in 2007. With her passing, came the reality that I was the only survivor of my family of origin and the keeper of the family history. It is one of the reasons I believe in the importance of story telling and my mantra: Your life is your journey. Your journey is your story. Your story is your legacy.

The first decade of the new millennium brought our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, a trip to France, our daughter's graduation from college, and the beginning of an economic down turn that is ushering us into this next decade. But with the passing of my mother, came another move in May of 2007. This time to our dream home near the water on Naples in Long Beach. Back to a little house much like our home on Pine Street, this move felt like coming home. No fancy bathrooms or kitchens but welcoming, friendly neighbors, walks along the canals, and kayaking Sunday mornings.

It brought our grown daughter back home for 2 1/2 years and with her came gourmet cooking and animated dinner table conversations during the primaries and election focused around Hillary and Obama, Palin and McCain. It took us on the inauguration trip to DC and her to DPL for the beginning of her professional career. It brought me to a full time teaching position at my Alma mater and a commute from Long Beach to Fullerton in my mother's Buick.

And it has brought me once again, blocks away from family. This decade has been riddled with cancer - from Linda's multiple myloma to Peggy's breast cancer - it has been a decade of illness, courage, and survival.

It has been a decade of travel to Prague, Italy, Paris, Provence, the San Juan Islands, New York, Hawaii and a Christmas cruise to the Caribbean with Steve's family to celebrate his parent's fiftieth wedding anniversary.

It has been a decade of new life - the birth of great nieces and nephews, Matt's PhD and moves from Eugene to Seattle to Alameda to Pittsburgh.

It has been a decade of terrorism in the post 9/11 era.

It has been the decade in which our children became adults and we entered our fifties. It has been a decade of writing, memoir and creativity for me.

As we ring in the new decade with 2010, our daughter prepares to leave the nest once more - to pursue her studies in a masters program in publishing at NYU. Our son is one semester from graduating from USC. My creative urges continue to bubble to the surface. Another decade awaits. We mark time with their passage but we live our lives in the days between the dropping ball at midnight.

I choose not to imagine what lies ahead as with the passage of time, comes an understanding that every decade contains joy and sorrow, loss and victory, ups and downs. Whatever may be ahead in this coming decade, I have five decades from which to draw my strength, gratitude in my heart and recognition that it is all transitory. As St. Teresa of Avila said,
Let nothing upset you, Let nothing frighten you.
Everything is changing; God alone is changeless.
Patience attains the goal.
Who has God lacks nothing; God alone fills all needs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Self Reliance

I have been told that I am my father's daughter. As the holidays descend, a familiar feeling washes over me. It is a hollow ache deep within the core of me. A distant yearning.

I am young. I am in my bedroom on Resh Place in Anaheim. It is night. The wall of windows along the west side of my room creates a reflective prism of dancing images on my ceiling from the swimming pool light. The sounds of laughter echo down the hallway - grown ups at play - around a bar that is the center piece of my home. Laughter, loud and strong and fun. I see my father behind the bar. A grin on his face, relishing in what must have been a sense of a life fulfilled. A self-made man from impoverished conditions in Kentucky, he made his way to California selling for RL Polk and Company City Directories, ultimately establishing his own business and an affluent suburban life on a cul de sac in Anaheim. It was in this safe, comfortable and secure world that I grew up. The script of my life included two oft repeated lines usually spoken with intensity - one by my father - "Always go for the top" and the other by my mother, "You are Lee Luskey's daughter."

The subtext of my life was success. It was that you could accomplish anything you set your mind to doing. The example was my father, who, now that I look back through my own adult lens, was indeed extraordinary. I grew up on the receiving end of his accomplished life. By the time I was born, the chapters of struggle, hardship and sacrifice had already been written. I entered the story of my father's life in its final third. I lived in the midst of the results of his labor and missed out on what got him there. One could say, I lived my childhood in a bubble.

The bubble burst after the sudden death of my father at sixty-four. I was twenty-two. It took our family less than eight years to unravel the business he had built. My brother's fifty-three year-old- life came to a tragic end only thirteen years after my father's. The story of my adult life has been the reconstruction of a life out of the collapse of our family business and the deaths of my father and brother. It has been about the deconstruction of a family myth, a sifting through the ashes of memory, the analysis of personality characteristics, character flaws, and the sorting through the psychological ramifications of failure and the driving forces behind success.

For nearly half my life, I have been in recovery.

The other night, I had a dream from which I awoke feeling a warmth and comfort I had not felt for a long time. My father and my brother were both in the dream but the details were foggy. It was a visitation of sorts and the messages were clear. The first had to do with my daughter - who is ready to embark on the great adventure of her life in New York City. The message came from my brother who loved New York - and who loved his little niece - my brother who wore a pink dress shirt the day he first laid eyes on her and who lavished her with clothing from New York's Bloomingdale's baby department -
the message was that he would look after her.

The other message was the oft repeated line from which my life trajectory was propelled. "You are Lee Luskey's daughter." It is time again for risk. The fears, the failures, the sting of shaken confidence and timidity born out of insecurity are hard won lessons providing me with wisdom and seasoning.

My father was a self-made man whose grinning, positive demeanor celebrated the possibilities of life. It was not a life without sorrow, pain, or tragedy. It was a life built in spite of those things.

My children are grown. My son is ready to graduate from college and my daughter is ready to begin her career. My husband has provided us with all the opportunities through his own toil and hard work. A dream-maker in his own right - self made and fulfilled. He is my daughter's example of success. But, like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, I moved from my father's house to my husband's. My life, dependent on their accomplishments.

As this decade comes to a close, along with my fiftieth year, I realize that this is my life and it's up to me to make it what I will.
The distant yearning is not for my father or for a past life. It is a yearning for my self.
It is time for me to write the next chapter.