I rang in 2011 sitting on the bathroom floor. To my right, a flute of champagne resting on the cold, travertine tiles; in my lap, a large orange cat doing his best to minimize his fifteen-pound frame. A neighbor had decided to celebrate the New Year by setting off fireworks. The resultant booming had Odie running for the safety of the bathroom, his mama close behind. We spend a lot of time on the bathroom floor, Odie and I. All loud noises or violent storms send him scurrying to find me so I can comfort him in his chosen location. At times like these, I wish I could channel Dr. Doolittle to relay a message to my dear cat: I will never let anything bad happen to you.
Odie was a rescue cat; I rescued him from Tree House Humane Society, he rescued me from an Odie-less existence. A year ago today, he came into my life with six years of his already lived out in a manner mostly unknown. He has a few defects of mysterious origin – a wonky tail the vet presumes was once broken and a stiff-legged gait. In short, he’s perfect.
Odie’s overcome some obstacles since his arrival. At the shelter, I was alerted to his skin allergies, serial sneezing, and sporadic coughing fits. His face was covered with dark brown spots and he’d chewed off spots of fur as he tried to scratch his itches. After verifying that the brown spots weren’t a fungus (yes, a fungus – poor Odie), an allergy pill cleared up the skin irritations and sneezing. We are still working on the coughing. It may turn out to be asthma, and yes, I will get him an inhaler. How pumped Odie will be about using said inhaler remains to be seen.
In short, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for the comfort and happiness of my beloved Odie. I crush pills into his tuna every night. I’ve collected stool samples. I’ve done research on the ideal litter box. I may not technically be crazy, but I’m definitely crazy about this cat.
I’ll be there next to him on the bathroom floor for as long as he needs the company.
One Friday in the Fall of 1994 I was flitting around my bedroom preparing for a school dance. Yes, we had dances in the gym of our Junior High – a scenario straight out of a stereotype. In addition to all the awkwardness that the tween years bring, I was new to the area and completely unsure of myself. That evening’s anxiety was only increased by my inability to find my favorite pair of jeans. Without them, I was toying with the idea of skipping the whole event.
Mom offered to help me search. I assured her the jeans were not in my dresser, MOM!, but – you know what happens next – she walked over to the dresser, opened the second drawer, and there they were. Right on top.
I burst into tears.
“I don’t have a best friend!” I wailed, a sobbing non-sequitur.
“Helena, I’ll be your best friend,” my mother assured me. And she has been.
My father taught me to ride a bike. Granted, the whole no-training-wheels push started with a lie. We were months away from leaving Virginia and I was told that no kids in Texas had training-wheels on their bikes. Like every previous bit of wisdom my father bestowed upon me, I accepted it without question and headed to the parking lot at our nearby forest preserve to learn to bike like a big kid.
Dad taught me many key life skills: how to swim, how to drive, how to properly use silverware, that candy was dandy but liquor was quicker, how to properly swaddle a babydoll. He devoted entire summers to improving my math skills, reluctant though I was to participate in such enrichment. He proofread school papers. He never complained when we offered all our friends on the Track team rides home after practice. He was, and is, a model of patience and kindness.
Beyond all the obvious bringing-me-into-the-world and feeding-and-clothing-me business, the most lasting impression my parents have had on me is the strong relationship they have with one another. They are totally and completely in love. It’s inspiring to witness.
My sister is my role model.
Yep, she’s the little one in the picture. I’m the big one. As the big one, you’d think I’d be the one setting the standards, but I constantly have to challenge myself to be as friendly as Kerry.
Two years ago, Kerry and I welcomed 2009 at a party at the Drake Hotel. Fancy, I know. We were dressed up, coiffed, and ready to dance. Our pre-paid tickets covered the open bar, but tips were still being accepted by the hardworking bartenders staffing the event. I had a wallet full of dollar bills and made sure the bartenders saw me drop one in the designated jar each time I got a drink so they’d know I was a baller.
Kerry seemed surprisingly bad at this show of baller-tude. Her dollars always landed in the jar while the bartender was turned away.
“You’re doing it wrong!” I exclaimed, “you have to do it when they are looking so they know you tipped!”
Kerry told me that she prefered to tip “in private” as there was no need, on her part, for recognition from the bartender. She knew she tipped – no one else needed to. I was humbled by my sister’s quiet kindness.
We weren’t the only people ringing in the New Year at the Drake, and many ladies + open bars = much time spent in or waiting for bathrooms. It was in these crowded situations that Kerry glowed. She complimented other girls in line. She smiled at everyone we saw. She was, for a moment, everyone’s friend.
Most memorable was the way she interacted with the Drake housekeeping staff who were working non-stop to keep things clean and orderly. While everyone else – myself included – barely looked at these ladies, Kerry started up conversations asking them about their night. They all lit up with her attention; sunflowers to her sunshine.
We’ve had two New Year’s Eves since that night, but Kerry’s kindness that night lives in the front of my mind and is frequently called upon as a template for my own behavior. Now that she lives around the corner, I can spend time with her whenever I want. Perhaps some of her friendliness will rub off.
** For those of you wondering what the heck Kerry has on her feet, it looks like several pairs of ski socks layered over one another. I’m thinking the snowstorm caught my parents by surprise (we lived in Virginia at the time) and my sister didn’t have boots that fit.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the ways we define ourselves – what we say when we introduce ourselves to others, how we talk about ourselves. All to often, I think our occupation is our primary identifier. As I’ve said, there are other things I’d rather know about you.
I think I’m best defined by my relationships with the people I love.
It’s these relationships that help me prioritize – my time, my energy, my resources.
See, I’m a list-maker. I’m constantly creating lists, editing lists, crossing things off lists, creating new lists. I even think in lists. This seeming rigidity actually helps me relax. Once things are on a list, I know they are going to get done.
I’ve long maintained that everyone has time for what is important. We’re all busy. We all have demanding jobs or young children or something else eating up our days. In the haze of competing responsibilities, we have to choose what to do with the twenty-four hours we are given each day.
I choose to spend as many hours as possible with the people I love. It’s that simple.
If a task or errand can wait until tomorrow, I’m headed home to spend time with my boyfriend. Invitations for events during the week aren’t accepted until I know which day my sister is coming over to watch The Bachelorette. Wednesday at lunchtime, I have a standing date with my father.
This is not to say that I refuse to attend events if I’m not allowed to bring a friend or that I have no interest in meeting new people. Quite the opposite. I just want to be sure, each day, that the people I love know how important they are to me.
For the rest of the week, I’m going to focus on the three most-important relationships in my life.
I spent the first twelve years of my life south of the Mason-Dixon line. While I was young when we left Virginia, I have pretty solid memories of the time we spent in Texas. In 1994, we moved North and I started Junior High in western New York with an accent and an affiliation for Garth Brooks.
Junior High can be a bit brutal on anyone who stands out in any way, so I quickly worked to drop the Southern drawl. It would sneak back up on me whenever I spoke to family and friends from back home, but I was quickly able to assimilate with my teen peers. People soon stopped asking me questions about cacti and rodeos and eventually forgot I’d even know the answers to such inquiries.
Now, seventeen years after leaving the South, I’d consider myself decidedly Northern. I can handle extreme cold, reluctantly say “pop” when I mean “soda”, and I haven’t had Frito Pie in years.
The Southeast can keep its oppressive humidity, but I’d like to import some of the manners. See, in the South, we greeted everyone we saw on the street – friends and strangers alike. Nothing too in-depth – just a quick “Hello,” a wave, and a smile. No, I wasn’t raised in Mayberry. Midland, Texas boasted over 100,000 inhabitants while I was there. Regardless of population size, the practice of greeting ones’ neighbors is deeply instilled.
This cheery habit was very hard for my family to break. We’d stroll through our small town in western New York warmly greeting people who, in turn, would stare at us as though we were a herd of unicorns. We rarely got responses beyond dumb shock. Northerners seemed to only acknowledge acquaintances, so I soon did the same. This is not to say that Northerners are cold or unfriendly (in fact, Minnesota may be one of the friendliest states I’ve visited). It’s just different, and no thirteen year-old wants to be different.
People say they can still tell my parents are from the South originally. My mother has an accent to which I’m too accustomed to hear. My father has never met a stranger and has a kind word for everyone he encounters. The more I spend time with my sister, it’s clear that her mannerisms are still pure South. She tells me that people still stare blankly at her when she greets them, but that doesn’t stop her.
Me? I walk quickly through the streets of Chicago with my gaze focused straight ahead. I rarely acknowledge other people unless they appear to be threatening or in obvious distress. It’s kind of sad, really. I may live in a large city, but I hate to think that I’m so removed from the other people sharing it with me. I may be many years removed from the wee Texan I once was, but the least I can do is look up and smile.
In a recent post, my blog-friend Kristen asked about the first movie we remembered seeing in a theatre. I have it on good authority that the first movie I saw in a theatre was Follow That Bird, though I have no real memories of so doing.
I do, however, have a pretty solid memory of seeing An American Tail.
In 1986, the year said movie came out, I attended Jr. Kindergarten in Burke, Virginia. As an all-day program, we were required to take naps. I, however, was never very good at nap-taking. Little-Helena had more important things to do than sleep, and, as such, was constantly getting in trouble for making noise during nap-time and distracting other children from slumber. The following year, in Kindergarten, I won the right to read quietly during this time. In 1986, however, I was still required to lay silently for what felt like hours.
One day, while I was not-napping, I heard footsteps coming in my direction. Quickly, I pulled my green blanket up to my chin and squeezed my eyes shut in feint of sleep. While I likely wasn’t subtle, I was hoping my teacher – who I assumed was coming to tell me I was in trouble yet again – would be fooled.
The footsteps stopped, and I heard my name being whispered. The voice, though, was not that of my teacher.
It was my Dad! He’d gotten off work early and come to spring me from nap-prison. Better yet, we were headed to the movie theatre to see An American Tail. This was, clearly, the greatest day of my life.
I remember the plot of the movie quite well, but I’m pretty sure that comes from many subsequent viewings on VHS. The main song, Somewhere Out There, was quite popular on the radio for sometime thereafter. I was so taken with Fievel and his harrowing journey to American shores, that I soon acquired a mouse-shaped backpack. When worn, it looked like I was giving a larger-than-life Fievel a piggy-back ride. I wore that thing with pride for years.
While memories of the actual theatre-viewing have faded, my recollection of the joy I felt when I opened my eyes to see my Dad standing above my cot, come to whisk me away to the theatre, is one of the brightest of my childhood. We left Virginia shortly after I turned nine, and in subsequent years, memories of my time there has faded.
Fievel, however, is still a childhood hero.
The other day, I had a mild meltdown. It was one of those moments where I felt like nothing I do is “right.” I’m very good at this kind of thinking, and it generally doesn’t take much to get me to parade around listing my faults. It can quickly spiral out of control and often ends in a brief amount of tears.
I’m not thin enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not successful enough… the list goes from the standard to the insane.
(We’ve all been there, right? …Right?)
After listening until I’d calmed down, the ever-patient Will had me list my priorities – not my priorities for the upcoming week or month, but my overall priorities for life. They are as follows:
- My relationships with the people in my life (parents, sister, boyfriend).
- My relationships with my kitties (yes, for real. I want to be a good cat-mama).
- Having the resources (time, money) to pursue the things I love; namely reading good books, eating good food, and taking good vacations. How I define “good” is subject to change.
It appears that I’m not so much of a failure after all.
(Warning: I’m about to get cheesier than a nacho cheese Dorito.)
Let’s take item #1, subset c – relationship with my boyfriend. As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I’m dating the greatest guy on earth. Sorry, ladies. Will is … perfect. He’s unbelievably kind and thoughtful. I won’t get all Jerry Maguire on you and say he completes me, but living without him would be like living without air. Unthinkable.
Yet somehow, I’ve got him thinking he’s the lucky one in our relationship. I’m clearly doing something right.
The metrics I was using to measure myself (pounds, dollars) have no real relevance vis-à-vis my priorities. I currently have solid, loving relationships with both parents, my sister, and my boyfriend (also, both kitties are relatively fond of me). While some relationships fall into place, most take some amount of work, and I rarely give myself credit for that.
If all I do from this point forward is maintain the relationships I currently have, I’m doing quite well.