Category Archives: My family history

A non-birthday-card for my mom

My mom and me in 1972. I was embarrassed by my braces and chunky legs but my mom insisted I was beautiful. I always thought she was elegant. But those “Mad Men” era fashions? Not so flattering.

My mom has a real gift for picking out birthday cards. Her cards reflect careful consideration and a deep understanding of the recipient’s strengths and recent challenges. They always seem to say exactly what the person who gets the card needs to hear.

So when it’s time for my mom’s birthday (which, being on May 12, always falls right near Mother’s Day), I fret. Weeks ahead of time, I start looking at birthday cards and Mother’s Day cards. Nothing ever seems to fit. Cards that are marketed “for mother” are typically pretty syrupy. Is it too much to ask that someone create cards for moms that express deeply held emotions without the cliches and gooey gestures?

This year, I gave up looking. I figured I’d spend some time this weekend writing a few words of my own that recognize specific things I love about her. So here goes.

My mom has always been there when I needed her most. She packed boxes for nearly every move I made. She took care of me after every birth. She came to care for my family so I could work day and night to launch a magazine 23 years ago. She even helped me paint my sons’ bedroom the year I decided they needed a purple-and-orange Phoenix Suns motif.

My mom cherishes and shares our family story. When the rest of us allow busy lives to convince us that all that “ancient history” doesn’t matter, she finds subtle ways to bring it back to our awareness, sharing anecdotes that bring long-deceased relatives back to life and offer clues into what makes us the way we are.

My mom is selfless and deeply sensitive to the feelings and needs of those around her. I remember when an elderly family friend was failing and my mom and I went to the nursing home to visit her. I was self-conscious, uncomfortable. All I could think about was that I didn’t know what to do and certainly didn’t know what to say. My mom sat close to our friend, holding her hand and speaking to her in a quiet voice, sharing stories and talking to her like it was any other day. When she noticed our friend’s dry, cracking lips, she pulled her own Chapstick out of her purse and gently applied a coat of relief. I will never forget the significance of that intimate gesture.

My mom does the right thing, even at great cost to her own personal comfort. When that same elderly friend passed away, we attended a sad little service conducted by a clergy person who knew absolutely nothing about her. The service was full of platitudes and devoid of details to help us celebrate and honor our friend’s life. My mother is not someone who easily stands up to speak in front of a group, especially when the subject is emotional. But she stood up that day, with no preparation, and told the stories and said the things that needed to be said. That is real courage.

My mom is resourceful and always prepared. She used to tell me that she took the “be prepared” motto to heart when she was a Girl Scout and it has served her (and the rest of us) well. She is the one we all count on to keep track of the details, plan ahead, think things through and prepare for any scenario. She’s great to have along on a trip. Need a breath mint? She’s got you covered. Stomach growling? She’s got some toasted almonds in her purse. Forgot your hotel confirmation? She’s probably got a copy.

One of the most powerful things my mother has always done for me is to provide affirmation. When I achieve some measure of success, she points to skills and personality characteristics that guide me. When I struggle, she commends me on my courage and determination to get through.

My mom even does this for complete strangers. I remember being at Kohl’s with her one day when she spotted a harried mother trying to get her shopping done with her young son and a crying baby in tow. The little boy was patiently helping as best he could, holding items for his mom and standing near the stroller to distract his little sister. My mother went up to him and said, “I can see that you are working really hard to help your mom.” The little boy (and his mother) looked at her with surprise, but I like to believe that child will always remember the lady who recognized that he was trying. I know I will.

A recent Saturday morning with my mom, my niece Mandy and my brother Bob.

The enduring appeal of Lyle

The hardcover picture book is yellowed with age. Its corners are ragged and worn. It has survived endless cycles of packing, moving, unpacking — always managing to survive the sorting and purging process that accompanies such transitions.

I don’t remember when I received my copy of The House on East 88th Street. I don’t remember who gave it to me, or why that person chose this particular book. I don’t know if it was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift. It may just be that it was “the” new children’s book that year and someone wanted me to have it.

The story, written by Bernard Waber, was copyrighted in 1962. I would have been 6 years old, and newly enamored of the privilege of owning a book. I proudly printed my first name on the inside cover with a pencil — slow, careful, blocky letters reflecting my earnest desire to get it right.

I loved that book. I’m not sure why. It’s kind of a goofy story about a family that moves into a house in New York City and finds a crocodile in the bathtub of their new home.

I didn’t visit New York City until I was 25. I don’t particularly like crocodiles. Yet the story got under my skin and stayed there.

Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to revisit the story in the company of two young children I borrow from friends when I’m missing little-kid time. The renowned Childsplay professional theater company is performing a holiday version of “Lyle the Crocodile” at Tempe Center for the Arts through Dec. 24.

The characters of Lyle ( Adam Hostler) and Joshua Primm (Colin Ross) made an appearance at "Lyle's Pajama Party," which preceded the Dec 3 production of Childsplay's "Lyle the Crocodile" at Tempe Center for the Arts. The play continues through Dec. 24.

As the curtain rose on a scene of the street outside the recreated brownstone house, my 4-year-old companion cried out, “How did they get that building up there?” His sense of awe continued throughout most of the performance (except for a brief bit of time at the end of Act I when he drifted off to sleep, worn out from “Lyle’s Pajama Party,” which we attended earlier that afternoon). His 5-year-old sister sat on the edge of her seat during both acts, glancing at me periodically to share a wide-eyed smile.

The musical is enchanting, particularly a scene that recreates the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. The character of Lyle (played by Adam Hostler) doesn’t utter a word but communicates with great effectiveness through innocent, eager-to-please expressions and “many good tricks” he performs throughout the play. (Juggling, dancing and — most amazing to me — double-rope jump-roping while carrying a crocodile tail!)

It wasn’t until the end of the play that it suddenly occurred to me why I’ve always loved this story. My family moved a lot when I was growing up. Like Joshua Primm in the story, my brothers and I faced many anxious transitions into new cities, new schools, new friendships.

Like Lyle, I chose a strategy of frantic performance to prove my worth in each new community. I wasn’t as talented as he is but I made up for it with hard work, good grades, dutiful behavior and a conscientious attempt to read the landscape and react in ways I hoped would help me gain acceptance.

For today’s generation of children, there is a strong but subtle message in “Lyle the Crocodile” about accepting each others’ differences — and not making judgments until you really know someone. For today’s generation of parents (and grandparents!) there is nostalgia, clever dialog, inspired choreography, uplifting music and the chance to experience the magic of Christmas in New York City.

In our PJs at "Lyle's Pajama Party" earlier this month with my young companions. Photo and accessories provided by Childsplay.

Two kinds of cookies from home

My husband is spending the weekend with our two grown sons, who live in Washington, D.C. His flight was leaving very early on Thursday morning, so I knew it would be a scramble to get out the door. That meant I had to get organized.

I wasn’t going along, but I had my own packing to do. I consider it my sacred duty to provide homemade cookies for “my boys” at every possible (and ever less frequent) opportunity. These particular cookies — a healthier version of the traditional chocolate chip — have a long history in our family. I made them nearly every Sunday night during our sons’ high school years, when their friends would come over to play basketball. When Andy and David were in college, I never visited them without bags of freshly baked cookies. (It won me big points with their roommates and friends.) I also make cookies when my brothers are around. There’s something hardwired in my brain about cookies and boys.

But hardwired doesn’t necessarily mean “top of mind.” And after a busy but enjoyable day at work Wednesday I came home exhausted and out of whack. All I could think about was food, bed and Unbroken, the wonderful work of historical nonfiction by Laura Hillenbrand, which I’m about halfway through.

I awoke Thursday morning at 5:30 (which is “sleeping in” for me). As soon as my feet hit the floor, my spirits sank. I’d  forgotten to bake cookies! Dan wanted to leave the house at 6:30. I had an hour.

I raced through the mixing, the plopping onto pans and the baking. At 6am I had cookies cooling on racks. But they looked … different.  In my haste and uncaffeinated morning stupor I’d forgotten to add an essential ingredient: oatmeal. So, as I heard Dan get in the shower, I pulled out my ingredients and started all over again.

By the time we left the house, there were two kinds of cookies from home packed up and ready to go. Two dozen with oatmeal, two dozen without. But all four packed with a mother’s love.

Movies we remember

The first movie I remember seeing at a theater was The Sound of Music, which came out in 1965. I was 9 and going to the movies was, for my family, a really big deal. My dad was a full-time graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder. My mother worked as a secretary at our church. My parents struggled to make ends meet. So entertainment was typically anything that didn’t cost extra money — picnics in the mountains, neighborhood kickball games and potluck dinners at church.

With my parents and brothers during our Boulder years.

But at some point that spring, we all dressed up in our very best clothes, bundled into the car and turned onto the Denver-Boulder Turnpike for the drive into the big city (about 27 miles as the crow flies). We were with family friends Ivan and Doris Force, who were a bit older than my parents and always treated us like family. I don’t know (nor would any of the adults had told me) if the outing was the Forces’ treat, but I suspect it was.

What I do remember is my sense of awe as we entered the darkened theater and sat, quietly obedient, on the velvety seats. And my complete, enraptured attention as I watched the magical Julie Andrews sing and dance her way through a movie that touched on themes I was far too young to fully comprehend.

The lessons I took away from that experience were these: That movies are very special treats. That music, dancing and a positive attitude can fix almost anything. That falling in love is thrilling, especially if you are “16 going on 17.” And that love is stronger than grief, stronger than duty and stronger than evil.

I was just shy of being old enough to understand the bigger things that were going on that year. Malcom X was assassinated just weeks before The Sound of Music first opened in New York City. Six days after it opened, the first 3,500 Marines arrived in South Vietnam. Later that year, the Beatles released the Help! album and the world certainly needed it.

The narcissism of childhood — and perhaps overly protective parents — kept me blissfully ignorant of these matters. I hummed “Doe, a Dear” and “Raindrops on Roses” and all was well in my world.

So if someone asked me my favorite family film, I would have to say “The Sound of Music.” It is reassuring to know that, even in 2011, it still makes the cut.

We asked readers to tell us their favorite family movie for a chance to win tickets to one of the Valley’s UltraStar Cinemas. The Sound of Music was the movie most often submitted.

Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of others that were mentioned:

Beauty and the Beast
Because of Winn-Dixie
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Chicken Little
Christmas Vacation
Gone with the Wind
Harry Potter (series)
Home Alone
Mary Poppins
Monsters, Inc.
The Incredibles
The Lion King
The Wizard of Oz
Toy Story
Where the Wild Things Are
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

What is your favorite family movie–and your favorite movie memory?

The best kind of tribute to the best kind of mom

I wasn’t expecting to hear from my sister-in-law until some time next week. So I was surprised to learn that she was waiting for me to pick up one of our office lines.

Judy is in Wisconsin. She flew there on Wednesday, on the most difficult of journeys, after learning that her beloved mother, Evelyn (Lynn) Milas, had died last Saturday at the age of 85. Her husband (my brother Bob) and their children, 14-year-old Ben and 11-year-old Mandy, followed a day later.

When I picked up the phone, I was trying to anticipate the reason for Judy’s call. “Are you okay?” I blurted. She must have heard the concern in my voice, because she immediately laughed.

“We’re fine,” she said. And then she explained her dilemma.

Former Maggie's Place staff member Dayna Pizzigoni laughs with baby MacKenzie. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

One of the charities that Judy, her sister and two brothers have designated on their mother’s behalf is Phoenix-based Maggie’s Place, a nonprofit organization that creates homelike communities for young women who are pregnant, alone or homeless and in need of support. Following Catholic social teaching, the organization welcomes women who intend to keep and parent their children as well as those who decide to place their babies with adoptive families. Judy wrote a story about Maggie’s Place for our November 2009 magazine.

“Maggie’s Place: Building Communities of Hope,” became much more than a writing assignment to Judy. She was profoundly moved by the time she spent in the Maggie’s Place communities, listening to the women’s stories, absorbing the atmosphere of love and caring, seeing for herself the deep commitment and spiritual strength of the staff.

Judy was calling from an Office Max in Grafton, Wis. She was picking up the programs for her mother’s Memorial Mass on Saturday and decided to make some copies of her article so that friends and relatives of her mother who were unfamiliar with Maggie’s Place would know more about it.

But the staff at Office Max wouldn’t make copies of copyrighted material (as they certainly shouldn’t) without the written permission of the publisher. That would be me.

“I told them it’s a good thing my sister-in-law is the publisher!” Judy said jokingly, her voice sounding cheerful and strong. I could tell she was okay.

I quickly scribbled a note to Carrie Chronis at the Office Max, attached my business card (a requirement for authenticity) and faxed it off with a hand-drawn heart and smiley face for Judy.

When Judy first told me that she and her siblings had designated Maggie’s Place for donations on their mother’s behalf, it felt like exactly the right thing to do. Judy’s mother was loving, compassionate and devoutly Catholic. It seems only fitting that the grief of  losing the best kind of mom should be channeled toward a positive new start for one who’s just getting started.

Saving the mail

As I was driving to an appointment in central Phoenix this afternoon, I listened to an NPR interview with Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum.

Daum’ column yesterday, “In Praise of Snail Mail” was written in response to a recent announcement by the U.S. Post Office that it plans to close or consolidate as many as 2,000 branches. “As the Postal Service continues its slow fade into history, something will be missing,” Daum fervently believes.

In the radio interview, she talks about her love of handwritten notes, paper and stationery stores, wax seals and even traditional holiday letters, saying electronic cards, email and Facebook just can’t compete with the real thing. She describes the delighted sense of anticipation she once felt as she bounded down to the front lobby of her Manhattan apartment building to meet her postal carrier, with whom she was on a first-name basis.

Mail, real mail, and the people who deliver it, are important to the fabric of life and the weaving together of communities, she believes. I agree with her.

One of the people who emailed during the show shared a story about his mother saving every letter he’d ever written to her — for 30 years. He described how meaningful it was to him to be able to reread those letters, which he describes as the “life journal I never kept.”

My mother saved every letter I wrote home too, from the time I first went away to college at the University of Arizona, through four years I lived on Guam and for three years I was a newlywed grad student in Cleveland. Envelopes, too. Rereading them is like stepping back into my young adult head, and a chance to remember the events, angst and boundless optimism of that time. (Misplaced or not, my confidence in the future was evident in the large round letters of my cursive, the many exclamation points and the bright green or purple ink I’d often use.)

Now I’m the mother of two grown sons who occasionally send emails with small details of their lives. I copy and paste them into a Word document, hoping they will someday enjoy reading them. And I wonder if it will be the same experience, minus the faded envelopes and the innocent, hope-filled handwriting.

Editing your kids’ work

A friend once sent me an email asking how much I helped my sons with their writing assignments.

“They surely sought out and valued your editing skills as they moved through school,” she wrote.

I wish! I think because I am an editor my kids were very self-conscious about sharing their work with me. Once they got past elementary school, I rarely saw a writing assignment. It was only begrudgingly that my sons allowed me to look at their college application essays.

My oldest son Andy got all the way to his senior thesis in college before he finally asked for help — and that was only because he wanted his paper squeaky clean and recognized the fatigue factor in catching your own typos and grammatical errors. David managed to get all the way through college — including a thesis of his own — without a single parental eyeball on his written work.

It is so hard to read your own child’s writing. They are writing at their developmental level. You are reading at yours. You may know ways to make something “sound better” and you may have great ideas for a smooth transition but really, is that the kind of help you should be offering?

I opted for a hands-off approach. I followed my sons’ lead and didn’t get involved unless help was requested. I do, however, have some specific suggestions for those of you whose children may be more willing than mine were to ask for your input.

• Bracket areas you think are confusing and add notes like “maybe there’s a better way to say this?” or “I’m not sure I understand what you meant here.”

• To make suggestions about flow, bracket entire sections and note that “this might go better closer to the top” or “It seems like this section belongs with the point you made about [whatever].”

• Circle typos, grammatical errors and punctuation errors but make your children correct them so they [hopefully!] remember the next time. (My sons consistently made errors with there/their/they’re…it drove me crazy!)

Both of my sons managed to become excellent writers without me, so we either lucked into great teachers or they simply got better as they got older. My advice is that you ask your children how much they want you to nitpick. Do they want feedback on whether they have made their point? Whether the flow is logical/easy to follow? Whether particular phrasing is effective? Or do they just want you to look for obvious errors in typing, spelling, grammar and punctuation? Let them set the ground rules.

Beyond that, I think it’s much more effective to help your child find a neutral adult with whom they can seek feedback, whether it’s a teacher, tutor, family member or friend. I used to read a lot of my friends’ kids’ college application essays. Criticism is always easier to take from someone who’s not your mom.

Breaking the block

Our blueline for the February magazine came to the office today. That’s always our last chance to proofread. Our last chance to make changes. Our last chance to catch the mistakes that inevitably slip past the earlier proofs.

When you stare at pages for days on end it’s almost impossible to see where something is still wrong. Your brain sees what it wants to see. So you do your best, take a deep breath and send your publication off to the printer. You know there are mistakes waiting to jump out and mock you — typically once the magazine is printed and delivered to the office. But you do get that one last chance to catch them.

When I looked at the blueline today, the first thing that caught my eye was my own name on the masthead. It was wrong. In two different places! You’d think I could at least get my own name right.

For 21 years I didn’t touch my name on the masthead. It was always “Karen Barr.” And then in December, I changed it. One of my staff members noticed, and asked me about it. “It’s a long story,” I told her, then changed the subject.

So here’s the story.

In early November, I took most of a week away from the office to write “An Ethiopia Adoption Story” for the December magazine. My husband was out of town. The timing was perfect. I was looking forward to spending long, uninterrupted days at my computer, blissfully playing with words. The story would be the framework for a book I hoped would follow. I gave myself a week to luxuriate in the lifestyle of a writer, without the distracting duties of a publisher and editor.

Except that’s not what happened. The first day came and went and everything I wrote sounded terrible. Then the second. And the third. I tried what typically works for me when I’m experiencing writer’s block: I went for a hike in the desert. Even that didn’t help. By the fourth night, I was truly starting to panic. I woke up from a bad dream with the very real and frightening sensation of terrible pressure on my chest.

The next day I spent some time with someone who knows me well. By talking with her, I came to realize why this particular story was so hard for me to write: It was fraught with unresolved emotions about my father, who struggled in his last years to write the book he always dreamed of writing.

My dad did finish a novel before he died. It was never published. And for 21 years I ignored it.

My father always said there were messages in  his book — things he never felt he could tell my brothers or me. I never read it because I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.

But dismissing his effort was now affecting mine.

So how did I break my writer’s block? I allowed my dad into my writing process. I pulled his manuscript out of the closet and put it on the shelf near my computer. I started reading it. And when I turned back to my own story, the first thing I did was insert his name, my maiden name, into it. I silently asked him to let me go — to let me do this. And, as Karen Davis Barr, I got to work.

A part of me you have never known

When my father started sending me the draft chapters of his book, I was not receptive.

It was January of 1988. I had a 2½-year-old, a 6-month-old and a lot of frustration about giving up my professional identify as a journalist and MBA to be a stay-at-home mom. I loved my sons to distraction but felt trapped, unable to bear the thought of leaving them to someone else’s care so I could go back to work but overwhelmed by the monotony of diapers and daytime soaps.

Dad with his first grandson, Andrew, on July 17, 1985. He never saw David, who was born two years later.

I was also angry at my dad, who had fled Arizona shortly before my parents’ divorce was official, leaving me to accompany my mom to court for the final decree. He drove across the country to establish a new life in Florida and when my son David was born, in 1987, he couldn’t be bothered to come back to Arizona to visit his new grandson. That was my take, anyway. And it hurt. So when the thick manilla envelopes began to arrive in the mail, I was disdainful.

“If you will hunt in the closet for a dog-eared three-ring binder and file these dog-eared pages as I send them to you, I will be grateful,” my dad wrote in his distinctive cursive on the lined pages of steno pad. “And of course, you are the one I want to keep them.”

Why me?  Because I was the one who wasn’t “working”? Or because he thought that I would appreciate (as a former journalist) the honor he’d bestowed upon me as keeper of the pages?

Was he expecting me to read them? What did he want from me? Affirmation? Support? An editor’s critique? Whatever it was, I didn’t have it in me to ask or cooperate.

I saved his drafts and revisions. But I didn’t read them and I never commented on them. It was my silent protest, the only way I knew to hurt him as much as he’d hurt me with his self-centered pursuits and seeming indifference to the important events and challenges of my life.

He never asked me what I thought, never made any demands. He just kept sending revisions. And I kept ignoring them. Right up until a few days before Father’s Day of 1991, when my guilt finally got the better of me.

I remember sitting in the kitchen at my sons’ school, scribbling a letter to my dad as I waited for the boys to end their day. I apologized for being so selfish, explaining how consumed I was with motherhood and the demands of running Raising Arizona Kids magazine, which I’d launched a year earlier. I felt hopeful, excited, confident that my dad would forgive me and we’d find a way to reconnect.

I never got around to sending the letter. And before Father’s Day arrived, my father was dead.

More than 22 years later, I see all of this so differently. I know for myself how easy it is to disappoint adult children, how excruciating it is to undergo the scrutiny of their judgmental clarity.

And as I now struggle to write a book of my own, I also have a greater understanding of how complex and overpowering that process is; how much thought and how many revisions it takes. I understand what my dad wrote in one letter, when he said it was “like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.” I see how it consumes you, fights for space in your head, screams for attention when other priorities get in the way.

“It will acquaint all of you with a part of me you’ve never known,” my father wrote hopefully in that Jan. 10, 1988 letter. Tucked with it in the manilla envelope were 40-some pages of the novel that was his lifelong dream.

Its title: Redemption.

Fighting doubt and personal demons

I have this amazing story in my head. I think it’s interesting enough, layered enough, moving enough, to become a book. Will it get written? Self-doubt, fueled by family history, rules my thoughts.

My father always said he wanted to write a book. Conditions were never right. We were always living in the wrong place or his job was too stressful or the burden of supporting a family was too great. I grew up thinking my brothers and I were the reason he couldn’t write. If he hadn’t married, hadn’t had children, maybe he would have realized his dream.

My father sought solitude to escape the pressures of life. He had “important business” in Arizona when he left my mother, my brothers and I alone in Indiana for Christmas one year. He missed my brother’s high school graduation for similar, made-up reasons. A few weeks before my wedding, he told me with exaggerated regret that he couldn’t make it — he had to be in Florida for God-knows-what. That’s when I put my foot down. This time, he was not going to let me down.

And yet he managed to do just that. Showing up at the church in the wrong tux. Nervous and awkward. Unable, or unwilling, to whisper expressions of love or pride in my ear before we headed down the aisle. Even then, he was a ghost, always on the fringes. Never fully vested in anything that wasn’t his alone. Always seeking greener pastures in a new job or new home state. More comfortable in conversations with strangers than he was with my mother, my brothers or me.

I chose a different path — to the extreme. A martyr’s devotion to responsibility, family and career. Excessive self-accountabilty and crushing perfectionism. Self-neglect from a perception that others’ needs were more deserving.

I always thought I was being different from my dad, better at being in a family and community than he was. As I get older, I realize I’m just like him. Afraid to do what I really want to do. Subconsciously blaming circumstances beyond my control, or other people, for my own failures. If only that…. If only they…

I keep trying to set aside time to go “off the grid” and focus attention on my own book project. One thing after another keeps interrupting. Each weekend, when I realize how little progress I’ve made, I am completely distraught. How will I ever do this within the unpredictable context of running a small business? I come dangerously close to giving up and admitting defeat.

But I keep thinking about four beautiful children who are happy and thriving because of a series of miracles. A family that is doing important and timely work in the country of their children’s birth. An experience that was, to me, a precious gift. A story that needs to be told.

And then there’s this: My father did finally write his book. He finished it in the spring of 1991, in a small room he rented in a boarding house in Florida, during reclusive weeks he spent alone before he died from a cancer that spread from his colon to his liver. A cancer I didn’t know about until my younger brother called me from Florida as I was still sleeping one summer morning and told me our father was dead.

His book was never published; my brothers and I found rejection letters from publishers lying among the few belongings our dad left behind.  To my knowledge, only four photocopies of the manuscript exist. I have two of them in my house.

Over the years, I have tried to read his story. I have never made it past the first 40 pages. My dad once told me that everything he ever wanted to say to my brothers and me — but couldn’t — would be there in his book. I’ve never had the courage to find out. And yet something tells me I won’t write my own book until I confront the specter of his.

Binders of my father's notes and drafts, and two copies (at right) of his completed manuscript.