I was one of three girls, growing up in a rural town (HS graduation class of 100!), within a large Polish family. What little I will say about my childhood is that we choose our memories dependent on our environment. I suppose it is a blessing that we do not realize until (perhaps) middle-school that some children have mundane, pleasurable childhoods. They do not realize how lucky they are. Two childhood memories I do cherish are my Polish heritage and our summer sojourns to Brooklyn each summer with my two sisters. Don’t think any parent would dare try this today! My father would put us on the train in New Haven, three girls ages six, seven and eight, entrusted to the care of the conductor, traveling alone to spend one week visiting my paternal grandparents and aunt. We would arrive at Grand Central Station to be greeted by our Aunt Peggy (sans cell phone communication). Stepping off the train, we were treated to lunch at the Automat; then ice-cream at Schraft’s (each long gone). From then on it was afew weeks of Cheerio’s for breakfast, watermelon for dessert, and adventures with our summer friends like watching the automated garbage trucks and playing on the stoop. Such a welcome respite! I choose to continue my Polish heritage today in the form of Wigilia – Polish Christmas Eve – with Koledy – Polish Christmas carols, straw under the tablecloth and all the familiar smells, tastes and sounds of cousins crowding into Babcia’s (Polish for grandmother) front room for Santa‘s visit. Selective memory heals.
Years pass, family dynamics change, and so did I. A true romantic, marrying at age nineteen, we moved shortly thereafter to Boston beginning what would become my nomadic lifestyle. Did I choose this? Yes and no, but it happened. We moved eighteen times! When we arrived in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1976, I informed my grasses-greener husband that, “I’m staying. Go or stay – your choice.” – a polite, but resolute stand which transitioned me into to the life of a single-mother, sole-breadwinner of three. But I figured, “Hey, if I could afford to support five, I certainly could support four!”
From there things improved. No, not right away, but I was always a positive, though realistic thinker. I concentrated on raising my family within the confines of my salary as an administrative assistant at Vassar College, sometimes working two jobs to pay for college tuition. Things got so good that I even started putting meatballs in the spaghetti! But, as every single mother knows, when there is only one parent, it takes all the space in your head just to concentrate on working, raising children, working, stretching a dollar and, working. Although not listed as such, focusing on the task at hand could be considered an extreme sport. Our family functioned as one. We leaned on each other for survival, inserting liberal amounts of humor, accumulating pleasant memories of school plays and sports accomplishments, stretching whatever dollars we had without being negative – well, most of the time. In the midst of this there was a divorce and my middle child was in an auto accident resulting in a traumatic brain injury. I’ve been told you don’t get handed more than you can handle. That premise was sorely tested! A while ago I asked my children for an overview of their childhood – was it as difficult as I perceived? Happily, they remember the positive, the soccer concussions, the Vassar vegetable garden, a pot of soup every Saturday night, and family visits with cousins. HURRAH! And, yes, time passes.
In the ‘90’s while working as Admissions Director of a long-term-care facility, I decided – with the support and sanction of my children – to take some R&R. I had researched and found that Hawaii is/was the only state that mandated health insurance for those working over twenty-hours per week. Hey, I was not even fifty-five, could not afford to retire or pay COBRA, but sorely needed a respite. I resigned a perfectly good job and boarded a plane, giving myself two weeks to find a job and housing. My boss joked, asking, “Could she come too?” If my goals did not materialize, I planned to get back on the plane and go home. But, it worked out! I spent the next five years living and working in Hawaii. Fortunately, with my background as an administrative assistant I earned the same as I had on the East coast, so I had enough money for rent and periodic travel back home. No big deal. I was used to living on a budget. Of course, it did not hurt that I had met someone and was invited to share his apartment – but that is a whole other story.
So, while in Hawaii, many wonderful things happened. One was that I found the time and space in my head for writing! As a way of “Keeping in Touch” with family I wrote long, descriptive letters to my mother which, I was told later, were copied and distributed to her senior community in Southbury, CT. Hawaii was a not only a spiritual respite, a place to heal heart and body, it served as realization that I had raised three very intelligent, resourceful and creative children. Each time I returned to visit, they were more mature and independent. DUH! We grew apart and closer simultaneously. Perhaps I was the one “growing up” — you think?
Returning to Connecticut in 1997, I settled in Southbury, purchasing the condo my mother left to “the three girls“ when she passed away. Yes, . . . I would live in the same community where my Hawaii letters had circulated. I accepted a position as administrative office manager for a Radiology practice, transitioning into reacquainting with family and friends and reviving my relationship with my two grandchildren. The “senior” environment was interesting. I thought I could handle it, found out I could not. It was like living with your parents, some clucking over you like mother hens, most disgruntled with health and family issues. However, I was gathering equity, something totally unfamiliar, but welcome, and avoided the disgruntles by searching out others that were still in the workplace. One issue I noticed: the “village” had a Men’s Club and a Women’s Club. Yes, truly! A group of us became disenchanted with this since men were allowed in the Women’s Club, but women could enter the Men’s Club by invitation only. Now these buildings were for common use and all residents paid for maintenance within our common charges. Not to be allowed access was totally unacceptable as far as a women’s issue, and besides the Men‘s Club had billiard and ping-pong tables and a lovely fireplace that they reserved for themselves! Long story short, we incorporated, eventually successful in removing this discriminatory practice after much anger and discourse from “village” residents – mostly the men. Currently, I have heard, all buildings are now open to all residents. YEE HAH! I guess I am a bit of a radical when it comes to discrimination.
Content that my children were on-the-road-to-their-future, I began writing novels, satirical poems, and Op-Ed pieces, some even published! However, I was getting tired of working; longed for my own schedule, for time to do what I wanted to do, not what I had to do. But, even after working for 40+ years, how could I retire? Being a single parent eliminated any chance of savings; moving negated the possibility of a 401k. What to do? Then came the email that changed everything. It took a year to plan, but in what appeared to be a very courageous move, I resigned, sold my condo (paid bills and banked the remainder of my long-wished-for equity) and drove to Alaska to volunteer at a private college that offered room and board in exchange for workplace skills. I’ve been living this volunteer retirement lifestyle ever since!
No biography would be complete without a bit of philosophy. “My life has been a succession of trauma and drama, taking advantage of every opportunity to afford my children a better life. Our family survived through perseverance and a frugal lifestyle. Writing has helped to dilute the past, weaving emotions and experiences into stories and poems. When that unexpected email arrived suggesting I might volunteer, my research mode kicked in and I utilized every resource to forge a path without dependence on my children. My volunteer lifestyle enables me to live within my limited Social Security income without effort, travel to places only dreamed of, and network with an incredible group of people. It does not get better than that!”