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The Season of Giving

candles

They say this time of year is the “Season of Giving.” I’m not sure who “they” are…perhaps wise old sages? Or retailers? Being mandated to give something to everyone you know, based on their order of importance in your life, and on a specific date is pressure enough. But add to that the knowledge you are also simultaneously competing against the rest of the world for the limited supply of desirable gift items available! This is enough to produce feelings of hysteria, grief and guilt in anyone. Pass the egg nog, please.

Please be advised that our gift choices must live up to the strict expectations of others, or….or ELSE! Keep the receipt and hope for the best as that wrapping paper is torn open. Was that a smile, or a smug smirk? If the recipient’s eye is welling up with a tear, just hope it’s a good one.

Starting in November, we ask kids and adults alike to make a list of what gifts they’d like. I feel strange buying my brother-in-law that I never see a shirt and tie set, size 17. This is more personal information about him then I’ve known in the previous eight years of being related to him through marriage. But, it’s on his list…so it’s now my mission. Dare I ask my cousin what size slippers she needs? Do I estimate a size? Gasp! What if I overestimate her foot as a size twelve? The icy stares and silent treatment would last until the spring thaw, I’m sure. What if I underestimate the size and a return is in order? Then I’ll need to include a gift receipt. Hassles. Grief. This “Season of Giving” is giving me an ulcer. How about the “Season of Giving” gives me a drink?

So the real question is why are we trying to buy the people in our lives happiness? Do they look miserable? Maybe we are conditioned to feel an empty void this time of year that only a Jean Nate bath set can fill. Thank you, Madison Avenue. But seriously, can purchased happiness last longer than it takes to open the present itself? Probably not. Unless it was a sack of gold coins. REAL gold.

So here is a crazy, brandy-soaked fruitcake of an idea…why not give of ourselves instead? We routinely undervalue our abilities to make a direct impact on the lives of those around us. Can our love and encouragement really compete with a new pair of Isotoner gloves? How about giving some compassion, sympathy, encouragement or support and see for yourself. These are gifts I’d be happy to get any day of the year. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t willing to let go of these higher level gifts. Perhaps we don’t value what they could mean to others. Or, maybe it’s just easier to buy a blender and be done with it.

I’ll tell you now that whenever anyone asks me what I “want” for Christmas my mind just goes blank. My mom always wants to buy me jewelry. That is not what I want. I tell her that, and she gets upset that she needs to have a “wrapped present to hand me.” I then start to think that giving presents is more for the giver than recipient. My relatives always want to know sizes. I feel pressure to tell them I need something stupid just so I can be left alone. “A travel mug!” I’ll blurt out and then retreat back into myself. Back into where I think of things I’d like that I’d never ask for, because I’d never get them. These are gifts of emotion and spirit. No slippers, travel mug or gift certificate could take their place.

Here’s a story. When I lived in New York City, I volunteered at a soup kitchen one Thanksgiving morning. It was really on a whim. Actually, I just wanted to feel like I could make a difference in the lives of others in a city of such great anonymity.

When I first showed up at the soup kitchen I had no idea of what to expect. I really thought I’d see crazy people, wild and scary. I knew that people who lived on the streets of New York would have to be tough to survive out there. I stood behind a table and poured coffee into small white Styrofoam cups and started handing them out to people as they passed through in line. As I handed out my Styrofoam coffee cups, one after another, I noticed something I didn’t expect. A connection between what I was giving and what someone else needed. Every single person smiled and said “Thank you” to me. That part seems trivial, but I realized I had something within me that I could share and was valued by others. Being helpful and caring were things I could give that others truly needed.

I never had such a meaningful experience of helping other people before. By the time I left there I felt like I could move mountains. That Thanksgiving I was given a gift by the many homeless people I met that day. Giving what I could on a human level to help those in need was an incredible and powerful feeling. It’s something I hope everyone can experience sometime in their lives. Value your worth. And again I say, value what you have to give of yourself to others.

Killed by the Sandwich

I’m among a generation of other people caught up in the middle of caring for children and parents simultaneously. This generation has become known as “The Sandwich Generation.” Much like those pieces of turkey and cheese, I am being squashed by those two pieces of bread.

It seems like things were easier long ago, when families lived closer to each other in the same towns. Back in the day you would have the support of cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, which greatly helped relieve the stresses of people who were taking care of multiple loved ones. Long ago it seemed like neighbors cared more for each other, and communities and families supported each other and were willing to pitch in when times were rough.

My elderly mother’s recent stroke really highlighted the fact that I am all alone in her care. My siblings live in other cities and states. A phone call once a week from them to me or my mother doesn’t do much in the way of relieving the stresses my mother and I both encounter while trying to make sure she is safe, happy and living her golden years in the most fulfilling way possible. Living with the stress and fear that her health and well-being is all on my shoulders alone makes me terrified.

Finding the services and support to care for our elderly in a way that they can stay independent in their homes is an area that is severely lacking in our society. I recently learned that assisted living facilities begin at $2,500 a month. And they don’t take insurance, so this is needed in cash. Some places make you prove your finances ahead of time to show you can pay for two years worth of this cost before they will even consider admitting the elderly person. Medicare facilities, which would pay that cost for the elderly person, are few and far between. And I’m sure the waiting list is incredibly long.

It makes me outraged that the fate of every person will end this way….you work until you retire – if you can afford to do so. Then, you use up the rest of your money living as modestly as you can, and when there is nothing left then you go on Medicare – and hope you can get into a facility that is a decent enough place to live out the rest of your years. It is a sad state of affairs that our golden years ahead may not be so golden after all.

In addition to caring for my mom, I am also raising young kids. They are still at the age where they need me to be there for them for just about everything. And of course I give 150% of myself to them, because I love them and because I am their mother. They do not know how thinly stretched I am also trying to also take care of their grandmother, as well. My elderly mother knows I am her only family member in the area, and she knows I would do as much as I can for her also. But these two forces are pulling in opposite directions making me feel stretched to my limits in the middle.

I know I’m not alone in this struggle of trying to do it all for every family member.  It seems like there are a million silent Generation X’er’s in this same situation. So, where can the Sandwich Generation go for support? We are all quietly struggling to hold our families as close as possible for as long as possible. Considering how many of us there are out here, I’m really surprised this hasn’t received more coverage in the media.

It must be the nurse in me, but I really think there needs to be a way to unite the Sandwich Generation. If our communities and families can’t give us the support we need, perhaps we can give this support to each other. It is amazing how wonderful it can feel just knowing that someone else is out there to listen, support or offer advice or wisdom to you from their own experiences.

Extreme Hoarders: True Minivan Nightmares. My Story.

I remembered today that vehicles use extra fuel if they are weighed down excessively. I realized this while sitting in my minivan and gazed upon the collection of bric-a-brac* (*nice term for junk and garbage) that has piled up at my feet and across the back half of the vehicle over the past few weeks.

It is amazing how clean a vehicle can stay if there is one driver and no passengers. But if you have a carload of school aged kids, plus a spouse that isn’t too keen on keeping the trash he accumulates contained in a container, then you will – sooner or later – end up with a vehicle like mine. A vehicle that could have its own show on The Learning Channel. A show that could be called, “Extreme Hoarders: True Minivan Nightmares.”

As I sat in my minivan I recognized lost snow mittens, a sock with no mate, various rubbish from fast food lunches of yore. I realized all this excessive weight was costing me more at the pump. Plus, I didn’t want to drive around in an embarrassment any more. So, I grabbed a bag and started doing my monthly emptying of the minivan. Fully prepared for anything I might discover. Secretly hoping I’d turn up long-lost library books. Never wanting to find an old sandwich.

The work went quicker then I thought it would. Probably because I was just grabbing stuff and shoving it into the garbage bag, instead of the wiser approach of reading what was on the various papers I was throwing away. One note: a mother who reads papers created by their children…be it a scribble, smudge, word or artwork…instantly becomes sentimental and goes through seven stages of guilt before any further throwing out can continue. Plus, the paper itself will start a new pile that often derails most of my cleaning efforts: a “save” pile.

Some of the more curious items I discovered today include a four-foot long tree branch with random carvings in it, and a chunk of asphalt about 5 inches across. I have no idea when these came into the van, who brought them there, what they are for, if they are important. I kept the stick and threw out the asphalt chunk.

About twenty minutes later the cleaning was nearly done. I could tell by the fact I could now see carpet that I was going to save about $5.00 a day in gas. This is just a rough estimate with absolutely no mathematical backing to it whatsoever. What I’m saying is that it felt good to get that van clean again.

Lesson: From now on I am going to have small garbage receptacles near every seat in the van. Before children enter the van I will inspect pockets and backpacks for asphalt chunks. And absolutely no tree branches are allowed to enter the van if they are over three feet in length (leaves included).

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