My First UK Walk in Wellies

I was excited as a two-year-old to take my first walk in wellies across the beautiful British countryside (I am easily amused.) Wellies, the symbol of British culture, reflect the lasting legacy of the Duke of Wellington and the term carries a sense of tradition, practicality, and British identity.

Wellies, aka. Wellington boots, date back to the 18th century. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, enlisted his shoemaker to modify a military Hessian boot. Originally designed for battle, wellies were later used by farmers and outdoorsmen.

In the early 19th century, they became a staple of practical foot wear for the British aristocracy and middle class and a popular choice for various occasions, including evenings out.

“Everyone in England has a pair of wellies, “Larissa explained. “In the UK, the public has the right away to cross the fields. It’s known as Public Bridle Way.”

When our son, Nic, bought me a pair, I thought they looked so chic that I could wear them as dress boots, which many people do these days. Wellies evolved from being purely functional to becoming fashionable accessories with many brands offering trendy designs, colors and styles.

“Don’t you have wellies in the US?” my British daughter- in-law asked surprised at my exuberance.

“In the Midwest, we swap out tennis shoes directly for winter boots,” I said, “Only thing close to your wellies was the clunky, buckle up galoshes we wrestled on over shoes in grade school.”

The British waterproof gumboots are usually made from rubber or PVC. Traditionally Wellies come in black, olive green, tan color or print and hit just below knee level.

Walking in wellies looks simple, but it takes dexterity. Larissa’s family maneuvered the rough terrain far better than me or Gerald. Could advancing in gumboots be skill passed down from one generation to the next?

Fortunately, before we left home, Larissa advised, “Wear heavy socks to prevent blisters.”

“Slip your orthopedics inserts in the boots,” Nic, the chiropractor added. “It may help your back.”

Nothing helped my spine; I winced every step forward. The UK family, even Lari’s sister lugging her ten-month-old child in a baby carrier, glided across the uneven terrain gracefully. I lumbered along behind, as if on two left feet, stumbling every step of the way.

Wellies, designed to protect feet from getting muddy or wet in damp environments, are the quintessential symbol of British footwear. To the non native, they feel awkward and offer little support for someone with like me with crooked toes, poor balance and a bad back.

Today's wellies, with varied color options and patterns, permit people to add personal style to functional footwear. They can be paired to match every outfit and occasion.

But no one wears wellies with greater style and aplomb than five-year-olds. Larissa and Nic’s nephew mastered the skill. In his “dinosaur” wellies, with a jagged flap along the spine of boot, he galloped ahead, circled back and jumped in every puddle along the way.

For me, slipping on a pair of “wellies,” sloshing along the sublime English countryside and singing with our UK side of the family made me feel like a kid again.

Happy New’s Year Eve 40th Wedding Anniversary

Forty years ago on New Year’s Eve 1983, I said, “I do,” in a seventeenth century chapel in France, not far from the famous WWII Landing beaches. What are the odds of a small town girl from the cornfields of Illinois meeting a French boy raised by the sea in Normandy?

 

 

Where else could we have fallen in love at first sight?
At a basketball game in Paris, of course!

We had just lost the finals of the French championship by one point. I met Gerald in the aftermath, so he witnessed my storm after a big game loss. He asked me out anyway.

Our wedding feast, so French, pheasant pate, fish in cream sauce, "trou Normand" sorbet, leg of lamb and pastries, with different wines and alcohols went on for hours. When the clock struck midnight the crazy uncles handed out party hats and pea shooters and turned the event into a New Year Eve party.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We had no clue what we were getting into.

Challenges await across cultural marriage…endless official legal paperwork, les faux pas, the misunderstandings, the sacrifices, the compromises.

Opposites do attract. Gerald was a steady, pragmatic, realistic businessman with his feet planted firmly on the ground; I was an intuitive, impetuous, irrational dreamer living in the clouds.

But we were so alike in other ways. Both of us are ultra competitive, hyper-intense Type A’s. Our arguments could rock the roof off our old apartments in Paris, but though we do disagree at times, we are also fiercely protective and supportive of one another’s goals.

Together we endured heartbreaking losses — my career ending car accident, my miscarriages, my brain injury.

But our rewards were great; none greater than watching a bright, adventuresome daughter and a clever, witty son grow strong on basketball courts across Switzerland and go onto become doctors.

Gerald is so dependable, loyal, trustworthy, a man of integrity, but equally intimidating with his French sarcasm and quick temper. I am an overly emotional writer type that wears her heart on her sleeve.

Gerald, not a big talker, is the strong silent type. I compensate for his lack of verbosity by babbling nonstop.

I stood by his side when we laid his parents (our dear Papie & Mamie) to rest; he cradled my heart the day my dad died. As the years go by, we appreciate even more how much grandparents enriched our children’s lives and our own.

Though getting from one continent to the other has never been easy, we shared the best of both worlds. I learned to savor his French family dinners that went on for hours, he grew to appreciate my Midwest America at its best — corn on the cob and backyard BBQs.

We learned to compromise. He’ll never love burgers, but found a recipe for meatballs with ground beef that he enjoys too. I’ll never appreciate fois gras and raw oysters, but I savor the French art of savoir-faire when it comes to fine dining.

Over the years our love grew stronger strolling the beaches of his homeland Normandy and walking through the woods of our family cabin in Wisconsin, traveling throughout the Old World and sharing the bench on basketball courts, cheering on many kids, our own and others.

Whenever I crawled in despair, ready to give up, he pulled me back up on feet and encouraged me to keep fighting. When my book, represented by 3 agents couldn’t find a home, he made sure my story got published. When the school where I taught and coached wanted me to be a keynote speaker at graduation, he persuaded me to rise to the challenge. After my brain surgery, when I feared my words would jumble, he urged me to speak at Illinois State University’s Title XI celebration as a part of US women’s athletic history.

I supported him through seven different moves from assistant director to CEO, helping our kids readjust and remaking our lives.

He applauded my success as a coach and supported our children by volunteering as a score table official and team chauffeur.

On our wedding night, we united different generations of American, French and Germans, once enemies, to a shared table in Normandy, in the very land where their countries had fought each other. In our marriage, raising two bicultural, international kids as global ambassadors, we always strived to bring people together.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gerald made me a better me. After forty years of triumphs and tribulations, I helped bring out the best in him. We became more together, than we could ever be alone.

I raise my glass to us, and to our family and friends around the globe!

Happy New Year!

International Family Reunion on the French Riviera

Family reunions across state lines may seem difficult, but imagine the complications trying to unite international ones like mine, living in 3 different countries. It is never easy for a French-Normand father and Norwegian-American mother sans home, in a mountain hut in Switzerland to meet up their Franco-American kids.

Our daughter settled in the land of 10,000 lakes. Our son married a pretty British-Irish-Ukrainian woman and moved to the countryside near Warwick, England. Recently, we united on the glamorous French Rivera. Whenever we gather, it is magical!

Our daughter flew to Europe for her spring vacation. We picked her up at the Geneva airport and drove south through France to La Croix-Valmer halfway between Le Lavandou and St. Tropez on the Cote D’Azur. Meanwhile, our son, Nic, and daughter-in-law, Larissa, flew to Nice from England to be with us.

Our Airbnb was perched on the cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea on the Blue Coast, one of the world’s most famous coastlines offering sunshine, blue skies and the sparkling sea.

We woke up in the morning to birds singing from flowering bushes and the famous umbrella trees so prolific in southern France and to a spectacular view of the Bay of Cavalaire and the islands.

Every day was a feast for the senses

Each meal was a party for the palate.

Every moment was a priceless celebration.

For breakfast, over coffee, we enjoyed pain au chocolat, pain au raisin and patisseries from the bakery down the hill. At lunch, we savored salads, while Nic scarfed down giant Dagwood sized sandwiches on fresh baguettes.

Every evening, Gerald, our favorite French chef, offered the region’s finest fare. One night, we savored succulent lamb with risotto, the next night we enjoyed a rib of beef with green beans and Lari’s rosemary baked potatoes. The last evening, we dined on a giant sea bass in white wine and lemon butter.

We started each dinner toasting one another with an aperitif of chilled Prosecco. We finished each meal with fresh fruits dipped in cream — currents, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, a go-go. One night we splurged and enjoy a rich chocolate lava cake. We are all confessed chocoholics.

How Nat endured sticking to gluten free diet everyday amazed me. Although, I am also gluten intolerant, I cheated every meal.

On sunny days, we hiked the rugged coastline, swam in the icy sea, read our Kindles and dozed on the beach.

On our last day, Nic hugged his big sister goodbye .

“See you soon,” he said. “Maybe this summer, maybe at Christmas, or maybe next year at this time?”

For us, family reunions can never be taken for granted. Surely, we must somehow make this first family trip a new tradition.

Who knows where or when we will meet up again? A Frenchman, Gerald, is only allowed to stay in the USA for 90 days, as a British citizen Lari, due to a quirk in rules had her ESTA revoked, will not be allowed to enter the states for a couple years.

I regret that we live so far apart in separate countries each with its’ own red tape. Yet, we are lucky to be open-minded enough to embrace one another cultures, to have the wherewithal to afford travel and the knowledge to navigate crazy rules limiting border crossing.

Even now with the conveniences of modern travel and connections of technology, many immigrants, like my Norwegian grandparents, never had the chance to return to their homelands, due to immigration status, political asylum rules, and economic constraints.

On the way to the airport, before flying back to England, our daughter-in-law, Larissa, bless her little cotton socks, insisted Gerald stop off to check out the local real estate, and begged him to buy a place in southern France for us to meet up regularly.

One way or another, in spite of the challenges, obstacles and inconveniences, we will gather together again, somewhere, some way, somehow.

I will move mountains to make it happen!

Because that’s what mom’s do.

Happy Mother’s Day to my Pioneer Mom

With Title IX Mom would've have been an NIU athlete

 

As we say in French “merci mille fois” thank you a million times for being my mom!
Greeting card companies remind us to mark this day, but I think of you every day.

I have been so fortunate to have been born to you — a generous, kindhearted, intelligent Norwegian-American mom, who guided me through tough transitions with my identity intact during the tumultuous 60s and 70s. Because of you, I became adventurous, courageous and tenacious.

I hate to imagine what my life would have been like growing up at that time period without a mom like you. You let me be me, warts and all. As if you knew that one day this hellbent, stubborn, ornery child would grow up to be a curious, compassionate, tolerant human being.

You nurtured me as a baby, cheered on my first shaky steps as a toddler and applauded even when those bold footsteps led me across the globe.

A family of four by age 26

I could have never navigated my role as a trailblazer without a forward thinking mom encouraging me to overcome setbacks, supporting me through the trials of being a first, and nursing me back from injuries in my rough and tumble life as a female athlete.

You never forced me to sit pretty on the sideline in dainty dresses, instead you let me mix it up and play ball with boys in my grassed-stained dungarees.

Because you accepted me early on, I learned to like myself long before society willingly let girls in the game.

I often credit Dad as my coach, but you were my counselor!

If I became a Title IX pioneer, it was because from day one, my loving, patient, pioneer mom believed in me.

Four generations

So many of our mothers no longer walk this earth, but their impact in our lives abides forever.

I am grateful that you are still here as such a cherished part of my life. Sometimes I wish I lived right next door, so I could check up on you, the way you’ve have watched over me, but thanks to modern technology, we remain only a phone call apart.

How I treasure our conversations! We discuss everything from ancestors, to books, to history, to politics, to human rights. As a teenager, I ignored your suggestions, but as an adult I turned to you for advice. Today I listen carefully to your words, sometimes, even taking notes when you impart your pearls of wisdom.

First grandchild in the family

Today I truly appreciate your selflessness. As you once told me, we offer our babies as a gift to the world the moment they leave our wombs.

Because of your example, I learned how to live a kinder, calmer, more generous life filled with gratitude.

In turn, I passed on that grace, not only to my own two biological children, but to hundreds of others that I coached and taught.

You taught me how to love unconditionally and then let go. Though, now we too live far apart, my daughter, a pediatrician in the USA and my son, a chiropractor in England fulfill their own destiny helping others through their chosen professions.

You showed me how to be a strong, resilient woman, how to bridge the distances between us and strengthen the bonds between cultures, countries and generations.

Sadly, our mothers cannot live eternally, but we carry their love with us always, forevermore.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hometown Engraved in Heart Forever

 

Many Sterlingites moved away from town, but like me still bleed blue and gold. Like a tattoo, our Sterling High School days remain ingrained in our hearts.

Decades ago, I moved to Europe to pursue my crazy (at that time) dream to play pro basketball, but Sterling has remained my chez moi. Relocating dozens of times between four different countries, my family, my hometown, my community remained my anchor.

Others SHS graduates have moved across the States, but remained tied to places like Coletta, Woodlawn, Jefferson,Washington and good ol’ SHS. For some local families - Dietz, McKinzie, Smith, Yemm, Zion - our parents serving as teachers, coaches, administrators formed bricks in the foundation of SHS. Following generations became pillars of strength in our own professions and communities.

During turbulent times, on the heels of the civil and women’s rights movements, high school sports united gender, race and economic backgrounds in a sense of community on Sterling’s stellar courts, fields and stadium.

I was a pioneer in the infancy of Title IX, before girls state championships existed. That title belonged to my dad, my younger sister, Karen, and her teammates.

Title IX June 23, 1972, a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that received federal funding made this opportunity possible. It leveled the playing fields for women in sport and education opening doors to careers in law, medicine, and science careers.

SHS implemented Title IX faster than other communities, so Sterling girls gained gender equity sooner than those living in other parts of the country. Consequently, the time was right for our beloved 1977 1st state championship girls basketball team to triumph.

We must never forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.

Could hard fought Title IX’s rights be revoked like some of our other recently overturned civil liberties?

An attack on any one of women’s rights is an attack on all of our rights.

Title IX gave me the opportunity to become the first female athletic scholarship recipient at Illinois State University, a 1st women’s pro league draftee, and one of first American females to play overseas. No one remembers my name. No matter. What matters is that we earned the right to do these things.

“Your role,” my friend Phil reminds me, “was to lead others to the promised land.”

Back in the day, the only glory I had, was beating him one on one. He taught me the sky hook, behind the back dribble and other moves of the NBA, skills that I fine tuned playing pick-up ball with boys in Homer Musgrove Fieldhouse.

In the 70s and early 80s, girls’ basketball was still taboo, which forced me abroad to play the game I loved.

Coaches Phil Smith and Jim McKinzie

Every step of my way, mentors guided me, beginning with my dad and Phil Smith at SHS, Jill Hutchison at ISU, and then Henry Fields, father of French basketball, who took me under his wing when I coached in Europe.

After my playing career ended in a car accident abroad, I followed in their footsteps becoming a coach. For the next three decades, I passed on their knowledge of the game in France and Switzerland. My career can’t be measured in championships, but in the strength of character of those I coached, who later advocated for social justice in their own homelands.

Nothing was a given. Nothing was taken for granted. Nothing was accomplished without gratitude.

As a kid, I felt lucky to grow up playing safely outdoors in Sterling. During backyard games, we learned to share, negotiate and resolve differences. Later at SHS, we honed our skills in athletic facilities finer than any I’ve ever seen in Europe.

I could lament that I sacrificed my body and soul to basketball without ever receiving accolades, sponsorships, and financial rewards of today’s female basketball stars. Or I could feel blessed to have been there when it all began, to play my humble part in history. I will be forever grateful that I fulfilled my calling passing on my love of the game to hundreds of international athletes including my daughter and son.

As the granddaughter of Coach “Mac” Ralph McKinzie and daughter of Coach Jim McKinzie, I grew up with a legacy of integrity. I was a product of Sterling High School, a Golden Warrior and an Illinois State Redbird, raised in the Land of Lincoln.

Fran Smith clears the lane

I touched the lives of kids from around the globe,

But I never forgot my heritage,

I always honored my roots.

Every challenged faced,

I remained Warrior Strong.

No matter where I live,

My McKinzie heart beats blue and gold.

Old Friends Forever Family

Girlfriends get us through tough times, celebrate our victories and always got our back.

In our senior year at Illinois State University, I shared a townhouse off campus with five friends. We called ourselves family.

Ever loyal fans, they supported me my final season of college basketball that began badly with a back injury. Frustrated by the setback, I limped in walking crooked. They welcomed me home by tilting the wall pictures sideways too.

When my younger sister needed a place to stay, they squeezed her in. I forfeited my spot in our triple, moved to the basement, slept on a mat on the floor and stored clothes in cardboard boxes. In the dungeon, I never heard my bunkmates’ early alarm clock with the darn dozer button. It never felt like a sacrifice until the basement flooded.

Only one housemate was my biological sibling, but we called each other sisters, except for the most responsible one in the group, who we nicknamed mom.

“The family” was always there for me.

Every happy occasion we played our theme song, “We are Family,” and danced our fool heads off.

They hugged me goodbye at the airport, when I chased my dream to play pro ball in Paris. After my career ending car accident in France, they flew abroad to urge me to keep fighting. They held my hand when I lost my first baby in an harrowing miscarriage at an isolated cabin in the woods. When our children were still young enough to drag around, we gathered for “family reunions” on my stateside visits.

When my dad died, they flew in from all over to attend his memorial service. The only one who could not be there sent her husband as a stand in.

Forty-five years after college graduation, during a bitter cold January, they drove six hours to Minneapolis to see me before I flew back home to Switzerland.

My husband, bless his little cotton socks, catered to us. Like a 5 star French chef, he served fine wine, "boeuf bourguignon", and "mousse au chocolat". Over champagne, we toasted to ISU, to friendship, to resiliency. We survived thyroid cancer, breast cancer, brain surgery, a car wreck and other calamities.

None of us followed the traditional script. We navigated divorce, death of a spouse, childbirth, adoption, step-children, cross cultural marriage and grandchildren.

We shared highlights and hardships, disappointments and disasters, triumphs and tragedies.

We attained lofty goals becoming a pro athlete, a physical therapist, teachers, coaches, and administrators. We raised families, nurtured aging parents, dedicated our careers to helping others.

We treasured memories of that special time as college students when we starred in our own life stories savoring lazy weekends, crazy keggers and Florida spring break.

Never again would we be so carefree or live under the same roof, but we knew we could count on each other forevermore. Always. Til death do us part.

Thankfully, we are all still here.

Dancing!

“We are Family. I got all my sisters with me!”