Happy 80th Birthday to my Remarkable Mom

IMG_3055_copyOn your 80th birthday, what can I offer you, Mom, you who has given me life? You fell asleep under my crib patting my back in infancy assuring me that you’d always be there. You stayed up until dawn holding my hand as I struggled with problems as a grown up.

You loved me unconditionally.

You created a happy childhood by inventing fun, like painting sidewalks with water, reading books by candlelight and playing restaurant at a card table. When money was scarce, you splurged on small treasures: a plastic boat, a jar of Play Doh, and a Highlights magazine. When you grew tired from the caretaking, you pulled me onto your lap for a moment’s peace and told stories and sang songs.

You taught me to respect my elders in the tender way you cared for Grandpa Mac and Grandma Olson. You spoiled Grandpa with his favorites – chili and pie. You visited your mom in the nursing home every day finding joy in her company even as she aged.

You, a smart, soft-spoken Chicago girl from a modest family of Norwegian immigrants, worked your way through college earning a teaching degree. Then, you made your four children feel as special as an only child. When the last one started kindergarten, you started your teaching career, guiding other people’s kids.

All the while, you were encouraging me to develop my own skills and take those first painful steps toward reaching my potential. You overlooked my flaws – saw my best when I was at my worst – and knew I would outgrow my orneriness. To help us survive our awkward adolescence, you told your daughters that they were caterpillars blooming into butterflies. Okay, so I never developed that delicate beauty, but I did learn to fly.

You forgave me for the untold suffering I caused: the trips to the emergency room, the nights I came in late as a teen. All the anxieties I created with desperate phone calls: my hospitalization in Peoria, my pro team’s collapse, my car accident in France.

You sought miracles in everyday events. The spring an African violet appeared on the plant I gave you, you knew a life was blooming. Nine months later, I gave birth to your first grandchild. You became the greatest long distance grandma, sewing matching outfits, writing letters, making calls, taking drives and plane rides to visit grandchildren, living nine hours away by plane.

You put Band-Aids on skinned knees, made cookies for bake sales, sent cards to shut ins, and gave pep talks. You remembered anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations, and never missed ball games. You were the first to take the sting out of life’s hurts; the last to criticize mistakes. First up and the last to bed, you worked overtime and never went on strike.

You put your own life on hold to jump-start ours. You kept my world spinning in a zillion small ways that I overlooked everyday.

You, the unsung hero, taught us to accept the differences in others by nurturing the differences in ourselves. While I was defying society, playing sports at a time in history when little girls were supposed to play house, you let me be a tomboy. When, instead of coveting Barbie dolls, I asked Santa for a basketball for Christmas, you made sure he heard my wishes.

You never made me wear hair bows, instead you cut my bangs short and let me march to my own beat. When I slid into home plate, swished hoops, and tackled the neighborhood boys in the backyard, you grinned and waved from the kitchen window. When I fell off bicycles and out of trees, you straightened the handlebars and brushed off the grass and said, “Off you go!”

Your heart grew as I grew, welcoming your French son-in-law into the fold even though you knew he’d whisk me off to live in a foreign country. You exemplified a good marriage, sharing sixty years of laughter and tears with my dear Dad.

You gave me wings and the gift of love. Though I can never repay you directly, I pay it forward daily in my work and family. Mom, because of you, I learned to love. I bought into the human race.

Loving Football – Catching Brazil’s World Cup Fever

brazilian-soccer-fans-commemorating-group-happy-victory-flag-background-34849799Born in the U.S.A., the only football I knew growing up was the one where men wearing girdles wrestled over an oval pigskin on the gridiron in a sport that excluded girls. The game Americans refer to as soccer and the rest of the world calls football was not popular in the States.

But when I moved abroad, I fell in love with the other football. My German basketball club teammates taught me how to play. I loved chasing the round ball down an open field as my appreciation and understanding of the game evolved. In international schools where I worked, I even officiated PE class games where students “explained” in no uncertain terms how to call offside.

Whether I was living in France, Germany or Switzerland, once every four years, the planet stopped spinning on its axis during the World Cup Football Championship. Shops close early, giant screens light up, and riots break out as world cup frenzy hits the streets. In Switzerland roadways are blocked because the game is on the big screen in Geneva’s central square, in France traffic halts for merrymakers spilling onto the Champs-Elysées and in Germany a 100,000 fans erupt in joy by the Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.football fans

With 3.3 -3.5 billion fans and played by 250 million players around the globe, football is the world’s most popular sport. Requiring virtually no equipment, football can be played anywhere from the favellas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of India.

At its inception in 1930, the 1st world cup, held in Uruguay, included only 13 invited teams. Today, teams battle across every continent to qualify for the 32-team tournament.

National victories become political statements reflecting global tensions. The World Cup was not held in 1942 during WWII or in its devastating aftermath in 1946.The 1954 world cup, held in Switzerland, was the first to be televised, which brought unprecedented marketing opportunities.

Brazil estimates to bring home $11 billion from 600,000 tourists and 3 million Brazilians in attendance, however financial experts are skeptical. South Africa showed a reverse effect where countries are harmed economically from hosting the event. Brazil’s hosting has been controversial from the get go with protests breaking out daily. Should a country with such a great poverty level be hosting a billion dollar event making stadiums that cost hundreds of million dollars?

As with any sporting event involving big bucks, controversy follows suit. Rumors of official bribes and FIFAs questionable tactics abound. And for the first time ever, a player was suspended for biting an opponent when in the heat of battle Uruguay’s Louis Suarez chomped down on the shoulder his Italian opponent. Seriously?

National pride escalates with each victory, boosting ratings of the leadership in countries that advance to the next round. Team affinity becomes extreme, but with my own personal ties to several countries, I am content when USA, France, Germany, Switzerland, or any Scandinavian country wins. Though I would never admit to my French family, I was the only one who wasn’t too disappointed when France lost to Germany in the quarterfinals. With fond memories of my time in living in Marburg, I still feel loyalty to the country that once hosted me.

With youth soccer clubs booming, I am tickled to see that America finally caught the football bug. Germany's Mueller challenges goalkeeper Howard of the U.S. during their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match at the Pernambuco arena in RecifeUSA advancement to the final sixteen and goalie Tim Howard’s stellar performance versus Belgium put USA on the map in world football scene.

Politics, money and fan violence aside, football at its purest level, is good, clean fun. During the tournament, boys and girls around the globe fill sandlots, dead end streets, and empty fields, running around, kicking balls, juggling their own World Cup dreams.

Confessions of a T-shirt Junky

IMG_4503_copySpring cleaning forced me to fess up. I am an addict. My vice – T-shirts. Think I am kidding? I cleared out my cupboards and counted 92 cotton shirts.  I hoard them, savoring the memories they evoke.

My collection includes styles with or without collars, long, short or no sleeve, light shirts, tight shirts, baggy shirts, depending on the era representing colors of every season. Not only the standard, red, white, blue, oh no, my stock includes magenta, turquoise, olive, plum, aquamarine, cornflower, cerise, burnt sienna, pink sherbet, electric lime, shirts in more shades than found in a giant box of Crayolas.

I lack fashion sense, yet my shirt assemblage rivals Imelda Marco’s shoe collection.

I am loath to part these treasures; T-shirts tell the story of my life.

In my closet, I found shirts labeled McKinzie-Smith Basketball Camp, dating back to the early 80’s when Phil and I started the first girls’ basketball camp in the Sauk Valley area. I also have my favorite college basketball T-shirt designed by the point guard who helped me break scoring records with her right-on-the-money passes.IMG_4505_copy

In the attic, I discovered the family heirlooms – my dad’s old gray Sterling High School Phys Ed shirt and my grandpa’s gold and maroon Eureka College Football Staff polo shirt.  I have T-shirts with photographs commemorating my son’s Swiss National Championship team and my daughter’s All-Star high school team. I’ve never worn them because I didn’t want the pictures to fade. Who could pitch those?

I uncovered decade’s worth of T-shirts from the various International Sport Schools Tournaments. Each shirt listed participating teams from Athens, Frankfurt, Brussels and Paris to other cosmopolitan cities across Europe. As a coach, I traveled to destinations most people only dream of. Every shirt reminded me not only the championship games, but of the landmarks visited: Manneken Pis Statue (Boy Peeing Statue) in Brussels, Hofbrau Haus in Munich, Acropolis in Athens, boardwalks in The Hague, canals of Venice. I still have t-shirts from the teams I played on in France and Germany.

On another shelf, I uncovered souvenir shirts from family vacations to the Badlands and the Grand Canyon and from the tag-a-long trips when we followed our kids’ teams competing at Daytona Beach, in San Diego’s Surf & Slam and up and down the mountains in the Swiss Championship.

I still faithfully wear one of the dozen UWSP basketball t-shirts on game day, even though my daughter graduated from there nearly a decade ago.

Another series of T-shirts bear the emblems of the American School of Paris and International School of Geneva where I have taught for the past decades.

No one helps me kick the habit. My two Big Kids, taller and buffer, feed my obsession by giving me their out grown, hand-me-downs to add to my stockpile.

A college teammate used to proclaim a dessert of the year; well I have a shirt of the year. The 2014 award winner is a mesh, white Nike T-shirt inscribed with the women’s basketball Redbird logo that my coach gave me when she drove UWSP to hear me speak at the NCAA Final Four banquet.

My lil’ sis once promised, “when I retire I will make you a quilt out of all your favorite T-shirts.”IMG_4502_copy

Well, Karen, could you hurry up and retire. We are running out of storage space.

From Athlete to Doctor: Congratulations Nat

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with cousin Marie

Over a decade after embarking on this journey, my daughter celebrated her official end to residency. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there. Nor was I there when she graduated with honors from UWSP or for her White Coat Ceremony. She was only 5-years-old, the last time that I could help her with anything science related; I read aloud for the umpteenth time her favorite book about blood cells. Even her high school bio and chemistry was over my head. Where did the interest in science come from? There are no doctors in the family.

Yet she moved 4,000 miles away from home and stepped up to each challenge the medical field threw at her: MCAT exams, med school applications, interviews, boards. Do the math: 4 years undergrad, 4 years medical school, 3 years residency, rotating between dozens of different departments in a dozen different hospitals and clinics. What kind of commitment and resiliency sees one through such a grueling ordeal?

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the wild bunch

When I was growing up, I didn’t know any female doctors, lawyers or pro basketball players.
I carved my own path to become a pro athlete, then raised my daughter to believe she could do anything she put her mind to. When I was invited to UWSP to speak about women’s sports, they also asked Nat to share how Title IX and her experiences as a student athlete impacted her academic career.

“In 1970, less than 8% of physicians were women,” Nat said when she spoke with me at UWSP’s celebration hosting the 2014 NCAA Basketball Final Four Tournament. “My med school class at the University of Minnesota was about 50% female. Though I’ve faced sexism, both as an athlete and as a physician, I’m privileged to have grown up at a time where my gender was not a major handicap to pursuing my dreams. Title IX played a big part.”

I’d like to think that I taught her something worthwhile in the gym. Teams teach people skills. Yet none of her athletic experiences could prepare her for 70-80 hour weeks often caring for critically and sometimes terminally ill children.

“The theme of my personal statement for residency was coaching, and how it taught me to interact with kids and speak their language, a skill that I use every day as a pediatrician,” Nat said. “I use my history as an athlete to build rapport with my patients, whether it’s commiserating with an overachieving high school senior about the difficulties of balancing sport and school, or challenging the child who’s stuck in the hospital waiting for a transplant to a game of H.O.R.S.E. on a plastic hoop in his room.”

“Today, I’m still part of a team working towards a common goal, but instead of a
point guard and a post player, my teammates are nurses and doctors and patients’
parents,” she added. “The stakes are a lot higher, the losses so much greater. My job is incredibly rewarding, but it is also difficult.”

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that collegiate athletics prepared me for the challenges of residency; there’s no way it could have. Staying up for 30 hours straight managing critically ill patients makes preseason look easy. The pressure of trying to make a free throw at the end of the game is nothing compared to the pressure of trying to make the right decision when you have a life in your hands. And no experience, on or off the court,
can prepare you to sit down with the parents of the child you’ve been fighting to keep
alive and tell them that there’s nothing more you can do.”

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with supporting team: uncle Dick and aunt Karen

“But what I do credit sports for, is teaching me to persevere. It’s on the basketball
court that I first learned that you don’t quit when things get tough. That when you’ve
made a commitment to your teammates, you owe it to them to follow through. That
when someone knocks you down, you better get right back up and keep playing.”

Right on. Doctors have to persist in the face of the greatest loss.

Though I regretted I wasn’t able to attend the U of M class of 2014s celebratory dinner, I was grateful her Mama Dos was standing in. With a hot meal, my sister, Karen, and brother-in- law, Dick, transplanted Minnesotans, helped restore her broken spirit after every set back.

As Nat concluded, “Those lessons learned on the playing field are valuable to every girl, whether she grows up to be a professional athlete or a doctor or a teacher or a stay-at-home mom, because regardless of what she chooses to do with her life, there will be challenges. And, to quote Nelson Mandela, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

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“little” brother Nic and cousin Hannah

Stand up and stand tall as you embark on your medical career. A pediatrics clinic in the Minneapolis area is gaining one extraordinary doctor.  And, from afar, your dad and I raised our glass to one extraordinary daughter.

Normandy Today

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the beach in winter.
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

I have seen Normandy at it’s best and worst. I married a Norman. On stormy days, like June 6, 1944, waves crash the shoreline, icy winds whip off a black sea, rain falls in sheets and every joint aches with the cold. But in a ray of sunshine, Normandy is as beautiful as an Impressionist’s painting.

Orange cliffs along the coast drop off into purple waters. Inland, reddish brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot a velvet green hillsides under powder blue skies. Soft light whitewashes the gabled, half-timbered houses and solid stone farms that remain as they were centuries ago. It was on one of those perfect days, over three decades ago that I pedaled a bicycle through red poppy fields behind my new beau. Later a table with authentic Normans in a Trouvillais fisherman’s flat, somewhere between courses of scallops and roast, cheese and salad, strawberries in cream, I fell in love with a Frenchman.

Millions debark on the beaches to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day following the circuit du débarquement and traipsing through the museums. But in my opinion the countryside, itself, is even more inspiring than any landmark.

The narrow, winding back roads, shaded by a canopy of trees, run into the “route du cidre” which intersects the Calvados region, my favorite part of Normandy. It is famous for history, art, architecture, seafood, smelly old cheeses, (Pont l’Eveque dates from the 13th century and Camembert from the 19th), and Calvados, a strong apple brandy. I love the area not so much for its regional specialties, but for the special family that lives in the region. They embraced me like lineage, when I, the foreigner with the funny accent, married their very French son.

Normandy, a feast for senses, is best appreciated at mealtime when land and sea are perfectly marinated. After a platter of seafood served so fresh it look like the crabs could crawl off the plate, Mamie presents la pièce de résistance, leg of lamb. Papie carves the tender meat of a newborn that was romping on the rolling green hillside only days before. A garden of vegetables -beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes – sprout out of the linen tablecloth.

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Trouville’s fishmarket
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

Trouville, the seaside resort of my in-laws, retains a sense of timelessness. Sea gulls swoop and dive above the fishing boats bobbing in the waves under azure skies. Daffodils dance on iron wrought balconies in the briny, spring breeze. As I walk on the beach, lined by 17thcentury mansions, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. Young couples stroll the boardwalk with their arms intertwined. Parents with toddlers in tow pick up seashells; small children dig castles in the fine, white sand, school age kids race the waves as they crash the shoreline.

Thanks to yesterdays’ heroes, throughout time’s passage, nothing changes. Normandy, like memories it holds, just grows older and more beautiful. And I thank my lucky, fate-filled stars that crossed paths with my Norman.

fishermen's wharf

fishermen’s wharf
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

 

 

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Normandy 70th Anniversary of D-Day June 6, 1944-2014

 

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

I visited the Normandy landing beaches on a cold, rainy, miserable day, a day much like the stormy dawn when 200,000 Allied personnel debarked on D Day, June 6, l944. A fitting day for remembering the 10,000 Allied soldiers who died on the “longest day” of war.

Normandy Invasion, June 1944 U.S. Army Rangers...

June 1944 U.S. Army Rangers storm the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A half-century after the Rangers overtook the strategic German lookout at Pointe du Hoc, I stood on the steel reinforced bunkers and peered over 100-foot drop off above the English Channel. I could picture a 19-year-old American boy jumping out of a PT boat into icy waters illuminated by gunfire. I could imagine him staggering across the dunes dodging bullets, clawing at the red cliffs, crawling through the hedgerows, groping for life in a foreign land. He was one of ours. Disorientated in fields criss-crossed by trees and hedges, trying to maneuver tanks through stone villages, shooting at the shadows that could be his own comrades, he was an American soldier killing Germans who could have been friends in another time and generation.

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Normany – fields through hedgerow (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

I am of another time and generation, an American with French-Normand spouse, and German friends. Knowing the fair-minded, kind-hearted, Europeans as I do now, I cannot fathom how such an atrocity could occur. The war-ravaged countryside is not the Normandy I know. On rainy days, Normandy’s landscape may offer a bleak reminder of her sad past, but on sunny ones the murky coastline, black sea, and gray fields are transformed into a tapestry of colors. The beauty and tranquility of Normandy today in a ray of sunshine could drive full-grown men to their knees in tears. I, too young to have understood the impact of WWII, get a lump in my throat every time I return to the land of my in-laws in northwestern France.

Today the sacrifices of the men of WWII, their silent testimonials of white crosses lining the hills above the famous beaches Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha hold special meaning. My countrymen, laid to rest in my adopted country, saved my family.

If those soldiers were to land on the Normandy beaches this June, they’d be surprised. Parasols have replaced Rommel’s asparagus (spiked metal posts preventing ships from landing). The 400 miles of wide white sand and dramatic cliff line extending from Le Treport in the east to Mont St. Michel in the west, is strewn with half-naked, live bodies worshipping the sun and sea.

Millions of visitors follow the “circuit du débarquement” along the coast from Pegasus Bridge to Cherbourg stopping at every WWII historical spot and all eight museums. The one in Arromanches gives a general overview and explains how the artificial port was made. The Museum of the Battle of Normandy in Bayeux, containing ration tins, tattered letters, faded photographs, and other mementos of WWII foxholes, is the most affecting one.

Colleville cemetery

Colleville American cemetery (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

In Upper Normandy, my late grand father-in-law, Marcel Elie, a Gendarme, used to welcome me to his home in Dieppe by greeting me at the door playing the American national anthem on his trumpet. He blew that same trumpet while riding his horse leading the Allied troops down the Champs Elysees celebrating the liberation of Paris on August 24, 1945.

Unknown soldier

Unknown soldier – Colleville American cemetery (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

His old heart never forgot. Now, even though my generation never knew the horrors of world war, I too, will remember. When I stood in front of a field of 10,000 stark, white crosses, I felt overwhelmed by a debt that I can never repay. I know the Unknown Soldier. He is my father, my brother, my countryman, who died so nobly, so that today I might live in peace in a land whose splendor offers its own thanks to the skies.

Rest in peace my comrade in arms. You have not died in vain. If my words could transcend time you would know that because of you Normandy today, like the true Normans, remains proud and gracious.

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