Explaining Thanksgiving to Europeans

Americans know the story of how Native Americans saved Pilgrims from starvation back in 1620 by teaching them to tap maple trees, plant corn and fertilize soil, but I have been trying to explain Thanksgiving to Europeans for decades. They remain bewildered by our Thanksgiving, a journée de remerciements. They think it is the only day of the year where Americans prepare a hot meal and eat slow food.

Decades ago when I moved to Europe, I was a pilgrim at the mercy of my French teammates who taught me their language and customs.

A year later, I became indebted to German friends who shared their homes and meals. Accepted by marriage into my French family, adopted into Swiss culture where I now live, I have always been a guest in someone else’s country.

Yet I remain loyal to my roots. Though every feast I have prepared has been a fiasco, Thanksgivings with my Franco American family has always been sacred.

“Are any European celebrations similar to Thanksgiving,” I once asked my husband. He looked at me incredulous.

“Of course not,” he said. “Native Americans are the only people on the planet gracious enough to thank their conquerors.”

No matter what the circumstances or who shows up at the table, T-day is one tradition I cherish.

My first year abroad I invited French teammates to dinner and much to my chagrin they ate the meal in courses, one dish at a time. The next year in Germany, the team turnout was so great, there was standing room only; we never sat down to dine.

When I introduced the custom to my French family, my mother-in-law served raw oysters first and insisted a turkey was too big; chicken would suffice.

If left to their own devices, Europeans could butcher our day of thanks.

What American celebrates Thanksgiving by eating an seven-course meal standing up? Who replaces Tom Turkey with Chicken Little to eliminate leftovers? Leftovers are Thanksgiving.

Born in the Land of Lincoln, I consider it my patriotic duty to give thanks on the fourth Thursday of the month, the day Abe appointed as a national holiday in 1863 when he gave gratitude for an instrumental Union Army victory at Gettsyburg.

Expats everywhere create their own special ties to their heritage.

When my Norwegian grandfather immigrated to America, he insisted on keeping the Norwegian tradition of eating lutefisk and lingonberry on Christmas Eve.

“My dad brought strangers home to dinner,” my mom said. “He’d say ‘so many people helped me when I arrived in the United States, I want to return the favor.’”

Every Thanksgiving, I gather family, friends and “foreigners” in a feast honoring my Norwegian ancestors, my American homeland and my host country. To avoid offending guests, I whisper thanks to the Great Spirit who watches over all of us regardless of our religious, national, or ethic affinity.

Apparently, like our Native American friends, she sees the good in man, even in the conquistador.

Adapting to Empty Nest Again

Adapting to Empty Nest AgainI started writing my blog 9 years ago, after our son left to attend university in the USA, and we had to adjust to an empty nest. With both children living 4,000 miles away, I felt bereft, but soon adjusted keeping connected with family through Internet. Nearly a decade later, our son disillusioned with his job, and the lack of leadership in the US government, moved back to Europe to look for work in Switzerland.

The only problem he couldn’t find a job here. Now after landing employment in London, he flew off again to live with his British girlfriend.

Adapting to Empty Nest AgainInitially having him home was an adjustment, but we soon looked forward to seeing him at mealtime. Like having live in house help, he pitched in to help cook, clean, shop, and do yard work. Every few weeks Larissa would fly over from London, so we got to know her better too.

They had hoped to settle in Switzerland, but jobs were scarce, so when hired by Michael Page, a professional recruitment agency in England, we were happy for him.

Yet I was stunned by the sadness I felt when he moved out again even though I know kids are gifts on loan. We raise our children to be independent and self-sufficient. Successful parenting means working ourselves out of a job.

Still our home will always expand to accommodate grown children and grandchildren one day. They will always have a safe haven to recharge their battery for the challenges ahead.

Now our daughter lives in the Minneapolis area, our son resides outside of London, and we are located near Geneva. For someone growing up in small town USA, this situation is unimaginable. But for international families living cross culturally raising bilingual kids the reality is not so different than our own. Siblings are scattered across continents and the global generation thinks nothing of living between worlds.Adapting to Empty Nest Again

Even knowing wonderful adventures await my son, I still feel pangs of grief. I miss hearing his witty humor, sharing his ideas and having his empathetic ear. Most of all I miss coaching basketball with him where I witnessed firsthand his knowledge of the game and his gift for motivating teenagers.

Now I will gladly visit him in England. I look forward to discovering a new country, learning about another culture, and maybe even picking up a posh British accent.

Just as my parents opened their doors for us every summer so that our children could grow up learning English and understanding their American heritage, our home will remain at the ready to encompass family needs at every stage of the life cycle.

As every parent knows the nest is never truly empty. Our rooms’ resound with memories, our halls’ echo with laughter, and our ceilings’ reverberate with stories.

Our children move far away, but remain as close as ever, only a heartbeat apart.

Giving Thanks to Each Caregiver

Giving Thanks to Each CaregiverMany of us have reached an age where if we aren’t overwhelmed attending to our own health demands, we are busy taking care of aging parents or other ailing friends and relatives.Being a caregiver is a taxing physical and emotional roller-coaster where ones roles are reversed.

The list of tasks grows …downsizing homes, scouting assisted living facilities, balancing check books, filing tax returns, investigating financial investments, paying bills, understanding doctors’ visits and navigating the medical field as loved ones begin to struggle more with the challenges of aging.

Caring for our elders may be learned from example.

As a child, I watched my parents take care of their parents. Although my grandfather lived 2 hours away, my dad made sure Grandpa was with us for every family occasion. My mom helped my maternal grandma relocate from Baltimore and settle in Sterling, where she became a part of the smaller community.

With our mobile families, so much of the burden falls on the shoulders of the sibling living closest in proximity.

Giving Thanks to Each CaregiverUsing all the skills she developed during her career as a special education teacher, my sister now applies color-coding, list making and other techniques to help make life easier for my mom and dad. My sister-in-law made the same sacrifices in her family. She moved her mom and older sister from Chicago to Cleveland where she cared for them and certainly added years to her mom’s life.

Often times it is a thankless job especially when others assume that the caregiver will come to the rescue in any emergency. But caregivers have bad days too where they may feel ill, exhausted, and overwhelmed. A caretaker’s number one responsibility is taking care of his/herself. This can be difficult because by nature they are the most giving people on the planet. They have made putting others’ needs first an art form.

Not every family is like us and blessed with a guardian angel named Sue.

Here are just a few ways you can help share the burden and the gift of care giving.

  1. When it becomes easier and faster to perform tasks for the loved one try not to usurp their independence. Let them do as much as they are able.
  2. Help count and cut pills – use a pill dispenser.
  3. Keep records of medical procedures, medicines, and dosage times.
  4. Prepare medical questions ahead of time and take notes at doctor visits.
  5. Help seniors remain as active in the community as possible.
  6. Buy groceries, run errands, cook dinners ahead that can be frozen and reheated.
  7. Offer to help drive elders places even if only to go for a ride in the country.
  8. Share a meal, sit for a spell, slow down just be in the moment with them.

Giving Thanks to Each CaregiverIn today’s society where so many families are separated by distance, it is even more important to take steps to keep in touch. Enlist the help of children and grandchildren living far away. They can contribute by making phone calls, sending cards, and planning long weekend visits.

You don’t have to be in peak condition to offer aid. Some days I can’t do much to help even when I am physically right there. During those times when I am flat out on the couch, my dad resting in his recliner and mom snuggled in her armchair, I ask questions. My parents share invaluable stories of what it was like to grow up just after the Depression, during WWII and through the Civil Rights Movement. Or we reminisce and play the “remember when game” retelling the stories of favorite sporting events, family trips, and special occasions.

Repeating the stories of yesteryear brings no greater joy. Remember the best gift you can offer is your undivided attention.

By honoring our elders, we enrich our own lives.Giving Thanks to Each Caregiver

Like Julianne and Sue so many other caregivers deserve our gratitude and support as they provide an invaluable service to society.

Take time to make time to thank a caregiver today.

Aging Gracefully Hanging Up Car Keys

Drive - Aging Gracefully Hanging Up Car KeysMy dad loved to drive and ever the teacher, his road trips offered us a remarkable education. In a time when most American families rarely crossed the state line, Dad drove us cross country to see the sites and to visit cousins. The best schooling I received was from the smudged windows of our 1962 Rambler when we left our Midwestern flatlands for trips across the Wild West and sun-baked south as we crisscrossed America’s endless blue highways.

Dad instilled the wanderlust in each of us and though I missed the significance of Mt. Rushmore and Cape Canaveral, I understood more about my country than the textbooks divulged. Our trip to the racially divided Deep South left a far greater lasting impression than Disneyland or the Hollywood Studios.

Dad gave us rides to school and shuttled carloads of giggling girls to the pool, the gym, the dance. He drove me to track meets, basketball games, and gymnastic lessons. Later when my athletic body was crippled from injury and accidents, he drove me to doctors and chiropractors while I rested my aching back riding flat « in my crib » the back seat of the van.

For a time Dad taught Sterling High School freshman rules of Illinois’ roadway in behind the wheel driver’s ed. classes. But his children and grandchildren learned how to drive on the back roads of Wisconsin. He showed us how to parallel park, check that rear view mirror and drive defensively. Always.

Dad, a good driver, never received a citation. He was only stopped once when he swerved in traffic distracted by his darn back seat drivers shouting, « Stop, Dad- there’s a 7 Eleven. Slurpees! »

His only accident involved hitting a deer, which cheeseheads proclaim is a prerequisite for flatlanders to earn honorary Wisconsinite status. Oh yeah, and he once sideswiped a cow crossing the road. Cars have the right away, so the cow got the ticket and the farmer apologized.

Dad drove his aging father across country to visit relatives in Oklahoma, to the cabin  summer holidays and back and forth forth from Eureka to Sterling so he could share Thanksgiving and Christmas with family. He loyally drove beloved Coach Mac to every Northern Illinois University baseball reunion and to see his granddaughter’s Drive - Aging Gracefully Hanging Up Car Keysbasketball games at Illinois State University.

When my dad failed his eye test just before his 86th birthday, his peripheral vision compromised, he returned to the parking lot, gave his daughter the thumbs down, handed over the keys and took his new place riding shotgun.

He did not grumble, complain, become cantankerous, argue with his children, or yell at the optometrist. Instead with a heavy heart, he hung up his keys.

In doing so, he showed us how to age with dignity.Drive - Aging Gracefully Hanging Up Car Keys

This summer together we poured over the maps of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee and every other state he once visited. In a shaky hand, he traced lines across France, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway – all the places he once traveled. We reminisced about trips he took, roads he drove, and people he met.

Now it’s my turn to take the wheeI. Though I can’t read maps and confuse left and right, with Dad riding shotgun I will never get lost.

Happy Birthday Dad…it has been a heck of a ride.

Drive - Aging Gracefully Hanging Up Car Keys

 

6 Lessons Learned From Old Inner Tube

Our single most valuable educational toy was an old inner tube tractor tire that taught 6 valuable lessons and helped raise kids on Summit Lake. Like my siblings and me, my children and their cousins drifted through every stage of childhood floating on that old black tube. Society keeps inventing more high-powered vehicles and electronic toys, but what kids really need is non-motorized, unstructured downtime to be bored and learn how to play.

Kids need non-micro managed moments to be kids. To sky gaze. To float. To doze. To drift. To dream.

That patched up piece of rubber provided endless hours of entertainment. It kept us adrift through the stormy waters of life by creating happy memories to sustain us during hard times. We passed on the art of living in the moment from one generation to the next.

On the water, we learned to share and take turns, balance and agility, team building and muscle making. Off the water that old tube taught us to slow down, relax, and savor stories. While grandma read a fairytales or grandpa recounted sagas of the Summit Lake ghost, kids perched on the side of the tube and learned to love stories.

Creativity. That old tire sparked their imagination. They once invented a new sport, Tubastics, which consisted of bouncing on a tube in the yard and jumping up off in perfect 10 point landing. That event inspired their first Summit Lake Olympics complete with an opening parade, special events, posters, prizes, and spectators.

Courage. Younger kids learned bravery by holding hands of an older cousin and jumping off the side of the tube into the dark, cold water.

Leadership. Older kids learned responsibilities by helping younger ones learn to jump, swim, and dive.

Balance. In a sequence of challenges, they tested their dexterity.

  • First step – standing alone on the tube.
  • Next test – balancing upright holding hands with a partner.
  • Add another cousin.
  • Plus a friend.
  • Grand finale – a big splash as the lake echoed with laughter.

As teens and young adults, their games required more skill. Pass and catch while standing on tube became a favorite. Then pass and catch in air while jumping off the tube was added to the repertoire.

Love of books. On windy days, when the tube absorbed heat from the sun it was warmest spot on the dock and perfect place to read. From Bernstein Bears, to Death on the Nile, from Harry Potter, to Lord of the Rings. Minds enlarged with one mystery after another. Story after story.

Peace of mind. Kids float through summers chilling out in quiet moments of stillness on a silvery lake that rocks in a crib of evergreen under powder blue skies.

Children grew up daydreaming about the doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, coaches, and counselors and high-spirited, nature loving, compassionate adults they would one day become. Every summer we drift back in time releasing that inner child in a state of mindfulness.

Yep, blissed out on that black inner tube.

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Happy 4th of July!

Happy Father’s Day Man with Heart

Though a pacemaker helps your heart keep its beat, we know it needs no assistance in applying its love to being the generous, patient, empathetic, thoughtful, guiding, tolerant, worn out ol’ heart we call DAD. Even as your once strong stride has slowed somewhat, you continue to be an energetic guide through troubled times.

Generous. Your giving heart helped finance college education and provided emergency loans that were forgotten. You helped pay for trips – trains, planes, and automobiles – and seemed to have an endless supply of those $20 bills you referred to as “gas money.” Each year, you took the money you got back from your savings and reinvested it into your grandchildren’s savings. And then there were the presents. A cowboy hat, Barbie doll, microscope, basketball, bicycle… You derived greater pleasure in satisfying others’ material desires than your own minimal ones.

Your greatest gift, though, was time. Taking the time to make sure children grew up feeling loved; not just your children, but all children whose path stumbled across yours. You pitched whiffle balls to the whole neighborhood, rebounded basketballs for the entire team, providing support and counsel to students and players alike who didn’t always have another source for it. You welcomed friends to our cabin every summer and ignored the obvious logistical inefficiency of having to ferry them back and forth separately throughout the summer. In fact, you shuttled kids around until we were old enough to drive, at which point you simply taught us to do it for ourselves.

Patient. You spent hours perfecting our jump shot and bit your tongue to keep from yelling at noisy, teenage girls’ « slumber-less » parties in your basement.
When a student cried in practice or acted up in class, instead of cajoling or scolding you listened, easing the pain for generations of adolescents who discovered one adult they could trust.
You read the same storybook to a demanding 4-year-old granddaughter and balanced the same checkbook for an even more demanding 94-year-old father.

Empathetic. You captured emotions and moments of natural stillness in your paintings and then gave them away so that family could be surrounded by elegant reminders of your love.
You’d peek in at your daughters’ tearful talks behind closed doors, asking, « everything okay? »
Your tender heart gives bear hugs, knee pats, neck rubs, and handshakes. Every phone conversation ends with those 3 endearing words, « I love you, » so there is never any room for doubt.

Thoughtful. In a time when men never wrote more than their signatures, you drew home made cards, penned letters and mailed hundreds of manila envelopes filled with sports clipping to your daughter overseas.
You bought fun fruits, chocolate kisses, ice cream cones and other favorite treats for grandkids.

Guiding. You walked the talk by setting an example of self-discipline, perseverance and integrity – values you instilled in the young people you taught and coached. You counseled so many students, athletes, and friends of your kids that you became a « Papa Mac » to dozens.
You taught us how to save pennies as children and budget money as adults. You explained how to read maps, make terrariums, catch fish, shoot baskets, and throw curve balls.

Tolerant. You welcomed everyone of every race; nationality and walk of life into your home believing every human being should be treated equally. You showered everyone from janitors, to waitresses, to secretaries with kindness and good cheer. You respected your children’s choices from college and careers to dates and mates.

Loving. You loved unconditionally. You forgave our embarrassing affirmations of self, like when I wore pants to church as a teen and left the country to play a game as an adult.
You accepted without question when one daughter married a foreigner, the other married a Cornhusker, and the last broke off her first engagement. And if one of us decided to marry a divorced, ex con, you would learn to love him too and be there to help with the rehabilitation.

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Thirty years ago we almost lost you when you had a heart attack. With exercise and clean living, faith and family, you recovered. Though your heart may be tired, your lungs weak and your legs weary, you keep fighting to get up and put one foot forward. In doing so, you inspire us to keep on a keeping on.

You have a great heart, Dad.

The best.