Eularee Smith
Writer & Educator

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Snow in AugustWatchersRising SunThe Andromeda StrainThe ShiningThe Hunt for Red October

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What Is My Mother Doing in My Mirror?

I remember, as a child, thinking my grandmother was really old. To a six year old, 50 is OLD! Working at a youth performing arts center, I am surrounded by children. I was admiring a little one dancing in the lobby one day. Her remark to me, "too bad you are too old to dance". What? As Art Linkletter used to say "Kids say the darndest things."

But she was right. Through her eyes, I was indeed too old to dance. She knew nothing about the pain in my knees. Her perspective was that of a six year old. Here I am in my 60's and realizing I don't recognize the woman in the mirror anymore. It's not so much that I look like my mother, as it doesn't look like me.

How did that happen? Sure, I can moan and groan about my mastecotomy, chemo, radiation, KIDS, ovarian cancer, chemo (again), hysterectomy, but the truth is, I am living the new normal. The sixty year old normal, and frankly, I've never been here before, so what do I know?

My 87 year old mother told me that she doesn't remember a day without aches and pains. Since my last round of cancer, I can say that about the past two years. I am just now starting to separate what is age related and what is cancer related. In either case, there may be an old lady wearing my clothes, but she certainly is not looking through my eyes.

I am the same woman who went to college, partied all night (I hope my kids aren't reading this), married young, had 3 kids, went backpacking, camping, all night road trips and would never have let a speck of dust hit the floor before I mopped it up. I worked in the garden from dawn until dusk, even in the driving rain. I washed the car every week and meticulously cleaned every square inch. Unfortunately, these things now take me longer to do and sometimes just don't get done.

I struggle with the picture on the website and what I look like now after the ravages of cancer. Which one is me? Can they both be me? If so, why don't I recognize myself when I look in the mirror?

Who am I? I don't look the same. I don't feel the same. I don't feel old, but mirrors don't lie. I had a wonderful discussion with my six year old granddaughter. She was trying on bathing suits and I found a dress I liked. As we are sharing the dressing room, she says one of the suits doesn't fit right, but the sparkly one was perfect. I tried on the dress and said it wasn't me and you could see all my scars. I put the dress back.

Driving home, she asked me if the reason I didn't get the dress was because I didn't want people to see all my scars. I thought for a moment, and told her no, it was because I didn't feel good in the dress. It wasn't me. I asked her about how she felt in the one bathing suit that didn't fit her right and the sparkly bathing suit she did like. She smiled and said yes, that was how she felt. The sparkly suit made her feel pretty and fancy. 

I have since found the right dress. I need to stop wearing clothes that make me feel uncomfortable, even though they are what I think I should be wearing. I have to create a new style that fits me now, bad knees, scars and all. So when I look in the mirror, I see a beautiful woman through my eyes and my mother smiling proudly in the background. Welcome to my new normal!


It's Hell To Get Old At Any Age

As we age, we find more things go wrong, than right. I don't necessarily think this is true just for us aging boomers, though. I remember teary moments with my own children when they found out Santa's real name, or how the tooth fairy was funded. From the moment we are born, aging brings its own set of problems to bear.

My mother in law, Kathryn, turned 95 this month. An impressive accomplishment in and of itself, but when you add the fact that she is on no meds, has no particular ailments and her new digs are a definite upgrade from independent living to assisted living, you might be under the impression that life is good. In a perfect world, you would be right. In her world, not so much.

A phone conversation with my boomer friends usually reveals the aggravation of not being able to do the things we used to do so easily. Some are on oxygen, others have back problems, a few of us with cancer or things we can't eat, or how much weight we've gained or lost. Taking care of aging parents, grandkids, the price of this or that. The latter being the boomer variation on walking 10 miles in the snow, barefoot and uphill. The music, the clothes, the hair, all reminiscent of our younger years and yet the echo from the past doesn't seem to resonate quite the same.

Let's face it. It is hell to get old. From our first steps we are walking away from being young and eagerly running toward adulthood, like it was the golden goose. Truth is every age has its own hell. Getting through the terrible twos is not only tough on parents, but imagine the frustration of the two year old. Don't even get started on adolescence. Does anyone every say, I wish I was 13 again? Our teen years are a mix of fear and loathing. Our 20's, we are suddenly expected to think and act like adults with only hindsight of the fear and loathing years to guide us. 

There are precious few moments when life is actually good in and of itself. Unfortunately, it doesn't stand still and we are off to fend the demons of the next aging process. Whether it be arthritis, back injuries, disease, death of a parent, war, is filled with growing pains. 

At 95, if you ask Kathryn, if she is happy with her life, she will tell you no. Ask some teenagers the same question and the answer will most likely be the same. It is hard to pick out the good sometimes from the overwhelming bad news we seem to get everyday. But what if getting old were a state of mind, rather than body?

What if we looked at getting old as a once in a life time opportunity? What happens if today is the one and only time we have to experience? Would that make aging seem all together different? My mother in law says she wishes she could ride a bike again. Would she have appreciated riding a bike more if she knew it would have been the last time she experienced that feeling? I think so. If we spend each day celebrating what an opportunity it was to see, hear, smell, run, walk, ride, drive, laugh, cry, feel, perhaps aging would then be an everyday celebration. Instead of focusing on a new ache or pain, a fight with our kids, road rage, disappointment, frustration over what was lost or not as we expected, maybe we can find ways to embrace the age we are in.

When my kids were young, I always asked them what was the best part of their day, followed by what was the worst part. I ask my grandkids the same questions. Most of the time, they quickly tell me of something exciting that happened. The worst part? The answer is usually "it hasn't happened yet".

Getting old may be hell, but the worst hasn't happened yet. So let's celebrate the best part of the day!


Happy Birthday,Dad!

Today should be National Hamburger Day. Hamburgers are, as my Dad would say, the perfect food. Every Saturday for as long as I lived at home, we had hamburgers for dinner. The day was sacrosanct with beef patties, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and pickles, albeit not on a sesame seed bun. We would barbecue, grill, or fry burgers with or without cheese as the mood or the refrigerator dictated. But Saturday was the one day of the week, when Dad chose the entree.

Dad, William J. Duncan, passed away four years and five months ago. Not a day goes by that I don't shout out a good morning, or seek his wisdom or just cry on his heavenly shoulder. That's how it is supposed to be. Our loved ones are merely gone from sight, but never from our souls. They are part of who we are and hopefully the better part. I am a writer, because of my Dad. He was a reporter, coining the phrase the Underwood Man, because he loved his Underwood typewriter and cursed the computers that followed.

As a child, I was fascinated by the idea that what he wrote was dropped off by the paper boy at hundreds of households every morning. I began writing my own newspaper and would deliver it to his car in the morning before breakfast. He would chat about what had happened in the Duncan News with my Mom, as if it were the only newspaper in town worth reading.

I wrote a monthly column for a regional and local newspaper for many years. Before sending to my editor, I would have him review it. Same with every magazine article, feature story or blog post. He died on a Friday and I was on deadline for the following Wednesday. He never read that column. It took me days to hit send. It wasn't so much his approval I needed, as it was just our thing.

So today, I join my brother, Jack, for a burger lunch. We will top it off with some vanilla ice cream, also his favorite. I am passing out zwieback toast, which I made for him every year on his birthday. I hope that all those that taste it, will celebrate a man with simple tastes, an incredible wit, a heart as big as the ocean and a smile that would charm the birds from the trees. A Marine until the day he died. Semper Fi!

Happy Birthday, Dad! 

For further information, click here for the life and times of Bill Duncan, a storyteller extraordinaire. 


Cleaning House

What is all this talk about Spring Cleaning? Even retailers market to the event, ranking up there with Easter and the Spring Soltice. But why? 

The task of organizing and cleaning out typically falls to women. Somehow our nesting instinct makes us want to get rid of stuff! Is it all the new from Christmas, New Year resolutions or Spring blooms that make the old seem shabby and drab? Or is it just the fact that we have too much stuff. 

Not hoarders by design, so many of us just don't have time to continually purge our living quarters. Once all the Christmas stuff descends from the attic, or comes out of the closet, or up from the basement, a certain reality sets in. The realization that we hold on to stuff for no particular reason other than we may need it someday, we don't have time or even procrastinating about Spring cleaning stirs the need to rid ourselves of too much stuff.

George Carlin had a great comedy bit about "too much stuff". His theory was that our houses are a place to store our piles of stuff with a cover on it. We lock our houses because we don't want anybody to steal our stuff. We move to a bigger house when we get too much stuff or we put our stuff in storage. A whole industry was built around the fact that we have too much stuff.

Women get this concept of too much stuff, because it often falls to us to clean all that stuff. Once a year, we cry uncle and start getting rid of stuff. I would love to see the numbers on local charities that receive boxes of our stuff from January through Spring cleaning.

My opinion of why we purge ourselves of stuff this time of year, is because it feels good. It's that simple. I have yet to hear anyone say, I cleaned out the garage of all this stuff and now I feel awful. Quite the opposite occurs. I cleaned the pantry, Christmas decorations (I also cataloged and photographed each box ala my Mom's method) and the tool box. I feel great! I found stuff I didn't know or remembered I had and then promptly threw it out because I haven't used it in decades. What are the chances I will need it now? I threw out broken stuff, outdated stuff, pink stuff, blue stuff, all kinds of stuff. And the more stuff I tossed out, the better I felt. It was as if the weight of all that stuff was slowing me down.

Carlin does say that we get rid of stuff, feel great and then start to yearn for more stuff to fill the empty space of the old stuff. I am hoping this is not the case and that as I get older, I will continue to purge myself of stuff. I would hate to think that all my stuff, will one day be stuff for my children to move, store, or make new piles in their house, of more stuff.   



Not My Cat

Cats are a strange breed. They come. They go. All of their own volition and with little regard for what we may want. In fact, our cats own us. A case in point.

Several cats roam my yard over the course of the day. It is obvious that my quarter acre is nothing more than a pathway home or to destinations unknown. If they see me in the yard, there is a gentle sign of acknowledgement and they move along. Until one day, a young male yellow tabby comes through and wants to be petted. His affectionate ways and friendly manner led me to believe he must belong to someone. We would greet each other daily but other than that, he was not my concern.

After a couple of months of his daily visits, my granddaughter spies him laying on the front walk and brings him in the house.

"No," I said. "He is not my cat."

She insisted he was hungry. So we fed him. I know what you are thinking. You feed a cat, he is yours. But, still I emphatically declared to the world, "he's not my cat."

For weeks, he came to eat and cuddle. We walked up and down the street, with a picture of him, desperately trying to find his owner. As a recovering cancer survivor, there are times when I was too tired or sick to resist his loving devotion. He would spend the night. He jumped into my car, and unaware, I took him to work. He spent the day enjoying the attention, then found a nice hiding place in the office.

After weeks and weeks of searching for his "other" family, I finally resigned myself to claiming ownership and called the vet to set up an appointment. My granddaughter and I bought him a collar, with an engraved tag. Now, he's my cat.

He wore the collar all of 24 hours before someone called to say, it was their cat and why was my collar on him. Heartbroken, I told them to return the collar and apologized for the inconvenience. 

Turns out the "other" family lives 3 doors down. Sadly, he is "not my cat" again. I am not ashamed to say, I cried. A few weeks ago, this would not have been the case. I even looked "not my cat" in the eye and told him not to break my heart. Yet, there I was crying over a cat that was never mine.

A couple of hours later, who shows up on my doorstep for dinner and a movie? "Not my cat" has no idea that there has been any disruption in the force. He continues to spend the night, eats, drinks and is all too merry for me to believe that he is living happily ever after with another family. He has chosen joint custody, I suppose. I have never had a shared custody arrangement, so am unclear of the rules. But then, who knows where cats go when they leave the warmth of the homefires? Perhaps, we are living with the delusion that a particular feline is our cat, when in reality, we are one of many who are owned by a cat.