Eventually Freedom

After 30 years of working for the same company, my oldest brother, Anthony, retired. He’s been working since he was a kid. Whether he was hurling the local newspaper from his bike or hustling kids at school to buy Play Boy magazines, he was always trying to earn a buck. Nothing came easy to him.

I remember one (rare) occasion that my father treated us to an ice cream cone, and Anthony was excluded from the treat. I guess Dad felt Ant could buy his own with his paper money, but my brother had bigger plans for that hard-earned cash; so he just smiled and watched us lick our cones and relished the thought that his money would eventually buy him a new bike, so he could deliver the papers quicker.

He went from chucking newspapers and peddling Playboy magazines to dispensing gas, clerking at Loblaw’s grocery store, and a host of other low paying jobs earning enough money to put himself through 4 years of college. Eventually, he landed an interview with Rockwell International in Los Angeles where he got a job, married his home-town sweetheart, moved her out to the West Coast and promptly got laid off with hundreds of other Rockwell employees.

Small town kid made it big in Los Angeles, Ca, was the pride of family and friends back home in upstate New York, married his school sweetheart, moved her to La-La Land and then lost his job. Frankly, had it been me, I’d had probably gone to my closet, closed the door and asked to be left alone for a few months or so. But not Anthony. He had a wife to support, a life to live and a whole slew of friends and relatives in upstate New York expecting him to do good.

And do good he did. He picked himself up, brushed himself off and never looked back. He and Lucy had three lovely girls and made a great life for themselves with a lot of hard work, perseverance and unconditional love.

I’m happy for my brother. He’s earned the accolades, the parties, the well-wishes and recognition. It’s time for him to buy an ice cream cone and exchange his dress shoes for a good pair of boating shoes and enjoy his well-earned retirement.

During one of my morning walks recently, I began to think back on my retirement in 2008 and couldn’t help but see the obvious contrast in events. No accolades, very few well-wishes and one party that was hastily put together by a well-meaning, loving co-worker.  After many years of teaching special needs kids and facing the ever demanding work load of meeting the legal, district, and parental requirements associated with my job, my immune system crashed and I became physically and emotionally unable to meet the day to day demands of my job. Simply put: I had to stop or face an early death. I decided to stop. And because I was 52, I couldn’t opt to take a regular retirement, and so I went out on a medical retirement and thus began my walk of shame.

My school district was not pleased. Replacing me was not easy. The district decided to thank me for my years of service by denying me health benefits. My union representation was worthless and I was too sick to fight. The Princess eventually drove me to my classroom, and we packed up my belongings one Saturday afternoon with the help of another friend and co-worker. We packed up my car, locked up my classroom one last time and as I handed my keys to my co-worker, I remember taking one last look down an empty hallway at a child-less campus and thinking, “I gave this school and these kids all I had. I had nothing left to give any more. My body was exhausted and was too weak to go on. I had to stop. And it was ok.”

The problem was that it wasn’t ok for others. It was shameful. It was wrong. I was somehow not a regular retiree. Friends asked me if I felt funny working on my garden for fear of being caught by a CalSTRS representative for not looking disabled. Relatives promptly corrected me when I said I was retired and informed me that I wasn’t really retired, but collecting disability monies. And very few people offered congratulations on my many years of service, my many years of working with a population of kids and parents that few individuals would even go near. Somehow I was put on a walk of shame; a treadmill of dishonor. After all, accolades and congratulations are for those who stick it out, those who persevere, or so we’ve been lead to believe. Those of us who leave under any other circumstance need not have acknowledgement; need not have the praise. We’re a society that promotes perfection and winning and have little tolerance for disabilities and differences.

Let’s place blame and shame on those of us not strong enough; those of us not healthy enough. Blame will strengthen the individual. Shame will heal the sick.

Somehow my body’s unhealthy reaction to constant stress and pressure was my fault. I needed to man up and put on my big girl pants, or so I was led to believe.  My job not only required multiple credentials and the ability to teach a variety of learning differences, but at the end of my career, I was required to drive to three schools and cart lessons to each of those schools.

My first summer home to upstate New York after I retired was a mixed bag of excitement and shame. No praise for me. No accolades or honors. I was a loser, a quitter and a failure. The fact that my body and mind crashed was all proof that I was less than and not worthy of praise.

It’s been over 8 years since I retired and the sting of leaving still lingers, still haunts me, still hurts. But my identity today no longer rests on the shoulders of shame; the identity of failure. I retired as a special ed. teacher and I’m proud of my contributions.

Today I’m a writer – a story-teller of sorts. And I’m proud of myself and happy to be me. So, congratulations to my brother and congratulations to ME! We’ve both done good and I’m happy that we’re both free……

Have a great day, People, and I’ll catch you the next time, looking at life from my shoes.

 

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Shit Happens!

I called my Mom this morning to check-in with her before I started my day and had another one of those Momma Benedetti conversations that had me giggling before too long. Unlike last month, she had now decided that maybe a woman President wouldn’t be so bad for the country because as far as she was concerned, “Men aren’t thinking too clearly, lately, and maybe handing over the reins of the country to a clear-headed woman would actually be good for our country. At least women have the sense that God gave a mule and know that shit in the local waterways isn’t healthy for our local townspeople. Sometimes men are total stoonods, idiots, and need protection from themselves.”

Ok. She got my attention.

Last month she thought BOTH candidates were stoonods, and I was curious as to why she had suddenly changed her mind, so I asked her, “Ma, what’s up with your change of heart in voting this November? I thought you didn’t think a woman could handle running the country and that we were better off with a man? What made you change your mind?” I continued.

“Well,” she started. “The stoonods that are running the Wastewater Treatment Plant in Hoosick Falls, or one of those cities just south of here, allowed over 50 gallons/minute of shit to end up in the Mohawk River on Monday. I don’t hafta be concerned about MY drinking water, because I use a Brita water filter for my water, but can you imagine what those poor people in Hoosick Falls are going through?”

“Cazzo!” she continued. “We don’t hafta worry about enough stuff in our day to day lives, but now we hafta worry about drinking shit in our water. Che schifo! (keh SKEE-foh: how disgusting). Those poor people in Hoosick Falls. They should fire the whole bunch of them and elect some women to run the plant. At least a woman would have the sense that God gave a flea and stop it before it got out of control. Men hafta have a meeting before they do anything and see what department is responsible and who to blame before they do anything. It’s a bunch of shit, if you ask me; a total croc of shit!” she lashed out.

“I’m thinking Hillary won’t be such a bad choice in November. I think she’s dealt with enough shit in her life to take on this job. After this disgusting episode, Hillary definitely has my vote this Fall,” she rattled on.

OK.

By this point, I thought that telling her that her Brita water filter was totally useless for protecting her from the nasty illnesses that she could acquire from drinking shitty water was gonna fall on deaf ears, and I wasn’t quite following her logic as to how this incident in the Mohawk River directly affected her voting choice, but I wasn’t prepared to negate Momma Benedetti’s logic; so I said to her, “I’m pleased to hear that you changed your mind about voting this November, Ma, and that it only took a load of shit in the Mohawk River for you to do that. Good for you. I’m sorry for the poor people in Hoosick Falls, but I’m really glad to hear that you’re re-thinking your stance on who you’re voting for in November.”

“Fa-nabole (get out of here)!” she responded. “I gotta put on my lipstick and meet the girls for cards today. Ciao!” she said and abruptly hung up.

Yep. Another enlightened voter headed for the election polls in November, People. I can now sleep soundly knowing that individuals like my Mother have the fate of our democracy in their hands.

Have a lovely day and I’ll catch ya the next time, looking at life from my shoes.

 

Lost Child

I never quite understood my affinity toward kids and their quaint, multifaceted peculiarities, but I learned years ago that their thought processes and actions totally fascinated me. From the moment I asked our neighbor’s kid why he had to splash every puddle in front of him on our walk and he answered, “’Cuz it makes my feet feel crunchy and my socks fit better”, to the more recent Little Miss Grumpy cat’s comment of “Mommy, this lady’s smiling at me. Tell her to stop smilin’ at me”, I’ve always been enamored with little people.

Kids have an innocence and naiveté that quickly dissipates with age and sophistication, and it’s their total and blatant honesty that I’ve always admired and tried to emulate. The problem is that with age and sophistication, we’re supposed to develop a certain editorial edge in order to maintain relationships – familial, professional and friendly. The difficulty for me is that while I’m juggling all these half-truths and inaccurate stories, I’m cluttering my already garbage-filled, aging memory with rubbish and crap that with time and repetition begins to cement in my brain as the honest truth. And if I repeat the story enough times to enough people, I’ve got a totally jaded version of what really, actually happened – what really, actually is the truth. And therein lies the dilemma – the edge has inadvertently created a dishonesty of sorts.

Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me that likes directness and honesty. New Yorkers are blatantly truthful people – mostly. If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask a New Yorker. I remember a clueless reporter shoving a microphone into the face of an obviously distraught New Yorker on the day of 9/11 and asking him how he felt, and how the incredulously New Yorker looked back at the reporter and bluntly said, “How the f–k do you think I feel?”

Simple. Direct. Honest. No game playing. I knew exactly how the guy felt. He didn’t have to elaborate for me. His world was crushed. Life as we knew it was now history. In the blink of an eye, our lives were transformed, and this stupid reporter asked him how he felt?

I don’t even know how to respond to stupid people like that. Kids don’t, either. Try asking a stupid, illogical question of a kid and I bet’cha they answer with a blank stare and silence. Either that or they totally ignore the question and start talking about a completely unrelated subject. They have an innate genius to sniff-out stupidity.

Maybe my affinity toward child-like honesty was learned. Mom brought us up to tell the truth and always, always be honest in your dealings with people – both professionally and personally. Doing this honors them and you and speaks volumes for your sense of integrity.

One of my former classmates from Estee Middle School ran into my mom a few years ago and asked about my well-being and then told her a story about me that made her proud to be my mom. Tommy told her how he tried to help me pass a test in our 9th grade Asian History class and how I refused to take his help because it was cheating, and I would not cheat. I was studying my butt off and trying like hell to pass the class, but was failing miserably. Allowing me to peek over his shoulder and copy the answers from his test, though, was not cool, despite the fact that I was well-aware that many in our 9th grade Honor’s History class were cheating at the time. It was dishonest, plain and simple, and I was not going to do the same.

Tommy was a young man of morals and principals, as well. He had a terrible sense of fashion – liked to wear plaids with stripes – and he wasn’t exactly  Mr. Popularity  among the Freshman class, but he knew that I was trying hard to succeed and keenly aware of the fact that a lot of our classmates were successful because they were cheating. He just wanted to even the playing field, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

Momma Benedetti always taught me better, though, and I couldn’t disappoint Momma. I’d settle for an honest “D” that I earned with a lot of extra credit assignments, rather than cheat like the others and have a higher grade that I didn’t honestly earn.

Tommy went on to be a highly regarded pediatrician, and I have no idea if his fashion sense improved, but I certainly hope so, for his wife’s and family’s sake. What his casual disclosure to my Mom validated with me, though, is that the respect and honesty that I value so much today, were traits that I honed as a child and were actually acknowledged by others way back then.

Thank you, Dr. Tom. Thank you for remembering and acknowledging that and letting my mom know that what she taught me stuck with me and is still an active part of the woman I am today.

Years ago, a highly regarded professor of mine once said to me, “Lucie, whatever you do in life, don’t lose that child-like quality of yours. It will serve you well, if used correctly, but be your downfall if abused by others.”

I never really understood what she meant. Today, unfortunately, I do understand – understand all too well.

I miss the kid in me and wonder if I’m aging because I’ve lost her or lost her because I’m aging?

Therein lies the paradox.

Until next time, People, be kind to one another and I’ll catch ya the next adventure, looking at life from my shoes.