Random Thoughts of a Disordered Mind


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Happy Birthday, Mommy

Today would be my mom’s 88th birthday. She was born in Brooklyn, New York City, the youngest daughter of Marion Cooke and William Flanders, and grew up with her sister Jane Anne in Newark, New Jersey in the home where their father grew up. I don’t look like my mom but I inherited her organized mind and gift for languages and music.

Mommy was one smart cookie. She went to Montclair College High School, a demonstration school for the state teachers’ college, commuting by train for six years. At age 17 she took the train again, this time south to Duke University, a place she’d never seen and knowing no one in the state. She met my dad on a double date with other people and they never dated anyone else again. She left Duke after two years with a diamond ring on her finger and went to Katherine Gibbs School for a year for practical secretarial training.

Mom was very disciplined and organized; in Myers-Briggs terms, my guess is that she was ISTJ. She was a stay-at-home mom until we were in Kentucky and my dad’s job changed, but she was busy with Brownies and Girl Scouts, as a den mother for my brother, involved in church Circles, working with and eventually running the PTA. She cleaned house and did chores on a weekly schedule (Tuesdays were bathroom days) and she started taking piano lessons at age 31 because she always wanted to play better.

And Mom was always thin. It drove me crazy because I definitely was NOT thin, ever. She never made a recipe without making changes to lower fat and calorie content, and almost never offerered dessert unless we had company or it was a birthday. I hate zucchini because we ate so much of it, and will never eat cottage cheese because it was a diet food so I had to eat it all the time.

So our relationship was rocky, and Dad stayed out of the whole “you need to lose weight” thing because that was between mothers and daughters. I’ve seen pictures of myself back in those days, and really, I was pretty. But I never believed it of myself and I internalized some pretty negative things that I know now were not meant to harm but did so anyway. It’s hard to separate myself from those emotions and be objective.

I lived over 1500 miles away from my parents for almost my whole professional life, focusing on my career and my own world. Trips home involved scheduling time off which wasn’t always easy, and making plane reservations – and therefore NOT using that time for vacation. For years we combined that by me seeing them in Park City, Utah, where my parents went for the month of August.

Mom and I took a trip to Austria and Switzerland together in 2001, leaving 10 days after 9/11. The whole idea of the two of us without a buffer for two weeks was a bit of a challenge but it was a chance to mend and see each other differently. It was a wonderful trip and I’m tremendously grateful now that we had that time, because Mom’s health went downhill not long afterwards.

She had COPD and her world shrank as her breathing became harder. She was hospitalized in 2007 with infection after an appendectomy (she self-diagnosed appendicitis by Googling symptoms), and her world was different after that. She was softer, quieter, more kind. Mommy knew her time was limited and drew on her strong faith. She died in 2014, three weeks after my niece’s wedding, when she had a chance to see all her family together and happy.

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The Christmas Tree Letter

Christmas 1975 was the first year my parents shopped for a Christmas tree without us children. My brother and I were both away in college, one a freshman and one a senior, at different schools hundreds of miles apart from each other and from our parents in Dallas.  They were on their own.

We had tree standards – always tall, live trees that were fat and aromatic.  They sat outside in buckets of water until closer to Christmas to keep them fresh as long as possible, or at least so the trees didn’t drop needles everywhere before Christmas even arrived. Mom put on the lights (because Dad never got it right), and together we’d put on ornaments collected over the years, with the unbreakable ones at the bottom by custom rather than real necessity since the cat barely batted them anymore.

When we were little, we added strands of shiny tinsel. My brother and I liked to just throw it at the tree but Mom insisted we “place” the strands so they would be untangled and shiny.  Since we reused old tinsel the next year, that made more sense to do, but it wasn’t as much fun. Our “tree skirt” was an old white sheet wrapped around the bottom. By the time we were in Texas, though, we’d graduated to using strings of gold balls instead of garland or tinsel, and the tree sported a skirt made by my mom.

But the first step was finding a tree and 1975 they did it without us. Dad memorialized this activity in what has become known in the family as “The Christmas Tree Letter.” His handwriting was terrible and the letter was written in black felt tip pen on yellow legal pad, but it’s pure Dad. And on this, my first Christmas without him, it’s a precious memory.


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Remembering My Grandparents

I was not quite six years old when my maternal grandmother died of colon cancer in 1960. Mimi had five grandchildren but I was the only granddaughter. They lived an hour away from us, but I don’t have many memories of her because I was so little. I do remember having tea parties with her at her house in Newark using a little metal tea set that was set aside for me.  Her silver sugar bowl filled with silk flowers sits on my bookshelf, and I think of her when I see it.

MYERS Susie and Bill - c1985 - Emerald Bay

Susie Keel Myers with her first great-grandchild, Bill Myers – 1985

Susie Keel Myers, my paternal grandmother, died in 1987 and I have many memories of time with her because I had her longer.  Grandmama flew out to see us carrying bags of frozen creamed corn so she could make Dad his favorite meal of fried chicken with proper sides. Guess she knew Mom wouldn’t have creamed corn sitting around in the pantry (which she didn’t).  When I lived in Virginia, I got a research grant that gave me four weeks of paid time off a year to abstract Martin County land deeds, and I spent those weeks with her.  After dinner I’d sit at the out-of-tune piano in the living room and play old Baptist hymns I’d never heard before, mostly about blood, while she warbled the words in the kitchen. We sat on the front porch drinking sweet tea and reviewing every branch of the family genealogy, forwards and backwards. Every trip I would bring a big paper bag of used Harlequin RO-mances, trading out old ones for new ones. She adored her “stories” and would fall asleep on the couch with one in her hands. Her pincushion is an embroidered heart that hangs every year on my Christmas tree.

Granddaddy, my paternal grandfather, died just before my 10th birthday, and I don’t really remember him at all. We only saw them about once a year at that point, since we lived in New Jersey and the grandparents were in North Carolina. He was a quiet man who kept to himself. Mostly I remember that he was quiet. That’s not much to remember and is kind of sad.

Flanders Bill 1965 retirementPop, or the Original Pop as he’s known in our family (since my father is Pop to a different generation) was my mother’s father. We saw him often while growing up since he was just an hour away. He came for holidays and we spent summers at his house in Manasquan, where most of my memories live. Pop loved to grill steaks and would trim them within an inch of their lives, getting them “just so.” He peeled and fried tomatoes for breakfast, and gave me money to walk down the boardwalk to buy him a morning paper and some crumb buns from the bakery.  When I lived in Virginia, I drove up to spent time with him in his retirement village. We’d watch reruns of Lawrence Welk and look at old picture albums, trying to remember/figure out who everyone was. He was lonely at the end of his life living far from his daughters and having outlived most of his friends and family; he died in 1983 at age 82 when I was 29. In my memory, his face was round and smiling. Whenever I have sparkling wine, I can hear his voice say, “Every bubble is a grape.”

I miss them. And I’m glad I can remember them – not for things they gave me, but for who they were as people and were in my life.  Genealogical research has told me more about them than I knew when they were alive, and I was too young to ask questions.  But they are alive in my memory.


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What I Did With Mom’s Wedding Dress

Mom in her wedding dress

My mom in her wedding dress

My mom’s wedding dress no longer sits on the top shelf of my closet in a decaying cardboard box tied with string. I asked you all what you did with yours; here’s what I did with Mom’s.

Even if I had a boyfriend in sight, wearing the dress was never a possibility for me. Mom was tiny and I’m just not. Both of the granddaughters are married and had their own dresses. Holding on to this dress for another generation didn’t make much sense but I couldn’t bring myself to give or throw it away.

I found Fairy Godmother Creations in Dayton, Ohio, by doing web research, and looked at almost every photo on the site to see if I liked the work they did. I did. So I gulped, packed up the dress in tissue paper and carefully sealed in a fresh cardboard box, and sent it off to Liane.

Pillows from moms dress

Just before Christmas, actually, on my parents’ wedding anniversary, I got a package with the new creations: First, two decorative pillows made of the satin underdress topped with the lace overdress, featuring hand-covered satin buttons lovingly made by my grandmother, who created the wedding dress. Both the satin and lace had yellowed with age but are now glowing and beautiful. The backs of each pillow are lace over satin. I love them.

TreeAngelThe other creations were two identical Christmas tree angel-toppers. The back of each angel has a short row of buttons between the wings, taken from the sleeves of the wedding dress. Placed on top of our tree, the wings gently folded forward.

We had a piece of both Mom and my grandmother with us for Christmas. For my father, placing the angel made from the wedding dress on the tree on their anniversary brought Mom closer on a day when he missed her dearly.

I am very pleased with the work of Liane and her team at Fairy Godmother Creations and recommend them highly if you are looking for something to do with a wedding dress or other special garment. Now instead of a dress in a decaying cardboard box, I have keepsakes that are displayed and will last for years.


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Requiem for a Nativity Set

Spanish nativity setIn 1974 I came home from my semester in Madrid with a nativity set, or nacimiento as they are called in Spain.  I first bought a “starter set” of Mary, Joseph and little baby Jesus (on a white fuzzy cloth) plus an angel to hang overhead, a donkey and a cow.  As the weeks passed and we got closer to Christmas, I added a set of 3 kings on camels (with camel drivers in matching garb), several shepherds and a few fuzzy sheep.  I used some of my last pesetas buying a stable in the Plaza Mayor the day before my flight home.

Every year for 36 years I’ve set up my nacimiento, carefully placing the figures in appropriate relationship to each other.  The donkey is behind Mary, the cow behind Joseph to her right, and baby Jesus on the ground between them (my stable didn’t have any managers; it was a cheap model).  The angel hung from a sewing pin stuck in the stable.  The shepherds and sheep were scattered around to the left and front, while the kings and their color-coordinated camel drivers were in order to the right, moving closer each day until it got to Epiphany.  Oh, and I had two little plastic palm trees for ambience.

I have loved this nativity and setting it up every year reminded me of that time in a distant place (pre-Internet, no less) and the friends and world I was part of.  I see my landlady’s little grandson showing me how the figures should be set up, and watch myself shopping in the Plaza Mayor to add to my growing little family.  I see my roommates smiles as we sat in our room gabbing with the then-stable-less nativity set up on one of the bookshelves.  I remember finally getting home and setting it up under the Christmas tree for my family to see in the morning.

The figures have not held up very well, but then they’re 36 years old and weren’t all that well made in the first place.  The stable is starting to fall apart, the shepherds are losing arms, the sheep’s legs fell off, and the kings and Holy Family have paint chipped off their faces.  Baby Jesus looks fine, though, but the rest looks …. shabby.

So this year when I set up my Christmas decorations, the nativity won’t be part of it.  It feels disrespectful to put it up when it’s so worn out and tattered.  After so many years, I’ve said goodbye to it.  I don’t need to see it to remember Christmases past, the places and the people that were part of it.  Vaya con Dios, nacimiento mio.