Archive for March, 2013

Two Kitchens

March 3, 2013

Two Kitchens

 

 

My Mutha, Mary Lou, a grand dame of our town, the President of the Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary and the past-President of the Magnolia Garden Club, and I were baking a chocolate sheet cake in the messy kitchen of our home, a big turn of the century home on a busy street in Vicksburg.

 

Because we had not even considered the appropriateness of cleaning the kitchen before we started the cake, the counters were completely filled with food and utensils from breakfast.  Much of the stuff on the counters were caked with leftover food from breakfast; a heavy cast iron skillet with hardened bacon grease on the stove, a crockery bowl with Bisquick pancake mix congealing in the sink, the butter dish with a leftover stick of butter softening by the minute as the heat rose on that summer morning in Mississippi.

 

Mutha turned to me when I complained of the lack of counter space and said, “Khaki, relax, just pull out the silverware drawer and put your cake pan on top of that open drawer if you need more counter space.”  I put the cookie sheet down inside the drawer and proceeded to grease and flour it in preparation for pouring the cake mix.  My Mutha was nothing if she was not the mother of invention, the lazy person’s guide to entertaining with her three easy steps to everything.  She always focused on the people and making them feel welcome in our home.  This was opposed to being concerned with having a clean and orderly household, a semi-sanitary kitchen, or even enough food to serve her guests.

 

Halfway into this cake baking event, Mutha pulled out the powder sugar canister from its perch in the over stuffed panty and realized that we needed two cups of confectioner’s sugar or powdered sugar for the icing and we had none.  Not even one tablespoon in an empty bag in the bottom of the canister.

 

The metal canisters with the black tops that fit so snuggly a child could barely pry them open had been washed once or twice in my Mutha’s kitchen over the years that we had lived in that house but had not always been dried properly.  Certainly no attention had ever been given to the proper care and maintenance of the metal canisters in my Mutha’s kitchen.  Our maid, Lucille Scott, did her level best to hold that household together but even with all of her effort, the canisters got zero attention.

 

As a result, that morning, no one knew in advance that the canister was empty nor would we have wanted to use the last few tablespoons exposed in the bottom of that rusty canister, even if it had contained a bit of powdered sugar.

 

I knew instinctively what to do.  You see, I had formed by the age of six or seven, resilience and a level of innovativeness and competence, really a take charge attitude, which would have been the envy of a Marine Corp division.  Living with my Mutha, the Auntie Mame, of our little town, one learned to ‘dance’ with whatever occurred.

 

Without conferring with Mutha or even saying a word, I ran out the front door, down the sidewalk to our neighbor, Laura Gucherau’s driveway that ran parallel to our driveway, down her driveway and up her back steps to knock on her back door.

 

Without calling by telephone or even stopping to think, I routinely performed this drill.  Sometimes I knocked and asked for a tray of ice for more high balls.  Sometimes it was a stick of butter or a cup of sugar or any number of missing ingredients that were desperately needed to finish a meal or a boxed cake mix.

 

We always thought of Laura as first, always being at home and second, as always being willing and able to open the back door to receive me.  Most importantly, we perceived Laura to be happy to provide whatever ingredients were missing, even if I arrived twice in the same day or three or four times in the same week.

 

As I hit the back door that day and stepped into Laura’s ‘neat as a pin’ kitchen, Laura said, “Khaki, what in the world would they do over there without you?”

 

 

What’s Possible for the Little Ones?

March 3, 2013

When I was about 7 years old, I looked around my house and I looked into the smiling beautiful faces of two babies and a 3-year-old toddler and I was awestruck with the possibilities.

I could see these three little ones having great little lives where they were cared for, dressed appropriately every day, not just for Sundays and parties, where they had their stories’ heard, where they felt listened to and had their experiences validated. Things that had not happened for me frequently enough or recently enough for me. I was already aware of these missing components of my own life, even at 7 years old.

I wanted so much for each of them. They were so little and cute. Their eyes were wide with anticipation and their faces were filled with hope and love. I could see, almost like a movie playing in my head, how their lives could be; how they could be cared for, listened to. How they could have an experience of being loved. I imagined them getting their needs met in ways that I, at this point in the life of our family, could barely remember having been met for me.

John was only 3 and half years old and, being the middle child in a family of five, was the most reserved and shy. He didn’t express any needs and never asked for anything, except from our Grandmother, Grandma Jean. He was her favorite because he was named John F. Halpin, IV and she had been married to John F. Halpin, Jr. She doted on John. Although she was a recluse, she would order anything from the Spiegel catalogue that he wanted, including cowboy boots for a 4-year-old. John became very self-sufficient at a very early age; if he was hungry he would peel an orange to eat. He realized early on that he needed to manage his own food sources and, given that he was too young to do much food preparation or use knives, he learned to peel oranges. By the time he was 10 years old, he could peel and consume an entire bag of oranges in one sitting.

Willie had the face of an angel. His dark complexion, soft curly brown hair and big beautiful brown eyes were breathtaking. He was born with a lot of allergic reactions so he didn’t really thrive as an infant or toddler. He was really small until he started the 2nd grade. He got spoiled because he was so sickly. He was such a handful for our parents because he would often feel bad with migraine like headaches from his allergies but not be able to express how bad he really felt. Instead, he would act out and throw temper tantrums. He would routinely, at the age of 3, insert the key into the ignition of one of our two Volkswagen buses and break they key off. Instead of questioning how a three-year old would even be able to figure out this ‘trick’ or why a 3-year-old could be so desperate for attention, my parents just wrung their hands and spent 6-8 hours getting all kinds of friends and neighbors involved in extricating the half of the key from the ignition. This was often done, in the end, by Willie himself with used chewing gum.

Lucy was a beautiful baby and toddler with soft blond, wispy hair who was always up for an adventure. She would go anywhere and do anything with her older siblings and her Mutha. She often spoke her mind to of us or anyone else who would listen. She was about two years old when a very large golfer from out-of-town who was at the Vicksburg Country Club for a tournament, bent over one day at the swimming pool to pat her on the head and admire her great smile. She smiled brightly and remarked, “You sure are fat” to the golfer who backed away sheepishly.

Seeing how special these three young children were and how much of a gap there would be in their lives around care, attention, affection and even food and safety, I stepped boldly in at 7 years old to fill the gap. I confidently assumed that this movie that was being played in my head could be written, directed, and produced magnificently by me even though I had no authority, resources, or accountability.

Background – In Charge

March 3, 2013

Draft as of March 30, 2007

 

 

In Charge

I was standing in the Dining Room of our home, a large, turn of the century, sturdy house with a wide front porch that ran the width of the two-story house.  This house had a living room, big enough for a basketball game that extended the entire depth of the house, a large dining room, a breakfast room, a large kitchen, a laundry room and bathroom all on the first floor.  We had 4 bedrooms, a bath and a large hall on the second floor and a basement that had been partially converted to a rumpus room.

 

I lived in a small town in Mississippi in a family that, at that time, had been attending Mass at the same Catholic Church for six generations.  This was the Catholic Church, Pre-Vatican II that encouraged young Catholic to only marry other Catholics and forbid them to use any form of birth control.  This was the same Catholic Church that did not require any level of emotional maturity before being married ‘in the Church’ or before baptizing these young couples’ babies.  The same Priest married my parents and then baptized 5 babies in 8 years without any consideration, or even a thought, about how those babies would be cared for.

 

I spent every Friday night with my Granny.  If I was 7 years old, she would have been 61 which meant that she was still working full-time as quality control supervisor in the County Welfare Department.  I created a haven for myself in her home.  Those Friday nights and Saturday mornings gave me an experience of being nurtured with a special bath-time, bedtime stories and a big Southern breakfast.   This oasis provided a respite for me of peace and order, away from the commotion that reigned in my home with two parents, two little brothers, an older sister and a baby-sister.

 

One Saturday morning, after arriving from Granny’s house a block away, standing in our Dining Room around noon, on a day when our cleaning lady (we called her our Maid back then), Lucille Scott, would not have been working, I surveyed the situation.  I was barely able to see over the top of the dining room table, but I could sense the disorder, clutter and the totally unsanitary kitchen and breakfast room.  I knew intuitively from my Mutha’s sarcasm and negativity, that my Dad had been raging before he left for ‘the office’ that morning.  He was probably raging about the condition of the house, the garage, the backyard, really any one of the many possible opportunities for more order and cleanliness in and around our home.  While we were perceived to be upper middle class because of my father’s profession as a CPA and our family history in Vicksburg, we really lived in a state what could best be described as schizophrenic.  We had beautiful china and silver that we used often to entertain.  Our home was filled with family antiques that prior to my Mutha, had been lovingly restored and maintained.   We attended Catholic Schools and belonged to the Country Club.  But beneath that veneer of respectability, there was a wide deep current running through of neglect and abandonment of the home, the yard and on most days, the children.

 

I was standing in that dining room, with my hands on my hips, at 7 years old and I declared out loud, “Someone has got to make a few decisions around here”!

Introduction

March 3, 2013

 

Introduction

August 3, 2007

 

 

Studies show that your birth order in the family determines a great deal about who you are in life and in your career.  I have not done any formal analysis of this belief but, in examining my own life and the lives of my loved ones, I can see a number of patterns and trends.  Many of these patterns and trends are disturbing and some are even horrifying.

 

What I know for sure is that we all have ‘issues’.  The question is, are we working on our issues?  For those of us who were either first-born in a large family, or, like me, took over the role of the first-born oldest child at an early age, we really have issues to work on.  And many of these issues are not pretty.

 

Yes, our homes are impeccable, we have well-organized closets and lives and we have lots of disposable income that we primarily spend on other people, but we do, in fact, it’s true, have issues.  These issues manifest themselves in a thousand ways every day.  We do not get to take a vacation from our issues.

 

For some first borns, the issue of control can drive them.  Whether it is the need to control where the Kleenex box is placed on the bathroom vanity, how the kitchen towels are managed so as to separate and distinguish between the towels for hands, dishes and counter-tops, or when we pick out educational programs and entire career paths for our children based on what we believe is best from an economic and personality perspective, we like to be in charge and have our directives followed, to a ‘t’.

 

Some first borns have issues they take into the workplace.  My sister and I are both examples of this, and we have many, many issues that manifest themselves in the workplace definitely on a routine basis and our spouses say, on a predictable basis.  Harley and I are both entrepreneurs which is another name for the mentally ill.

 

She is a Realtor in a small town in Mississippi and has amassed a successful real estate business that enjoys quite a monopoly in a small town that has actually lost population in the past 50 years.  “Harley” is synonymous with residential real estate in Vicksburg like “Ebby”, is in Dallas.  Ebby Halliday has been the grand dame of real estate in the affluent parts of Dallas for over 50 years.  Harley has that same reputation and name recognition in Vicksburg; minus the affluent part and for a short 25 years in Vicksburg.

 

Harley is not so successful because of her smarts, but she is really, really smart.  Nor is she so successful because she is a strategic business owner because she’s often not strategic at all.  Harley is so successful because of her ability to assume responsibility – often for things that a Realtor is not responsible for; like repairs needed to sell a house, a packaging deal with a variety of diverse funding sources or working with first time homebuyers in rural Mississippi who are not actually eligible to buy a home if it weren’t for Harley’s creative financing approaches.

 

Often, first borns take responsibility for their siblings’ physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being.  In our cases, Harley and I have taken responsibility for our nieces’ and nephews’ physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being, but that is another story.

 

Sometimes we never outgrow these roles.  Our ‘issues’ arise when we continue to take responsibility for these same things once we are adults or even well into middle-age.  We get ourselves into all kinds of chaotic and confusing situations, many of them resembling an episode of “I Love Lucy” because we simply cannot separate ourselves and our own needs and preferences from the needs of our younger siblings, other loved ones, our customers, clients & employees, or even perfect strangers.

 

Our younger siblings most likely do not, in any way, shape or form, have that same degree of sensitivity, some have called it co-dependence that we display daily.  They can frankly care less if we maintain a program of self-care in order to nurture ourselves when we are spending time with them.  Their focus is on their own needs and preferences because of 40 to 60-year-old patterns with us.  Their expectations are, that we too, will have that same focus; their needs and preferences, rather than our needs and preferences.

 

As first borns, we have a degree of empathy that is unparalleled.  In our family, Harley and I have empathy towards our siblings that we and our siblings rarely, if ever, experienced from our own parents.  I think this occurs in all families but I’m not certain.  As young children through young adulthood, we shared responsibility for ‘the little ones’; our two younger brothers and our baby sister.  Even though there is only 8 years difference between Harley’s age and Lucy’s age (the oldest and youngest in our family of 5), we were the most loving, affectionate and attentive parents that Lucy had, at least until we went away to college and then after Harley returned.  (I was able to escape permanently but that’s another story).  Lucy describes the day that I left, in August 1977, when she was 11 years old as one of the darkest days of her life.  But that’s another story.

 

The good thing about first-born is that it does, in fact, take a village to raise a child.  Even the parents who are well-suited to parenting need and deserve back up support from family members, friends and neighbors.

 

Where our issues arise is when we never move out of those roles with our siblings or when we replicate those experiences with other people; spouses, friends, co-workers, clients and employees.  That’s when the trouble begins.

 

That’s where my troubles began and where my issues continue to rise up on a daily and weekly basis.  These stories, of how I took responsibility for things as a child that I was absolutely not responsible for, are many.  I also have an equal number of stories about my life over my entire career and even today where I continue to take responsibility for things that I can absolutely not be responsible for with my clients.  I have no authority, resources, or accountability for resolving their organizational or individual challenges.  Reflecting on these funny stories of my early childhood helps me see more clearly the appropriate role and proper boundaries for me to have now with my clients. At 7 years old, I started taking responsibility for things that I was not responsible for, nor had the authority, accountability or resources to deliver on.  That pattern plays it out with my clients regularly.  One said to me at one point, “Katharine, sometimes I think you want more for me than I want for myself”!  That was a kick in the stomach.

 

However, just because I’ve lived this way for 48 years doesn’t mean that I intend to live this way forever!

 

 

 

 

 

Command and Control

March 3, 2013

Command and Control

 

My Mutha and Daddy were not at home on this particular Saturday.  This was not unusual.  Daddy was never at home on Saturday mornings.  He was always ‘at the office’.  There’s really no way to tell where Mutha was.  She could have been volunteering at the Sheltered Acres School, a residential facility for developmentally disabled children (we called them Retarded in the 1960s), or she could have simply been at a Morning Coffee where she and all of her cronies would have gotten dressed to the nines with hats, gloves, high heels and gotten together in someone’s home in order for one of them to be ‘feted’ or for some event to be commemorated.  They rarely had a good reason to justify their endless cycle of Morning Coffees, Bridge Luncheons, Afternoon Teams and Cocktail Parties.

 

I came to the profound insight at 7 years old, that ‘someone has to make a few decisions around here’ because of my own take charge personality, aggressive attitude, my own physical and emotional need for order and structure and most importantly, because of the mess I was seeing in front of me.

 

Our dining room table, my Grandma Jean’s sideboard, our marble top wash stand and most of the seats of the twelve dining room chairs were covered with unopened mail, baby shoes, children’s dirty socks, a hair brush, barettes, homework left incomplete and unattended for a 2nd grader and a 4th grader, lots of baby paraphernalia commingled with the crystal cut glass bowl that had been a family piece for six generations that was always strategically placed in the center of the dining room table between the two sterling silver candelabras and on top of  silver mirrored tray with little feet that Mutha constantly referred to by some French name that was completely meaningless to everyone else.

 

All available surfaces were completely covered with all of this stuff, accumulated over a period of days, weeks and months.

 

The hard wood floor at one end of the living room was completely trashed with various shoes haphazardly kicked around.  There were at least two pairs belonging to my Mutha, and each one of us five children.  They were all left in the middle of the floor where we had kicked them off as we came through the front door and small foyer.

 

Our book satchels were overflowing with books and papers.  Our lunch boxes were there having never been emptied from the day before with that interesting aroma of left over banana peels and tin.  The ash trays were overflowing with cigarette butts.  Coats and mittens were dropped on the floor or hanging on the backs of the dining room chairs, causing the chairs to sit precariously ready to tip over if a small child bumped into them.  I realized that this disorder, this craziness was not appropriate and I could do something about it.

 

I yelled up the stairs to get my older sister who was all of 8 years old out of her book that she was always buried in.  I got my three younger siblings away from the TV in the basement rumpus room where they had been glued to the Saturday morning cartoons for hours.  I lined everyone up and started barking orders as best as a 7 year old drill sergeant is capable of barking orders.

 

I directed two people to clean up the kitchen and two to work on the downstairs bathroom and laundry room (which were always scary places).  I announced that I would clean up the living room.  I scurried to bring order to the living room, make all of the beds upstairs and then I gave myself permission to lounge on the sofa in a pose that I often saw my Daddy strike, usually at least two times every day; at lunch and before and after dinner (which meant that this was he positioned himself during waking hours at home).  When my siblings, ages 3 through 8 realized that I was no longer hard at work like they were, they came in to protest the unfairness of being bossed around by me, when they perceived I wasn’t doing my share.

 

I announced, “I don’t do domestic work”.

 

Even though I often worked tirelessly to clean and organize all the rooms of our home, something happened inside of me that day when I experienced the power of mobilizing  the forces of my four siblings.  I honestly believed, in that moment, that my talents were better utilized in providing the directions rather than rolling up my sleeves to do some of the work.

 

A fire was ignited that burns to this day.  I got the volume turned up too high on my gifts, almost like a radio sqwaking so loudly that you can no longer hear the music.  My gift has always been to see what is possible for others.  That day, I saw that it was, in fact, possible to have a clean orderly house, even on the week-ends.  As a result of this awareness, I started taking responsibility for things that I absolutely, at 7 years old, was not responsible for.  I felt a sense of power and control.  I felt a sense of accomplishment.  I loved the new-found order and cleanliness.  I really loved feeling more competent than my parents at bringing order to chaos.

 

To this day, over 40 years later, my siblings remind me of this experience and worse, they tell their children this story over and over.  They all laugh and laugh and laugh, like it’s the funniest thing they ever experienced.