Slipping Through Our Fingers

We were sitting around the kitchen table in our rented condo with R’s parents and my father.  The wine was flowing, and the kids had already scattered from the table, enjoying the 72 degree breezes coming in from our open doorwall.  It was the first day of our annual sojurn to Florida for Christmas.  R worked late and like a dog all year long so we could make the hike down to Florida for a week of warmth and fun with his parents and my father at the holidays.

We’d driven again this year, but planned it that way, driving my new SUV that we’d purchased with this in mind last spring.  I could hardly believe that we were able to afford such a nice car, with leather seats and navigation and satellite radio and a DVD player for the kids.  But we could, and we did.

“So you’re not moving to Michigan after all?” R’s mother asked sadly, taking another bite of the key lime pie my father had brought up to share on our first night.

I was a little sad about it too, actually.  I was tired of the angry, bitter politics of my little New England town.  I felt bruised and battered and unwanted.  And though I loved my girlfriends, the beauty of our small town and the proximity to New York, I’d been looking forward to a fresh start.  A big house with a pool and no little woodpecker holes.  A sewer system that allowed a garbage disposal (we had septic in our little town). A town that was a bit more anonymous and less political.  Getting to choose a school system that wouldn’t wrangle over money every year.  And of course there was the draw of being near both R’s family and my brother and sister; family holidays that didn’t require more than an hour or so in the car. Plus, the idea of moving back home felt good to me.  When I’d traveled back home for my high school reunion the previous year, there was much that was changed, much that I missed.

“No, we’re not,” R responded, taking a sip of wine.  “They wanted to fill the position locally, so they brought in a guy from the outside, a guy who used to work for GM.  I guess it was cheaper than relocating me.  They really are trying to keep the whole facility locally employed, so even though I was a good fit for it because I am from the area, at the end of the day I still have to be moved there and that isn’t cheap.”

I sighed, took a sip of wine, and willed myself to think of the here and now, and how lucky I was to be here.  A warm December night, the sound of the Gulf of Mexico outside, three kids all healthy and doing well, my close family all gathered together.  We wouldn’t have to pick up and start all over, at least not now.  That was a good thing, I told myself.

A good thing.

Drinking Alone

I was sitting alone, on the sofa that Thursday night in November.  It was quiet save for the sound of the television in front of me and the occasional clink of my wine glass on the table as I lifted it and placed it back down.  I hadn’t eaten dinner, but the plate of chocolate chip cookies my friend Julie had made for me for the election was nearly empty.

I’d lost.  I still couldn’t quite absorb the concept.  I had lost my bid for election to the board of education.

Not only had I lost, but three of my four girlfriends had lost.  We had all been running together, and somewhere in the back of our heads we knew that probably one of us might not make it.  In my darkest, most conservative imaginings I worried that two of us might not be elected.  But as we stood in our campaign headquarters that night, poised for celebration, giddy with the closure of a last final push of campaigning at the polls all day, the writing literally started to appear on the wall.

A big posterboard was taped to the wall in the center of the gathering space, with a grid laid out for all of the polling places and all of the candidates.  We included our opponents too so we could count how many seats we’d won on each board; the town council and the board of education had nine seats, the board of finance had five.  The party was running hard until the phone rang with the results from the first precinct; our numbers were low compared to the other party’s.  I looked nervously at my girlfriends and the room suddenly had grown quieter, less celebratory.  And one by one, as the precincts called in to us the vote tallies, the vote went from being blurry to very clear.

We weren’t just defeated.  We were absolutely trounced, killed, mutilated.  Kelly, my one girlfriend who’d actually won her seat, sat in the corner and cried.  “This is a nightmare,” she sobbed.  “I only wanted to do this if I had at least one other friendly face on the board.  Now I’m going to be there without any of you.  This is a disaster,” she repeated.

It hadn’t just been us reeling from the results.  Our beloved first selectman and friend, Tom, had lost his bid by a less than two hundred votes.  “Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise,” he’d said in a short speech to the gathered masses.  “I can now completely focus on my treatment and getting healthy,” he said, in his first real public acknowledgement that he was still indeed battling his cancer recurrence.

R had been out of town not only on election night, but the whole week; his parents had stayed on to help me with the children on election day.  They left the day after, full of hugs and sympathy.  I went through the motions of smiling and waving goodbye to them as they left, but I knew I was descending.  After they were gone, there was no reason to pretend, to fake it, to come up with the reasons why everything happens for a reason.

I felt unwanted, bruised, battered and hated.  I remembered the nasty ad that mentioned me by name in the paper; I remembered the complaint filed against us, I remembered the little old man at the senior center that had been asking for me by name to give me a piece of his mind.  I was tired.  The phone started ringing and I didn’t answer; I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it.  I just wanted the sharp edges to blur and world to not seem like such a hard place.  So after the kids went to bed, I opened a bottle of red wine and started drinking.  I poured glass after glass, cutting the alcohol with chocolate chip cookies, and waited for sense and reason to find me.

A whole bottle later, and it still hadn’t.

Lock, Stock and Veiled Threats

I stared at the second page of our local paper in disbelief.  There it was, my name, my full name.  Not mentioned in an article about how the four of us had gone to an information session to learn how to be a good board of education member, or how we’d met with the chair of the town next door’s board to learn how he won an award for transparency in his work, no.  We’d been working hard to run an honest, traditional campaign.  Not only to clear the negativity brought about by a recent trumped up campaign complaint against us, but because we truly believed that board members should have a responsibility to know how to do their jobs and do them well.

No, this campaign advertisement singled me out specifically of the four of us running for our local board of education.  I knew it would happen at some point, because I’d filed my own complaint against the strange ads put out in budget season last year.  It had bothered me greatly that anyone could put anything they wanted in our local newspaper, commentary that would never be allowed to go unsigned on the letters to the editor page, as long as they paid for ad space to do it. It turned out that the idea not only bothered me, but it bothered the state elections enforcement commission too, because it was against the law to do so. I didn’t want that kind of thing to happen again, not during this election season or next year’s budget season, so I’d filed the complaint to ensure that it didn’t.

I knew very well the person behind the ad; when I’d called the paper’s advertising department last year they’d told me her name.  She was a big anti tax advocate in our town who had spoken out against our budget advocacy group during the two budget seasons we’d been active.  The ads last spring had been angry and tried to pit the old time town residents against the newer, more “Fairfield County” ones, such as myself.  People like me who’d moved here for proximity to lucrative corporate jobs, who’d expected high quality education in a lovely, bucolic setting.  The old timers were tired of seeing their property values rise and their taxes right along with them.  My friends and I talked at length about the growing divide in our town and how to bridge it.  We were trying to work that angle in our campaign.

But still, even with all the past anger that I knew would come to light during my own campaign, I never expected such an angry, personal, public tirade against myself.  The person who called themselves a “Concerned Citizen” (how were they getting away with this when it was illegal, I wondered) labeled me as a “pro property tax increase” (true, but only because I wasn’t sitting on the board to find cuts to reduce the tax increases), “democrat” (lower case d, but also true), a “hypocrite” (I didn’t think so, actually), “vengeful” (really was pretty sure this wasn’t true), and warned against having such a nefarious character helping formulate the budgets that would eventually affect every town resident’s wallet.

But the worst part of all the stuff in the ad that I could probably have written off if it had been signed by the looney tune who’d written it (as could everyone else in town as they all knew her name as a known lunatic) was the attribution at the bottom.  The lack of attribution had been the basis of my previous complaint, and it was clear that this was a clear slap in my face for having complained about it not being on her previous ads.  It was at best a tasteless “right back at you”, and at worst, a veiled threat.

“This ad paid for Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel by the Concerned Citizens.”

I put down the paper and sighed.  I didn’t know if I had a thick enough skin for this politics business.

Worried

“I’m tired,” Tom said sheepishly, sitting down as the crowd at the local senior center dwindled.

My girlfriends and I had been invited by our first selectman to join him for a campaign appearance at the town senior center; this was a tough crowd for anyone running for our local board of education.  Since we voted on our school budget every year, and since the school budget was the lion’s share of the whole, the constant reminder of the schools being responsible for uptick in taxes was a drumbeat heard weekly at lunches, bingo games and wii tournaments here.  But Tom, a former finance executive until he’d retired to run for our town’s top job, was popular in this crowd for his smart management and fiscal conservatism.  He thought it was a good idea to give us a little face time with this tough crowd with his endorsement.

Tom had been on his game as we’d stood in the back of the room and watched him answer question after question about everything under the sun.  He smartly answered questions about pot holes, unions, police salaries, budgeting and even the stray odd question about things like skunks spraying personal pets.  The girls and I had been meeting with him once every few weeks to get some talking points, some pointers for our own campaigns, and we’d all developed a fondness for him.  He swore like a sailor, he liked his tequila and he was the smartest man I knew.

And he wasn’t well.

Tom had surgery over the summer to remove a cancer recurrence in his lung.  He’d seemingly bounced back quickly; too quickly.  But when we’d met him for a photo session for our campaign literature in August, he’d confessed that he was coming back from the doctor, who was concerned about some spinal pain he continued to have even after the tumor had been removed.  We’d all thought perhaps he would drop out of his bid for re-election, but he solidiered on.  We took this as a positive sign that the doctor visits were precautionary and that he was well on his way back to the fit, healthy man we’d come to know so well.

“Well you don’t look tired,” my friend Kelly chimed in.  “You were on fire with all the old folks.  I think the women all either have a crush on you or wish you were their son.”  She patted his shoulder.

I pulled up a chair.  “Totally.  Tom, I’ve never seen you so ‘on’ before.  All you have to do is repeat that performance tonight at the debate.”

Tonight was the town wide debate between first selectman candidates.  I’d seen him square off against his opponent last week, in front of our Parents’ Council.  It was a shame that only thirty or so people had seen it; Tom had completely buried his opponent.

He sighed.  “I’m going to have to nap in between if I’ve got a shot at this.”

We exchanged worried looks with each other quickly, trying not to be obvious.  The Tom we knew never napped.  He stayed up with us until one in the morning on his sun porch drinking and teaching us the finer points of pension liability and high deductible medical plans for public employees.

“Well do whatever you need to do to be fresh tonight.  Its yours to take, for sure,” my friend Terri said, acting as the cheerleader.

Next to me, I felt Fran touch my arm, a question.  Privately we’d been worrying that Tom couldn’t canvass neighborhoods this time around; it was the key to any small town election.  We’d been privately debating amongst the four of us whether or not we should bring this up to him; could he at least phone some of the people identified as swing voters?  I nodded imperceptibly.  It was October 15.  It was crunch time.  He needed to do whatever it took.

“Tom, have you thought about calling all those undecideds?  I was making phone calls last week for you and there were a lot of people on the fence thanks to all of that negative campaigning the other guy is doing.  I know all they need is a little of the straight talk you do so well to put them solidly on our side.”

Tom shook his head slowly.  “I just can’t.  It’s all I can do to keep up with the job and these campaign appearances.  I’m going to have to rely on the party to help me out on that respect.”

Oh, no.  It was so much worse than I thought. As we’d been working through this campaign, our chief thought had been what if our friend, our leader, the smartest man we knew lost.  But a new worry crept into my head as I stood there, looking at the growing gray circles on Tom’s pale face.

He clearly needed to stop all of this nonsense and get back into treatment.  He was sick.  My friend, my mentor was very, very sick.  What if he won?

My Father’s Birthday

We were sitting in the breakfast area of the Hampton Inn with my father.

It was Labor Day weekend, and this year, my father’s 70th birthday fell on the Saturday of that weekend. Two years ago, R’s mother had thrown a splashy, expensive party for his father when he’d turned 70.  We didn’t have enough people to pull together anything like that in any location other than Florida, and I knew my siblings could never afford to travel there anyway.

With Z in college in Pittsburgh, and him performing at ever home football game in their marching band, it put another layer of difficulty in scheduling such an event.  Until finally one day, looking at the football schedule, it dawned on me:  we could do it in Pittsburgh.  My father had made a habit the last two years of attending at least one of Zach’s football peformances each season; I could just ask him to attend this one.  The gift could be the surprise of having my sister and brother and their families there; they had never really shown an interest in coming to any of Zach’s performances in the two years he’d already been in college here, so it would be an easy surprise. I had tried to think back to the last time we would have all seen my father together, with all of our children; it would have been six years prior when I’d had everyone to my home in Ohio for Thanksgiving.

I looked down at my phone on the table while my father and daughter went up to the buffet for more scrambled eggs and hash browns.  It was my sister’s text buzzing on the screen; the plan was that she and my brother would come down while we were eating breakfast, casual as anything, and my father would just look up and see them all there.  Unfortunately my father was an early riser and a fast eater, and we were nearly done with breakfast.  My brother, as usual, was taking too long to get himself out of bed and presentable enough to appear in public.  I furiously texted her that if they wanted to perfect moment of surprise that they had about five minutes left.

“Who are you texting so early in the morning?” my father asked as he returned with a second plate full of food.

“Oh, it’s Zach,” I lied smoothly.  “He just sent a good morning message and wished you a happy birthday, and that he’ll see you after the game.” On early game days, when the game started at noon, Z had to report to the stadium at 7 am.  There was no time for a leisurely breakfast for him.

My phone buzzed again.  I grabbed it before the words flashing on the small text window could be seen.  “Wow, Mommy, you never text Zach.  That’s weird.”  I flashed her a “shhh help me with the surprise” glare before reading the words “on the way” on the screen.

I sat back and watched my father and my daughter together quietly, allowing myself a moment of reflection.  We sure hadn’t had an easy road, my father and I.  My parents’ messy divorce had left our family in pieces, and when the puzzle started to take shape again, I’d firmly been placed on my mother’s side.  There were months that would go by without my father and I speaking in high school; I’d spent my teenage years fantasizing about the kind of father I wished I had.  My teenage crush on my English teacher, my fascination with 80s formulaic family comedy TV, even my obsession with a rock star could probably all be traced to the fragile relationship with the man sitting across from me.

He hadn’t been perfect.  When my brother’s anger issues swallowed me up in their path, my father had been slow to react, and I’d blamed him for it. When my father moved in with his partner, I grew resentful that they spent more of their money on themselves than sharing their good fortune with us kids.  And certainly, my father’s move out of state for a promotion just six months after my mother’s death had been a hard pill to swallow.

But he never stopped trying.  He had wanted to be a good father because his own had been a horrible one.  He just didn’t know how.  Looking at him talking with my daughter now, I marveled at how far we’d come.  I knew now that I could count on Christmas in Florida with my dad.  I knew that he’d always come to a football game for Zach while he was in college.  He came to Melinda’s first communion earlier this year, Zach’s graduation several years ago, the birth of all of my children. Somehow, for better or for worse, he’d figured it out.  He was there when it counted.

“Hey Pops,” I heard sheepishly from behind me.  It was my brother, standing there with his own son.  My sister, her children and husband brought up the rear behind him.

“Happy Birthday Dad,” my sister said, standing alongside him and leaning down to give him a kiss on his now bald head.

I watched as my father’s face went from recognition, to astonishment, to full on emotion.  His face grew red and the tears that I hardly ever saw him shed, slid slowly down his face.  He smiled, and stood, and the hugs began.

We’d come a long way, all of us.

Welcome to Politics

“What the hell is this?” I said into the phone while simultaneously scanning the news story online.  I wasn’t exactly used to seeing my name in the news, though it had happened several times through my education advocacy work.  But this, this was different.

It was September, and my three girlfriends and I were running for the local Board of Education.  We’d all agreed to throw our hats into the ring together; it would be fun we said.  And so far it had been; strategizing while our kids played in the pool, coming up with a brochure and a logo that communicated that were were a great team.  We all had our strengths, we all got along, and I felt the great bonus of all of this was that I was getting to know a great group of women.

Each of us had taken on a task.  Mine of course had gone along the way of graphic design and website work.  I set up a separate website just for the four of us, since we wanted to make clear that we weren’t just party hacks that did our political party’s bidding.  The whole idea of having to choose a party to run for the board of education seemed silly anyway; shouldn’t interested people be involved?  Why was it a political entity?  I’d heard in other states that the political parties weren’t declared for that elected board, but that wasn’t the case here.

The four of us had apparently made quite a splash, because a complaint had been filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission against us.

“How is it that the press knows that this complaint was filed against us, but we don’t?” came my friend Kelly’s voice on the phone.  “I mean, shouldn’t we have been notified?  How can we respond to this when we haven’t even seen a copy of the complaint.”

“Hold on, let me read what it says.”  I was trying to keep my voice down; R was away in Michigan looking at the facility out there, and I was on my own with the kids.

The news story said that there were several different complaints against our stand alone website.  First, it said that we didn’t have the proper language explaining who paid for the website.  I knew that all campaign materials (with a few exceptions) had to say “Paid for by….”.  That was the law.  But the website was a free blog set up through Google.  “Well this is stupid. They complained that we didn’t say who paid for the site?  It’s a free website.  How can they do that, make a bogus complaint like that?”

“I don’t know,” Kelly responded.  “What about the second part? Where they say we don’t collect donor information?”

“Ugh, we DO collect donor information,” I answered.  “I set the whole thing up so that they pay us first and then we collect their information.  When I worked on the Rick Springfield stuff, I can’t tell you how many times we had orders for items that they never paid for; it was a pain in the butt in terms of data entry.  Everyone is always curious about this stuff but a lot of them back off when it’s time to pony up the cash.  So I front loaded the whole thing.  You wouldn’t see the donor information page unless you donated money.”

“Geez, you think they could freakin’ pick up a phone and ask if we were doing that instead of going all the way to the state to file a complaint about it to get their answers,” Kelly responded.

“You would think,” I said absentmindedly, scanning the story online.  “God, this is so stupid.  You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that our lovely opponents filed this complaint just to cast a negative tinge on our campaign, knowing full well that their complaint was bogus.”

“Well you know what they say,” Kelly responded.  “No such thing as bad publicity.  I say we respond making them look like a bunch of asses.”

Welcome to politics, I thought wryly to myself.

“It has to do with your website, apparently,” said Patty, the party chair.  She nudged a sheaf

Here We Go Again

“Can I talk to you?” R asked, not looking up from his computer screen.

“Sure,” I said, drawing out the word to show my confusion at the request.  It was a warm Saturday afternoon in August, and I was bustling around with laundry and tidying.  The kids were watching TV downstairs in the artificial cool of the air conditioning.  “What’s up?”

“Well, I got word yesterday my company is opening a research facility in Michigan.  Near the airport, about twenty minutes from my parents’ place.”

Oh.  For years, R had always said there was never any chance of us getting transferred back to Michigan.  His company, which did transfer people around a lot, simply had no offices in the state.  The closest we could have gotten would have perhaps been Cleveland, and of course where we used to live in Cincinnati, but never actually in the Detroit area.

“Are you going to try for it?” I asked, slowly.

Of all the times that this could have happened, this was probably the worst.  I’d just signed on with the town Democratic party to run for the local Board of Education.  My friend Tom had encouraged several of us who had been active in the budget process to do it.  We’d just had our caucus a few weeks ago, and I’d just plunked down $250 for campaign signs, business cards and T shirts.  We’d been working ever since on strategy, logo, talking points, a brochure.  I was engaged and excited about it, my first real foray into politics.

“I want to.  What do you think?”

I searched for the right answer.  I couldn’t lie; I missed being close to our families.  The distance made it hard to stay close.  My siblings could never afford to make the nearly twelve hour drive out East to see me.  R’s parents could, and did, but at considerable cost and hassle.  R’s grandmother had recently passed away in Michigan, and it had been hard to be so far away and not be able to help. But I also loved living in CT, being close to New York and my grandparents, the beaches, even our ridiculous New England town.  I loved all of my girlfriends and the respect I’d earned around town as an active volunteer and education advocate.  I couldn’t imagine giving all of that up.

“Well, I think it is an opportunity worth exploring,” I said carefully.  “I’d love to live closer to the family.  How soon would you know if you decided to go for it?”

“Soon, I think,” R said.  “Maybe a month or two.”

A month or two.  That would be September or October.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Thanksgiving in a different home, with all of our family assembled around the table.  The picture was hazy and hard to imagine.  But inviting.

“Well, it would be nice to be close to the family.  I think you should go for it and see what happens.”  I swallowed, hard, all of that which I did not say out loud.

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