Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Values of Adversity

Photographed before their marriage, my grandfather is on the far left in
the back row and my grandmother is second from right, back row.
I met my dad for lunch a few weeks ago at the Macaroni Grille, a perfect place for an Italian father and daughter to enjoy a meal. He said he didn’t often get to have lunch with his daughter during the week, so he dressed up for the occasion in long pants instead of his usual retirement-wear of Bermuda shorts. I brought some old family photos to ask him about.

My dad comes from a hardworking Italian family in Pittsburgh. His relatives were passionate people, devoted to their families. My dad’s mother died when he was just four years old, leaving his dad to raise him and his two sisters, aged two and nine. My grandfather never remarried, but my grandmother’s three sisters helped him when they could. My grandfather didn’t like his wife’s sisters all that much. He thought they were too talkative, highly emotional and into everybody’s business. They thought he was taciturn and non-communicative. My grandfather said that my grandmother was nothing like her sisters and that’s why he married her.

My grandmother Victoria (center), with sisters Mary (second from left),
and Maggie (far left) and friends. (Her sister Annie is not in this photo.)
My dad’s childhood deeply missed a mother’s influence and guidance. He went to work in a butcher shop when he was 13, to contribute cash and free meat to the family income. Despite leading his class in math and chemistry, after high school he joined the US Air Force reserves and took a job in commercial welding and plumbing, a choice he later regretted. The only career advice he got from his dad who was a commercial and residential painter, was that if my dad ever picked up a paintbrush my grandfather threatened to break his hands.

My dad and my grandfather
in the 1950s.
During lunch my dad told me that my grandfather had painted the interior of their turn-of-the-century Catholic church building in the 1950s, painting the interior columns to look like they were made of marble. He painted heavenly scenery and an image of God on the ceiling dome. Photos of the church building today show a deserted building, ransacked by vandals with the work my grandfather had done painted over and now peeling. I hadn’t remembered my dad mentioning this tidbit of his story before and just looking at the pictures of the once-elegant church made me feel proud of my grandfather. He was a difficult man to talk to and I was always a little afraid of his gruff exterior.

My dad and I sometimes clash with our similar Italian temperaments. Conversations are sometimes difficult because our communications are heavy on emotion and light on logic. But his unflagging dedication to his family has never wavered throughout the years. Growing up, his concerns about safety seemed smothering to me. He insisted on driving me to countless Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games every summer, instead of letting me take the public bus with my friends, which seemed so much more adventurous to me. He would listen to the game on the radio, leave home in the seventh inning, drive 30 minutes to the stadium and wait in the parking lot for me to emerge when the game was over. Even in an era before cell phones, we never experienced a hitch in this transportation plan since he was always on time, waiting for me.

I don’t think it’s possible for him to say no to his daughters. If we need him, he’s available to help. When my sister and I shared a condo, we called him at 2:00 in the morning to remove a frog that was hopping up our kitchen wall. He drove the 30 minutes down to our condo to evict the frog, while we cowered behind our bedroom doors. Even now, he services my car, changes the filter on my air conditioning unit and never lets me pay for any meal when I’m with him. That’s how he shows he cares. And I am the happy recipient.

My dad and me.
Many girls might have dads whose incomes allow them to buy a daughter a first car, pay for a down payment on a house or travel the world. These are all things my dad says he wishes he could have given me. Although those gifts would have been great, he has given me something far more valuable. Priceless and eternal. My dad’s life has been marked by hardship, hard work and adversity. But that life allowed him to live out what it means to have integrity, commitment to his family and a strong Christian character. And that is a father this daughter is proud to call her dad. 

To see photos of the church my grandfather painted, click here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Spinning and Twirling in Pursuit of Skating

I love figure skating. With a passion. Some years, my skating girlfriends and I travel to the US national championships and spend an entire week inside a freezing rink watching practices and competitions from early morning until late at night. It's our idea of a dream vacation. For many years, I took skating lessons every week. But recently my instructor moved out of state and my skating time has been put on ice. Occasionally, I take my niece and nephew skating. Nathan liked it so much he had a skating birthday party this year. But Devon’s not so sure. She likes the idea of skating but finds the reality of staying upright on her feet more challenging. The first time she skated, it seemed like it took us an hour to circle the entire rink as I either pushed or pulled her along, with her legs like noodles. She said, “Skating is so hard!”

She’s right. Skating is hard work. But ever since I was a little girl and watched Peggy Fleming, I’ve loved skating. For my fifth birthday, I requested to go to the Ice Capades. My mother said I fell asleep halfway through the show, but a lifelong love of skating was born. It looked so effortless, I was sure it would be easy. After begging my mother for lessons for years, she finally signed me up for a group class when I was 13. I quickly discovered that skating is a lot harder than it looks. There would be no triple toe loops for me. More like half-jumps. Half-lutz, half-salchow, half-flip. I loved attempting them all. After years of practice, I could do a single toe loop. Sort of. My coach said it was possible that one foot left the ice for a millisecond before the other foot landed. But I celebrated the accomplishment nevertheless.

When I moved to Florida after college, I signed myself up for group lessons again and found new skating friends and eventually a coach who didn’t mind teaching adults. Skating as an adult is a lot more fearful because you know what can happen when you fall and hit the ice. And it did happen. I broke my wrist skating. Twice. Same wrist. Wristguards are now a permanent part of my skating attire. But being fearful made me hesitant. Not so willing to take risks.

Then I met Amy, who was also a student of my coach Liz. Amy was a much more advanced skater than I was and she skated in competitions around the state. I had no idea there were competitions just for adults. I gladly cheered her on but had absolutely no desire to compete myself. Until she showed me her medal. It was just like an Olympic gold medal. Hanging on a ribbon around her neck. I saw photos of her on the winner’s podium. Sensing a flicker of interest, she started coaxing me to compete with her in the all-adult competition held every fall in Atlanta. She brushed aside all my excuses and assured me we had months to prepare. There were skaters of all levels at the competition. It would be FUN. When I reluctantly agreed, I had no idea what I was in for. I had to first take a test with the US Figure Skating Association that would allow me to compete. I had to skate in front of real skating judges. I was the only skater on the huge rink as the judges graded my stroking, crossovers, turns and edges. I was so nervous and shaky, they asked me to repeat one of the elements before finally passing me. Talk about nerve-racking.

Amy and Liz designed a one-minute program for me to an orchestral rendition of the Beatles’ “Ruby Tuesday.” When I either finished my routine far before the last bar of music or continued skating long after the music concluded, Liz wisely decided I would compete in the programs-with-no-music category at the competition. Amy set our practice schedule for three nights a week for months while we trained for the competition. She unflaggingly cheered me on and infused confidence into my fragile skating ego. She helped me choose a ruby red skating dress. That I couldn't believe I had to wear. In public. At the competition. Was I crazy?

The weekend of the competition, we packed up her van and drove to Atlanta. As soon as I arrived at the first practice session, I immediately regretted my decision to compete. These adults were amazing skaters! Everyone skated so fast, I was practically run over. If I was so intimidated by the practice session, how would I survive the actual competition? I had registered for two events and the first one was early Saturday morning. As I laced up my skates, there were only a handful of people in the rink and although I was nervous, I completed my elements and placed third. A bronze medal was mine! I got to stand on the podium and have my photo taken. At long last, I felt like a REAL skater. My euphoria lasted until the afternoon. When it was time for me to skate my program without the music. The rink’s bleachers were packed with spectators, thanks to a popular men’s event that had concluded just before mine. I had a complete nervous breakdown.

“I can’t go out there in front of all those people!” I shrieked at Liz. “I don’t need to do a second event, I’m good with the medal I already won. Can't I withdraw?” My pleas were to no avail. She said I came to compete and I was going to finish what I came here to do. Then I heard my name announced. It would look ridiculous if I didn’t skate now. I glided out to center ice. My knees were shaking so hard, I was sure everyone in the rink could see. I thought I would collapse. The judge nodded for me to start. It was the longest 60 seconds of my life as I laboriously pushed through my program. I felt like I was in slow motion. My best move was a Michelle Kwan-esque deep knee bend pivot. Finally, I stepped into my two-foot spin and wondered if I would make it around the required three revolutions. Amazingly, I finished fourth out of five skaters. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t last. And fourth place earned me a pewter medal! I didn't even know they gave medals for fourth place. I was ecstatic. That the competition was finally over.

Amy and I show off our medals.
I had no idea that entering that competition would be so stressful, require so much hard work and dedication. My friend Amy continues to compete. All the way up to the top competition in the nation for adult skaters. She admits to finding the competition atmosphere a rush. I never want to compete again. But thanks to Amy and Liz, I am so glad I have the extraordinary experience of skating in a competition in the scrapbook of my life. I had watched skaters compete in championships and the Olympics my whole life. And I got to live in a little corner of their world for a short time. I’m proud that I did something so far out of my comfort zone, it was in another galaxy. But I put my fears on ice. My fear of people watching me. My fear of doing something that I wasn't close to being perfect at. My fear that I could make a fool of myself. My fear that I might fall. But Amy’s encouragement and wholehearted belief that I could do it stretched me. Added an unimaginable adventure to my life. If I talk about the competition, sometimes people look at me, incredulous. You? Compete? Yes. Me. I was a competitive skater. For just a few months. I have the photo to prove it. And the medals.

I still love skating. Last week, Devon and Nathan were invited to a friend’s birthday party at the skating rink. Devon wanted me to go along. I was the special guest at an eight-year-old's birthday party. But I didn't mind because a skating party is my favorite kind of party. For the first time, Devon skated by herself without holding onto the boards or holding onto my hand. She skated one entire lap around the rink. She was so proud of herself. So was I. She said, “I ALWAYS want you to go skating with me.” That's music to my ears. That makes my skates want to do a little half-flip. No matter who is watching me.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the Color Wheel of Life

I have a 1930s-era bed that I’ve wanted to paint white ever since I bought it a few years ago. 

I found the dark wood carved headboard and footboard in a resale shop, but I never got around to painting it. 

I used to be a fearless painter of furniture, mirrors and chairs. 

I painted everything white with no qualms about what it would look like until I eventually didn’t like the way a couple of pieces turned out and rethought my no-holds-barred approach to painting furniture. 

The bed before painting.
In the meantime, I bought an inexpensive tea-colored bedspread just until I could find something better. But I never could find a better bedspread. 

All the patterns and colors in my bedroom contributed to my tentative bedspread search. 

The walls are a very pale ivory. I have a floral patterned chair and a floral patterned fabric bench. 

My silky cream curtains have a yellow checked border on the bottom. 

Every time I bought a bedspread, I didn’t like it. An ivory bedspread only made me feel hot like it was a blinding expanse of sand on the beach. I tried a cranberry-colored bedspread that made me feel like fire engines were engulfing my room. A patterned bedspread I bought seem to clash with the other patterns in the room. 

So I decided to paint the bed to help solve the bedspread problem.

I bought eggshell cream paint in high-gloss enamel and my mother came over to help me with the project. 

She approaches painting unflinchingly, claiming you can always take the paint off or sell the piece and buy something else. She is a radical risk-taker where decorating is concerned and somehow with her undaunted guidance, my projects usually turn out great. She always encourages me to buy beat-up vintage furniture that we can fix up with a little paint or fabric.

The bed took three coats of paint. My mother meticulously detailed the headboard, carefully painting the shell decoration in gold. 

I tackled the details on the footboard and was much more casual about my efforts. But overall I was happy with how it turned out. 

Now that the bed was no longer dark, I thought finding a bedspread would be easier. But I still couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. Before I drove myself crazy looking for perfection, I settled for a coverlet with a predominantly white background with a splash of pink roses sprinkled along the sides. 

I added a silky pink pillow in the middle to pull it all together. It’s far from perfect but I kind of like how all the blended colors and patterns now look in the room. Some light colors, some dark colors, a few busy patterns and strong solids.

The colors are matched and balanced. Not for perfection, but for an interesting, harmonized room. 

I want to welcome the colorful seasons of life, too. The rich experiences that bring joy and effervescence. But I also want to appreciate the dark times. Although they might be difficult and painful, the dark seasons often provide a depth and richness to my life in ways the good times never can. 

They press me to carve out more time for prayer and send me searching to the scriptures. And when I do, God allows me to see just a hint of the pattern. The nuances of color he's shading my life with. 

And I find the clarity of God’s direction in my life so I can have a greater understanding of his purpose and plan for me. Dark times will come, but I can’t be afraid of them or try to rush through them. 

Together, the dark and the light places show me what I was made for. They give me the intensity, illustrate the brilliance, and enhance the vividness of all the experiences of my life. 

Together, both the light and the dark seasons of life blend and complement for a perfectly pleasing color palette.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Packing for Paris

With my trip to Paris just six weeks away, I’m thinking about what shoes I’m going to pack. 

I'm having a little trouble. I want to walk everywhere in Paris, but I always wear high heels. Usually four-inch heels. 

I don’t own a pair of flats. Even my flip flops have a four-inch wedge platform. I wear tennis shoes only when I am running and walking. For exercise. 

I just feel taller and think my clothes look better when I’m wearing heels. Most of all, I’m in a better frame of mind when I am wearing heels.

Although I'm not sure who she is, this photo
was pasted into my grandmother's photo album.
I love her pearls and shoes!
I come from a family of high-heel wearers. 

I have photos from decades past depicting my relatives at picnics, amusement parks and lounging around the house on holidays, wearing high heels. Apparently, it’s an inherited trait. 

But I haven’t always lived up to my family’s strict shoewear standards. 

A decade or so ago, my sister informed me that my line of shoewear was serviceable. “At best,” she clarified. 

She said my stodgy shoes were costing me prospective dates. Even though she is my younger sister, I defer to her on all matters of fashion, especially shoewear. 

As my sister and staunchest supporter, she only wants me to look my best.

I promptly upgraded my slide-on two or three-inch wedges and kitten heels for pairs of four-inch patent leather pumps, peep-toes and strappy sandals. 

No longer would I sport shoes with less than three-inch heels. I’m not sure if it was really a credit to the shoes, but the dates did pick up for awhile (before tapering off again), so maybe she was right.

This vintage ad is from a magazine.
Now, with my upcoming trip to Paris, I have received the most advice on the topic of my footwear. 

My friends and colleagues tell me that I can’t possibly wear heels in Paris. 

That it is a walking city with uneven cobblestone streets. 

I was sent an email by a concerned friend warning me that if I didn’t buy flats to wear, I would end up on crutches. 

Another friend instructed me that even if I insisted on wearing heels in the beginning of my trip, I wouldn’t last long and should carry a pair of flats in my purse to change into while out and about. 

She's sure I would thank her later.

So against my better judgment, I set off to the Designer Shoe Warehouse in search of flats. 

Pretty ones. 

I found a pair of flat strappy sandals with black jewels lining the front. Even though they probably wouldn’t qualify as walking shoes for the streets of Paris, it was as flat as I could go. 

When I got home I tried them on with the outfits I am taking to Paris. I looked in the mirror, feeling frumpy and dumpy in my skirts. My pants were all too long with flats. I don’t have a wardrobe for flats. 

I grew depressed thinking about wearing them. Kind of like I had to wear orthopedic shoes. 

So I boxed them up and returned them to DSW.

This ad is from a May 1942 issue of
Ladies' Home Journal.
I exchanged them for a pair of black silk espadrilles with a three-inch wedge heel. 

Perfectly sturdy for walking, yet with a hint of fashion flair with shirred fabric by the toes. I took them home and tried on my Paris wardrobe again. 

Not exactly haute couture, but I didn’t hate them. Hopefully the Parisians won’t look down their noses as I stroll their streets, clad in these black espadrilles.

I appreciate the kind concern of my friends on my shoewear. 

I have no doubt they have my best foot at heart. 

But this is Paris. The mecca of fashion. The city of Chanel. 

Although visions of Audrey Hepburn wearing her sweet ballet flats with her adorable black capris float through my head, I don’t look a bit like Audrey in flats. 

I could possibly be quite wrong about this issue of shoes. 

I have a hard time admitting when I am wrong. I am working on giving up the right to be right. To be more gracious when I say the words “You were right.” And mean it. To let the superiority go. 

There are some things I have passionate feelings about, but I do not always have to be right.
But on wearing flats in Paris? I can’t do it. 

Maybe my feet won’t thank me, but at least I can hold my head high. 

And I’ll make sure an abundant supply of band-aids are safely tucked in the pocket of my Chanel bag.