The Citrus Peeler

This past weekend I sobbed because of a citrus peeler.

You’re right. It really wasn’t the fault of the peeler. But the sobs snuck up on me when the peeler was in my hand, so it’s a convenient excuse.

Wait, you don’t know what a citrus peeler is?

A citrus peeler is a plastic tool used to help peel citrus fruits. I know, you got that from the name. It has a sharp cutting hook on one end that can be used to slice through the skin of an orange, or in my case yesterday a grapefruit. The other end is a thin, slightly curved, flat piece of plastic which can be used to peel a section of peel away from the fruit. You use the cutting edge to make slices down the sides of the fruit, then peel the sections away with the peeler.

A blue plastic citrus peeler.
My citrus peeler.

Do you need a citrus peeler to peel an orange or grapefruit? Of course not.

However, my father used to swear by his peeler. From the first time he brought one home around the time I was ten years old, he rarely peeled an orange without it. He enjoyed his citrus peeler so much, he bought an extra just in case his trusted peeler broke.

When I was a teenager, Dad would grab his citrus peeler and an orange at night when we sat on the couch to watch Jeopardy! together. We would share the orange while I shouted out answers, trying to beat the contestants. Sometimes, mouth full of fruit, I would frantically wave my hand at the television, moaning when I knew the answer but the contestants got it wrong. Dad would laugh and shake his head.

If you ever make it on the show Neecie, don’t bring any food.

Yesterday, I sat watching a movie, a half peeled grapefruit in my lap, sticky citrus peeler in my hand, and it hit me. I eat fruit this way because of my father. Without warning, the memories of shared snacks came at me.

Grief is sneaky like that. You can be perfectly calm, doing something mundane like peeling a grapefruit, and all of a sudden you find yourself unable to breathe because your insides are being twisted by a crushing vice. I feel as if it waits for you to delude yourself into thinking you’re managing. You’re in your routine, coping as best you can, not mired in overwhelming feelings of loss, and BAM! Like a coiled cobra, grief lashes out and strikes, the venom paralyzing you in a heartbeat.

Which is how I found myself crying over a grapefruit yesterday, holding a sticky citrus peeler. And once the floodgates opened, they didn’t close.

After Dad’s death in December, I knew eventually I would have a melt down. I thought it might happen on his birthday in January. When it didn’t, I thought maybe I’d break down when I next visited his grave. I never expected it to happen on a Sunday afternoon in March while I peeled a grapefruit.

I’m sure it will happen again. I wish I could say that it won’t. But grief doesn’t work in neat, predictable patterns. Next time it may be something other than the citrus peeler. I hope it is, because I’ve cried enough tears over that!

 

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30 Days of Thanks Day 11 – My Favorite Veteran (and Veterans Everywhere)

You were so kind earlier this week when I wrote a repeat post about my mother. I decided to push my luck and focus today’s gratitude post on my wonderful father Sebastian, or Sam as he is known to everyone. Yes, I’ve written about him before. Rather than repeat what I have already written, I hope you will read this post or this post to learn more about him. Most of what I know to be true about service to others, I learned from Sam.

My father taught me everyone has the capacity to be of service, to do something to improve their community or the world. Dad served my hometown as a Rotarian, a businessman and as a member of the Knights of Columbus. He volunteered to serve senior meals to seniors who were sometimes younger than he was. Dad drove his friends from church to and from medical appointments.

For almost thirty five years, my parents hosted an annual picnic on Memorial Day weekend. To the frustration of my mother, who would be planning details, Dad would invite people to the party up until the day of the event. It was not uncommon to be walking out of church with him, encounter someone and hear him say, “Whatcha doing on Sunday? We’re having a picnic and you should come – just bring a dish to pass!”

Mom would sigh, and I imagine she was mentally calculating if she had enough paper plates and napkins. Dad wasn’t concerned about the details. He is the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to not have a place to gather with others. Dad’s hospitality is what many of my friend’s comment on when they ask me about my parents.

Dad involved me in his community service when I was young. In elementary school, I accompanied him in the afternoons when the Rotary club painted the Scout House. In high school, I worked at his side scooping ice cream at the annual General Clinton Canoe Regatta, my hometown’s one big event. I sold tickets at the church chicken barbecues which were held to raise money for various projects.

Thank you Dad, for encouraging me to do whatever I can to help those around me. Through your example, I learned the value of commitment to the service to others. You taught me that everyone can do something, and that even small acts can have a large impact.

Today, a day we honor Veterans who have served our country, I would like to express my gratitude my father (who served in the US Army), my uncles, my brother-in-law, my nephew, my cousins, and my friends who have served or are serving. Thanks to you, and millions more, I am able to enjoy the freedoms and rights I take for granted. I appreciate the sacrifices you make for your country and its citizens. I may not always agree with my country’s policies and positions, but I always have the utmost respect for the men and women who willingly don the uniform each day and perform their tasks with professionalism and integrity.

Black and white photo taken circa 1946 of a young caucasian man wearing a uniform of a private in the US Army.
My favorite veteran.

Happy Father’s Day Sam!

Once again, it is Father’s Day in the United States and some other countries. I suspect I will see many posts honoring fathers on social media today. I originally wrote this post in honor of my father, Sebastian or “Sam” as he is known to everyone, as part of my 30 Days of Thanks posts. It has been a stressful week, so I am taking the easy way out and sharing it again as most of my readers were not here for the original 30 Days series.

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there, and to all who serve as father figures to others. My thoughts and prayers are with my friends and family who are facing their first Father’s Day without their father.

Thirty Days of Thanks – Sam

When I decided to do the 30 Days of Thanks challenge, I knew my mother and father would have to be mentioned. I decided to write about them separately because they each deserve their own day in this month of gratitude. People who have good relationships with their parents often credit them for shaping their own success. I never appreciated just how amazing my own parents were until I left home and realized others were not blessed with the same family love and acceptance I have known.

My father, Sam as he is known to everyone, is one of the most influential people in my life. He is outgoing, friendly, and quick with a story if given an audience. He was the manager of the grocery store in my little hometown, Bainbridge, for more than 30 years. As such, he was the first employer of many – myself included. It seems almost everyone in town knows Sam. To this day, when we go out in town together someone always says, “Hi Sam!” He will have conversations with them all even if he is in a rush.

My brother-in-law’s family used to hold an annual bluegrass festival. For several years, my father ran the concession stand. My friends and I were eager to earn money so we would spend the weekend at the festival serving hot dogs and hamburgers. We were the recipients of his pearls of wisdom as he flipped burgers and sang along to the music. Several of those sentences continue to guide me today.

“The customer is always right – even when they’re wrong.”

“I don’t care if you have a calculator or a cash register – you have to be able to count money and make change in your head.”

“People are more likely to do what needs to be done if you tell them why.”

“It doesn’t matter what job you do or what you learn in school. The most important skill you can possess is the ability to get along with people. If you can do that, you can do anything.”

If I am faced with a problem or dilemma, I ask myself what Dad would do. Unfortunately when I talk to him about things he often says, “I can’t tell you what to do – you have to figure that out on your own.” But the conversation often helps me uncover new ideas or angles I may not have considered. He usually has a story to tell about the matter at hand.

Dad is generous with his time and talents. I learned the importance of becoming engaged in my community by watching him. Bainbridge is home to an annual canoe regatta and for many years he coordinated and managed the chicken barbecue. Dad volunteered for the church, the Knights of Columbus, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary Club. In his 70’s he began helping serve “the old folks” at the senior meals; many were younger than him. A few years ago when he was hospitalized I learned he had adopted a child in South America through a church charity and wanted to make sure I would continue to support him if “something happens to me.” He purchased a subscription to the New York State Conservationist  magazine for my niece when she moved to North Carolina for a teaching job so she could help her students understand New York was more than New York City.

Photo of the author, a woman in a wheelchair, and her father in front of a large pine tree.
Dad and I in front of “our tree.”

My parents were older when I came into the family. Dad claims I was planned but I’m not sure my mother was planning for daughter number six. Last year my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Dad and I posed for a photo in front of “our tree” – the pine we planted together when I was five. As we stood there, he leaned over my shoulder and said, “I’m so glad we had you.” I choked up when I turned to kiss his cheek, grateful for the man who for so many years has served as my moral compass and a source of love. His belief in me – in all of us – and his admiration are gifts beyond measure. I honor him by doing my best in the hope I continue to make him proud.

Seven Secrets of Success from Sam

Today is Father’s Day here in the United States. I mention my country, because not all countries celebrate Dad today. For example, Australians celebrate in September. I’m sure others will be sharing stories about their Dad today. I have already seen many photos on social media. Sadly, too many friends of mine are experiencing the first Father’s Day without their dad this year.

My father, Sam, has been a father figure to many people over the years. I wrote about Dad last year as part of my 30 Days of Thankfulness. In that post I included some pearls of wisdom I’ve learned from Sam. I would like to expand on those today, in tribute to my father. Happy Father’s Day Dad. Thank you for always believing in me, and for teaching me to believe in myself. I love you, and even though I’m not with you today, hopefully one of the sisters who is there will share this with you.

Dad
Sam, barking orders at a family picnic. Photo courtesy of A. Conklin.

1. The Customer is Always Right.

Dad managed the grocery store in my small hometown for more than thirty years. He was many people’s “first boss.” As a manager, he went out of his way to make sure all his employees knew this phrase. Even when they’re wrong, the customer is always right. My first career was not in sales, but still involved customer service as I was providing speech therapy to clients every day. I realized many times the “customer” (the client or person being served) just wants to be understood, and feel validated. Making the customer feel “right” does not always mean you are “wrong.” It can also mean you have made them feel important. Dad made, and still makes, people feel important.

2. Learn How to Get Along with People.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard my father say “It doesn’t matter what job you do or what you learn in school. The most important skill you can possess is the ability to get along with people. If you can do that, you can do anything.” There have been many instances in my life where my ability to navigate a social situation was more important than the book knowledge in my head. Dad was right about this one.

3. Be Self-Sufficient.

The night before I started kindergarten, Dad sat with me on the couch and told me it was important to do well in school. I don’t remember his exact words, but his advice was something like this. “You’ll have to learn as much as you can, because when you grow up you’ll have to rely on your brains for work. Your muscles won’t allow you to do a physical job, so you’ll have to have smarts.” He also told me repeatedly as a teenager that I would have to be able to take care of myself, without relying on anyone else to support me. This was often followed by a reminder that he and Mom would not be around forever, so I shouldn’t rely on them. I don’t have to look too far to find the source of my stubborn determination and my need for independence. I am grateful Dad encouraged me to seek ways to do things on my own. I know too many women with disabilities who are trapped in unsafe co-dependent relationships because they have not found a way to live independently.

4. Laughing is Important.

Dad is a fun guy. He is quick with a story, and will laugh frequently during the telling. You find yourself laughing with him, as he reminisces. Dad is not afraid to laugh at himself either. A few years ago at our family holiday cookie bake, Dad wore an elf hat all day. Towards the end of the day, as we were packing up cookies and saying goodbye, he took the hat off and started laughing harder and harder. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, he had been growing increasingly worried about his hearing all day due to a constant ringing in his ears. He didn’t notice the tiny bell on the end of the hat until he removed it from his head. All day long, the bell had been ringing next to his ear, causing him to think something was wrong with his hearing! We laughed so hard we cried as he told us this. We still laugh each year at cookie bake when we think about the ringing in Dad’s ears.

Birthday
Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto

5. Show Your Love.

My family members are “huggers.” We greet and say farewell with hugs and kisses. We say “I love you.” As a child, I learned to demonstrate affection by watching my parents and my older sisters. Dad would come home from work, and greet Mom with a hug in the kitchen. The first year I went away for two weeks of summer camp, he sent me a card telling me how quiet it was at home without me, and how he missed me. When I was an exchange student, he sent me a Christmas card reminding me distance doesn’t change the love you feel for someone. My best friend, Steph, routinely washes and reuses Zip-lock bags. While I was visiting Mom and Dad, I found a fancy bag dryer in one of their catalogs and mentioned it would make a great gift for Steph. Two weeks later, upon my return, I found Dad had made me a bag dryer from corks and dowels, telling me to save my money and give this one to Steph. He may not always be the first to say, “I love you,” but he shows his love in little gestures all the time.

Dad & Mom
Dad pulled Mom onto his lap for a photo on her birthday.

6. Get Involved.

Growing up, I watched Dad volunteer in the community with the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the church. When he retired, he helped serve “the old folks” (his words, not mine) at the senior meal site in town. Dad has always believed it is important to give back to the community, to help those who need assistance. As a teenager, I was occasionally invited to join a Rotary Club service project. The motto of Rotary International is “Service Above Self.” I can’t prove my understanding and experience with this motto in action helped in my own acceptance to the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, but I know my willingness to become active in service didn’t hurt. Dad often said, “Everyone can do something, even you.” I’m grateful he encouraged me to do for others, rather than just letting people help me without giving something in return.

7. Go Fishing.

When I tell people I have five older sisters, their response is usually, “All girls? Your poor father!” While I’m sure it wasn’t easy living with so much estrogen under one roof, the truth is when my dad needed a break, he went fishing. He would take a day, maybe invite a friend, drive out to Cayuga or Seneca Lake, and hopefully come home with dinner. I would often ask to go along, and on the rare occasion I did get to fish with Dad, I was repeatedly reminded that the fish don’t like to hear talking. I’m sure this was because Dad just wanted to sit quietly with his thoughts. I have yet to find scientific data to support the theory that quiet fishing results in increased catch rates. Maybe fishing isn’t your thing – it’s not mine. The point is, everyone needs to take a break and spend a quiet day in nature to recharge. Dad knew this.

What lessons did you learn from your dad? Share them in the comments!

Gratitude at the Kitchen Table

Last weekend I surprised my mother by showing up unannounced on Mother’s Day. She knew two of my sisters would be there, but was not expecting me to roll through the door at church Sunday morning. Her eyes welled with tears as she gave me a hug, saying “Thank you for a wonderful surprise.”

Her expression of thanks was not unexpected. I was raised in a family which practices gratitude and celebration frequently. Little gestures taught me the importance of being thankful for each day. Many of these lessons were learned around the kitchen table.

I have heard the story of how my parents acquired their table many times. Fifty seven years ago, Mom and Dad purchased their house. Shortly after moving in they bought the table, six chairs, and a large upright piano from an acquaintance who was moving. For $60 they gained furniture which became the heart of the house.

The table has seen a variety of uses through the years. All of the pattern pieces for every dress I made throughout high school and college were cut on that table. Dad has ground venison and pork into sausage on the side of that table after many succesful hunting seasons. In the early years of my family cookie bake, we covered the table with flour and sugar. There is a section of the table where you can see newsprint in the varnish – the result of one of my sisters attempting to iron something quickly on the table using a towel on top of an old newspaper.

We have gathered around the table in sadness. When my aunt called to tell us my grandfather had died, I saw Dad fall into a chair at the table and bury his face in his hands. In seventh grade I sat at the table with Mom, hugging her as she sobbed after receiving the news of her youngest brother’s death. I remember gathering at the table one summer when my sister’s friend Bill came to visit a few months before he died of AIDS. On Sunday Mom and I held hands across the table as we cried, sharing memories of my sister Mary Jane.

The table has also seen great celebrations. Birthday parties, anniversary dinners, holiday meals and family visits bring us all together. Leaves are added to accommodate extra guests making the table so long it is nearly impossible to open the refrigerator door.

Photo of elderly women and a young man playing cards. They are seated at a kitchen table covered in a white tablecloth and food.
My family gathers at the table for celebrations, meals and card games. Sometimes all at once! Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.

Mom’s table is always covered by a tablecloth, unless friends have come for the weekly card game. Some nights during high school, Mom would surprise us by setting the table for dinner using the “good china” and a fancy tablecloth. When asked about the reason for the special dishes, she would always say something like, “It’s Tuesday, we’re eating together and I love you. That’s enough of a reason.” Fancy things didn’t need to be reserved just for guests. We were worthy of special treatment too.

Everyone is welcome to eat at Mom and Dad’s table. If you stop by for a visit, you will be given a seat and offered food repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if you say no – food has been known to just appear. Even if the kitchen is full of people, there is always room for one more and guests are made to feel welcome.

Last week I stayed for Sunday dinner with my parents. As I was setting the table, Mom told me to plan to sit at the head of the table. This space, usually reserved for my father, would allow me room to pull my wheelchair up to the table without needing to worry about accidentally running over Dad’s oxygen tubing. I questioned her because not once in my life have I ever sat at “Dad’s place” at the table. She assured me this would be easier for him.

As the three of us gathered for dinner, we bowed our heads to pray. Sitting in a different place offered me a new perspective on the table, the kitchen, my parents. I thought of all the meals served on this table over the years. Three meals a day for fifty seven years – 20,805 days – is an amazing 62,415 meals. Sure, there have been days and weeks where the table sat empty as my parents traveled. But think of the stories that table could tell if it were able to talk!

A rough calculation let me know I have said prayers of gratitude at the table for at least 12,000 of those 62,415 meals. As I professed thankfulness again last week I made a pledge to myself to return for more meals at my parents’ table. I get the sense it is waiting for a story teller who will listen.