Friday, August 31, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: six

Year six: 1987-1988. Age five, as I recall, was a good year.

Sometime during this year is when I started playing soccer. My brother played soccer and every time we would go to his games I would beg my dad to let me play. There weren't any teams for girls at this time, though, so I just started playing on a boys team. I would continue to play soccer for nine more years and I still love the sport.

For a few years I had been going to this little, Montessori school called Little People's Learning Center and I graduated from Kindergarten in the Spring of 1988. We performed a little play of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the ceremony and I was the dwarf, Bashful. This was an obvious choice for me because I was ridiculously shy at this age. I had one line and it was this: "I'm Bashful." Talk about type-casting.

I was actually supposed to go back for a second year of kindergarten, but then when Fall rolled around my teachers recommended that I should be moved up into first grade. So I got tested and moved up into elementary school early, and I remember being really excited and proud about that. I thrived on doing good and pleasing adults and I felt like this was a big accomplishment.

thirty days of thirty years: five

Year five, age four: September 1986-1987. 

After Mom died, some major changes happened over the next few years. First off, my dad had my long hair cut short into the mushroom cut that was so quintessential of little girls in the 80's. Then we got into some routines like going out to eat every Saturday night as a family and eating Sunday dinners at Grandma and Popo's house. Those were my mom's parents and they lived about six miles from us. There were transportation and baby-sitting logistics to work out and it felt like someone was always either coming or going at our house. 

We also had several family members come live with us for a while. I'm pretty sure my grandma-- Grandma-Down-the-River, as we called her-- was living with us at this time. She was my dad's mom and she lived south of the river (hence her name, although her real name was Caroline) and we lived north of the river, which, if you are from Kansas City, means something. I remember it being kind of hard to live with her because she was very old and she made me do all kinds of things I didn't want to do, and not just in the way that all kids need to do things they don't want to do. What I mean is that I generally felt like she didn't really understand me all that well; like she just made me do things because she felt that little girls my age should do certain things and not because it was something I needed. I remember that she used to make me take naps with her on my brother's bed, for example. I hated this because I didn't understand why I couldn't nap in my own bed, and at a certain point I started thinking that she just made me do it because she wanted to take naps. Because I would just lay there, awake and entertaining myself with my brother's Snoopy comic strip wallpaper, while she slept. 

I came from a pretty big, Catholic family and I know that Catholics can get a bad rap for being so religious in a works-oriented kind of way (a criticism that I think does have some merit) but I have to say, from personal experience, that they do a lot of things right. The Bible, which mostly comes down quite harsh on religiosity, does say that the one "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27). Having been orphaned and raised by a widower, and having seen so many others lose loved ones, I can say that Catholic believers have impressed me the most in the way they comfort and support the mourning. Even though it wasn't easy all the time, I respect and appreciate the fact that we had family members who put their lives on hold to come live with us; to look after orphans and widows in their distress

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: four

The fourth year of my life is usually where I start in the telling of my life's story for two reasons: it is when I start having my own memories and it's when one of the most critical plots in my story happens. 

I turned three in the September of 1985. My birthday cake was in the shape of a Cabbage Patch Kid, which is a fact that I don't remember but I know because there are pictures. The first thing that I really remember from that year was touching my mom's hand as she lay in her casket. My Aunt Mary walked me up to see her and she lifted me up and told me to reach down and touch her hand saying, "feel how cold it is." She wanted me to touch her so that the reality of the situation would register with me, because she feared I would be too little to understand. 

The very idea of the whole thing is absolutely tragic, when I think of it today. The woman was 37 years-old with a husband and four young kids and she just died one day. A week before Christmas, none the less. I'm told it was a pulmonary embolism that did it, so it was silent and unexpected. I imagine that her body looked almost perfect in that casket, although I don't remember anything but her cold hands.

I don't remember the event-- aside from that one moment at the funeral-- and I don't remember her-- aside from the one random, late-night popcorn story-- but it changed our family and it definitely changed me, although there is no measurement for how much.

It has always been curious for me to think about people really having a mom because Mom, for me, was always more like a celebrity than an actual family member. She was someone I had always heard about and who lived in pictures but not in real life, and I would not actually ever meet her (although sometimes I would fantasize about it).

Growing up I had a hard time feeling like it was a big deal to not have a mom because that was all I ever really knew (or at least remembered), but a few years ago I went to a counselor for the first time and she had me talk about it a lot. She gave me some insight on what it must have been like for a three year-old to lose her mom, and she used the word abandoned. I thought that was silly and I argued, rather logically, that she did not abandon me, she died. It wasn't like she was trying to go anywhere. But my counselor suggested that, in the eyes of a small child knowing only that someone she trusted and relied on was here one day and then gone the next, it was the same as abandonment. Death was my betrayer. And that was probably a key as to why I still struggle with the fear of losing every close relationship that I have.

I wouldn't blame somebody for being mad at God for doing something like that-- for taking their mom-- but honestly I cannot help but believe that God had bigger and better plans for her and for us. I never recall thinking that God was anything but perfectly good and right and true, even in light of this. All I remember is having a strong, loving father who was a safe refuge for me. Maybe that was all I ever needed to trust my heavenly Father. Maybe that was my severe mercy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: three

Year three, age two: September 1984-1985. 

I don't really know where to start reflecting on this year. I think I may have one or two memories from that time, but sometimes I question whether those are actual memories or if I just attached mental images to stories that I had heard growing up. 

I always heard about this car accident that my mom and the four of us kids were in during the winter time that year, in which some of us incurred minor injuries. Apparently my car seat was basically collapsed, but I had been sitting on my sister's lap-- a sign of the times-- so I only suffered from a scratched up face and swollen eye (I still have a scar on my left eyebrow). My mom wrote a letter of outrage to the car seat company for their poor craftsmanship, and did end up receiving compensation. Again, this is just a story I have heard a hundred times but I do have one memory of looking at myself in the mirror at my Aunt Lora's house and seeing my face looking back at me, scraped and swollen. That is my earliest memory, but it is just a flash. 

I also have one memory of going upstairs to bed with my sister (we shared a room) and being stopped by my dad who asked if we wanted some popcorn. We looked at Mom-- who seemed annoyed at the question, having just brushed our teeth-- for permission and she reluctantly agreed. I was really excited to stay up a few more minutes and eat popcorn. It is still the littlest pleasures like that, that make me happiest. 

Like I said, I don't have too many memories of this early year but when I look at old pictures from that time, it seems like I smiled a lot. I've heard this statistic a couple times that says two year-olds laugh, on average, 400 times a day. This is opposed to adults who laugh about 15 times a day. There was a time when I remember needing to practice smiling for pictures. I was still pretty young then, probably elementary or middle school, and I was anticipating the annual school picture. I remember this clearly so I was surprised recently when I looked back on the pictures from my earlier years and it appears that smiling, either purposefully or candidly, came very naturally. Whether I was riding a bike, posing with my siblings, doing gymnastics in a shirt that read, "it's not easy being a kid," or playing with books and toys in my crib, I was always smiling or laughing. Even though I don't remember why, I must have been happy.

Monday, August 27, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: two

My second year of life was between the Septembers of 1983 and 1984. President Ronald Reagan was campaigning to win his second term in office. Michael Jackson was dominating the Grammys. The Cosby Show was making its debut. I love that I was alive during this time in American history and pop culture. I don't have any memories of this year of my life but these were the things that were buzzing around me; the things that made news and everyday conversation for my parents and siblings. I must have been learning how to walk and talk and my hair was still kind of blonde. My brain was growing and I was absorbing the world around me like a sponge. 

I've heard and read from child development experts that the first couple years of life are critical for a person's emotional development. The other day I took a self-assessment for work and some of the results read like this: "[Ashley] is receptive and listens well... she can be sensitive to the feelings of others and is able to display real empathy for those who are experiencing difficulties... she usually is considerate, compassionate and accepting of others." These are the kinds of things that make me look back on my first couple years of life and consider how well I must have been loved and cared for to even have the capacity for such emotional qualities. It's funny: when you are so young you are nothing but selfish and needy, yet it is the consideration and compassion of those who nurture you that eventually becomes you... if you are one of the lucky ones. And I am, by the grace of God.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: one

I am not one of those people who is all subtle about my birthday. Maybe I used to be, but now I just own it. I love my birthday and I'm not sure if this was always the case, but I think it was and I just didn't admit it much at first. Happy birthday is one of my biggest love languages and I never get sick of hearing those words. If you think about it, every other day of the year is spent earning something, pleasing or disappointing people and searching for significance in the world. But on your birthday, you get to be accepted and appreciated just for being alive. That is a beautiful thing.

My husband gets two birthdays because the doctor wrote the wrong date on his birth certificate, but I get a whole month because one year I arbitrarily decided that would be the case. My husband is very supportive of this, which is one of the many reasons we are a good match.

In thirty days I will turn thirty years-old. This technically marks the beginning of my birth-month and I thought that it would be rather fitting to usher in this milestone with a look back on each of my thirty years of life. So, without further adieu, year one: September 24, 1982 through September 23, 1983.

My given name is Ashley Elizabeth Breitenstein. I always wondered why that was my name and a few years ago I found out that my mom just always liked the name Ashley, and it is as simple as that. One of my grandpa's favorite stories when I was growing up is how I peed on him when I was ten minutes old, which is possibly why we always had a very special relationship. Other than that I'm told that I was a "very good baby;" a good sleeper, not fussy, etc., which, in child development classes, is called an easy baby (seriously). Maybe someone reading this can offer more insight than I can-- I would like that, actually-- but that is about all I know.

Sometimes when I look at little babies it amazes me that they really are people, and that I and every adult I know used to be that small. But we all start somewhere.