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Regrets of My Self-Absorbed Youth

When the whistle caught the night
And shook silence from my life
As the last train rolled toward the moon…

–From Dennis DeYoung and Desert Moon

Catholic Nun Doll 1950s

When I was 14, too old to play dolls and too young for old people to realize it, I walked from my house in Southeast Kansas to Zula’s place.

Zula remains the oldest person I’ve ever known. She was 94 and attended the rural church my father pastored. One Sunday following church, she asked me to come visit her on a Tuesday. I accepted her invitation all the while dreading it.

I was, after all, a teenager. It was 1982. All I wanted to do was listen to Chicago’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry over and over again as I fantasized about my crush.

I wanted to write in my diary by candlelight like Anne Frank – without the Nazis and the death camps. I wanted to plan my wardrobe and count my dollars and see how much Geneva would let me charge at her clothing store in downtown Caney. I did not want to spend even one afternoon with a 90-year-old woman trying to think of what to say next.

Zula and Regrets of A Self-Absorbed Youth

Zula was a diminutive woman who always wore black and carried a white hankie. I have thought about her 10,000 times over the years, because she represents all of my regrets over a self-absorbed youth; too many crushes and too many classics left unread.

With angst I drilled through that Tuesday afternoon. When I arrived to her clean and simple and peaceful home, she’s set out dolls for me to play with. Zula never had any children of her own, which meant she never had any grandchildren or great grandchildren. The dolls were old and beautiful, and pretending to play with them at 14 was actually quite painful.

I dreaded every second I was with Zula and I wished for the moments to pass as quickly as possible, even in the midst of actually kind of enjoying my time with her. I wish I could remember more about what she said and what we talked about. I was too preoccupied with getting out of there and getting home. What I do remember is that Zula was interesting and sanctified. I grew to love her during our time together almost as much as I wished I were different; more outwardly focused, more discriminating with how I parceled out my time.

When I left Zula’s house, I promised that I’d return – at least once a week to play with the dolls. Secretly, I really had enjoyed my time with her. But, of course, I never returned, and not long after, we moved to a different town 20 miles up the road.

“The Least I Could Do.”

Some years back, I took a job working for a woman who never had children. She was brilliant, and in ways I can’t explain, I had tremendous affection for her. She was private and discreet, but, on occasion, she opened up to me. Years prior, she’d left a big job in another state to come home and care for her mom. “She cared for me when I was a baby,” she said. “The least I could do was care for her.” And, she did, until she died, all the while refusing to put her in a nursing home.

I always thought God’s purpose for me in that job was not the job at all, but the stories my boss told me about her mother. They were like a forewarning. My father will die. I can find the courage to care for him now. But, I have not found that courage, and my focus is parceled among young children; freelance projects; laundry; laundry; laundry; and the occasional dinner out or a pedicure.

This Ridiculous Thing

When I started this blog, I wrote a great deal about my father. He’s been in that nursing home for too many years now, and he’s worse and worse all the while. I don’t write much about him anymore, and every visit to see him is something I must drill through with angst and dread. But, even still, there are those moments when I sit and I hold his hand, and I actually enjoy being with him, simply because he is not gone yet.

We have not yet done this ridiculous thing: put him in the ground.


The thing is, I’m more gone than anyone. I was more gone with Zula than Zula was gone at 94. And, I’m more gone than my father, who turns 80 in March. And, to where am I gone? Turned inward into some fantasy of winning the lottery with my $1 chance? Turned inward into finding the perfect splash of color for my white, taupe, and black kitchen? When do we become so indecent? Are we born this dreadful?

Fred Rogers: My Stomach Hurts

I heard Diane Rehm tell a story on NPR the other day. It was about Fred Rogers. He told her in one of his last interviews that when he was sad he played the piano, and that he was very sad that day and would be playing it a lot. She asked him why he was sad and he said because his stomach hurt.

Fred Rogers died three months later from cancer.

Missing People We Love

When my heart hurts, I rearrange all the furniture in my house and organize every nail and bolt and screw and nut and paintbrush and extension cord in the basement. I go days wondering if I’ll ever write anything original again, and I bark. At everyone. Really, I am just missing someone. Mostly my father, sometimes, the Zulas.

San Juan and Leaving Town

One of my favorite bloggers, Andi, took a vacation last week to the San Juan Islands, and reading about it on her blog made me think of my father who was stationed in the San Juan Islands when he was in the Navy. It’s amazing, the things you want to ask someone when their answers are no longer available.

I was a good daughter and I loved my father very much. I spent time with him, even when I didn’t want to, and over the years I picked up a lot. I got to know him and appreciate his talents and brilliance.

And, at least I can remember he spent time on the San Juan and Mariana Islands, even if I never asked him what it was like or how he spent his days there. I think I was afraid to know that young man for fear I would have to confront his dreams – the ones that never came true. Maybe that’s why I drilled fast and hard through so many days, not only with him but with Zula.

I was afraid to love her and more afraid for her to love me, because eventually, one of us was going to leave.

Stay in the Moment

So, this brings me to my current running challenge: not allowing moments that have not yet come claim whatever joy is available to me, right here, right now. Some months back, another favorite blogger, Le, wrote the following on her blog. I’ve kept these brief words tucked in my heart and reflected on them several times because I so value staying in the moment. She wrote:

“Tomorrow my brother flies back to America. He lives in Wilmington. I am already sad. This is most unlike me as I do try to stay ‘in the moment’ and enjoy the here and now. I wish one of you bloggie US girlies lived near him so you could keep an eye on him for me…”

What about you? How do you stay in the moment? Is there or was there a Zula in your life? And, by the way, when did you stop playing dolls? For me, I was 14.

connie majorette 2

Connie the Majorette, A Topper Dawn Doll


Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. B2design

    Nice work, Jen.

    I think “staying in the moment” is a constant struggle. I have to remind myself to appreciate what’s in front of me NOW and to stop planning for what’s around the corner. Having a 3-year-old at home helps, though. She is all about NOW!

    Seeing the world through her eyes makes me a better person. It makes me take notice of the small things… The ladybugs, the different colored leaves, the sound of the airplane passing overhead… She reminds me that the world isn’t about meetings and deadlines and ROI and Health Care Reform. That’s not why we’re here.

    Sure, it has its place, but remembering that we are ALIVE right now – with incredible opportunities all around us – is so important.

    THIS moment. This is the one to treasure right now.

  2. jenX

    @ALL – Hey ya’ll – I’ve been really sick this week with the flu, and not able to respond individually to all these great comments. Trust me, they meant a lot! I’ll get back to this very soon. In the meantime, anyone want to guest post? =) Robert, where’s my article on Gen X sports greats?

  3. junkdrawer67

    I stay in the moment by watching my daughter, who is 8. Kids know all about living in the moment. They could care less about anything else. Puppies too.

    Being a guy, I didn’t play dolls per se, but I did have a GI Joe, Evil Kneival, army guys, Star Wars action figures, and…okay, I played with dolls. Can’t remember exactly when I stopped, but I started again whey my daughter started. Although, she calls them her “babies” and her “guys.” Babies being essentially girlie dolls and guys being like her playmobile people etc. Anyway. My point is — and I do have one — adults should take time to play dolls, and color, coloring rocks!

    My Zula was named Mrs. Rumbs, a spinster woman on the block who’s husband literally went our for cigarettes and never returned. My younger brother and I often spent time with her; she taught us all kind of crafts. Later on, I mowed her lawn and cleaned her gutters and window wells. I can’t recall an explicit life lessons that she tried to pass on to me, except the despite her circumstances she seemed pretty content with her life. Of course, we were kids and she likely hid her angst from us. She was a big smoker — True Blues — and had those little bean bag ashtrays that can rest on the arm of chair as easily as coffee table.

  4. Anonymous

    Jen, reading this makes sentimental. After reading it I just want to cut the ropes that the world is using to pull me in different directions, take a deep breath and hold my wife and kids. Rob

  5. wildbillyelliott

    For you, it was DOLLS…For me, it was HOT WHEELS and TONKAS.

    We moved from California to Colorado when I was 12, & I was the curator or a serious collection of both HOTWHEELS & TONKAS back then. I valued them very much, and would gladly go to blows with playmates if I thought one was missing.

    Then, unexplainably, I just stopped taking them out. I still valued them; I just didn’t have the desire to play with them anymore. I was more interested in REAL CARS…

    …And getting the little girl down the street to play ‘Spin The Bottle’ or ‘Truth or Dare’ with me…

    Life is funny, isn’t it?

  6. Lance

    This is full of such raw honesty. And it touched my heart, very deeply. Am I really living in the moment? I like to think I am. I question that answer though. Is there something that really connects me with this moment in my life? Whew…. this is taking me deep within. And to a place I have to sit with for a bit…

  7. 80sMom

    I enjoyed reading that.

  8. Yogi♪♪♪

    Great post Jen. You really put yourself out there.

  9. CariOkie

    Wow. I understood every word. I have lived in some amazing places, raised two excellent daughters, but I have always struggled with hurrying through the present because I’m planning for something or worrying about something in the future. My Zula was probably my grandfather. He was a brilliant man but I was always in a hurry to get to the next thing. Too much in a hurry or distracted to really hear him. I do think I’m getting better at living in the moment. At least I’m trying.

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