Head Down, Leaning In

My Nonny was an interesting woman. When I was younger, I couldn’t see how any of her DNA could have been in me. First of all, she was a beautiful seamstress. That says a lot right there. But what I think, is it might just take a while for those cells to start to percolate inside a body. I see hints of her, here and there, living in me where I didn’t earlier in life.

All about family life

She came here, like so many others, when she was young from a small town in Italy. Although, that precise age varies depending on who in the family you’re talking to. (Daddy used to say she “swam the pond at fourteen”). My Nonny’s name was changed at the port of entry. It was deemed too ethnic and so she was given an American sounding name.

She had two husbands and two different generations of children. I was the offspring of one of her first bunch, in the second crop of grandchildren.  By the time I really got to know Nonny she was already in advanced years. By the time I came along, children and seamstress work had worn her out. There was much she didn’t want to talk about. I remember asking her one time about my birth grandfather. She pounded her chubby little olive colored fist on the kitchen table and said, No!

A rare smile

My strongest memories of her are in the kitchen standing next to something porcelain. She cooked a lot. And, until girls were old enough, she washed a lot of dishes. But when I saw that rare smile come across her face, it felt like warm butter. Interesting to note too, is that she spent much of her menopause years in the thick of all that activity. She earned that beautiful smile.

Menopause was the hardest teacher I’ve met. Harder than fame.” ~ Tori Amos

It is my understanding, much of menopause and its effects are hereditary. In which case, some of us get a double whammy.

The inferno

While a lot of years have passed for me to remember all the details of my perimenopause and menopause years, I have vivid memories of the feel of the burn that started around the top of my ears and moved down with precision to light me up like a tiki torch down to my toes. I felt like a big hunk of glowing coal in beige scrubs. I also know we didn’t talk about it very much.

Every woman is different, it’s true. It is also true there are different degrees to which women experience this betrayal of mind, body and the systematic removal of lubricating hormones. Those years of the assault on my body took place on the night shift. I think this worked out rather well, but I’m not sure those that worked with me would agree. Fortunately for me I had blessedly benevolent coworkers.

Their kindness was also fortunate for me, because in my infinite wisdom, I had decided to quit smoking – again. So, it was a real test of hardiness.

Those odd behaviors

It couldn’t have been easy. And it had to be downright odd during those times when I shot up from behind the microscope and ran out the back door in January in Wisconsin – yelling back, “Don’t touch the microscope!” Out in the below zero air I stood in the parking lot, in paper thin scrubs, in sweat, letting the January cold put the furnace out. It happened often and I’m grateful those friends at work were humane.

Did clients notice my damp scrubs? It was hard to disguise except to wear a lab coat. But there were those times when I could occupy that ice box of a surgery room. I could stand in there, with a bag of frozen peas around my neck (thank you to the surgeon who suggested that) while monitoring anesthesia.

Give this a try

My loving, wholesome, green living friends had all sorts of plant loving remedies for me. And, I took them purposefully. They’ll even you out, they said. They’ll help with those mood swings that snatch you up in a stranglehold, they said. Or when the nicotine withdrawals get too bad, they said, it’ll help that too. And when those didn’t work, I took prescribed meds. But I just kept being my high- efficiency, nonregulating, furnace -self. And the pills made me feel crappy in a different kind of crappy way. So, there was no choice but to drop my head and lean into it.

Different shade, same color

That’s when the stories of some of the women on both sides of my family started coming back to me. There they were, smiles on faces, ready with a sweaty hug and a hankie in hand. Then there were the other ones too. Razor sharped and short fused, all cinched up in girdles with lip sticked rimmed cigarettes hanging off their lips. Quick with a smack. All of them, on their way to the next chapter, leaning into it. They forged ahead, leaving a trail of perfume behind them and taking no prisoners.

For my part, I can say it was not the smartest move to attempt to quit smoking during that time. It was doomed to fail like it did. To be fair, though, I did try one more time and succeed years later. My father lost his left lung from cancer and went on living robustly for another seventeen years. Did I get that DNA from him? I guess we’ll find out.

Getting to know new layers of skin

I can say, it is a new feeling I get every time I discover a kinship with the past. I try to compare my life to what theirs was at the same age, but there is no comparison. I can’t help but wonder how much they didn’t talk about either. Much of their lives was task driven……moving from one meal to the next, from one clean up to the next, from one in need to the next one in need. I marvel at the times of mastery in which they marched through turn of events and came out victorious. And I’ve taken note of the times they showed me their folly. I get to either learn from it or take my turn running into the wall and bruising my nose. It’s all there for the taking.

“There’s a war zone inside me
I can feel things exploding
I can’t even hear the fucking music playing
For the beat of, the beat of black wings.” The Beat of Black Wings ~
Joni Mitchell