About Me

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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Monday, September 26, 2011

Moving On...

We are now a month into a major transition at our house.  My son has started college at UMSL (University of MO-St. Louis) and has moved into his dad's house, which is a stone's throw from campus (and only about five miles from me). He moved for a variety of reasons, including spending more time with his dad, needing to feel like he was really "going away" to college, and needing to be close to campus in the probable event that his 14-year-old car breaks down.

I suspect that his father's much more lenient approach to household rules also played into his decision.  I don't blame him for that. In fact, I was the same way at his age, itching to get out of the house and away from my mother's ridiculous rigidity, but just because I understand it doesn't mean I was willing to back down and let him stay out all night or throw loud parties in my basement.

The move has been amazingly more complex than I would have imagined. He moved some things to his dad's house, left some things in storage in the basement here, and together we packed up a lot of stuff for Goodwill.  Of course, I cried through a lot of that, and even today, when I walk past something in the grocery store that I would not buy for myself but that he loved, I can still get a bit teary.

Now that his move is done, the other part of the transition has started.  My daughter, who had been away at college for four years and who we expected to be moving to Los Angeles has unexpectedly (and delightedly, for me) decided to stay put in St. Louis for a bit.  She is a writer (here is her blog), so she has settled into her brother's room to write her first novel.  Until he had finished moving out, she was living partly in my room, partly in the basement, and partly in the dining room, so both moves have resulted in a much less cluttered home, and the joy that brings me is not insignificant (and just in time for the fall holidays too).

I had fully expected to be living the life of an empty nester this fall, so these changes, unanticipated a year ago, have led me to rethink a few things.  For one, I'm eating more of the foods I like since I no longer have to spend so much time cooking for a teenage boy with limited culinary interests.  For another, I have a young roommate who has grown out of the habit of cleaning up after herself (four years of college living will do that to you) but who likes to watch the same kinds of TV and movies I do and, even better, likes to talk about them afterwards.

Also, all of the moving has made me realize that we have TOO MUCH STUFF.  I have saved a ridiculous amount of crap from their childhoods, and while I plan to keep some of it, I need to whittle down the piles so that the hoarder police don't pay us a visit. (Lest you think I exaggerate, here is a photo of my garage I took, in an effort to capture my cedar chest on film.  Alas, I could not get close enough to it to take a better picture.)  So in addition to writing this blog post and saying, wow, I'm okay, I'm also gonna use the space here to sell some stuff.  First, I'd like to sell my son's loft bed (with attached desk), and here is a picture of it:

I also have a desk to sell, but that requires a bit more storytelling.  When my daughter was three years old, I quit working to be a stay-at-home mother.  I was very excited about this big change in our lives, but I was also worried about losing my intellectual and professional self to be a full-time mommy.  I planned to do a lot more writing, so what was needed, I decided, was a desk.  A space of my own.  I started looking in the newspaper ads (this was the pre-Craigslist era) and finally found one for $75 that sounded like it would meet my needs. I went to look at it before borrowing a truck and rounding up some mover friends, and what I found was actually quite amazing.

The desk was huge (and heavy, I admit, five moves later), but the woman selling  it had an extremely familiar face, one I had seen recently.  On the phone, she called herself Mona Thurston, but as soon as she opened the door, I blurted out: "You're Mona Van Duyn!"  Mona was a local poet and I had seen her give a reading just two weeks before, so her face was fresh in my memory.  This was 20 years ago, and she was old then, but a few months after I purchased her desk (how could I not!), she was named Poet Laureate of the United States.  She was the first woman to hold the post (and actually only the sixth ever, the post being somewhat recently established - see the link for more history) and the second St. Louisan, after Howard Nemerov. (This region has a long literary history - both T.S. Eliot and William Burroughs were born here - and a strong, world-renowned community of poets so the St. Louis component should not be surprising.)

I'm sure Mona was as surprised to see a poetry fan at her door as I was to see her opening the door.  As we were moving the desk out a few days later, I mentioned that I was starting a new stay-at-home career and that I hoped to do more writing, and it seemed to please her that her old desk was finding a new home with a another writer. I never saw Mona again - she died in 2004 - but I have felt her spirit with me over the years, and her desk has stayed with me and inspired me, even though it has been a monster to move and has largely, in recent years, become a magnet for clutter. However, at this point in my life and writing career, I do most of my work on a laptop computer, in a rocking chair, so it's time to let another writer's spirit find a home with my and Mona's huge, old, green metal desk. I'm sure she would approve. I am posting a picture here, but buyer be warned:  My garage is overrun with STUFF, so getting close enough to get a good shot (again) was impossible.  From the picture, it looks like there are some rusty spots so it may need to be painted, but seriously, if you will give me $5, and move it, it's yours!!

Finally, I have a cedar chest for sale that was my very first piece of furniture. I bought it for a song during college. It had been marked down at JCPenney, where I worked, and my employee discount cinched the deal. My  boyfriend (now ex-husband) and I had just started living together, and other than his twin-sized bed, we owned nothing other than our books and clothes.  Over the years, I have used the chest to store holiday decorations and miscellaneous junk, and it provided great kid seating at the table for holiday meals, but it has never really been used for its intended purpose - to keep winter clothing moth-free. It still smells incredible (and will definitely safeguard your clothes), but the seat needs to be reupholstered and the knobs replaced.  Again, if you will come get it and make a small donation to my household fund, it's yours (picture above, amidst all the garage debris).

These last two items are heavy (the buyer must remove them) and I don't expect them to produce enough revenue to buy dog food, but it is important to me that they find a good home, that I get to move on, and that I do not have to move them again.

I also have two or three 20-gallon tubs full of record albums.  I have great taste in music so you will find some amazing things in this collection.  Alas, the covers may not be in great shape, but if you've always wanted an original copy of George Harrison's orange, boxed "Concert for Bangladesh," look no further.

So, if you're interested, send me an email: evonbehren2@yahoo.com, and I promise not to talk your head off about the history of these items (that's what this post was for) or my kids or politics or movies or anything else other than the stuff I have to sell.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Ties that Bind Us

In exactly a week, I will attend my high school reunion.  It is our 35th.  If that seems like an odd year to celebrate, you should know that since our 20th, we have met every five years.  Apparently, we genuinely like each other.

People who have moved to the St. Louis region from other parts of the country seem stymied when they are asked where they went to high school.  Contrary to popularly expressed opinion, I don’t think we ask this question to assess each other’s socioeconomic backgrounds.  I think it’s because we tend to connect with others starting with which football team we cheered for as teenagers and continuing with how many kids we have, where we like to vacation, and which coffee shops we frequent.  For St. Louisans, asking a new acquaintance about their high school is a starting point in a conversation about community.

I realize that for many people, high school is a memory they would like to obliterate.  To be sure, there were popular kids in our school who were both resented and admired.  As time has passed, however, those distinctions have become largely lost to memory.  As for bullies, I’m sure they existed, as they always have, but I have no idea who they were.  I tend to think we were nicer to each other than my children’s generation is, but that too may be a measure of diminished memory.

I sometimes wonder if the era in which my classmates and I started our high school education had something to do with how well we get along today.  It was 1972. We grew up seeing war and riots on the evening news every night.  Social unrest was the language of our childhood.  We were literally the children of the 60s.  Martin Luther King was more than just the name on a holiday to us.

We entered high school just as the racial issues that had plagued our school district were dying down.  We spent four years together, walking the halls, sitting in the quadrangle, going to homecoming dances and football games, and generally just being kids together.  When we graduated, our class was down-the-middle, 50/50, black and white.  It never occurred to me that our experience was not the norm, but it has influenced my belief that integrated education is the best way to overcome our nation’s racial divide.  Spending my formative years in such a diverse environment taught me to see race very differently from the way my parents’ generation did. When I see a black person, I just see a person.

When I entered middle school (when did we stop calling it junior high?), the first real friend I made was Janice Hollis.  She was the smart, funny black girl who sat in front of me in math class.  She has recently reminded me that we first met at the bus stop, where we discovered we were both “new” kids on the block.  I had come from a Lutheran school, so this was my first public school experience, and she had come from another school district.  We have now been friends for 41 years.

Just as so many other Americans have done, many of my classmates (Normandy High School, Class of ’76) have reconnected on Facebook, but even before our generation stole that social networking goldmine away from our kids, my high school classmates were getting together every five years.  Janice has spearheaded many of those reunions, including this year’s, because in addition to (still) being smart and funny, she is also a great planner.

So, in a little over a week, we will get together at Cardwells in Clayton to eat, dance, and be merry.  We will show off pictures of grandkids this time around and talk about our empty-nester vacation plans.  We will welcome many classmates back who have moved to faraway states.  Hugs and cameras will be everywhere.  We will take a minute out of our reverie to silently remember the classmates who are no longer with us.

The ties that bind us, fused in an era marked by assassinations and protest, connect us, but they are not all that we are.  New generations, 35 years of history, a changing world, and personal stories of loss and growth too intricate to explain in paragraphs, are part of who we are too.  And it’s all part of the conversation that started so many years ago and that continues when we reunite next week, as a class, as a community, as friends.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Family Coming Together

Most families have colorful stories that get passed down from one generation to the next.  In my family, there is the one about my great-grandmother who allegedly crossed the Arkansas River in a covered wagon as a baby, across the frozen river. No bridge was available, or so the story goes.

Then there's the other one we can't authenticate, due to conflicting census records (according to my brother, the family genealogy geek) that says my great-great grandmother's father was a native American Indian (tribe unknown) who took his wife's name after marriage (John Kelly) and who disappeared at some point and was believed to have been murdered by a pair of "maiden aunts."  Nobody is really sure whose aunts they were, but they apparently then raised my great-great grandmother.

This comes to mind because that segment of my family, descended through the Hardin lineage, will come together again in September for our annual family reunion.  This year, in addition to barbecue, gossip, and photo-taking, we plan to produce a family cookbook, complete with recipes, photos, history, and anecdotes.  None of us is getting any younger, and in fact, everyone from my grandparents' generation is gone, with just one exception, so before we lose any more history (or memory), it's time to start documenting.

The project started as a simple collection of recipes, but my cousin Sharon was unable to generate much enthusiasm.  Then last year I foolishly volunteered to coordinate.  Now that I have started to seriously think about it, and after reading this great article about reunions and family history by the legendary former Post-Dispatch writer and editor (and now Beacon editor) Robert Duffy, it has become something else.  Something bigger and, admittedly, much more ambitious.

There are stories I think we need to tell, both the ones we can't substantiate and those we heard firsthand.  My grandmother really did pick cotton during the depression, and she did so with the most recent baby (she had five) nearby so she could nurse if the baby needed her. My grandmother also repeated eighth grade, not because she was held back, but because there was no high school and she wanted to stay in school. As the first-ever college graduate in my family, that story in particular always brings tears to my eyes.

Our family is both better educated and more affluent than it was 50 years ago, which means that much like other families, we are increasingly spread out.  Most reunions see only a smattering of each generation of each branch.  Every time I go, however, I am astonished at how many children under the age of 10 there are to whom I am genetically related.

For the past four years, my daughter has been away at college and unable to attend so this will be her first one in as many years.  She will be bored.  She will beg me to leave after an hour.  She has better things to do (I can hear already).  No doubt she is right.  She and her sibling did not grow up in as close proximity to my maternal family as I did.  As kids, my siblings and I spent summer vacations hanging out with cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.  We went to the homes of second cousins for family get-togethers fairly often. We had about 15 first cousins.  My kids have two (on my side).

Someday, there will no longer be a sufficient number of people left who are interested enough to go to all the trouble of organizing this huge event we call the annual Hardin Family Reunion (named for my maternal great-grandmother, Laura Jane Hardin).  It is already a shadow of its former self.  Someday, too, my children will be older and they may have kids and grandkids who may have questions about their heritage.  I'm hoping the Hardin Family History and Recipe Book will be there to help, so that they too can hear the story about the maiden aunts and the Indian named John.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

This Very Special Mother's Day

I've been teetering on the brink of depression for months now at the realization that my days as a hands-on mom are just about over.  I loved being a mom of little kids.  I gladly and without any regret left full-time employment to stay home with my babies and only grudgingly rejoined the work force as they approached school age and we needed the income.  I love my career, and in many ways it allows me to be creative and to walk a path I feel privileged to be on, but I loved being a mom more.

I even loved it when each of them entered adolescence, because I was ready for that maturational stage too.  The funny thing about parenting is that you grow up with them.  You are really ready for school when it happens, and if you’ve done it right, you’re probably ready for high school when it happens too.

But I was not ready for college or for the leave-taking that followed.  Wiser people than me have said it takes about six months to get over being sad when the first one goes off to college, and that is partly true.  I found, however, that every time she went back to school after being home for a week or more, I re-experienced the sadness and tears that I’d experienced that first September in 2007.

Now she is graduating from college, ready to move on to the next stage of making her dreams a reality, and her younger sibling is graduating from high school and preparing to start his college experience.  They will both be gone by September.

I’ve been pulling together photographs to use on Facebook and in graduation announcements and the result is I’m remembering how incredibly happy those early years of motherhood made me.  I never expected to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom.  As a teenager and as a young adult, I always assumed I would have a career and put the kids in daycare, but when the time came, the reality hit me like a sledgehammer.  I couldn’t do it.  I had to work for the first few years of my firstborn’s life because we had not planned on me not working, but I managed to finagle night-time shifts and part-time work, so I could be home with her during the day, before eventually quitting completely.

BEST THING I EVER DID. It surprised everybody, myself not the least, that I wanted to be a full-time mom, but still:   BEST THING I EVER DID.

So, I am celebrating this particular Mother’s Day with gusto. I know the future holds great things (I can see it through the tears), and that this is just the next stage in our (mutual) development.  I am happy for both of them, and I am grateful that they gave me the time they did.  I will hold it in my heart and treasure it forever.

Happy Mother's Day!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Things I Will Likely Never Do

Every morning on the way to work, I drive past a 30-foot tall photo of a woman in a beautiful, lacy wedding dress.  The photo is an advertisement for the bridal shop beneath.  The dress is the stuff dreams are made of, and at one time in my life, I aspired to those heights.  Today, as I drove past, it occurred to me that I will never wear that dress or any like it in this life time.  The time for frilly, gushing dresses is past.  Even if I were to remarry, it would likely be in blue jeans in Las Vegas or in a tank top on a Mexican beach.

This is not a bad or a sad thing.  I will never wear that dress because I really have no interest and because I am older and wiser and know that those funds would be better utilized sipping wine in a Parisian cafe.  But it got me thinking about all the other things I probably will never do now that I have reached a certain age (52).  Here is my list:

1) Go to medical school:  Clearly, I must accept at this point that I will never go to medical school. At one time, and actually for many years, I went back and forth about this:  Journalist or Doctor?  Doctor or Journalist?  Hmmm...I was still trying to decide at 30 and at 35.  That little I-really-don't-like-math-and-science-very-much problem kept getting in the way.  I think at this point I can cross medical school off my to-do list.

2) Visit Prague:  My friend Laurie has been to Prague, which I think is amazing and cool, but with so many places still on my "must visit" list, I just doubt that I will ever make it to Prague. 

3) Sing in a rock band.  This one is probably self-explanatory (I can't sing), but it remains every rockin' baby boomer's fantasy, doesn't it?

4) Skinny dip.  It's just never gonna happen, folks. 

5) Live in a house on the beach.  This one is still possible, but given all the natural disasters that befall beaches and coastal communities, my interest is waning.

6) Climb Mt. Everest.  I actually have never wanted to do this, but that shouldn't keep it off the list.

7) Meet my biological father.  I've pretty much given up on this, and it doesn't bother me at all.  I had a great Dad and a loving adopted family, and that is enough.

8) Win an Academy Award as Best Director.  Yeah, well, I wanted to be a filmmaker for years, and while I guess technically this is still possible, it is much more likely that one of my offspring will win an Oscar and provide me with my first ticket to the show.  And that's not a bad thing either.

9) Own a bookstore.  I have always dreamed of having a bookstore-cafe, with poetry readings and great music playing in the background, and only pizza, chocolate cake, and wine on the menu.  A girl can dream.

10) Read "Ulysses" or eat a snail.  See #4.

So that's my list.  Other items may occur from time to time, and I guess I may re-assess at 60 (which is why I didn't put skydiving on the list).  The good news is there are hundreds, if not thousands, of items left on my list of things I really have to try before I'm too old to think. But that is a post for another day.

So, what's on your list?

Saturday, February 26, 2011


When I worked for Youth In Need, my friend Laura Harrison, who was also my boss, used to stop by my office periodically and say to me:  "So when are you gonna decorate your office?"  She was a big believer in making your office a home away from home.  For Laura, her office was her home.

Laura was no workaholic.  She liked to play, and she liked to have fun.  But when you talk about somebody being dedicated to their work, well, Laura was the epitome.  In her years as an advocate for kids and in her job as the head of Head Start in the St. Charles region, Laura was known for her get-out-of-my-way drive to save children and families.

Laura died on February 17.  Her big heart apparently finally gave out, and at a very young age.  She was only 54. Her brother David wrote this about her:  "There is no doubt in my mind that Laura's first questions to St. Peter were 'Where's the kid's section and how can we make it better?'  Her next question to St. Peter would be "Where can I fish?'"

On my return trip from her funeral in Jefferson City, I realized that someday I will have to return to JC and find her grave and place a pair of socks on it.  Laura never wore socks.  Even on frigid, zero-degree days, she walked in to the building where we worked with her ankles bare.  She said they wouldn't stay up.  I kept telling her I was going to buy her a pair of socks that would stay up, but I never got around to it.  I still owe her that pair of socks.

The other memory that hit me on the drive home, and the one that brought me to tears, was of her insistent reminders that I put something on my office walls, that I bring a bit of "me" to the space where I worked.  I had my kids' photos on my desk, and at one point I built a display on a shelf of toy dinosaurs I had collected over the years (being a mom and a fan of dinosaurs), and in a building dedicated to kids, I thought that was appropriate.  Laura liked it, but she still said "you need stuff on the walls."

I tend to work in a context of messiness, papers and folders and newspapers and pens and coffee cups spread out everywhere, so clearly decorating does not come easy.  And during the two years I worked for Laura, I just never seemed to have enough time to do that decorating thing she kept talking about. But just this week, in the job I have now, I realized that my office actually looks, well, like a human being works here. I have a framed poster of the Beatles on one wall and a Monet print on another.  I have pictures of my kids, a plant that I adopted six months ago and have managed to keep alive, and next to the plant, I have one toy dinosaur.  A reminder of another time and another job. 

When I bought the Beatles poster, I had planned to hang it at home, but it sat on the floor of my office for a while and I kinda liked having it there.  Our facilities guys hung it for me this week.  I'd like to say that Laura would be proud, but I rather suspect she'd just shrug and say "well, it's about time."  Then she'd grin and walk off to the mountain of work that awaited her.  I hope St. Peter gives her some space to work, space that she can decorate and make her own.  I imagine he has his hands full.