The Great Family Betrayal – Why I Did What I Did

Image: My three paternal great aunts — Amelia Bramwell, Emily Nemer, and Helen Pittsley (family photo, year unknown)

One Woman’s Legacy

My great aunt Helen passed away this past year. To think of all that she had experienced in her 103 years is wondrous. The year she was born was the first that a commercial airline took flight. Alive before penicillin, before women had the right to vote, before television, she also lived through the Great Depression, both World Wars, man’s first steps on the moon, and the advent of the internet.

It seems a shame she would not remember most of it. The last time I saw her in the nursing home she smiled as brightly as she always had, her hair perfectly coiffed with uneven painted red lips, but there was confusion settled beyond those dark brown eyes. She could not place me, and in its way, her dementia broke my heart. I held her hand and introduced her, again, to my children.

I had never known anyone so selfless. She could never say an unkind word. She always put others first. She volunteered for every church event and donated whatever she could. She attended every wedding, every funeral, every baptism. She gave of herself like no one I have ever known, and although she never had children of her own, she treated every child as a blessing, including her nephew.

It is why I struggle to forgive my father for what he did.

Hope for A New Beginning

My father had a problem. He was an addict. It took me years and years, decades even, for me to admit it in public, not that everyone in his circle didn’t already know. The stigma behind his choices was my stigma too. 

Growing up with an addict as a father is not easy, and I am certainly not the first person to experience it. You learn to expect the lies. You wait for the next manipulation. Your self-worth diminishes each time he puts his needs before your own, even when all you need is to be seen. Still, you love him.

When I was pregnant with my son, my father went to prison. I wrote him every month while he was there, and he wrote back. I hoped for change, that he would see the error of his ways, that he would take this opportunity to start over. I put my heart and soul into those letters, not telling him what to do (that would only push him away) but telling him how I felt (that, I hoped, would bring us together).

Looking back now, his replies never talked about us. It hurts me to say he never even asked about the baby. Instead, he used those letters to ask me to do things for him, and I naively fell back into doing just that. There was always hope for a new beginning.

The Choices We Make

When he was released from prison later that year, my great Aunt Helen took him in as a condition of his parole. I visited him at her home. My son was only months old at the time.

My father was under a car when we arrived, fixing up whatever needing fixing, not really understanding what needed fixing most. Instead of pulling out to lay eyes on his new grandson, he grunted and stayed under the bowels of the engine. Later, after my dad washed up, we sat awkwardly together over lunch, the letters between us somehow dissolved into thin air. The silence between bites was deafening. Still, I tried to pick up where we left off, tried to lighten the mood with stories about the baby and memories from times past. He would smile, he would laugh, but his eyes remained focused on something far off I would never see.

As we said our goodbyes, I said to him my last word, and I will always remember it, “Behave.” He laughed in that playful way that charmed so many people, and we hugged.

Months later, he robbed my great aunt. He took everything —  her money, her jewelry, her memories, her sense of security — and broke her heart and mine with it.

Moving On

My father always taught me “family first”.

My first instinct was to check on my great aunt. When I did, her instinct was to protect me with soft words that assured everything was alright despite all that had happened to her. That was until, widowed and alone, the pain he caused brought her to tears. “I don’t know what to do, Tanya. I am so scared. I don’t feel safe. He hurt me, he really hurt me.”

It was my tipping point.

The time had come to protect me and my family. Making one of the most difficult decisions in my life, I broke ties with my father and became the instant black sheep of the family. People judged me because I turned away from a family member. That is simply something you don’t do, but they did not know what my life had been like until then, what I had endured. Even with the good memories, I was broken inside.

I could no longer enable his bad choices. I had to step away from the lies. More than anything, I had to protect my own children from experiencing that kind of pain. I could not allow my own children to be betrayed or manipulated by their grandfather. He would have to prove himself worthy of that trust if he were to see them. By stepping back, I was honoring the legacy of my great aunt and giving myself room to heal.

I could love him but from a distance … or so I thought.

Saying Goodbye

As it always does, time ran out. My father died from a drug overdose before we could make amends. My great aunt died two days before the anniversary of his death 8 years later.

Regret is a bitter pill.

I waited too long.

It gives me odd comfort that Aunt Helen’s dementia allowed her to forget about those days. Truth is, she may not have remembered him at all. Her disease was so advanced near the end that she would stare blankly ahead when I told her stories about her own brother, my father’s father. That is the tragedy of Alzheimer’s. It takes the good with the bad. What parts of a rich century-long life did she keep with her?

I can only hope that this amazing woman met her maker in peace and that somehow, even as I struggle with the losses of both my father and my great aunt, I too can find peace one day with all that has happened.

If You Could Make the Perfect Man or Woman

Image: Image: Anthony Michael Hall, Kelly LeBrock, and Ilan Mitchell-Smith in Weird Science (1985), Universal Pictures

My John Hughes Life

In 2017, I championed My Bridget Jones Life. In 2018, I’m moving into John Hughes territory. Not only does the director have a litany of classic 80s movies under his belt, he has writing credits clear into the 2010s. Who can’t relate to a good old-fashioned coming of age story or a character that breaks stereotypes? This is my life in movies.

The Misogyny of Weird Science

If you are not familiar with Weird Science, the 80’s movie plot focuses on two teen boys, Gary and Wyatt, who create the perfect woman. Wearing bras on their heads, they hook up a Barbie doll to a computer and make a woman that will bend to their every whim.

Who cares that science doesn’t work that way?

Lisa is a designer computer program who devotes every bit of her energy to making the lives of these adolescent boys better with no thought for herself. It is the teenage version of The Stepford Wives, and it is misogyny in top form. You would think that John Hughes would know that it takes a hell of a lot more than a pair of big boobs and a “yes, master” mentality to be a “perfect” woman.

Even though Gary and Wyatt never make a move on Lisa, even though Lisa is brilliant and smart, even though Lisa teaches them valuable life lessons, she is little more than a tool, a thing for them to use. Once the boys get what they want, she is tossed aside like yesterday’s news.

No wonder Weird Science irks so much. Hughes inadvertently reinforces the whole “boys will be boys” mantra. That was over 30 years ago. You can only imagine how people would respond if the movie came out today.

Looking Past Gender Roles

Not that Hughes didn’t give us some strong female characters in the 80s. Andie (Pretty in Pink) made her own clothes regardless of what other people thought about them. Watt (Some Kind of Wonderful) wore her tomboy card with pride, refusing to settle into what others expected from a high school teen. Let’s not forget that the writer/director did flop gender roles in Mr. Mom, showing Michael Keaton that there is no such thing as “woman’s work”.

Not that Weird Science was all bad. It was meant to be a comedy after all and with that comes some tongue in cheek fun. Even though the boys create her to do there bidding, Lisa tells the boys what to do for the most part, not the other way around. Lisa puts Gary and Wyatt in situations where they learn to defend themselves. She lectures Gary’s parents on how to appreciate their son. She humbles Wyatt’s brother Chet to teach him a lesson on bullying. She stands for something.

She may not be human but she is a better person than all of the other characters combined.

All in all, Lisa exhibits what are stereotypically masculine traits — assertiveness, independence, self-confidence, stoicism, and strength. She shows little empathy for those who cross her path unless they happen to be Gary and Wyatt, and she is hardly the soft and cuddly type. Tough love, that’s Lisa. If anything, she is intended to be the “male” figure in the story, not that that is any better than the misogyny. Gender roles do none of us any favors. I say women can be just as assertive, independent, and confident as any man. Maybe that is what Hughes was trying to show us.

How to Make the Perfect Man (or Woman)

It begs the question — what does it mean to be the perfect man or woman anyway?

It sure isn’t looks. They say beauty is only skin deep and with good reason. Whether it’s weight, hair length, eye color, or complexion, each culture holds different ideas on what it means to be beautiful. Even within the same culture, there are disparities. What I find attractive may be completely different from what catches your eye.

It isn’t stereotyped behavior either. Some men will prefer a woman who is passive while others may steer towards someone more free-spirited. Some women will prefer a man who is sensitive to one brimming with machismo. In reality, no person is any one of these things. They are so much more. A man is himself just like a woman is herself, a complex combination of traits based on their life experiences.

How people look can change in an instant but who they are on the inside stands the test of time.

What makes the perfect man or woman is that certain je nais se quoi, that special something so unique and untouchable that touches your soul. It doesn’t matter what anyone else sees or expects. It is about your wants and needs. How do they make YOU feel?

Simply put, perfect cannot be defined so stop looking for it. If you happen to be one of those people who concoct long checklists for the perfect gal/guy, please, please, please, throw it away. Get to know someone for who they are and see where it takes you. You cannot create perfection but you can find your own happiness.

The National Senior Games Rival the Olympics

Image: James Richardson, 80, in the high jump. Credit: THOMAS COINER/NSGA

Welcome to Live-It-Uary, a place to celebrate life while we live it. Live-It-Uary honors people who show kindness, people who create and inspire, people who do good deeds. Thank you for making the world a better place.

For Love of the Game

Who doesn’t love a good game? Whether it’s playing yourself or cheering from the sidelines, there is something exciting about people challenging their limits, testing their mettle against a competitor, and performing at their best. Whether it is on a local, national, or world stage, competitive sports are an adrenaline-burst of inspiration.

While some people focus on the winning and losing, they miss the point. The point is in the doing.

Too many people sit back, afraid to do or try. They play it safe. Whether it’s in sports or anything in life, there is a hesitancy to lose. No one wants to be a failure, to see their hard work go unrecognized or to feel they are not good enough.

The problem is you cannot grow without failure. You have to try new things, you have to challenge yourself, or you will never be better than you are right now. Stop settling. While you won’t win everything you take on, you are sure to learn something valuable along the way.

You miss 100% of the shots you never take.
— Wayne Gretzky

I say, when you play fair and with good sportsmanship, you cannot go wrong.

national senior games olympics
Dottie Gray, 92, in the 400-meter dash, Credit: TONIA MCKINLEY/NSGA

The National Senior Games

When you think about elite sports, at least when I do, I think of the Olympic games. Every two years, alternating winter and summer, we witness people around the world perform seemingly miraculous feats of skill. For a few brief weeks, nations come together to rally with pride for their fellow citizens regardless of color, race, or creed.

Honestly, why can’t we do that 24/7, regardless of sports?

Not everyone is aware of another Olympic game of sorts. Every two years, the United States hosts a National Senior Games, the last in Birmingham, Alabama in June 2017. Here people from 50 to 104 years old, get together to compete. Events include but are not limited to archery, badminton, basketball, bowling, cycling, golf, horseshoes, pickleball, racquetball, shuffleboard, softball, swimming, table tennis, tennis, and volleyball.

Tony Diamond at 88 years old was the oldest contestant to run the 10K, finishing in 1 hour and 31.13 seconds. 101-year-old Julia Hawkins finished the 100 years dash in 39.62 seconds. Charles Milliman, 85 years old, completed the pole vault at 1.75 meters. 95-year-old Hazel Trexler-Campbell landed a discus throw at 10.01 meters. 88-year-old Frank Farrar completed his triathlon in 2 hours, 57 minutes, 11 seconds. Fay Bond, 94 years old, leaped 0.93 meters in the long jump.

Age aside, could you have done any of these things?

Defying Age and Limits

The wonderful thing about sports is that there are no limits. The National Senior Games is living proof that age is only a number.

Before you get your panties in a bunch, I am not saying that every person needs to be an athlete or that everyone has the capacity to become one. Some activities could be too dangerous and even life-threatening if you had certain medical conditions. That said, there are many people with physical and mental disabilities who perform amazing feats in the Paralympics and Special Olympics. You may not be safely able to perform some activities but you can strive to be your best self. You can do what YOU can do.

Every year athletes outperform each other. New records are set, and we are astounded time and again by what we mere humans can accomplish. 142 records were set at the 2017 National Senior Games!

When I say there are no limits, I am really referring to our potential. Each of us has our own spark. We have to keep looking beyond what we can do today because our future is bright, brighter than any gold medal. Whether it’s in sports, in writing, or anything else you enjoy, don’t hold back. Defy those limits.

You Say You Want to Be a Writer

Image: © peshkov (

The Writer Without a Coffee Habit

I may be crossing a line when I say this, especially as a writer, but I don’t like coffee. I really don’t. Unless it is mixed with heaping amounts of sugar AND served up as ice cream, I never cared for the taste. It is too pungent and, dare I say, bitter.

He liked the idea of coffee quite a lot — a warm drink that gave you energy and had been for centuries associated with sophisticates and intellectuals. But coffee itself tasted to him like caffeinated stomach bile. So he did an end-around on the unfortunate taste by drowning his java in cream.

— Author John Green in An Abundance of Katherines

I do, however, enjoy the smell of coffee. Its aromaticity gets at the heart of me. Not because it makes my mouth water, quite the opposite. For me, it is how it triggers the brain to spin visions from the past.

I see my parents drinking from steaming cups in the tiny kitchen of my childhood home. My dad has long since passed away. My friends sit gulping java by the gallon as we study for a medical school exam. Those years of cramming minutia into my brain were over a decade ago. A waitress tops off a friend’s cup as we catch up at a local diner. We no longer live in the same state to continue our afternoon get-togethers. Let’s not forget the hours upon hours I write in bookshops and cafes, breathing in the rich aromas around me. Okay, this one lives on.

With all these lovely memories, I should not only like coffee, I should love it … but I don’t.

Why Do You Want to Be a Writer?

I don’t like the taste of coffee, but I have fond memories where coffee nestles in the background. That does not by default mean I like coffee.

Listen, if I want a caffeine fix, there are more than enough alternatives. I could dip into a box of chocolates (oh, yeah!) or I could choose from a variety of teas. Personally, I favor a chai latte. The baristas at Barnes and Noble know to whip one up as soon as I make my way through those double doors.

The problem is that many people will pretend to like something even when it is only the “idea” of it that they like.

Take writing as an example. So many people talk about wanting to live the writer’s life. Everyone wants to be a writer. They see it as a laissez-faire existence, a life of ease and simplicity. After all, you sit around and scribble ideas on paper while sitting back with that cup of java in hand. You can work from home in your bunny slippers or from any place you wish. The world begs for your words. You are so effortlessly creative, you are hardly working!

Ummm, no.

If this is one of the reasons you want to be a writer, you are in for a rude awakening.

Realities of the Writer’s Life

Writing is hard work, harder than many people realize.

On the days the ideas flow, yes, the writing can be so gosh darn satisfying, but there will be days when that simply does not happen. There will be days when you stare at a blank page or days that your cursor blinks at you with a stink eye. There will be days the words are sparse and days they do not come at all. There will be days you throw out sentences, paragraphs, pages, or whole chapters you spent painstaking hours or days trying to get just right. Then, there’s the rejection.

It comes for all of us, even the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world.

Not all writers will get a traditional book deal. If they do, the average advance for a first-time novel is only $5,000 to $15,000. That’s great until you realize how long it took to write it and that despite a finished product, it might take a year or more for the book to actually come out.

The trouble is many writers struggle to find an agent that will take them on in the first place, and even if they do, publishers may turn them down. There are no guarantees, even if you choose to self-publish. How much can you earn as a writer? Will your books sell? Are you going to be the synonymous “starving artist”?

It depends on your critics. While you hope readers sing your praises, there will always be negative reviews, some constructive, others harsh. Some flagrantly mean. Months or years of your hard work could be reduced to a two-line zinger in a public forum. You have to have thick skin to stay motivated.

No pain, no gain, right?

The Joy of Being a Writer

Ah, but those gains. When you do land an agent. When you do get the book deal. When you get your first paycheck or advance for writing. When you hold a hard copy of your own book in your hands. When you sell your first book. When you get a five-star review from a stranger (love your reviews too, Mom!). When your book makes the best-seller list.

Better yet are the smaller everyday moments of being a writer. When your writing flows like water. When you find the perfect word. When a sentence is so well-written it knocks your socks off. When you shoot past your word count. When you wake up with the idea that finally brings your plot together. When a new story idea jumps out at you.

If you don’t really love the process of writing, the ups and downs, the inevitable risks, the long and winding road, you don’t really like writing in and of itself. You only think you do. You want the results without the work. You want the accolades without the effort. In the real world, you are unlikely to get very far if you cannot stomach the journey.

You have to want it all if you are going to succeed. That means accepting the pains with the gains.

If any of this has given you pause, it’s time to ask yourself what you want. It’s simple really. Drink the coffee even though you don’t like it or drink what you really like. Either you can live life with a bad taste in your mouth, doing what you feel you are supposed to do, or you could savor what truly satisfies you, doing what you are meant to do. The choice is yours.

What Groundhog Day Teaches Us About Today

Image: Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (1993), Columbia Pictures

Time Is of the Essence

In the movie Groundhog Day, one of my all-time favorites, self-absorbed weatherman Phil Connors is forced to live the same day over and over again — until he gets it right. That day just happens to be the day that he and his crew travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the groundhog’s forecast. Too bad the little guy saw his shadow.

Phil: When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the circle of life.

On screen, we watch Phil relive 38 days, but he makes references to many more. He talks about being stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. Since we only see one of those in the movie (toaster in the bathtub), add another 6 days to the total. He later says it takes six months to learn how to expertly throw cards into an upturned hat and when on a date, he says he saw a movie, Heidi 2 of all flicks!, 100 times. That tacks on another 380 days.

In the diner, Phil knows details about coal miner Tom, drunken sailor Gus, engaged couple Debbie and Fred, waiter Phil, and waitresses Alice and Doris. Assume it takes a day each to learn these intimate details. Speaking of details, when did he meet his date for Heidi 2, score WWF tickets as a wedding gift for the couple, memorize those Jeopardy! answers, or even find out that Rita likes Rocky Road ice cream? Add at least another 4 days.

Then, think about what it takes to be in the right place at the right time. He saves a kid falling from a tree, changes the old ladies’ flat tire (he even had his own jack — when did he hunt that down?), and performs the Heimlich maneuver to save Buster from choking. Not to mention how long it would take to become an expert ice sculptor, pianist, or learn to speak French.

Director Harold Ramis once said Phil Connors’ story spanned 10 years, but film aficionados have calculated it to be anywhere from 8 to 33 years.

The Perfect Day

Does the actual timeline matter?

Not really.

The concept of using your time well, however, THAT is at the heart of it all. So often we are on automatic pilot or we put the bulk of our focus on the future, pushing ourselves to meet some unmet goal. Having goals is great, they help us to grow and become better people, but how often do we actually live in the moment?

Phil was so intent on leaving the small town for the big city, he missed out on the good things Punxsutawney had to offer in the NOW. It took a time warp to set him straight. Even then, it took him a while to get over the fact this of all days was his do-over.

Phil: I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. *THAT* was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get *that* day over, and over, and over…”

We all have those “perfect” days, those days that are effortless, carefree, exhilarating, and inspiring and if not, I sure hope one comes your way soon. Maybe it was the day you met your soul mate, the day your child was born, or in the case of we writers, the day you got a book deal. Those days are not only special for what happened in them but because you knew to slow down and appreciate them.

Imagine how glorious life would be if you could make any day feel that way, if you could make an imperfect day perfect.

Make Every Day Groundhog Day

Not every day is going to rank on your top ten list. In the real world, “stuff” happens that is going to derail even the most promising of days. We need to learn how to make the most of what we’ve got. That means taking the common everyday moments and counting our blessings.

— Caller ID
— Color-coordinated office supplies
— Cuddles from your kiddos
— Friendships, new and old
— A good cup of tea
— Moleskine notebooks
— Movies you can watch again and again
— The perfect playlist
— Soft pillows
— Watching a sunrise
— Your health (even on days when it isn’t perfect)

I experienced all of these this morning, and how grateful I am! We need to stop waiting for tomorrow to be thankful for what we have today. We need to appreciate the day we are living. Of course, time is limited. We cannot do everything today, but we can make the most of it.

Phil: Do you know what today is?
Rita: No, what?
Phil: Today is tomorrow. It happened.

The bigger question is, if you had all the time in the world, what would you do with it? What is it that you want? With that in mind, do what you can TODAY. Make every day Groundhog Day.

You Are What You Eat in the The Breakfast Club

Image: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club (1985), Universal Pictures

My John Hughes Life

In 2017, I championed My Bridget Jones Life. In 2018, I’m moving into John Hughes territory. Not only does the director have a litany of classic 80s movies under his belt, he has writing credits clear into the 2010s. Who can’t relate to a good old-fashioned coming of age story or a character that breaks stereotypes? This is my life in movies.

The Breakfast Club or The Brunch Club?

It’s funny to me that one of the most iconic scenes in the Breakfast Club is not about breakfast at all. It’s about lunch. All the stereotypes and cliches of the high school student — the athlete (Emilio Estevez as Andrew), the basket case (Ally Sheedy as Allison), the brain (Anthony Michael Hall as Brian), the criminal (Judd Nelson as Bender), the princess (Molly Ringwald as Claire) — are more on display in what they chose to eat than on what they wore or how they looked.

Consider all the innovative lunch combinations!

Are You a Claire?

Sushi in the 1980s? Talk about decadent, elite even … at least for its time but especially for detention. Claire pulls out a fancy schmancy sushi box with matching chopsticks and delicately nibbles away to the stares of the “club”. Still, I doubt Claire’s sushi tasted all that good after sitting in that designer shopping bag under her desk for five hours.

Are You an Andrew?

Moving on to Andrew, let’s see. His literal grocery bag of lunch options included three sandwiches, a quart of milk, a bag of chocolate chip cookies, a family-size bag of potato chips, an apple, and a banana. While I applaud him for at least remembering to add the fruit, I cannot help but wonder about his weight class on the wrestling team.

Are You an Allison?

Then, of course, every child’s dream meal. A sandwich of Pixie Stix and Capn’ Crunch cereal! Of course, Allison only indulges after she throws a slice of pimento loaf onto a school fixture and opens a can of fizzing Coca-Cola. Classy how she sucks the remains off the table too.

Are You a Brian or a Bender?

Brian, on the other hand, has a brown paper bag lunch packed by his parents. Inside are a thermos of soup, a PB&J sandwich with the crusts cut off, and a juice box. Bender, the natural bully, comes on over and asks “What are we having for lunch?”

You Are Who You Are

How ridiculous would it be if people judged you based on what you ate? Surprisingly, it happens time and time again.

Bring your own lunch to middle school, you aren’t cool. Eat canned vegetables or tuna fish, you must be poor. Go through the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant, you must be unhealthy. What if the thought of a hot school lunch makes your stomach roll? What if you like the taste of canned tuna? What if you need a shot of caffeine to dull a migraine or you simply want to support a friend working the drive-thru window?

People find it acceptable to judge you based on anything and everything under the sun, even if they don’t know a thing about you.

Dear Mr. Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong.  But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain … and an athlete … and a basket case … a princess … and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club

Don’t let other people define you.

Life Is a Potluck

In the end, none of the stereotypes matter. Why? Because there’s more to each and every one of us than meets the eye.

It’s not what you look like, and it’s sure not about what you eat. All of those things can change in an instant. Instead, these characters come together when they hear each other’s stories, when they open themselves up to other perspectives and actually *gasp* listen. If more of us could stop to look past our assumptions and get to know people for who they really are, the world would be a far better place.

Now imagine, instead of sitting in their “assigned” seats, the Breakfast Club set their lunch up as a potluck. How much more inclusive would that be? Personally, I would have snagged a piece of sushi, the banana, and the juice box with a Pixie Stix for dessert. That’s right. I am a brain, an athlete, a basket case, and a princess. Not a criminal perhaps, but aren’t we all innocent until proven guilty?