Still hammering away at your Christmas list for those hard-to-buy-for family members?
Oldest Daughters: What to know if you are one or have ever been bossed around by one is a book of stories, insights, and suggestions for building loving family relationships. For everyone in the family — oldests, siblings, and spouses!
Available as a print or ebook at amazon.com and on request from Barnes & Noble stores.
Merry Christmas to all— and to all, happy gifting!
Last week the book club I belong to was discussing a book involving family responsibilities. One member, Catherine, suddenly interjected —
“When I was 16 I was supervising 15 German POW’s on our farm.”
Her statement commanded everyone’s attention. What did you say?
“It started in ’41. Dad got these workers from a POW camp in Ovid. He picked them up and then drove them back at the end of every day.”
A Little Background
The POW camp in Ovid and its prisoners/farm laborers were part of the United States Emergency Farm Labor Program. Between 1943 and 1946 there were 45 agricultural-related camps in Colorado. They were in areas where the ordinary source of workers was greatly reduced because of the Armed Forces need for American men. Between May and October, 1943, approximately 20,000 POWs arrived monthly. By the end of 1945, the number of POWs totaled more than 340,000.*
Catherine’s family farmed 360 acres in Northern Colorado, where they grew sugar beets, “acres and acres of potatoes” and corn. The oldest of six children, Catherine had convinced her father when she was only nine years old to teach her to drive a truck “real slow” so she could help out in the fields. By 1943, the 16 year old was such a skilled driver (farmers used to come and watch this oldest daughter who could turn the tractor on a dime) that her dad entrusted her with managing 15 German POWs.
Catherine’s WWII story
“I was boss of the potato group. Some of them spoke English, badly, but they spoke it. I didn’t have sense enough to be afraid. I never worried at all working with them. They were just a bunch of men to me. They were really very nice. They didn’t ever try to hurt me. Sometimes one of them, Hans, would jump on the tractor and ride along next to me. I have no idea why. I didn’t ask any of them anything.”
Catherine remembers them looking young, maybe in their 20’s, and that all were muscular. They wore POW uniforms. She wore overalls or jeans and a shirt.
“Years before, both my parents had been immigrants from Germany. My father could speak German and treated the POWs nicely, so they worked hard for him. Nobody caused any problems.
“Mother would sometimes bake a birthday cake for them even when she shouldn’t have. My parents treated the POWs like human beings.”
After the war ended, the POWs were returned to Germany. It was not the end of the story.
“One day Daddy got a letter. It was from Hans who asked my dad if he could marry me. Daddy read the letter and he just smiled. ‘Well, mom, looks like we’re going to lose our oldest daughter…’ I said, “Oh no, Dad!”
Whether Hans letter was motivated from a crush that grew in the midst of a Colorado potato field, or whether Hans simply wanted to come back to America — Catherine doesn’t know.
What she does know is the long-lasting impact those experiences more than a half-century ago have had on her, even today.
“Those experiences made a hard worker out of me, gave me a work ethic. Even today I can’t stop working without thinking I am wasting my time. As for the POWs, I think about them from time to time.
I wonder what they are doing in life. I saw how my mother and father treated them, like they were human beings, too. They way my parents acted affected how I see things.
Catherine went on to marry, have children, and become a school teacher. In 1975 she was honored by the State Department of Colorado as one of the top three teachers of the year.
Asked if she would be afraid today of immigrants or refugees coming to the U.S. from countries some people consider hostile, Catherine responded: “No, I think they are human beings, like the rest of us.”
*“The Enemy in Colorado: German Prisoners of War 1943-1946,” Allen Paschal, The Colorado Magazine, 1979.
The two actors stood stage left, on an otherwise empty stage.
One asked the other, “What do you get when you put a spider together with an ear of corn? (*Find out at end of blog)
The answer drew hoots and cheers from the audience watching a sold-out performance of How to eat like a child—and other lessons in how not to be a grown up (Based on a book by Delia Ephron).
But there was a more intriguing question behind and underlying the entertainment. What do you get when you put young people with special needs together with middle and high school students who are passionate about theatre?
The answer is CenterStage’s Tapestry Theatre Company (CSTC), in Louisville, Colorado.
CSTC is the brainchild of Elizabeth Goodrich, a special ed teacher and member of the Board of Directors of CenterStage, and Lynne Niston, a special needs paraprofessional. Each has a long standing interest in theater as part of the arts and both were initially members of other theatre groups. Through their professional and personal interests, they became aware of groups around the world that cast individuals with special needs in theatre productions. Then six years ago Ms. Goodrich and Ms. Niston put their heads, hearts and talents together and started Tapestry.
A Different Kind of Theatre Company
CenterStage’s Tapestry Theatre casts actors with special needs, ages 11 and up in lead roles. Peer mentor actors are partnered with them as understudies and support. They work together during rehearsals and appear together on stage during performances.
I have been attending their amazing, talented, heart-opening productions for the past four years. In the interests of full disclosure, one of my grandsons is a Tapestry peer mentor. That’s how I learned about this unusual company.
As their website (centerstagetheatrecompany.org) explains: “Tapestry Theatre provides actors with an opportunity to participate in Theatre that is safe, welcoming and adaptive and inclusive. This creates a community that encourages youth to experience diversity and forge long-lasting friendships, culminating in high quality musical productions.”
Tapestry is not affiliated with any other theatre groups. As part of CenterStage, it receives support from various community organizations, including the Association for Community Living, which is part of The ARC; The National Endowment for the Arts; the Boulder County Arts Alliance; and the City of Louisville.
Originally the intent of the two directors was to provide involvement to individuals with special needs through the age of 21—the age when school services end. However, they have now started a young adult program and have also expanded their performances to include multi-generational and multi-ability casts.
Ms. Goodrich is passionate about the results she sees. “Our mentors bring an openness to relationships with people of all abilities and an understanding that persons with special needs have valuable gifts or talents that are most often overlooked.
“Mentors not just there to share their own talents, they are there to receive those gifts. Understanding this can lead to a breakthrough in changing society. It is what is so magical about what we are doing.”
Shakespeare Got It
In penning his play, “As You Like it,” Shakespeare included this line: “ All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” In directing Tapestry, Ms. Goodrich knows how she would like it. “It is my hope that beyond entertaining our audience, our performances will open doors past theatre into everyday life for people of all abilities.”
I applaud that thought and all that Tapestry is accomplishing.
*Answer to the riddle: A cobweb.
Oldest Daughters: what to know if you are one or have ever been bossed around by one (Rudzik Press, 2017) is available at Amazon.com, Kindle.com and select book stores. For more information, go to http://oldestdaughter.com
Following are a few favorite stories from my conversations with oldest daughters about their relationships with their dads. The number in parentheses is the age each was when I spoke with her.
“Kristin” (30): After I graduated from college, a girl friend and I decided one weekend to quit our jobs and move to another city. Nine days later we had given notice on our jobs, found an apartment and moved. It felt great to get away and say, “I’m going to live my life.” My family was very surprised. It was one of the first times I got a look from my dad that said, “Go ahead. You’ve got it all figured out!” I was so happy about it.
Cathy (51): I was very influenced by my father. There was no boy before or after me. I identified with my dad. I wanted to be his son. I followed him around, mowing the grass, etc. He did not treat me in a girlie kind of way. He built things for me all the time (like) skateboards for my dolls. We were very close. I adopted all of his political positions. I used to parrot what he said. When I got married, I kept my own name. He objected, but I said, “Hey you taught me to think on my own and I’m not going to take someone else’s last name.” He felt in a little way like he’d created a monster.
April (34): I was raised by a man. When I got a “whooping,” I wouldn’t cry. I refused to let my father see my weakness. I succeeded all the time. He gave up. I certainly identify with my father. I was his favorite child. I remember one time when we were in the backyard. I was hanging clothes on the clothesline. I said to him, “I will always be here for you.” He said, “I know that. I can always count on you.” Both of us had tears in our eyes.
Kimi (35): My parents thought I was going to be a boy, but that’s not what they got. I think they were a little disappointed. But I was a tomboy. I wanted to make my Dad proud, to be a toughie, to fulfill something for him. In some way I’d picked up or perceived that he wanted a boy to go hunting with him, go to the lake with him. I think up until the time I was in middle school, I didn’t want to wear dresses, but then somehow my femininity took over.
Darsha (53): I was my dad’s shadow. I remember when I was about 10, we were pulling calves. It was a HOT day. There were flies all over us. There was no shade. I was sweating. I was wearing jeans and an old t-shirt and, of course, old cowboy boots. We were in a lot next to the barn. I had gloves on up to my armpits, that were coated with blood. I had blood and dirt all down the front of me.
When we got through, my dad thanked me and patted me on the shoulder. He said, “Squirt, if you can pull a calf, you can do anything you put your mind to.” He said it with this very proud look on his face, like I had really accomplished everything he’d always wanted me to do. As we walked back to the house, he hugged me. My dad and I were buddies. He raised me that if I had something to say, to say it, not to hem and haw about anything.
When my dad was ill, I couldn’t do anything. I was a nurse by then, but his medical condition warranted that the doctor deal with it. I couldn’t save him. Deep depression set in after the funeral. I finally had to tell myself that just sitting around crying, feeling sorry for myself, was not me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, Dad had groomed me all my life for this very moment. My time with my dad was very good, but now I had a new path to go down.
The Oldest Daughter: I remember the day I told my dad that I didn’t want him to grill a steak for me at the family barbecue because I had become a vegetarian. His already large brown eyes widened in disbelief. “I like vegetables,” he said, motioning to his large vegetable garden in the back yard. “But there’s nothing like a good steak.” Searching for something that would explain my feelings, I said, “I just prefer not to eat anything that has eyes.” His response was immediate. “How do you feel about potatoes?” His eyes twinkled, and I laughed out loud.
So this evening in honor of the man who taught me about the power of well-chosen words, I’m going to fix a baked potato—without eyes—for dinner.
Oldest Daughters: What to know if you are one or have ever been bossed around by one. Available at amazon.com, kindle.com and select bookstores.
Libby, an oldest daughter known for her cooking skills, was in the midst of preparing a favorite summer soup when it happened. The recipe called for two cups of peeled, thin cucumber slices. To save time, she pulled a mandolin out from the white kitchen cabinet where it lives. (Note: this mandolin is a kitchen utensil, not to be confused with mandolin(e), a musical instrument.)
She set her trusty mandolin on the counter and without further thought began pushing the slippery vegetable into the path of the instrument’s blade.
Instead the miniature guillotine found her little finger and efficiently sliced off a strip from fingertip to second joint, leaving an (actual) blood-red smear across the countertop and sending the family’s chef cradling her right hand into an urgent-care facility.
This painful incident created food for thought.
Libby’s long-relied upon kitchen device had become dangerous, rather than helpful, through her use. The mandolin actually looks a bit menacing—but it isn’t in everyone’s kitchen.
A different device can be even more dangerous, but is a million times (actual) more common and attractive.
The cell phone, like the mandolin can be both useful and dangerous. Useful in connecting users by phone. Potentially dangerous in capacity as mini-computer to divide, distance, or even create a darnel of widespreading discord. Responsibility for how either the phone or the mandolin is used is up to the owner.
No doubt Libby’s mandolin came with instructions and warnings. The instructions that come with smart phones typically simply explain battery use. I’ve never seen:
Caution. Words spoken or texts sent cannot be taken back. Time spent on apps is not the responsibility of apps. May be addictive. Distractions possible. May mean less time for actual face-to-face interactions. Ignoring such warnings could result in damage to your personal relationships.
Three weeks later, Libby’s wound is all but healed and her finger is in pretty good, though slightly different, shape. The mandolin is once again residing in a kitchen cabinet.
Will you use it again? I asked. “Oh, yes. I can’t get along without it. I was just careless. I knew better. From now on, I’ll be careful. I’ll pay attention to what I’m doing.”
A recipe worth following.
Oldest Daughters: What to know if you are one or have ever been bossed around by one is now available at amazon.com, kindle.com, and upon request at select bookstores.
There’s no way to know if she was an oldest daughter, but that’s beside the point. The face above her uniform indicated she was probably in her sixties. Her job at the crowded security area in the major metropolitan airport through which I was traveling, required her to repeatedly walk up and down the lanes to make sure the suction-bottomed lane markers remained in place. As she robotically performed her task, her face remained expressionless. I noticed her as I was inching through the lanes on my way to board a plane that would take me to a visit with friends and family.
The night before I had happened to read a story about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her command to the Missionaries of Charity sisters who vow to give wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor: “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”
I caught the lane-marker’s eye and smiled. She returned my smile and then,surprisingly, beckoned to me. When I reached her, she guided me around the people in my lane and outside all the lanes to a point where passengers were entering the individual TSA agent desks. In other words, she moved me to the front of the line! With a quiet instruction to “Go to the next open desk,” she left me. With my happy face in place.
The simple power of a smile? Apparently. But perhaps it was more that someone among the hundreds of people who pass by her every hour had acknowledged her presence among them.
This Memorial Day weekend, we will be appropriately encouraged to honor the memory of “the fallen,” those who have given their lives in mortal combat for us. I suggest we also take a moment to recognize those whose “standing” may cause them to be overlooked or discounted because the jobs — unheralded, tedious, necessary—that they perform for us don’t rank high in social status.
If you see someone performing a job who happens to be without a smile, I propose giving them one of yours.
The odds are that over the past ten years some of you might never have thought my book, “Oldest Daughters—What to know if you are one or have ever been bossed around by one would ever be completed. But that day has arrived! The book
The book tells personal stories taken from in-depth interviews with more than 100 first-born daughters, siblings, and spouses of various ethnicities. Asked why they had agreed to be interviewed, a common response was
“I want to know that I’m not the only one out there feeling this way.”
Another response (from a sibling) offered a different point of view:
“I can’t believe I’m the only person wanting to know how to survive an oldest daughter.”
First-born daughter revelations
The book’s stories reveal the impact of the first-born daughter’s role on her adult life, her siblings and family relationships.
Results are also included from an online survey of several hundred adult family members about their experiences and feelings. They provide additional insights into the pride and pain, resentments and hopes of oldest daughters and those who share their lives.
At the end of each of the ten easy-to-read chapters, a contributing clinical psychologist (who is my own oldest daughter) adds self-help Insights and Reflections for restoring or improving sibling and family relationships.
Birth order is a fact; It does not have to be a fate.
Oldest Daughters —What to Know… (available on amazon.com and as an ebook on kindle.com) affirms that changes are possible, potentially transforming and rewarding.
As an oldest daughter, it’s hard for me to ignore a need for help.
Five years ago it was impossible to overlook “Tong.” He stood more than six feet tall. Lean muscle, covered in mahogany-colored skin. Now it is difficult to get him out of my mind.
He had walked up to my tutor’s desk and introduced himself. His official college status was freshman. He was enrolled in English Composition and Western Civilization and needed help with both. That’s how I came to know his story.
Tong was born in the African country of Sudan. He arrived in the United States and the Midwest where I was a college tutor by fleeing on foot when his country was torn apart by war.
Often by night, other times in daylight,he crossed field, deserts
and political boundaries. He managed to elude any and all military and make his way into Egypt. There he eventually met up with members of his tribe who had connections that helped him get to the United States.
One of his tribe, with whom Tong shared many physical similarities, had already achieved fame in the Midwest as a basketball player. His experiences made it possible for Tong to follow and enroll in college. Their people had no written language. So Tong had first been challenged in his new life with learning alphabet symbols and then words in order to take regular college courses. That happened in introductory English as Second Language (ESL) courses.
His next big challenges — understanding meaning of the vocabulary words in the context in which they appeared and also gaining skills to express himself in writing. All of which led to my desk.
In the middle of that first full college semester, Tong learned he needed to get critical information about his family’s health history. He had no written history about himself. It didn’t exist. The only person who would have the necessary info was his mother. Back home in Sudan, she was unreachable by phone. So Tong returned to the country he had left and found her. (I can scarcely imagine her feelings upon seeing him, knowing that he was alive, and then having him leave again.)
On his way back to the United States, visa in hand, he was stopped in the airport by members of the military who demanded to know why he was not fighting for his country. He later described the feeling of terror he felt when he was detained and interrogated. But he managed to stay cool enough to convince the soldiers who were attempting to conscript him that he should be permitted to leave. He made it back safely.
I continued to see Tong over the next several months. However at the start of the next school year, I learned that he was no longer enrolled. I do not know why. I do not know if he remained in the United States.
This past weekend I read that Sudan, which started out as one country, then divided into two (North and South), is once again roiled in a power struggle resulting in violent bloodshed, terror, widespread famine and fleeing refugees.
Today I learned that under the President’s new executive orders, Sudan is one of those countries from which travel is banned for the next ninety days. The new order is said not to exclude those holding valid visas.
I wonder where Tong is. I wonder if he went back to Sudan to be with his mother. I wonder if either is now a refugee. For me, the news stories have become personal.
In my role in the family as oldest daughter, it’s always been normal to try to help when a crisis occurs. Tong became one of my “family” five years ago. My challenge now seems as great as those he once faced trying to pass college courses. How to help in the midst of anything-but-normal circumstances. Tutor needed.
So much so that lately I’ve felt like pretending to be Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and singing “Words. Words. Words. I’m so sick of words.” In particular, the arguing ones.
Being a fan of vintage musicals, it’s not surprising that another line then comes to mind, this one from The Music Man—“You can talk, you can bicker…”
Bicker is a good word. And too often the bickering is downright thorny.
The outcome of such discussions or disagreements can have significant impact on my life and yours. So I need to clarify. It’s not the words that I’m frustrated with, that shut me down. It’s the tone of hostility in which they’re spoken. A tone that doesn’t have to be.
I recall a conversation I overheard while vacationing last summer. Two women (no idea if either one was an oldest daughter) at a nearby table were having a conversation about just exactly when a mutual friend had called to announce that she was getting married. Their discussion was becoming more spirited.
“It was a week ago last Friday,” said the one woman.
“No, it wasn’t. It was on a Saturday.”
“Huh uh, It was a Friday.…”
Their back and forth could have gone on pointlessly except that the friend with the Friday opinion said, “Don’t you remember? When we talked after she called, I said the weekend traffic was going to be horrific because of the music festival.”
Saturday didn’t say anything. Friday continued.
“I’m right. You’re less right.”
Those five words put a stop to the discussion. But not to the relationship. Spoken with a smile, they didn’t have a winner-take-all attitude. Instead, they made the friend with the differing standpoint smile. (And me, too). “Saturday” wasn’t exactly wrong, just less right.
It works. I’ve tried it out. A couple of times when the situation has been reversed.