In honor of my mom, who died 14 years ago yesterday.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy — a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
My mom (or Nana, as she was known to you guys) loved to cook. Like many housewives in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, she cooked dinner from scratch almost every night of the week. We rarely—if ever—ate frozen meals or fast food for dinner, even during the years Nana worked as a real estate agent to support Aunt Gerarda and me after our dad (your Papa) got sick and died. Occasionally we were allowed to order a square-cut, tavern-style pizza from Geneo’s on Halsted (and later from Aurelio’s or Barton’s) but that only happened once every couple months in those days. Mostly it was homemade meatloaf, chicken paprika, pork chops, chicken kiev, beef stroganoff, fried chicken, roast beef on Sundays, fried lake perch on Fridays, and—when she was feeling casual—tostadas, pizza burgers, chop suey, or francheezies (hotdogs split down the middle & stuffed with American cheese, wrapped in bacon, held together with toothpicks and broiled).
These were sit-down meals that almost always (exceptions being the “casual” meals mentioned above) included a meat, a starch, plus a vegetable and salad. The only time we were not expected to partake of the meal being served was when Nana cooked liver and onions, which she loved but which Aunt Gerarda and I disliked so intensely we’d start to retch as soon as the liver hit the frying pan and the putrid smell began to permeate the kitchen. On those nights Nana would let us eat something different, like an Appian Way pizza from the freezer (those being normally reserved for late-night snacking) or a grilled cheese sandwich. Aside from the smell, I came to love the nights my mom made liver and onions, knowing it was the one night we’d get a free pass at the dinner table.
Nana loved trying new recipes too, and one of my favorite memories is of her sitting at our kitchen table in South Holland, both feet perched on the edge of another chair she had pulled beside her, knees bent, a Bon Appétit magazine propped open in her lap, a plate of thick-sliced homegrown tomatoes (heavily salted of course) on the table in front of her, a kitchen towel tucked into her collar to protect her blouse from the tomato drippings. Each new issue of Bon Appétit resulted in at least four or five new creations a month from Nana’s kitchen. Unfortunately I was a picky eater as a child so I didn’t appreciate my mom’s adventurous culinary spirit—which is a shame, because as I mentioned she was an excellent cook.
One dish of Nana’s that I didn’t especially like as a child but which I’ve grown to love over time is Nana’s vegetable soup, which was one of her specialties. She made it often during the cold Chicago winters, but she also made it during other seasons if someone was sick or if a neighbor had a death in the family (it was her version of chicken soup I guess). Even when no one had died or was sick, Nana loved sharing her food creations with the neighbors, especially her vegetable soup. As a child I remember being asked to carefully transport large Tupperware containers filled with Nana’s vegetable soup across the yard or street from our house to the Finlons, Scruggs, Caputos, Petrungaros, Stotts, and others. (This is obviously where I picked up my habit of sharing food with neighbors, one that grew to epic proportions when we lived across the street from my good friend Mary Taylor, who also loved sharing her delicious cooking. It got to the point that anytime I cooked something special when we lived in Grayslake, I’d make extra to send over to the Taylors, knowing Mary was doing the same for us.)
Getting back to Nana, she became known for her vegetable soup among the neighbors, and I remember being frequently asked by my playmates’ parents if my mom would be sending any more of that vegetable soup over any time soon. Of course Nana loved the positive feedback on her cooking and it wouldn’t be long before I found myself transporting another Tupperware container of soup across the yard to said neighbor.
Over the years, but especially since Nana died (and especially during these cold winter months), I find myself craving her homemade vegetable soup. At one point when she was still alive I asked her for her recipe. Like a lot of good cooks with signature recipes, it was not one that she’d written down anywhere; it was just something she made from scratch off the top of her head. But I must have asked her to explain to me how she made it during a phone call, because I found a scrap of paper that I think was from the early 1990s in which I’d jotted down some notes.
Nana’s Homemade Vegetable Soup
Brown 10-20 oxtails in butter in the bottom of a large soup pot. (I actually loved the oxtails in my mom’s soup when I was a kid; now that I’m older I find them repulsive. So in place of the oxtails, these days I sauté the vegetables in 2 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. olive oil. If I’m really craving a more full-bodied meaty flavor in the soup and I don’t need to keep it strictly vegetarian or without red meat, I’ll replace the 2 Tbsp. olive oil with 2 Tbsp. bacon grease.)
To the melted butter and olive oil (or bacon grease) add sliced carrots, celery, onions, green beans, peas, corn, and asparagus (optional). My notes from Nana say to slice the veggies “on the diagonal.” Once the veggies are softened (about 7-8 minutes), add 2 quarts chicken broth. (Nana’s recipe calls for beef broth. I prefer chicken broth. You can also use vegetable broth.)
Once simmering, add one 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes. (I use Ro-Tel diced tomatoes w/ green chiles plus an extra small can of chopped green chiles, which gives the soup a nice kick that your dad likes.) Add 1 cup medium (not quick-cook) barley, a handful of shredded cabbage, parsley (I use thyme instead), peppercorns, garlic salt, salt & pepper. (I skip the garlic salt, salt & pepper since there’s enough salt in the chicken broth and Ro-Tel already. Plus you can always add more salt at the table if you want.) Nana’s notes say don’t use potatoes in the soup because they don’t freeze well and I agree, mostly because I don’t think the soup needs another starch after the barley. Add 2 Tbsp lemon juice (my addition), cover and simmer on stove three hours. Serve with warm bread and butter.
I always double this recipe—for sharing, of course.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy — a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
My sister Gerarda (Aunt Gerarda to you guys, G-Thing to her kids) is one of those people who lights up a room with her stories. She’s the perfect party guest because she’s not afraid to hold the floor for a few minutes entertaining everyone with an amusing anecdote (or two or three). You can always tell when Aunt Gerarda is about to go into storytelling mode. Her lips begin to form an almost imperceptible smile, and her big blue eyes gleam with a hint of mischief. Once she has your attention and begins speaking, she becomes fully animated, acting out the various parts of the story with a full range of facial expressions, voices, body movements, and hand gestures.
Aunt Gerarda is a natural-born storyteller. I know because I’ve witnessed her gift for telling stories as far back as I can remember, when she was eight years old and I was her four-year old little sister following her around our Chicago neighborhood. Sometimes I couldn’t actually see Aunt Gerarda entertaining family and friends when they came to the house, because I was known to run and hide under the bed every time the doorbell rang. And there I would stay, until whomever it was who had come to visit (friends, neighbors, and even some relatives I wasn’t completely familiar with) would leave. (Those who know me now would find it hard to believe I was terminally shy as a child — but more on that in a minute.)
Whether I was hiding under the bed or watching from the sidelines, I always marveled at Gerarda’s ability to be at ease in front of people. As a child she had reddish-brown hair (like our dad’s before he turned gray), a freckled nose, the aforementioned big blue eyes, and a 1,000-megawatt smile that could charm even the stodgiest adults. When our parents had parties, Gerarda often warmed up the crowd with a skit or a goofy costume or a joke before we kids were banished to the basement to play amongst ourselves, where Gerarda would continue providing entertainment.
As the years progressed, Gerarda became known as “the friendly” Johnson girl while I was viewed by some (mostly those who didn’t know me well enough to understand the extent of my introversion) as the “standoffish” one. As a youngster I was more than happy to hang in the background where I felt the most comfortable. I had an active inner life and, when I wasn’t tagging along with Gerarda and her friends, I spent a lot of time by myself, living in imaginary worlds talking to my imaginary friends. (Okay yeah, I was kind of a weird kid.)
What Gerarda may not have realized though is how much I idolized her back then (and still do today, even in our fifties). As I reached adolescence, watching my sister navigate high school, I couldn’t help but envy Gerarda’s ability to connect with people. She always had a multitude of girlfriends (still does) and could strike up a conversation with pretty much anybody — anytime, anywhere. I eventually grew tired of people’s misperceptions of me and decided I wanted to try being more open and friendly like my big sister. She was a role model for me as I cultivated my sense of who I was and how I wanted to relate to the world. With Gerarda as my guide, over the years I learned to smile more, strike up conversations with strangers, let my silly side show, and not be afraid to share a funny story on occasion. (Though I still prefer telling my stories on paper rather than in person, where writing in solitude is not unlike hiding under the bed.)
Getting back to Gerarda, her knack for storytelling has transformed itself in my mind over the years. As kids, her storytelling skills were simply a natural-born gift we all enjoyed and appreciated, but as adults, her continued ability to entertain and connect with people through her stories is a testament to her strength, courage, and determination. In 1993, when she was just 36 years old and a mom to three young kids, Aunt Gerarda was knocked flat by an intense headache and severe nausea. She, Uncle Dave, Grandma Helen, and cousins Faith, Luke, and Joy were driving back to Illinois from our house in Denver where we had been celebrating Coleman’s recent birth. After they reached home it was discovered Gerarda had a brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma. Long story short, Gerarda had brain surgery to remove the tumor followed by a long rehabilitation and recovery period. Among other things, she lost the hearing in her left ear and suffered some nerve damage which affected the facial muscles on the left side of her face.
Given such circumstances, some people might react by limiting their encounters with new people and new situations. But not my sister. After her recovery from the brain tumor, Gerarda didn’t just go back to living life the way she was — she became more of who she was. More outgoing, more friendly, more funny than ever. I like to think of who she is now as Full Metal Gerarda. She had always been one to stay busy, but after her brain tumor she embraced life with a vengeance, not only being a great mom to three young kids, a devoted wife to her supportive husband, but also working at various outside jobs, serving as president of the school board for many years, and, on top of all that, keeping the fullest social engagement calendar of anyone I know. If I happened to ask Gerarda about her plans for the weekend, it was (and still is) an extensive list of social gatherings, community events, road trips, parties, and service to others.
Speaking of service to others, Gerarda is a fabulous cook and one of the things she’s known for among friends and family is her Gooey Butter Cake, a confection that originated in St. Louis and is well-known throughout the Midwest.
Aunt Gerarda’s Gooey Butter Cake
Combine 1 box yellow cake mix with 1 stick butter. Add 1 egg, mix, and press into a buttered 9 x 13 pan. While pressing the bottom layer into the pan tell some funny stories to any number of people sure to be visiting and gathered around the kitchen. Beat 1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese with 2 eggs, 1 lb. powdered sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla. Pour over bottom layer. Bake 40 minutes at 325°. While cake is in the oven tell a few more funny stories, including some that allow humorous impersonations of husband Dave. (Embellishment and exaggeration always welcome. Indulging in a few cocktails tends to make the stories even funnier.) Sprinkle with more powdered sugar while hot. Serve Gooey Butter Cake at birthday parties, church functions, and all major and minor holidays. Bring Gooey Butter Cake on road trips to visit Faith, Luke, and Joy and nieces and nephews away at college.
Aunt Gerarda is also one of the bravest people I know, and not just because of how she overcame her brain tumor. A few years ago she stood up in front of a huge crowd in a bar in Chicago at a Moth event (“The Moth: True Stories Told Live”) to tell a story about Uncle Dave falling off the roof of their house (the theme was “falling,” and luckily Dave is fine). She’s given cooking classes at various venues in her town (the fact that she can cook, talk, teach, and be entertaining all at the same time is a feat unto itself). She’s given library presentations, radio interviews, and written stories for publication. (Gerarda’s storytelling skills span both oral and written entertainment.) I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the things Gerarda has accomplished with her stories, but you get the idea.
As sisters, our relationship hasn’t always been easy. Growing up under the circumstances that we did, each of us had to work hard over the years to shed some of the unhealthy dynamics we learned as children of alcoholics. There were times we needed to take a break from each other, to find our way in the world, to figure out who we were apart from our family history. And I’m happy to say we’ve come back from those difficult times stronger than ever. Both individually and as sisters.
And this is where I’d like to speak directly to you, Ben and Coleman. You may have times in your lives when you feel you don’t have a lot in common with each other, and staying close is more of a challenge than a pleasure. You might even have to take a breather from one another now and then. But always keep each other close in your hearts. Do your best to stay connected. No one knows you like a sibling. No one knows your history, no one watched you struggle to become the person you are today like the person who knew you growing up. And having witnessed your struggles, no one will love you and appreciate you and admire you in quite the same way a sibling does.
Gerarda was my role mode growing up, and she still inspires me today. Her Gooey Butter Cake is made with love, like everything she does. And, as people who know and love Gerarda have come to expect that she’ll bring her Gooey Butter Cake wherever she goes, it’s also expected she’ll have a funny story to share. It’s who she is.
In honor of my mom, Dorothy (aka Nana), on Mother’s Day.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
“Shit.” “Goddammit.” “Fuck it.” These generally aren’t the types of expressions one hears coming from the mouths of mothers and grandmothers — unless your mom happens to be named Dorothy (or Nana, as she was known to you grandkids). But this is exactly what we heard coming out of Nana’s mouth that wintry December day in 1999 when I got the harebrained idea to make homemade Christmas ornaments using glitter-covered Styrofoam balls, straight pins, beads, and sequins. I had found the instructions in one of those home decorating magazines and thought it would make a fun family activity while Nana was visiting us from Florida for the holidays.
You guys were nine and six years old at the time, home from school on Christmas vacation. I remember the five of us sitting around the dining room table in Grayslake (Dad, me, Nana, and you two), the craft supplies spread before us. The concept was simple: Thread a bead and a sequin onto the straight pin, insert the pin into the Styrofoam ball, and repeat until the ball was covered in beads and sequins. You could choose to wing it, making a random design using multi-colored beads and sequins, or you could plan ahead, making a pattern or image using specific uniform colors in a pre-imagined shape. Easy-peasy, right?
Of course, we all had our own ideas with specific designs in mind, and we happily set to work threading our pins with beads and sequins and pushing them into our glitter balls. As I recall, I was spelling out the year “2000” with my pins using black beads and sequins on a silver ball (because Millennium), Dad was making an artsy-fartsy vintage design with green and gold sequins on a red ball, Coleman was making an extremely neat and precise spiral pattern in reds, greens, and blues on a silver ball, Ben was creating an abstract Santa smiley face using silver and black sequins on a green ball, and Nana was attempting something flashy using multi-colored beads and sequins on a gold ball.
It didn’t take long, however, for Nana to be the first to accidentally stab herself with the pin. “Shit,” she’d mutter under breath. I’d glance sideways at Dad, then at you two, and the four of us would share a secret smile. It’s not as if you guys had never heard Nana swear before. Hell’s Bells — it’s not like you’d never heard me swear before either. I’ve had a penchant for salty language since my teen years, and although I tried (unsuccessfully) to rein in my swearing when you kids were little, it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out where I’d picked up the habit.
“Goddammit,” Nana would say, a little more loudly this time. Now she was getting frustrated because her design wasn’t turning out quite the way she’d had in mind. “What’s wrong, Mom?” I’d ask. “These stupid pins aren’t going in the way I want them to,” she’d say, pursing her lips in concentration. And then, as if for punctuation, she’d let fly another “Shit” or “Goddammit.” A large part of the humor of the situation was that it wasn’t the nine-year old or the six-year old throwing the hissy fit over the craft project — it was the 66-year old. And the wonderful thing about Nana? She fully recognized and embraced her childish lack of patience.
“This project is dumb,” she’d finally declare to the four of us sitting at the table. She was trying to look pissed off but she was clearly enjoying herself. “Whose idea was this anyway?” she’d say, looking conspiratorially at her two grandsons, then, once she had your attention, glancing pointedly in my direction, her green eyes glimmering with mischief.
“Yeah Mom,” you two would gleefully chime in. “Nana’s right — this project is dumb!”
“Thanks Mom,” I’d say to Nana, more amused than exasperated by her hijinx. “You really know how to liven up a family craft project.” Somehow, I convinced everyone to keep working on their ornaments a while longer. In spite of (or because of?) Nana’s mock anger, we remained in good spirits, persevering with our individual ornaments as we listened to Nana’s continued recitation of swear words until finally, having stuck herself with a straight pin one too many times, she’d push her chair away from the table and announce, “Fuck it. Is it time for a martini yet?”
Nana’s Very Dry Martini on the Rocks, with Two Olives
Open the cupboard and pull out the largest tumbler you can find. (No need to bother with an actual martini glass — size of the vessel is more important than style when it’s quantity you’re after.) A tall, oversized, plastic mug usually reserved for making root beer floats works perfectly fine. Fill the mug with ice, but not too much ice because you want to save room for a large quantity of alcohol. In olden days, gin, plus a small amount of vermouth, would be necessary for a proper dry martini (along with a proper martini glass) but when the situation is dire, simply pour a large amount of vodka over the ice until the mug is close to overflowing. (If you add two large pimiento-stuffed olives for garnish you can legitimately call it a martini.) Once the drink has been prepared, take the Big Gulp Martini/Vodka Slurpee out onto the back porch (the porch being the only location at Nan & Pat’s house where smoking isn’t prohibited). Plop down into the wicker chair, place feet (wearing pink slippers) on stool, fire up a Marlboro Light, and commence drinking Martini Slurpee. If the grandkids come out to the porch to sit on your lap, make an effort not to blow smoke in their faces while teaching them some new swear words.
In case it hasn’t already occurred to you, Nana certainly wasn’t the traditional type of grandma to you kids. She didn’t knit or sew or bake very well (her chocolate chip cookies were notoriously rock-like). She wasn’t much for physical activity but she did love playing hide and seek with you guys and taking you to Disneyworld and Sun Splash. I would say she wasn’t exactly a traditional type of mom to me either, although she was a meticulous housekeeper (Mondays were for doing the wash and ironing, Wednesdays for grocery shopping, Fridays for cleaning), and she was an excellent cook (in spite of her lack of baking skills). She smoked cigarettes and drank martinis when she was pregnant with both Aunt Gerarda and me, and her two favorite food groups were salt and butter.
She never went to college but in the ’70s she earned her broker’s license and worked in a real estate office after Papa died, a 37-year old single mom supporting two girls ages 13 and 9. Her frosted blonde hair was invariably perfectly coiffed (even while washing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees). She was tall and thin and her fashionable clothes always looked good on her. She had a temper, she swore like a sailor (see above), she had a lot of friends who loved her, she was funny, and she could find the humor in even the darkest moments of her life — and there were plenty of those. Nana was tough and blunt and not very diplomatic (to put it mildly). But she loved us with a passion and was fiercely protective in a way that could be embarrassing at times. (Just ask Aunt Gerarda about the time Nana called Ray Kroc to complain that her 16-year old daughter wasn’t being treated fairly as an employee of McDonald’s Corp.)
As Mother’s Day approaches and we think about Nana, it’s tempting to focus on our feelings of sadness and how much we miss her. As for me, Nana was my number-one cheerleader, my best friend, and the first person to hold my feet to the fire when I screwed up. Though she’s been gone since 2002, not a day goes by I don’t wish I could pick up the phone and have a nice long chat with her. But instead of feeling depressed on Mother’s Day, I feel happy and grateful, because both of my sons had a chance to know her. Although you were young when she died, you were able to witness her strength, feel her love, experience her humor, and hear her say “Fuck it” when she’d had enough and it was time for a martini.
In honor of my mom, Dorothy Johnson Moore, who died on January 17, 2002.
(This piece, which I wrote in 2011, is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
I saw a movie today where the mom was in a coma and the kids and husband had to say goodbye to her before taking her off life support. I got really choked up seeing the grief on the kids’ faces, especially the ten-year old’s. Since I lost my own dad so young stuff like that always rips my heart out. But then I started thinking about the mom and how sad it was that she couldn’t say what she might have wanted to say because she was in a coma. And I started feeling really bad for her even though she was married to George Clooney. Well, she wasn’t married to George Clooney in real life but in the movie she was married to George Clooney. And although I wouldn’t mind being married to George Clooney (that is, if I wasn’t already married to your dad), I would mind being in a coma and I would especially mind not being able to talk to you guys if I was about to die. Even being married to George Clooney wouldn’t make up for having to lie in a hospital bed listening to your family say goodbye to you with your lips all dry and cracked and chalky-looking and not being able to say anything. And I asked myself, what would the mom say if she could talk? What would I want to say to my children if I knew I was about to die?
I guess it would depend on how much time I had. Five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks, or five months? If it was just five minutes I would cut to the really important stuff, like how much I love you guys and could you please make sure the funeral home fixes my hair the right way. If it was five weeks or five months I’d probably have a really long list of items to go over, like where all the computer passwords are and not to let your father keep wearing all his clothes from the ’80s—they make him look like a dork and he’ll never get a new wife wearing the Magnum P.I. Hawaiian shirt tucked into the high-waisted Lee jeans with the skinny belt, no socks and those huarache sandals we bought in Puerto Vallarta when Coleman was still in a stroller.
Speaking of last words, not long before Nana died, she wanted us to call her neighbors in Florida and tell them not to throw out the bacon grease she’d been saving in the refrigerator. I suppose if you were the daughter of a Polish immigrant who cooked pretty much everything in bacon grease, you’d be concerned about what would become of your stash of bacon grease after you died too. Speaking of bacon grease the last meal Nana requested before she died was bacon and eggs.
Nana’s Bacon & Eggs
Fry up an entire package of bacon in a skillet over medium heat. Remove the bacon from the skillet to drain on paper towels. Pour half the bacon grease in a glass container with an airtight lid. (If you already have a hoard of bacon grease stored in your refrigerator just add the new bacon grease to the old.) With the remaining bacon grease in the pan, break two eggs into the skillet and cook over medium-low heat. While the eggs are cooking baste them with the bacon grease and add a lot of salt and pepper since you’re probably going to have a heart attack anyway. Meanwhile cook two pieces of toast and slather the toast with real butter (not the fake stuff; see previous comment regarding heart attacks.) When eggs are cooked through but still a little runny put them on a plate with the toast and bacon and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Dip the toast in the egg yolk until the toast and the yellow stuff are gone, leaving the egg whites for the dog. Finish eating the bacon while watching the dog eat the egg whites. (At least the dog won’t have a heart attack.)
Getting back to the movie, one of the reasons I liked it so well was that it wasn’t sappy—none of the characters was a saint, not even the mom who was dying, and there was a lot going on besides the family crowded around the hospital bed alternately crying and throwing objects against the wall. There was a whole subplot involving a Kauai land deal the dad was trying to figure out, in addition to his discovery that his wife was cheating on him before she fell off the jet ski or whatever it was she was riding when she hit her head, nearly drowned and went into a coma. (Not to be mean or anything but it kind of serves her right seeing as she cheated on George Clooney.) My point is that the movie was a lot like real life in that we are all a mixture of annoying and endearing, selfish and generous, troubled and together, and that even when someone close to you is about to die, life continues to happen all around you and you still have to make decisions on whether or not to sell the land to the haoles or hunt down and confront the creep who was screwing your wife or if you should have chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.
And I got to thinking if that were to happen to me—if I suddenly fell into a coma and couldn’t talk to my children, wouldn’t it be nice if I had already written my last words to you, so that after I died you could read everything I ever wanted you to know? Not that I plan on dying anytime soon (although it’s true I recently turned 50). But I do think it’s one of the reasons I became a writer—after my body is dead and gone, my clothes given to Goodwill (or to dad’s new wife—assuming she’s not a size smaller than me), the only things left of a person are the memories and the words. If you’re a writer, you generally leave behind more words than the average person (unless you’re Grandma Caryl, who tended to talk a lot). With any luck, after I’m gone there’ll be more good memories than bad, and my words will still have the power to make you smile.
Christmas Day 1970, Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, Dyer, Indiana.
I was nine when our mom took my sister and me to the hospital on Christmas Day to visit our dad. It was the last time we’d see him alive. He died three weeks later of alcoholic cirrhosis. He was 39 years old.
We knew at the time he was very sick. In fact, I remember curling up with my mom in my dad’s favorite oversized green chair one night before Christmas, my head in her lap, Christmas lights twinkling. He’d been hospitalized several times before. “I don’t think he’s going to make it this time,” she told me.
The Intensive Care Unit was decorated for Christmas, and one of the nurses had put a Santa hat on my dad’s head. He was awake, sitting up in his hospital bed. He tried to smile at us, but even at that young age I could see the sadness in his eyes. I don’t think I touched him. I was afraid of all the tubes and how sick he looked.
For many years afterward, Christmas never felt real to me. The happiness seemed forced, superficial. Sure, getting presents was fun. But there was no joy in it. During Midnight Mass, my mom cried.
Then I fell in love and got married. A family of my own. New memories to make. At first it was just my husband and me, a few gifts around a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But our love was plentiful and genuine. Then our sons were born. More memories to be made. My mom in her pink terrycloth bathrobe, watching us open gifts on Christmas morning, a cup of coffee in her hand and a smile on her face. New traditions, like the Santa footprints in front of the fireplace and a birthday cake for baby Jesus. Our boys jumping up and down in their pajamas, giddy with excitement. Pure joy on their faces. Pure joy in my heart.
Christmas is real to me now. But I’ve learned it’s not just about the happy times. Like any family, we’ve had our share of sad times during the holidays. Living far away from loved ones, missing out on annual family get-togethers. Christmases when one or both of us were without a job and money was tight or nonexistent. My mom’s last Christmas when she was in hospice at our house, knowing it wouldn’t be long before she, too, was gone. The year Christmas was just the boys and me, when Pat was serving in Iraq for thirteen months, his only physical contact a hug from the USO lady on Christmas Day.
I’ve come to realize that even though Christmas didn’t feel real to me when I was young, it was every bit as real then as it is now. It’s just that life and death, sickness and loneliness and tragedy don’t take time off for the holidays.
It’s no wonder Christmas lights, Midnight Mass, and Santa hats held a particular sadness for me as a child. But now I understand how much those seemingly superficial efforts at holiday cheer during the end of my dad’s tragic life mattered. “We’re not giving up on Christmas,” they said. The Santa hat mattered because it held hope. Hope that next year would be better (and if not next year, the year after that). Hope that a frightened little girl would one day make a better life for herself than the hand her mom had been dealt. That she wouldn’t fall prey to addiction the way her father had, even though her DNA was stacked against her. That she would one day find someone who loved and respected her, and together they would bring new life into the world. That they would raise their children to be better human beings than they were, leaving the world a little kinder than they found it.
In celebration of Halloween, a list of my top ten favorite scary books.
1. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
2. Pet Sematary, Stephen King
3. People Who Eat Darkness (nonfiction), Richard Lloyd Parry
4. The Exorcist, William Peter Batty
5. In Cold Blood (nonfiction), Truman Capote
6. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King
7. Helter Skelter (nonfiction), Vincent Bugliosi
8. Misery, Stephen King
9. Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
10. The Witching Hour, Anne Rice
The first three books on the list are the ones that scared me the most. I read John Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In while traveling alone in Chicago. I had to wait until I got home to finish it because it was too scary to read alone in my hotel room at night. I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary in 1983 when my husband and I were first married. He was away—I don’t remember where—on military travel. I was staying at my parents’ house. I finished reading the book around 2 a.m. and I was too scared to get out of bed to turn out the light. So I called out for my mom (I was 21 years old at the time), and she climbed into bed with me. One of the reasons People Who Eat Darkness is so damn scary is because it’s true crime—and we all know that truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s a helluva lot scarier sometimes too.
I loved Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles but those books didn’t scare me as much as the ones in my top ten list. I also loved Stephen King’s The Shining but again, it didn’t scare me as much as the others.
Some scary books on my TBR list: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bird Box by Josh Malerman, and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.
(In this season of graduations, here’s a piece I wrote two years ago reflecting on our older son’s graduation from art school. It originally appeared in May 2012 in the Kansas City Star.)
Sitting in a darkened auditorium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that blazing August morning back in 2008, I listened, enchanted by the speaker at the podium, whose words etched themselves in my memory. The occasion was new-student orientation, and my son, about to begin his freshman year at SAIC, sat next to me, doodling in his program. The speaker, Tony Jones, chancellor and former president of the School, said a lot of funny things in his introductory remarks, including the obligatory jokes about Chicago winters. He may not have had my son’s full attention at the start, but when he got down to talking about artists and art, Jones really captured his audience of nascent artists and anxious parents.
Jones talked about the type of student who goes to art school. He said if you choose to study art because you like art better than any other subject, or if you choose to study art because you’re good at it, then you shouldn’t be at art school. He went on to say that if you choose to attend art school for any reason, you shouldn’t be there. As Jones put it, the only reason to pursue art in college is when you can’t imagine yourself doing anything but art.
The other thing Jones pointed out is that, in today’s world, it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. We live in a society that places a lot of importance on college majors like science and business. Not that we shouldn’t place a high value on these areas of study (our younger son is a biomedical engineering student who will no doubt make his own great contributions to the universe). But the emphasis on math and science comes at a cost. A young person who wishes to pursue art is often discouraged from doing so by parents and other well-meaning adults. As parents of an art major, our conversations with other parents often go something like this:
Your son goes to art school? What’s he going to do—teach?
No, he wants to be a studio artist.
Yes, but what does he want to do?
He wants to make art.
OK. But what’s his real job going to be?
You get the idea. If we as parents find it challenging (or amusing, depending on your mood that day) to explain our students’ vocation, imagine how they must feel. That’s why Jones said it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. Art is hard. Not just a hard way to make a living, but hard in the way of finding one’s place, both in the art world and in the world at large. And no one puts himself out there quite like an artist does. Imagine taking a piece of yourself and putting it on display for others to see and comment on, day after day. Artists find strength in vulnerability. Artists are makers. They make something from nothing. How many of us can claim the ability to do that?
I won’t bore you with why I think art and the makers of art are vital to human existence, other than to say, what a humdrum world it would be without art! Suffice to say, four years and countless sleepless nights since that August morning in 2008, our son is now preparing to graduate. Not all of the students have made it this far. Of those who have, many have fought hard to get to this point—our son included. I can’t wait to see him walk across the stage. When he does, I’ll not only be filled with pride for his accomplishments, but with admiration for his courage.
This piece was originally published in May 2013 as a Facebook Note. I’m wishing a Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends and family. I know Mother’s Day can be a sad day for many of us—a time when we miss our mothers who are no longer here, when we grieve children who left us too soon, when fractured relationships make it hard to feel celebratory. So grab whatever happiness you can find and treat yourself with kindness this Mother’s Day. We’re all just doing the best we can, right? —Nan
To My Sons: What I Would Like for Mother’s Day
I want you to have good hearts and be kind to others.
I want you to be independent, self-motivated, and self-sufficient.
I want you to love yourself, but never stop trying to be a better person.
I want you to love each other, and be there for each other when I’m gone.
I want you to be honest with yourself and others.
I want you to be true to yourself even if some people would rather you not.
I want you to feel love and be loved and love freely, even though that means you’ll probably be hurt sometimes.
I want you to be lifelong learners.
I want you to read a lot.
I want you to do what you say you’re going to do.
If you screw up, I want you to own it, apologize, and try to do better next time.
I want you to treat others with respect, and demand to be treated with respect in return.
I want you to put others before yourself sometimes.
I want you to know life is not fair, but keep being optimistic.
I want you to be able to keep your sense of humor even in the dark times—especially during the dark times.
I want you to work hard, work before you play, and when you do play, enjoy yourself (as long as your work is done first).
I want you to be curious about others—genuinely curious.
I want you to know you don’t know everything.
I want you to choose happiness, and understand that you have to keep choosing happiness over and over again, every morning you wake up.
I want you to do what you love. Sometimes that’s not what you imagined it would be, so you have to stay open to new possibilities.
I want you to be grateful for simple things, like a good night’s sleep, a walk outdoors, food in your tummy, warmth when it’s cold outside, and a soft clean pillow on which to lay your head at night.
I want you to keep your word.
I want you to be able to forgive others and never leave room in your heart for hate.
I want you to know I would give anything for your happiness, including my life.
I want you to remember I was once young just like you, that I had hopes and dreams just like you, and that you’re never too old to dream—because if I can keep dreaming, so can you.
I want you to know the value of hope. Hope is everything.
I want you to remember things always seem worse in the middle of the night. It will be better in the morning, I promise.
I want you to think of me as a whole human being who has feelings just like you, but also know that I’ll never stop being your mom, and there’s no one on this earth who believes in you more than me.
p.s. A homemade card with a handwritten note would also be nice.
My (mostly fun) journey with Chat, Connect, & Crash.
From the first, self-published edition of Chat in 1995, to the acquisition by Simon & Schuster in 1998, to the reversion of rights in 2012, the history of Chat, Connect, and Crash came full circle with the Rainwater Press publication of the trilogy in 2014. My journey with this series has been an adventure—always interesting, mostly fun, and sometimes a little heartbreaking. Here are some of the highlights of my escapades from self-published author to traditionally published author and back again.
Chat is the story of two strangers who meet online, unfolding entirely through their email messages to one another. Although epistolary novels have been around for hundreds of years, Chat was the first full-length email epistolary novel ever written. (It was also among the earliest novels sold online directly to readers—more on that later.) Because of my previous career working at a computer magazine, I first got online in 1987, fueling my lifelong love affair with email and online communications.
I wrote Chat in the spring and summer of 1995. While working on the novel I tried to get it published traditionally, sending queries via snail mail to about 25 publishers in all. Chat was quickly rejected by all of them save for one, an editor at Ballantine who asked to see the complete manuscript (exciting!) but who eventually turned it down, explaining in a personal letter that she liked the novel herself but couldn’t garner support for it from her colleagues. In spite of all the rejections, I found the one personalized response strangely encouraging. (We authors don’t need much to keep us plowing blindly ahead.)
Amidst all the rejections, and still flying high from the simply exhilarating experience of having written a novel, it occurred to me that with my background in digital publishing technology (writing how-to books and magazine articles on page layout software, prepress and printing techniques), I possessed the technical knowledge to produce the books myself. Keep in mind this was several years before the advent of ebooks, so back then “the latest technology” involved using page-layout software to create mechanicals that would be used in the production of printed copies. It wasn’t quite as “easy” as some people claim ebook production is today, but the new digital publishing technology of the mid-1990s did allow me access to less expensive prepress and production methods, especially since I had the experience and knowledge to do the page layout and production work myself.
So in late summer 1995 I began working with a book designer named David High, who I’d come to know when we worked together as freelancers on some corporate marketing projects and whose design work I featured in my computer book Quark Design: A Visual Guide to QuarkXPress (Peachpit Press, 1995). Although I’d only just finished writing Chat, I knew there’d eventually be three books in the series, so David created cover and interior designs for the entire set. I also hired one of my editorial peers at another computer magazine, Linnea Dayton, to copyedit the manuscript.
Using David’s interior design templates I worked on page composition while also interviewing and getting bids from various printers recommended by my local PIA (Printing Industries of America) chapter. After settling on a printer, I finalized the digital files, sent them to a prepress shop for camera-ready output and film negatives (for the cover), and the book was ready for printing.
Several nerve-wracking weeks later, just before Thanksgiving in November 1995, my husband and I picked up the boxes containing printed copies of Chat from the printer. Once back home, with boxes strewn around the kitchen, we excitedly began opening them. Our excitement quickly turned to shock and disappointment, however, as we realized about 20% of the books contained serious printing errors such as missing pages, repeated pages, double-imaged pages, and crooked pages. What a letdown. We ended up culling through the entire 2,500 print run to find around 2,000 usable books. (It wasn’t funny at the time, but I have an amusing memory of making a personal visit to the printing office the following Monday morning, a sample of unusable books in hand, asking to speak to the president of the company. I ended up cooling my heels in the lobby for quite some time—apparently the guy decided to hide out in his office, too chicken to come out and talk face-to-face with one pissed-off author. Suffice to say I didn’t end up paying for the unusable copies.)
Previously, while waiting for the books to come back from the printer, I’d begun laying the groundwork to market and sell the books myself. I set up a P.O. Box and an 800-number (yes, I had my own toll-free number readers could call to order copies of the books, which rang into our home and which I answered myself), and I also went through the arduous (at the time) process of becoming a credit card merchant, which included the banking official making a personal visit to my home office, where I gave him a computer demonstration of how I would receive and fulfill orders via email (“So this is the Internet,” I remember him saying). I also learned about ISBNs, purchasing a block of 100 from Reed Reference Publishing (later to become RR Bowker, now Bowker) for $165, which I thought was expensive at the time. (Today a single ISBN will set you back $125, while a block of 100 costs $575.)
My plan was to mail out 250 promotional copies of Chat as holiday gifts to my colleagues in the computer industry, and by the end of December my promotion efforts succeeded in creating some nice buzz about the book as well as providing me with much-appreciated positive feedback and encouragement. Some of my colleagues even published brief write-ups about the novel in industry publications like The Seybold Report and How magazine; I was also invited to write a guest feature about my self-publishing experience for Publish magazine. Meanwhile I’d begun taking orders for the books via email, snail mail, and my toll-free number while also making plans to construct my very own Rainwater Press website where I could take my e-commerce to the next level with an online order form and credit card processing.
For the website, I collaborated with another former colleague, Eric Llewellyn, a designer I’d worked with at a computer software company. Eric was at the cutting edge of HTML and Web design back in 1995, and with Eric’s design and programming skills and my copywriting and organizational skills, we were able to unveil the original Rainwater Press website in early 1996. (Though out-of-date, an archive of this website still exists at www.rainwater.com. For up-to-date information, you’ll want to continue visiting my current author website right here at www.nan-mccarthy.com.) I was now open for business as an author on the still-nascent World Wide Web, selling copies of my book directly to readers. Little did I know that the way I was selling my book (online) would be as much a part of the story as the book itself.
The following year, in the summer of 1996, while I continued selling copies of Chat, I wrote the second book in the series, Connect, returning to the story of Bev and Max and their growing fascination with one another. This second book was also self-published, again with a print run of 2,500 copies (though using a different printer this time), copyedited by Linnea Dayton, and featuring another eye-catching cover design by David High.
By this time things with the books were beginning to percolate. I was approached by Ted Nace, founder and publisher of Peachpit Press, who was interested in a co-publishing deal for Chat. This was a bold move on Ted’s part because Peachpit was primarily a computer book publisher, and Chat would be the publishing house’s first work of fiction. Ted and I came to an agreement, and in late summer 1996, Chat was released to a wider audience (including bookstore distribution) with a second print run of 20,000 copies. Along with the national bookstore distribution provided by Peachpit, I continued selling both Chat and Connect directly to readers via my website, email, and 800 number.
What’s more, publishers in other countries began approaching me about foreign rights. In late 1996 and early 1997, I sold translation rights for Chat to Spanish publisher Pagina Uno and Korean publisher Ahn Graphics. Also around this time, due to the wider distribution offered by Peachpit and my continued marketing and promotion efforts (including sending complimentary copies of Chat along with custom Chat t-shirts to the White House, Oprah, Stephen King, and Dave Barry among others), publications such as The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and People began to take note, publishing reviews of the books as well as articles about the new and unusual way I was using the Internet to successfully promote and sell my books directly to readers. (Sample headline from The Wall Street Journal: “Unknown Novelist Wins Following on Web by Self-Promotion and Luck.”)
In the summer of 1997 I wrote the third book in the trilogy, Crash, and Chinese translation rights to all three books were sold to Addison-Wesley in Taiwan. Around this same time, after the People magazine write-up in the spring of 1997, I was contacted via email by a literary agent in New York who’d seen the write-up and offered representation. With the blessing of Ted Nace and the release from my agreement with Peachpit, my agent subsequently sold the rights to all three books to the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster (one of the very same publishers who’d rejected the manuscript two years previously). Meanwhile, the books and my Rainwater website were continuing to get press coverage, with a second write-up in Publishers Weekly and articles in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Chicago Sun-Times, New City, Chicago Books in Review, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Denver Westword, and others.
These were exciting times. I’d been working non-stop promoting the books in addition to spending a good amount of time processing and shipping orders coming in through my website. Although I enjoyed the marketing aspect of what I was doing, my first love has always been writing, and I yearned for more time to get back to writing and start work on a new novel. I viewed the offer from Simon & Schuster as an opportunity to make use of a larger publishing house’s marketing, sales, and distribution channels, taking Chat, Connect, and Crash to new levels while also allowing me more time to focus on writing.
Although I’d already more than recouped my self-publishing costs, the advance from Simon & Schuster (which my agent described as “respectable”) was a nice boost, both financially and career-wise. At the time the contract was offered, my agent mentioned S&S wanted to make some “very minor” changes to the ending of Crash that would take “two minutes.” I was slightly concerned but the changes were downplayed and I didn’t press further—after all, I was eager, inexperienced in the ways of traditional publishing deals, and didn’t want to jeopardize the offer.
Over the course of the following year (it took about twelve months from contract signing to publication, even though S&S didn’t have to do production work on the first two books since they used my previously created QuarkXPress files for the interiors), I remained busy working with Pocket Books on cover consultations, marketing and promotion plans, production details, and figuring out the new ending they requested for Crash. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the books yet, but suffice to say S&S wanted a “happier” ending than the one I’d originally written. Overall I didn’t have a problem with modifying the ending to suit their tastes, but the process was arduous—a lot of back and forth over a period of about two months (a lot longer than the “two minutes” originally mentioned)—with the end result being a compromise I wasn’t too excited about, but which the powers-that-be at S&S seemed happy enough with.
Meanwhile, I had begun work on a new novel, and we continued selling foreign rights—to Simon & Schuster UK (who created the pink, green, and blue cover designs also used on the U.S. versions of the books), Turkish publisher Oglak, German publisher Goldmann, Slovenian publisher Ucila, and Dutch publisher Uitgeverij Prometheus.
Simon & Schuster published all three books in trade paperback in the fall of 1998, with a print run of 30,000 copies. I’m proud to say the books were profitable enough that I “earned out” my advance relatively quickly, and the press coverage continued for a short while with write-ups in Mademoiselle, Entertainment Weekly, The Orange County Register, Washington Post Book World, and CNN.com (one of the earlier online news sites). I also signed an amended contract allowing Simon & Schuster to sell the trilogy in electronic format (the term “ebook” wasn’t widely in use at the time) on “portable handheld devices” such as the Softbook ($299), Rocketbook ($500), and EB Dedicated Reader ($1400-$1600), making digital editions of the books available for purchase in early 1999.
While I continued to receive royalty statements and checks from Simon & Schuster for sales of Chat, Connect, & Crash, in 2000 I embarked on a new project, interviewing my father’s childhood friends for a memoir of my father’s life (he died young of alcoholic cirrhosis at age 39) called Live ’Til I Die, which I published under the Rainwater Press imprint in December 2001, just a month before my mom’s death in January 2002. Though sales of the memoir never came close to those of my email trilogy, writing and publishing Live ’Til I Die was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a project I’m proud of to this day.
Not long after I completed Live ’Til I Die, and nearly four years after the trilogy’s trade paperback publication by Simon & Schuster, I received word from S&S in early 2002 that the Chat, Connect, and Crash books would soon go out of print. In exchange for some foreign rights monies that had never been paid to me, I negotiated delivery of several hundred copies of each book (copies that would’ve otherwise been destroyed). Also at that time, at my request and as per my contract, my agent sent a letter to S&S asking that the rights to the books be reverted back to me, but I never heard back from anyone.
Although it wasn’t something I planned on, I ended up taking a break from full-time writing over the next ten years (though I continued accepting short-term gigs like writing a guest column for The Kansas City Star). Due to my husband’s career in the Marine Corps, we moved around a lot (including two cross-country moves during the time I was writing and promoting Chat, Connect, and Crash). By the time we landed in the Kansas City area in 2003, our two sons were approaching their teen years and my husband was traveling more and more (including a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2008). There just wasn’t enough of me to go around to be a full-time writer, a military spouse charged with running the household during my husband’s frequent absences, and the kind of mom I wanted to be to our two teenage sons. So writing novels was put on the back burner for a while—a long while. It was a decision I’m happy to have made, and though I missed writing full-time, the upside was that the time spent living my life and focusing on my family filled my creative well to overflowing.
Surprisingly, during this period I continued receiving small royalty checks from Simon & Schuster, mostly for the ebook editions of the trilogy being sold via online outlets such as Amazon. I also continued selling a small number of printed copies of Chat, Connect, Crash, and Live ’Til I Die via direct orders from my website, email, and snail mail, and in 2011 Chat was the subject of a thesis paper by an Italian grad student named Antonietta D’Amore. Antonietta was a student at L’Orientale University in Naples, Italy who translated the book to Italian and interviewed me extensively (via email, of course) about Chat and the linguistics of Internet communication.
By 2012, with my husband retired from the Marine Corps, one son graduated from college and another well on his way, I finally felt like I could get back to focusing full-time on my writing career. One of the first things I did was send a letter to the publisher of Simon & Schuster once again asking for a reversion of rights to the trilogy as per my contract (briefly mentioning I’d been waiting ten years for a response to my first request), and within a couple weeks I received a signed reversion of rights agreement from S&S.
In 2012 I also began work on a new novel related to military life, the idea for which came to me during my husband’s deployment to Iraq in 2008. (That novel eventually turned into the four-part Since You Went Away series.)
In the first few months of 2014, I took some time away from working on the new novel to create and publish new editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash under the Rainwater Press imprint now that I had the rights back. What a thrill it’s been to once again have ownership of these books!
Because so much time had passed and my digital files of the manuscripts were on old media such as floppy disks and SyQuest cartridges (and therefore difficult if not impossible to access), I ended up having to type all three manuscripts from scratch into new Word documents (which wasn’t so bad since I’m a fast typist). I also ended up digging through boxes of old files to find the first manuscript for Crash written in 1997, using it as a reference to restore the original ending. This in itself was a gratifying and exciting experience—with the original ending to Crash now intact, the trilogy on the whole feels stronger and more authentic to me.
I hired Faith Simmons (who happens to be my niece in addition to an editorial goddess) to copyedit all three newly typed manuscripts. I also contacted David High of High Design, who designed the original editions of the trilogy back in ’95 and who agreed to work with me again on creating fresh covers and interior designs for the new editions. And because of technological advancements over the last decade, I decided to hire a typesetter with skills in ebook adaptation (instead of attempting to do the production work myself this time). Kevin Callahan of BNGO Books created page mechanicals based on David’s new designs, and he also converted the books to the proper digital formats for upload to all the major online ebook retailers including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
The ebook editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash became available for purchase in April 2014 (and perhaps you’ve followed the link to this article from within the ebooks themselves—if so, thank you!). As I prepared the new editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash, I realized that 2020 will be the trilogy’s 25th anniversary. I hope to release printed copies of the books soon, along with a possible fourth book in the series (Cloud), that will bring us up-to-date on Bev and Max’s story twenty-five years later. I’m also working on a bonus book featuring background info on some of the obscure details and 1990s pop culture references in the trilogy. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll eventually have the resources to create a boxed set of all five books (Chat, Connect, Crash, Cloud, and the bonus book). (In the meantime, I’m devoting all of my time to writing and publishing the Since You Went Away series.)
In spite of the inevitable heartbreaks involved in any publishing venture, I’ve had more than my share of fun with these books. I’m grateful for every obstacle, every disappointment, and every person I encountered along the way. Each experience has brought me to this point in my life, a place I’m very happy to be. I’m excited about taking advantage of the many new technologies and platforms available to writers who want to independently publish their books these days. When I wake up each morning, my mind can barely contain the ideas I have for new books and new ways to market and sell them. The best part about my publishing journey? It’s only just the beginning.
A homecoming parade is a beautiful thing, but what veterans and their families really need is for America to keep its promises.
I love the new Budweiser commercial that’s airing in today’s Super Bowl. Since Anheuser-Busch released the one-minute ad featuring Army Lt. Chuck Nadd, who served as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, and his surprise welcome-home parade put on by his hometown of Winter Park, Florida in conjunction with Anheuser-Busch, my eyes well with tears every time I watch it. As the wife of a retired Marine, I’m grateful to Anheuser-Busch—and all Americans—for these demonstrations of appreciation toward our veterans.
My own husband’s homecoming from Iraq on a cold Valentine’s night in 2009 wasn’t nearly as exciting and romantic as the one shown in the Budweiser commercial. He arrived at Kansas City International airport near midnight, virtually anonymous save for his high-and-tight, disembarking from a commercial jet wearing civilian clothes because he’d already gone through post-deployment debriefing with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Twentynine Palms, CA, and Marines don’t wear their uniforms (for security reasons) when flying on commercial aircraft. So when he finally emerged from the deserted gate area it was just him and me and a long hug and silence. We were both too choked up for words, but the hug said everything we needed it to say.
My husband retired from the Marine Corps in 2011 after 29 years of service. Our two sons are young adults now, 20 and 23. They didn’t ask to be born into a military family, but they managed that burden with grace, surviving multiple moves throughout their childhoods, adapting to new schools and finding new friends and always knowing what it’s like to be the new kid. It wasn’t an easy life for them, but even they will tell you they’re better human beings because of the challenges they faced as “military kids.”
I’m happy so many people will see Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial during the Super Bowl today. I think it will bring tears to a lot of people’s eyes, not just veterans and their families. I know the gratitude people feel toward our veterans is genuine.
But if you’re not in the military, or related to someone who’s in the military, you probably don’t know that this past December, Congress passed legislation as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 that, starting in 2015, will reduce the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) of retired service members’ pensions by 1% per year until the age of 62. This may not seem like a lot, but according to the Military Officer Association of America (MOAA), this amounts to a potential lifetime loss of nearly $83,000 for an enlisted service member with 20 years of service and approximately $124,000 for an officer with 20 years of service.
Maybe you’re one of those people who think that military pensions are too generous. After all, a person can serve 20 years in the military, retire at a relatively young age, start a new career and earn a paycheck from that job while also collecting a monthly military pension. Just looking at the numbers, it does seem pretty generous, especially when compared to most other jobs with limited or non-existent pension plans. But I’m pretty sure the folks who think that military pensions are too generous—that cutting service members’ retirement compensation is no big deal—have never served in the military, or had a family member who served.
And if you’re one of those people, I don’t blame you for not being aware of the hidden costs of military service. If you’ve never worn the combat boots or stood at the tarmac waving goodbye to the person you love, how could you possibly know the sacrifices involved in serving in the military?
Most everybody knows about the scariest and most dramatic aspects of military service: the possibility of losing one’s life, of suffering permanent physical injuries and/or lifelong psychological trauma—these are the more obvious risks associated with putting one’s self in harm’s way. Then there’s the extended absences, the heartbreak of missing important life events like the birth of a child or your teen’s high school graduation, and the emotional toll these absences take on marriages and children.
While these are the most well-known types of sacrifices made by service members and their families, if you’re not from a military family, you’re probably not aware of the more mundane, long-term costs associated with military life. Like the fact that most military families never have a chance to build equity in a home because of moving every three years and, even if they’re lucky enough to purchase a home (vs. renting) at each duty station, they usually take a loss or break even every time they have to sell. And have you ever considered how nearly impossible it is for most military spouses to sustain a career when they not only have to switch jobs due to moving to a new location every three years but are also left in charge of finding the new house, selling or renting the old house, enrolling the kids in new schools, finding the new dentist, etc. because their service member is either deployed or required to devote his time to getting “snapped in” to the new job? This inability to maintain a career over the 20+ years of a spouse’s military service costs military families hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, not to mention the chance to earn an additional pension. Because—assuming a spouse is able to find someone willing to hire him or her at each new duty station, most military spouses never have the chance to keep a job long enough to earn retirement at any one location.
So, you say, military people knew all this stuff when they signed up. Yes, that’s true. Military people were also told when they signed up that they would earn a specific amount in retirement earnings based on their rank and time in service. Not just told, but promised. And a lot of service members—and their families—made the decision to stick it out long enough to reach the 20-year mark for precisely that reason—so they could earn the retirement benefits they were promised. And now Congress is reducing those benefits—taking them away from our service members. By passing this legislation, Congress is saying, yeah, we did promise you a certain compensation package when you signed up, and yeah, you did risk your life and health and family stability thinking you would receive that certain compensation package if you stuck it out long enough. But we really gotta balance that budget, so we’re yanking the rug out from under you and just changing the terms of our agreement with you a teeny tiny bit, and though we know you military folks are going to hoot and holler about it, we’re betting on the fact that the average American either won’t notice or won’t care.
As the wife of a veteran I admit to taking this a bit personally. And yeah, I’m angry about the potential loss of income from my husband’s retirement pay. But what really concerns me—beyond the lack of integrity shown by our Congress in breaking a promise made to our service members—is how this bait and switch will affect the future strength of our all-volunteer force, playing out in recruiting stations across the U.S. I’m picturing a recruiter sitting down with a young recruit and his or her parents or spouse, talking about the great benefits package he or she can look forward to upon retirement, when the potential recruit replies, yeah that all sounds great… but what if Congress decides to take those benefits away from me after I’ve put in my 20 years, like it did to service members in 2013?
So when you’re watching the Super Bowl today, and you shed a tear at the heartfelt “A Hero’s Welcome” Budweiser commercial, please do our veterans a favor. Show your thanks by going to the MOAA Legislative Action Center and completing the online form that will send a message to your House and Senate representatives asking them to repeal the provision (Section 403) in the Bipartisan Budget Act that cuts retirement benefits for current and future military retirees: http://capwiz.com/moaa/issues/alert/?alertid=63042726. (And if you’re the social media type and want to do even more, use the #KeepYourPromise hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to let Congress know know how much you honor our veterans’ service.)
A homecoming parade is a beautiful thing, but what veterans and their families really need is for America to keep its promises.