Because I knew Vicki Morse

A tribute to my friend, colleague, mentor during my teaching years in Hartford.

Here’s the thing, Vicki.

I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner. When I’m at the beginning stages of my grief that I burst into tears every time I think of you, that’s when no words will come out.

Yesterday was the first day I graduated my first hour without thinking of you before the crashing realization came that I won’t be seeing you anymore. (Well, that’s not true. I know you’ll visit us in our dreams. We’ve talked at length about these things. I’m still waiting for your guest appearance.)

Last month, just before Christmas, I drove by your big old farmhouse (as it’s on the way to my kids’ school), and I could see it from all the way down the street, because every single window was lit. I imagined you bustling from room to room, lighting up every window, where those candles would burn until the rooster in your backyard began to crow.

Days later, I packed up my car with all three kids and ventured over to see you. Tyler, who as you know is riddled with anxiety in every social situation, parked himself in your pitch black driveway, and no matter how hard I begged and reasoned with him, he would not get out of the car.

Without a moment’s hesitation, you leaned into the backseat, looked him in the eye and spoke to him in that special way that you had, as though in that moment, he was the only person in the world who mattered.

“Tyler, I know you get a little scared when it’s time to go somewhere new,” you coaxed. “But you should know, I made hot chocolate just for you—and I don’t mean just any hot chocolate. Do you want to know the secret ingredient?” You leaned in a bit closer. “Real, actual melted candy bars.”

Tyler stared straight ahead.

“Also, I have ‘Home Alone’ on the TV. It’s all about a kid just about your age who fights off the bad guys. Would you like to see it?”

For a second, he glanced at you, and then away again.

“And if you’re feeling adventurous, I have a whole attic that you can rummage through to your heart’s content,” you added. “It’s filled with all kinds of stuff, and you can take home anything you’d like. How does that sound?”

As if he snapped out of a trance, he looked at you. For a moment you locked eyes, and he took you in. Then he got out of the car and walked boldly into your house.

It was one of those easy, silent connections that I rarely get to see. You were magic like that.

I walked him up the stairs and into your attic—a dark, haunted place with books and dolls and shadows hanging in every corner—and shining through the darkness was a single electric candle. I thought of you climbing those stairs and crossing that cold, dingy attic each night to plug in that candle, just so your house could throw light in every direction.

I know your students will appreciate this story in all its literary symbolism, because you were magic in the classroom as well. You are that candle in the attic—spreading hope, love and light our way when everything else looks bleak.

After Tyler explored every corner, he emerged with an armful of Madelaine L’Engle books, along with a musty-smelling teddy bear even taller than himself. He held them up and looked at you imploringly.

“Take them!” you insisted. “Take whatever you’d like. It’s just stuff!”

At that moment, his smile could solar power your entire house. He jumped up and down and bumped his fists together (his own personal sign language for “thank you”). I didn’t even care that my house was about to inherit another four square feet of clutter. Because in that moment, I watched you nudge my boy from fear into elation. That was your specialty.

On the day you died, I sat on Tyler’s bed, held that bear and talked to you for a very long time. And when Tyler found the bear in my room instead of his, he understood.

Even though you’ll kick me into the next dimension for saying this, I’ve spent most of this past week angry. Angry that even though you lived a stone’s throw away from me, I probably saw you a handful of times in the past five years. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to see you. It was because you became a principal, and I figured you were busy. I’ve been angry over your two beautiful daughters who still need you, a broken educational system that was about to receive your repair, the thousands of children whose hearts you had yet to touch. Angry because as you stood there before me in your final weeks, I wasn’t intuitive enough to see that anything was wrong. Angry that over the course of the near-decade that you, Jill, Jo-Ann and I took respite in our makeshift lunchroom in the science storage closet, you sat across from me eating farm-fresh produce while I feasted on my kids’ half-eaten bologna sandwich crusts, you coaching me on the powers of positivity while I spewed the day’s defeat into my coffee cup. You were the one who did everything right. Nothing in this world made sense anymore.

As the days went by, it dawned on me. You believed every life is a journey with a specific lesson or mission at the end of it. Once we’ve learned that lesson or achieved that mission, it’s time to move onto another one.

I can’t think of anyone who had life figured out more than you. And slowly, it all began to make sense.

It’s not to say that I believe for one minute your work was done. The world was a better place when you were in it, and I will never accept that all your plans, and all the ways you spread your light to the people around you, have come to a grinding halt.

You taught me to take the suckiest of situations, learn from them, and turn something positive out of them. And so, this one—or should I say, these ten—are for you.

The Ten Things I Vow to Do Differently Because I Knew Vicki Morse:

1. I will be kind to people, especially those that I love. I won’t take advantage of them for a second. Because when it comes to time, there are no guarantees.

2. I will always look for the positives. I will remember that when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

3. While my kids are little, I will read to them every night. Even on the nights I am dragging and brain-fried, and I would trade my soul for an extra twenty minutes of sleep, I will never skip this part of our bedtime routine again.

4. I will make a concerted effort every night to sit down and eat dinner with my family—even if we’re only eating grilled cheese sandwiches–because this is one of the most important ways to bring a family together.

5. I will stop doubting myself and just friggin’ do it already.

6. I will finally get around to reading “Ask, and You Are Given,” which started gathering dust on my bookshelf shortly after I met you in 2002.

7. I will always look for the good in my students. No matter what they say or do persuade me otherwise, I will believe in each and every one of them and insist that they reach their potentials.

8. I will become a better listener. When people speak, I will stop what I’m doing and look at them. And when I’m listening, I won’t be thinking about what I’m going to say next.

9. I will smile and say hello to people whenever I pass them, even if I don’t feel like it.

10. I will screen myself for cancer in every way that modern-day technology and medicine has to offer. And I will demand that all the people I love do the same.

Truth be told, I would not be who I am today had I never met you, and hundreds more can say the same. Most people–even those who have lived twice as long as you–don’t get to say that.

Here is a poem that you wrote and attached to an invitation to your Christmas party last month. Now that I read it over, I believe you were trying to tell us something.

The months have flown by since Christmas last 
Days grew long and longer, and then that passed. 
Since June the sun has been losing ground
And now dark and cold are all that’s found.
What shall we do when all seems so bleak?
When life sends us Trouble, and dead limbs all creak?
When ice seals swimming fish in the depths of lakes
And the robins have flown ‘til the sun re-awakes?
When the cold stretches before us, no end in clear sight
And most of the day has turned into night?

Ah, that’s when the light we all carry inside
Can shine its very brightest, a million feet wide!
Bring the green that holds sunshine into the house
And adorn it with lights that no shadow can douse.
Spark fires to life with brightness and heat
And bring smiles to life with a newly-found treat.
Put candles in windows to tell one and all
The dark is our blackboard, with light we can scrawl
Our hopes and our dreams, the best we can be
It’s the love that grows in despair that sets us all free.

I invite anyone who has read this through the end to add at least one thing you will do differently because you knew Vicki.

Onto your next journey, my friend. I miss you already.

Why I Stopped Blaming My Mother

Most of us would agree that at some point or another, we’ve had our mothers’ hearts in the palm of our hands. And we can say this with absolute certainty.  After all, we’re the ones who tore them out in the first place.

Take the time I attempted to call my mom from a school parking lot when I was teaching in Hartford. I was pregnant with my second, and I needed to know if she could babysit my 1-year-old, Tyler, the next day.  Although I could hear her voice when she answered, she couldn’t hear mine. I shrugged it off as a faulty connection, hung up and started driving. And that’s when the ringing began.

As the highway traffic roared past me on both sides, she tried calling me back, hitting redial throughout my commute like a teenage girl trying to win concert tickets. I flicked off the phone and tried to refrain from hurling it alongside Route 91.

By the time I got home, there were three messages on my phone. The first one resonated like a frantic 911 call.  “Merri? Why did you call me and hang up? Are you OK? Is Tyler OK? Can you call me right when you get home?”  The next message, also from my mom, was full of defeat.  “Merri, I can’t understand why you’re not answering your phone. I feel like you’re in some kind of trouble, or that you need me to pick Tyler up from daycare. Please call me.”  The third was from Doug. “You’d better call your mother,” he said. “She called me at work looking for you.”

In exasperation, I sighed and made a solemn oath to the bump in my belly: “Eva, if I ever do this to you, I will yank out my own tongue and slap myself with it.”

I probably should have breathed deep and counted to 10 before dialing, but I knew 10 more seconds would be enough time for her to post “MERRI, WHERE ARE YOU?” on all of Connecticut’s Interstate electronic billboards.

When she picked up the phone in a fraction of a second, I unleashed an era of lingering teenage frustration into her ear, culminating with my oath to my unborn child.

“HA!  That’s what you think,” she responded. “You’re not going to believe how much she will worry you. I can’t wait!”

“OK,” I countered, “Maybe when she’s 16 and crowd surfing at a Marilyn Manson reunion tour.  But not 35!”

Back and forth we went, until I remembered the reason why I was calling her in the first place. I still needed a baby-sitter.

As usual, she came through for me, taking a day off work to play Supernanny. I came home to find Tyler happy and fed and the house sparkling from top to bottom. “She even cleaned the blades on the ceiling fan,” Doug reported, mystified. On the counter was a new spring jacket and sneakers for Tyler, along with some maternity finds for my meager wardrobe.  I was overcome with guilt for the way I’d spoken to her the day before. I listened to her speech about why our house is a hazard and how the dog fur was probably going to make her sick. I gushed with gratitude and kissed her goodbye.

My guilt was compounded after she came down with Doug’s 72-hour stomach bug, which sapped them of every fluid ounce in their bodies. “I still say it’s the dog hair,” she sniffed into the phone from her sickbed. “I’ve never been this ill in my life. I don’t think I can come over anymore unless you get rid of those dogs.” I swallowed.

For as long as I can remember, this has been the pattern between me and my mother. She annoys me, I am mean and horrible to her, I realize I need something, she comes through, I feel guilty. I always thought once I became a mother it would all change, but it hasn’t turned out that way. I am still trying to figure out why I am overly kind to everyone on the planet except the one person who loves me unconditionally and has always had my back.

My sister and me growing up with our mom in the '70s.

My sister and me growing up with our mom in the ’70s.

My mother wanted to protect me from the world and all its evils. Growing up, I endured endless snippets from her encyclopedia of horror stories, like the time a child was kidnapped from a kind-looking stranger bearing the misinformation that her mom was in the hospital. Or, as I approached the age of my driver’s license, all the young girls who were abducted by men parked in vans with sliding doors, who lie in wait in their backseats or who lurked beneath their cars ready to slash their ankles.

When I was out with my friends, I was always the first one to be dropped off, my curfew a full hour earlier than the rest of them (an eon in teenage terms). I’d always come home to find her waiting up for me, and if I was late, I’d find that she’d aged a decade per minute, brain frazzled from counting ambulances, eyes squinted in the light, hair flying in every direction. Amidst her empty threats that I’d soon find myself kicked out on the street, I’d roll my eyes, storm downstairs in my basement bedroom, slam the door, climb back out through my window and rejoin my friends. Not that we had anything left to do, mind you, but it was the principle of the matter.

Beyond that, I spent most of my time on the other side of the window. I was grounded for most of my teenage existence, my telephone and the cable wire in my TV confiscated. My adolescence was completely devoid of motivation and productivity, homework left undone and a bedroom in disarray, dirty laundry shoved under the bed and half-eaten food transforming into science projects on my dressers (another point of contention between me and my mom, whose house is forever tidied, scoured and disinfected). I think back about all the time I wasted during those years, daydreaming away rather than enjoying my youth or actualizing my potential. Both parents worked full-time, and for many of those years my mom took classes at night toward her bachelor’s (and later on, master’s) degree. Year after year, I slipped by with my underachieving ways with much complaint from my parents but little consequence.

It must have been frustrating for my mother to raise a daughter who was the antithesis of her very nature. My mother is ambitious and smart in way I could never dream to be. In every facet of her life, she could be fierce and ready to take on any battle — except with me. A disciplinarian she was not, and if there were any boundaries, I stepped over them all the time.  When my father got home, she would issue a detailed account of all my transgressions, along with a line-by-line recap of every hostile and disrespectful word that’d come out of my mouth.  My father would listen until he could no longer contain his anger, but when he stepped up to administer discipline, my mother would jump in to save me. “You back her every time,” he’d yell over her contradictions, and I would crouch at the bottom of the stairs and listen as their struggle turned from me toward each other.

When their argument ended, I would slip back into my room, turn up my music and lock the door, dreading the inevitable follow-up visit from my mother. When I couldn’t be bothered to open the door, she would plant herself on the other side and begin listing all the errors of my ways and how I needed to fix them. I’d listen in stubborn silence as her anger melted into despair, when she would crumple in heart-broken heap, reminding me how much she’d done for me and how I’d never appreciated anything.

The more desperate her efforts to be close, the more disgusted I’d become, and the more distance I’d create. That is, until my next emotional crisis, or the next time I needed her.

The saga continues to this day. To my horror, there are times I still hear my own voice get whiny when I talk to my mother, still expecting her to kiss all my problems and make them better.  Even today, she offers to fight my battles:  “What’s that?  The manager won’t give you your money back? Let me call him. He’ll give you back every penny!”  Despite her good intentions, over the years I’ve come to blame her for failing to raise me strong and independent like many other women I admire. I am still my own worst enemy, looking over my shoulder for ankle-slashers, hopes and dreams tucked away in fear of some impending doom. I decided my mother was at fault each time I felt like I didn’t grow up to be exactly the person I wanted to become.

But now that I’m a mother, I see things differently. I remember the look of hurt and confusion on Tyler’s face when, at 3 years old, one of his older peers pushed him down, and how much I wanted to shriek his defense in the boy’s face. I remember when Eva, now in kindergarten, came home, face streaked with tears, because her best friend didn’t want to play with her at recess.  And then I realized what must be the shortest road to heartbreak this world has to offer. What could be more excruciating than sitting back and watching your children get hurt? Who could allow their own babies to lay victim to a cruel, relentless world, even if surviving could make them that much stronger?

It finally dawned on me that my mother never acted out of any desire to stunt my growth or make me crazy. I realized that every time she worried, preached, advised, defended, lost her temper, lapsed, pushed, nagged and smothered, she did it out of love. And it was a love that could never dissipate, no matter how often I ignored, rebelled, neglected, protested, disrespected, used or tortured her. I can’t imagine that anyone on this planet has loved me as much.

Perhaps the time has finally come to stop blaming my mother. If I was insecure, maybe it was because of my lack of confidence despite her efforts to build it. If she did indeed plant the seeds of my paranoia, perhaps I am old enough now where I can make my own decisions about the world and how I choose to see it. Maybe she was overprotective because I never bothered to fend for myself. Maybe my errant nature was a result not of her lack of discipline, but my lack of self-control. Maybe she couldn’t force me to become motivated and do well in school because I was too lazy and stubborn. If she didn’t spend enough time tracking down my performance, maybe it was because she was busy working and going to school to support her family and earn my college tuition. And maybe I was so detached not because she drove me away, but because I refused to let her in.

Instead of pointing fingers, it’s time to thank my mom for turning me into the kind of mother who loves her own children unconditionally, who would do anything to protect them and cherishes every part of them for who they are, not who they can be.

And so, after all these years, I have finally arrived at a pinnacle of self-realization. For all the turmoil in our relationship, for all my short-comings and for everything that didn’t work out quite the way I’d planned, I have finally forgiven my mother. Now, if only I could be sure that she has forgiven me.

What a twit!

My friend Katina thinks that I should tweet.  On one hand, I suppose it’s high time that I’ve twet.  It’s not that I’ve never twitted before…I twate twice last year but haven’t twaten since.  They say twitting is fun, but last night it took me twenty minutes to compose a single twit.

And with that, I’m all twat out.

I’d be honored if you’d follow me on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/merripetrovits

Hashtag…you’re it.

On the bright side, false advertising is the spice of life.

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To the side of my Facebook newsfeed is a picture of Ellen Degeneres passionately kissing a man, along with this caption: “Ellen feels ashamed that she lied to her fans for years!” and “The media is shocked after discovering Ellen’s secret that shocked the world!”

Click on it, and the headline screams: “BACKSTAGE SKINCARE SECRET: Her Anti-Aging Trick Finally Exposed!”

I haven’t felt this deceived since Monica busted out the blue dress in ’97.