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The Future is Now

April 5, 2020 Leave a comment

NHT

At 2 years and 10-months he started school; Pre-k, 3-days a week. His first day was two days after 9/11. I’ll never forget the unsettling, hollow feeling that overwhelmed me as I dropped him off that day. He, seemingly had no idea that our lives had just changed forever. Smiling from ear-to-ear in excitement, he was ready. I was lost. I suspect we all were somewhat fragile at that time; young mothers and fathers just dipping their toes into this new phase of parenthood. How could you leave this totally-dependent, tiny human-being whom you are 100% responsible for, with strangers?

They don’t know him like I do. They don’t love him like I do.

Those thoughts alone are enough to rattle even the most confident among us when it comes to our kids but on the heels of 9/11, there was a much deeper sense of uncertainty that consumed me. For me, the fundamental definition of safety as I knew it, as an American and now, in the most important role of my life as a mother, was completely compromised.  There was little time to process or find any perspective in 9/11 when, like herds of deer caught in headlights all over the country, we took our children to school for the very first time.

It wasn’t long before it became clear to me that even though he may have been too young to understand exactly what was happening at the time, he too had obviously been effected. Maybe it was me or the vibe of all the other adults around him projecting this newfound fear & uncertainty but there was undoubtedly an emotional takeaway of that time period for my pre-schooler. It showed itself that December when he and his classmates made candles for their families right before the winter school break. Each child was asked what they wished for everybody.

I wish that everybody would be safe.

Next month that same curious, little, blond-haired boy who I was so afraid would be misunderstood and not seen in the same wonderful way in which I see him, graduates from college. All across the country, graduation ceremonies have been cancelled  because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Our 2020 graduates will not wear caps and gowns this year. They will not walk across a stage to receive their diplomas. There will be no celebratory dinners, gatherings or parties. For his and the health of our family, we won’t see my son that day. I’m not actually sure when we’ll see him next. He’s been distance-learning this last semester from his apartment in Pennsylvania near his school and we live in New York.

I can’t help but be struck by the parallels between these two pivotal times in his life. I’m reminded about the swirl of uncertainty that permeated the air when our children began their educational journeys and I think about how next month, so many of these children will leave their formal education amidst a similar, life-changing event, also riddled with an unrivaled uncertainty. These college grads were the pioneers of growing up, learning and living in a new America, never knowing a time when, “If you see something, say something.” wasn’t a household phrase. Now, almost 19 years later, that candle remains on my mantle, a subtle reminder of what has become an underlying mantra that has guided this boy’s life ever since, and I wonder. I wonder about these graduates all across our country. Those young adults full of hope and promise, on the verge of beginning their lives. What were their takeaways 19 years ago when they began school, full of hope and promise? What mantra has steered their lives ever since? What will become their driving force now, as a result of all of this? What will guide them through?

Perhaps it’s befitting that these people are, at a second crucial point in their lives, pioneers, again. This time, they’ll take the reigns in an unprecedented, unfamiliar way of living, in what will no doubt become a new America, again. It makes me wonder too, about the irony of these two critical times and whether or not there’s something bigger at play. Our children are our future and for many of us, the future is now.

I’m curious and feel hopeful that the future is in the hands of those who wish, everybody to be safe.

 

 

Guenter J Szczuka 1940 ~ 2017

July 27, 2017 10 comments

I had the honor of writing and delivering my Dad’s eulogy at his funeral recently and wanted to share it with those of you who knew him but were unable to attend his service. 

my dad

My Dad was born in 1940.

Family en Szczuka

(R-L) Guenter, Papa, George, Irene, Mama, Christine

His early childhood was spent in war-torn Germany where he experienced firsthand the horrifying atrocities of war. He witnessed things no child  should ever have to see or suffer through.

At age 18, he left his parents, a sister and a brother to immigrate to this country. He followed in the footsteps of his older sister, my Tante Christine, in search of a better life.

For my Dad, that “better life” began when he met a beautiful, Irish-born woman who made my sister, myself and my brother, first generation Americans and to whom my Dad lovingly referred to as his Dah-ling.  Always.

They married in September, 1961 and while there were many things we didn’t understand about my Dad, there was never a doubt that he adored and cherished our mom. This year they would have celebrated 56 years of marriage.

kiss

My Dad had a strong work ethic, something he passed along to myself and my siblings.

He worked hard at everything he did, although work didn’t always come easy to him in the early years. Initially, he was a painter’s apprentice. My mom used to say it was “Feast or Famine” in the beginning of their marriage.

He was resourceful though and my mom would also, often, tell the story of how during one of those famine-years, when my older sister was first born, my Dad scoured the streets picking up discarded bottles in order to collect enough “return” money to  make sure there was a gift from Santa under the tree for her first Christmas.

young dad

Food was always a big part of my Dad’s life. I think because he had so little of it during the war.

He couldn’t bear to see it wasted.

He loved cooking and baking and was pretty good at it — most of the time. smile

treats
Special thanks to my niece Veronica for making “Opa’s -famous- Treats” in his honor for the luncheon after his funeral.

I have fond memories of my Dad making caramelized candy and fonder memories of him making donuts — real old-fashioned, delicious donuts in our kitchen.

The hardest part for us kids would be waiting for the dough to rise. It felt like forever but once it did, he would roll it out on the counter, flour the end of a drinking glass and drop the dough into hot oil. He’d sit us up on top of the refrigerator so we could watch the doughy-circle-molds expand into pure donut yummy-ness!

kds

My Dad loved chocolate, dressing up for masquerade parties, soccer and hockey. Pele was his man and the Islanders were his team. For most of our childhood, we lived on the 4th floor of an apartment building in New Rochelle and everyone, I mean EVERYONE in the building knew when the Islanders scored a goal.

He loved music. While other kids grew up listening to the Beatles, we grew up listening to the ever-popular, traditional volksmusik-singing-sensation & one man wonder — Heino.

Over 50-million records sold!smile

My Dad’s childhood left many scars on him. He was a complicated man.

As a teenager in High School I tried to make a connection with him. I would make his lunch every night for work the next day and leave a small note in his bag letting him know if I had a test, a game or if something special was happening that day. Sometimes I would just write “Have a good day!” but he never responded, acknowledged or mentioned them to me.

Many years later I found out that he had kept those notes, each and every one of them, in a box in his drawer.

He and I walked a similar path in some respects. We shared some of the same struggles. It was difficult for him to express his feelings — until recently.

What happened to my Dad changed him.

circle

I’ve come to view his recent stroke — as devastating as it was to all of us, especially him — as a blessing in a way.

He showed us again and again how strong he was at the core of his being.

After 3 weeks in the ICU, we were pretty much lead to believe that the chances of him ever speaking or walking again were slim to none. And although his dementia progressed during this time as well — so did his ability to let go of the chains of his past, allowing him to be the man I think he always wanted to be. He became oddly contented. He was more open and mellow. He was always happy to see us. He had a pleasant demeanor. He was clever and funny, full of playful humor, eager to engage in any way he could, be it a nod, lifting a hand, pointing a finger or sticking out his tongue.

tongue

He worked hard at his recovery. Not surprisingly, he DEFIED the odds.

We saw him walk AND heard him speak again — in English AND in German.

walk

Some might say that was a miracle. At a minimum, it was a gift.

And as difficult as this has been for our family — especially my brother who so gallantly & lovingly navigated my Dad’s care — we are blessed and feel grateful to have had this time with him.

Ihre arbeit ist getan Papa. Wir Lieben dich. Mögest du in Frieden ruhen.

all

Your work is done Daddy. We love you. May you rest in Peace.

Obituary

Photo Credits: ©2017 Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

 

Web

September 5, 2016 12 comments
Web

An early morn’ encounter with a web unleashes a host of provocative thoughts.

spider

The Spider and the Fly

 

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”

“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair
-can ne’er come down again.”

Photo Credit: Web ©2016 KarenSzczukaTeich&Takingtheworldonwithasmile.com

And Then There Were Six….

June 28, 2015 11 comments

amlk

The pool was full. Crowded as a matter of fact. With about 170 people to choose from, what were the chances they would pick me?

Recently I was “called” to Jury Duty. I’ve never “served” before.

In part, the Jury Summons read:
Tell your employer you are summoned to serve as a juror. Call after 5pm each evening before your appearance date to learn whether or not you are to report to the Central Jury Room.

Things to know:

  • Jurors are paid $40 per day. Travel, parking and lunch, are not included.
  • There are no exemptions everyone who is eligible must serve.
  • You have a legal obligation to serve.
  • Failure to respond to the summons is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to 30 days or both.

Jurors are on-call for jury selection for one week.

I forgot to call the first night. It was Sunday, May 10th, Mother’s Day and I’d just spent a truly glorious day with my two kids picnicking and hiking at a favorite spot. I completely panicked Monday morning when I got to work and remembered to call. Luckily, the recorded message from the night before indicated that there was no jury duty that day.

In fact, each evening following, the recording repeated the same message: “no jury duty” the next day.

By the time Thursday rolled around, I assumed I had dodged-a-bullet of sorts. While it’s true I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury, this summons came at the worst possible time for me. I’m an Admissions Coordinator at a private school and with barely 4 weeks left before the end of the school year, I was wrapping up tours, and contracts and solidifying enrollment for the following year. There were day-to-day dealings that needed attention and end-of-the-year activities I needed to attend and document. And that didn’t include the fact that my own two kids had end-of-the-year events at their school as well, that required my attention or attendance, including a sports banquet and a “moving up ceremony”. To say I was busy would be an understatement.

Needless to say, I was genuinely surprised when Thursday night’s message indicated that juror numbers 2001 through 2185, were to report to the Commissioner of Jurors at 9:00am the next morning. I was juror number 2164.

Friday, May 15
The line began to form outside the Jury Building shortly before the doors opened promptly at 9:00am. In an orderly fashion, we filed into a large room filled with seats. Somewhere I had read that Wi-Fi was available in the Jury Building so I brought a book and my laptop. Fridays are my busiest days at work. I also, had it in my head that I’d just be sitting around for hours before going home and I might as well get a jump on my work if I could. After taking a seat I glanced around the room. There were about 80 of us. Sometime within the two-weeks between when we all received our summons and being seated in this room, the pool had shrunk by more than half.

On the original Summons, there’s a statement that reads:
“You may ask for a one-time postponement of up to 6 months.”

If you cannot serve, contact the Commissioner of Jurors before your date of service.

A second postponement may be requested if:

  • you have a family or medical emergency
  • serving on a jury for 5 or more days will pose severe financial hardship to you
  • you are a student currently enrolled in classes
  • you are 78 years of age or older

I took my “postponement” several years ago when my kids were little and I was their “primary care taker”. Perhaps the missing potential jurors had exercised their request for a one-time postponement or were exempt for some of the reasons listed above. Maybe they just didn’t show up. What happens if you just don’t show up? I learned later that the Commissioner of Jurors will send the Sheriff out to escort you in. At least, that’s what she said when someone asked.

The Commissioner of Jurors was a professionally dressed, pleasant, no-nonsense, middle-aged woman with short blondish-grayish hair who spoke with authority. She clearly explained to us what to expect. We were being called for a civil trial that might “take a while”, she said. The words barely left her lips when one by one, row-by-row, hands immediately sprung up and excuses as to why people couldn’t or didn’t want to be a juror began to fly through air. Some of them sounded quite legitimate, some, not so much.

  • I have no childcare.
  • I’m a college student and taking summer classes that begin next week.
  • I can’t hear very well.
  • I have a wedding to go to.
  • My daughter is graduating in another state.
  • I have no transportation to get here.
  • I own my own business and no one can take my place. etc., etc.

Swiftly and decisively the Commissioner addressed each person and their excuse. Within 10-minutes we lost about 30 more potential jurors. It was obvious she’d been down this road before. She was pro. I was impressed and told her so when the opportunity presented itself. The rest of us were asked to fill out some standard paper work and a Juror Questionnaire in carbon copy. The questionnaire was designed specifically for the type of case we were here for.  We each kept a copy and the others went to the Judge, the Plaintiffs attorney and the Defense attorney to be used during Jury Selection.

Question #14

Have you or someone close to you ever:
(among other things….)

Been the victim of a crime

Okay. I thought to myself, here’s why they’re going to let me go, for sure.

The Commissioner of Jurors then asked us to stand. She and a Court Officer escorted us to the Court House where Jury Selection would begin. Watches and bracelets were placed in small bins along with our bags and pocket items and then sent through an x-ray machine as we each walked through a body scanner to enter the building.

We were headed to the 4th floor. There’s only one small elevator in the Court Building. I, like many others, chose to take the stairs. One smiling woman and three gentlemen in suits greeted us into a courtroom directing us to take a seat in the gallery. The gallery is where “spectators” sit. This was a classic courtroom, much like the ones you see on T.V. shows. The gallery was filled with rows of beautiful, wooden pew-style benches. A bar or railing separated the gallery from the attorney’s tables, and in the front of the room stood the Bench, which is the raised desk the judge sits at, with doors on either side. Facing the gallery, the jury box was to the left of the judge’s bench. There was a separate entrance to the jury box where members of the jury sat that was also enclosed by a rail. The witness box (or stand) was a raised seat between the bench and the jury box.

court

The last time I’d been in a courtroom, the Judge had invited me into the “well” (the open space between the bench and the council tables) to read a letter I had been encouraged to write by a parole officer named Diane. As I faced the bench, Diane stood by my right side holding my arm ever so gently, in an effort to help me steady my shaking hand as I read an Impact Statement to the Court. That was about five years ago and the reason I thought I would be eliminated at some point from the pool.

As I sat in the gallery of this courtroom, I was immediately drawn to the stacks, of white cardboard boxes (the kind you might use to hold file folders in) that were placed along the inside of the railing behind the Plaintiff’s table. There had to be at least twenty of them. I couldn’t help but wonder what was in them. There was also a stack of about ten 3’ x 5’ white poster-boards leaning against a table inside the well, in front of the bench. They too captured my interest. The next thing I noticed was that there were three attorney tables. If there’s a Plaintiff and a Defendant, to whom did the third table belong to? It wasn’t long before we learned that the Plaintiffs had filed suit against “two doctors” and an “institution and its staff of nurses”. The doctors had one attorney and the institution and its nurses had a separate attorney. Two Defendants.

We were asked to come into the jury box via random selection. Juror “numbers” were randomly picked out of a clear tube with hand crank, similar to a bingo cage where the hand-crank is used to mix up the balls before they’re lifted through a latched opening and “called out” when the cylinder comes to a rest. The remaining juror numbers were typed on small pieces of paper and tumbled inside the tube before selected. The tube sat on the middle council table. If your number was called, you were asked to leave the gallery and come and sit in the jury box where the three sets of lawyers would take turns asking a variety of questions.

A civil trial requires 6 jurors and 2 alternates to be picked to “hear” the case.

The lawyers tried not to reveal too much detail about the actual case, only giving us information that was necessary and could aid in their selection process. When your number was picked, your questionnaire was pulled and a copy was given to each “side”. After the first eight potential jurors were called, some cursory, general questions were posed to the “box” and the “gallery” and again, one by one, hands shot into the air. This time, a line formed at the entrance to the courtroom and private discussions were held with all four attorneys in the hall. Some folks returned to the gallery but many, we never saw again.

  • Do you or does anyone in your immediate family work in the medical field?
  • Have you or anyone in your immediate family ever had a heart attack?
  • Have you or anyone in your immediate family ever been to Vassar Hospital?

One super-obnoxious man who felt the need to make his feelings known to us all, all-day-long, couldn’t help but make a remark after the third question was asked:

We live here. We’ve all been to Vassar!

And indeed, it is a local hospital, pretty much everyone had. So we all joined the line that began to snake around the gallery and each of us had our private huddle in the hallway. When it was my turn, the attorneys wanted to when and why I’d been to Vassar.

“I have two sports-playing, teenagers.” I said, “Aside from giving birth there, let’s just say we’ve frequented the ER more than once over the years, as recently as this past November when my son broke his collar bone in two places playing soccer and last month, when my daughter sprained her wrist at the bowling alley.”

The Plaintiffs lawyer then asked:

“Would you be inclined to favor Vassar in any way as a result of your visits there?”

“No, I said. Not necessarily.”

They all smiled and sent me back to the gallery.

This is how it went for the majority of the day. Words like policies, procedures, protocol and expert testimony were used in the questioning. Sometimes statements would be made and a brief discussion between a lawyer and the jurors in the box would ensue.

As the hours passed, the grunts and grumblings grew louder. It was frustrating and disheartening to me, not to mention distracting. I kept thinking, if I ever needed a jury, I wouldn’t want people who didn’t care or didn’t want to be there, making a judgment on my behalf. I was really trying to pay attention to the questions the attorneys were asking or discussing. I was trying to understand how this process was working or if it was working. Despite the “bad timing” — for all of us, I’m sure — I’m the cornball, who believes we’re all privileged at birth by the freedoms we have in this country and that serving on a jury is important and an honor, in addition to being our civil duty. I was taking the process very seriously (and thankfully, I wasn’t the only one.)

This is the crux of our judicial system. Isn’t it?

I wanted to believe that it was.

aneinstein

Despite the huffing and puffing about how long this was taking, the attorneys plowed through the day taking their turns asking questions, making statements, having brief discussions. I began to formulate a sense of who they were in my own mind.

asmilingcat

The only woman attorney was one of two lawyers for the Plaintiffs. The pair came from a firm in Maryland. The woman was about 5’4, in her late 50s and had straight, brown, shoulder-length hair parted at the side. She wore black heels and a belted dress that fanned out at the bottom like an umbrella. It was chilly in the courtroom. She wore a sweater. She also wore a “permanent” smile on her face. It reminded me of the “Cheshire Cat”, not in a bad way, just as a matter of fact. She graduated with J.D. Honors Citation from George Washington University Law School, 1985 after getting her Bachelors of Arts at the University of Maryland. Maybe it was that she appeared competent or that she was the only woman attorney or both, but there was something very interesting about her, to me.

acheshire

Like the Cheshire Cat ever smiling, she silently observed everything and EVERYONE. She did not ask any questions of the potential jurors though, that was left to her partner. The older man was seemingly pleasant. He had a slight build and was not much taller than she was. He had a small, oval face and his receding hairline was met with long thinning strands of silver that swept across the middle of his head.  A 1971 graduate of the University of Maryland School of law, this man was well seasoned, well learned and well dressed. His smile exuded confidence and he was clearly comfortable in his own skin. There was an “old school” wisdom or charm about him and when he walked around the courtroom, there was a spring to his step, literally. When I looked at him Jiminy Cricket came to mind.

ajiminy

The two lawyers for the two defendants gave off a kind of “good cop – bad cop” vibe to me from the way they interacted with each other. The “good cop”, was a local attorney who represented the two doctors. He was a man in his mid-to-late 40s, of medium build, brown hair, a dad of three. He seemed like  a “nice” guy. Friendly. His “thing” I noticed, was to ask , “fair question or fair statement?” when “interviewing jurors in the box. It was as if he was establishing a level playing field or seeking your approval. He was smart. Likeable and I liked him. He was a graduate of Cornell University and went on to Washington University School of Law where he graduated in 1996 as a member of the Order of Barristers.

adad

The “bad cop” was not really a “bad cop” at all. It’s just the way the two attorneys seemed to feed off of each other, after each other that highlighted the differences in their personalities. By all accounts, the “hospital’s” lawyer was sharp, smooth. The word, “slick” comes to mind, but again, not in a bad way. More like, in a “polished” or experienced way. A handsome man in his late 50s, his crystal blue eyes sparkled right into the gallery. He was a former DA and veteran trial lawyer. He graduated from Brooklyn Law School after completing a rigorous pre-med undergrad program giving him a unique understanding of medical cases. He came from a firm about an hour south of us. He didn’t smile nearly as much as the other lawyers and when he did I noticed a slight gap between his top two middle teeth. He approached the podium in front of the jury box with thoughtfulness. You could almost “see” his mind working. He would say something and then intentionally hesitate before speaking again, planting a seed. He gave you “food for thought.” He’d build his questions slowly and then strike quickly, deliberately, like a viper. Try as I did to change the thought, I just couldn’t and from day one, I called him “The Viper.” There was no question he was there to defend and he’s a man you would want to be defending you. His message was very clear: WAIT until you hear ALL of the evidence, until the Defense has a chance to present their case before making a judgment.

I could do that.

anotherviper

The selection process was at times a little confusing. Even though the attorneys had the questionnaires of the eight people in the jury box, when they asked questions, they would often also, face the gallery. Hands would shoot up into the air, a line would form by the door and private meetings would take place in the hall. More potential jurors were “let go”. After the lunch break, the pool had dwindled to about 35. By day’s end, there were 12 of us left in the gallery with 8 still in the box.  I’d just about convinced myself that perhaps I had dodged the bullet when the attorneys nestled together near the counsels’ tables. I thought well, that was it and the 8 in the box were the ones. But after their brief, quiet discussion amongst themselves, at 4:45pm that Friday afternoon, all 20 of us were asked to return on Monday morning at 9:00am.

Admittedly, I was shocked.

Still, the whole process intrigued me. Somehow by this point, all the grunters and groaners were gone. All day long, I was interested, fascinated even, at the method of elimination and how it played out but at no point during that day, not for one second, did it ever cross my mind that what was about to unfold would become all-consuming and at times emotionally and mentally overwhelming, not to mention, a life changing event.

Note: While this is more than a blog post, it’s not quite a book however, it is a story that I feel the need to tell and although it’s not so much about the details of the trial, it is about the incredible process of our judicial system, from jury selection to verdict. So if you’re interested, stay tuned….

In Any Form

January 4, 2015 12 comments

kindness

Get up!

Get off that floor.

Can’t you see it’s filthy?

Startled by this stern command, I raised my head from where it had been resting — cradled in the palm of my hands — to see who would have the nerve to disturb my sorrow so abruptly. He was a big, brown man, dressed in green and a thousand thoughts ran through my head in the span of ten seconds or the time it took for us to “see” one another and him to push the empty gurney passed us, through the automatic doors beyond us.

Although his statement was directed toward us, he wasn’t talking directly to me. That was clear. I was in a chair. He directed his remarks toward my daughter who sat on the floor next to me. We were sitting outside of a “room” in the ER of a local hospital. A dusty, powder-blue curtain acted as a door and was pulled “closed” for privacy. Privacy from sight perhaps but certainly not from sound. I could hear the effort that was being made to keep the groans faint. That’s how I knew he was in so much pain. He was trying to hide it. I’d never been in this section of the ER before. It’s where you’re brought to when an ambulance brings you in, where my 15-year NTeich2old son laid behind the curtain.

Several days earlier he’d broken his collar bone during a soccer game when an opposing player, a bigger, heavier boy known for his mean spiritedness collapsed on top of him, breaking that fine line on his left side that connects your neck to your shoulder, in two places. Both boys had been jumping in the air to head the ball. My son needed immediate surgery, pins and a metal rod were permanently inserted into his shoulder reattaching the fractured bone. We were extremely fortunate to be put in contact with the head surgeon at NYU Hospital for Joint Disease in New York City who performed the surgery himself.

A few days after his surgery the boys from my son’s soccer team posted this picture on their team Facebook page after a big win that he obviously missed and couldn’t be a part of.

GET WELL SOON NOAH

GET WELL SOON NOAH

My son was deeply touched. I, was completely overwhelmed by the gesture. Honestly. I’m humbled to be witness to such an incredibly thoughtful act of kindness displayed by teenage boys.

The whole experience had been emotional, fraught with gut-wrenching, roller-coaster moments and as if that weren’t enough excitement for one week, here we found ourselves in a hospital again.

He’d been recuperating nicely up until this night, when he suffered a setback, out of his control and was in severe pain, so much so, that on advice of the surgeon, we called an ambulance to bring him to a local hospital.

Now we sat, my daughter and I, outside the room with the flimsy, ugly, powder-blue curtain acting as a door, between us and my son and his dad, waiting. We waited and waited and waited some more for the doctor-on-call to make his way to my son’s bed.

My heart was breaking as any mother’s would for every minute that passed, for every minute he suffered in pain. Trying to respect his wishes to ‘wait outside the room, please mom’, fighting back fear and tears, anxious for help, my nerves and patience were fried. Where was that damn doctor anyway? It’s easy to lose perspective. I did.

Now this? Really? Some big, barking man, clearly on-a-mission that had nothing to do with helping my son, has the audacity to growl at us, chiding my daughter as he strides by pushing an empty bed! That’s all I needed, maybe even what I was praying for these past few hours as I cupped my head full of worry into my hands; a justification, an opportunity I immediately realized, to lash out at someone, a place to displace the anger and hurt and most of all the helplessness that was filling up inside me bursting to get out.

Thank you and God help you, man.” I thought to myself.

You just barked at the wrong person, at the right time. You are the conduit for me to strike through. I was ready and eager as I looked up about to unleash a mother-load of mama worry on this unsuspecting passerby-er. I locked my bleary eyes onto his and before I could blast away he bellowed,

It’s not clean enough to sit on!

In that moment, when our eyes met, intention made itself known.

Clarity came.hope

Instantly.

Thankfully.

In the eyes of knowing, silence prevailed. This man’s growling abruptness was in reality, an act of kindness and genuine caring.

His scrubs indicated he was probably a doctor, maybe a surgeon and although he clearly lacked in bedside manner, his eyes spoke volumes. They told me his “scolding” was an expression of real concern that my daughter was sitting on this not-so-clean hospital floor. It was just the type of jarring I needed in that moment in time to pull me out of myself and become present, for myself, for my daughter who also waited in worry and for my son of course, who needed me to be there for him and not become lost in my own sorrow. Gratitude grabbed hold of me. Fast.

God helped me. Thank you.

This man snapped me back, which allowed me to be where I needed to be. It also allowed me  to hear the quiet words of an older woman who’d been pacing in and out of a room, two curtains to our right. I’d mostly seen the bottom half of her legs walking in and out when I held my head side-ways but I caught a glimpse of her when I’d occasionally looked up to see if the doctor was anywhere in sight. She was older than me but younger than my mom, probably in her early 60s. Other than knowing she was there, I didn’t give her or who she was with or why much thought until it was too late. When I finally noticed her, she was leaving with another woman, older than her. A nurse wheeled the older woman ahead while the younger, pacing woman trailed behind. As she passed me she said softly,

I hope it all works out for you.

I was so surprised; I barely got the words “thank you” out in time for her to know I’d heard her.

The doctor-on-call finally saw my son, treated him and released him after a few hours. His issue was fleeting in the big picture of things and although I am thankful for that, it’s the fleeting unsuspecting moments that interrupted my life in those hours of waiting that linger with me in a thought provoking way. Kindness matters. In any form.

Twice in one night I was startled by the kindness of a stranger. Two people, in two contrasting ways took notice.

Kindness can be so fleeting and even though it doesn’t always present itself in softly spoken words or a thoughtfully written sign, its effects are always the same; long lasting and profound. It makes a difference.

It did for me.

 


The Man With the Handlebar Mustache!

October 19, 2014 16 comments
Uncle Jacob 1988

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Fall bursts with bright colors, Oktoberfests and beer, memories from my childhood and the man with the handlebar mustache.

Memories are a curious thing. They come in the form of a person’s personal perspective. Each situation, event or conversation, means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event. In Other words, we don’t see things as they are necessarily; we see things as we are. (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/perspectives.htm)

The following is my perception and memories of a man who I am truly grateful to have had in my life.

The sun had set and I remember watching the glow of the red sky slowly fade to black. It had been a long day, a great day of blueberry picking but it was late now and clearly we were lost. It felt like hours since we’d left my parents. Maybe it was. Somehow, we missed where they turned. The back roads of the Catskill Mountains are endless, nameless and windy. There were no maps or street lights to guide you on these less traveled roads. I can’t recall everyone who was in that pale blue Volkswagen bus with me that evening, I think my brother was, maybe my sister too but I remember the mood perfectly: content and tired, despite being lost. I think I was seven or eight-years old. Another thing I remember for sure; I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. It was another adventure. Finally, we came upon a tavern and stopped for directions. We followed him inside the small watering hole and waited patiently, spinning ourselves on bar stools as he drank from a frosty mug, no doubt making new friends while he inquired about our whereabouts and how to get back to the Parkway.

This remains one of my earliest memories of the man with the handlebar mustache.

He wasn’t a “blood” relative but we were close like family and called him Uncle anyway. Uncle Jacob (pronounced Yahck-up) lived with his family, his wife and three sons in an affluent part of Westchester, NY, a short walk from Rye Beach and Playland Amusement Park where their famous boardwalk was featured at the end of the movie “Big”, when the “Zoltar the Magnificent” fortune teller machine returned the adult Tom Hanks to his original childhood age/state of being. As a kid I roamed that boardwalk with my siblings a million times over. My family spent lots of weekend time at the house in Rye. Uncle Jacob and my Dad were very good friends. Shortly after my Dad immigrated to this country from Germany, Uncle Jacob gave him a job as a painter’s apprentice and a place to live. That was over 50-years ago. Back then, an immigrant coming to the United Sates had to have a job and a place to live so as not to be a burden on society.

VW Bus

Trip to Niagara Falls most likely 1963 with the two families. This is actually my Dad’s VW Bus but Uncle Jacob had a very similar one. My Dad is in the driver’s seat. Tante Theresa behind him. Richard (the middle of the three sons) is in the passenger seat. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Uncle Jacob’s wife, Tante Theresa, was an amazing cook and made the best Sunday dinners and chocolate chip cookies you ever had. For real. The three boys were older than me and my siblings. I can’t say I had a relationship with any one of them in particular but I do believe that a life-long bond that exists among family members was created between us during those years and beyond. They knew my Dad before he got married, before we were born. They were patient with us when we came over. I remember watching them and my Dad play with this huge train or racing car track that Uncle Jacob built for them. It was on a wooden board as big as a bed, in fact it retracted onto the wall just like a Murphy Bed. It was a fun, comfortable place to be in, like home and even though the neighborhood was a quiet and reserved one, Uncle Jacob’s house was anything but quiet and reserved.

Looking back I realize Uncle Jacob was the most progressive man I’ve ever known.

Still.

To. This. Day.

Uncle Jacob

L to R: Me, Uncle Jacob & My Sister ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Everything I experienced at that house was unique and unusual although it all seemed quite normal at the time. As a child, I loved Uncle Jacob but it’s only now as an adult that I truly appreciate the happy, wonderful, exciting things he introduced and exposed me to.

I think of him with the same kind of respect I have for Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson and realize how amazingly lucky I was to have had this man’s influences infiltrate my childhood. My schooling occurred behind the stone cold walls of a small, strict catholic school but much of my learning occurred under the indirect tutelage of the man with the handlebar mustache. He was a natural teacher demonstrating a hands-on approach to living and learning. He was a modern day Dr. Doolittle only instead of having an English accent; his was German occasionally slurred by a happy consumption of wine or beer. Like the Pied Piper too, children and adults were drawn to him and his charismatic ways.

Let me explain.

In addition to being a house painter by trade, he was a musician and a singer. Actually, he was a party on two feet, a walking Oktoberfest, all-year-round. He played the accordion. Always and everywhere.

He was a butcher. One time he and my dad bought a pig and among other things, made sausage in his basement, letting me hold the clear, thin casing while he cranked out the ground up sausage meat into it. Another time they bought a calf. We ate veal every day in every way for about a year. I don’t eat veal as an adult.

And yet another time when my younger brother wandered into the basement and as he puts it,

One minute there was a chicken running around and the next minute Uncle Jacob laid it on the butcher block and chopped it’s head off.

Dinner.

He was a farmer, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and berries along the perimeter of the square shaped fence that surrounded the patch of grass that was his back yard.

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Me & my baby who I named Rabbit in Rye. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Peter Rabbit

My younger brother, Peter w/ a rabbit in Rye. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

He raised rabbits. I remembering playing house with them in their living room, dressing them up and rocking them in my arms like I would a baby doll.

He was a Bee Keeper and for some time, kept his bees in boxes on the roof of his quiet little house in the affluent city of Rye. One summer, when I was 10 or 11, he gave me and my friend a job building bee hive frames. He showed us how to hammer and wire them. He treated us like we were capable. At the end of the day he paid us with jars of honey. Soon after, a neighbor complained and called the police. Uncle Jacob called the newspaper and had me come back and go up on the roof where the bees were to show them how safe it was. Eventually, they made him move the bees.

We had freedom to explore in and out and around his house. There was a small concrete swimming pool that was enclosed by a gate on the property that we swam in often, amongst the huge green lily pads and giant orange gold fish that he kept in it.

He made my brother his first fishing pole out of a stick and some twine and helped him catch his first fish with it.

He was a swimmer and swam in the Long Island Sound, probably every night. He would walk to a small alcove with his flippers in hand and his best friend, Horste, by his side. Horste was his dog, I think he was a coonhound. Sometimes we would go and watch him and Horste swim together.

Uncle Jacob and my Dad would lay in the living room on a Sunday afternoon reading the German newspaper or watching soccer, my Dad on the couch and Uncle Jacob on the floor. Uncle Jacob would call us over one by one and tell us to walk on his back to massage his weary muscles.

As I grew older and became more preoccupied with my own life and living, going to college and working, my personal contact lessened and at some point Uncle Jacob left his house in Rye to go live where his heart was, in the back woods of the Catskill Mountains. I never got to see his place there but my mom used to refer to it as Jacob’s Chutzpah! I imagined it to be a place where animals and people could dwell in an uncomplicated way. Tante Theresa remained for the most part in the house in Rye and I was told that when Uncle Jacob would come down from the mountains to visit his grandchildren he’d bring a baby chick or a bunny rabbit in his coat pocket on the train for them to see and hold and play with.

Jacob

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Needless to say, not everyone he came in contact with appreciated his carefree nature and unfortunately, or fortunately, a neighbor who didn’t enjoy his unconventional ways of living (or German music maybe?) had him arrested on a DUI one night after playing at a local party. He was put in a small-town, back woods jail for a few months, to teach him a lesson. Needless to say, sitting idle in a cell didn’t sit well with Uncle Jacob. He asked for a can of paint and a paint brush. By the time his sentence was served, his cell and the whole jailhouse for that matter was left with a fresh coat of paint on its walls, compliments of the man with the handlebar mustache.

Is there someone in your life that had a huge, positive impact on you as a child?

I’d love to hear about them.

To Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Or Not!

August 18, 2014 2 comments
July2014 003

©2014 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

All this hype about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, is it a good thing or not?

Well, if nothing else, it’s spreading ALS awareness across the country faster than the speed of light and, if nothing else, THAT’S A GOOD THING! But thankfully, that’s not the only thing it’s doing. Americans are a giving people. They always have been a giving people and as of today, Americans participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon have inspired unprecedented “giving” to the ALS cause. ALS: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease is an attack of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Most people diagnosed with ALS usually die within three to five years from the onset of symptoms.

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©2014 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

So, what exactly is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? The challenge is this: people make a video of themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads, post it on social media and then challenge three or four friends to do the same within 24-hours or donate $100 to ALS. Here’s the rub:  MOST PEOPLE DO BOTH! Or at least they donate some amount. Both of my teenagers took the challenge AND donated $25 each to the ALS Association. Think about that. Think about all these awesome teenagers who are just waiting to be “challenged” on social media by friends and, who might donate about $25 each, to boot!

Give them the opportunity to do good and they will. Add the likes of Jimmy Fallon, LeBron James, Bill Gates, Taylor Swift, NFL players from the NY Giants and over 300,000 NEW DONORS to the ice bucket mix, you end up with millions of dollars, well over $15 million dollars in fact, being donated to the ALS Association as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge in less than two months! That’s about 14 million dollars more than was raised during the same time period last year.

That, is a good thing!

As a parent, this is the kind of social media craze I WANT my kids to take part in.

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©2014 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

In effect, the concept is brilliant. Thanks to 29-year old Pete Frates and his friend Pat Quinn, both of whom have ALS and both of whom are largely responsible for turning the trend viral and into what is now, a mega fund-raiser for this disease.

That’s a good thing.

So go ahead, take the challenge! In fact, I nominate YOU! I double, triple DARE you!

Just want to donate?  You can donate on the ALS Association website:  HERE

Completely unrelated to the “Challenge” but related in a serendipitous way to this post, I mentioned Lou Gehrig’s Disease in my last post Full Circle. Goodness is perpetuated again.

The Child Whisperer

June 12, 2014 6 comments

In honor of the retirement of a dear friend & colleague who has touched the lives of many. Re-blogged from March, 2012.

Taking The World On With A Smile!

The flip-side of last week’s post thankfully, is that there are many amazing teachers that devote their whole lives to educating children. These people influence who we are in the most positive of ways, for life. Children do not forget who they are. They too are remembered and cherished forever.

In the Spring of 2001, curiosity got the better of me. My quest to find the right preschool for my overly active, precocious, almost 3-year-old son, finally provided the opportunity for me to see what was really going on in the mysterious looking Victorian house that sits majestically upon a hill overlooking the busy-ness of Route 9D. Little did I know as I walked into the hallway that echoed with song and laughter, that in-between the walls of this house that was a school, magic happened.

We were met by the cheerful smile of a woman who greeted us…

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Categories: Parenting

Anticipation

March 9, 2014 10 comments

ruby slippers

“…And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.”

Last week as I was watching the Oscars, a childhood memory was invoked when Whoopie Goldberg said she had to wait a whole year to watch The Wizard of Oz on television when she was a kid. Me too! In fact, when it finally did come around it was an epic household event that called for the taking of early baths, wearing feetie pajamas, snuggling up to cozy blankets carefully laid out on the living room floor and resting excited yet sleepy, little heads on bedtime pillows. In its original form, the movie was a startling 2 hours and 15 minutes! It was tradition, a childhood favorite that was met yearly with much sweet anticipation.

There’s something to be said for experiencing the emotion of anticipation. That good and excited feeling you get when you are looking forward to something; waiting for it, expecting it to happen. With today’s access to immediate alerts and notifications, instant messaging, texting, emailing and Face Booking communication capabilities, I don’t think kids have the opportunity to feel that enough nowadays. Often the answer to their question pings, dings or rings on their phones before they’ve had time to ask or even think it. Other than having to wait for Christmas and their birthdays, there’s not a whole lot they don’t have at their fingertips. Netflix and On Demand have pretty much ruled out having to wait a whole calendar year for the repeated viewing of anything.

It makes me a little sad. Having to wait for something, is not the worst thing. Anticipation invokes longing, another important emotion and along with that comes patience and appreciation. Not bad character traits to have.

dorothy sings

Every year as The Wizard of Oz began in classic black and white film I would wonder why I remembered it in color and then I would be surprised and elated all over again, like I was watching it for the first time, when Dorothy would step out onto a colored landscape after the tornado landed her house in Oz. Spectacular! The munchkins were favorites and the monkeys feared. Always, the scariest but most thrilling part for me was when Dorothy finally defeated the Wicked Witch of the West. Her journey from Kansas to Oz and back again inspired hope that dreams really can come true and there really is no place like home.

The purpose of Whoopie’s stage appearance at the Oscars was to introduce the singing artist, Pink who was performing Over the Rainbow in commemoration of The Wizard of Oz‘s 75th Anniversary. It’s always dangerous when someone “new” attempts to sing something as “old”, cherished, ingrained and beloved to so many. I got teary every time I heard “Dorothy” sing that song and admittedly, I cringed slightly when I heard Pink was going to sing it.

Did you catch it?

Pink’s unique rendition of Over the Rainbow was stellar!

Brilliant.

It respectfully paid beautiful homage to the original, Judy Garland version and reminded me just how much I truly love that song.

It inspired hope that somewhere, out there, over the rainbow, the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

What do you think?

Photo Credit #1 & 2:  Google Images/Ruby Slippers/Dorothy

Magic Intervened

December 29, 2013 12 comments
Christmas Candles

©2013 HannahRoseTeich & I’mThinkingHappy.com

“Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,

Joyful and Triumphant!”

Even though the Holiday has come and gone, I’m still basking in that warm and fuzzy, lingering feeling of love and caring, otherwise known as Christmas Spirit.

Like many folks who celebrate, Christmas is deeply rooted in tradition for me. My European parents have always emphasized Christmas Eve as the more celebrated day of the two. Unlike my all-American friends who opened their gifts Christmas morning, Santa always came to our house after dinner on Christmas Eve. When I was a child we would trade off each year with my Dad’s sister, celebrating in Westchester or Upstate New York with my two, older boy cousins who lived in the woods. By the time my children were born, my cousins had already started their own families and carried on the tradition in their own ways. Ours was tweaked slightly so we could continue to celebrate Christmas Eve with my parents at their home and celebrate Christmas Day, the American way, in my home. Santa’s magical flexibility allowed for him to drop off a few gifts at Nana & Opa’s house after dinner before making his way to our house Christmas morning.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years however, it’s that like it or not, change is the only real constant. You can go with the flow, embracing it the best you can or be miserable.

An incident at the beginning of December unfortunately,  made it clear that this Christmas was going to be different, forcing me to rethink how we normally celebrate Christmas Eve. Even though my parents would be celebrating as they usually do with our extended family, being there for us, was not an option. Circumstances beyond our control and careful consideration made it necessary for me to decline the invitation, in effect, displacing us and leaving us with nowhere to be on Christmas Eve.

Each generation tries to do better, provide more guidance and opportunity for their kids but mostly we all just want for our children to be happy.  My kids love their extended family. Talking to them about why we weren’t going to celebrate Christmas Eve with my family this year was really hard.  And even though after everything my kids have been through, it’s been important to me to try to keep certain things the same for them over the past two years, I realize life is filled with hard stuff. All we can really do for our kids is arm them with the truth and let them know we will always be there to love and support them.

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©2013 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

“Sing Choirs of Angels Sing in Exultation,

Sing All Ye Citizens of Heaven Above!”

I believe in magic; Christmas Magic.

It’s the gift that appears from seemingly nowhere and has no tangible existence to speak of, like the unlikely turn-of-events in a situation that you couldn’t foresee working out — working out. It can come in the form of an unexpected act of kindness or an expression of gratitude.  It’s when all things align and the view is suddenly clear, making way for something special to occur, like the sighting of a shooting star or the appearance of a rare blue moon.

It’s getting what you need, not necessarily what you’ve been asking for and recognizing it when it shows itself.

I love Christmas because it embodies the spirit of giving (and I don’t mean of things) from one person to another.

An unexpected, greatly appreciated phone call came about a week before Christmas. My Dad’s sister, the aunt we shared Christmas with when I was a child invited me and my children to join her, a friend and one of my cousins on Christmas Eve.

xmas-5

© 2013 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

I haven’t spent a Christmas Eve with my Tante Christine in over 20-years.

She hasn’t spent a Christmas without at least two of her four grandchildren present in over 25-years.

This year Christmas Eve was different. None of her grandchildren could be there.

xmas2014 014

© 2013 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

My kids and I needed some family for Christmas.

My aunt, needed some kids.

We — needed each other.

Magic Intervened.

May the Magic of the Holiday Season fill your heart with joy and gratitude, as it did mine.

Pause

December 8, 2013 7 comments
Curtains 003

© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

The holiday season has been creeping up on us since right before Halloween. Like a strong, silent ivy spreading its way through cities all across the country. It’s been lighting up homes and leaving its mark on lampposts and in storefronts everywhere! Neighborhoods are all aglow with colorful lights and twinkling trees peering through living room windows. It’s a special time of year that promotes peace and giving and kindness, which my 12-year old daughter recently noted:  is free.

The Holidays can be magical, often making the seemingly impossible, possible and like so many other people, it’s my favorite time of year.

For some however, it can be a struggle; a sad and difficult time, especially this year, with fewer than normal days of  breathing room in between the great feast of Thanksgiving and the arrival of Christmas Eve. Hanukkah is already over! There’s a rush to the finish and the hustle and bustle of trying to get there, can quickly lose its charm and become frustrating, exasperating even.

Curtains 004

© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

Most people come forward with their best. But honestly, you never know what’s going on just below the surface of a carefree wave, an absentminded smile or a soft, slightly distracted gaze. Everyone has a cross or two to bear. It could be anything from a forgotten appointment to coming off of the end of a long work shift or suffering from indecision about something. Maybe you’ve had an argument with someone or are recovering from an illness. Perhaps there is a sick child at home or you simply miss someone, terribly.

Whatever the burden, no one is exempt from worry. 

Curtains 008

© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

This season, if you can, pause to be compassionate toward the people you meet.

You never know what someone is going through.

peace

Peace & Good Wishes to All!

Categories: Holidays, Kindness, Life, Parenting Tags:

Masquerade

October 31, 2013 16 comments
group

Circa 1960s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

People wear masks all the time, covering up all kinds of situations and emotions.

Halloween is one of my favorite celebrations. In disguise, you get to openly be whatever you want to be and get a bag full of free candy to boot! My memories of Halloween as a child are filled with endless hours of trick-or-treating (mostly treating) first through the 5-stories of our apartment building and then, all over town until our legs could take us no further. After that, my Dad would put us in the back of his shiny, red, Volkswagen bus and drive us to friends’ houses until our bags were stuffed and our eyes were bleary.

I don’t cut my Dad a lot of slack when it comes to my childhood. I can’t sugar-coat fear or disappointment. No one ever wanted to be on the receiving end of his wrath. You never knew what kind of mood he would come home in, if, or when he came home. Every day was unpredictable. He enjoyed holidays and parties though and could really get into the “spirit” of things– when he wanted to. Despite his ominous nature, he was big on costuming and we could pretty much count on his help for a clever idea and creative way of making it happen. He had an impressive repertoire of costumes himself. I remember him spending weeks working on them before the annual masquerade ball he and my mom attended every February at the German Club they belonged to. (I’ve mentioned in previous posts that my Dad is from Germany.) Every winter, the German Club celebrated Fasching which is a German holiday that resembles our Mardi Gras and is similar to Halloween in that parades are held and “clubs” host costume balls.

My Dad’s costumes always won awards, if not First Place.

These are a few of my favorites.

mummy

Circa 1960s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

My Dad, the mummy.

The old man on the right is my Dad.

Circa 1960s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

This “old man” was only in his late 20s.

old group

Circa 1960s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

A group shot of my “old man” and his date who, of course, is my mom.

Third man on the right. My Dad is the Godfather.

Circa 1970s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

The Godfather (4th man in)– is my father.

One year my Dad went as the Statue of Liberty. Another year he was a Prize Fighter who lost to a midget. He even dressed in Blackface as a Minstrel which now-a-days of course, would be considered offensive.

The minstrel and my mom.  Circa 1960s

Circa 1960s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

The Minstrel and my mom.

Another questionable but winning costume; large, blond lady wearing a dress made from potato sacks.

This blond woman wearing the dress made out of potato sacks is my Dad.

Circa 1970s
©2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

My Dad loved masquerades and wore many masks.

As an adult, I realize he was a resourceful, creative man and I often wonder how different his life might have been if he had been raised and educated in this country. Like many people, he had to contend with his demons while they competed with his redeeming qualities. He loved to cook and I have happy memories of him lifting me up and setting me on top of the refrigerator so I could watch him roll out the dough on the kitchen counter to make donuts or melt sugar and butter in a pan on the stove-top to make candy. He’d dribble the hot mixture into ice-cold water to form droplets of yummy home-made caramel. He took our family camping and taught us how to play Yahtzee and Monopoly and passed along his love for puzzling.  I love my Dad.

He did the best he could.

Children are resilient. Thankfully, despite the imperfections of our childhoods or the tumultuous relations we have with our parents, most of us also have unconditional love for them or at least forgiveness. I don’t deny the turmoil of my youth but I do try to have compassion for the fact that no matter how tough I believe some parts of my childhood were, my Dad’s was unimaginable; growing up in Germany during WWII. As a parent myself now, I realize we all just do the best we can and I hope that when my kids reflect on some of the mistakes I’m making, they will have compassion too.

Climb Every Mountain! Then Wait For Help.

September 22, 2013 8 comments
Country Playing

Summer 1971 Playing at the “country”
(L) Oldest Boy Cousin (M) Younger Brother (R) Older Boy Cousin
© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

Unlike the song in the title of this post, there is absolutely no inspiration in the following story.

Although, it is true.

My parents are immigrants. I’m first generation American. Growing up was interesting—to say the least. Our extended family were all back in Europe except for two, older, boy cousins who grew up about an hour north of where we lived in Westchester. Their house sat on 6-acres of rustic, rugged and crude land which we lovingly called the “country”. Abundant in fields, woods and streams it provided a whole host of exploratory (if not dangerous) opportunities for kids who were allowed to roam free in the wilderness, which they were. I loved it there. Complete with a full-size barn and chicken coop, I have some interesting memories of our play-time together there as I’m sure they do too, for the times they came to terrorize visit us. Our environment was the extreme opposite. We lived on the 4th floor of a 5-floor walk-up that offered dumb-waiter service and pick-up kickball games with random neighborhood kids in the concrete parking lot behind our building. Instead of hiking through woods and streams in the summers, we walked to the local beach or tanned on tar-beach which was conveniently located on the rooftop of our apartment building and also doubled as a laundry facility for hanging clothes to dry. My cousins were a little “rough around the edges”. They had NO FEAR of anything or anyone and always left a clear and decisive impression if not ABSOLUTE FEAR in the hearts and minds of the neighborhood kids they encountered in our neck of the woods. When gone, the other kids often referred to them as “your crazy cousins” which, they were. Crazy and my cousins. Not that we couldn’t hold our own of course, but truth be told, it wasn’t the worst thing for a gal growing up across from one of New York’s many “Projects” to be able to say,

“Oh yah? You just wait til my cousins come back!”     Ahh, family.

Back to Europe.

When I was eight, my mom took myself and my younger brother to Ireland to meet her family. My grandmother lived in an authentic two-room, thatched cottage that had a red front door. The living and kitchen area was dominated by a constantly burning hearth. Inside, a black iron kettle always seemed to be bubbling or brewing something. I wasn’t surprised to later learn that the townspeople often referred to my grandmother as the local witch doctor. During our visit my mom got sick one day and whatever my grandmother gave her to remedy her sickness blinded her temporarily for several hours. My six-year old brother and I were my mother’s walking guide back to the outskirts of town where we were staying with my aunt. Later during that trip, my brother took ill and whatever was given to remedy his condition caused him to have fierce hallucinations in where he saw leprechauns in his room and feared my dad would be an old man when we saw him next.  Ahh, family.

Three years after that European vacation, I took a trip to Germany to meet the rest of my clan. While my other friends went to day-camp or Playland or the Jersey Shore, I was sent went to Germany.

For six weeks.

Alone.

I was eleven.

Did I mention I didn’t speak German?

Giving Oma a Rose

1976 Giving my Oma a rose upon arrival in Germany.
© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

The upside of that trip was that one of my boy cousin’s from America was also going to Germany later that summer with his mom. At least I could look forward to some English speaking kin after a month of speaking very slowly and loudly and using multiple hand gestures to try to communicate. Why is it that people think people who don’t speak their language can understand them if they just speak slowly and loudly?  It was fun and tough and a whirlwind of meeting relatives before my aunt and 13-year old cousin got there. Sadly, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know who I was or why I was in their home. After a few weeks I began to understand the language much better than I could speak it and I could tell she was confused about the strange child staying in her house. I’d overhear my grandfather trying to explain to her over and over again that I was her son, Guenter’s daughter.

When my aunt and cousin finally arrived from the U.S., it was a welcome reunion. After a few days of re-adjusting, my grandfather took us on a tri-country tour. By car. Compact car, that is. The five of us (six if you count my Omi’s over-stuffed white handbag) drove from Germany, to Austria, to Italy and back again.

Me and Opa 76

1976 Me and Opa in Austria
© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich and TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

The most memorable part of my trip lies within the Austrian mountains of Tyrol near the city of Innsbruck. We stayed in a small village surrounded by mountains for a few days of sight-seeing. After a day or two of exploring the village’s architecture and taking a cable car to the snowy top of one of the mountains, my cousin and I set out for some play-time of our own. After all, he was used to roaming free in the wilderness. Why should that be any different in Austria? And why wouldn’t I follow him when he said,

Hey, let’s climb the side of this mountain.

You never really know someone until you climb a mountain with them.

Instead of taking the dirt path that wound itself upward, we — he, chose for us to rough it, climbing partly on the mountain’s side and partly on the concrete boulders that were wedged into the mountain every 50 to 100 feet or so. There were several of them, leading upwards. Their purpose was to slow the onslaught of a rock or mudslide that could come crashing down into the village below. They were several feet wide and about 5 feet high, massive to a girl of eleven and vertically challenged. As height was not an attribute of mine, it was necessary for my cousin to climb first. He’d haul himself up and then extend a hand to help me up to the somewhat smoother part of each boulder as we made our ascent. Every so often the dirt pathway appeared off to the side of one of the concrete slabs and our intention was to take the path down when we were done with all of our climbing. Soon after our adventure began, my cousin started collecting “rocks” and insisted they accompany us on our journey. As the cool morning hours turned into a warm afternoon, his rocks grew larger and heavier and by mid-day there were far more than I wanted to deal with. I was exhausted hauling them up to him one, by one before he extended his arm for me. I was thirsty and hungry and tired and finally sometime in the late afternoon, I refused.

No, I cried. I’m not carrying your stupid rocks up this mountain anymore!

Fine, he said, then I’m not helping you up the mountain, anymore.

With that, he jumped off the concrete slab and onto the side of the mountain. He climbed his way up onto the pathway and vanished. After hours and hours of climbing together, he disappeared in just a few short minutes, leaving me with his stupid rocks, stranded, atop a huge concrete boulder, on a mountain, in Austria.

Alone.

I was eleven.

It was nightfall and several hours later before I heard the dogs barking and the men shouting. Flashlights blinded my eyes when the Austrian patrol finally found me and lead me safely to and down the pathway to a frantic grandfather and somewhat hysterical aunt.

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My Cousin and I in Austria 1976
© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich and TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

Life lessons I suppose begin when life does. I’ve said it before and it’s warranted again:

If it doesn’t kill ya, it’ll make you stronger.

I am a bull, who is afraid of heights BUT not afraid of being alone in the dark.

It’s all good.

I’m not quite sure what happened when my cousin descended from the mountain without me that evening. I remember being given “medicine”  when I got back to my grandfather’s room. He fished a bottle of pills out of my grandmother’s big white handbag and gave me two, to calm me when I started to cry for my dad and wanted to call home. Whatever it was gave me a similar feeling to one I had thirty-five years later when I was prescribed Valium before having a dental procedure. Only instead of lasting a few hours, it lasted the whole next day which I remember as a haze, literally. I didn’t call my dad and my fearless, crazy, rock-loving cousin was much nicer to me for the rest of our trip. Things resumed to normal. As they eventually do, with family.

These days my cousin lives far-away in another state and I don’t get to see him much but whether it’s two years or ten that pass between meetings, it always resumes to normal.

I miss and love him dearly.

Restitution

September 8, 2013 6 comments
bees

© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat…..Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive…..Forgiveness does not excuse anything…..You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for his wholeness…..” 

~ Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

Three years, thirty-three checks and $10,544.28 later, recompense has been paid and restitution made for some of the items that were taken from my previous home over a period of several months.

I’ve “let go of his throat.”

Now that all the money is in the bank, the question is, what should we do with it? How do you spend restitution money? Do you split it two ways or in our case, four ways? Should it be put toward education or bills? Should we go on vacation? Give it to charity?

What would you do with it?

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© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

After catching this “burglar” in our home three years ago, we’ve moved on, mostly. Although the journey continues. Two of us have left that house and relocated.

My Edward still stands guard in the window where I left him, where the rest of my family lives, right next door to where this thief lives.

The sun has faded Edward some but his effect is the same. Creepy, like my former neighbor.

Edward

© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

An Order of Protection remains in effect until June, 2015. It’s a silly piece of paper if you ask me, considering the Order prohibits our neighbor from being within 100-yards of any of the four of us, yet there’s barely ten-feet of shared grass that sits between his house and ours.  Even though I’ve “let go of his throat”, truth be told, every time I drop off or pick my kids up from that address, I’m tempted to call the police. He is after all, in constant violation. He has been since the day the Order was signed, despite the pictures I provided the court. He’s also Caucasian, in his early twenties and always wears a hoody. I was suspect of him before I knew he was the one repeatedly breaking into our home and I will continue to be leary of any person, boy or girl, that chooses to hide their identity beneath a hood in public. I don’t care what color skin they have. I trust my instinct.

Two days before the last check was deposited, Diane from Probation called me.

It’s Diane, she said. I’m just checking in to see if you can speak on the 26th?

The other two woman who have sat on the panel with me since Diane started it two years ago will also be there. Twice a year this Impact Panel speaks before an audience of convicted felons. They’re required to attend as part of their sentence.

Yes, of course I will, I said.

It’s hard for me to say “no” to Diane when she was the only person in the judicial system who took the time to really listen and try to understand the impact of what happened to my family. She stood by my side when I spoke before the court the day of the sentencing.

Even though life goes on and we’ve all moved on, they need to know. They need to hear first-hand about how their actions can affect the lives, for years to come, of  the people they’ve committed crimes against. In our case, months of trauma was endured while we tried to figure out who and why? My kids were only 8 and 11. Now, we’re a family that’s been torn apart and all of our lives have been changed forever.

While it’s important not to dwell on the past, it’s equally important not to forget it.

The past can not be changed. It is, what it is. Our lives today are what they are, not because of the past but because of how we chose to deal with it at the time.

Hey, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Right?

I am a bull.

Besides, restitution has been made, a debt has been paid and I’ve “let go of his throat.”

LastCheck

© 2013 Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

Full Plumage

August 19, 2013 10 comments

Bus2

I’ll leave an envelope in your mailbox with a letter explaining what this is all about, he said.

It’s hard to believe school starts again in just a few weeks! Where did the summer go?

Where did the years go?

During the school year, my kids are super spoiled fortunate to be driven to school every day. Not like the early years when they actually wanted to get up early and take the bus; at least Noah did. Gone too, are the days when I’d follow the bus, every day, ensuring that my son didn’t get abducted along the way OR so I could be there, just in case he needed me in some way along the route OR God forbid, there was an accident and I needed to jump into rescue mode for my little boy on the big bus. Nope, those hovering masterful parenting skills vital to ensuring my son’s safe transport to school, are no longer needed. Indeed, it is no longer required of me — by me — to make a mad dash to my car as soon as the big double-wide doors are pulled shut. Trailing, oh-so-not-discreetly, behind the big yellow boat carrying my its precious cargo is something I just don’t have to do anymore.

Bus1

September 2003 ©Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile

Back in the day and during his entire first year on the bus, I’d follow and then veer off at the corner of Dunkin’ Donuts and Route 9 while the bus would head into Princess Circle where a cluster of apartment buildings were. The apartment-pick-up allowed me just enough time to run in for a cup-of-Joe and be back outside standing on the corner, ready to catch a glimpse of my then 5-year old who’d be peering out of the window directly behind the bus driver. The bus driver would make him sit in the seat right behind her every day.

I make all the little ones sit behind me, so I can keep an eye on them, she told me one day.

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September 2003 ©Karen Szczuka Teich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile

Thank you, Jan.

An older woman with a big heart, there was no pulling-the-wool over Jan’s eyes. And instead of balking at my stalker-ish behavior, she’d honk the bus horn two or three times and I’d over-hear her through her cracked window telling Noah,

Look, there’s your mom. Wave to her!

He and she, would, as they rounded the corner from Princess Circle to route 9, every time.

It made my day.  Every-day.

And, to-this-day, if Jan sees me around town she honks her big yellow bus horn and waves to me with a big heartwarming smile on her face.

Thank you, Jan.

But, I digress.

My 5-year old is now going on 15 and he can sit where he wants to on the bus. Plus, these days, he has a companion. Well, sort of.  He and his sister take the bus home almost every day together. Although I somehow doubt they actually sit together. And they don’t always get off at the same STOP. But people know they’re siblings, including their current bus driver, who Hannah has had now for the past two years in a row.

It was the end of June, school was over when the man on the other end of my cell identified himself as “Vinny”, my kids’ bus driver. He told me he would leave an envelope in my mailbox explaining what the call was all about.

According to the letter, each year the Federation of Workers representing nine units (including bus drivers) in the school district we live in, take part in a program that allows for 40 out of the well over 65,000 children served, to be recognized for exhibiting outstanding behavior.

WCSD Letter

Accompanied with the letter were 4-tickets to a Renegades game; our local minor league baseball team.

If our name comes up, Vinny said, we choose a student that we’ve come in contact with during the year that has shown exemplary behavior.  We’re only supposed to pick one but I chose both your kids because they’re both great kids and really deserving. They never give me a hard time. They say hi and thank-you, are polite and Hannah helps me out with the little kids all the time.

Like a peacock fanning her feathers in full plumage, I could feel the pride swell inside.

peacock mama

Since my last post boasted the sibling rivalry that exists between my pair, I thought it fitting, to highlight their cooperation; even if they don’t always realize or recognize it; sometimes, other people do. Way to go Hannah and Noah!

Thank you, Vinny!

 

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