Remembering Rita

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how I would write about  my mother-in-law, Rita. My husband, our family, and I have known for over a year that her time on this earth was coming to an end, and during that time I have gone over in my mind how much my brief interaction with her has influenced my life. I know that Rita has been a wonderful mother for her two sons, and I would not be able to relate all that she has meant to them. So I will simply reflect on what she has meant to me, and some of the _DSC8670great memories I have of her.

I first met Rita on Valentine’s Day 2011. John and I had been dating a month, and he told me he wanted to take me on a daylong date for V-day. I was admittedly a skeptic about this day, having never had a particularly romantic experience for it, but of course I said yes to Mr. Irresistible. I knew this guy was different when he said the first thing he wanted to do was take me out to breakfast to meet his mother. We had talked about her and I was curious to meet this warm, kind Hungarian woman, as John had described her, so I eagerly looked forward to this date.

I was a little nervous, meeting his mom, but as soon as I saw Rita I knew there was nothing to be nervous about. She embraced me in a hug and greeted me with a gorgeous, red-lipsticked smile and a “Hi Honey!” in her deep, full-throated voice. We went into breakfast and Rita told me stories about her experiences as a waitress for many years, in Las Vegas and Phoenix. She was such a mom, insisting that John eat some of her omelette even though it had cheese in it (this would happen many times in the future to the lactose-intolerant John), and chasing the waitress down at the end to give her her tip in person, because she didn’t want anyone to steal it. By the end of breakfast I felt so comfortable with Rita, and could see where her son had gotten his kind, friendly nature and strong values.

As time went on, I was able to spend time with Rita both with John and on our own. I often took her grocery shopping at Safeway, her neighborhood Arcadia store (still the friendliest store in town). It would take us nearly two hours to buy about 20 items, because Rita was very selective of her products (like mom like son), and because she would stop and chat with everyone along the aisles, especially young people and those with babies and small children. Her eyes would light up when she saw a little one sitting in the cart, and as soon as she flashed her bright smile at them, they would smile back, even if they were crying crocodile tears. Rita had such a way with people, she would call everyone “honey” and get them to smile and open up about their day, or their favorite frozen dinner, or whatever topic was handy. She had a gift for gab, my husband says, and he was right, she was naturally gifted at talking to people and putting them at ease. One of the most important things I keep with me from my time with Rita was understanding that being friendly to people is the best way to go around in the world, because at heart, everyone just wants to see a friendly face and a smile – even at the grocery store. Maybe especially at the grocery store.

Rita grew up in very poor circumstances, one of eight children in Michigan. She told me that she hated corn because as a child the corn farmer near their house had given her mother bushels and bushels of corn to help the kids have something to eat, and she had eaten enough corn to last a lifetime. She had never eaten much meat, let alone red meat, and the first time her husband-to-be took her out for a date to a steak restaurant, she got sick. After marrying and moving out west, Rita’s husband Giuseppe asked her to waitress for his restaurant, and a star was born. She took to it like a duck to water, and waitressed for many years in Las Vegas and Phoenix. I can imagine she was the best kind of server: hardworking, patient, friendly and funny. She used to tell me how the other girls at the Las Vegas Hilton were jealous of her, and who wouldn’t be, I’ve seen pictures and she was a knockout – skinny, red hair piled on her head, and with those beautiful red lips and a big smile on her face. Rita used to tell me that when diners would bring their children in to eat, and the kids were whimpering or wanted another chocolate milk, she told them she wouldn’t get it until they ate more of their food. Once or twice she even picked up a forkful and put it in their mouths, to which the toddler would respond with wide eyes, but they would eat it and the parents would thank her! She was always a no-nonsense person, and people naturally respected her.

One of my fondest memories of Rita was a simple time we shared together. I get off work earlier on Fridays, so one time I bought a six-pack of cider and stopped by her house on my way home. Rita sipped her coffee and I sipped a cider while we chatted and watched the evening news. From then on, it became a regular habit for me to come by for an hour after work, tell her about my day, and listen to her tell me about hers and ask “what are you and Johnny doing tonight?” When she could no longer live alone at her house, I felt a twinge of sadness every time I drove by her neighborhood, thinking of those quiet afternoons we spent while she told me stories about her waitressing days, or about motherhood. “I ate sardines every day I was pregnant with Johnny,” she would say. “That is why he is so brilliant. When you get pregnant you should eat them too.”

I also enjoyed seeing Rita with her three living sisters, Carolyn, Elaine and Mary Ann. I have three sisters myself, and watching her interact with them made me think of the day when all of us McWilliams girls would be hobbling around one another’s houses, talking about our grandkids and the economy. Rita was the glue that held them together, bringing food, a quick smile, and a listening ear to her sisters’ stories. It was so sweet to see how close they were after all those years, and I know they miss her very much.

Rita fought a long battle with chronic leukemia, a blood disease that causes the blood to produce too many white blood cells. She successfully beat the odds and stayed in relatively good health for many years, but the autumn before John’s and my wedding her health began to decline and she was in and out of the hospital a few times. John and I were blessed to have her walk down the aisle at our wedding, however, and to see us start our new life together and celebrate with family. After the wedding, we were talking one day about how she was feeling, and I tried to reassure her that she would live to see more grandchildren, but she said simply, “I was lucky to make it to your wedding, that is what I wanted. We can’t ask for more.” A little while after that, she succumbed to illness and had to go into assisted care.

Rita’s twin brother, Richard, passed away earlier this year, and I think at that point we knew Rita was going to leave us soon too. It was so hard to see this lady, once so bubbly and energetic, lying in bed, unable to walk or to speak with us, but we could see the love in her eyes and said our goodbyes to her and I think she heard us and understood. Even though I only had two years with her, Rita was the best mother-in-law I could have asked for, and from the beginning she championed our relationship and was a role model for a patient, caring person. She would call us nonstop several times a day, sometimes driving John nuts, but now he and I miss her calls and I still have her picture on my speed dial. Her faith in God and deep religious conviction were inspiring to us as a couple, but she never lectured us or judged, she simply showed us how a truly good Christian couple should embrace everybody with compassion and love. Her life really is a legacy, and though we won’t get that last wish to have her hold our future child in her arms, we will never let that child forget how much their grandmother meant to us, and what a cool lady she was.

John told me that his mom once said if she could be any animal, it would be a bird that could fly freely. The day she passed away, for the first time all year I saw a beautiful butterfly float through the blue sky in our back yard in the sunshine. Without hesitating, I said, “Goodbye Rita.”  I know your spirit flies free.    Butterfly_in_the_Sky_Wallpaper_2g6a1

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Our Adoption Journey

Our Adoption Journey


Hello my name is Sarah and I am 36 years old, married, and working full-time while taking care of a home, two crazy puppies, and a great husband who recently started nursing school (his longtime dream). We are embarking on a journey, my husband and I, and I want to pause, periodically, and reflect on it all, just to keep my bearings I guess.


I am not really sure how to begin this story, and I have no concrete idea where it will go, but I guess I will probably start with an essay I wrote when I was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, in one of my favorite courses, history. Our instructor asked us to write a paper about our own ‘history’, as told from the future, as if we were looking back over the span of our lives. At first I didn’t know what I could say. I was a nerdy little blonde with asthma, crooked teeth and a Dostoyevsky novel in my locker. I was a little bit of a thing, and my future seemed like a big, vague and fuzzy blob that waited somewhere far away while I wheezed it out in gym class. I knew that I was going to college somewhere, and I knew that I would write all my life and so choose a profession where writing was involved, but other than that I had not a clue what to say about my unwritten history. So I went home, sat down at my old electric typewriter (yes we were a little slow to get a family computer), and started typing whatever popped into my head. Tap tap tap! Go to college. Tap tap! Get a writing degree. Tap tap! Get a job, get married. Tap tap!


Adopt a baby.


To this day I don’t know where that idea really came from. It was not something anyone in my family had ever done, to my knowledge. It wasn’t something we even talked about in the hypothetical sense at dinner. I had grown up the youngest of six, with a mom who did home daycare, and surrounded by babies and helping fetch diapers and bottles. My sister and I constantly played house with our imaginary husbands (mine looked like Pierce Brosnan or the lead singer of Duran Duran), and dozens of dolls. I stuck one down my shirt as a little girl pretending to be with child, with my sister and our friends we rolled them around the neighborhood in strollers, we nursed them with bottles and burped them on our shoulders (these were not the fancy new programmed-to-barf dolls thank goodness.) So I guess what I always thought was that somewhere in the distant future I would have an undefined number of babies the good old-fashioned way and that would be that.


And yet, here I was, 15 years old, tapping away about my future that was coming slowly closer every day, and in that moment I typed those words. Adopt a baby. And from there the seed, as they say, was planted. I wrote pages and pages about all the kids I would adopt, disabled ones, AIDS babies, anyone who was in need of a good home. I don’t know, maybe I had read an article about Mia Farrow and subconsciously idolized her. This was before Angelina and Brad. But whatever source it came from, the idea was there, and though I moved on from high school, then college, it lingered. I do remember during my one serious relationship of my 20s, when we were discussing marriage and kids, I light-heartedly mentioned my curiosity about adopting. And I remember when my boyfriend resolutely dismissed the idea, firmly saying that he could not love a child that was not ‘his’ by blood, that I probably shrugged and said, “OK” (as we do in our 20s when we act like we don’t care), but I felt keenly…disappointed. I appreciated his honesty and didn’t expect him to share my interest, but it’s like when you know you have this part of you that you haven’t really opened up, and locking it away and tossing the key just seems like a shame.


That relationship ended, and life moved on as I pursued my teaching career. But, from an idea typed out as a teen to a journey into my thirties as a single woman living on her own, I still  carried this adoption germ with me. When my older sister and her husband decided to adopt their second child, all of my interest and enthusiasm rose again, and I watched with eagerness as they got certified and waited for The Call. When it finally came it seemed surreal – more to them than anyone I’m sure. One day they asked my other sister and I to watch our niece Kendall so they could go to the hospital and pick up her baby brother. With that, baby David came into our lives, all two days and 8 pounds of him. And with his poofy dark hair and sleepy smile, he was not just theirs, my sister and her husband’s – he was ours. Cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, to all of us he was family, as instantly and miraculously as every baby born should be. He has always been ours and watching that journey gave me the confidence to know that I would someday explore it myself. With or without a husband. So onto the next chapter I went…

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Top 6 things about finishing my master’s degree in education

6. deleting the APA formatting link on my favorites toolbar

5. the purty diploma

4. thinking, “What 20-page paper do I need to write this weekend?” …answering, “None! But that new mountain bike needs ridin!”

3.  the awesome kindle my family gave me

2. the fabulous amazing career opportunities that await me now that I am truly qualified for them.

and the number one best thing about finishing my master’s degree is…

1. Making my students call me Master, of course!

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Just a short one here – notes on a Friday.

I complain to my freshman lead teacher about how I’ve gotten excessive calls to sub for classes since I started working at this new school. Today she asks me to sub for Monday. Err…

I get so tired of working by Friday I like to play games instead, always learning games of course. We played a couple today, including “Take a Stand.” I read statements and students stand up if it applies to them. “Take a stand if you are an only child. Take a stand if your parents are divorced. Take a stand if you’ve ever been discriminated against.” Today my desks were arranged in a circle when they walked in and 3 out of 4 classes take their seats and talk amongst themselves. But not 5th hour! That is my special class. They come in at full volume and immediately start the wave going, shouting and laughing when someone doesn’t catch on and do it. Needless to say halfway through I got a phone call from a teacher next door complaining about the noise, because her students were trying to read. It’s Friday afternoon! Why are you making your kids read silently?! They probably wish they were in my class!  It’s the end of a long AIMS testing week. They are freshmen. They are loud. Deal with it.

I love this time of year. It is when the students finally start coming in to my room before and after school, just to hang out and talk. No longer afraid or too cool or distracted by other things. They have no agenda to speak of, they just want to visit with me. It reminds me why I became a teacher. Take a stand if you love kids – even snotty teenagers!

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Ruben with the quiet voice, so soft I must bend down and lean in to hear him. He suffers from degenerative glaucoma, will be blind soon. Today, with his aide, we taught him symbolism through the eyes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black writer in the mid-century South, who wrote of freedom and imprisonment in “Sympathy.”

Ruben will be trapped within darkness soon, who must quickly learn to read braille and learn to decipher the words he sees each day. He sees and tells me the words, within the poem: the trees, the sky, sunlight that are freedom, that soon he will not see except as a memory.

“I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass”

He shows me the cage, the bars, the perch of darkness, that are prison, that he will inhabit someday.

“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!”

He smiles, softly explaining the ideas to me. And I know that I can walk outside, look at the sunset, and smile too.

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Oh my third year…is the charm…

I love teaching, there is literally NEVER a dull moment. But freshmen may be starting to get to me after three years. I calculate with my class sizes that I have taught nearly 400 of them already, and it is great, fun, and crazy, but sometimes I question my grasp of reality.

Take for instance the conversation (sketched out here) I had with ‘Barry’ just yesterday.

Barry: “Can I sit in the back?”

Me: “Barry, you need to sit in front. I moved you there on purpose. You have an F in my class, and a few other classes for that matter. Why do you think you have that grade?”

Barry: “Umm… probably because I sit in the back and screw around too much.” He says it with a wide smile with green braces.

Me: “So, I want you to do better next quarter, so please understand why I want you to sit in the front.”

Barry, “Ok, umm hmm, yeah.” Nods. Smiles. Green braces.

Me: “Okay, lets go have a seat.”

Barry: “Okay. So can I sit in the back?”

One thing I know for certain now: If I ever have to raise a teenager, there will be at least a few things I can see coming. I don’t know if that’s good or bad…

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At the very end of class I pass out cards to students with pictures of animals on the front and information about that animal on the back. Students are required to tell me how that animal is like them before they leave class. It can be a physical or a mental similarity.


“I’m like a rhino because I seem calm, but deep down I get aggressive.”

“I am like a walrus, because he has long tusks sticking out of his face and I have these big piercings sticking out of mine.” (HA!)

“I’m like a python because we are both skinny. And dangerous.”

“I’m like a hippo because we are both LAZY.”

“I’m like a Zebra, because we are BLACK, with white stripes, not white, with black stripes.”

“I’m like a tiger. Because we are fast. And unpredicatble.”

“I’m like a koala. Because I’m friendly.” (Psst: Koalas are so NOT friendly!;)

“I’m like a monkey. Because when I laugh I SCREAM!”

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Action Plan

Dateline: August 17, 2010
Memo to Teachers:
In addition to the required minimum no less than absolutely SEVEN action plans you come up with to get these students to achieve impossible heights and believe in themselves and excel despite the fierce opposition they face, you must come up with your own action plan for improving department morale and school spirit. Please submit said plan to administration before 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Dateline: August 18, 2010.
Memo to Administration

In order to improve teacher morale despite having 40 students in your room in violation of several fire codes, having sections reversed, changed, schedules swapped and swapped again within the first week, and being held solely accountable for all AIMS test scores amid 10 departments, all English teachers will now meet regularly on Wednesday mornings at 8:30 to do a shot of tequila.


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Ruben sits at the front of my class. Ruben cannot see well. One eye rolls almost up into his head, permanently, and the other looks sideways most of the time. He wears glasses with a giant monocular lens on one side to see words on paper. He speaks so quietly I have to bend in to hear him. He is shy but I try to get him to talk to other students a little. He sits in my room before first bell, talking softly to his cousin. His voice is so gentle and musical, like a flute. Ruben with the gentle voice…

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