Tag Archives: Parenting

“I Did Nothing Special. I’m just an Ordinary Person.”

My Grandma Helen passed away last month.   She was nearly 99.  I had the honor of caring for her a few times in her later years, and over the course of those visits she told me about her life.  This is the final part of my three-part series on Helen Isobel Norman.

I drove up to Grandma’s house on Arno drive, marveling at how it looked exactly as it did forty-five years ago, with the ivy covered front yard,  taupe paint with brown trim, and white iron filigree handrail along the steps to her porch.  I pulled into the driveway and opened the garage with an old remote Uncle Steve had given me.  Inside the garage was the ‘70s era beige Chrysler, sitting there like always.  Uncle Steve had removed the battery to keep Grandma from taking joy rides.  I parked, walked into the garage and opened the dryer.  Inside were a few towels and wash cloths.  I folded them and carried them into the house.

“Hi Grandma,” I called as I stepped into the kitchen.  “It’s Cheri.”

I listened for a response.


Yikes, I thought.  This always makes me nervous.

I quietly walked through the kitchen, took a deep breath, and peeked around the wall into the family room.  Grandma was sitting in the chair next to the Davenport, reading the Wall Street Journal.

“Oh hi Honey,” she said, looking up at me.  “I didn’t hear you come in.”

I exhaled with relief that she was alive, and gave her a hug.  “You look good today, Gram.  Hungry?  How about some macaroni and cheese?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I know Grandma.”

I went into the kitchen and opened the freezer that Uncle Steve had stocked before he left for vacation.  Inside was a tub of Albertson’s frozen macaroni and cheese.  I microwaved it, steamed up some broccoli, and grabbed a big handful of grapes out of the fridge.  I assembled the food on a plate and brought it into the family room, along with a glass of Ensure spiked with brandy.

“Oh honey, this is too much!” Grandma protested.

But when I placed a spoonful of macaroni and cheese in front of her lips, she opened them.

“Mmm,” she said, after she swallowed.  “You’re a good cook, Cheri.”

“Thanks Grandma,” I smiled.  “It’s an easy recipe.”

I looked down to get a forkful of broccoli, but had to do a double-take.  Did she just wink at me?

I shifted in my seat and switched the subject.

“So tell me,” I said, while she chewed.  “What happened in your life after the orphanage?” 

“Well, I got my first job,” she said.  “I worked in a dime store, doing bookkeeping.   The work was okay, but I often stayed there until midnight finishing the books.  And my boss didn’t pay me anything extra.”

“What a drag,” I said.

“Yes.  So I quit and got a job at Battelle Memorial Institute, a metallurgical research company connected with Ohio State University,” she said, sitting up proudly.  “That was my best job.  They gave me vacation and sick leave.  And I liked the people; they were very educated.”

“You enjoy being around smart people, who are like you,” I complimented.

“Thank you, honey.  I also did a stint as a teacher,” she continued.  “But I didn’t care for teaching.  In my day, girls weren’t offered much in the way of jobs.  You could be a teacher or a nurse, and that was it.  Once you got married you weren’t allowed to work anymore.  Jobs were scarce and they figured married women didn’t need them as badly as everyone else.  So I would lie and say I was single.  I got away with that for a while.  Until I got pregnant.

We laughed.  “It’s a good thing times have changed,” I said.  “Women have more choices now.”

Grandma nodded.  I put another spoonful of macaroni in front of her mouth, which she opened without hesitating.

Guess she was hungry after all.

“How did you like being pregnant?” I asked.

“I was sick throughout all three pregnancies,” she said.   “I couldn’t keep anything down.  I weighed only 93 pounds.  Being pregnant was the only time in my life I was thin, other than now.”

I looked at Grandma’s frail, bony body, so different from how I remembered it growing up.  She was no waif then.  She was five foot two, but had a big bosom and midriff.  To me, she had always been soft and cushy, and I loved her warm hugs.

“I tried every diet out there.  Weight Watchers, Atkins, Slimfast,” she said. “Sometimes all I ate were grapefruits and hard-boiled eggs.  Nothing worked, at least for long.  But now being thin does me no good.  I just wear these robes all day and everyone’s always trying to get me to eat!”

Ironic, I thought.  Like Grandma, I also struggled to control my weight.  But now I wondered if it was worth the trouble.   I had never given Grandma’s weight a second thought.  I always liked how she looked.   Perhaps I needed to keep things in perspective, make peace with my large frame, and be thankful I was healthy.

Grandma’s voice interrupted my thoughts.   “Luckily the pregnancy health costs were not a problem,” she said.  “Carol and James were both born in a Ohio State “teaching” hospital.  Clyde was a medical student there, and med students didn’t have to pay for care.”

Carol Gay in 1939, at age three.  Helen sent this picture to a children’s beauty pageant

“What was it like raising your kids?” I asked.

“Well, your mom and Jimmy were pretty easy,” she said.  “But Steve was another matter.”

“Really?”  I laughed.  But then I thought of my outgoing and talkative uncle.  “Actually,  I’m not surprised to hear that.”

“Steve was born in 1947.  Right afterwards Clyde got a Navy transfer to Guam.   Carol and Jimmy were ten and four years old.  What I remember most was Steve being terrible on that  international flight to Guam.  All the Navy people were ready to throw him off the plane!”   Grandma rolled her eyes.

Carol, Jimmy, and Steve, 1947.

Carol, Jimmy and Steve, 1956.

“But even if it wasn’t always easy raising them, I was proud of my kids.  Carol went to school after college and became a nurse, which wasn’t easy for her because she met and married your dad when she was young, just 22.  She was still going to school when she was pregnant with you.”

“That’s neat she was a nurse.”

“Yes.  She had a warm way about her.  Like you, honey.”

“Thanks Grandma.”

“And Jimmy was a really good swimmer.  He started swimming at a public pool when we lived in Hawaii.   The guy in charge thought he was a better swimmer than the other kids, and offered to coach him.  After that I spent half my life carpooling Jimmy to swim meets.  But his hard work earned him a spot in the Olympic Trials.  He never made it to the Olympics, but the Trials were a good experience for him.”

“I bet he could have made it to the Olympics,” I said.  “He died when he was just 20, right?” I asked.


“Tell me about that, Grandma.”

Grandma didn’t even pause.  She must have needed to talk about it.

“It was 1962, and Jimmy was at the University of Cincinnati where he’d gotten an academic scholarship.  In March he was on the front page of the Cincinnati Sunday Tribune, for an article about the swim team.  Three weeks later, on his Spring Break, he drove with a buddy, Jim Marchetti, to California to visit friends and family.  He and his friend drove thousands of miles in a Renault, a small European car with the engine in the back.   Marchetti was driving toward San Diego on a two lane highway when he fell asleep at the wheel.  Their car hit another car, head-on.”

“Oh Grandma, how tragic.”

“Yes, both boys were killed.”

Jimmy Norman

“What happened to the person in the car they hit?”

“It was a Cadillac, being driven by a middle-aged woman.  I’m not sure what happened to her, but she was not killed, I know that.”

I was just one and a half, I thought.  My mother was pregnant with Laurie.  Gosh, that must have been so tough, I thought.  I had heard I was not an easy baby and cried a lot.  My mother was 25 and had to deal with me, her crazy pregnancy hormones, and then the senseless and sudden death of her beloved younger brother.

“It was really sad because he had such a bright future,” Grandma said, with tears in her eyes. “Your mother and Jimmy were very close.  They wrote each other all the time.”

“His death triggered her depression, right?”

Grandma looked at me, a forlorn look in her eyes.  “Probably, Cheri.”

“Did you ever talk to her about her that?”

“Yes.  I was very concerned about her.  One day she came over to talk.

Grandma paused.  I grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“I know this is a difficult subject, Grandma.”  I said softly.  My heart was racing, and I was feeling shaky, but holding Grandma’s hand calmed me down.  I needed to hear what she had to say.  “Tell me more.”

“I asked Carol to describe her depression, because I didn’t understand it.  She said she felt she was in a dark hole, and there was no way out.”

I envisioned my mother, trapped in a deep cave, with no light, feeling lost and lonely and hopeless.

“She went to several psychologists, but they couldn’t help her,” Grandma continued.  “She suffered with depression for five years.”

“I wish she’d tried harder to find the right psychologist,” I said.  “I’m sure there were some good ones, even in the sixties.  And I wish they’d had good antidepressants back then.   I believe if she’d been born a few years later and gotten the right help and medication, that she’d still be here today.”

“You’re probably right, Cheri.”

We sat for a moment, our hands clasped, in silence.

“Do you know where she’s laid to rest now?” I asked.


“Hmm.”  Interesting, I thought.  Why doesn’t Gram know this?   I know she went to the funeral.

But before I could question her, Grandma changed the subject.

“Clyde and Jimmy are buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, in Point Loma,” she said.

“I remember when Grandpa Clyde passed away.  It was 1972 and I was in the seventh grade.   I’ll never forget the beautiful grave site on that cliff, and the 21 gun salute they gave him.  All those men in uniform, and the guns going off.  Scared me kind of, but I was proud too.”

“Yes, Clyde was a Captain in the Navy, and a war hero.  He was on the USS Bennington during a fire explosion in 1954, the only doctor to survive.  He recruited a bunch of sailors on the spot to help with first aid.  Over a hundred men died in that explosion, and over 200 were injured.  It was the worst Navy disaster since Pearl Harbor.”

“Wow, Grandma.  And to think he met you in the orphanage.  You both came such a long way.”

“We just made the best of things, Cheri.   Jimmy, Carol and Clyde are gone now, but I’m grateful I have Steve,” she said.  “He amazes me.  When he was 11 or 12 he was awful, always getting into trouble.  I was forever running to the principal’s office.  But he became a really good person, and he and Susan take very good care of me.”

Steve and Susan with Helen, on her 96th birthday last year, March 11, 2009

“And now I have four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.”

Helen’s sister Pauline, granddaughter Laurie, granddaughter Cheri (me) and Helen in 2006


Bee Gibbs and Helen Norman with four of their great-grandchildren, December, 1993

One Thing to Remember About Helen

“Grandma, is there anything you want people to remember about you?”  I asked.

“Cheri, I did nothing special.  I’m just an ordinary person.  I had no big accomplishments, other than my full academic scholarship to Wittenberg.”

“Well I’m impressed at how you handled difficult situations, Grandma.  You lost your mom as a girl and got sent to an orphanage, but you turned your life around.  You met Grandpa Clyde and got a college scholarship.  And when you became a parent and lost two children,  you never seemed to feel sorry for yourself.   You picked yourself up, and went on with life.  That is inspiring!”

“Well Cheri honey, we just made the best of our situation.” she said.

We nodded and smiled at each other.  I lifted up the glass of Ensure with Brandy, and Grandma pulled the straw to her lips.   She took a long sip.


Grandma passed away on February 17, 2012, peacefully in her home.  We had a lovely memorial ceremony for her on March 9th, and we were able to reunite Helen with her daughter Carrie at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, in Point Loma, San Diego, California.  They are in a grave site shared with Helen’s husband Clyde and son Jimmy, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  And some days, when the wind and tide is just right, you can hear the waves crashing below.

Grandma Helen was a special, wonderful woman.  She will be dearly missed.

Helen Isobel Norman

March 11, 1913 – February 17, 2012


Filed under Diet, Family, Grandparents, Happiness, Life, Marriage, Parenting, Parents, Time

Pregnant Mom vs. Toddler: Showdown in the McDonald’s Balls

Trevor in his "Terrible Twos." Doing my best to smile through it!

It is 1993. My son Trevor is two and I am nine months pregnant, and we go to McDonald’s for lunch. It is a sunny, warm day, so we sit outside by the jungle gym, and after he eats his Chicken Nuggets, Trevor crawls inside The Balls.

He plays for nearly twenty minutes, mesmerized by the thousands of blue, red, orange and yellow plastic spheres the size of softballs. But when I tell him it’s time to go, Trevor refuses to budge.

I try to be tough.

“Trevor honey, it’s time to get out.”

Trevor ignores me.

“We need to go.”


“Time to get out NOW.”

This time, Trevor looks up at me and says one word.


Oh God, not this again.

“Trevor, time-out if you don’t get out this instant,” I threaten.


I look around. Three moms are enjoying their Quarter-Pounders and Fries with their toddlers, grins on their faces, trying not to stare at me but obviously entertained by this fight between a very pregnant mother and her very stubborn two-year old.

My mothering skills are now on display. I need to show those women my kid who’s in control.

I take a deep breath and climb on the tiny platform under the circular orange opening. My belly makes it impossible to kneel, so I crouch through the opening, obviously designed for small children– not hefty women. I jump into the pool of plastic, and close my eyes as the colorful spheres fly everywhere and hit me on impact. I land with a plop on my back and lay there, spread-eagle for a few seconds, to catch my breath. I gained 45 pounds during this pregnancy, and my huge belly sticks out like a volcano in a colorful sea of plastic.

Trevor moves away from me to the other side of the pen. I struggle to get up and make my way through the never-ending wave of balls to go after him.

I must look like a fool. Oh well, I always wondered what it’d be like to play in the McDonald’s balls, and here I am. Times sure have changed. We didn’t even have Happy Meals when I was a kid.

The balls create a resistance that makes moving forward difficult. I swing my arms back and forth to get some momentum. Trevor scrambles the other way. But my high school track experience comes in handy, and I gain on him, corner him, and grab him by the shoulders. He kicks and flails his arms and yells in protest. But I am strong. I put my right arm around his waist and lift the boy into a football hold and storm back to the circular exit like an NFL fullback. I push Trevor through the hole, and he lands on the ground with a thud. Then I use my arms to pull myself through and somehow manage to crawl out after him.

When I finally get out and stand up, I smooth out my shirt, which has bunched up to expose my huge belly. I glance at the other moms, hoping they’ve lost interest. But they are all staring at me, just as I feared.

How embarrassing. They saw it all.   I look like a whale and my kid is acting out and they must think I’m a horrible mother.

But they do something that completely takes me by surprise.

They put their hands together, and clap.

Tears come to my eyes. I am really embarrassed now, because all eyes are on me. But it is a satisfying feeling, knowing I did what it took to handle my boy, and these young mothers can relate.

I smile back at the women, and bend over in a slight bow. And then I realize Trevor is opening the door to the restaurant. I salute my audience, and stumble after my toddler.

I’ll show that kid who’s in control. He’s in for an extra long time-out, that boy!

And when we arrive home, I break the timeout rule of one minute per year, and set the timer for . . . three minutes.

Trevor sits in his corner patiently. And after that, he never stays in the McDonald’s Balls for too long, again.

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Filed under Family, Life, Parenting, Terrible Twos

Grandma Helen: “Life Was Very Simple.”

Recently I talked about Grandma Helen’s years in the orphanage as part of  “The Grandparent’s Series”, which I am doing throughout the month of March. Today, in this last report on Helen,  she talks about work, parenting, and how she wants to be remembered.

On Work:  “Back then, about the only thing a woman could be was a teacher or a nurse.”

Helen’s first job was in a dime store, where she did bookkeeping. “I stayed many a night finishing the books until 12 midnight, and I never got extra money for that.”   She said her best job was at Battelle Memorial Institute, a metallurgical research company connected with Ohio State University.   “That job was the first place I worked that gave me vacation and sick leave.  Every year I could take off a whole month.”    And she liked the people.  “Very educated people worked there,” she says. 

Helen also did a stint as a teacher.  “I didn’t care much for that.”  In her day, “girls weren’t offered much.  The only thing you could be was a teacher or a nurse.”

Sick During Pregnancies

Helen was sick throughout all three of her pregnancies.  “I couldn’t eat anything.  I weighed only 93 pounds.  That was the only time in my life I was thin, other than now.  But now being thin does me no good,” she quips.  Health care costs were not a problem.  Carol Gay and younger brother James were born in a Ohio State “teaching” hospital where medical students didn’t have to pay for care. 

Carol Gay in 1939, at age three. (My mother).  Helen sent this picture to a children’s beauty pageant.

On Being A Parent

Helen’s youngest son Steve was born in 1947.  Shortly thereafter Clyde, who was in the Navy, was transferred to Guam, and the family moved.  Helen remembers Steve being terrible on the trip.  “All the Navy people were ready to throw him off the plane,” she laughs. 

Carol, Jimmy and baby Steve in 1947.

Here’s another photo of the three siblings, taken in 1956.

As a parent, Helen is most proud of several things.  “Carol went to school and became a nurse and it wasn’t easy for her.”  At 22, Carol married Ben Gibbs and had three children, Cheri, Laurie, and Kenny. 

“My son Jimmy was a really good swimmer.  He started swimming when we lived in Hawaii.  There was a big pool and whoever was in charge thought he was better than the other kids.  I spent half my life carpooling him to swim meets, but his hard work earned him a spot in the Olympic Trials.  He didn’t make it to the Olympics, but the trials were a good experience.”   

More Heartache

Sadly, both Carol and Jimmy passed away in the 1960s.  But Helen is not one to focus on the sad times.  She is grateful for her youngest child Steve, who amazes her.  “When he was 11 or 12 he was awful, always getting into trouble.  I was forever running to the principal’s office!  But he turned into a really good person, and he and his wife Susan take very good care of me.”

Steve and Susan with Helen, on her 96th birthday last year, March 11, 2009

Just an “Ordinary Person”

When asked about the one thing she wants people to remember about her, Helen says, “I’m just an ordinary person.  I did nothing earth shattering and I had no big accomplishments, other than my full academic scholarship to Wittenberg.” 


Helen, now 97,  has four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. 

Helen’s sister Pauline, granddaughter Laurie, granddaughter Cheri (me, of course!) and Helen in 2006


Bee Gibbs and Helen Norman with a few of their great-grandchildren, December, 1993

In thinking about how life today is different from when she was a child, she says, “It’s very different.   There’s all this electronics stuff, and we can talk to people all around the world.  When I was a child we couldn’t even imagine such a thing.”

“Life was very simple.”

I hope you enjoyed Grandma Helen’s life story. In future blog posts as part of the “Grandparents’ Series”, I will be featuring my dad, Benjamin Franklin Gibbs, Jr., and my mother-in-law, Paula La Sala Myers. I hope you will tune in!


Filed under Family, Grandparents, Parenting, Uncategorized

Anne of Green Gables on Happiness, Parenting, and Decorating.

I’m a big reader, and love all kinds of books. Recently I read Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”, a book that drew me in with its tag line “Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun” (It’s a great book, and is a #1 New York Times Bestseller.) The book inspired me to hunt through our bookshelves to find children’s literature. You see, Gretchen loves children’s literature because the stories usually have good morals embedded within, and have happy endings. Good always prevails over evil. Adult literature is often more complicated moral-wise which is thought-provoking, but if you want to get happy, read a kids’ book. I agree!

So I decided to re-read an old favorite: Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Green Gables is about an eleven year-old orphan girl who is taken in by the Cuthberts, even though they were really hoping for a boy to help on the farm. But this red-headed, freckled face skinny girl wins them over with her enthusiasm and imagination and general sweetness.

What I love about Anne is she seems to know the secrets of happiness– even at eleven, and even when the situation is bleak. The day after arriving at Green Gables, the Cuthberts want to send Anne back to the orphanage. In the buggy, Anne keeps her chin up:

“Do you know,” said Anne confidentially, “I’ve made up my mind to enjoy this drive. It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make it up firmly.”

Anne also says something that resonated with me as a Mom. Before Green Gables, Anne lived with many different families. She is asked if the women were good to her. Anne’s response? “Oh, they meant to be– I know they meant to be just as good and kind as possible. And when people mean to be good to you, you don’t mind very much when they’re not quite– always.”

This made me feel so much better about all the MILLIONS of mistakes I’ve made as a parent. Because when push comes to shove, I’ve always MEANT to be a good mom. 🙂

Finally, Anne knows a secret to happiness I’ve been telling my family for ages now– when your environment is lovely and happy, you just feel BETTER. I’m a firm believer that if you surround yourself with what you love, you will be in better spirits. Anne is a HUGE nature lover, and brings flowers into the house. She adorns the dinner table and her bedroom with jugfuls of apple blossoms. How can you NOT be happy when you’re surrounded by apple blossoms?

I’m only half-way through the book, but I’m so glad I picked it up again. Funny how a classic children’s story can have such insight into happiness, parenting, and the importance of surrounding yourself with beautiful things!


Filed under Books, Decorating, Happiness, Parenting, Reading