Old Family Pictures & Genealogy: Our Connection to the Past

grandma2I can still remember sitting at the dining room table in my grandma’s house and looking at old family pictures. Those days were at least 25 years ago now.

When you’re a kid, time almost seems to stand still. Those Sunday afternoons at Grandma’s house seemed like they would never end.

Now I cannot believe how much time has passed.

The photo to the right shows my grandma’s family around 1921. My grandma is the girl in the front, about 8 years old here. She grew up in a family of nine (her younger brother hadn’t yet been born here) in Cleveland, Ohio.

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My grandparents in 1942: Love the hat!

Those old photographs now belong to my mom, but I have scanned several of them. They reside in a box in the closet, on my computer, and in my heart. I look at them now with an awe and appreciation I couldn’t as a child. Now I’m a mother. My mom is a grandmother, and so the cycle continues.

Seven years ago, I dove into genealogy and researching my family tree on both sides. I used Family Search as a free resource to find a lot of my information, but I was also fortunate to have documentation of my own. I used My Heritage to build my family tree online and share it with my family. Next week, I will share more about my experiences with family tree creation, so come back to check that out!

I wanted to update and document my family tree, as heritage is important to me. Knowing where I come from is part of who I am. When I see old pictures of family members, I can look into their eyes and smile with them, feeling that connection. I am transported back in time, and Grandma is sitting next to me at her dining room table again, telling me who all those people are in the photographs.

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What’s Holding You Back from Your Dreams?

Everyone has dreams, and I don’t mean the kind you have at night when your mind slips into an unconscious state.

When you’re asked what your dreams are, what do you say? Do you freeze up, unable to articulate your dreams because you claim you aren’t sure? I’m not a betting person, but I’m willing to bet the uncertainty that plagues you is fear.

Maybe you won’t even name your dreams or dare to dream because of fear.  Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, low self-esteem, a negative self-image, and caring too much that others think or say (which is mostly in your mind, anyway) are all factors of not daring to dream in the first place.  

I have been following a vlogger on YouTube for years now who I think is beautiful (inside and out), talented, adorable in her antics, inspiring, and a fighter.  She admits often that the persona she portrays to the world in her videos is much more confident than she really is.

I used to be shy, but now I am able to talk and usually joke around with just about anyone. I can laugh about life when I’m in a group, even the things that bother me. Put me alone with my thoughts, and I am not that outgoing, confident person.

I get what this vlogger is saying. We can put on a smile on the stage. As I wrote in one of my novels, a smile can cover a lot of pain. Laugh enough and it doesn’t hurt so much, right? Yeah, something like that.

I look at this lovely young woman who I know only through the Internet and marvel. She has enormous support, but with any sort of fame come those who are all too happy to belittle, threaten, and hurt. Funny how 99 people can compliment you, but it only takes that one person to tear you down. What do we focus on? The negative.

Like this vlogger I follow and think the world of, many people suffer inwardly. She admits to turning down several opportunities because she doesn’t feel worthy. She has wonderful dreams, but her low self-confidence gets in the way. That is what holds her back from her dreams. She knows that.

For years, I said I wanted to be a published author. That was my dream, at least one of them. Yet for years, I did very little to make my dreams a reality. I had ideas for my first novel (based off my late grandma’s life, who I loved dearly). You can read more about the inspiration behind my first book here.

I managed a few pithy chapters. I read my grandma’s diary and a few pages she had written about her life while growing up. I jotted down several notes. This was between October 2006 and January 2009. I then left the book sitting on my hard drive. I hadn’t forgotten about it, but whenever I thought about sitting down at the keyboard and writing, I faltered. Overwhelmed at the prospect of writing an original story, I let fear dictate my actions and reasons.

Fear wasn’t the only culprit. It was easy to find excuses, a hundred other things that needed my daily attention. Many of those things were legitimate, like caring for my young kids and the house, but I believe if you really want something, you will do whatever you need (within reason) to attain it.

If I wanted to work out more, I would get to the gym more often. If I wanted to eat healthier, I wouldn’t buy chocolate or go through the McDonald’s drive thru. If I wanted to save more money, I would stop buying unnecessary items.

Sure, I want these things, but how much do I want them? Not enough, apparently.

pablo (25)I came to the hard realization that even though part of me wanted better or more, I must not have wanted those things badly enough.

I have written about having no regrets in a previous blog post. This one ties into that. Both topics involve fear of failure.

I believe the only way to fail is to do nothing.

In March 2015, I finally make a life-altering decision: I would write every day on my original story, even if I never published it, even if no one ever read it. Tired of traipsing through the lands of other authors and their characters in the world of fan fiction for 20 years, I knew that if I was to take myself as a writer seriously, I NEEDED to write every day, even if only for ten minutes.

Ten minutes. That’s all I told myself. It was a realistic goal.

To reach your dreams, you must set realistic, attainable, often short-term goals. Setting the goal of writing a whole book could have been too much. It was for me for years. As I said, overwhelming. I had already committed to exercising at least three days a week and had been doing it for three years at that point. If I could do that, I could write for ten minutes a day. Besides, I loved writing. I believe and have always believed that writing is in my blood, my fourth child (I have three actual ones), and was one of my purposes in life.

Your life purpose is what drives your desire to have dreams, but getting there is the intimidating and often difficult part. Goals at the stepping stones, every inch of pavement poured to create the road you travel from purpose to dreams. Day by day, little goal by little goal, you get there.

I finished my first draft of my first novel ten months after seriously sitting down to write it. I published it seven months after that. Once I got going, I couldn’t stop. I now have published a second novel, completed two more, and am nearing completion on my fifth.

Besides all this? I have joined a writers group at my local library, which you can read more about here. I have made invaluable friendships with several of these wonderful people who are like-minded. They are writers. They understand my raison-d’etre. I get them.

I have days when I question my ability to write, but they are fleeting. Our days are numbered in a fleeting life, so why do anything other than go for your dreams? If I hadn’t overcome my fears, I would have never gotten where I am today. I wouldn’t have shared my stories. I wouldn’t be spending time doing what I love daily.  I wouldn’t have met so many lovely friends.

Speaking of friends, a long-time and dear friend of mine has written extensively on the topics of life purpose, goals, and dreams on her blog. I highly recommend you check her blog out if you would like to seriously pursue these topics further.

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It’s funny that I had this blog idea for months and how its placement at the beginning of February coincided with my friend’s recent blog posts about the same topics. Fortuitous? Meant to be? I would like to think so.

Keeping dreaming, my friends, but if you’re serious about making your dreams a reality, you have to do the work. Pave your road with goals, not good intentions. Build your life with action, not ideas.

As any good writer knows, a story is driven by action. Ideas are good and all, but a good idea doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. You have one life. Make it a good story, even a great one.

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“Who Am I?” Asks Mom

Note: This blog post is aimed at moms with young kids and is a throwback to a post I wrote a year ago.  Being on vacation this past week, I wasn’t able to write a new post, but I think this one is worth re-sharing.

My alarm was set for seven o’clock.

But it’s my daughter crying in the next room that wakes me.  For the third time that night.  Only it’s no longer night.  A quick check of my phone shows it’s 6:45.  My husband has just left for work.  It’s only fifteen minutes, but it’s fifteen minutes of sleep I was denied.  My sleep is like gold to me; it’s that precious.

I’m being robbed.

As I struggle to sit up in bed, I inwardly curse the sunlight.  Sunlight means morning, and I’ve never been a morning person.  As I rush and fumble to make her bottle, I wonder if morning people were only created to make the struggle of another new day that much harder.

As I lift her out of her crib and pacify her cries, the squeals of my sons aren’t far behind.  

And so it goes nearly every morning – or some variation thereof (pick which kid you think wakes first tomorrow!) – as “Mommy” fights to get dressed without an audience and make her coffee before she needs to be piling the kiddos into the van or standing at the bus stop.

I’m a stay-at-home mom of seven years.  It was my choice, and I don’t regret a minute of it.

I’ve heard it said many times that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I must have gone insane a LONG time ago.

So, I spend my days carting kids to camp or school.  I pay the bills, scrub toilets and wipe all around them as I clean the disgusting leftovers from raising boys who don’t aim well, pick up the groceries, and curse that I’m making a second and unplanned trip to Costco or Aldi that week because A) I either forget something the first time or B) my kids decided they suddenly loved Oreos more than Chips-Ahoy… and yep, we’re out.  Somewhere in there, if I can squeeze in a thirty minute workout on the elliptical at the Y and/or my weekly reward of a tall decaf nonfat latte from Starbucks, I find a simple and way-too-happy level of satisfaction.  By late afternoon, I’m fretting half of the time that I didn’t think ahead enough to pull something out of the freezer for dinner.  And the kids are hungry and cranky.  And so I am.  And tired.

Then there’s laundry.  Endless, forever and ever laundry.  Need I say more?

There are the lowest levels of motherhood that involve butt-wiping, changing out socks for ones without holes, and scraping something (I don’t know what) off the wall that’s probably been crusting there since Apollo 11.  There are silent tears and woe-is-me moments in the closet.

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There is the “I-need-to-take-a-shower-just-to-wash-my-damn-hair” and “I-really-need-to-shave-my-legs-so-can-I-please-take-a-short-bath?”

By the end of the day, my husband and I wonder how we do this.  All of this.  We hope for a good night’s sleep, for our minds to just shut down, and for more time with each other or just to ourselves tomorrow.  Because it didn’t happen today.

“Welcome to motherhood,” older moms (read: empty-nesters) tell me.

Yes, thank you for that, because it wasn’t already clear to me.  Unlike the glass doors to my back yard that are covered in tiny handprints.

But then there are those moments when I stop.  Just stop and marvel.  I watch my oldest son, who has autism, as he engages in a swim lesson and think, “My God, I love you.  I’m crazy about you.  I just love you.”

Or I am amazed at the stuff my four-year-old boy comes up with.  The questions he asks: “Mommy, if the Earth is round, why does the ground look flat?”

And I can never not smile when my baby girl laughs and smiles at me.  Even on the worst day, her happiness infects me.

This is motherhood.  The thing I signed up for: taking care of little people who drive me crazy but who I’m crazy for.

And yet… sometimes I ask: Who am I?  

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Sometimes I just feel like a servant who cleans up poop, feeds everyone else before her, worries about her kids endlessly, talks only about her kids with other moms, who… talk about their kids.

I am a mom, first and foremost.

But I am also me, Cynthia “Cyndi” Hilston.  

If you’re a mom, I suspect you know what I’m getting at.  You probably find yourself identifying with other moms as you all wonder: “Is my kid the worst behaved kid in the world?”  “What doctor do you take your kid to?”  “Are you happy with such-and-such school?  Do you feel like you have no time to yourself anymore?”  “When’s the last time you went on a date?”

So I asked other moms: Do you feel like you have an identity apart from being a mother?  Do you have something that you do that’s only for yourself?  How do others see you?

Because, although we’re moms, we’re more than that.

It reminds me of people, who, when asked their name, also say, “Hi, I’m Tom Smith, and I’m a mechanical engineer.”  As if their job title were their identity.

Or when someone has depression and others use that label to basically define them.  Or autism.  Or ADHD.  Take your pick.

People are more than their jobs.  People are more than their mental conditions.  People are also more than just parents.  

I believe we are more than the sum of our parts of our identity, but somewhere along the way of being moms, many of us feel like we’ve lost who we are as a whole person.

Being a mother is very fulfilling, but it’s also the most challenging, most draining “job” you’ll ever have.

We live vicariously through our children.  We cheer for them on the sidelines at soccer games.  We cry with them when they didn’t get the grade they wanted on the paper they worked extra hard on.  We laugh with them when they’re telling silly jokes that don’t really make sense.  We hurt for them when we watch, helpless, as they suffer with a lifelong learning disability, or even a short term illness, like a cold.

But we all know that we can’t really live our lives through others.  Yes, even our children.  

Because they are their own people.  One day, they will grow up and move on, although hopefully not out of our lives!  We want them to grow up to be independent, happy, healthy, successful – any number of good things.

But some of us are also fearful of feeling left behind.  Empty.  Forgotten.

Because… without our kids, what are we?  

When I posed my identity questions to other moms, the responses were overwhelming.  Mothers obviously had a lot to say on the subject.  Although not everyone felt like they had trouble with the “Who am I?” question, many moms admitted to feeling like they have no idea who they are without their kids.  It downright scares some.  Many stated that they feel awkward talking with other adults about anything other than their kids.  

Although it’s impossible to put people into perfectly separate groups, trends became apparent once moms started answering my questions.  Mothers who continued working, whether full time or part time, admitted to feeling like they still have an identity apart from being only a mom.  Having a place they go to daily for a few hours gives them adult interaction and fulfills something that many stay-at-home moms feel they lack.  Many moms who work full time, however, admitted to feeling guilty that they don’t get to spend enough time with their kids. So, even though a mother works, she still seems to identify first at a mom.  

Those who work part time feel it gives them the time with their kids and the time they need to feel like they are doing something for themselves and getting to talk with other adults.  Many of the stay-at-home moms who feel they’ve lost their identity beyond “mom” thought working part time might help them regain some of what they’ve lost.

To further complicate matters, some moms feel judged because they work or stay home with their kids.  It seems like an already frazzled, stressed mom just can’t win!  This topic is enough to generate into whole other blog, so I won’t further ponder this.  I will say this, however: It’s unfair to judge a mom for working and say that she’s selfish for not spending more time with her kids; it’s just as unfair to judge a mom for staying at home and say that she’s lazy, as if being a stay-at-home mom isn’t a job!  Um, excuse me?

But I digress — sorry.  

Working part time isn’t the only option for helping a mom keep her whole person.  Some moms take classes, volunteer in the PTA or in other school programs, go running, do independent sales jobs, and make sure to schedule time to spend with their friends and husbands/partners.

In the struggle to keep up with friends, many moms also stated that they don’t know what they would do if they didn’t have their fellow mom friends and neighbors.  Despite questioning their sanity, like I have on numerous occasions, most moms believe that having kids has given them purpose in life and that they like who they are more as a person now that they are mothers.

So, where do we find our balance?  Because that’s what it all seems to be about.  Balance.

We juggle schedules daily, trying to remember if it’s Meet the Teacher on Monday or Tuesday evening for William and if Wednesday was supposed to be Lexi’s ballet practice.  We drive from one event to another, driving ourselves slowly crazy, until it all boils over like a pot of over-cooked spaghetti noodles.

My suggestion would be to start simple.  If you really feel like you have absolutely no “you” time, take five or ten minutes a day.  It can be whenever, whether scheduled or not.  I sometimes like to do this right before bed, even though I’m tired.  I can just lie there and think about my day and where I can be thankful.  Read for ten minutes.  Write a simple journal entry.  It doesn’t have to be much, but it’s something that’s just for YOU.

As impossible as this may sound, try to schedule date nights (whether once a month, every other month, or every season), but try not to go more than three months without going out with your husband/partner on a date.  The biggest strain on a marriage is children.  It’s even more important to keep in touch with your significant other now that you’re parents.  If money is an issue, just go somewhere for an hour and take a walk.  Walk the mall if it’s winter.  Tell yourself that it’s just as important that you have that date night as it is taking your kid to the doctor.

Also make time (again, once a month to every three months) to hang out with your friends.  Even if it’s just movie night at one of your houses after the kids are in bed.  It’s something!  

Dates and getting together with friends don’t have to cost a ton of time and money.  We can always come up with a zillion excuses about why we can’t find the time or money, but the truth is, if something matters and is important, then you can make time for it.  Re-evaluate your weekly schedule.  If you’re constantly driving around, ask if your kids are too involved or if you’re too stressed out because you’re spreading yourself too thin.  It’s okay to say “no!”  Really, it is!  Sometimes I think a mom just needs to hear someone else tell her that it’s okay to actually say it.  So, I’m giving you permission to say “no.”  (Not that you needed my permission!)

Finally, if you’re not doing something for just you, find something.  Maybe you had a hobby that you let fall to the wayside after having kids?  Try it again.  Or discover something new.  Mine is writing.

I’m going to be trying a yoga class next month.  I also make sure to get a massage once per month.  There’s nothing selfish about taking care of yourself, because remember, if you don’t take care of you, you aren’t much help to anyone else, including your kids.

So, it’s hard.  There’s no denying that.  But the moms that said they feel like they still have an identity apart from being a mom have managed the balancing act in their lives.

However you manage to find that balance, keep it in mind, and when it starts to feel unbalanced, go back and rethink things.  You matter.  You are a mom, so you’re already amazing.  But you’re also you.  And that’s pretty amazing, too.

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Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

Ugh, do I have to wake up?

Waking up is vastly overrated.  The pillows, the blankets, the soft curve of the mattress against my body, these are calling my name, beckoning me like a lullaby.

But if I’m honest with myself, I’m lucky today.  I actually didn’t wake before my alarm on my phone.  My kids didn’t wake me up.

Hey, I can get dressed, wash my face, and brush my hair in five minutes of silence!

Small blessings…

If I sound sarcastic, I don’t mean to be.  There are those sunny people who would tell me to be happy for another sunrise, and while part of me wants to show them where they can shove their bright remarks, the better part of me knows they’re right.

Besides, you can’t hold too much against me right now.  I haven’t had my coffee yet.

So, it’s the start of another day.  In the hour or so before getting out of the house, I need to feed three young kids breakfast and get them dressed and ready for school (with the exception of my daughter, who is only one).  Oh, and I also need to feed myself somewhere in there.  You’d think this wouldn’t be so hard, but that’s a lie many young moms tell themselves to feel better.  Kids are disagreeable by nature, little people designed to push Mommy’s buttons.  I admit I am not the most patient person on the planet, but after several mishaps in less than an hour, sometimes I’m ready for the clock to read 8:00 PM and not 8:00 AM.

But I push through my little aggravations…usually.  I get the boys off to school, and it’s to the Y to work out.  Working out is a great stress-reliever, but you know what comes to mind about the Y for me?  There is an older gentleman who works at the Y I go to.  He’s a custodian.  It’s his job to clean toilets, to scrub floors, and to unclog drains.  Yet he always, always smiles at me (and everyone he passes) and says, “Hello, how you doing?”  He’s the type of guy you can’t help but smile back at and say hello, even on the tough days.

So, what’s he got that a lot of us don’t?  Can I have your seeds of happiness and plant them inside of me, sir?  I don’t like being miserable…and yet, I do it to myself.  I choose to complain many, many times throughout every day about mostly trivial things: red lights, running late, being behind a slow driver, my son arguing with me, having to turn around and change a poopy diaper after just doing so…

Yet there are bigger things that lie just under the surface.  Am I a good mom?  Am I doing enough for my kids?  I don’t feel equipped to be the mom of an autistic son.  Who thought I could handle this?  What about my dreams, my ambitions, my identity?  I’m a writer.  Is my stuff any good?  Are people just humoring me by being nice?  Do people really want to be my friends?  Who could possibly love me?

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Wow.

Tough questions that stab at the heart.  Those are seeds of discontent, of lies, of hatred, of fear.  Plant those and they will choke out anything good, honest, loving, and hopeful.

I’m throwing out this obvious disclaimer before I go any further: I am not an expert on the topic I’m going to attempt to write about here–gratitude.  My guess is you probably struggle with feeling grateful most days as well.  It seems to be human nature to focus on the negatives.  So, let’s take this journey together.  Let’s foray into the muck of lies we tell ourselves (that we’re no good) and try to come out on the other end into something better (that we’re worthy).

I have done some book studies in a small group I’m in at church on this topic–gratitude.  Some people call it counting your blessings.  It’s not always easy, especially when emotions take hold and force us to take an ugly turn.  As I’ve gotten older (and maybe a bit wiser), I have heard that little voice in the back of my head more–yes, even when I’m super-hormonal and slightly crazy!

When things are spiraling out of control, I can often see it unraveling.  I know I am only going to make things worse for me and everyone else who has the unfortunate habit of crossing my path miserable.  Often, I am focusing on one bad thing and ignoring many good things.  There’s that one person who has let me down (or so I think), has pissed me off, or is just seeming to not live up to my expectations.  Ah, expectations.  Those nasty, petty things we want others to do, because, you know, we (read: I) know best.  Um, right…

Stop right there.  This is where we (yes, you and I) take a deep breath and think.  Yes, think.  Not react.  Think about what’s going right in life.  There are plenty of people who love me, who support me, who are there for me.  I am breathing, aren’t I?  I am alive.  Sometimes it’s raining, and I long for sunshine.  Sometimes it’s sunny, and I want a rainy day to cuddle inside and read a good book.  But every day is truly a blessing when you think about it.

If you’re like most Americans, you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and clothes on your back.  You don’t even have to think about these things, these bare necessities, but they are blessings.  Often, I find that when I am taking my blessings for granted, when I stop and think about it, I know I have been blessed to be a blessing to others.

That’s gratitude–being thankful for what you do have without expecting more.  A wise woman I know who has been through hell and back has a mantra: What are you doing with what you already got?

So, plant those seeds of the good stuff and water them often.  That’s how you start cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  You make the conscious effort (a choice, yes) to be grateful every day and count those blessings.  I started writing my blessings down, with the goal of reaching 1000.  I think I stopped somewhere in the 800s, but I got pretty far!  I didn’t write them all in one day…a few a day, sometimes with several weeks in between writing them down.  When you see those blessings written down, it can make them more concrete.

It takes a lot of practice and a constant, conscious effort to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Do it enough, and that little voice starts to speak with more authority.  You are more than the sum of your fears and little hates.  You are someone whose life has a purpose.  For me, I believe God sees the beauty in us even when we don’t see it in ourselves.

Those seeds can grow into something beautiful, something life-sustaining and worth sharing with others.  So, I invite you to think about it.  Plant some good seeds with me, make a choice, and watch them grow.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday and a book review the second Friday.

My new novel, Lorna versus Laura, is being released on Sept. 2 and is available for pre-order (only $2.99) here.

My first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful,  is available for $3.99 here.