My Big Sister—Gratitude Day 13

My sister, Stephanie, is two years older than me. She mothered me as much as she messed with me. 

In Long Island, she always walked me home and fought off the kids who wanted to beat me up. On the first day of second grade, Stephanie brought me to my homeroom. I cried and clung to her like I was being kidnapped. I was not a very outgoing child. She gave me a hug and led me into the room. Knowing that she would be there after was comfort. 

When she entered high school, she didn’t really want her kid sister around, but I remember sitting outside her bedroom door listening to her practice the flute. 

It wasn’t until I was in high school that we started to hang out more, and I had a hand in connecting her with Ray, her high school sweetheart! 

Stephanie has a quick and sharp sense of humor. She can come back with a funny line before I even take in what was said. She is a source of laughter in our family. 

Today I am grateful for my big sister. I don’t think I tell her enough. 

Recognizing what I am grateful for definitely makes me think about how much I let people know what they mean to me. 

I’ll make sure she knows. 

Memoir Threads

Writing about your family or your childhood can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to start. Having a theme like holidays and family vacations or writing chronologically are two ways to organize. 

I use memoir threads to brainstorm themes. For summer I suggest favorite summer activities from childhood. 

Write the theme in the circle. Then on each line brainstorm what you loved doing as a child during summer. 

Going to the beach

Climbing trees

Riding

Bikes

Hide and seek

Catching fireflies

Vacations  in Lake George

You can add more threads as once you open the jar of memories, they tend to overflow. 

Then take each memory thread and write about it. Use all your sensory details like smell, sight, taste, feel, hear, plus who were you with, when, and what feelings did this memory leave you with?

Some memories can be painful, especially if you were forced to so something you didn’t like each summer. They can be just as powerful and may help to write about from an older perspective. 

You may renew a love of something thst you stopped doing or want to visit old friends. 

The threads are endless. Make copies of your thread sheet, fill it in, and you will always have topics for your journal. 

Summer Fun

In my last journaling workshop, we focused on summer fun. When my boys were little, as soon as school was out we wrote everything we wanted to do that summer on a big poster board. 

Some staples were strawberry picking in June, going on vacation, swimming, picnics, bike rides, concerts, movies to see, family to visit, how many ice cream places we would visit and rate, etc. 

I made sure there was downtime, but it gave them structure and lots to look forward to. I haven’t done that in a long time. As adults we can get caught up in our lives and forget to enjoy life no matter what season we are in. 

The Northeast summers are so short, I want to be outside as much as possible. 

So here is my list for the summer:


By putting it in my journal, it becomes real and I remember to look up when Shakespeare is in Congress Park or that I still need to see Guardians of the Galaxy (although not in the theater at this point!) I have much to do still!

As you check off your summer fun activities journal about them so you remember the details and the joy. 

Then do it all again in the fall with apple picking, Halloween, and hay rides!

Create and decorate your summer fun list today. Put it in your journal or on your fridge as a reminder. Enjoy!

Who You Think You Are, Everyone Else Sees

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When I was a child, I was extremely shy and basically a loner. I saw myself as a goofy, insecure kid with glasses that did nothing for me, except attract attention I didn’t want. I didn’t have confidence in myself, and it showed. This was reflected back because not many had confidence in me either. And that may have been my perception, but it affected what I did and how I behaved.

As I got older I broke out of that shell–contacts helped. But I still reverted back to that shy girl who felt like she had nothing to offer. After college I had this temp job answering phones. I worked for this guy who wanted me to make coffee. Strike one. They couldn’t bear to drink it (that still hasn’t changed). But I also did a terrible job answering the phones. I couldn’t hear anyone, even though they said the phones worked fine. People couldn’t hear me, because I spoke in this quiet, mousy voice. I had no confidence in my ability to do this, and I screwed it up.

Eventually when I started speaking in public, I would be sick to my stomach for days and again my voice was low and shaky. I read from my notes with my head down. All I saw was that nerdy, quiet girl who would never get anywhere.

I think writing helped, because I wrote out the script of who I wanted to be. I was a character in my own novel. I visualized myself standing in front of the crowd in a rocking outfit, speaking loud and clear, making eye contact, standing tall and addressing questions with confidence. I practiced out loud and was prepared.

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But when that inner insecure child showed up, I accepted her and sat her in a seat in the audience. I was in charge now, and I had something important to say.

Everyone has value. Everyone is important and has something to offer. It’s whether or not you believe it.

If we change our perspective and our perception of ourselves, we change our attitude. Then others see us in our true power.

How do you truly see yourself?

Is there something you want to do, but your inner child stops you? Do you doubt yourself?

Can you write it out or visualize yourself doing it and being the person you want to be?

Don’t stuff down that shy, insecure, hurt (put in your adjective) child away. Give her a seat in the front row. After all, she was a part of your journey.

Volunteering–What do you stand for?

My life in volunteering started in middle school when I walked to my neighbors’ houses and asked them to buy a magazine for my school. This was a huge feat, since we only had a few houses on our road, and I basically needed a car to get anywhere else. Being a competitive person (nothing has changed), I convinced my mother to drive me around, ask friends, and basically harass everyone I knew so I could get the big prize. I don’t even remember what the prize was, but at the time that is what volunteering meant to me.

Fast forward 15 years or so and again I was encouraging people, but not to buy something, rather to walk for a cause. I really can’t remember if it was for the MS society or March of Dimes, but it was through my job and before I had children. At one point my parents, siblings, and some of their kids were involved. One time we met up at the Empire Plaza and made a whole day of walking around Albany for a good cause. It took almost all day, because in our enjoyment of the walk, we missed the turn and had to backtrack and find the route once again! It was all in fun and money was raised. We didn’t see where it was going, but we felt we made a difference or at least I did. Plus being together and having a good time mattered.

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Future fire fighters!
When I was 7 months pregnant with Nick, I helped begin the Friends of the Library in Clifton Park and served on the board in different capacities for the next 12 years.

It was important to me that my children learned to give back. Every year through our karate school, I would arrange for the kids and some adults to pack baskets for the elderly for Thanksgiving. Then we would go to a local apartment and pass the baskets out. This level of volunteering created a more personal and hands-on approach, where they could see and feel the impact they could have on another person. They may not have completely understood what they were doing or why people needed help, but they had a good feeling and that was a start.

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Malone’s Kenpo Karate School Annual Thanksgiving volunteering.
I continued to raise money for larger charities and combined my love of cycling with supporting the American Diabetes Association. I started with the 25 mile route, then Nick rode 10 miles once year. Then it grew until I had ridden, quite painfully, for 100 miles to raise money for a cause that personally affected my family. So there was that connection. Raising money and pushing myself for something I was emotionally connected to. I didn’t get back on my bike for a year after that century ride, but eventually I dragged my friends into it and continued for a couple more years after that riding 25 or 50 miles. It was that sense of a challenge and the camaraderie of riding with hundreds of other people and pushing one another when the ride became difficult.

Why do we give back? Sometimes, like when we are kids, we are forced to do it until we mature enough to understand the meaning behind it. But what has it been about giving back that has kept me involved in some form of volunteering my entire life?

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September 2008, Luke, Stephen, Nick, and Janine during Nick’s battle with cancer.
The answer became quite clear when my son, Nick, was diagnosed with leukemia, and we lost him at the tender age of 13. All my years of fighting for a cause I could relate to suddenly exploded into a mission toward something I never wanted anyone else to have to face. So when I think about what I stand for, I think about my son’s life being cut short and all the potential lost with him. I think about all the children and their siblings who struggle with a cancer diagnosis and how devastated family, friends, and those who tried to save them are after a child dies.

I see firsthand the positive benefits of what giving selflessly can do for others. It’s more than selling magazines to win a prize. Now the stakes have been raised to give people a better chance to live fulfilling lives, to have hope when they think all has been lost, and to feel empathy even though each situation is different.

I believe in the power of volunteering. I believe that giving back makes us better human beings. It’s a way to show love to those who are suffering and to connect to the essence of who we are and why we are here.

Should everyone volunteer? I think so, but for the right reasons. Right now I volunteer and run a foundation that is connected to my heart and soul. It’s a part of who I am. I’d love to do other work like help in a soup kitchen, make dinner at Ronald McDonald House Charities, help Make-a-Wish, and join Literacy Volunteers again. But helping kids fight cancer is what I stand for.

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Volunteering can make you feel like you are on top of a mountain!
What do you stand for? What are you emotionally connected to? Which organizations do you donate money to? It’s an important part of helping our foundations, but imagine if you could help someone face to face? What could it do for them? How would that make you feel? Do you want volunteering in your life and why?

When you figure out what you stand for, perhaps you will try giving back. Giving a little opens your heart and heals both you and those you have reached out to.

Step Back Saturday

This week I focused a lot on the past and finding who I am in order to live a better life now. I also wrote about knowing where I come from and how I came into this world. Of course we KNOW how we came into the world, but what was our birth like, what kind of childhood did we have? What experiences shaped up to be the person we are today?

So the other day, my mom gave me some photos, because I told her I wanted to start writing about my childhood. This is some of what I have learned so far.

Perseverance

I was born on October 19, 1966. I was three weeks early. As the story goes, the doctors were told to get a priest as it didn’t look like I would survive. I was 3 lbs 14 oz., which isn’t bad in today’s standards, but not having all the equipment back then was why they were doubtful. I literally fit in my dad’s hand. I’ll have to find that photo if there is one. My father refused to let the priest come in and bless me. He knew, even if I didn’t know it then, that I was a fighter and would make it.

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Here I am as a one year old!

I have always been a klutzy child. I’ve sprained my ankles more times than I could count, broke my leg at 5 years old, then fractured same one in my teens, then severed my ACL (again, same leg) at age 31. I’ve had multiple concussions, which would explain quite a bit. You see? Going back to my childhood explains why my body is hurting so badly today!

I also have had severe allergies since I was a teen. Food, environment, fragrances, you name it. The worst was poison ivy. I would walk our dog along the road, and I would get it. I even got it in the middle of winter, when I was chopping wood and a piece of wood hit my cheek. I think the reason why I can take my mind off pain so well is because when I literally had poison ivy all over my body and internally, I couldn’t do anything but lay on the floor and try not to scratch the hell out of my skin. Perseverance: I learned it from birth and so far it has served me well.

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8 years old

Fortitude and Speed

We moved up to Greenville by the Catskill Mountains when I was 7. As you can see I was a cute, but goofy looking kid. Not sure what my mom was thinking with the ruffles, but I had to go with it. A main reason for why we moved to Greenville was because my brother and I were constantly bullied. I’m sure for me it had a lot to do with my glasses. I say I gained fortitude, because I had to be brave to go to school every day. My glasses would get broken, and those who I thought were friends went out of their way to tease me.

I say speed, because I remember racing home from school to my house as I was chased by kids who for some reason wanted to hurt me. This made me very intolerant to seeing other kids bullied, and it wasn’t until I was in 7th grade that I finally stood up to someone. I won’t mention his name, but from that day forward I stood a little taller. It’s a good thing, because I wasn’t all that fast in my teen years!

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9 years old. I think I get points for color coordination between my Mickey necklace and my sweater!

I still have that necklace. It’s one of my most treasured momentos from my childhood.

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12 years old

Ok you would never know that I had curly hair! I think I was in my don’t show your teeth stage. I had very long hair before I turned 7. It was wild, curly, and always in knots. That may be why my mother cut it!

Confidence

I was extremely shy as a kid. I cried on the first day of school (wait I did that in college too!) and wouldn’t let go of my sister’s leg. I had a very hard time speaking to others and often had my head in a book. I had dreams of going to college to become a lawyer, so I forced myself to take public speaking classes. I also worked hard on getting rid of my Long Island accent and a family trait of mumbling. How was I going to defend the world if no one could understand me!?

As I grew older, I learned to speak up and not only express myself fairly well, but voice my opinion and stand up for what I believed in. I joined student council, wrote for our college paper, and went to some rallies.

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In Maine, 22 years old

I changed my major to my true love, English literature, and found my calling as a writer and editor. I spent most of my adult life raising my children, which I would never have changed for the world. The memories I have of my two boys are beyond priceless. What I learned as a child has only grown as the unpredictability of adult life has not only given me joy in the most precious gifts of my husband and children, nieces and nephews, but the strength to pick myself up after losing both my dad and son to cancer.

If I look close enough, I can see how so many different experiences and events in my life have prepared me for what was to come. Taking the time to absorb them and learn from them is part of what stepping back is all about.

Write about your birth. What are some major events in your life that have made you who you are today? What can you learn from them? How did they impact who you are now and what you do? What would you whisper to your infant self?

I would say, “Hang on to what and who truly matters and let all the other stuff go.”

Step Back Saturday

As I look back at my week, I noticed the tremendous emotional ups and down, chaos and tranquility, sadness and hope. This is what life is all about — experiencing sadness, so we appreciate the joys and coming to every moment with an open heart and present mind. Sometimes that can be hard, and we need comfort.

Every since I started this daily writing prompt in January, I am continually thrust back to my childhood, to what comforted me, and to what brought me joy. After reviewing this week’s prompts, I have that strong urge to go back to the topic of Twizzlers.

Who doesn’t love Twizzlers? At a recent movie, I did find out that one of my close friends doesn’t like them, but I won’t break up our friendship spanning about 8 years because of it!

Twizzlers, licorice, and I go way back to my life in Long Island, my parents, siblings, movies, and vacations. I remember vacations to Lake George and Storytown, which is now Great Escape, when we would get the long strands of red licorice and black licorice bites. We braided the red strands and then ate them whole.

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Then there was Good & Plenty candy with the hard shell and the black licorice inside. Anything with that licorice flavor was well loved in our house.  Maybe we were given Ouzo, an anise flavored liquor, often as children to help with teething. What can I say? It was a part of our Greek heritage!

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I remember the first time I ate chocolate twists. It was at our home in Long Island on Braxton Street. We were watching the very first Planet of the Apes and in addition to our usual red and black Twizzlers, we tried the Hershey’s Chocolate Twists. They were delectable and became another favorite.

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I think that’s why I love Twizzlers so much. They remind of the goodness of family, the gatherings we always had, and the comfort and love I felt as a child. The joke now is that I always have Twizzlers around, and they are a staple for every trip to the movies.

Twizzlers = Family = Love.

What is a favorite childhood sweet or treat that brought you comfort and reminds you of your family? What images and feelings does it remind you of?

Settle in Sundays

Happy Super Bowl Sunday! Yes, I know the Giants aren’t playing, but with some traditions come loyalty. My husband and his dad have always been Giants fans during the good and bad times. By proxy, my boys became Giants fans. Nick especially took the family loyalty seriously and dressed the part for the 2008 Giants vs. Patriots game on February 3. Giants did win, so I thought this post was appropriate!

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Nick was an avid Giants fan! February 3, 2008
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The men heading to Giants training camp at SUNY Albany. Annual tradition

Traditions create precious and priceless memories. Each summer the boys’ dad and grandpa took them to the practice fields to watch the players practice. They even had the opportunity to get their hats signed and say hello to some of the players. Besides the fact that they were watching their favorite team play, it provided an amazing opportunity for all four Cammarata men to bond and spend time together.

What I love about this photo is that not only are they all wearing their unique Giants cap, but their shirts express their specific interests. Dad always wore a blue shirt and his gold chain. He worked hard at Verizon as a fiber optics technician. He passed on 2014 and watching Giants play football just isn’t the same. Stephen was really into riding dirt bikes and loved Travis Pastrana. Nick was an avid swimmer and swam on two different teams throughout the year. Luke is the quintessential fix it man. Our friends’ kids come to Luke when they need something fixed, and  working with tools come naturally to him. He and his dad installed the hardwood floors in our kitchen and family room.

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Nick getting Eli Manning to sign his hat.
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Justin Tuck was wonderful with the boys.

Tradition sustains when tragedy hits. In 2008, Nick was diagnosed with leukemia. The child life specialist at the clinic noticed that Nick liked the Giants. She gave him a baseball hat and arranged for the boys to meet all the players. They were beyond excited. They walked around asking everyone to sign their hats. (Well Nick did. Stephen was a bit starstruck.) The tradition of going to the Giants turned into a precious event for a teen who was struggling with cancer. It gave him hope and joy if even for an afternoon.

 

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Stephen, me, and my hubby, Luke

The Giants pulled out of Albany for training camp, but even though this particular tradition discontinued, Luke and Stephen continued in memory of Nick and Grandpa. I was honored to become a part of the tradition.

We keep traditions for many reasons. They reflect our values, express our loyalties, and create memories that evoke joy and gratitude, despite sadness when those who began the tradition are no longer with us. Traditions connect us, and I’m sure Nick and his Grandpa are watching this year’s Super Bowl wearing their Giants gear.

What is your Super Bowl tradition?

Step Back Saturday

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Do you remember these?

As I looked back on my week, I noticed that I focused on a couple of the senses: vision and hearing. I wanted to think of something that had brought me joy as a child and was soft to the touch.

I had a hand muff as a child It was beige, faux fur, and I was probably 6 or 7 when I got it. We always dressed up for Sunday church and major holidays, so having a hand muff to go with my fancy jacket was key.

I don’t know if this is a figment of my imagination, but I remember having my muff when my sister, Stephanie, and I received our First Communion. Writing memoir can often be subjective, because we get this vision of fact in our head that is based on a child’s memory. Whether the details are exact isn’t a deal breaker. It’s gathering the sparks of memory that roll out into other threads of memory that count.

So I’m going with this story until I find photos that tell me otherwise. I lived with my parents, my brother, and two sisters on Braxton Street in Hempstead, Long Island. We could walk to school, and my aunt lived down the street, so we often visited. It was a close knit neighborhood where everyone knew each other.

I remember our white dresses and the veil that rested like a head band on my head. I have a memory of my hands in my muff and how warm they were inside. It was a cocoon of comfort until my hands got too hot and I had to take them out. The muff was soft and I would hold it and run my fingers through the fur because it was a prized possession.

I don’t know if it was tradition, but later that day we walked around to all the houses in our dresses and told the neighbors about our Communion. It was obvious with what we were wearing, but who could resist little girls in white, holding muffs, and smiling with missing teeth?

Neighbors gave us money, and we went home to celebrate. I guess there are two memories here, but that’s the joy of writing about the past. As it unravels, threads lead you elsewhere. Something soft, something white, but a wonderful memory of childhood and community.

What is something soft that you remember as a child? Maybe you still have it. Does it feel the same? What memories does it bring up by holding it. Look for photos to spark where you held it. Bringing the senses into memoirs creates the whole picture, so that others remember it along with you.

Going with the Changes

 

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My sister and I are crazy. Simple as that. We know how to have fun and laugh at ourselves. Michele is five years younger than me (I know we look like twins!), and we both were very active in high school sports. How does this relate to life and changes, you may ask. Allow me to digress and weave a story.

In high school, Michele ran track and played soccer. I played soccer and softball. My older sister, Stephanie, played softball, and my brother played soccer. We are a very athletic and slightly klutzy family. Compared to the skills in soccer nowadays, I may not have been considered a very skilled player, but I was tough and successful. I was the bomb!

Fast forward 15-20 years later. My younger son, Stephen, is an awesome soccer player. My husband, Luke, still plays soccer and yes, Stephen gets some of his skill from his dad, but his toughness from his mom. Over the years, Stephen has asked me to kick the ball with him, and we have played in parent vs. kids soccer games on his travel teams. I’m in good shape and, in my mind, I’m still that vibrant soccer player who plowed through the defense.

Some of the last few times I have played soccer with Stephen have been enlightening and deflating. My legs go wobbly, my balance flies out the door, and the ball goes everywhere, but to my son. What the heck happened? Where was the skilled soccer player who ruled on the playing field? My son asks, “You sure you played soccer?” I had to show him the certificates proving I played sports. Here’s proof in case no one else believes me!

Wait it gets better. Michele’s job at the time had a summer softball league. Michele wanted to play and recruited me since I was so skilled on the field and at bat. She talked me up like I was the answer to their prayers. I was psyched! I couldn’t wait to get up to bat and send that ball to the moon! I played first base in high school, and I knew I could make a difference and be an asset to this team. Plus playing a sport with my little sister was bound to be a hoot and a good time for all involved.

The time had come. I was up to bat. I swung it across my body a couple times to  loosen up. My golden rule was never ever swing at the first pitch, so I let the first one go by. Hmm, that one looked pretty good, but it didn’t matter. The next pitch came, and I swung. Oh, my back! Swung a bit too hard and missed the ball. No matter. I could do this. Next pitch I connected, but it felt like someone sent a jolt of electricity up my arms that reverberated through my teeth and into my skull. I ignored the shock. I had hit the ball. No matter that it didn’t make it to the pitcher. I sprinted toward first base. Why was it taking so long to get there, and why did my heart feel like it was going to vomit right out of my chest? Not able to believe it, I was called out before I hit the plate.

Needless to say my ability to eye the ball while catching wasn’t the greatest, although it was better than my hitting. The ground was so uneven, I tripped running to get the ball, fell on my face, and wondered where the 16-year-old sports star had gone.

The one saving grace was that Michele did about the same, and we laughed hysterically  over it, much to the dismay of our competitive teammates.

So I wasn’t the jock I used to be. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I can’t sprint across the field and frankly I don’t want to! It’s hard not to live in that past and think that my self worth was based on how I performed in high school. But it’s not. It’s based on who I am as a person now. Sure I gave up soccer and recreational softball, but I took up yoga. I can bend and twist like I don’t think I could have as a teen. I’m stronger inside and out. Even as a martial artist, I can’t do jump kicks and spinning heel kicks as well (actually I never was good at getting any hang time), but I have learned to be efficient and effective as the athlete I am today.

This was a long, but hopefully exciting, story to basically say that change is hard. We can fight it, we can deny it, we can rail against it. We can delay change by staying in shape and trying new exercises. But the fact is our bodies change as we age. Playing soccer and softball made me feel alive, strong, and happy. Now yoga makes me feel that way and more.

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Michele and I can still and always will be able to boogie!

What did you use to do as a youth that you no longer do as an adult, or maybe not as well as you would like? It doesn’t have to be sports, it can be anything from knitting to singing to riding a motorcycle. How did you feel when you did that particular activity? What emotions went through you? Write about it, describe it. How does it feel not to be able to do that anymore?

What activity can you do now that would give you that same sense of accomplishment, joy, and emotion? Is there something you’ve been wanting to try? What is stopping you? Make an action plan and do it today.

Change is good. We only need to embrace it.