When I grow up I want to be an old woman

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a question that kids always seem to be asked and most kids’ answers change over time. After seeing a fire engine in the parade – I want to be a fireman! A few months later they watch their dad or mom working on the car – I want to be a mechanic! The veterinarian visits – I want to be a vet! (one of my daughters). How we respond to children’s answers can make a difference in their lives, can’t it? I mean no one wants to dream of something and have hopes only to be met with scorn – you’ll never be able to do that. I think kids should be allowed to dream that they can be anything they want and be encouraged to follow that dream.

(I have, however, over the years tried to guide my children a little as they’ve dreamed. One of my other daughters told me, “Mommy I want to either be a princess or a garbageman.” My response was, “Well the pay’s not necessarily great as a princess unless you marry well, so you might want to look into that garbageman thing.” 😉 )

When I was a little girl, I had very specific ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. And those ideas definitely did not involve being girly. Mom had tried for years – putting barrettes in my hair, putting me in dresses and lacy shirts. As soon as I was out of her sight, I would pull the barrettes out and “lose” them. And before I ran out to the school bus at the last minute, I would change my shirt into something tomboyish. My older sister tried to convince me to change my ways by telling me I’d never have a boyfriend. My standard answer: “Good! I don’t want one!”  My parents finally resigned themselves to the fact that I was never going to be a normal girly girl.

I am the littlest one sitting on Mom’s lap. Note the barrette in my hair and the girly shirt and shoes.

You know it’s partly Dad’s fault. I mean I was five years old when he bought me my first gun (a Daisy b.b. gun) and my first “motorcycle” (a Honda 50 trail bike).

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I spent most of my childhood in the woods behind our house, climbing trees, building forts, riding my motorcycle, walking with Dad while he explained to me the difference between a white oak leaf and a red oak one, or a sugar maple leaf vs. a red maple.

The acorns belonged to the oaks, the spiky nuts that fell into our pool and poked our feet dropped from the big beech tree that stood nearby. The little squirrels were red squirrels that chattered and barked, the bad boys who chased away the bigger, prettier gray and fox squirrels that we liked so much.

There were bats that flew over our pool at night when we had the lights on. They dove and swooped to catch the insects, while we screeched excitedly, convinced that they would tangle themselves in our hair. The constant high-pitched peeping of the tree frogs, interspersed with the bonging buzz croaks of the bullfrogs floated in through my bedroom window calling me to come outside.

All these fascinating things drew me to a life in the out of doors. The things I could learn, see, research, write about… there were no limits to my dreams.

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keep-america-beautifulI was, after all,  a product of the 70’s, with t.v. shows like Grizzly Adams and songs by John Denver never failing to make my heart ache with the dream of living in the mountains someday in the middle of nowhere studying wild things.

During vacations back then, we drove through the Rocky Mountains out West, camping in just about every National Park that existed out there. I fell in love with the mountains and wild places and decided I’d be a “park ranger” someday (that was the closest thing on the school’s Careers List to what I wanted to do).

In high school I had at one point seriously considered becoming a veterinarian instead. But during the time I spent in my senior year working at a vet clinic, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking out the window at the woods that surrounded the clinic – a clue that maybe veterinary medicine was not truly where my heart lie. When I started at MSU, I found out they had a fisheries and wildlife program, and I couldn’t imagine a better major for me.

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With my Martin Bobcat bow

Over the years, my Dad teased me about being such a tomboy. He made comments to people like “You can see the type of girl that I raised” while pointing at the hunting knife I always carried or what I was wearing. But I knew deep down he accepted me for who I was. When I came home from my first semester at MSU, Dad’s Christmas presents to me included a compound bow (a really gorgeous wooden Martin Bobcat), a tent, a sleeping bag, and a Coleman lantern. After he passed away, many people told me about how proud Dad was of the life I’d chosen and how he’d shown them photos of our log house and bragged about me. 😌

A red-tailed hawk on MSU campus.

I spent four years at MSU earning my Bachelor’s degree. During that time I worked in the wildlife nutrition lab and helped grad students with their research. The research work was the best part of my experience. One semester I helped a graduate student who was studying metabolic rates of red-tailed hawks and great horned owls. The birds had been injured in the real world, missing a wing or a leg, and there was a room of cages in our building where they were housed. My job was to remove each bird from the cage and place them in a body wrap with a hood for keeping them restrained and calm while the grad student weighed them and cleaned their cages.

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My fieldwork partner, Ed Olexa, holding a Peromyscus maniculatus we’d captured.

Another project was capturing and ear tagging small mammals throughout some red pine forests and aspen clearcut regrowth stands up north.

 I also helped track radio-collared elk as well as did a variety of habitat studies throughout northern Michigan.

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Two summers I worked at a nature center, where I taught summer camps, gave guided tours, and other work and of course during all this time I was also taking full-time classes.

There are many stories within the pages of my four years at MSU, but my bigger adventure began after that when I was accepted into a Master’s Program at the University of Idaho to study bighorn sheep, which I’ll share in my next post.

[One last note to end this post – since having cancer my dream of what I want to be when I grow up has become as simple as “I want to be an old woman”.]

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The Next Step

My daughter flew to Kansas yesterday for Veterinary School interviews. She flew alone into Manhattan and is there now visiting the campus. Her interview is tomorrow. See, she has dreamed of becoming a vet since she was 7 years old.

She had just gotten a horse back then (she paid for him with her own money that she’d saved from Christmas and birthdays) and when the vet came to give vaccinations, she was worried about her horse. Why does Ti need to see a doctor? Is he sick? Will he die? When we explained to her that vets not only help sick animals but also help keep your animal healthy through preventative medicine, she was hooked.

 

After that, every time Dr. Russ came to check on one of our horses or the cattle, she followed him around like a puppy dog. She asked a million questions, he let her “help” him with some of his work, and eventually, by high school, she did a job shadow with this same vet. Over the next few years, she shadowed every vet in that clinic, asking them as many questions as she could, helping vaccinate piglets, do pregnancy checks on cows, castrating horses, eventually being offered a summer paid position in their clinic. She came home bloody, dirty, covered in pus and poop, and she loved every minute of it.

She’s meant to spend her life as a veterinarian, no question about it. Now she just has to get accepted into vet school and start her next stage of working towards her dream.

Since she left yesterday, I’ve been thinking of her constantly – Where is she now? Did she remember to keep her luggage close with her to keep them safe? Did she make it to her connecting flight in time? Has she calmed her nerves yet? Is she enjoying herself? Will she get admitted?  (Vet school is notoriously difficult to get into- I’ve read it is actually harder to get accepted into than medical school because there are fewer available vet schools. Many students apply year after year before finally getting accepted).

Then I remind myself, she’s 22 years old. She’ll be fine. And whatever happens with this interview, she’ll figure it out. If she gets in, she’ll then have 4 years of working her butt off to get through the program. If she doesn’t get accepted, then she’ll need to keep waiting, maybe take more classes, get more experience and try again next time (they only accept students for Fall semester). Either way, I know her well enough to know that she is not going to give up on this dream; no matter what work it takes, or however many tries it takes, she will eventually be in vet school.

It’s hard as a parent to sit back and not try to help. I want to see her succeed so badly – for her way forward in life to be easy. But then, that’s not really what’s best for her, is it? I mean half of the good things I’ve gained over the years have been due to scary hard work, mistakes, and bad situations that I’ve had to figure out how to get through on my own. If I eliminate all those things for her (as strongly as the heart of a mother feels the need to make the world easy for their children) it would not be the best thing for her. She needs to figure things out for herself, she needs to work hard for things, she even needs to go through some suffering. This is what will make her into the awesome veterinarian (and person!) that she will someday be.

When I was her age, I packed everything I could fit into my Chevy Citation and headed to Idaho. My dream was to be a wildlife biologist and I went out there to get my Master’s degree studying bighorn sheep. I think now about my parents watching me leave, driving across the country to start my life. Wow. No cell phones then, no way for me to contact them until I stopped somewhere that had a pay phone (kids – look it up. It’s how people used to stay in contact back in the Stone Ages 🙂 ). I can’t imagine how they must have felt when I drove out of the driveway and all that long day into the night when I finally called them at my first overnight stop.

When I first got to Idaho, I remembered being awed, then overwhelmed, then my anxiety kicked in and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I mean, I wanted this more than anything in the world ever since I was a little girl but suddenly I realized I was all alone, 2,000 miles from home. I didn’t know a soul and had very little money. That first day, I called my Dad’s house, but it was my step-mom who answered. I told her I was scared and that I’d found out I wasn’t going to make enough money doing my grad research to pay all my bills ($500 per month was the going rate then, barely enough to pay tuition and rent, how was I going to be able to get groceries or buy books?). I told her I was thinking that maybe I should just come home.

I’ll never forget what she did for me then. She told me that I would be fine, that she and Dad would send me extra money each month to get me through, and that I needed to stay there and live out my dream. It was probably a very hard thing for my parents to support me that way, when I know they would have preferred to have me closer to home. But they knew enough to toss me into the deep end so I could learn to swim.

And, once I got my bearings, I did swim and ended  up loving my life there. Some other time I’ll write about being in the Idaho wilderness with my bighorn sheep. In the meantime, I’m praying for my daughter to get the chance to live out her dream as well.