World War II War Brides: Courage Wasn’t Just on the Battlefield

Happy May Day!  a love story written by a daughter to her mother.

As I perused the internet one day,  I  stumbled upon a Facebook group called War Brides from World War II. It chronicles the history through ship lists, photos and personal histories of the brides, who made their way over to America and Canada after World War II.  My mother was a War Bride and I instantly felt connected to the people, as I began to to read through some of the stories lovingly re-told on those pages.

My mother and father’s love story , I thought was unique, set against the backdrop of war ravaged England. What I found were many such touching stories of love. I was moved to tears reading some of them.

My father’s eyes would light up reminiscing. He was stationed near the town of Attleborough, England. My mother’s home village. One night my dad and his buddies went to a dance held there.  He was a tall Yank, a Staff Sergeant in the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force, 452nd Bomb Group, Propeller Specialist. My mother was playing the piano, she was a secretary turned ambulance driver due to the casualties of war. He looked across the crowded room and saw her, it was love at first sight. They danced and he later met her parents. They invited him over for Sunday dinners. My parents would talk for hours about their future and all it held. Just as many in love do, except that this was during war when their fate was up in the air, with the buzz bombs and B-17’s.

There were happy times too. Now that the statute of limitations has run out, I can confess. My father used to recount a story I’m hazy about. It had to do with a stolen parachute, a bicycle in the dark and my father pedaling furiously to my mother’s house to proudly present her and her sisters with a silk parachute. This prized possession being made into stockings and blouses soon after that.  Earning points with the family was surely a catalyst for this crime spree.

My parents were married and gave birth to my sister. Then came the end of the war and Dad had to depart with his unit back to the U.S. to be de-mobbed (discharged.) There would be a long absence while my mother went through all of the proper channels to be brought over to America on a ship with other War Brides and their babies. There were tears when she left her family. My granddad hugged her goodbye, slipped her all of his savings and told her, “If things don’t work out, you can always come home my dear.” I’m sure that scene was played out hundreds of times in parlors all across England.

On May Day (May l, 1946) 69 years ago, my mother and sister entered New York Harbor in the dark of night on a War Bride ship. The ship was anchored until morning because of the deep fog.  Sleep was fleeting with the anticipation of the next day and what it would bring. My mother missed her family back home but also missed her new husband who she hadn’t seen in months. What would this new country be like? She didn’t get much sleep that night and remembers the sound of the foghorn bellowing it’s deep eee-ooow all night long.

My mother and sister were among the 70,000 women and children that came over in 1946 with “Operation War Bride.” The G.I.s who married foreigners were promised free passage and citizenship for their new family. Some of the voyages were anything but a vacation at sea. Some of the first ships were not well equipped for the amount of women and babies they housed. There were stories of running out of baby formula and food, overflowing toilets and un-inhabitable conditions on board. On one ship many babies died and the mothers were unjustly blamed for the less than hygienic conditions on board.

The women who took those voyages after the war were starting a new life for themselves and their babies. Before commercial aviation became more accessible, many of them were leaving their families at home possibly never to see them again. My mother was fortunate enough to go back in 1949, but then had to wait another ten years to make the long trek home.

In total, 100,000 war brides left the United Kingdom between 1942 and 1952. The British War Brides were the largest single group of female immigrants to the U.S. When they arrived, they were not ensconced into a larger immigrant group. They were disbursed into American society and went where their husbands went. They were alone. A staggering one million marriages took place between military personnel and foreign nationals during and immediately after World War II.

There were promises made and broken, men who abandoned their new wives, poverty, and the realization to some that their dreams of a land with streets paved with gold didn’t pan out. It took courage to leave their families and country behind. Their lives were changed forever. They were not immediately accepted with open arms in America, the culture difference and accents made it difficult for the women who came over here,  from “over there.”

When we remember the courageous men and women who fought during the war, we shouldn’t forget the courage it took these women who braved the new and unknown in order to start a new life , they influenced their new homeland with their culture, food and customs just as other immigrants had done before and after them.

In spite of the war, a little bit of something good happened along the way. Love blossomed and these immigrant brides, courageously prevailed and in doing so, changed the course of history.

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On this St. Paddy’s Day- an old Irish tale


Hat_CaneOne Thousand years is a long time to be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and nobody loves to celebrate more than the Irish. It was started as a religious feast day of the Patron Saint of Ireland which was capped off with drink, dance and of course corned beef and cabbage. When we are sitting down to eat our boiled dinner and soda bread, my kids always ask me to tell them about the Burkes of Ireland and our family reconnecting with their Irish roots. It goes something like this:

On a blustery rainy day sometime during the Great Potato Famine it is said,  my Great-Grandfather ran away from home and stowed away on a ship , destination New York City, he was 15 years old. Some of his brothers had already come over to America and a few stayed in Ireland. They were originally from Thurles in County Tipperary but the family that stayed, ended up in an area of Galway called Connemara. One of the most scenic areas of Ireland, in a town called Clifden.

The families distance across the vast ocean meant that correspondence and staying in touch was hard to do, so the families heard from their counterparts in America only infrequently. My father had briefly met his relative, a second cousin, Tom Burke in Ireland during WWII when he was stationed in England. That visit was initiated by my father’s mother reaching out to her cousin to ask him to check on her son, “Jimmy” to make sure he was all right.  The elder Burke set up a meeting, but as an American G.I. my father was not allowed to go to any countries that were neutral in the war. Tom Burke, who was from Southern Ireland travelled to Northern Ireland to meet up with my father, since Northern Ireland was  under British rule. My father always longed to go to Southern Ireland someday to see where his grandfather grew up.  In 1949, although not planned, he got that chance. As it was, my father, mother and sister were heading home from a trip to England to visit my mother’s family.

My father and mother met at a local dance in her home town, Attleborough, Norfolk, which was near his air base at Doepham Greene.  This was their first trip back since the end of WWII and it was an emotional one for my mother. Sadly as my mother cried on the plane missing her family already, they departed England in those days there were no jets only propeller planes, which often times suffered from mechanical problems and always had to stop in Iceland to refuel.  On that day, they didn’t make it to Iceland because suddenly, they were told they must be diverted to Ireland and make an emergency landing. They looked across at each other holding hands and wondering if they would make it home safely. They sighed with relief as the wheels touched down on the tarmac and the good earth of Ireland came into view.

As an American Airlines employee flying on passes, unfortunately, they were the first to get bumped. As they headed to the terminal through the fog that had developed they realized they were alone in a strange country with no more money, a three year old in tow and no flight home for who knows how many days. As my sister cried and my mother fretted, my father decided to call Tom Burke, the patriarch of the Irish clan he had met briefly during the war, who had said, “If you’re ever in trouble or need help while you’re on this side of the Atlantic. Call me; after all we are family, my lad.”

Not long after the call, they were heading towards the little hamlet of Clifden, with its rustic charm and green, lush rolling hills everywhere, it was quite breathtaking. It felt a little like Brigadoon to them after the exhausting travel with no food. They reached town and realized they didn’t know where the Burkes lived. With dismay, my father asked a passerby if he knew the Burkes and where they lived. “The Burkes?” he said with his Irish lilt. “Of course, you must be the American relations come to visit!” he said with excitement rising in his voice. The passer-by then stopped a police officer and said,” This is Tom Burke’s cousin from America!” The officer jumped to attention and escorted my family into his car where he immediately drove them to the police headquarters. My father thought he might be in some sort of trouble, or maybe it was because his wife was English and in those days there was no love lost between the Irish and English. He told my mother not to talk until they could figure out what was going on.  It turns out Tom Burke was the Chief of Police of Thurles and greeted them with warm hugs.

After a long bath, some wonderful food and a rest they were treated to visits from the neighbors and town folk coming to meet the American who was Tom Burkes cousin returning to his roots. Over the ensuing week, they were pampered like never before with breakfast in bed every morning in front of a roaring fire. My sister was coddled and spoiled, her feet probably never touching the ground of Ireland.

After telling the family story, I would close by saying as my father did to me, “And that my dear children, is the true tale of how the American and Irish Burkes met many years ago…”

Years after their unintended stop in Ireland, my father got a call from his Irish cousins telling him excitedly about the filming of the movie, “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara which was shot in Clifden and had many of the residents in it as extras. We would watch the movie and he would point out some of the town landmarks to me in the movie. It is about an American returning to his roots in Ireland where he meets and marries the lovely lass, Maureen O’Hara.

My father was 6’4” inches tall and my mother was a beautiful tall woman with long dark hair who held a striking resemblance to Maureen O’Hara, except for the red hair. Talk about life imitating art. My parents talked often of that time and how the unexpected trip opened the friendships and bonds of the families and enriched their lives with many more visits after that. I hope to someday carry on the tradition and visit the home of my great-grandfather.

In the meantime, I leave you with an Irish blessing for all of you Irish and for all of you who are only Irish on St. Patty’s Day.

May you always have walls for winds

A roof for the rain, tea beside the fire,

Laughter to cheer you, those you love near you

And all your heart might desire.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!



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Cabin Fever

snowbound3Cabin fever is defined as boredom, restlessness or irritability that results from a lack of environmental stimulation, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. The name first surfaced in the west in the 1800’s when people were more likely to spend whole winters in a remote cabin  isolated. Wikipedia describes it as a claustrophobic reaction to being shut in a small space with nothing to do for an extended period. When experiencing this, a person may tend to sleep more and have distrust of anyone they are with, accompanied by an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail.  It eerily goes on to say that the character Jack Torrance suffers from cabin fever in the movie The Shining. As if this is some sort of precautionary warning?

I don’t know about Wikipedia’s message intent, but let’s just say I have been feeling bored and perhaps a little irritable lately.  Could I have cabin fever in this day and age of instant connections with people on Facebook, Twitter and constant access to cell phones and texting?  How could I be feeling as isolated as those people in the 1800’s in remote cabins?  Could it be due to the extremes in weather we’ve experienced in the Midwest? I realized it also might be the fact that I don’t have a car right now due to a suspiciously out of the blue engine failure of someone’s car in my family. This cabin fever was made worse by my decision to leave my place of employment two weeks ago and embark in unchartered territory, searching for a more suitable profession that I can pursue with passion.

Items on my to-do list have been checked off. Bills to pay, office to organize, house to clean, laundry to get caught up on  check. Cooking new recipes, baking cookies  check. Reading that deep philosophical book I told myself I would finally read. …I am getting to it as soon as my sock drawer is organized. Yes, I forgot  check.

So I sit in front of my computer plotting and prodding myself forward. No one is there to tell me not to take a nap. The couch looks so comfortable and soft staring at me from the table where I sit writing. What else can I do with my time in the remote cabin of my imaginings?  I start to feel a kindred bond with my 1800’s relatives in those cabins creeping into my psyche. The snow keeps coming down, the winds howl, the temperatures drop to negatives.  Not even Facebook can keep me from claustrophobic feelings in this weather.

Since leaving my job, there have been days I haven’t left my house. To stave off those restless feelings of boredom and sleepiness, I am trying to keep busy and get out once a day. At the very least, until the weather breaks, I will slough my way to the mailbox in the snow and dark of night, if needed.  I will breathe in the frigid air, or be doomed to stir restlessly until the wee hours of the morning, rummaging through the cupboard looking for chamomile tea.

And so with some fresh arctic air in my lungs and my sloughing exercises finished, I sat down the other night with a bowl of popcorn and decided to watch a movie  as I scanned through the listings on my TV  I came to the S’s. The Shining appeared on my screen.

I decided to take a pass on movie night and started looking for that book….

How are you handling this long winter?

-Diane Hiller

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Honor Flight Chicago: A Day to Remember

By Diane Hiller

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the interaction with new people every day.  A few days ago, I met someone special. We were talking about the weather and I noticed his cap. This man was wearing a War Veteran’s cap. I asked him what war and he responded Viet Nam. He looked hesitantly at me as if wearily waiting for me to say something. I wondered if he was remembering the treatment our Viet Nam Vets experienced after coming home from war. If you were raised in the sixties, the Viet Nam War was the most controversial conflict the USA had ever entered. Unfairly, that sentiment was aimed at the soldiers returning from war. They were spit on, and called terrible names by some who opposed the war. No hero’s welcome for them.

I told him my dad was a WWII veteran. His eyes became teary; as he talked with me about an organization he was involved in, called Honor Flight Chicago. This group sponsors WWII veterans on a trip to the Washington World War II Memorial. Each Vet has a sponsor who accompanies them on their trip to Washington D.C. They are met by dignitaries and escorted to the memorial site. Many of these men have never spoken about what they endured and witnessed, not even to their own families. The memorial and the camaraderie of their fellow vets perhaps allows them the opportunity to talk about their experiences and shed tears for those brothers in combat who didn’t return. They are given the star treatment, and are welcomed with crowds at the airports along with a water cannon salute, as they taxi to the gate and arrive home. Was my dad still alive, he asked? No, he passed away in 2006, I found myself saying through watery eyes. I had always wanted to take my dad to his World War II Memorial, but never got the chance.

The Honor Flight Chicago organization has flown 45 flights from 2008-2012. They have flown 3,806 World War II Veterans to their War Memorial. 89 is the average age of our Vets on the waiting list. There are an estimated 21,000 WWII Vets, who have not had their honor flight in the Chicago area. There are 8 scheduled flights for 2013. Each flight costs $35,000 dollars. This group hopes to continue these flights for veterans of all wars through the years.

As we closed our conversation, we both had tears in our eyes. I knew then that this was a very special group and he was a very special man. A veteran, himself of a war, where soldiers returning home did not get a hero’s welcome. Here he was giving these veterans, a hero’s welcome and memories they will never forget.   As we celebrate our Nation’s birth and our freedoms, let us remember our aging WWII Veterans by donating to Honor Flight Chicago. And remember the sacrifices of all veterans by paying it forward to the next generation of war veterans. They are all heroes.

To volunteer, donate or fill out application for a flight, go to:

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Memorial Day Remembrances

By Diane Hiller

I thought It appropriate to re-post this remembrance today.

I found the box of photos on the bottom shelf in a dusty damp corner of the basement. As I leafed through the faded black and white images that were part of the contents marked miscellaneous, I realized I had come across old photos of my father. The pictures were faded and small, but in remarkably good condition even though they were unprotected  and strewn haphazardly among the other items.  I had never seen these photos of him, at his air base in England. He looked like every other G.I. I had seen in pictures. It was hard to believe this was my Dad. He looked so young − they all did.

Other G.I’s were standing next to him or casually sitting on the ground in a fenced in area. Some of them were smoking cigarettes, others had their arms folded and some were smiling at the camera. My father had never mentioned these pictures and so I had no idea who the other men were in the photographs. They were probably fellow mechanics or maybe gunners or pilots on the planes. The fly boys, as Dad called them got the glory, but he didn’t mind, they also had the bigger risks. He had wanted to be a pilot. He was glad now that his mother wouldn’t let him sign up to fly. I wondered how many of those men in the picture made it home safely.

As my father grew older, he would talk more about his war memories, perhaps to make sure this personal history wasn’t forgotten and lost forever. As I have mentioned before, he was stationed on an air base in England called Deopham Greene where he worked on B-17’s.   He recounted how anxious he would feel as he ran out to the field with his buddies to watch the Flying Fortresses limp home from their raids over Germany.  Nervously, they would count each plane as it came back, dreading when the count was short. One day a plane made it all the way back from a raid over Germany with an engine out, only to crash-land and catch fire on the runway. He remembers the horror of pulling the crew out of the wreckage, never forgetting the men they lost that day − men that he had known.

My mother’s father, who was English, fought in World War I. He had suffered from the effects of breathing in mustard gas that the Germans used as a weapon during the war and my grandfather suffered complications from this for his lifetime. My husband’s brother served in Vietnam and we have a nephew who served in the Gulf War.

I realized after closing up the box of photos that every generation of my family since my grandfather has been touched by war, as many families have been. We were lucky and they all came back alive, many did not. Those are the men and women we honor on Memorial Day.

I admit, sometimes I get caught up in other things. I get too busy getting out the Jell-O mold and potato salad recipe; I want a day to relax and an extra day off work. Occasionally, I need to remind myself of the real meaning of the day. Here is what I learned:

The origins of Memorial Day were started when it was a day of remembrance for those who died in our nation’s service. Originally called Decoration Day, it was made official on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and was first observed on May 30, 1868. Flowers were placed on the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington Cemetery.

In 1915, A Canadian Army Doctor, John McCrae was at Flanders in Belgium tending to the sick and wounded on the battlefield. He wrote the poem Flanders Field, which is now often recited at Memorial Day services across the country. The poppy is a bright red annual flower whose seed can lay dormant for years in the soil until it is disturbed, and then it germinates and grows. Ironically this is what happened on the battlefields of Flanders. The doctor was moved by the poppies growing amidst all of the death and destruction in the fields. The poem became a symbol of the war and moved two women on two different continents to do something for those affected. Anna Guerin of France and Moina Michael of the U.S. sold artificial poppies to help those impoverished by World War I. The practice of selling poppies is still happening today in many towns by veteran’s organizations. In 1971, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday and was switched from May 30th to the last Monday in May.  In 2000 the White House instituted a National Moment of Remembrance to be held at 3 pm on Memorial Day, to preserve the meaning of what Memorial Day stands for.

Growing up my father always flew an American Flag on holidays and always took us to the services on Memorial Day. Because of that tradition, I have always taken my family to the Memorial Day Parade and services in Hinsdale.  I have been privileged to sit on the dais alongside the war veterans and participate in the services. This Monday, take your children to see these real-life heroes, as they honor their fallen brothers and sisters.

Please join me in remembering those who have fallen by attending a service, flying your flag and visiting a cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of those who died, making the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe and free.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1915.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

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Moving Day

By Diane Hiller

I lay in bed this morning, my feelings see-sawing from dread to excitement. We are moving out of the house my husband and I built, created life in, nurtured and raised three beautiful souls in for the past twenty-two years. This was the place of many celebrations and parties with people that I cared about and mattered in my life. A launching pad for goals and dreams fulfilled. The kids grew,friends came and went; cars of teens drove up looking for my baby child who was no longer that but a stranger with a personality to match. I didn’t sleep during those years, until everyone was home safely in bed.

Such happy times they were and some not so happy, but the good outweighed the bad in my memory. God’s gift to me, kind of like forgetting the pain of childbirth once you see that precious new life in your arms screaming their head off. Feed me, take care of me, I’m yours, they would say to me with their cries. And I did, for twenty-two years in the house with the beautiful windows I picked out and the intricate lines of the ornate white molding I loved so much surrounding them as if the windows were picture frames that were framing a gorgeous view of my life.  The walls were painted happy colors of joy and hope for the future, sunny yellow, nature green, flowery lilac. The stairs that had the black and gold flowered carpet I had picked out so as not to show dirt. The dirt from the gym shoes running down the stairs, the hand prints on the walls my son would touch pretending he was a Notre Dame Football player. “Play like a champion today,” he would recite before running out the door. Then there were the scratches on the wood floors where my girls would clop with their hard shoes practicing their Irish dancing steps for the next competition. I remember staying up for hours curling hair for those Feis dances. And how can I forget the maple syrup stain that my three year old toddler son made in the matter of 30 seconds, when I was distracted on the phone. By promptly taking the syrup bottle out of the cabinet, walking into the family room (accompanied eagerly by our dog) and pouring it all over the carpet. What the thought process was of that action in his little mind I will never know.

Now I was leaving, nothing left to do. I spent countless hours looking through photo albums, with the kids as I packed them carefully away. Instantly remembering the event or time it recorded. I had to laugh at some of my clothes and hair-dos of the times (what was I thinking?) The flowery pastel skirt and top, two-piece out-fits and who could forget those high-waisted jeans with white gym shoes, believe me I tried to. Oh, and the fanny pack my kids thought was hilarious. Not to mention the “big hair” I had back then.

I cried when I saw the picture of my parents on their wedding day and the ones of them with the kids at their birthday parties, their loving and adoring faces looking out from the pages. I wish they were still here, I thought through blurry eyes. Why didn’t I really appreciate that time more?  I admired pictures of my gardens in their glory days when I lived outside nurturing them after my children were grown. Those were also times when I needed a diversion from life going on inside those walls. I needed beauty and accomplishment and so I dug and planted and pruned, weeded, watered and shared my flowers with friends.

Goodbye house, be as good to the new owners as you were to us. I hope they don’t accidentally dig up all of the guinea pigs and hamsters that were sent off, over the years with a service and burial by the back fence. My daughter wouldn’t like that.

I know tomorrow, I will look forward to the future and making more happy memories, but for right now the time has sadly come to leave this home.  I will close the door and lock it for the last time with a click. The echoes of the past coming back to me, happy echoes I will keep in my heart forever.


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Let’s get Physical

No Pain – No Gain 

As the saying goes, after a two-year absence for reasons ranging from expense to the time it takes, to the logic that I can get the same results at home, I’m back at the gym working out. Things have changed since I was a member of a health club back in the 80’s. Does anyone remember the women – only “spa” health clubs of the 1980’s?  There was a location in Villa Park that I was persuaded to go to on my lunch hours with my female boss, she insisted – I think she wanted company in her misery. And so I did what any other employee would do to suck up to the boss, I went –  hating every minute of it.

It was all pink, cramped, crowded and had a hot tub in the changing area that looked like a science experiment gone wrong. Yes, we wore leotards, leg warmers and head bands! What a sight, I think mine were pink. That was my first experience with health clubs and I must say I did start to notice a difference from going. I felt more toned and had more energy. Even though I’m sure we looked like Olivia Newton-John wanna-be’s from one of her exercise videos.

Fast forward to throwing my back out when my kids were younger and I was lifting them up – a lot. “Mommy-uppy!” was a constant refrain heard in my household. I was sent to a physical therapist by my doctor and I healed and strengthened my back very quickly from that experience. I still feigned injury for a while after being healed so I could actually sit on the couch in the evenings with a heating pad while hubby tended to the little ones. The jig was up when he saw me in the family room dancing around with the dog and kids one day when he got home from work. After going back to mommy duty with my back, I became a regular in their Super-Slo work-outs, which were one-on-one training sessions on weight equipment with very heavy weights and super-slo reps until you reached muscle failure. The pluses were a twenty-minute work-out, once a week. The negatives were the cost and the sheer torture of it, although it was only for two-minute intervals. The results were great and I never ended up looking overly muscular like a body builder, which I was initially worried about ( I was leg pressing 300 pounds! and It felt like I was giving birth.) When the kids started going off to college and the budget got tight, I thankfully had an excuse to quit.

My next foray into the work-out world was with exercise tapes and free weights at home. Which over time became half a tape and recently degenerated to picking out only the exercises I liked doing. I started running about a year ago, which I thought I would be good at until I just recently found out-I’m not. After 2-5K’s under my belt my running time is getting worse. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to run, and will continue, but I’m just not very fast. I also didn’t see much difference in tone or weight loss from running. For women over fifty, you need an adjustment in your work-out styles. Weight training, I am learning is very important to tone and to build muscle which we lose a pound of every year after the age of 35. So even if you used to do a lot of cardio when you were younger, as you get older, you need to add more weights. Muscle burns more calories than fat and you will have more strength and balance. It is also good for your bone density.

I have just started back on weight machines and after three visits, I’ve already noticed a difference. So, my advice to women, over fifty especially is don’t give up exercise with weights. Find a gym, if money is tight, they have very good inexpensive fitness centers cropping up all over. Get into a routine and go to the gym the same time and find a rotation of days that works for you. I find the mornings to be my best time to go,  three times a week.  Pick a good time for you. I liken it to starting a new job. At first it’s really hard and challenging but you will start to get into a good routine and enjoy the results once you start seeing them, and you will.  But with this job you won’t be forced by your boss to wear pink leotards and leg warmers, which is a good thing.

Let me know what you think about gyms and working out. Are you a regular or are you struggling to go? Did you go a couple of times and now your membership card is collecting dust in the drawer? What are your stories and motivations to help us all?

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