Sorrow On a Cellular Level-Transformed

For most women, carrying a child leaves an indelible mark. I’m not talking about stretch marks or weight gain. I’m talking about something more. I’m talking about a permanent change on a cellular level. It’s a change that connects her to that child forever. She has a connection whether the child is born or dies before or as they are coming into the world (disclaimer – this is NOT a commentary on what I believe about when life begins). She’s connected whether she raises the child or someone else does. She has a connection whether she raises that child for a day or into adulthood. She remains connected whether she’s in the same house with that child or on the other side of the world from them.

I don’t know if being an empath makes me more aware of this connection or if it makes me feel it more deeply. What I can tell you is that I’ve carried two children. One of them is still alive…and one of them is not. The connection I feel to the child that is gone is just as strong as it is to my surviving child. My surviving child is grown and on her own. She lives in close proximity. She has a full and busy life. I see her often, but, as is the case for most adult children, she’s off living her life just as she should be. The connection now is an undercurrent – always there and just as strong, but flowing beneath daily life. It’s the natural order. Occasions when we are able to spend time together bring the connection back to the surface, and that’s the best part of being with her. When your experience is anything other than giving birth to the child you carried and raising them to adulthood, that deep connection is forced to exist as an undercurrent always. It becomes a connection without an expression…except that of grief.

For me, days that should be an opportunity to feel the fullest expression of the connection to my late daughter are the hardest. Her birthday is one of those days, and today is that day. It’s been many years since her death, but each year it just feels like a renewal of loss. She would’ve been thirty-one this year. We lost her when she was just sixteen. I can still see her, in my mind’s eye. I can still hear her voice and, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can feel her hand in mine. I feel her little girl hand on the way to kindergarten…and that of a silly teenager pressing mine, along with a whiny “pleeeease,” in an attempt to get her way. I still feel her whole being so deeply…down in my cells, but the connection only goes one way now. My soul calls out, expecting a response, only to feel anguish and confusion when there is none.

I’m lucky. I still have my surviving daughter. I also have a wonderful step-daughter with whom I share a loving connection. Not every mother is so lucky. I’ve been reminded of that on a daily basis since the beginning of the pandemic. Each day I hear yet another story of a mother losing her child or a child losing their mother…so many people losing loved ones. It compounds my grief and ignites my deepest fears. Will my family end up being “marked by Covid?” Will I lose another child or my husband? Will I be the one lost? Like everyone else, most of the time, I try not to think about it, but today I can’t not think about it.

We will still celebrate my daughter’s birthday today, like we did when she was with us. We just gather at the cemetery instead of the dining room table now. We lay a bouquet of her favorite red roses on a patch of ground instead of giving them to her. Sometimes we tie a balloon to the plaque that proclaims for eternity her status as a “Rockstar.” We usually share a meal of her favorite Italian food as a family, too. This year, because of the pandemic, it will be just the three of us – her sister, her stepdad, and me. The meal will be take-out instead of at a restaurant. 

My thoughts, again, go back to the mothers and the children and loved ones lost in the past few months all around the world due to the virus. I think about the birthdays that will have to be celebrated the same way we’ve celebrated my daughter’s each year for the past fifteen years. I think about the holidays and the anniversaries and the milestones the ones left behind will have to celebrate in their absence. My heart breaks for all those mothers…all those families, because I know their pain, and I know some things just never get any easier.

Yes, our sorrow “marks” us. We will always feel the pain of a connection we can’t express directly to our child (or loved one), and we can’t feel the pleasure of it being reciprocated. What we can do, though, is transform our sorrow and give the love once reserved for our departed to others through acts of kindness, caring, compassion, patience, and empathy. And, yes, “Karen” that means wearing a God damn mask (apologies to any actual Karens I may have offended with that remark).

Finding “Home” in the Heart

doormat

 

Mike and I began house-hunting, as a couple, nearly a year before we married. He had been planning to buy a home of his own for him and his daughter well before we met. Before my divorce I’d owned a home too, with my then-husband, until our divorce brought about its sale. After it was clear we were a permanent thing, Mike and I needed a dwelling large enough to accommodate a blended family of five. Mike’s daughter was only with us on the weekends, so she had little concern about where we lived, as long as she had her own space. It was a reasonable expectation. My daughters found the prospect of moving to a new school district, and leaving their friends, to be a source of hysterics and great drama. Anyone that has lived through having teen and pre-teen daughters understands that it doesn’t take much for them to feel like the entire world is ending. So, we acquiesced. We made certain our house hunting focused on places within their school district. We found an adorable four-bedroom, two story traditional, on three-fourths of an acre, in a tract that had once been an orchard. It was in a “country-like” setting, around the corner from a family farm with horses and a donkey, in a quiet little neighborhood, and removed from the hustle and bustle of town. It had a huge backyard that butted up to a wooded area. The lot even had some original fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Each girl had her own bedroom. There was a family room with a wood burning fireplace, a redone kitchen, and a semi-finished basement (well, circa 1975 “finished”). It was idyllic. I have a very clear memory of seeing it for the first time. It was bright and spacious. I mouthed the words “I want this house!” to Mike as the realtor took us from room to room explaining the house’s features.

As we settled into life on Gleneagle Drive, we noticed that the neighborhood was mostly populated by senior citizens and retirees. There were almost no families or children. My kids didn’t mind, though. They had their friends at school, so we drove them to see those kids. What our neighbors noticed about us was not so innocuous. We were loud. My kids played their music loudly. Opening the windows during warm weather meant everybody within 100 yards of our house could hear the girls bickering. They could hear me or my husband yelling at them to stop or any one of us calling to one another between floors or rooms. We also had a huge yellow Labrador that was prone to “jail breaks.” He roamed the neighborhood getting other dogs riled up or nosing through stuff on people’s property. Retrieving him was a spectacle. It was me driving the junky family mini-van around the neighborhood whilst the kids dangled from the open sliding door, calling to him and waving slices of bacon as bait.

Our home saw quite the menagerie of pets over the years. Besides the aforementioned Labrador, we had two cats, two fish, a rat, three guinea pigs, and two more dogs. One of the cats and at least two of the guinea pigs are buried in the woods behind the house. We honored one fish, a red beta named Tony Beets, with a Viking funeral in the fireplace. He passed after a particularly long stretch without power one winter. The entire neighborhood lost power an average of two to three times every year. And that is something I do not miss.

The kids grew up and moved out and our crazy dog got too old to run around like a terrorist. Time mended our reputation in the neighborhood. Somehow our neighbors forgot who we once were. I know this because one year my husband and I took up running. We began by walking. We mixed in some running intervals until, over time, we worked our way up to running a three-mile series of laps through the neighborhood. One day some of the folks on our route started giving us smiles, waves, and happy thumbs up. A few of them even motioned us over to congratulate us on our progress and to tell us “how proud” they were of us. We were surprised, because we had always kept to ourselves. We weren’t aware that they had been observing us. They remained our little white and gray-haired cheerleaders as we trained for our first 5K. Sadly, our foray into running ran its course (please excuse the pun), but I will never forget the caring and support those lovely people showed us.

Our immediate neighbors to the South were Roy and Gloria. Like nearly all our other neighbors, they were older and had grown children. They were both still working when we moved in, but a few years later Gloria retired from her job at a nursing home. Shortly after that, Roy retired from his job as a materials manager for a local construction company. IEventually, the reality of being at home with Gloria all day every day set in for Roy. He ended up going back to work part-time in Mike’s store. I am certain his decision to return to the work was Roy’s way of escaping, if only for a few hours a few days a week. Once he got over the “shock to the system” of retirement, Roy quit working altogether and seemed to “up” his landscaping maintenance game. One summer morning I awoke at about 8:00 a.m. to the sound of Roy using his leaf blower to blow stray leaves…in the SUMMER…from his lawn and into the road. Good on ya, Roy. You’re the Beyonce of neighbors. Fuck the sleeping neighbors! You go on with your bad self! You go and do what you wanna do! Here, lemme get up and put on a bra, so I can pass you a mic to drop!

The thought of Roy and Gloria brings many things to mind. First, Roy was the consummate handyman. Whenever my “all thumbs” husband would attempt any project – like building a picnic table or fixing the mower or starting the snowblower – Roy would appear out of nowhere for an assist. I once watched him “help” Mike assemble a picnic table meant to be a memorial to our late oldest daughter. With Mike being a huge Star Wars fan, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wow. That looks like a Jedi Master (Roy) with his padowan (Mike).” I also remember feeling awestruck by Roy’s skill. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. He rebuilt our deck, and insisted on adding a badass elevated octagon-shaped platform. He and his son reroofed our garage. He fixed the sump pump on the drain for our washing machine. He even diagnosed the source of a leak we discovered upon arriving home from Mass one Christmas Eve that had sprung from the kitchen ceiling. When he wasn’t “helping” his negligent homeowning neighbors, he was “just checking in” with us. We affectionately referred to this as “getting Royed.” What it meant to my husband was a fifteen to thirty-minute conversation about a variety of topics. Sometimes simply going to get the mail would take ten minutes. “What happened to you?” I would ask Mike. “I got Royed,” he would reply. He never had to explain what that meant.

I was somehow able to avoid getting “Royed” much of the time…except in the summer. In my former profession as a teacher, I had summers off. I typically used that time to do home projects like painting, replacing electrical fixtures, or landscaping. In fact, by the time we moved, I had replaced every light fixture and painted every room with my own two hands. One summer I decided to plant flowers and bushes around the backyard. I put in a patch of my favorite lilies and, against the back of the house, a lavender hedge. I wanted its lovely fragrance to waft through the ground floor windows and to deter mosquitoes in the backyard. I also decided to plant azalea bushes around the awesome deck Roy had built. During the project, I thought I would be smart. To avoid getting “Royed,” I made sure I wore earbuds and listened to music while I worked. I also wore sunglasses, so I could remain on the lookout…on the downlow. The strategy was minimally effective. I’ll reluctantly admit it. There were times I peed my pants, just a little, when Roy snuck up on me while I was rockin’ out to my 90’s alt jams and vibin’ with my landscaping vision. Aaaaah! Having to put on cool dry underpants on a hot summer day after having wet yourself as a grown-ass woman (HEY! JUST a little). Yes. Thanks, Roy. Good times. Great memories.

There are so many memories that live at 7971 Gleneagle. Weeknight dinners around the family dining table featuring stories from our respective days. Meals that devolved into quarrels and ended with one or more children leaving the table in tears and stomping off to her room. Opening gifts Christmas morning in the room we spent the least amount of time in most of the year because it lacked a television. The sweet smiling faces of extended family gathered ’round the table for a Thanksgiving dinner I lovingly prepared. The way light poured in from the big picture window and changed, ever so subtly, with each season. Moments of calm, watching all three daughters getting along for a change. Seeing them laying on the trampoline, gazing up at the wide blue sky and talking about nothing in particular. How quiet the house became after the loss of our oldest daughter. How even quieter it got when our remaining two graduated and went on to make their own lives. Parting with that place was sweet sorrow.

Two years before we moved, my husband bought a fire pit. He’d insisted on getting one ever since he began working at the outdoor sports store he now manages. I didn’t see the point of such a purchase, but I finally relented. It proved to be one of the best he ever made from that store. It created some truly lovely memories of us as empty-nesters in our last days in the house. I had camped a few times in my life. Those experiences never led me to appreciate the relaxation that comes from sitting in front of a good ole fashioned fire. We spent two consecutive summers and well into the following autumn seasons relaxing by that damn fire pit. We enjoyed many campfire dinners – hot dogs, pan fried fresh lake caught blue gills, s’mores, and pie iron sandwiches. We even found the perfect campfire adult beverage – a red wine that recreates the taste of s’mores with chocolate and marshmallow flavors. Those summer nights by the fire pit were sublime. We often spotted deer near the woods at the edge of the yard. They always found their way to the apple tree to nibble fallen apples. Fireflies dotted the air and little bats would wing in and out of the trees. At twilight, the hydrangeas, lavender, and lilies made the yard look like a water color dream.

Selling our house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For both my husband and me, it was the place in which we’d lived the longest of our lives. We decided to move for several reasons. One was the upkeep of such a big house and large yard. We knew it would become too much for the two of us as we age. When we had three able bodied teenagers in need of spending money, having the lawn mowed or the bathrooms cleaned was a non-issue. Once our kids were gone, we grew weary of the housekeeping obligations. We also watched my parents age. We watched as it became clear their home, which was like ours, no longer met the needs of aging bodies with limited mobility. We knew we needed a dwelling that could accommodate the changes to come. We needed a home where we could “age in place.” My leaving teaching necessitated the move, as well. We needed to eliminate the sizeable debt we’d incurred over the years. We needed a way to reduce our monthly mortgage payment to offset the reduction in my wages, too. The facts converged. We resigned ourselves to the fact that selling our big, beautiful, beloved, and memory filled home was the only way to achieve our goals.

I’d spent years making improvements to the house – room by room, summer by summer. I decluttered and purged and staged and invested every spare penny. We were excited when we finally listed. I bought a little St. Joseph (patron saint of home and family) statue and, per Catholic lore to expedite the sale, buried it upside down in the front yard. I chose a spot near our lovely birch tree. I prayed the prayer every morning before I went to work. We immediately had people interested in seeing it, and, happily, we had an offer within the first week. We were thrilled, but that meant the pressure was on to find a condo. There was little available within our budget. We somehow managed to find a place we liked. It wasn’t ideal. It was a third-floor unit, defeating one of the main purposes for moving. It also posed a headache when it came to taking the dog potty. Still, it was the best option, and we made an offer. Then, as if on cue, our universe seemed to enter some sort of karmic retrograde. My father died suddenly. His affairs, including guardianship of my incapacitated nursing home resident mother, were left for me to sort out. I had just begun a new job and had little time off to devote to the sale of a home, the purchase of a condo and taking care of my parents’ stuff. The inspection of our home revealed a myriad of issues, including some very pricey ones. The appraisal of the condo came back under asking price and the seller was unwilling to come down. Ultimately, the sale of the house and the purchase of the condo both ended up falling through. Our heads were spinning. We had to start over.

It wasn’t long before we had another offer on our house. Though the inspection once again revealed issues, the buyers were less demanding than the previous one and we were weary. We agreed to their requests and the sale went through. Once again, we found ourselves in a position where we had to find a place to live…quickly. The condo we settled on was adequate – a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot former rental property five minutes from Mike’s store. The seller lived in another city. For some reason, he’d had the electricity shut off when the tenant moved out. So the first time we saw the place was by lantern. Another oddity was that the owner’s realtor had little involvement. His dad, who lived nearby, did the showing. Still, I found the quiet wooded setting appealing. It was a second story unit, but the ground floor was below grade, so it was up just seven steps. Once again, it was not ideal. Once again, it was the best option…and a hell of a deal. We offered the asking price and were delighted when the seller accepted. Then karma again had her say. The buyers for our house had a to coordinate closing on the purchase of our house with the sale of theirs. Foster parents with three young children, they needed to be able to move in within the month. Closing on the condo could not possibly be completed within that time frame time, and we were heading into the holiday season. We would close on the sale of our house and have to be out before we had a place to go. But, as fate would have it, we did have a place to go – my parents’ house, now empty following my father’s passing. My father had lived there alone for several years. It looked like an episode of Hoarders come to life – a filthy, smelly, pack-rat disaster. We pitched, donated, and cleaned as much as we could to make it habitable. Having to spend Christmas in the dilapidated shell of my family home was salt rubbed into months of wounds. We washed and dressed them. We took some Tylenol, gritted our teeth, and rented a U-Haul.

Even though I felt like I had spent weeks packing, the week leading up to our last weekend in the house was chaotic. It was the holiday shopping season and Mike, a retail manager, could take a limited amount of time off. My daughter and her girlfriend ended up helping me with the lion’s share of packing and loading the moving truck. They could only help for one of the three days we’d carved out for the physical move. Sunday, the third day, was our final day in the house. Mike and I were left to finish on our own. Mike made runs to my parents’ house. He packed our Toyota Rav4 to the gills with the remaining miscellany of our shit. I cleaned and touched up nail and screw holes with spackling and paint. The vacuum broke, at one point, and it was more than I could take. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Mike returned from a run to find me sitting on the floor, in the empty living room of the now almost completely empty house. I was ugly crying with swollen red eyes and gasping for breath. He was drained and exhausted, too. He had little patience for my meltdown. There were still odds and ends that needed to be moved…or left. We battled over what to keep and what to leave. In reality, we were both grieving. His grief manifested as wanting to “Just leave it! Leave it! We won’t have room for it!” Mine was the opposite. “I can’t leave it. I just can’t. I might need it. We might need it.”

In the end, we took more with us than Mike wanted to…and I left more than my heart could comfortably part with. We both simply had to reconcile. The clock was ticking, and we needed to leave. Exhaustion was catching up with both of us. As Mike took the final load of stuff, I mopped the kitchen floor. It was the last task left. When I was done, I walked from room to room. Twenty years of good and bad and wonderful and horrible memories played like a video in my mind’s eye. When Mike returned, it was time to say goodbye…for good. It was cold and raining. Mike had backed into the driveway, so sight of the house appropriately filled the rearview mirrors. It wasn’t until that moment that I remembered St. Joseph. “Wait!” I said glancing toward the birch tree. Mike knew what I was thinking. “Nope! No! You’re not digging that thing up now. It’s raining. I’m exhausted, and we need to leave now!” I felt a twinge of panic. What if leaving it would bring us more bad luck? What if leaving it was like taking for granted the blessing it had bestowed? I searched my mind for a rationale. “Okay, okay, okay! I’ll leave it here to watch over the family, the new owners,” I said. Yes! That was it! It would be a talisman for the new occupants and their family. Mike’s expression was that of relief.

The thought did not keep me from going back, though. One December evening just before Christmas I persuaded Mike to be my partner in crime. We returned under the cover of darkness and when it appeared no one was home. He aimed the headlights at the spot by the tree. I had nothing but my bare hands with which to dig. It was cold. The soil was beginning to freeze and dead leaves carpeted the ground. I couldn’t find the stone I’d placed to mark the spot. I retraced the paces from the tree I’d measure out that warm September day all those weeks before. I bent down and started to dig, paw over paw like a dog. Nope! Not there. I moved a few feet to the left and repeated. Still no luck. I was beginning to get nervous that we’d be discovered. I made one more unsuccessful attempt before giving up and returning to the warmth of the running car, dirt caked beneath my fingernails. Mike’s expression this time said “I can’t believe you just did that.” It’s an expression I’ve gotten use to after all these years.

What Mike and I have learned from our recent experiences, and over the years, can best be expressed by an Oliver Wendall Holmes’ quote. “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Our house on Gleneagle was a dwelling for us and our girls for many years. The experiences from our time there made it home and, because of that, it will always be our home. Still, memories are made by people and attached to places. We’ve made a few good memories in our condo so far. We have new, equally amusing and fascinatingly strange neighbors (but that is a story of for another time). We’ve celebrated some holidays. I found spots for almost all my Christmas decorations. We added to our family in the condo – a tortoise shell calico cat named Roni. Unfortunately, we’ve subtracted, too. My mother passed away and my daughter ended her long-term relationship. I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned to enjoy having a smaller space to clean. I’ve learned to enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while relishing the tranquility of the woods, up-close, from a rocking chair on my balcony. I’ve savored a nice cup of Earl Grey on my couch while watching the gently falling snow on a Saturday morning in January. I’ve awoken on a spring Sunday morning by a cacophony of birds in a tree just outside my bedroom window. After my first trip abroad, I couldn’t wait to come “home” to my comfy bed in this condo. The photo attached to this post is a picture of the actual doormat that sits in front of my door. I got it a few months ago. It took a while for me to feel the sentiment. I guess this new place is becoming home now too.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship with Modern Appliances and Major Life Changes

stove on fire

We’ve lived in our condo for a year and a half now. We moved from a house that we’d lived in for about twenty years. Our house had a big yard, lots of room, plenty of natural light, and appliances I’d picked out myself – including an amazing stainless-steel gas range I got a killer deal on. The family that bought our house insisted we leave all the appliances, including my beloved range. I was heart-broken at having to say goodbye to it. Getting use to my new electric range in the condo was one of the hardest things about moving. Though I’d used an electric range before, I’d been cooking on a gas one for a long time. So, I had a very steep re-learning curve. Of course, it didn’t help that, for some reason, electric ranges seem to have two temperatures – “raging fires of hell” and “barely lukewarm armpit.” One of the first things I tried to cook was pasta. It wasn’t some kind of fancy Italian pasta either. It was basic Kraft Dinner Macaroni and Cheese. Yeah. Simple, right? Easy, right? No! It came out chewy and sticky. The frustration was more than I could take. Through streaming tears, I told my husband, “I don’t know how to work this damn thing! I can’t cook on it! I’m not going to cook anymore!” Granted, my overreaction was due more to the stress of moving and a variety of other difficult life events I was going through at the time, but the struggle was real.
 
I had better success with the oven and often resorted to bake-able meals in those early days. Even that, though, seemed like cooking with some strange “European” appliance. Everything…and I mean everything…seemed to take exponentially longer to cook. I persevered, though, and baking got a little better, a little easier. Apparently, all I needed to do was lower my expectations and double the baking time for any lovin that came outta this stupid oven.
 
The range continued to be a challenge. The peak of the aforementioned learning curve culminated in what will forever be known to my family as “the Easter ham glaze debacle.” Easter dinner was the first holiday meal I tried to cook on this devil device. Holiday meal preparation has always felt like a “spinning plates” performance set to The Sabre Dance, and my inability to master the use of the new range amped the panic factor tenfold. I was somehow able to complete every part of the meal without great incident…until it came time to make the glaze for the ham. I was trying out a new recipe. It was one I’d seen on a cooking show – a sweet and glossy orange maple delight. It would be the crowning jewel of the main dish, our holiday ham. I put the saucepan on a smaller back burner to simmer and let the glaze reduce while I finished up the other dishes. I had only turned my back for a moment when I heard hissing and fizzing from behind. I turned back to see waves of brown cascading over the sides of the saucepan like (in the words of Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil) “hot liquid magma,” coating the entire screaming hot cooktop and instantly hardening into a thick black crust.
 
I panicked and started trying to wipe the mess from the still piping hot cooktop with the scrubby side of a soapy sponge. Steam wafted around me as the wet sponge’s nubby plastic side began to burn and singe. “Shit, shit, shit!” I exclaimed as I felt my self-restraint dissolve into tears. How the fuck can cooking on a modern appliance bring a grown woman to tears? I ask you. How can such a thing occur in today’s world? In the end, I decided to leave the mess and finish preparing the meal. Miraculously, the food turned out well and everyone enjoyed it. Still, a year later, this cooking fail has left me scarred.
 
It’s been a year since my ham-glaze-hell-on-earth incident, and I’ve become accustomed to my sub-par range. I’ve boiled ears of summer corn on the cooktop without incident and heated taco shells for Taco Tuesday weekly. I’ve prepared baked birthday macaroni and cheese for my hubby in August. I’ve even prepared a full holiday meal for Thanksgiving – roast turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings. I’ve made my signature dishes (that same mac-n-cheese as well as my corn casserole) to pass at the Christmas Day celebration hosted by my daughter in her new home. I even made Easter dinner numero dos, albeit only for two thanks to the Covid-19 quarantine. Yes, I did, indeed, make another ham with glaze. The recipe de jour this year was a sweet tea brown sugar glaze, and, no, there was no “debacle” this time around.
 
It’s taken over a year to get use to cooking on my electric range. I still miss my old gas one. I miss a lot of things. I’ve been through a great deal of change in the past few years and little of it has been comfortable. I left a profession that I worked in for almost twenty years. I’ve lost friendships. I lost both my parents. I left a house that I lived in longer than any other place in my life. It was the place where I raised my children. My life has felt strange and unfamiliar for long time.
 
There is comfort in the familiar. The job you’ve been going to since you graduated from college. Your family. The friends you’ve known forever. The house you’ve lived in for years. The range you’ve cooked dozens of holiday dinners on. Familiar feels good. It’s warm and easy. Some people find change exciting and interesting. I do not. It’s hard, for me, and stressful and I often fight it. Not having my parents around will never feel quite right, but I’m adapting to it. Working in a job that pays half of what I made in my former profession hasn’t been easy, but I’m getting used to it. Living in a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot condo has been an adjustment. Cooking for two on the electric range in our condo will never be the same as preparing meals for a family of five on a bad-ass gas range in a two-story family home on an acre lot in a quiet neighborhood. Change is hard, but if you grit your teeth and can endure it, I’m convinced you emerge further evolved than you once were…and that’s a good thing. This thought reminds me of a portion of the song Everything Will Change by Gavin DeGraw.

Back when it used to hurt
Took you a little while just to find the words
Losing, well, it sometimes burns, but you keep moving on
You’ve got to grow strong like you’re leading the nation
Got to make the best out of this situation
Get your hands up like it’s a celebration
And you keep moving on

Singing hey, before it gets too late
Before the night is over, before the world’s awake
Everything will change
Hey, I feel it coming on
Starting like a fire, tonight you lit the flame
Now everything will change

 
Yes, adapting to cooking on an electric range after cooking on a gas one is a purely first world problem and not at all a true traumatic, life altering change. Still, for me, it’s a symbol. It’s a symbol of resilience. It’s a symbol of my will to “fight” when I’m feeling defeated, overwhelmed, and beaten down. Yes, it “took me a while to find the words,” but they’re found now and Change has been embraced. So, do me a solid, Change, okay? Return the fucking favor.

Internalizing Atomic Numbers and Counting Sunrises

titanium

Thirty-years ago, I became a mother. In an instant I learned what it meant to care about another human being more than myself. I remember the strange sensation of hypervigilance that first night. Every sound, every slight stirring my newborn made from the bassinette positioned next to my bed woke me all through the long night. When they whisked her away in the middle of the night to do her vitals while I was asleep, they kept her a little too long. I awoke in a panic. I swear I heard and recognized her cry all the way down the hall. They brought her back to me and placed her in my arms. The sound of my voice instantly calmed her and her eyes intently gazed up at me. We’d long since bonded during the months I carried her inside my body. Meeting simply galvanized the connection.

My oldest child, Sarah, would’ve turned thirty back in October. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that fact. I might find it easier were she still here. I might find it easier, and I wouldn’t have to wonder. I wouldn’t have to wonder what she’d be doing right now. I wouldn’t have to wonder what she would look like at thirty and if she’d have a husband…or a wife…or a child. I wouldn’t have to wonder if I would have a grandchild. I wouldn’t have to wonder if she would’ve pursued a career in music, as she’d always talked about, or found a different path to happiness. I wouldn’t have to imagine what our relationship would be like now. It was pretty contentious back then. What would her relationship with her sister be like? They were so close – the inseparable now forever separated.

I have heard that each human heart possesses a finite number of beats and that that number varies from person to person. Of course, I’ve also heard that that is merely a myth. Still, it is another thing about which I now wonder. I wonder if death will, for me, come when, as Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl describes in the song One of These Days, my heart simply “plays its final beat?” Or, as it did for my parents, will illness bring my demise? Might an accident bring my life to an abrupt end, as it did for Sarah, or will I lose my lifelong battle with depression someday and die by my own hand?  Recent events have caused such murky thoughts to resurface after a long stretch of being submerged deep within my subconscious. Both my parents died about a year ago. So did Sarah’s cat, our precious Peanut.

My resting heart rate is about 70 beats per minute. There are 525,600 minutes in a year. That means my heart has beaten over 533 million times since Sarah died and over 2 billion in my lifetime so far. How much is left on the meter?

Before you dismiss my words as the wild ranting of some weird math nerd, I wasn’t always so obsessed. It wasn’t until the losses in my life began stacking up like the score of a video game. Maybe it’s a return of my childhood OCD behaviors. Maybe I’ve always been a little “on the spectrum” and the counting and calculating are just the latest indicators of it. Math is good. Math is solid, and unlike most things, it’s predictable.

It’s twenty-five paces from the pavement to my daughter’s grave. I count it in my head every time I go. I’ve never told anybody that. We visit on her birthday or the anniversary of her death or when I’m feeling an instance of disbelief that she really is gone – which still happens occasionally, even after all these years – and I still count.

The day after Sarah died, I remember feeling like the world should’ve stopped turning, and I was so perplexed that it had not. It just kept spinning. Everyone’s lives went on. They went to work. They went to school. They ate their meals and watched television. They did their laundry and shopped for groceries. The lives of many of the people that loved Sarah went on. In reality, it turned out that our lives were, more accurately, on pause for a bit. Then, somewhere along the way, time hit the “play” button, and even my world began turning again. Before I realized it, the world had revolved over 5,000 times and made its trip around the sun nearly fifteen times.

My heart, the muscular organ inside my chest, has beaten over half a billion times since that black day. My heart, the figurative seat of my emotions, has ached and made my eyes produce what could easily be measured as several gallons of tears. The sun has risen and set over 5,000 times since my beloved girl left this world, 5,292 to be exact. Maybe someday I’ll be able to stop counting – stop ticking off days, stop counting steps, and stop marking mental tallies on a slate in my mind. Maybe.

It’s funny that grief unleashed such an odd obsession inside my brain. I remember being in AP science classes in high school and thinking, “I’ll never be like these nerds.” In retrospect, I now wonder if their affinity for science and numbers and things grounded in the observable might’ve been an anchor for them in the tumultuous sea of social uncertainty that was high school. I never dreamed that one day I would have a “favorite element.” And, yet, now I do. This reminds me of a song that is dear to my heart, Atomic Number by Niko Case, KD Lang, and Laura Veirs:

Why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?

Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Atomic number

I am the spark
Of this machine
Purring like the city bus
why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?

Well if your mercy’s lost
I have enough for us
Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Atomic number

That’s right. In keeping with my numeric obsession, I now have a favorite atomic number. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I have an atomic number…well, one with which I identify. It’s twenty-two. Twenty-two is the atomic number of Titanium – the strongest metal. Titanium can withstand anything…any assault…any abuse…and maintain its integrity. That’s me. I’ve withstood the elements…the wind…the rain…the fire…all of it, and I’m still standing. I’m still opening my eyes each day to see the sunrise. I’m still walking around. I’m still breathing. How is that even possible?

The cliché goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Here’s the thing. I’m not quite sure what the point of that actually is. Why? Why do we need to be made “stronger?” This is another of the many things about which I wonder. It’s true that, these days, I am hard pressed to subscribe to the teachings of any particular religion. I do, however, believe in a “higher power” of some kind and you can bet your sweet ass I’ve got a shitload of questions for he/she/them/it, if and when we meet. “Why you gotta do this kind of shit to folks…perfectly good people?” is top on the list. Until then, I’m left with my wonderings, with my questions, and with my numeric obsession. This post has 1,273 some words. I’ve read it and reread it half a dozen times. My heart hopes it helps you, if you need it to, and speaks to your heart like zero others. Namaste.

Ode to My Winter Child

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   I don’t know if my youngest child realizes it, but she was born from my desire to provide a companion for her sister. I watched my firstborn grow. Thoughts of her life stretching into a future well beyond my lifespan made me want to give her someone to be with. The conception of this “companion child” was difficult. Weight gain from the first pregnancy and an existing medical condition impeded fertility. My heart ached to be pregnant again and to give my daughter a sibling. I watched friends have second and third children. I sought help for secondary infertility. My doctor told me that I should “lose some weight.” I was about to give up trying when I found out I was pregnant. The pregnancy was fragile. I came close to miscarrying and early on had to spend time on bed rest. During that time I would lie in bed and talk to my growing belly – to the child I so badly wanted. “Come on little baby. Stay with us. Stay with us and come meet your sister and me. We want you with us so much.”
   Her sister Sarah was born on her due date after eight short hours of labor. Jenna was nearly a week overdue. My OB had warned me that, after such a short first labor, I should prepare for an even more rapid one this time around. So, when I awoke at 5am with the first contractions, we made haste. We dropped Sarah off with my parents and went immediately to the hospital…only to find that I was not dilated…at all. “Go home,” they said, “or, better yet, go to the mall and walk around.” We did and my contractions actually seem to slow. It was frustrating. I was tired. We went to back to my parents’ house to pick up Sarah since it seemed labor had subsided. They invited us to stay for dinner and ordered pizza. After eating one slice, the contractions returned with a vengeance. I thought the wives’ tales about eating certain foods to hasten labor might be true. We left Sarah with my folks, once again, and went home to wait until the contractions were closer together. It took another ten hours before that happened.
   Pain punctuated my attempts to sleep. A contraction woke me every ten minutes through the night. When the morning came they were finally coming every two minutes, so we returned to the hospital. I was exhausted. You can imagine my dismay when I found out all those contractions had dilated my cervix to a mere “one” (“ten” is where it needs to be to give birth). My fatigue was evident. They administered Pitocin to strengthen the contractions and speed things along. It felt like a mixture of mercy and torture. I had planned to forego pain medication, as I had with my first child, before that. But the drug enhanced contractions felt like a little more than I could handle. I meekly asked for an epidural. The nurse laughed and said I was “past the point” where I could have anything. Damn it!!! The pressure of the baby against my cervix felt like it was being blown wide open like a fresh bag of Lays potato chips. It kept making me feel like I had to use the bathroom. At one point, in the throes of extreme exhaustion and while sitting on the toilet, I told the nurse, “I changed my mind. I don’t wanna do this anymore. I wanna go home to Sarah now.” The nurse laughed at me yet again, “Well, it’s a little too late for that now.”
  When it came time to push, fatigue made my efforts less than effective. With every contraction, I pushed but made little progress. A battle of wills ensued. It was mine against hers, as it had been since conception. This child continued to resist coming into the world. Nurse Mamie was growing impatient with me. “Oh come on!” she said, “You can do better than that! Is that all you’ve got?” Her words enraged me. The swell of the next contraction began to rise. My rage compelled me to push with renewed determination. I wanted to show that bitch exactly what I fucking did have in me. Out flew baby, into the waiting hands of the OB. “Gee,” he said, “you’d make a pretty good pitcher!”
   Jenna Elizabeth entered the world…begrudgingly..at 1:00pm on December 2nd, 1992. It was halfway through my favorite soap opera Young and the Restless. Fat snowflakes swirled dreamily in the air outside my hospital room window. She was here. The second child I’d so badly wanted, the sibling to my firstborn, was here. After a character in my second-favorite soap opera at the time, Guiding Light, we named her Jenna. The character Jenna Bradshaw was a beautiful, powerful badass jewel thief. Yes, she was a villain. Hey! Don’t judge me. It was a freaking soap opera!
   You might think that the connection to a fictional villain would doom my daughter to a troubled life. The opposite is true. As an infant, she was a dream child – good-natured, smiley, and with a happy disposition. I would often hear her cooing and laughing in the nursery in the morning. I would come in to find her smiling sweetly. Her face beamed as her chubby little legs kicked with excitement. As a toddler, she was a happy but busy little thing. Her busyness earned her my nickname for her – Bee. She was the antithesis of her older sister. Still, they were inseparable. It was just as I envisioned they would be. Sarah began to spend more time with her friends when they reached their teens. Still, the sisters remained close. They fought, as sisters do, but the bond was solid. It is the epitome of irony that my second born, the one I planned to be a companion for my first, is now my only living child.
   In 2005, Sarah was killed in an automobile accident with a drunk driver. I can assure you. The only thing harder than losing a child is looking into the eyes of your surviving child and telling her that her sister is dead. The only thing harder than grieving the loss of a child is bearing witness to the grief of your surviving child and knowing there is nothing you can do to take the pain away.
   Jenna was quiet in her grief. She didn’t wanna talk about it. She didn’t want to “go talk to” someone either. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to be with her friends. I wanted to give her the space she needed. I wanted to let her grieve in her own way. I know she worried about me, though. Unlike most thirteen-year-olds, she was happy to spend time with me from time to time. Part of her wanted to push me away, but another part knew I needed to pull her close. Her compassionate heart allowed her to tolerate it…to a degree. I don’t know if I could’ve survived losing Sarah if Jenna hadn’t allowed me this bit of grace.
   Years later she confessed the depth of her sorrow during that time. She said that she use to cut herself. She showed me the scars. It was like a dagger to my heart. I never knew. I guess I was too enveloped in my own suffering to notice hers. To this day, the thought of her suffering so…in silence… cuts me to the quick. Recently, while leafing through school photos, I came upon the one of Jenna from the year after Sarah’s death. The obvious sadness in her eyes struck me. Not knowing…not being able to see it…is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
   It was hard for me to not be overprotective of Jenna as she got older. I struggled to walk the line between giving her the freedom she desired and keeping her out of harm’s way. I knew that holding on too tight would only drive her away, and I couldn’t bear that thought. There were many times she balked and accused me of being too cautious and of suffocating her. Getting her through her teenage years was a battle on dual fronts – me with her and me with myself. When she decided to move nine hours away to go to college, I wasn’t completely sure I could endure it. But I did, and I’m very glad. She flourished there. I watched, with a mixture of pride and admiration, as she found and claimed her identity. When I graduated from high school, though I was accepted to schools far from home, I never had the courage to go. I admired Jenna’s bravery. Here was my girl not just surviving…but thriving…all on her own, nine hours from home.
   Neither of my girls were ever “girlie” girls. They preferred comfortable clothes – jeans and tee shirts – to frilly dresses and skirts. They played with both Barbie dolls and Max Steele action figures. They loved Disney movies and action cartoons. They preferred playing outdoors to all else – in the dirt and mud. I never tried to tell either of them who they were or, more importantly, who they were not. Every time I uttered the words, “I wanna be…” it was met with an attempt to define me. “That’s not very practical,” or “How are you gonna manage that?” or a sarcastic “Oh yeah, right!” was my parents’ response. Those words built walls around me and those walls confined me for many years. It wasn’t until very late in life that I realized the way out was to look up…and to rise above those walls. All those years ago I decided I would make certain my children never felt the way I had. I would accept them. I would help them define themselves, not try to do it for them.
   The first few years that followed Sarah’s death, we found out that Jenna had been struggling. She’d been struggling to define herself. She’d been struggling with her sexuality. She came out to us when she was still in high school. She was nervous to tell us. I like to think that, deep down in her heart, she knew she could never lose my love. I like to think that she knew she could count on my acceptance. I can’t even wrap my mind around how any parent could ever reject or “stop loving” their child. Frankly, there’s pretty much nothing my child could do to make that happen. To reject a child because of whom they love is beyond comprehension. To me, all a parent could ever want for their child is for them to find someone who loves them as much as their family does. All a parent could want is for them to find someone that sees them for the amazing person they are. And why in the world would anyone want to put limits on love anyway? Why would they want to define it or contain it? That leads to less love in the world, and less love means more hate at worst. It means more indifference at best. I don’t want a world like that.
   I’ve written many pieces about my older daughter and my grief over her loss. In November it will have been fourteen years since she died. Quite a bit of time has passed. Part of my heart will always ache from that loss. A greater part of my heart is full and so proud of the woman my surviving child has become. So I felt like it was time. It was time to write an ode to my winter child.
   Like winter can be, my winter child is fierce…and a force. She is passionate and hardworking. She is funny, beautiful, and wicked smart. She is willful yet willing. She’s been through more in her twenty-six short years than some people ever experience in a lifetime. She resisted coming into the world, but she relented and ended up making it a better place. I am forever grateful that she did. She lit the dark places in my mind and heart. I would not be here anymore were it not for her birth.
   A few years ago I wrote this poem for her as a birthday present.
Ode to My Winter Child
A blanket of gray
stretched out as the sky.
Swirling currents of flurries surround me.
I summon my strength
and dig deep for my will.
You, naturally, act to defy me.
Defiance is futile,
when nature trumps all.
You accept your defeat with a fury.
Angry cries are relief
to a laboring room
and a body rung out from its worry.
Drowning and gasping,
amidst roiling seas,
I was a slave to the storm’s commands.
The merciful maker
then cast me a line.
Exhausted,
I grasped
with both hands.
The cord that once bound us,
heartbeat to heartbeat,
was replaced by a tether of twine.
It chaffed
as you grew.
So I fastened it to
a heart of cardboard,
so as not to lose mine.
Once new and fragile,
the rope has now strengthened.
The tether has wrapped ‘round and through,
past cardboard and plywood,
through barbed wire and bramble,
its anchor has sunk deep and true.
My reason “to keep”
My reason to stay
My heart tied to yours
through the tow.
Your life saved my life.
Your life gave me reason,
when I once had a million to go.
   I’m writing this piece on the last day of Pride Month. I know Pride Month is about folks in the LGBTQ community celebrating who they are…who they were born to be. For me, as a Mama Bear of a member of that community, it’s also about parental pride. I am so proud of my second born…my winter child…my Bee. I remember a few years ago when Katy Perry came out with a song call Firework. My eyes would well with tears every time I heard it. It reminded me of her.
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
  When all is said and done, for me in my life, I may never have done much in this world. I may never have written a single word read by anyone other than those that love me. I may never have set the world on fire in any way. Still, the fact remains. I brought you into this world and you, my dear, are a masterpiece.

 

Strained, Strange…and Stronger Than I Thought – My Relationship with My Mother

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My mother spent most of her life taking care of people. She cooked and cleaned for them. She shopped for groceries and clothing for them. She made doctor and dentist appointments for them and even took them to those appointments. She took temperatures and gave medicine. She changed diapers and sheets. She put hair in ponytails…really, really tight ponytails.

Mom began her caretaker role at a tender age. She was just a teen when my grandparents split up. My grandmother had to go to work full time, so the care of her younger siblings fell to Mom until she married my father. Then she had to take care of him…and eventually three kids.

Mom once told me that she’d dreamt of being a secretary when she was in high school. Of course, being a secretary was one of the few jobs that were accessible and socially acceptable for women of her station back then. She’d taken all the secretarial classes her high school had to offer. I remember seeing steno pads of shorthand that she’d saved. But Mom’s secretarial career was not to be, and I remember thinking that those steno pads were mementos…keepsakes…symbols of unfulfilled dreams.

My mother spent most of my childhood as a homemaker, and she was pretty good at it. But as the world changed around her and it became more and more common for women to work outside the home, I knew there was a longing inside her – a yearning for what might’ve been. Don’t get me wrong. Mom was okay with being a wife and mother. But there was a small part of her…deep down inside…that secretly resented, just the teensiest teeny bit, automatically being expected to forego her own dreams and ambitions to become a caretaker.

Once all her kids were in school and the financial demands of a bigger house out in the burbs made getting a job a necessity, she finally got her chance. It wasn’t exactly what she’d dreamt of in high school and it certainly wasn’t a “career,” but it was her opportunity to have an identity other than being “just a housewife.” Mom went to work in the customer service department of a retail store. Unfortunately, because, like Mom, I was several years older than both my siblings, her joining the workforce meant I would have to pick up the slack and, like her, become a caretaker. It was understood. The first-born daughter to the first-born daughter, the mantel had been passed, and I took it up. It wasn’t like I had a choice.

Mom might not have been completely in touch with that tiny bit of herself that resented the role of caretaker that had been foisted upon her, but I was. And it made me a shitty, shitty caretaker to my siblings. It also made me wonder if I would ever be able to love children of my own or care for them well. Happily, I was able to do that, and the caretaker mantel I’d taken up as a teen served me well in many, many ways. It helped me serve developmentally disabled adults when I worked in mental health. It helped me in my career as a teacher of young children, and, yes, it helped me be a good mother. Mom had set a certain example of sacrifice. She wasn’t the most loving and nurturing of mothers. She wasn’t warm and fuzzy by any stretch of the imagination. Her mothering had sharp edges, and, as what we now call a “highly sensitive child,” I was often cut deeply by them. Looking back now though, as a fellow caretaker, I respect the sacrifices she made…for her siblings, for Dad, for my siblings, and for me.

When Mom got sick, I think my dad finally recognized the sacrifices she’d made over the course of her lifetime and how she’d lovingly taken care of him too, for more than half a century. He tried his best to return the favor, but he just couldn’t do it at home. Caretaking requires a level of selflessness he just never had, through no fault of his own. Instead, he made what one might consider a more meaningful sacrifice – that of time. Not a day went by when he didn’t visit her at the nursing home, spending entire afternoons and evenings just sitting with her. I tried to return the favor, too, in small ways and tiny instances. I remember taking Mom to a doctor appointment on a day when Dad couldn’t. Rheumatoid arthritis had ravaged Mom’s joints by that time and walking was difficult for her. She asked to hold my hand as we walked into the doctor’s office. It made me acutely aware of how our roles had changed. I had that same feeling, more intensely, most recently at the nursing home. Mom had been put on a full, thickened liquid diet. All her food had to be spoon-fed. I came in at meal time one day to find Mom’s meal set before her but without a CNA available to feed her at the moment. The caretaker in me, the one she’d help create, took over. I instantly began to feed her. I said, “I bet you remember when you use to do this for me, huh?” She just nodded, as if to acknowledge a debt absolved.

On Christmas Eve of this past year, my husband, my kids, and I were watching the Pope say Midnight Mass on TV. Yeah, I admit that I’ve devolved just that far as a Catholic – from devout to Christmas Catholic to the worst kind of Christmas Catholic – one that watches Midnight Mass on network television on Christmas Eve. My cell phone rang at five to midnight. The nursing home had had a history of calling for less than urgent matters, so I wasn’t overly concerned when I saw the number on the caller ID. Mom had looked particularly good and alert just a couple days before. We’d planned to see her Christmas Day and bring her Christmas presents. But this call was different. “Come,” the nurse said, “We think it’s time.” I felt confused for a moment until it registered. “Okay,” I said, “We’re on our way.”

Mom was still hanging on when we got there. I asked my husband and daughters to give me a moment alone with her. Her breathing was labored, and physically she looked clearly to be on the dark threshold. I said her name and for some strange reason, I had great difficulty modulating the volume of my voice. No matter how hard I tried, every time I said, “Mom,” my voice sounded like it did when, as a child, I would lose track of her in a store. It sounded loud and frightened. After a few moments, I was able to compose myself enough to tell her, through tears, that it was okay to let go. I told her that I knew she was tired. I told her that we would all be okay and that she could go be with Dad. It was then that she took one last gulp of air and did just that – let go.

I think she waited for me that night, but I don’t think she was waiting for me, her daughter. I think she was waiting for me, the fellow-caretaker. I think she was waiting to ask – one caretaker to another – for permission to lay the burden down. After she got sick and went to live in the nursing home, it might’ve appeared to most people that her caretaking days had ended. They hadn’t. She was a caretaker right up until the day my dad died. Visiting her gave Dad a purpose. God only knows how lost he would’ve been had she gone before him. Once he was gone, her earthly mission was complete and, on the night she died, I think she looked to me for confirmation of that fact.

Today is Mom’s birthday, and I am missing her. I am missing her more than I ever thought I would. As complicated my relationship with my father was, the one I had with my mother was even more so. All my early memories revolve around her, and most of my memories begin and end with her. As I mentioned, Mom was not a particularly affectionate woman, and looking back on that fact now makes my heart ache a little. I would like to have had her hugs and kisses and cuddles when I was a child. I would like to have given them to her, too.

Home is the epicenter of my memories of Mom. The first home I shared with my parents was a tiny second-floor apartment in the building my grandparents owned. Of course, as a child’s experiences will, those memories mostly feature me, with my mother’s presence in the background. Still, it’s Mom that is in most of the memories…not my dad…not my siblings…Mom.

Though Mom stayed at home until I was a teenager, I honestly have no memory of what she actually did. I remember dinner being on the table shortly after my father got home from work every day. I remember having clean clothes. I remember living in a relatively clean house. I just don’t remember my mother actually making those things happen.

What I do have is snippets of memories – short mental “video clips” of Mom. I remember her washing my hair in the kitchen sink as I stood on a chair in that little apartment. I remember talking to her on the telephone when she was in the hospital when my sister was born. I remember turning back to look at her when she dropped me off at kindergarten…only to find her gone. I remember how beautiful and slim I thought she was compared to me. I remember her irritation at having to deal with me getting my first period on Thanksgiving Day when she was trying to prepare the holiday meal. I remember her sending me into the bathroom of the store she worked at to try on the dress for my first wedding. We had ordered it there because she got a discount. She sent me in and told me to let her know if it fit because she “didn’t need to see it.” I remember how much that hurt.

I remember hugging my mother tightly when my 16-year-old daughter died. “They killed my baby, Mom. They killed her,” I sobbed. In a rare moment of nurturing, she patted my back and whispered, “I know. I know,” as she returned my embrace. I felt her sorrow for me.

I remember the blank expression on Mom’s face when I had to tell her Dad died. I couldn’t tell if she understood or not. I remember the time tears suddenly began rolling down her cheeks one day after Dad died, when she, my husband, and I heard a loud altercation break out in the hallway outside her room at the nursing home. It seemed that, in a rare moment of clarity, she finally realized exactly where she was and that she was without him. My final memory of Mom is the empty look of her sky blue eyes as she took one final labored breath on the night she passed. It was like she was someplace else…already.

For some people, their relationship with their mother is simple – pure and loving. Mine was not. For most of my life, it was strained…and strange. I use to feel jealous of women that were “best friends” with their mom once they reached adulthood. I don’t feel that way anymore. I know my mother loved me, but I accept the fact that part of her secretly resented me and my siblings for robbing her of her dreams and for me then going on to pursue some of mine. She was human and humans are complex beings.

A song has been going through my head as I’ve been writing this. It’s Prince’s song Strange Relationship. The refrain goes like this, “Baby I just can’t stand to see you happy, but, more than that, I hate to see you sad. Honey, if you let me, I just might do something rash. What’s this strange relationship we have?” To be clear, this song is about a dysfunctional romantic relationship, but, in many ways, it’s applicable to my relationship with my mother.

Love is a strange thing. Its expression takes many forms. It can be expressed in words. It can be shown through deeds. It can look like affectionate gestures such as a touch or a kiss. But it can be expressed subtly, too – through the giving of time or resources or a sacrifice of self-interest. The words “I love you,” were not often spoken in the household I grew up in, and that once made me question the sentiment’s presence there. Time, age, and wisdom have shown me otherwise. I hope, wherever she is, Mom now knows the gratitude I feel but never expressed to her. I’ve come to understand that her love took the form of hard work, sacrifice, and all those little ordinary deeds of care. The expression says that deeds speak louder than words, but our hearts must be open to understanding them. My mother was a caretaker for almost all her life. I like to think of caretaking as a whispered language of love articulated through deed. And in the words of a song by my mother’s favorite band, The Beatles, “All you need is love….

 

 

Echo Sighed

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My first writing love was poetry, specifically song lyrics. I listened to them day in and day out, long before I could write a single word. Around age nine, lyrics for my own songs began popping into my head. I was desperate to set them to music. I diligently poured over books about how to read and write music. I gave it my best shot with a stupid little Clavier organ. It proved only to be an exercise in frustration. Mozart wrote music at that age without lyrics, and I quickly found out that I am no Mozart. Having had zero success learning to play any musical instrument, I eventually came to terms with the fact that composing music was not part of my future. I did, however, continue to write poetry. I even won a contest once when I was thirteen. I didn’t write much poetry after that though. Life happened. Years later, when I took a “Creative Writing for Teachers” class in college, my interest was reignited. I wrote some really great poems for that class, but I wrote little after that. I have only written three poems since then. One was inspired by the loss of my oldest daughter. One was inspired by the life of my surviving child. What follows is my most recent foray into verse. It was mainly inspired by the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus but also by some of my own personal experiences. Those of you that read/follow my blog enjoy my prose. Your support is deeply appreciated. It is my sincere hope that you will enjoy my poetry just as much as you enjoy my stories.

Echo Sighed

Echo sighed, rolled over and closed her eyes.

Darkness held her bound in sleep – Somnos’ spell cast well.

A spark of red cut the gray on the blade of the horizon.

It caught her eye.

Risking much, with a single finger she reached out and touched the glow.

Burning words enveloped her, lending warmth to dark winter.

Honey and whiskey dripped from a silver-tongue, giving sweetness to the bitter.

She drank deeply, greedily, from his outstretched palms and then pulled them to her cheeks.

He recoiled in horror, turned away and then turned back for another glance.

Echo brightened.

Her eyes widened.

She leaned toward him only to find…

Fair Narcissus, lovely poet, simply sought his own refection within the pools of her eyes.

Girl Stuff

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Okay. Here’s the scenario: It’s a commercial for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. It features Kate Upton’s ample bosoms spilling over the top of a lacy black bra – the kind the sales girl calls a “balconette.” Whatever. Right? It’s the kind of bra some gals have no business wearing. There’s a soft-filter on the camera, accentuating her “come hither” look. She gazes intently into the camera and softly whispers, “I want you. I REALLY want you…but…but…I’m on my period.” Wicka-wicka wuuuut? Got you didn’t I, boys? Yeah, I hooked you. Well, you can console yourself with the notion that Justin Verlander, World Series-winning future Hall of Fame pitcher, has had to hear those very words uttered from the luscious lips of that woman. Now you fellas can do me the favor of a continued courtesy read. Ladies, I think you will find what I have to say amusing and all too relatable.

Ever since the day Aunt Flo first rang my doorbell, some forty years ago, that bitch has had it out for me. Yeah, she’s always had my launch code…my address, my zip code, and my social security number, too. And I’m not sure why, but she really doesn’t seem to like me. I realize that many of the experiences of “womanhood” are rarely positive for anyone, but DAMN! Could the Creator be any more spiteful? For instance, I remember my mother’s initial reaction when I got my first period. Most moms are like, “Oh! My baby is all grown up!” They get sentimental. They’re caring and sympathetic. They think about their own experiences with “the curse.” Not my mom. Nope, that wasn’t Bonnie.

It was Thanksgiving, and Mom was busy trying to concoct a show-stopping dish-to-pass that would rival my grandmother’s culinary expertise. She was way too busy to deal with anybody’s bullshit. Even though I had friends with older sisters and knew what to expect, all of a sudden finding my drawers soaked with red stain freaked me out. I felt stunned, and, like any girl would, I went to my mother. “Jesus H. Christ, Christine! Already? And now? God, I thought I had a few more years.” She ushered me into the bathroom, showed me the pad stash, and said, “HERE!” Then she turned and went back to the daughter-in-law versus mother-in-law Turkey Day throw down. I was left to my own devices. Luckily, there were instructions on the back of the package.

It isn’t just menstruation, though. I have had a contentious relationship with the workings of my female body all my life. I wasn’t much of a “girlie girl,” when I was growing up. I wasn’t a “tomboy” either, though. I just really liked running around, climbing trees, riding my bike, and spending summer days barefooted and getting as filthy as I possibly could. It felt like important work at the time. Then, one-day, genetics dealt me the cruelest blow. I “developed” early…and I’m talking, like, age nine. This necessitated an uncomfortable conversation, initiated by my tactless mother, about my need for a bra. The talk “segued” into a tangential lecture about the importance of wearing deodorant. The worst part is that the entirety of this conversation occurred in public…IN THE SUPERMARKET! Needless to say, it was not helpful. The only thing that “talk” did was to make me feel even more self-conscious about my body than I already was.

In spite of her less than supportive initial reaction to my premature burgeoning womanhood and since I was such a good student, Ma was totes cool about letting me skip out on school for “girl stuff” any time I wanted. So, that was cool. If on my way to the bus stop, my cramps made me feel like I might literally die, Bonnie had no problem calling-in to school for me. When my crazy-ass hormones made my face look like a zit-studded pizza, she was A-Okay with letting me stay home for a couple days until it got better. I’m not sure I would’ve made it through adolescence were it not for her leniency.

In adulthood, my body continued to wage a battle of wills against me, especially when I was trying to get pregnant for the second time. I badly wanted a sibling for my daughter, but my body was like, “Hey, dude, we did you a solid by letting you have ANY babies, and you want another?” It was during these attempts to conceive that I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. After my primary care guy, the hippie doc that delivered my first child made the initial diagnosis, I went for a second opinion from a doctor that was recommended by a friend. The experience was yet another negative interaction with a healthcare provider to pile onto the heap I’d previously experienced. I can best describe this guy and his bedside manner as a combination of Hannibal Lector and Dr. Cox from the television show Scrubs. He confirmed hippie doc’s diagnosis and said, “You know, if you REALLY want to have another baby, all you need to do is lose some weight.” He might as well have added, “Fatty” to the end of that proclamation, as insulting as it was. Weeeeell, I proved THAT MOTHERFUCKER wrong within the next couple of months! I found myself pregnant post-haste. This perceived victory over my body’s contrarian will was short-lived, though, because it quickly began to look like I might lose the pregnancy. I started to spot, and my ob-gyn told me to prepare myself, just in case. I was put on bed-rest. During this time, in addition to eavesdropping on my neighbors’ cordless telephone conversations via my then husband’s police scanner, I constantly talked to my unborn child. “Come on,” I would say, “You are so, so wanted, little baby. I can’t wait to meet you. Please, please, please come meet me and your big sister.” Happily, my pregnancy made it full-term, but my child’s final symbolic protest against entering the world was a forty-eight-hour labor that had to be aggressively nudged along with Pitocin and Olympic level pushing. Luckily, she was a cherubic dreamboat of an infant once she got here and is now the truest love of my life. My body, on the other hand, continued to be a spiteful bitch.

All I can say is that I thank the sweet baby Jesus for mankind’s greatest invention – the contraceptive pill. It was this miraculous pharmaceutical invention that finally allowed me to conquer the wild and erratic hormone rollercoaster with which my body or genetics chose to supplement the storied consequence of original sin. Still, years later and after being lulled into a false sense of normalcy, I decided to stop taking the pill. The “hell on earth” that is having three teenage daughters in our house convinced my second husband and me that we were done with our need to breed, so I convinced him to have a vasectomy. Compared to most men, I guess his procedure was relatively traumatic. I felt bad and pretty guilty.

Maybe it was the universe’s revenge for my insisting that the hubs have such a “barbaric” procedure. Maybe it was my body’s treasonous desire to avenge the years my hormones languished in containment at the hands of synthetic control. I’m not sure. But I will tell you that hell hath no fury like female hormonal imbalance. A couple years after going off the pill, my crazy-ass symptoms returned – acne like that of a thirteen-year-old boy, menstrual cramps that sometimes rivaled labor pain, and mood swings you’d swear were the basis of a script for Dexter. I’d dealt with it all before, so I just endured. Medically speaking, eventually, you reach an age at which synthetic hormones present more of a risk than a benefit. So, I was advised by my doc not to resume use of them.

A few years later, however, that same physician began overreacting to every tiny “symptom” of something being wrong with my lady parts. Knowing she had had problems of that nature, I suspected she might be projecting. I trusted her, though, so I complied with every test and procedure. Then one year during my annual exam, she was convinced I might have some sort of serious problem. She wrote me a referral to an ob-gyn colleague of hers. Almost as soon as I sat down on the exam table this guy started throwing the “c” word around. Believe me when I say that nothing makes you willing to let a doctor run every test in the book like the idea that you might have cancer. He hadn’t even examined me when he told me he was going to do a biopsy.

I was nervous, but I desperately wanted to know if there was something really wrong. The nurse got me prepped and soon the hellacious invasive procedure began. Once he started, he said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to have to dilate your cervix a bit, so things might get a little uncomfortable.” “What?” I said, “You mean MORE uncomfortable, cuz this is already pretty fucking uncomfortable!” He laughed, “It really won’t be that bad. I’ll numb you up,” said the person who doesn’t even HAVE a cervix. Many women are familiar with the feeling of your cervix dilating…naturally…as it does in childbirth. And it’s FUCKING painful! Now imagine your cervix not having the motivation of a human being coming through it to make it cooperate. Yeah, it’s like that. For you fellas, I can describe it to you like this:  someone takes a tiny tightly wound spring, shoves it into your dickhole, and then, “POP!” springs your shit wide open. Uh-huh. I was out of my mind in pain and on the verge of passing out from hyperventilating when the whole nightmare was finally over. Doctor Marquis De Sade and his RN minion looked worried. Perhaps the vision of a malpractice suit was dancing their heads. I dunno. But they acted concerned enough that they offered to crack the exam room door to, “let in some fresh air while we let you have a moment to rest here a sec.” Afterward, I couldn’t get to my car fast enough.

Once inside the safety of my vehicle, I began bawling. I phoned my husband and told him about the ordeal. He said he’d make sure to bring me a bottle of Pinot when he got done with work. You are probably thinking, “Okay, surely this trauma caught some horrible problem in the nick of time.” It did not. The results were negative. The procedure was completely unnecessary. What’s more is that I got billed nearly a grand out of pocket for that shit show.

The following year my doc did the same damn thing again. “Uuuuhm. I think I see a polyp or a mass or something,” she said, “I think I need you to see the gynecologist.” She gave me another referral to Dr. Immacrook. This time I politely declined. I let the office know I’d be in touch with them about to whom I wished to be referred. After asking around, I found a wonderful doctor at a highly recommended practice. Still, I avoided going for the “annual exam” thing. I hated it. It made me psycho. I couldn’t sleep the night before my appointment. God forbid an appointment would be scheduled on a workday. Then I’d have to take the entire day off…no matter what time the appointment was. I avoided going. I didn’t go. I wouldn’t go…until there was a problem. Then there was a problem.

As I mentioned, my lady business has always seemed to be out to get me, and it recently put me through a pretty big scare. I missed a period, which at first, I thought was the sign of a perfectly natural change – menopause. Then, like some kind of sick macabre surprise party, I started. And when I say I “started,” I mean I began to bleed like a stuck pig. I hadn’t been expecting it and, I certainly hadn’t been expecting anything of that magnitude. I wasn’t prepared, and, what’s more, is that it happened at work. Such a situation is really unfortunate for someone that works in a profession where they are unable to use the restroom when they need to. I’m a teacher. So there are times that I have to wait five to six hours to use the toilet. On this day, I was certain my five and six-year-old students would go home to tell their parents about how they watched a pool of blood form around their teacher’s ankles as she sat in her “teacher chair” while reading the day’s Big Book story. Seriously, I thought I’d have to call my husband and have him bring me a change of clothing! Luckily, it didn’t come to that. What did follow, however, was a straight month of bleeding. And that’s something freak-out worthy for any woman of any age.

Okay. For most women, once you get to a “certain age” you begin to anticipate the big “change.” Though it’s talked about even less than menstruation, most women know enough about it to recognize a few hallmark signs – hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, inconsistent periods, etc. Still, by and large, it’s a process shrouded in mystery. No one wants to talk about it, because it’s depressing…it’s a fucking drag…and it’s nature’s way of saying your days of being biologically useful to the human race are done. Consequently, I didn’t know if what was happening to me was normal…or if it meant I was dying or something. So, I called my gyno’s office. It took me nearly a month to get in to see someone, and, by the time I finally did, the bleeding had stopped. I saw a midwife named Patti. I really liked her. She was a little older than me and had a very relaxed, accepting bedside manner. She examined me but found nothing of immediate concern. She did, however, recommend an ultrasound. She thought they’d be able to do it there in the office that day, so I’d leave with at least some information. Unfortunately, there were no technicians available that day so the procedure would have to be performed at one of the area hospitals…nearly another month later. Afterward, I was told I’d get a call within the week to tell me the results, but after a week of handwringing and no word, I phoned. Midwife Patti was on vacation. It would be another week before I would know anything. When Patti finally called, she told me they’d “found something,” They wanted to schedule a sonohyterogram, a procedure that would give more precise results. Color me officially freaked out at this point. I called to schedule the appointment only to find it would be another month of high anxiety before I’d get any answers. Facing another semi-invasive medical procedure, I spent the month ruminating about every worst-case scenario.

When I called to make the appointment, I had questions. The receptionist/scheduler did her best to answer them, but it was clear her knowledge was limited. “Are they gonna need to dilate me for this?” I asked. “Uuuuh, lemme see (click, click, click – keyboard sounds). Yeah, it says that they will,” she answered. “Well, I’ve had that done before and it hurts like hell. Will they sedate me for it?” I continued. “Oh no, no. Most women say it’s just like really bad menstrual cramps. You just need to take some ibuprofen beforehand,” she laughed. “Well, I’m allergic to ibuprofen,” I replied. She was silent for a moment and then said, “Gosh, I guess you’ll just have to do Tylenol then.” Acetaminophen has never done more than take the edge off any pain for me. “Ooookay,” I said, “Should I have someone drive me?” “Well, you know your body, so I’d say it’s up to you,” was her answer. Yes, I DO know my body…and my history of sexual abuse…and how even the most routine gynecological exam sends my anxiety into the stratosphere, so I made sure my husband took the day off work to take me.

The first time I forced my husband to go with me to my gynecologist’s office, we both remarked at how we seemed to be surrounded by screaming reminders of our particular stage in the human condition – post procreation but pretty far from post-mortem. I didn’t ask him to come into the little room with me that time. I remember sitting alone, bare-assed, on the crunchy paper of the examination table, gazing out the window. I wondered if the architects had tried to create a perfect frame of the woodlands in the window, in an effort to ease the anxiety of women that would soon find themselves recumbent and in the most vulnerable of postures – feet in stirrups, privacy torn asunder amidst the glare of a spotlight and under the gaze of a stranger. Patti the Midwife was compassionate and sensitive. I trusted her. I trusted my new doc, too. None of my appointments at this practice had been as bad as the ones I had elsewhere, so I was hopeful that this procedure, in the hands of gentler kinder folk, might not be as bad as I feared.

My girlfriends all rallied around me prior to the second procedure. I had their steadfast support. That helped. At my request, they shared a couple Xanax to help me through it. Like before, even though the appointment wasn’t until the afternoon, I took the whole day off work. Doing so allowed me to prepare the way I prefer to and the way most women get ready for a date that presents the possibility of “getting lucky.” You know what I mean – shaving like you’re about to have surgery and being particularly thorough about what gets well lathered in the shower. I sifted through my underwear drawer to find a pair without holes and free of period stains, ones that were regular knickers and not “sexy lingerie.” Cuz, of course, wearing the really good stuff would be weird and just plain inappropriate. I know, I know, I know. They never even see your drawers, but I’m convinced that they just know. Part of why I go to all this effort is that I’m a lunatic, and the other part is that I absolutely adore my doc. It took me forever to find this kind Southern gentleman. So I always try to get things extra tidy…out of respect for him and a profession that revolves around having to stare at all manner of cooches every day all day. To me, gynecologists are like the Georgia O’Keefes of the medical profession – completely accepting and understanding of the uniqueness of every vag. Something I’m not sure I, myself, could do.

I had some leftover Hydrocodone from a previous dental procedure, so just before the appointment, I took it with the Xanax in anticipation of the worst. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling a care in the world once we got to the office. I planned to ask if my husband could come into the exam room with me. I expected to be told he couldn’t, so I had a response planned. I would say, “Okay. Now it’s not like he hasn’t seen my lady junk all up-close-and-personal-like…of course, without the benefit of that glamorous lighting.” Sadly, I was denied the opportunity to slay with that bit of wit. Without objection or questions, they allowed him to accompany me. Once in the little room, he nervously scrolled through his phone while the technician completed yet another regular ultrasound. I’ll admit, it was probably the teensiest bit awkward for him – sitting just a couple feet away from his wife lying with feet in stirrups while a lady stranger shoved a big bagged-up dildo shaped camera into her business. The tech finished the procedure, and we waited for the doc to arrive for the “main event.” He was running late. I was worried the Xanax/Hydrocodone cocktail might wear off. All I could think about was the itty-bitty-spring-thingy blowing up my shit.

Dr. Southern Comfort knocked before he came in. He apologized for his “taaahdineeess,” and he introduced himself to my husband. He explained what he’d be doing, showed me the instruments he’d be using, and told me how the procedure would help him make a determination about whether or not something was wrong. He immediately said there’d be no need at all to dilate me. Hallelujah! Then he got down to the business at vag, alternating between telling me what he was seeing/doing and discussing baseball with my husband. “Boy, he’s good,” I thought to myself, “What a masterful multitasking motherfucker!” It seemed like he’d only just begun when he pronounced that there’d be no need for a biopsy either. There was nothing…absolutely nothing…wrong with me. He de-gloved, shook my husband’s hand, and bid us a lovely remainder of our day. I was stunned but relieved. I’d been certain I’d be setting up a surgical consult for my hysterectomy at the checkout desk. Instead, I paid my copay, and we went for a late lunch. My narcotics hadn’t even worn off yet. It was the best lunch date ever.

I have the utmost reverence for what the female reproductive system is capable of, and as someone who has passed two human beings through her cooch medication-free, I am humbled by the miraculousness of it all. With that being said, I still find myself mired in the love-hate dichotomy that is my relationship with my body – specifically my reproductive system. I hate my period. I hate the pain. I literally feel physically ill for about a week before until a few days after. I hate the mess. I hate how self-conscious it makes me feel, just like I felt that very first day of my very first period. I hate the way it affects my entire life for days. Still, the thought of not having a period is almost as bad. Looming menopause pushes all my insecurity buttons. It makes me feel old, dried up, and “less than.” Reproductively viable or post-menopausal – both states suck in their own way, and both are intimately tied to the way a woman is perceived by society.

Still, I feel like our culture is slowly shifting…for the better. Reproductive viability is no longer the be-all-end-all of a woman’s value. Though the value of a woman’s appearance still seems to be dying way too hard, in my opinion, the trend toward gender role nonconformity and gender fluidity have made a positive, albeit small, impact on how women see themselves. It’s my hope that, if I ever have a granddaughter, she can shrug off all the myths, negative connotations, and stereotypes about “girl stuff” that my mother, my daughters, and I grew up with. I hope she can see herself, first and foremost, as a human being…one that just happens to have two X chromosomes, a uterus, and all the other things – good and a little less than good – that go along with being born genetically female. That’s my hope…my wish. Well that, and maybe legal-in-every-state cannabis-infused tampons. That’d be pretty bitchin, too.

 

 

 

 

Soul Food

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I will never be a proponent of the “food is just fuel” philosophy. Where I come from meals are more than mere nourishment. To me, food is the most complex necessity. Human history has shown as much. In Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective, Robyn Fox describes food’s unique role in the lives of humankind.

We have to eat; we like to eat; eating makes us feel good; it is more important than sex. To ensure genetic survival the sex urge need only be satisfied a few times in a lifetime; the hunger urge must be satisfied every day.

It is also a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers. Food is the most important thing a mother gives a child; it is the substance of her own body, and in most parts of the world mother’s milk is still the only safe food for infants. Thus food becomes not just a symbol of, but also the reality of, love and security.

All animals eat, but we are the only animal that cooks. So cooking becomes more than a necessity, it is the symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature. And because eating is almost always a group event (as opposed to sex), food becomes a focus of symbolic activity about sociality and our place in our society

Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around food and cooking. I fondly remember standing, perched on a stepstool at the counter in my Grandmother Vesta May’s kitchen, helping her roll out the dumpling dough for her chicken and dumplings. During summertime, I often accompanied my grandparents on their trips back home to South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. I remember sitting in rocking chairs on the porches of individuals whom I barely knew that were supposedly my “relatives.” The unfamiliar company never kept me from wolfing down the delicious pimento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, and sweet tea that were served to us so graciously on a tray with the good “company” dishware by those people. Even at that young age I recognized what a lovely thing Southern hospitality is. Another tradition I was always eager to help with was picking wild blackberries from the thorny bushes in my grandparents’ backyard. My enthusiasm was largely due to the fact that I knew Grandma would magically transform those dark jewels into sweet, rich jam that I’d get to spread thickly onto warm homemade biscuits. I’d spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the summer, too. Since the house wasn’t air conditioned, on particularly warm nights I’d sometimes awaken feeling sweaty and uncomfortable. Seeing a light down the hall, I’d stumble bleary-eyed toward it to find Grandpa in the kitchen having a “midnight snack.” Sometimes it would be peanut butter spread upon Ritz crackers. At other times Grandpa would be slurping, from a tall glass, a mixture of buttermilk with cornbread leftover from supper crumbled into it. He’d motion for me to sit in the chair opposite his, and he’d push the plate of peanut butter crackers toward me. On nights when he was enjoying the buttermilk-cornbread concoction, he’d make a glass of it for me using regular milk. He knew I didn’t care for buttermilk. Elaborate Sunday suppers with an extensive menu, another Southern tradition, were my grandmother’s favorite ways to show off her mad cooking skills. They were a showcase for her culinary talent and also made my mother acutely aware of her shortcomings in the kitchen.

My mom’s mom wasn’t much of a cook, so my mother never had the benefit of learning much from her. At my father’s behest, Mom reluctantly submitted herself to her mother-in-law’s tutelage and came away with a few decent meals in her recipe collection. Beef Stroganoff was my favorite dish and what I always asked for as my birthday dinner. Mom also had an opportunity to expand her horizons by learning a few “ethnic” recipes. My father grew up in a relatively diverse blue-collar neighborhood. He forged lifelong friendships with the sons of a few Polish and Italian immigrants. After everyone was married and had families, my mother learned from their wives. She added Italian and Polish dishes like indulgent cheesy lasagna, spaghetti with huge meatballs and authentic Italian “gravy,” tender homemade pierogis, and crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside mashed potato pancakes to her repertoire. Once Mom went back to work, after all her children were in school, these kinds of meals were reserved for holidays, special occasions, and the occasional Sunday supper to which my grandparents were invited.

 My mother’s return to work and the subsequent infrequency of those labor- intensive meals inspired my father to pursue cooking “as a hobby.” He got interested in the cooking shows that were broadcast late Saturday afternoons when he got home from work. He studied the cooking techniques and recipes detailed on The Frugal Gourmet and America’s Test Kitchen as well as those on reruns of The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. It was always a surprise to see what Dad would try his hand at from week to week. To provide the freshest ingredients for his cooking, one year he even planted a garden…the vegetables of which his spoiled, entitled children resoundingly rejected once they found tiny (harmless) green inchworms in the broccoli. And that was the end of that. Even though he lives alone now, Dad still enjoys cooking and talking about food. His newest obsession is the Insta-Pot craze. Yeah, don’t get him started on that one. “Know what I made last week?” he’ll ask. “No, Dad. I don’t. What did you make?” I’ll respond, taking the bait. “I made a pot roast, a good old fashion pot roast! Wanna know how long it took?” he’ll continue. I’ll humor him and say, “Okay. How long did it take, Dad?” His eyes will light up at the chance to share the miraculous feat of technology with which he believes I’m unfamiliar. “Fifteen minutes! I’m not shitting you, kid. It only took fifteen fucking minutes! Isn’t that incredible?”

 Barbecues were the summer family tradition on my mother’s side of the family. Unlike my father, Mom had a slew of siblings who, in turn, had spouses and kids. Less refined than my Dad’s Southern relations, Mom’s family was all about the PAR-TAAAAY! Booze flowed freely at these events. Music played, loudly, and many hijinks ensued. During one particularly raucous gathering, my mother chased her brother into the house (HER house) with the garden hose and proceeded to spray him with it, full blast, in the face! One of my favorite memories of those barbecues is when, one Independence Day, the family gathered ‘round the boom box and sang Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody together at the top of their lungs. My Aussie boyfriend at the time found himself speechless at the spectacle.  Apparently he was under the mistaken impression that Aussies had the market on boisterousness cornered. And yet, here were fifteen “Aaaamurakins,” ranging in age from about four to eighty and all of whom being the furthest thing from professional vocalists, making a decidedly less than joyful noise unto The Lord. My youngest daughter still mentions this wonderfully amusing memory from time to time. That says a lot about its impact. She was only six at the time. At these events, my dad loved to man the barbecue grill, and my mother loved to pass off her mother-in-law’s wildly popular potato salad recipe as her own. It was a centerpiece of every summer gathering. My aunts loved to compete for the “runner up” spot with their own potluck dishes. Summer barbecues culminated with a big Labor Day bash. My mother, her mother, and her sisters put their own spin on the traditional Southern dish of “fried green tomatoes.” Something only blasphemous Yankee women would do, in place of the green they used the red ripe tomatoes that are always in abundance during summer months in these parts. May the dear soul of my Vesta May forgive me, but, truth be told, I like ‘em better that way. Sweet red ripe tomatoes coated in crushed Corn Flake crumbs and fried in bacon grease are truly a crunchy, sweet, smoky, succulent slice of heaven! Once everyone had eaten their fill of the tasty bastardized delicacy, any leftover tomatoes were stewed, canned, and put up for winter dishes like meaty goulash and spicy chili.

 The loving experiences I’d had cooking with my grandmother, my fond memories of her delicious food, and the positive associations I had between food and family made me eager to take home economics in junior high. It allowed me to build upon the skills I’d learned from Vesta May. I often put my newfound knowledge to use when I had to cook for my father and siblings on the nights when my mother worked a closing shift or when I gave baked goods and other foods as gifts to family and friends. Later in life, as a young wife and mother, I loved to find new recipes to make for my family or to take as my “dish-to-pass” at potlucks. When my mother got older, I took on the mantle of preparing the big holiday meals – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. I prided myself in creating elaborate meals – the kind my grandmother prepared. I found great satisfaction in the enjoyment of my family. In recent years, inspired by cooking shows on Food Network and The Cooking Channel, I’ve found a similar satisfaction in cooking for friends on the rare occasion that I entertain. Like my grandma, I just love making people happy by cooking delicious food for them. I’ve sometimes dreamt of having a restaurant of my own where I could do that on a greater scale.

 Now that my children are grown and gone, I don’t have much occasion to cook on a grand scale. My husband enjoys a very limited number of foods and dishes. Though the byproduct is a ton of leftovers, there are still times when I cook things that I love just for myself. Sometimes I freeze the leftovers to have for meals in the future. Sometimes I take them to my dad. As he’s gotten on in age and after never having done so for most of my life, he now tells me he loves me. He uses the actual words. He never did that before. Unfortunately, it can’t erase the effects of a lifetime of not hearing them. So I just can’t bring myself to say the words back. I bring him leftovers instead because as is the case in many families, food is code. It’s saying, “I made this, see. I took great care. I invested time, and I’m giving it to you because I want it to make you feel happy. I want you to feel happy.”

Loving people means wanting happiness for them. It means wanting big things for them. It means you wish them things like falling in love with their soul mate or finding the job that’s their purpose in life or having a life filled with health & wellness. But it can also mean you want the little things for them, too. It can mean you wish them a sunny blue-sky day or a day free of stress. It can mean you want them to have a day when they can do something fun or have an adventure or maybe just sleep to their heart’s content. Sometimes it means, “Taste this! I made it for you! It’s so good, and I want eating it to make you feel good!” Tonight I’m making my husband’s favorite pasta, Cavatappi, with homemade Alfredo sauce and pan-seared scallops. It’s a love letter to him…and to myself. It’s me saying, “Before we go back to the daily grind, let’s take the opportunity to enjoy one small pleasure of life – a lovely meal.” No, it’s not like this is the last time we will enjoy such a meal, but it is a symbol…a celebration…of the good things and pleasures in life – things like vacations and sunshine and sleeping in.

 So, sorry Jillian Michaels…and Harvey Pasternak…and Gwyneth Paltrow…and all the rest of you amongst the subconsciously masochistic haters of the human experience, I think you’re wrong. Food is not simply fuel. It’s a complex necessity. It’s a pleasure of being human, and I’m claiming it! There is simply far too much misery in the world, so why create more by denying this simple fact? I’m pretty sure that people who languish in starvation on a daily basis would agree with me. Yes, food is a necessity for physical survival, but it can also bring happiness. Think of a starving man in Sudan as he greets a box of food dropped from the heavens with happy tears streaming down his face. I’m pretty sure that food is going to taste amazing to him and fill him with joy. Food can be love. Giving food can be a gesture of love to a co-worker or a beloved family member or a stranger that you’ve never met in a faraway land or the disheveled guy that parks his shopping cart at the exit ramp of the highway and talks to himself all the time. It can be altruism.

 We are the only animals for whom food is such an incredibly complex, emotionally charged, and multi-faceted thing. We produce it, we share it, we withhold it from others, and we sometimes deny it to ourselves. We cook it, create it, and consume it. Food nourishes the body of any organism, but, truly, it can only feed the souls of humans. Can I get an amen?