Last night a friend asked me if my kids hiked.  I thought about it for a moment and realized that with the exception of a possible school field trip, none of them has ever gone hiking.

My kids are city kids. This is particularly strange, since their father grew up on a seven hundred acre farm in Missouri and I was raised in a tiny rural community in western Massachusetts.  When the children were babies, we moved to a small city.  I was petrified and vowed that when they reached school age, we would move to the country where it was safer.  When the time for Abby to enter kindergarten arrived, we still lived in the city.  I acquiesced, swearing that when she reached the age of middle school, we would surely leave the city.  That time arrived as well, and we were still unable to move.   In the end, she and her siblings all graduated from city high schools.

The funny thing is, I don’t think they were any less safe in the city than they would have been in the country.  In fact, I think because there were more options available to them, they were able to avoid some of the pathways that often lead teenagers to trouble.

Just the same, it bothers me a bit that they grew up with concrete and asphalt beneath their feet instead of pine needles and leaves.  Once, when we were at a state park, Abby looked at the lake and asked which was the deep side.  She had never gone swimming anywhere but a concrete pool.

I grew up roaming the woods and fields near my parents’ house.  My sister and I would take our fishing poles out on Saturday mornings, and hike for miles- to Teakettle Dam, to Number One Pond, and along streams and brooks on the outskirts of town.  The mornings were filled with the scent of warm mud, spicy pines and new grass. As the sun warmed our necks, and we’d fish for brook trout and hunt for Lady Slippers.  To me, a carpet of emerald moss making its way over a slab of granite was more rich and exotic than the finest tapestry woven in the Middle East. I was convinced that the delicate sheets of dew that draped over leaves and grass were left by fairies that lived beneath Lily of the Valley.  In my imagination, rocks layered with mica were hidden stores of gold and silver, waiting to be mined.   We lay on our bellies and drank from bubbling streams, and made poultices from sap and leaves to relieve the itch of mosquito bites and poison ivy.  Finally, when our growling stomachs begged for lunch, we returned home, empty handed, sunburned and contented.

In retrospect, I suppose our roaming was more dangerous than that of my children. They had phones and rendezvous sites and code words to ensure that strangers would not steal them away. They were slathered in sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and doused in bug spray to protect them from West Nile Virus.  They wore bike helmets and seat belts and I always knew where they were.

But I had a freedom that they were never able to savor.  To wander un-tethered is a wonderful thing for a child. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about Equine Encephalitis or melanoma or contaminated water. They shouldn’t ever see things like the Oklahoma City bombing or the falling of the Twin Towers.  Kids should worry about finishing their chores and taking turns at the water fountain, finishing their homework and getting home when the street lights come on.

My kids are grown now- they will not be deceived by pyrite and skunk cabbage.  They know that the world is dangerous. They are linked and connected and Twittered and Face Booked.  They are better educated and better traveled than I, and they are more worldly than I will ever be.  But they need to know what it is like to spend a few hours wandering through nature’s amusement park, to feel the breeze in their hair and the sun on their backs, and taste a little freedom. 

Find some comfortable shoes, kids.  Momma’s taking you for a hike.

Bridging the Gap

Kevin is a gentle giant.  I look across the table at his massive hands curled around a mug of steaming tea, and remember how thin and frail he was as after a tonsillectomy when he was five.  Now he is huge and strong- six feet, five inches, with broad shoulders and those hands- I mean, how does he manage fine motor tasks with those hands?

He has dropped by, quite unexpectedly.  I can’t remember the last time he visited.  Perhaps it was when he helped me move here, but that was a few years ago.

We are of the same blood.  We shared a house with one bathroom, two parents, eight siblings and more pets that we could count.  Kevin always jumped up to greet me when I came home from college.  I sewed costumes for him out of old band uniforms when he performed in his middle school performance of “Oliver!”  I remember him as a toddler and as a teen, and I remember how he went off to the Coast Guard as a round-faced boy and returned as a lean, capable man.

We share a love for music and an undying devotion to our children.  It is curious that our kids are so much alike in many ways.  His Emily is a social activist at fifteen, sleeping on the State House lawn to heighten awareness for the homeless.  My Abby slept in a cardboard box for Invisible Children. His Eli lets his home work slide, but aces every exam.  My Gabriel did the same thing when he was the same age.

Like our brother Rick, Kevin is a firefighter.  The night I was in labor with Gabriel, he sprained his ankle while fighting a house fire.  I remember the nurse telling me that my brother was in the hospital’s emergency room.  For a moment I was fully distracted from my own pain, afraid he was badly injured.  It was with much relief that I found out it was only his ankle.  In the end, he would heal from his injury before I did from my cesarean section.

 He says he’s never really had a close call, and is grateful for that.  When I ask him if he ever gets scared, he evenly holds my gaze and simply says, “No.  I don’t get scared.  I sometimes back out when it gets too dangerous, but I don’t get scared.”

I cannot relate to this.  The closest I get to fire is throwing a lit match toward a gas pilot from a three-foot distance.  I get dizzy if I look down the stairwell from the second floor.  I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to be inside a burning building, or running up a ladder to climb on a burning roof.   But Kevin doesn’t lie.  He trusts in his training, and he doesn’t get scared.

Kevin’s faith is as obvious as his size.  He doesn’t speak about it very much, but he follows a true and dedicated path.  True to an old nickname, he is a lighthouse- a towering lamp, silently illuminating a path for those who seek refuge from life’s storms.

It occurs to me that my brother and I don’t see each other nearly enough. If we are not careful, life has a way of separating us from the ones we love.  We’ve not talked, just the two of us, in way too long. In many ways, he is a stranger to me. The sharp realization of this cuts into my heart and suddenly, my eyes sting with tears. 

I take a deep breath, blink a few times, and pour us another cup of tea.  We sit at the table and catch up; our talk punctuated by Kevin’s deep and full laughter.  Like me, he laughs easily and often.  I’m reminded of something Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”  Maybe it’s been too long, and maybe we’ve been too far apart, but it’ll be okay.  Love and laughter will bridge us together once again.


On my desk is a snap shot of our family taken when the children were little.  It is a slice of our life; a husband and wife sitting side-by-side, arms wrapped around three tow-headed children, caught in a torrent of silliness and giggles. 

The snapshot has followed me to every work space I’ve occupied since 1991.  It is a little crumpled and full of thumb tack holes, and the colors are not as bright as they once were.  But when I’m feeling closed in and pressured, I can be transported to a happier time just by looking at it.  A time when life was as simple as getting dinner on the table by five-thirty.  A time of reciting spelling words and bringing cupcakes with pink icing to school for a bake sale.  A time when tears could be kissed away, birthday candles were blown out in one breath, and sleepy little eyes drooped before eight o’clock.

It is interesting to me how much we like to revisit those days when life was simpler.  When my siblings and I get together, we often reminisce about the days when we were children.  We recall stories and fill in the details of each others’ spotty memories.  For a brief moment, we turn back time to the dog eared photos of our own youth.

Why is it that time colors our memory in a rosy haze?  Certainly there were dark days then too.  But when we reminisce, we are flooded with reruns of happy times. We remember days of bare feet and softball games in the field across the street. We remember the smell of snow dripping from woolen mittens on a cast iron radiator.  We remember the scent of new dolls at Christmas, homemade soup simmering on the gas stove, and the jetty at low tide on an August afternoon.  These memories are like fine wine whose flavor mellows and becomes more complex with age.

But lest I lose myself in the first snapshot, also on my desk is another photograph. This one is in black and white.  The same three children are adults in this picture.   They stand together under a steel and concrete bridge on a barren winter night. Although the darkness and backlighting creates mystery and intrigue, their eyes betray them.  A hint of a smile.  A spark of excitement in the eyes.  It is as if a secret joke is shared among the three. 

I think the joke is on me.  The adults in this photograph know that the best was not in their past, but it is today that they celebrate and tomorrow where their hopes lie in wait.  They see glimpses of valleys and deserts through which they will travel. They know there will be winters when the snow blurs their goals and their hearts barely beat because of the cold. They know they will struggle to reach the apex of their dreams, and sometimes they will fail.  But they know there will be success too.  Halcyon moments that burn so blindingly bright they can barely open their eyes.  Days of golden sunlight that melt into pools of deep contented sighs.   They will experience love so deep that they cannot stand to hold it and cannot stand to let it go, and heartbreak so cruel that they bleed tears that are deeper than their bones.  That is the stuff of life.  The future’s never ending tide will roll new waves over them as it has me and as it will their children.

There is a reason for two snapshots.  We need both- to be grounded in the past and to be catapulted into the future, and balance is the key.  For as much as the past glows in rosy sepia, the future is brilliant and vivid and electric.  Don’t forget your camera!

Brothers and Sisters

I am very fortunate to have seven siblings.   Having siblings was important when I was a child.  Without siblings, who would tell me that I was stupid to wear lipstick to the beach, or that I threw a baseball like a girl, or that it was my turn to dry the dishes?  Without siblings I would have relied upon the guarded answers from friends when I asked if they thought I was smart enough to go to college, or if my boyfriend was cheating on me, or if my prom gown was too babyish.  Instead, good or bad, I got a straight shot of honesty no ice, no chaser.

There are many ways in which my siblings and I are alike.  It appears that DNA determines more than facial characteristics, so I suppose it should not surprise me that we share many of the same traits.  For instance, we say “anyways” instead of “anyway.”  I don’t know why we do this, but we do.  Anyways, (see?) we love to eat, especially homemade bread, warm and slathered with creamy butter.  We all love music, from rock to folk to jazz to country, and play it often and loudly– especially in the car.   Most of us have a strong sense of altruism, and many of us thrive on the adrenaline surge that comes with speed, danger, or a combination of both. 

For as many ways as we are alike, we are all different.  It is my belief that some of these differences are gender driven.  There are definite differences in the way that sisters and brothers relate.

Sisters nurture. They comfort broken hearts.  They bring solace and anoint you with soothing murmurs, gentle hugs and chocolate.  Sisters will tactfully tell you that your swim suit has crept up over your butt cheek.  They will whisper that you have a whisker protruding from your chin, or there is a stream of toilet paper caught on your heel.  They save their favorite baby clothes for your first-born.  They feed your children, and they offer coffee and tissues when you’ve had a fight with your husband.  They give advice about diaper rash, cooking, and making third pregnancy maternity clothing look new.  They will offer their teenagers as baby sitters and surprise you with black balloons on your fortieth birthday. 

When my heart ached from a broken marriage, it was my sister Martha-Jean who soothed me.  While tears slid down my cheeks and splashed upon the soil, she and I worked side-by-side to plant flowers in her garden.  The fact that the blooms would perish by the end of the summer made it all the sadder, but the knowledge that we could plant yet again gave me hope.

My sister Robin is forever my confidant.  From our bunk beds we pretended we were cowboys, swapped paper dolls and shared pictures of heart throbs cut from teen magazines. When I was expecting my first child and she her second, we entrusted only to each other how much weight we each had gained.  She never told.  Neither did I.

My sister Teri surprises me with unexpected text messages to my cell phone- just to check in and see how I’m doing.   They come at all hours, for no reason, but it always warms my heart because I know she is thinking of me.

Sisters love you even when you are at your worst.  When I was a teenager and my baby sister Missy was a toddler, I was often charged with the responsibility of giving her a bath.  One day I was mad at my mother for some unremembered reason and took it out on poor Missy, roughly washing her hair and scrubbing her little round face with a wash cloth.  Totally consumed in self-pity, I stood her up to lift her out of the tub.  She stood there, naked and shivering in the cold, teeth chattering.  She looked up at me and tenderly stated, “I love you Garrie.” 

I had never before been anyone’s hero.  To this day, whenever I feel weak, or alone, or insecure, I pull that memory out, dust it off, and gaze at it for a while.  It never fails to remind me that no matter how badly I have behaved, I am still loved.

Brothers are different. Where sisters shroud the truth with tact, brothers barely take time to aim- they shoot straight from the hip.  There is no gray in a brother’s opinion.  If you ask, be prepared for a black or white answer.  “Yes, that’s a great idea” or “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. “   There is little in between. 

Sisters leave the door ajar for you to gracefully exit if the situation becomes uncomfortable.  They present you with a couple of options from which to choose, and allow you an opportunity to decline.  They delicately tip toe around subjects that might cause you to be embarrassed or upset. 

Brothers don’t leave you an out.  When the Atlantic Ocean is so cold it turns my feet numb, my brother Scott coaxes me out of my beach chair and shames me into swimming at his side.   He knows the salt water will ease my aching joints and invigorate my sleepy soul. 

My brother Kevin reminds me that my faith must direct my path, even when the road is difficult.  He stands tall, like a lighthouse, and guides my path with gentle nudges.  He draws me in with his infectious laughter, and before I realize what’s happening, pulls me from the place I was to where I need to go.

When my fears of failure threaten to paralyze me, my brother Eric charges ahead, dragging me in his wake before I can find an excuse to stay behind.  He does not cajole.  He does not negotiate.  He yanks me from my solitude and leads me through unknown territory because he knows it is by doing that I will believe I can.

Some people may not have been born to be part of a large family.  I have heard that in large families there is not enough to go around.  For me, it is different.  Each of my siblings has carved a spot in my heart that nobody else can claim.  Each has enriched my life in a way that no one else has.  They keep me balanced.  They remind me of who I am and who I need to be.  They set me straight when I am on the wrong path and they cheer me on when I am on the right one. They challenge me and try my patience.  They celebrate my joys and they share the burdens of my failures.  Despite the years of hand-me-downs, common bicycles, shared toys and dormitory style bedrooms, I would not trade my loud, idiosyncratic, boisterous big family for anything.   I love them passionately and deeply, and yes, there’s enough to go around, because when it comes to siblings, love doesn’t divide. It multiplies.

The Gift

I had been dreading my birthday.  Somehow, after fifty, every milestone is a little less welcome.  However, this year I was going to celebrate by doing something special.  I was to do a ride along.

By way of explanation, I am working on a book about fire fighters.  I have conducted multiple one-on-one interviews, and am still in the process of arranging others.  I have had the privilege of sharing meals with a couple of engine companies.  This is something very special, not only because someone else cooks for me, but because it is around the firehouse kitchen table that much informal decompression takes place, and to be privy to that is indeed an honor.

Still, I was still lacking the flavor of day-to-day operations within a firehouse.  As with most work, showing is much better than telling.  I needed some up close and personal experience, and was able to arrange for this to take place on my birthday.

The day began with single digit temperature readings, and clear skies.  Layered in wool and apprehension, I headed to the station where I met the five-man crew.  I had mixed feelings, for to hope that something exciting would happen is also hoping that somebody else has possibly the worst day of his life. 

The morning was quiet, the bell hitting only a couple of times.  One was an automatic sprinkler set off by pipes that burst from the frigid January temperatures.  The second was a transport from a rehab hospital to the emergency room.  Finally, after lunch there was a 911 call for an ambulance to assist another engine.  I rode with Mark, a paramedic and Chris, an EMT.

On the way to the house, Mark told me that he is very familiar with this family. The patient, a brittle diabetic with Hepatitis C, can get nasty and difficult, and has been known to bite and spit.  “The house,” he warned, “is filthy. Don’t touch anything.”

I know these people. I’ve met them before, in the clinic where I work.  These are the people who demand narcotics. These are the people who demand appointments and don’t show up.  These are the people who don’t follow their medical plans, and then blame the doctor.  Or the nurse.  Or the secretary.

The walls inside the apartment reeked of cigarette smoke, and from behind closed doors came the insistent yips of a small dog.  The patient’s wife led us into the living room, where three fire fighters from another engine company were huddled around an easy chair.  They stepped back, making way for Mark.

In the chair slouched the victim.  His chin rested on his chest, his eyes shut.  His skin was gray, his long stringy hair fallen over his face.  And his knees, so painfully thin, jutted beneath his jeans like pyramids under a blanket of denim sand.   

As Mark and Chris prepared an IV, I glanced around the room.  It was filled with horses- pictures, posters and statues of horses- on the furniture, on the walls, on every flat surface.  A caged canary squawked from its perch on top of the television.  Layers of red textiles hung across the windows and over the sofa.  A cat walked by me, brushing my leg with its tail, while the dog persistently scratched from behind the bedroom door. 

The apartment was stifling.  I was dying under my ski parka, wool sweater and turtleneck.  I stood across from the patient, silently watching Mark and Chris push an IV of fluids into the man’s arm, until he began to rouse. 

The wife chattered incessantly; her voice sounded like she has smoked since she was six.  She paced between Mark and Chris, rasping to the bird to make him squawk and yelling at the dog, held prisoner in the bedroom.  I felt a trickle of sweat run down my back, and shifted my weight back and forth, wishing I could sit down and take off my jacket.

“There.  Feeling better?” Mark asked. 

The man mumbled a bit, and answered, “I’m cold.  Can somebody get me a blanket?”

Mark remarked to the wife, “You’ve done a fine job cleaning up here.  I’ve never seen the place look so good.”  She grinned in response, obviously pleased that somebody noticed. 

I looked at her again, noticing that underneath the sallow skin was a woman who was probably ten years younger than I.  Her husband, now more coherent, shivered, and again asked for a blanket.  She brought an afghan and tucked it around his thin shoulders.  “You scared me, Babe.” Her rasp was a mere whisper.

I know these people.  They struggle with their addictions.  They struggle to pay their bills.  They struggle because they live the lives of their parents, and see only walls, never doors.

At last the IV was empty and the patient was alert- his blood sugar now at an acceptable level.  He declined a trip to the hospital.  My heart ached at the sight of his skeletal arms as he reached out to sign the release.  He nodded his thanks at Mark, who commended him for being so well-behaved, and suggested he eat a sandwich.

We trudged down the stairs into the crisp January air, grateful for the icy breeze.

I know these people.  They used to be vibrant and full of promise, but years that passed too quickly and the consequences of their choices now define their days and choke their futures. 

I sat quietly on the ride to the firehouse, deep in reflection.  The lump in my throat reminded me that the years have taken their toll on me, too. Had I allowed the events of my life to become an obstacle on my soul’s journey?   I hadn’t realized that my heart had become so cold until I felt it begin to thaw.

I know this person. She weeps for strangers.  She sees the child inside the adult. The child who needs love, compassion, a smile, and a warm touch.  I remember her.

 Sometimes the gifts we get are the gifts we didn’t even know we needed. Happy birthday to me.

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