Beating the Heat

heat-strokeIt’s 90 degrees outside, and the temperature is still rising.  This is the second day of this heat; certainly not typical of June in New Hampshire, but sweltering none the less.  Earlier in the week my daughter Abby mentioned that her downstairs air conditioner was not working.

I am by nature a problem solver.  I immediately checked my bank account, while calculating what I believed to be an accurate guess of the square footage of Abby’s and John’s house.   I looked up a chart to find out what size unit was needed to cool the first floor.

And then I stopped.

Abby never asked me to help her.  In fact, she stated that by keeping the shades drawn, the downstairs was quite comfortable, and the family could always escape to an air conditioned bedroom.

This gave me pause to think about summers when I was a child.  When I was growing up, people rarely had home air conditioning.  In fact, many stores weren’t air conditioned.  When I was very young, my family had only one small table top fan that whirred like an airplane and threatened little fingers with menacing metal blades.  My older sister and I took turns sitting in front of it on hot nights when our beds were too tangled and we were too sweaty for sleep.  As I grew older,  I discovered that by moving my pillow to the floor underneath the windowsill, I could catch a cool breeze and read by the streetlight at the same time.  I felt as if I had won the lottery.

PopsicleWe children found relief from the heat in many ways. We hiked up Academy Hill to the town library, and sat inside the cool granite walls, turning the pages to lose ourselves in adventures of exotic people in far-off lands.  We sat beneath the shade of the catalpa tree, drawing tic-tac-toes in the earth below the eaves on the north end of the house on Green Street.  We checked the pay phone at the corner of Main and Lincoln Streets for spare dimes and bought Popsicles to split and share.  And on rare occasions, ended the day with a swim at a lake, hanging our bare feet from the back of the station wagon on the ride home.

As a teen I watched my mother orchestrate a daily game of hide and seek with the summer sun.  Early in the morning she opened the shades on the west side of the house and shut the blinds on the east side.  She turned newly purchased window fans to the highest setting to bring in the cool morning air, and then as the sun rose high in the sky, shut them off and pulled the blinds, keeping the house as dark and cool as possible. Housework was done in the early hours, and the evening meal was not cooked until the sun began to dip, making for leisurely dinners savored well after dark.

judah 6.13Certainly reminiscences of the Days-Before-Air-Conditioning are more pleasurable done in the comfort of my apartment, where central air is included in the rent, and window fans are forbidden.  However, I do believe that given uncomfortable circumstances, most people will find creative solutions.  As I learned from my mother, Abby learned from me how drawing the shades and keeping the house neat, clean and calm lends itself to a cooler environment for her little boys.  Yesterday she filled a wading pool for Judah and let him splash until his toes looked like prunes and his hair formed spikes that dripped pool water over his face.  She took him out for sorbet…before lunch! She found a spot in the shade for Abram, who undisturbed by the sound of traffic and his brother’s happy shrieks, turned his face toward the breeze and settled into a relaxed summer snooze.abram

Tomorrow a cold front is supposed to move in, and by Wednesday night the temperatures are supposed to drop to the high 40s.  But for today, the fans are whirring, the cicadas are humming, and I hear an ice cream cone calling my name.

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Lemons to Lemonade

This past week someone commented on my ability to turn a negative into a positive.  I guess I haven’t thought about this for awhile, but in contemplating it after the conversation ended, I realized that it is a learned behavior that through time and practice has become hard wired.

I come from a long line of positive thinkers.  My mother, who was by no means saccharine, could add a teaspoon of sugar to any sour situation, making the medicine go down as well as Mary Poppins herself.  When disaster prevailed, her solution was to have a good cry, preferably wrapped in her arms and held close to her heart, followed by, “That’s enough now.  Dry your tears, buck up, and let’s get to work to fix this.”

My grandmother, Helen Dow, was a bit more stoic, but infinitely kind and gentle.  She had eyes that danced with laughter, and she approached life much like making cookies.  If you spill in too much salt, just increase the flour, sugar, butter and vanilla until you double the batch.  You’ll end up with twice the fun.

I adored these two women and learned much from their grace under pressure.  If plans fell to pieces, serendipity abounded.  It’s all in how you define success.  I guess I picked it up by osmosis, or at least by careful observance and modeling.  However, in thinking more carefully, there are steps to follow.  Here are 10 basic beliefs to get you started.  (And yes, there are more of food metaphors.)

  1.  Remember you have options.  If you are handed a bowl full of lemons, you can lemonslet them sit on the table, just as they are.  They won’t be anything but lemons.  They’ll look like lemons, smell like lemons, and taste like lemons as long as they are left untouched.  Or until they rot. Then, they’ll turn brown, smell awful, seep into the bowl, grow mold, and lose their shape.  You can enjoy- even relish fresh lemons, just as you can bask in the sadness of life’s disappointments.  But only for a season.  It’s up to you to determine how long that season is.  Just know that the longer the season, the less fresh the fruit.
  2. It’s okay to cry over spilled milk.  Positive thinking is not ignoring the reality of a tough situation, or pretending that we aren’t daunted by disaster.  When faced with sadness or disappointment, it’s important to recognize and validate those feelings.  After all, the elephant is never going to leave the room until you acknowledge him, name him, and even nurture him for awhile.   Have a good cry.  Emotional tears release endorphins. They release stress.  They clear your sinuses.  And a good cry makes you look as miserable as you feel, so you are no longer bound to hide behind a false smile.
  3. Share the wealth.  Admittedly, this is something that I preach much better than I practice.   I have a tendency to “forget” to mention if something is amiss in my life, so when life events- like my divorce, or a major surgery- arose, people were stunned.  I heard a lot of “Why-didn’t-you-tell me?” and “I-had-no-idea!”  Loved ones were actually hurt that I had not kept them in the loop.  So although I still prefer to silently shed my tears in the shower, I try to be a little more open about my personal challenges.  I’m not saying that we need to post every little issue on Facebook, but sharing disappointments, fears, and challenges with a trusted family member or friend can garner support, encouragement and a fresh perspective.
  4. Don’t give up.  I am a practical Yankee at heart, who believes in mending, gluing and repairing as much as possible before calling it quits.  When my children struggled to find a solution to a problem, their father often urged them to “Find another way.”  These were wise words.  Most torn relationships can be sewn back together.  They may bear the scars of the stitches, but given the correct attention, scars become badges of honor.  And some things just take perseverance. When I trained to be a smoking cessation coach, I learned that most people make several quit attempts before they succeed.  We learn a little every time we fail, so the next attempt may just be the winner.
  5. When all else fails, let it go.  One evening when I was around twelve years old, I new-year-broken-dishesbegan to set the table for dinner.  The plates were stacked on a shelf that was just above my shoulders, and in my attempt to juggle enough for our family of ten, the stack began to slip from my grasp.  One by one, the plates fell to the floor, smashing to ceramic shards, until there was one lone plate in my hand.  I turned to my horror-stricken mother.  Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, but no sound escaped.  I knew the next moments were not going to be pretty.  I looked at the lone plate in my arms and without a word, let it fall too.  Some things are not salvagable. When you meet the end of the road, call it quits and find another route.
  6. Look for the silver lining.  This may be the most important step, as it’s the key to turning a negative to a positive.  I’m not Pollyanna-ish, but really, some of the best things in life result from trials.   As a child, my daughter Elizabeth was often in the hospital.  I often wondered if all the tests, prodding,  IVs and blood draws would make her feel as if she lost part of her youth.  Now an adult, she assures me that her life was in many ways richer.  She met incredible doctors and nurses.  She learned a lot about her body.  And what touched me most is she says that the time she and I spent in hospital rooms together strengthened our relationship.  Even though she often felt sick and scared, she believed that she and I were an invincible team, and she never doubted that together we could overcome any obstacle.
  7. Separate needs from wants, and appreciate what you have.  When disaster strikes, assess the situation.  Are your loved ones still alive?  Are your relationships intact?  Remind yourself that “stuff” can be replaced, and evaluate whether it is something you really needed anyway.  Chances are, losing “things” will matter less to you once you categorize according to needs and wants.  And when the worst happens and you lose someone you love, bask in the memories of the time you did have.   Recall a conversation.  Tell the story of a particularly memorable occasion.  Let your mind wander back to a time when you were both happy, and allow yourself to bask in that sunlight for a bit.  Then, take a look at the people who are still with you.  These are your treasures.  Cherish today with them.
  8. Prepare by making every little moment as special as possible.  When my kids were growing up, we often did things together, but I also tried to spend one-on-one time with each of them every week.  My son tells me that his self esteem soared after taking a long walk on the beach together, or going out for pizza.  As parents we often think that the best times of our kids’ lives will be the trips to Disney or the huge birthday parties.  But now I know that the most precious moments were those laughing over silly illustrations in a book, or listening to a mix tape together.  It is these moments that build the armor to withstand the winds of disaster.
  9. The cookie will crumble, but know that this too shall pass.  No poor situation lasts for ever.  Sometimes you just have to get through it.
  10. Look up.  I would be a liar if I pretended that my faith has nothing to do with mysky-22116_960_720 ability to turn negatives to positives.  We don’t always understand why, and it’s not that trials won’t come.  But we are never alone.  And in the end, it all comes out in the wash.

Missed Opportunity

“My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and there were bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away

And he was talking ‘fore I knew it and as he grew
He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know, I’m gonna be like you”

This past weekend, I accompanied my daughter on a shopping trip.  I usually avoid malls, but Elizabeth wanted to check out a specific store only found in a nearby mall, and happy to spend the day together, I agreed to brave the crowds.

We parked the car and headed through the door, dodging a couple who were texting rather than watching where they were walking.  We passed a cosmetic stand where a sales associate awkwardly tried to sweep the latest blush over the cheek of the client seated before her. The customer was loudly talking on her cell phone, completely unaware of how difficult she was making the task for the associate.  As we crossed the mall floor, I almost rear-ended the young man in front of me who had suddenly slowed his pace so he could redial.

Finally, we reached the store Elizabeth wanted to visit.  I browsed through the dresses with her, and when she went into the dressing room to try a few on, I plopped myself on one of two red wooden chairs to rest my aching back.

eliz tat 5.24.16It was not long before Elizabeth summoned me to her door to give my opinion on the dress she was trying.  As usual, she looked beautiful; tall and willowy, with huge gray eyes fringed with thick lashes.  The dress, silky and black, set off the tattoos I have come to embrace.  She is exquisite.  And unique.

I smiled.  “Lovely.  You look beautiful.  Do you like it?”

She nodded, relieved that I approved.

“Try the others, just for fun,” I urged.  A shopping trip is not worth the time and effort if you leave after only trying one item.

I turned to sit down again, when a family of four entered the dressing area.  Mom and the little girl closed themselves in a dressing room.  The little girl appeared to be about seven years old. She skipped as she hugged a green and white dress and excitedly shut the door behind her.  Dad and his son sat in the two chairs and each pulled a cell phone from his pocket.

“Rats! I should have taken my seat sooner. I missed my opportunity,” I thought.

The son looked to be in middle school.  He was handsome and well-dressed, and sported an ace bandage on his left wrist and arm, like the kind that results from a skateboard injury.  I thought of my own son, Gabriel at that age.  All arms and legs, he had reminded me of a colt waiting to burst into a full gallop.  He was in awe of the world, filled with questions and opinions.  He was always in motion; drumming to a song heard only in his head, tapping a toe, jiggling a heel, reaching to see if he could touch the ceiling.  Every moment with that child was an adventure, and although I adore the man he is now, I miss the boy he was.

The father and son never said a word to each other, each engrossed in his cell phone.  Soon the little girl emerged from her dressing room.  She twirled in the green and white dress as her mother said, “Show Daddy.”

She twirled again, obviously pleased with herself.  Dad glanced up from his cell phone and shrugged his shoulders.

“What do you think?” asked Mom.

Dad looked up and shrugged again.

“Raise your arms,” Mom instructed, and the little girl reached toward the ceiling, presumably to see how short the dress would rise.

Dad shrugged again, and went back to his cell phone.

“Okay,” said Mom, and the two went back into the dressing room.

At that moment, Elizabeth emerged, happy with her selection and we headed for the checkout area.  I was happy that she found a dress but I couldn’t forget with the missed opportunities I had just witnessed and they had nothing to do with a red chair or a sore back.

I’m sure those parents love their children.  Most do.  And the children are probably well cared for.  They looked healthy, well fed and clean.  They obviously have stuff.  New clothes.  Cell phones.

But they could have so much more.  It was the perfect time for Dad and son to bond over the boy’s injury or bemoan the trials of waiting outside the dressing room.  Or talk about how they would spend the rest of the day.  Or discuss a book, or a T.V. program, or how the Red Sox are having an abysmal season.

If only Dad had put down his cell phone, he would have seen that his little girl was searching for his opinion- his validation.  All children look to their parents for approval, and it’s so easy to satisfy this need.  All he had to do was tell her how pretty she looked in that dress, or that it didn’t do justice to her freckles and ponytail, or that the dress looked pretty because she was wearing it.  Just a few words.  A few crucial words.

john and judah 11.15.15I love technology and social media.  I check my Facebook wall several times a day, read my WordPress stats as soon as I post and take my cell phone with me whenever I leave the house.  But sometimes I feel as if our love for technology does more to isolate us than to bring us together.  Time with our loved ones is something we take so much for granted.  Every minute we have with each other is a chance to share a slice in time.  A chance to share opinions.  A chance to listen.  To watch.  To affirm.  To cherish.  Let’s not miss our opportunity.

“Well, I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
Called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time”

“You see, my new job’s a hassle and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me”

~Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”

Ten Optimistic Ways to Look at Aging…Or How to Find a Nugget of Gold in a Pile of Sh*t

Warning: Momma G is feeling snarky.  If you faint at the sound of cuss words and think that life is a Disney movie, you may want to close the page and pick up Reader’s Digest instead.

My sister Robin is having a landmark birthday soon. I know she’s dreading it, because I went through the same thing a couple of years ago.  I’m not sure why we freak out at ten year intervals, but we do. When we hit 30 we mourn the loss of our youth and the days of being carefree twenty-something.  At 40 we ignore the fact that our careers are firmly anchored and our kids are becoming more self-sufficient, and instead concentrate on the crow’s feet around our eyes and gray that appears at the temples.  50 should be a celebration of living half a century.  Often instead of reveling and toasting, we wistfully look back, and wonder why we squandered our youth on things that really never mattered.  And now, another decade has passed and the reality sinks in.  We are never going to be young again.  Ever.

But those of you who read Momma G’s posts know that I am an eternal optimist who believes that in every situation we must find the golden nugget, even if we have to dig a bit to find it.  Here are ten such nuggets.

  1. When we turn 60 people stop telling us what to do. They either think we are older and wiser than they (we are) or old and set in our ways (we are) or it’s just a waste of time since we are old enough to do what we want anyway (and we will.)
  2. photoshoppedWhen we turn 60 people stop remarking that we look tired, and start saying things like “she looks good for her age.” This means we can spend less time on our hair, or makeup.  We can finally let go of the Wall Street myth that tells us we should look like the photo-shopped model who is really only 17 but is playing the part of a 35-year-old who runs a successful business, raises genius children who don’t get messy and has a husband who washes dishes and put his smelly socks in the hamper.
  3. When we turn 60 and buy alcohol we don’t get carded by the kid at the checkout who is young enough to be our grandchild. And if we get a little tipsy (just a little) our kids think we are “cute.”
  4. When we turn 60 people think we are wise, even though we don’t know shit about Snapchat, Vimeo and Twitter.
  5. When we turn 60 our kids think we are hilarious if we swear. Especially if we use the F-bomb.
  6. When we turn 60 our kids think of us as frail and start doing chores like taking the trash out and making sure they don’t leave our cars on empty. My advice? Ride the wave!  Ride the wave!
  7. When we turn 60 it no longer matters who was popular or cool in high school and college. We are all creaky, pudgy, and gray now. The barriers are down and it’s amazing how much easier it is to like each other.
  8. When we turn 60 it doesn’t matter if we dance well or badly. We all look silly on the dance floor, but we don’t care, because we are 60 and life is for dancing.
  9. ladies on the beachWhen we turn 60 we may look like fat old ladies on the beach but nobody judges us, because we are fat old ladies on the beach.
  10. stock-illustration-17749637-gold-minerWhen we turn 60 we realize that most of what we thought were of value- career, money, fame, notoriety didn’t really bring us the happiness promised. But the people we touched- family, friends, strangers in need- they are the jewels of our lives.  The jewels were always there.  We just forgot to look for them.  But the good news is there’s still time to go mining.

Out of the Shadows and Into the Starry Night

“But I could have told you Vincent,

This world was never made for one as beautiful as you.”

               ~Don McLean, “Starry Starry Night”

 

March 30 is the anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s birthday.  It is also (and not coincidentally) Bipolar Awareness Day.

The_Scream

“The Scream”-Edvard Munch

I grew up in an era where the mentally ill were tucked away in institutions whose empty halls reeked of urine and echoed with the cries of wretched souls hidden within their shadowed cells.  We were told that the man who suffered from  PTSD after the war suffered from “shell shock” and instructed to politely smile when he waved from his hangout by the drug store.  Definitions like “schizophrenia” and “manic depressive” were labels for those who were unseen and unheard.  We avoided those who made us uncomfortable.  We joked about their conditions, as if making a game of their suffering would cause them to fade away.

But as true as the night is dark, dawn slowly spreads its light upon the shadows, illuminating those who have been hidden by ignorance and lies.  We now know that many mental illnesses are merely a misfiring of electrical impulses in the complex jumble of nerves in our brains.  Be it from chemical imbalances, injury or some other cause yet unknown to man, people who suffer from mental illness are not obscurities to be ignored. They are parents. They are sisters and brothers. They are sons. They are daughters.

My daughter Elizabeth is bright and breathtakingly beautiful.  Her eyes are pools of gray elizand turquoise where men lose their souls.  Her laughter is contagious; her gentle hands soothing.   She pens poetic verses that twist my heart until tears trickle down my cheeks.   She owns and operates a barbershop where men wait for hours for her to sculpt their hair and listen to their stories.   Elizabeth- my youngest child- suffers from Bipolar disorder.

During her C section birth, I heard the concern in my obstetrician’s voice as he noted how slender Elizabeth was.  But the pediatrician pronounced her fit, explaining that she was just long and skinny, and indeed, she quickly transformed into a sweet little butterball who was determined to keep up with her older brother and sister.  She was smart and athletic, and highly competitive.  But by the time she was four, it was evident that she was not well.  She had bouts of plummeting blood sugar where she was too weak to sit up in bed. She grew pale and painfully thin. The next several years were filled with doctor’s visits and tests. A host of diagnoses followed; adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, asthma, SVT, migraines.  And with this came anxiety and depression. Crippling anxiety that made her pace until I came home from work.  Depression that made her hide in her room during family gatherings, afraid that someone might discover that behind her wide grin was a hidden monster that doused her joy with waves of unexplained grief.

And I- the mother who knew every hair on her head, the mother whose wet skin smelled just like hers, the mother who nursed her and rocked her to sleep and walked the halls of hospitals with her- did not know.

During college, Elizabeth became increasingly detached from her loved ones. She disappeared for days. She spent money she did not have.  She was ultra-sensitive and quick to anger.  Finally, broken finances and broken relationships forced her to come home to live.  She struggled to hold a job and spent long isolated hours in her room and finally, the monster inside grew so great she could not get out of bed.  She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t laugh. She laid in bed and stared at the white wall for weeks, paralyzed by her fear and depression.  So fragile that she could barely speak, she finally cried out for help.  And then the long journey toward the sun began.

Elizabeth carefully fills a medi-planner with pills every week. Mood stabilizers to limit the highs and lows. Antidepressants to keep dark days at bay.  Tablets that rescue her from the crippling anxiety that leaves her afraid to walk into the music store or call to refill a prescription.   She thinks that the pills erase her creative side.  She fears taking so much medication will hurt her brain.  Her memory is not as sharp.  Her ability to retain facts less than when she was younger.

For Elizabeth, every day is a challenge. She pushes through the dark days and charges toward the light with grace and courage and a determination to not become a faceless victim of her disease. She carefully balances in the seesaw’s fulcrum; too much sedation brings depression, not enough triggers endless nights of sleepless mania.  Every morning, she looks at a handful of pills and she chooses.  She chooses for her business because without medication she loses focus and commitment.   She chooses for her health, because she knows that every day the electrical misfiring in her brain is a death-march cadence luring her closer and closer to disaster. She chooses for her family because without medication she cannot sustain her relationships; cuddling her nephew and giggling with her siblings will fade into a distant memory.

It is interesting to me that we never blame people for their physical illness, although many of them could be prevented. We never shun people with cancer, even if they filled their lungs with a lifetime of cigarette smoke.  We don’t make fun of diabetics, although many can prevent their disease with proper diet and exercise.  There is no stigma attached to strep throat, or ear infections, or gall bladder disease, or arthritis.  Why then are we ashamed of the diseases with no known prevention-diseases that affect our cognition or cloud our judgment? And if we did not hide these secrets, perhaps those who suffered from them would have been able to live longer, create more freely and affect the world in a more powerful and beautiful way.  Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Wolf, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Tennessee Williams all suffered from mental illness.  Some of the most beautiful works of art were created by those with mental illness; Georgia O’Keefe, Ludwig van Beethoven, and of course, Vincent van Gogh.

StarryNight2436

“Starry Night” Vincent van Gogh

So on Wednesday March 30, I am going to proudly wear a green ribbon for bipolar awareness.  I urge you to do the same.  Together, little by little, we may be able to stifle the stigma and free those who are trapped by the fear of rejection and disdain.  We must bring them out from the shadows and help them to brightly glitter as beautifully as van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”  They are not children of a lesser god. They are our own.

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green ribbon

The Quilt

book_When my children were little, one of their favorite books was “The Quilt Story.” Written by Tony Johnson and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, this delightful story tells the tale of a quilt hand-sewn by a mother for her little girl, Abigail.   By wrapping the quilt around her, Abigail is enveloped in the warmth and shelter of her mother’s love, easing the difficult transition of a move across the country in a covered wagon. Generations later, the quilt is resurrected from an attic and repaired-just in time to wrap another little girl when she moves to a new house.  The quilt represents continuity, security, and the enduring love of a mother’s arms.  Wrapped in the warmth of its folds, the child feels this love, and the strange house becomes home.

abby2

Abby at 1 year old. She’s sitting on the little green quilt.

When my Abigail was born, the wife of my closest college friend made her a crib-sized quilt.  She snipped and pinned and matched, and finally she stitched it together.  It was beautiful- light green cotton dotted with tiny flowers on one side, patches of brightly colored hexagons on the other.  I wrapped my little pink bundle in the quilt when I took her to church, and tucked it around her to shield her from the chill when I took her for walks in her stroller.  Later, she used the quilt to wrap her dolls, and spread it on the floor for tea parties with her stuffed animals.

Two years and two weeks later, I brought Gabriel home from the hospital.  Gabriel was quite jaundiced, and his pediatrician suggested that I put him in a sunny window for small frequent intervals.  I spread the quilt in the bottom of a pram, and laid my little son on top, so he might soak up the warm, healing rays.  Later, the quilt became his superhero cape, and a tent for camping in the living room.

Elizabeth joined the family on a frigid December morning, and the quilt shielded her from the wind when I hurried her from the car to our apartment.  Unlike her siblings, Elizabeth never did outgrow the quilt, and dragged it with her wherever she went.  As long as she could snuggle her quilt, she was safe and warm.  She fell asleep in the car, napped at church services, and snoozed in a carriage while her brother and sister played, all wrapped in the little green quilt.

As Elizabeth grew, she became sicker and sicker. She was hospitalized many times- sometimes for routine tests, sometimes for acute illnesses.  Each time she went to the hospital, the quilt, now faded and slightly torn, went with her. We wrapped her pillow in the quilt, and she would immediately feel at ease, much like Abigail in “The Quilt Story.”  Many nights I climbed into my sleeping child’s hospital bed, cuddling her bony little body close to mine, while silent tears slipped down my cheeks and sank into the folds of the little green quilt.  Somehow, I too, would feel comforted.

abby john and judah with tomie dePaola 4.18.15_n

Abby, John and Judah with Tomie dePaola 4.18.15

Perhaps it was the warmth beneath its layers, or the security that every child feels while cuddled under a hand stitched quilt, but Elizabeth grew strong and capable.  To this day, she keeps the quilt nearby; its faded green tatters a reminder that the warmth of love shines a beacon to make even the loneliest places home.

judah with new quilt 10.12.15

Judah at 1 year old wrapped in a quilt from his GiGi.

And now we have Judah- Abigail’s son.  My grandson.  He calls me GiGi, and although he loves me, his favorite place in the world is wrapped in his mother’s arms.  Judah met Tomie dePaola last spring, and although he is too young for “The Quilt Story,” I decided he needed a quilt of his own.

So I snipped and pinned and matched and finally stitched it together.   A quilt of the softest flannel, with robots on one side, and prints in gray, yellow, white and aqua on the other.  It is a quilt to keep him warm when the New Hampshire winds form icicles above his bedroom window.  It will become a superhero’s cape, be used as a magic carpet, and to hide under when things go bump in the night.  The quilt will represent continuity, security, and the enduring love of his mother’s arms.  Wrapped in the warmth of its folds, he will feel loved, and everywhere will be home.

Confessions of a Makeup Addict

My name is Garrie, and I’m an addict.

This morning, as I do every morning, I leaned into the mirror on my bathroom medicine cabinet to put a contact lens into my right eye.  It is a struggle, as I cannot see the lens and have to fish around the little well of soaking solution with fumbling fingers.  However, without this lens, I cannot see to apply my makeup, and without makeup, I cannot go to work.  It’s as simple as that.

I began my love affair with cosmetics as a young girl.  My mother used very little makeup; Mabelline cake mascara that mascara jpgcame with a tiny application brush, a compact of pressed powder, and a tube of red Helena Rubenstein lipstick.  When she was busy in the kitchen, I would lock myself in the bathroom, examine each item, smell its contents, and dream of the day I would be old enough to apply small touches like my mother.  On rare occasions, I would try her lipstick, slowly twisting the base, but not too far, least I break the stick or wear down the point.  I carefully applied the ruby-red to my little girl lips, admiring myself in the bathroom mirror while my little brothers and sisters complained from outside the door that they had to pee.  Knowing my mother would never allow her seven-year-old to emerge from the house like a painted lady, I scrubbed at my lips until they resembled swollen strawberries before stealing out the door and skipping off to see if my sisters would notice how sophisticated I looked.

My sisters were not as captivated by the world of cosmetics as I, although Martha-Jean once reported for breakfast with bright blue eye shadow on her lids.  It was the latest fad- all the girls were wearing it- and my older sister bravely and unapologetically brushed it on and sat down to eat her oatmeal, until my mother caught a glimpse of her.  Mom promptly sent Martha-Jean upstairs to wash her face, sputtering “No child of mine is going to leave the house looking like a lady of the evening!”  I didn’t really know what a “lady of the evening” was, but it sounded intriguing.  I would have asked my mother for an explanation, but her face was a bit purple and distorted, and it didn’t seem like the right time for questions.

As I approached my teens, I heard the call from the drugstore counters and began saving my money for lipstick and mascara.  My first purchase was a tube of clear lip gloss that hung from a cardboard display on the drugstore wall.  It cost one whole dollar and it took me weeks to collect enough abandoned change from the floor of the phone booth by the Monson Inn.  1954-EraceWhen the clerk took the tube off the display and placed it into a neatly folded white bag, I thought my heart would burst.  My hands shook as I removed the top of the tube and breathed in its waxy aroma.  From the first application, I was hooked, and the next years were filled with small purchases; Bonnie Bell Blushing Gel, Max Factor Lash Maker, pale Yardley London Look lipsticks, and a wonderful product called Erase, that made my teenage blemishes less visible.  My mother finally realized that her daughters would not be doomed to a life of walking the streets and allowed us to wear eye shadow, as long as we applied it sparingly and avoided very bright colors.

During college I rarely wore makeup- probably because I was always running late for class.  I’d sleep through two alarms, rising with just enough time to pull on my jeans and sweater, brush my teeth, and run from the dorms to the classroom, arriving just in time to slip into the back row.   It was the early seventies and those of us who chose jeans and t-shirts over disco polyester didn’t bother with much jewelry and makeup.  During the years that followed college I became so busy juggling kids and work, that I only swiped on a small amount of makeup when I dressed for church, or to go out for a rare dinner date with my husband.

One day a coworker remarked on how tired and pale I looked.  I went home that night and took a long look in the mirror.  My coworker was right, but it wasn’t a good night’s sleep I lacked.  I knew what to do, and headed for the closest drug store.  I stocked up on blush, mascara and lipstick, and as I opened the packages the next morning, I caught the familiar scents and gently caressed the smooth surfaces with a virgin applicator. I knew my addiction had returned.  It wasn’t long before I graduated from drug stores to department store and Sephora counters.  I discovered mineral foundation and blush, and began collecting various brushes and fancy sponge applicators.  I traded my zipper makeup pouch for a makeup box that is nearly as big as a suitcase.

While I know that my makeup addiction feeds Wall Street’s Barbie doll version of how a woman is supposed to look, I can’t 1950s-red-lipstick-ad1help but feel that dressing one’s face is also an art form and an opportunity for self-expression.  I like to experiment with different shades and techniques, and although the end product looks pretty much the same day-to-day, it’s fun.   It’s an affinity I share with my daughters and some of my nieces, who carefully line their eyes and apply red lipstick that would make their Grammie proud.  Also-and don’t underestimate the value of this- it makes me feel a bit better about the way I look before I face the world, and people are less inclined to remark on how tired I look.

Besides, I’ll never get over the thrill of opening a new product, gazing at the fresh, untouched surface, and drinking in its delightful aroma.  I’m an addict, and I’m not ashamed.

One Decision

casa_v_master_redblueI’ve been home for several weeks this summer following back surgery.  Although the surgery was a success, recovery isn’t easy or fun; I feel like I’ve aged a hundred years.  Taking a shower uses all the energy I can muster.  My left leg and foot are numb. I can’t lie on my back because of my slow-to-heal incision.  Because my left hip hurts from the bone graft, I can only sleep on my right side, and now my right shoulder aches.  My skin is hypersensitive, I walk as if in slow motion, and by early evening, I am cranky and out of sorts.

Tonight was no exception.  I had gone to a home visit for my *CASA volunteer work, and returned home very sore and very tired. I love this work, but most of the situations surrounding abused and neglected children are heartbreaking.  Someone is always sad. A parent may lose his child.  A child may be taken from her mother.  There is often violence.  There is often addiction. There are always tears.  And some nights, especially when I am tired, they are mine.

Exhausted and discouraged, I took a shower, put on my pajamas and settled into my recliner to relax in front of the TV set.  When the phone rang at seven o’clock, I thought the caller would be one of my daughters checking up on me. I was surprised to hear a male voice on the other end.

“This is John calling about the problem with Windows on your computer.” scams_exposed_scammer419

I have received these calls before.  I know they are a scam, meant to glean information, and I usually just disconnect the call.  But tonight was different.  Perhaps it is because I have seen the confusion in my CASA children’s eyes when their mommy doesn’t show up for a planned visit.  Perhaps it is because a four-year-old worries about her sister’s safety instead of thinking about what Disney princess she likes the best.  Perhaps it is the hopelessness I see when a parent faces a judge. Perhaps it is that the line of addiction is invisible and nobody sees it until he’s past it, and then it’s too late.  Perhaps it is knowledge that at one point or another, we are all just one bad decision away from disaster, and that sometimes it is only by the grace of God that we choose well.

Or perhaps it is because no matter how tired, no matter how sore, no matter how discouraged, I have this unceasing drive to make things better. For whatever reason, I was going to take a different approach this time.
“John,” I asked, “Does your mother know what you do for a living?  Does she know that you have a job doing something that is illegal and unethical? ”

“Uh…no ma’am…uh…I mean….”

“How does she feel about that?  Because John, I’m a mother and if my son were doing this kind of work I’d be crying myself to sleep every night.”

I could hear John breathing but he said nothing.

“I’m going to hang up now, but John, you might want to think a little about this.”

Now perhaps John (if that is his real name) doesn’t care a bit about what I said.  Perhaps he just merrily dialed another number in hopes of scamming the next customer.

But maybe…just maybe, he’ll think about the man he is, and the man he wants to be, and the man his mother wanted him to be.  Because sometimes it is just one decision.

*If you want to know more about Court Appointed Special Advocates, message me, or look up your state’s CASA website.  I guarantee, it’ll change your life.

Thanks for Caring

deckNew England has been hammered with heavy snow and frigid temperatures for the past several weeks. Boston has been practically shut down and even New Hampshire, where snowy winters and subzero temperatures are common, has been challenged by the relentless cold and drifting snow.

After the fourth blizzard in as many weekends, I woke Monday morning and checked the news for the  temperature.  It was five below zero with wind chills at least four times as cold.  After a hot shower and two cups of coffee, I layered a scarf under my coat, pulled on my boots and trudged through the snow to my car.   It reluctantly but thankfully started, and shivering all the while, I drove to work.  The parking lot at work looked like something from a science fiction movie, with twelve-foot snowbanks and snow-covered paths.   Trying to ignore the wind that bit at my face, I locked my car and hurried into the shelter of the building, where I bumped into the smiling face of one of my coworkers.

He is a favorite of almost every employee where I work.  He is in his early twenties, with spiky red hair and a perpetual grin.  He comes from Project Search, a program that places high school graduates with developmental challenges in the workplace.  He has been at my workplace for several years, and often stops at my office to chat. He tells me his favorite video games and the movies he’s watched over the weekend.  He asks my favorite football team and laughs at me when I admit to not knowing how a fantasy team works.  I know he usually walks to work and back, even though he lives a couple of miles away.

“Are you walking home today?” I asked, concerned about the subzero wind chill.

“Nope.”  My dad drove me here and he’s picking me up.”  He replied.

“Great.  Have a good day,” I smiled, and started for the elevator.

Right before the door closed, I heard his voice, “Thanks for caring.”

Thanks for caring.

I’ve thought about this all week.   How often do we say thanks for caring?  How often does someone say it to us?  And, is caring such an anomaly that it deserves special recognition?

It was by watching my mother that I learned that acts of caring are generally free, but their value is more precious than gold.  She was one of the most caring people I have ever met.  She checked in on the neighbors during storms.  She baked bread and mended clothes for people at work.  It was a rare dinner when there was not an extra place set for a visitor. And she was never too busy to offer coffee and sympathy to someone who was sad, or hurt or just needed an ear.  She always took time for a hug.  She never walked past a stranger without smiling a hello.  She stayed up late when her eyes were heavy with fatigue to finish sewing a costume or a dress that was needed the next morning.

When she became ill, Mom gave me a list of people to contact for her.  She asked me to write letters she was too weak to write by herself. They were letters of kindness that expressed her regret of a moment of carelessness, a word of encouragement, a gentle and final farewell.  And the night she passed away, she took a long look at me and said, “I’m worried about you.”

“Me?  Why?  I’m fine!” I replied, hiding the fear that the lump in my throat would choke the very life from me.

“You’re all alone,” she stated, her eyes filling with tears.  We didn’t speak of the real truth.  Where my siblings had their elderly-handsspouses, I was divorced.  Alone.  She knew she wouldn’t be there to comfort me, to guide me, to help me bear the sorrow in the days to come.

“I’m fine,” I lied.  “I have wonderful family and friends.  I’m never alone.”

Her gaze relaxed and she smiled.  Releasing her from her responsibility was the last gift I could give her.

You taught me well, Mom.  Thanks for caring.

I’m Watching You

Dear young man who lives down the hall from me,

I don’t know your name, but I want you to know I’m watching you.  I watch you as we leave for work at the same time every day.  You smoke your cigarette while your car warms up and nod to me as I get into mine.  We exchange “good mornings” as we shiver in the morning cold.  We smile as we scrape the ice from our windshields, and wave as we leave the parking lot.

15I watched you this morning when the plow left sixteen inches of snow between the apartment house door and the parking lot.  I watched as you kicked out a path before me, so I could walk through without sinking in deeper than the tops of my boots.  I watched as I discovered that my car was plowed in- the third time this week- and you offered to shovel it out, even though you were busy cleaning off your car and your wife’s.

I watched as you sat in your idling car to make sure I was able to pull out of the space where my car was snowed in on all sides.  You didn’t leave for work until you knew that I was able to get to mine.

When I was growing up on Green Street, my parents taught my siblings and me to care about others.  They insisted that we shovel out our elderly neighbors.  They offered our services to run errands.  They called upon us to carry heavy items, care for babies, mow lawns and move furniture.  And they never allowed us to take a penny in return for our efforts.  In doing so, helping out became part of our nature.

But sometimes it seems that helping out is a lost art.  Many would have us believe that the only way to make it through life is to ramrod one’s way, eyes on the prize, never knowing that like Mr. Magoo we leave a trail of chaos in our wake.

Every man for himself.

Just do it.

Failure is not an option.

Life is all about trying to get somewhere first.

Pedal to the metal.

But you, young man who lives down the hall, are different.  Your parents must have been like mine, pathteaching you to help out.  Now that you are grown, it is part of your nature.  Your eyes have strayed from your goal and focused on those around you.   And although you may never have a penthouse apartment or the corner office, you have something far more valuable.  You have heart.

I’m watching you.  I say a little prayer for your success.  And I say thank you.

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