Beware Children Who Behave Perfectly in Church

I don’t follow many blogs, but I began followingThe Adventures of Miss Fanny P, several3 cherubs weeks ago, and it rarely fails to make me chuckle.  The writer is a mother of two little boys whose stories remind me that no matter where on the globe we live, mothers are all pretty much the same.  We love our children beyond words.  We cannot restrain ourselves when announcing their latest accomplishments.  And when necessary, we chastise them so others might see them as perfect little angels.

In one of her posts, Miss Fanny P refers to relatives who have perfect children who sit calmly and quietly at church.  I almost choked on my coffee and laughed out loud, for there was once a time when my three perfect angels sat quietly in church.  Or so I thought.

Our children were raised in a Born-again-Bible-thumping-sing-it-till-you’re-hoarse church.  Their father and I had made young adult commitments to a living God and although we didn’t always agree with every teaching from any one church, we decided it was important to be active members of a local congregation.  He is a talented musician, and although my skills were not as well-honed as his, our voices blended in perfect harmony.  For many years he led our church worship team in weekly services, pounding the melody on the piano, while directing a rock and roll drummer, guitarists and several vocalists.   He had them, as they say, dancing in the aisles.

The children spent a great deal of time in our church building. During Saturday morningabby angelic 2jpg worship team practice, Elizabeth napped by my side, while Abigail and Gabriel played hide-and-seek under the pews, crawling around like little GI Joes, trying to see who could travel from the back of the sanctuary to the front without being tagged.  The kids went to Sunday school before services and Vacation Bible School during the summer.  They accompanied me to mothers’ meetings and missions meetings, teachers’ meetings and meetings to plan other meetings.  They were nearly as comfortable at church as they were in their own living room, and therein is the rub.

gabe angelic0001In those days, we rose early on Sunday morning, ate breakfast, and with three freshly  scrubbed cherubs in tow, made our way to church before the first service began.  We seated our angels on the front pew, where we could see them, and they could see us.  I stood to the right of the altar with the other back-up singers, and their dad sat at the piano, at the opposite side.  Usually, a couple from the congregation would “adopt” the children during the song service, feeding them breath mints and whispering answers to their questions until the songs ended and we joined them on a pew.  But every once in a while, the three children would sit by themselves in the front pew, without an adult nearby. I never worried. They were freshly combed and their clothes were carefully ironed. They were polite and respectful.  They did not talk back. They did not whine.  I worked very hard to present three perfect angels to our congregation every Sunday morning.

On one such Sunday, as we began the first song, I looked down at the children.  The pews were full, and although the ceiling fans and air conditioners were running at full tilt, it promised to be a long, hot service.  Elizabeth, who was not yet in school, playfully lifted her dress over her head, and letting it fill with air, billowed it down to the pew like a parachute.  I silently willed her to look at me so she might see my disapproving expression and stop, but it was to no avail. Over and over, she flapped her dress up and down, exposing her little belly and My Little Pony underwear.

Not to be outdone, Gabe grabbed a Bible and began fanning it in Abby’s face.  It hit her nose and she retaliated by pushing him off the pew.  Gabe fell onto Elizabeth, who tumbled to the floor next to him.  And with one fell swoop, war was declared.

The song was reaching its crescendo.  Men and women clapped their hands and sang, stomping their feet in rhythm.  The drummer, sweat running down his face, kept perfect time, as the guitars followed the piano’s lead.  I tried to hold my vocal harmonies while alternating between scowls and head shakes at my three feuding offspring, but it was no good. They knew better than to look my way.

Suddenly, mid-verse, the piano and my husband’s strong tenor voice stopped.  The guitars trailed off, as did the vocalists, and the drummer, in the middle of a roll, crashed once on the high hat and looked around to see why the music had ceased.  The congregation and I watched as my children’s father silently got up from the piano, strode to the front pew, and whispered to his three wide-eyed and now very quiet children.  Then, as if nothing happened, he returned to the piano, and picked up the song exactly where he had left it.

The kids never acted out at church again.  I thought that whatever was said to them putelizabeth angelic0001 the fear of God Himself into them and they, realizing their sin, put away their wicked ways forever. But last week, I found their children’s Bible and leafing through the pages, found crayoned drawings and notes jotted during church- not at all innocent and exemplary of “good” Christian children.  They were sarcastic, and disrespectful and deliciously sinful.

You might think I am disappointed, but you are wrong.  I am delighted, because my three very normal children have grown up to be three exceptional adults.  They love God, but they do not always follow the church’s rules. They often challenge the way things have always been done.  They question.  They disrupt.  They turn my world upside down, just as they did when they were three little misbehaving monkeys in the front pew.  And I, who wanted my children to appear to be little angels, learned that no child is perfect, as no adult is perfect.  Which is why Jesus was born in the first place.  Which is why I chose my faith as a young adult.  I only wish I understood it so well twenty years ago.

So, Miss Fanny P, beware perfect children who behave at church.  Things are not always as they appear.  Thank God!

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Momma G’s Alaskan Adventure

Picture 098In the fall of 1978 I enlisted in VISTA- Volunteers In Service To America.  I was single, finished with college and wanted to make a difference in the world.  I loved my family and New England, but I craved adventure and a  new beginning, so after spending a few hours with a recruiter, I signed on the bottom line, and requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest- preferably Alaska.

The first assignment I was offered was in East Harlem, New York City.  I turned it down and was offered an assignment in the Midwest.  I turned down that one as well, but knowing recruits could only refuse a limited number of options, agreed to the next offer, which put me in Boise, Idaho.  I never made it any further west, except for a week of training in Seattle.

It took thirty-five years, but I finally made it to Alaska.  Almost two weeks ago, I stepped aboard a vision class ship for a seven night Alaskan cruise.  I’m afraid I lost part of my heart in the Pacific Ocean.

I was not one who dreamed of cruising.  In fact, I had always considered it rather bourgeois.  Indeed, once I agreed to accompany my brother and his family on the Alaskan cruise, I found that many of my friends and family had at one time or another elected to sail the high seas for their vacations. Still, I was apprehensive.  Mass media loves to tell cruise ship horror stories, and I had no desire to spend my vacation stranded at sea or praying to the porcelain god.   However, I committed and on May 31, 2013, with virgin passport in hand, boarded the Rhapsody of the Seas.

I needn’t have worried.

Before we left port I was settled in a chaise lounge, drink in hand, wondering what the people at work were doing.  By the second day at sea, I had forgotten that I have a job. 

And then we reached Juneau. 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI had seen mountains before.  I have skidded through snow in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch.  I have driven through the Painted Desert in Arizona and Utah’s Wasatch Range.  I have flown over Mount Rainier and camped in the high desert of New Mexico.  And although all these places are breathtakingly beautiful, they do not compare with the rugged beauty of Alaska’s mountains.

If the only thing I had done in Juneau was peer at mountains that extended past the clouds, it would have been enough.  But there was a whale watch and salmon bake to attend.  Whales are some of my favorite creatures, and I excitedly scanned the water’s surface for spouts that betrayed their location in Auk Bay.  We caught sight of a mother and baby humpback.  Seeing them glide effortlessly through the water caught my breath, and when they fluked, I nearly cried.

The following day we docked in Skagway and took a jeep tour through the mountain passes ofwolf 2 the Yukon Highway.  Our guides led us past black bears munching on spring grass, porcupines waddling across the road, and a lone grey wolf that regally eyed our passing jeeps and then calmly loped after the caravan as if to accompany us across the Canadian border.

After another day at sea, we rose at five in the morning to stand on a cold and rainy deck and watch our ship navigate its way through Tracy Arm Fjord to the Sawyer Glacier.  Its jagged edges of turquoise silently reminded me that our lives are but a drop in the continuum of time. 

And then, all too soon, the trip was over. 

As a writer, I struggle to translate my heart onto paper.  But just as photographs fall short of paying Alaska’s rugged beauty its due justice, so do my words.  If I revered God before, I do all the more now, for such artistry to create the vast expanses of pristine land, ocean and sky could only be accomplished by His hand.  I can only bow to His creativity and the majesty with which he touched that portion of the world. 

bear2Since my vacation I am calmer.  More centered.  Less edgy.  I’m not sure if it was the crisp clean Alaskan air, or the gentle rocking of the ship at night.  But I can guarantee you one thing- Momma G will not wait another thirty-five years for a vacation again.

Mom, Me and Jack Daniels

   Yesterday, my cousin Mark sent a very sweet email to our family in remembrance of my mother.  Her birthday was January 7th- one day after her mother’s, my Grammie Dow.  Because my birthday is also in January, my mother and Grammie told me I was special like them.  I believed them and to this day, January is my favorite month.
   To celebrate our January birthdays, my mother and I often “split” a gift.  We took each other out for lunch to celebrate.  In reality, it was just an excuse to sit across a restaurant table and catch up, but it was a nice way to give each other a small gift.  Mark’s email reminded me of how much I miss sharing that birthday lunch, and also reminded me of how I have chosen to celebrate my mother’s life on her birthday.
jack daniels   A week or two before my mother passed away, my nephew Jason brought a small bottle of whiskey to her at the hospice house.  She liked whiskey, and when I was growing up, she and my father often would enjoy a drink before dinner.  My father drank Jim Beam or Jack Daniels on the rocks with soda and my mother drank hers with water.  I never understood how they could drink the stuff.  To me it tastes like medicine, and the only time I could swallow it was when my father mixed a teaspoon with honey and lemon to quiet my coughs.
   It was against the rules to have alcohol in the hospice house (I guess they were afraid that dying people might get drunk and rowdy) and the nurses asked me to take the bottle with me when I left for the evening. I took it to my house and stuck it in the cabinet.
   After Mom died, I decided to drink a toast to her on her birthday, and on January 7, alone in my kitchen, I poured a shot (more like a half shot) of the whiskey and after toasting her, drank the entire thing down in one swallow.  I shuddered for almost fifteen minutes, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, the warmth that followed the shudder made it tolerable.
   Last year on Mom’s birthday, I did the same thing, with the same reaction of shuddering for a good  fifteen minutes.  Maybe it was the whiskey, but I imagined that I could hear her chuckle at me.  I have to admit that I imagined the warmth that spread from my stomach to my toes was more a hug from my mother than a blast of alcohol.
   You would think that after two years, I would be used missing my mother, but I am not. Not a day goes by that I do not think of her- miss her soft gray eyes and warm embrace.  I see her in my children.  I see her in myself.  But when I feel  my eyes become hot with tears and my heart wrings with loneliness, I remember her last hours.  As she hovered between this life and the next, I saw her exert great effort to raise her arms toward Heaven.  Again and again, she would raise her hands to the sky and then, not strong enough to hold them up, she allowed them to drop to her bed.  I knew that she was transitioning- that her eyes were no longer set on earth and her loved ones here, but instead on the God who had steadfastly guided her through the past eighty-two years.  And as much as I wanted to call her back and beg her to stay a few more hours, I could not.  She had taught me well.  Part of loving is letting go.
   The bottle of whiskey still remains in my cupboard, untouched since January 7, 2012.  Tonight I will again pour a half shot (guess I will never be much of a drinker) and toast my mother, and her mother. Heck- I’ll toast all our mothers, since they are more alike than different.  Perhaps you will join me.  Pour a shot- whiskey, wine, rum…even milk.  It doesn’t matter.  Raise your glass, think of your mother and thank God for the time you had with her.  If you shudder like I will, and listen very carefully, you might hear a tinkle of laughter from on high. That’s Grammie and Mom, waiting for the rest of us.

The Christmas Gift

wrapping paperIt is December, and is time to wrap the gifts I’ve carefully selected for my children.  A few evenings ago, I rummaged through the attic in search of paper and ribbon and came across a box marked “Sentimental Stuff.”  Inside is a music box with a dancing clown.

In the late summer of 1982, I window shopped at Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts with my husband, Paul.  Johnson’s was an amazing store with rooms upon rooms of books, toys and art supplies.  We browsed for hours, leafing through pages, and dreaming of giving the beautiful dolls, books and teddy bears to our unborn child.  On a shelf were small shadow boxes containing jointed paper clowns that danced when the music box on the back was wound. I was immediately taken by them, but I knew my practical farm-raised husband would not recognize the value in such frivolity.  Besides, in those lean years, our pennies were carefully counted and reserved for bare necessities, so after a few moments of watching the paper clown dance, I turned and left the store.

That December as the holidays approached, we struggled to pay for food and oil.  We kept our heat only high enough to keep our pipes from freezing, and heated water on the stove for dishes and bathing.  Our finances were grave, but our mood was bright.  It was Christmas, after all- the celebration of our Savior’s birth.  Christ was born into poverty with the sole purpose of dying for all mankind.  And yet, there was no bitterness in His birth.  The heavens rejoiced, and so would we.  We decorated a small tree and settled in front of the fireplace to discuss our gift giving budget.

After a long conversation, we settled on rules for our yuletide celebration.   We would each have ten dollars to spend on each other.  There would be no cheating, no borrowing, no allowing anyone else foot the bill.  Everything under the tree would have to be something we made ourselves, or bought within the ten-dollar budget. 

During the following weeks, I stretched my sweater over my growing belly and concentrated on knitting wool scraps into mittens for my husband.  I used my ten dollars on wool socks, a flannel shirt, and Christmas goodies to fill Paul’s stocking.  A few days before Christmas, I finally finished the mittens.  They were pieced together in stripes- tan, rust and brown, all from yarn left over from my mother’s past projects, but the stitches were tight and they promised to keep his hands warm when he shoveled our long driveway on snowy mornings.  I carefully wrapped them, hoping they would fit his hands, and wondering if he would like them.

Christmas morning dawned and we feasted on eggs, homemade muffins, and coffee.  We prayed our thanks to God for the amazing gift of His son and sat at the foot of the tree to open gifts.  Paul was pleased with his. The shirt and socks fit and he promised me that he loved the mittens and would wear them often.  Then he handed me a small box.

I slowly opened the red and white paper and to my surprise, discovered the dancing clown music box clownfrom  Johnson’s Bookstore. 

My eyes filled with tears.  “You cheated!” I accused, knowing the music boxes cost far more than our budget had allowed.

“No- really,” he protested.  I kept looking and looking but I couldn’t find anything I liked that I could afford.  I went into Johnson’s and this was the only one left.  It was stuck in a corner and was a bit dusty.  There wasn’t a price tag on it, so I asked.  The clerk couldn’t find a price, so he offered to sell it to me for ten dollars.” 

“I saw how much you loved it last summer,” he said softly.  “I wanted to get it then, but I couldn’t afford it.”

My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him as tightly as my swollen belly would allow.  We placed the clown on a shelf where it served as a reminder that young love can overcome the tightest budgets and the toughest obstacles.

Somewhere in the years that followed the music box stopped working.  Perhaps it was wound too tightly, or maybe its Christmas magic just ran out.  But the clown stopped dancing, and the music stopped playing, and eventually the marriage ended.

But in December, there is no room for bitterness. Although we are no longer a couple, I still remember that Christmas with great fondness.  Even though we cannot live as husband and wife now, the love we shared on that day, and for many more was real and true. 

I carefully put the clown back in its box and closed the lid.  Then, taking a deep breath, I grabbed a roll of paper, turned out the light and shut the door to the attic.

How Momma G Let Go at the Perfect Wedding

In all my fantasies, I had always envisioned my daughter Abby to have the perfect wedding.  She, who lives by her check lists, didn’t miss a detail; a small intimate setting, muted colors of grey, mocha and ivory, hundreds of mason jars filled with candles.  She and her betrothed painstakingly chose music, lighting, and food for the brunch reception.  Everything was precisely planned. No component was overlooked.

And then the bride got sick.  The day before the wedding Abby became violently ill.  Too ill to attend the rehearsal.  Too ill to get out of bed.  She lay pale and shivering under her blankets, and I brought her medicine and ginger ale.  I tucked her in to keep her warm and several hours later, when she felt well enough to shower but was too weak to dry her hair, I did that for her too.

As Abby sat on her bed, I ruffled her long tresses and held the dryer, just as I had done a hundred times when she was a little girl.  Her hair is brown now, but when she was little, it was golden blond and hung to her waist.  It feels the same as it did then- soft and fine like a baby’s.  I closed my eyes and remembered the little girl with huge green eyes whose hair I washed and dried and braided to keep out of her face.  It seems as if I had shut my eyes for only a second and the little girl became a woman.  How I cherished the child she was and how I cherish the woman she has become.  I drank in the moment, glad to have one more opportunity to care for my firstborn.

As the dryer hummed, I remembered the days of Abby’s first summer.  How on a sweltering July afternoon when she and I both were irritable from the heat, I filled the tub with tepid water to cool us down.  She fussed and rooted and as we sat in the tub, I nursed her and marveled that our wet skin still smelled the same, even though her body was no longer connected to mine.  I swore that I would protect her forever and never let her go.

I remembered leaving my little girl in the arms of a kindergarten teacher, and how she cried when I left the classroom.  She never knew that I cried too- that I felt as if she was being yanked from my very heart by the passing years.  I remembered the day she moved into her college dorm, how her eyes filled with tears as I drove away, and the sobs that choked me as I drove back to New Hampshire.  And I remembered the mature young woman who left for India a few years ago, unafraid and determined to fight the trafficking of young children in a foreign land.  Since the moment she was born, the days were marked by separations, and yet we still were as one.

A couple of hours after her shower, still feverish,  my daughter declared herself well enough to go to the hotel where she and her sister would stay the night before the wedding.  And the next day, I rose early so I could go back to the hotel and help her  get ready for her morning nuptials. 

The hair dresser had already come and gone, her makeup was done and her veil in place.  She looked exquisite. An hour later she floated down the aisle on her brother’s arm to marry her beloved Johnny.  The music was perfect. The lighting was perfect.  Every detail was in place.  And once again, unable to hide the tears, I let her go.

The Perfect Christmas Snap Shot

Earlier this week I listened to friends say that they couldn’t wait for the Christmas season to end.  Their kids are over tired and over stimulated.  They are overwhelmed with baking and decorating and buying and wrapping.  I empathise with them, but I do not agree with them.  I love Christmas.  It is the season for making memories.

I thought about this later when my son and I returned from some last-minute shopping.  As we wrapped gifts and listened to music, he asked,

“Remember the year you and Dad bought us boom boxes?”

I do indeed.  We went shopping the week before Christmas, during a snow storm.  On a whim, we decided to buy each of the children a boom box, and finding that they took up the entire space in the car trunk, we returned home to unload and go out for a few more items.

The bushes in front of our townhouse were aglow with white lights that glittered in the falling snow.  Struggling to hold two of the large boxes, I stood on the stoop as Paul searched his pockets for the car keys.  Through the front door, we could hear peals of laughter coming from the living room.  Paul stopped looking for his keys and we stood there for a few moments, watching the snow and listening to the music of our children’s laughter.  It was a perfect Christmas snapshot.

Most of us have a favorite Christmas memory.  I have many.  The smell of a new doll brought by Santa.   Tearing wrapping paper to reveal the glitter of Sparkle Paints.  Lying in my bunk bed until midnight, listening to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” through the earphone on a new transistor radio.  The trip we took to see the lights at Constitution Plaza, where my brother Eric discovered that he could stand on a bridge and spit on the cars speeding along the highway below us.  “Frosty the Snowman” performed by the Ray Conniff singers.  Assembling toys at two o’clock in the morning, and hoping we would be finished before the kids woke up.  Singing “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” at midnight mass.

Some Christmases were a bit more challenging.  The year Gabe was a baby, all four of us got influenza.   Another year, we had only thirty dollars to buy the children’s Christmas gifts.  The year Abby was five, I made her a beautiful plaid dress to wear for her first Christmas cantata.  On the way to the performance, she turned a ghastly white, said “I can’t do this,”  and threw up all over the porch steps, and her new dress.

And there was last year, when I spent Christmas afternoon sitting in my mother’s empty room, wishing for just one more chance to hear her read aloud, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

For most of us, Christmas is a kaleidoscope of glitter, color and noise.  It is family, and laughter and foods too rich to eat more than once a year.  It is a riot of gifts, carols and crimson cheeked children watching for Santa’s arrival.  But mostly, it is about hope.  Hope that the special gift we found for that someone special will convey the love in our hearts.  Hope that our children will stay healthy and happy and not tell Aunt Polly that she has a whisker growing from her chin.  Hope that through the birth of a small child in Bethlehem, we are redeemed from our sins.

With that hope to guide us, the things we do will make the memories we so badly want for our loved ones.  When our children are grown, they will remember how they felt on Christmas morning.  They will remember the thrill of finding treasures left by Santa, the aroma of warm gingerbread cookies, and their favorite ornament on the tree.  They will remember opening gifts in their pajamas, and laughter from the children’s table, and hugging a new teddy bear as they drift off to sleep on Christmas night.

This year, my family is making a new holiday memory.  On December 24th, my firstborn will dress in a gown as white as fresh snow and pledge her love to the man who makes every day feel like Christmas morning.  There will be laughter. There will be tears. It will be forever etched in my heart as a perfect Christmas snapshot. 

I hope you and your family will share in the hope of love and light this Christmas, and that your holiday season will be full of new and wonderful memories.

The Gray of November

In New England, November is gray.  The lemon skies of last summer are now streaked with gray clouds that  threaten to wash rain and sleet over the granite curbs, across pavements and into the churning gray waters of the Amoskeag River.  The trees that a few short weeks ago were afire with crimson and gold now stand naked and trembling in the cold November wind.  Pastel blouses are packed away, replaced by wooly sweaters, and windows are latched to keep the frigid nights from creeping into my bedroom to steal the warm air from under my thick comforter.

You might  think that I would dread the eleventh month of the year, but I embrace November.  I love the chilly breezes that promise to coat the wooded area behind my house in sparkling blankets of white snow.  I love the scent of wood smoke that curls from rooftops and wafts across the crisp evening sky.  I love the snaking lines of squirming children, who impatiently wait to sit on Santa’s knee, and the decorated wreathes and trees that overnight appear in store windows.

November brings Thanksgiving- a time for all good families and friends to bond together over food and football.  When I was growing up, Thanksgiving meant waking to the spicy aroma of turkey that was already roasting in the oven.  We would drag out the cut glass and crystal dishes from the back of the china closet, and fill them with stuffed celery and black olives- delicacies that in our home were served only on holidays.  The windows in my mother’s kitchen would cloud with steam as we brought bowl after plate of turkey, stuffing, and vegetables to our crowded table.  And there would be pies- big sloppy pies, smelling of clove and cinnamon, overflowing with apple and pumpkin.  Before dinner, we would crowd together around our mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He had graced our family.

After my children were born, we often joined my mother, my sister Martha-Jean and her husband Robert for Thanksgiving dinner.  Their old farmhouse teemed with kids- cousins who banded together to play board games, trade baseball cards, and commiserate over teenage acne.  Tables would groan from the weight of plates filled with homemade bread, cheese, vegetables and dip.  The turkey sputtered from the bulging oven and pies lined the counter. Finally, at dinner time we would crowd together around mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He had graced our family.

Last Thanksgiving, my mother had just received a diagnosis of leukemia. She was already weakened, preferring the comfort of her bedroom to joining the family for dinner.  I ran back and forth from the kitchen to her room, bringing her snacks, filling her coffee cup, and sitting with her. Robert brought her a big box of chocolates and we indulged together, giggling like two naughty little girls who were sneaking treats.  I treasure that last holiday with her.  The memory is a gift I pull out of a soft velvet case every now and then.  I close my eyes and the world stops.  I hear my mother’s laughter, feel her soft cheek, smell her soft curls.  But mostly I see her kind gray eyes.

This year Thanksgiving is different.  Gabriel will spend it with friends in Florida.  Abby will split the holiday between our family and her future in-laws.  Elizabeth will be preparing for Black Friday sales.  And for the first time, my mother will not be here.

The cold gray November skies will remind me of her warm gray eyes- eyes that lovingly watched her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gather around a Thanksgiving table.  I will lift a toast to her and then we will once again gather around mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He has graced our family.

One Good Thing

“Nobody gets to go through life unscathed.”

This is a declaration I frequently use, mostly because it is true.  We tend to look at other people and think they live idyllic lives, absent of turmoil and storms, but in truth, we all have times when our skies turn inky and the seas we navigate roil with turmoil.

My daughter Elizabeth has been experiencing one of those seasons, when finances forced her to abandon school and return to New Hampshire.  The move was heartbreaking. She had to leave everything she loved behind- her apartment, her friends, the kitten she rescued from a dumpster.  She sold some of her furniture, and gave away the rest.  Then she packed what was left in the back of her car, and quietly wept as the two of us drove from Florida to New England.

Despair is dark place with deep muddy waters that drag our feet and keep us from moving forward.  Like the hooves of Artax from “The Neverending Story” Elizabeth’s feet shuffled through our apartment as she aimlessly tried to unpack clothes and books.  Mostly, things just moved from one pile to another, and nothing was really put away.  She attempted to smile, but her swimming eyes betrayed her soul. The task of rebuilding her life was overwhelming, an insurmountable precipice looming before her.  “Cheer up!” didn’t seem appropriate, but I wanted to help her to remember that all difficult assignments are accomplished one step at a time.

I looked at the white board hanging on the refrigerator.  We use it to leave messages for each other- “Doctor Appointment- Tues. at 10:30,” or “Remember Library Books,” or “Gabe called- call him back after 9.”  I wiped it clean and wrote at the top, “One Good Thing.”

“Okay, you guys,” I announced to Abby and Elizabeth, “Every day we are going to find one good thing to write on this white board.”

 I detected a slight eye roll from my daughters, but the humored me.  I found a black marker and carefully wrote, “Elizabeth is home.”

Abby followed with “I bought my wedding dress.”

Elizabeth obediently picked up the marker, and after a moment of thought, wrote, “I found my cup.”

I looked on the kitchen shelf where we store our mismatched cups.  We all have our favorites for morning coffee, and among the familiar mugs was a new one- a white ceramic mug monogrammed with a big black E.

“Small steps,” I reminded myself, and grinned at her.  She smiled back, and she looked a little less bewildered.  I looked at the mug, nestled between Abby’s and mine in its new home. 

In the days that followed, we continued to write on the white board.  Elizabeth unpacked and arranged her belongings on her dresser.  She set up her keyboard so she could work on her music, and a few days later, she interviewed and landed a job.

Now, almost two months later, the white board again is used for quick messages.  Elizabeth still misses her friends and her cat, but her list of good things is becoming longer than that of her losses.  She has become proficient at her job, is making new friends, and has taught herself to long board in the driveway outside our apartment.  She has slogged out of the valley of apathy and she is once again starting to resemble the Elizabeth of her childhood on the move, full of courage and determination.  It started with a simple step.  A simple declaration.  It started with one good thing.

Saying Yes to the Dress- A Mother’s Perspective on Wedding Gowns

I have an old video of my daughter Abby dancing in our living room.  She was in kindergarten at the time, and her one dream was to be a ballerina.  We were unable to afford dance lessons, but I was able to save enough money to buy her a pair of delicate pink ballet slippers, and one afternoon while Gabriel and Elizabeth napped, she donned a pink circle skirt and her ballet slippers and performed a solo dance performance in front of a borrowed video recorder.

I taped in silent wonder as she twirled and leapt, limited only by her own imagination.  Her waist-length hair lilted behind her like a blond chiffon scarf and she grinned in unbridled delight.  It was a song of life, choreographed for one- a magical moment that I will cherish long after the video crumbles from old age.

I thought of that day last week while she tried on wedding gowns.  The two of us went to a bridal salon with plush carpets and thick drapery, excited for a day of trying frothy white dresses for her upcoming nuptials.  This was new ground for us. When I married thirty-three years ago, I was a VISTA in Idaho.  We phoned my measurements to my mother who was in Massachusetts, and she bought fabric and a pattern, and sewed my gown while I was away.  I returned home four days before my wedding and she did the final fitting and finished the dress the day before the ceremony.  I fashioned my own veil and splurged on a pair of white shoes that still rest with the gown in the bottom of my cedar trunk.

Although I sew, I have neither the talent or inclination to attempt a wedding gown, so on a Saturday morning, we found ourselves in a small private room while a beaming young sales associate brought gown after gown for Abby to try.  I had expected there to be several that we didn’t like, but each garment looked amazing on her.  There was one in particular that stood out from the rest, and the sales woman suggested that she wear it to a larger room in the salon where large mirrors reflect the future bride from every angle.

Abby made her way to the three-way mirror and stepped up on the pedestal.  Her long hair was held back by a jeweled headband and after I straightened the gown’s train, I stepped back to survey my daughter.  There she was, tall and slender, elegant in ivory lace.  She turned to me, clapped her hands, and joyfully exclaimed, “I’m getting married!”

She had the same expression as that little girl who danced for me.  Her huge green eyes were full of excitement and anticipation.  Her smile was brilliant, and her cheeks were flushed the same delicate pink as her ballet slippers.  She was beautiful then.  She is more beautiful now.

And I did what every good mother does.  I cried.  Then I wiped my tears and laughed.

In the end, she didn’t end up buying that particular dress.  She found another that made her feel even more like the exquisite young bride she will be on Christmas Eve.  But she would look stunning in a paper bag, and although I know that television and bridal magazines would tell us that it is all about the dress, I know it is not.  It is about the heart.  It is about two hearts- Abby’s and Johnny’s, who will face life with free, unbridled delight, full of excitement and anticipation.  I will watch in silent wonder as they twirl and leap, limited only by their imaginations, as they interpret a new song.  It is the song of life, choreographed for two.

Reflections on 9/11

Over a year ago, Gary Cassanelli, the Fire Commissioner in Springfield Massachusetts, asked me to write a speech for him to deliver on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  During the ceremony a steel beam from the Twin Towers was to be dedicated in memorial to those who perished on 9/11. I was flattered, but more than that, I was honored.

I met Gary shortly after I began working on my yet unfinished book about fire fighters. He generously volunteered several of the Springfield firefighters for interviews, offered me a space to meet with them, and finished the day by treating me to lunch. He is well-educated, articulate and introspective, and endlessly encouraging of my writing. He could easily write a perfectly appropriate speech by himself, but he asked me to speak for him, and in a sense, I was to speak for fire fighters everywhere.

Writing the speech became a labor of love.  We all have feelings about September eleventh and this gave me the opportunity to lay my heart on a page- to speak not only of the loss and heartache we all felt, but of my undying belief that in all circumstances we have the opportunity- the responsibility- to turn evil to good.

So, here is my voice. I am so grateful to live in a country where it can be heard.

There is hardly an American alive who doesn’t remember where he was when the clear blue skies over our nation were split open by the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks that forever changed history. For the past ten years we have remembered those who perished, but this year, we have the opportunity to pay special tribute to the 343 firefighters of the Fire Department of New York who bravely charged into the face of danger, giving the ultimate sacrifice in their quest to save the lives of others.

How fitting that a column of steel from the Twin Towers is to be the focal point for this ceremony. Much like firefighters, steel is tough- forged to be strong enough to withstand great pressure. It is resilient and adaptable under the right circumstances, but unbending and unrelenting when necessary. This steel will remind us of the firefighters who, like the steel within Twin Towers, struggled until the very end to hold the weight of those who cried out for their help.

In the weeks that followed the attacks of September 11th ,  Americans responded with a mighty roar to the terrorists who desired to endanger the fabric that weaves our country. In a moment, we were reminded of what is important. We reached for our loved ones. We held fast to our children. We helped our neighbors. Streets became neighborhoods, neighborhoods became communities and communities were once again united into one strong, resolute nation.

Let me challenge you today to honor those who died on that tragic and fateful day. Honor the victims of the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and those who bravely perished in the fields of Pennsylvania. Honor those who have sacrificed and fought for our freedom since that horrific day, and those who continue to fight today. Honor them by living your life as we all did in the days that followed September 11th.  Live with pride and compassion. Each day brings a new opportunity to make a better world for our children, to feed the hungry and to help the needy. There is no better message, and no better victory over terrorism than that of the American spirit. Let us never forget 9/11, and let us always we remember what it means to be an American, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

Every year since their deaths, I take a moment to look at the photos of the 343 firefighters who died in the Twin Towers. I stare at their faces and search their eyes; and I wonder if they could speak- if they could tell us just one more thing- what they might say. And although I can’t tell for sure, I think this line from a poem by John MacRae might speak for them.

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.” 

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