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.
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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.

bipolardisorderbutterfly_square_sticker_3_x_3

 

green ribbon

Loving Judah

When my daughter Abigail gave birth to my first grandchild, Judah, I knew I would be smitten.  Everyone I knew warned me that the well of love that comes with the birth of a grandchild is very deep.  “You will love being a grandmother!” they predicted.  “It’s more special than anything!” they encouraged me.  “You won’t believe how much you love him!” they assured me.

I knew they were right.  I just didn’t realize that the well is so deep it is bottomless.

Last weekend, Abby and her husband, Johnny went to a wedding and left Judah with me for the afternoon and evening.  I rose early and finished my normal weekend chores so I would have nothing to do but care for my little grand bundle.  At 1:30PM, the prince arrived, and armed with frozen packets of mother’s milk, flannel burp cloths and magic diapers that change color when they get wet, I settled in for an afternoon of cooing and cuddling.

We played judah sleepingPat-a-cake.  We sang songs.   We played with a rattle.  Judah woofed down a bottle, burped and spit up on the living room carpet, grinning with glee.  But shortly after a diaper change, his little face crumbled like the mask of a sad clown and he began to cry.  I gathered him close, stuck his pacifier into his mouth and gently stroked his head.   Within a moment or two his eyes closed and his little body relaxed in peaceful repose.

Afraid I might wake him (okay- that’s an excuse lie. The truth is, he was so warm and snuggly I didn’t want to put him down) I held Judah in my arms for the next hour and a half, moving him just long enough to occasionally kiss a wisp of hair on his little head.  While he slept, I pondered.  “Why is it I love this little guy so much?”

Often times we love people because of what they do.  We love them because they make us feel good. Because they whisper sweet nothings that brighten our days.  Because they make us feel proud. Or important.  Or warm and cozy.  Or needed.  But Judah doesn’t really do anything to earn this love.  He just is.

But what does that mean?  What is it about a grandchild that flips our heart upside down and makes us want to drop everything for a cuddle and kiss?  I decided to break down some of Judah’s qualities and see if I could make logical sense out of this.

  • Judah smells delicious.  I read somewhere that the most expensive perfume sold is Clive Christian #1 Imperial Majesty Perfume.  It sold for $12,721.89 an ounce. Clive-Christian-No.-1-Imperial-Majesty-Perfume-300x200  I can guarantee that its scent is no sweeter than a newborn baby’s downy head.   Sniffing Judah’s neck makes me somewhat euphoric.  And it’s free.
  • Judah thinks everyone loves him. This is probably true, since his experience is limited to family and friends.  But there’s a lot to be said for approaching the world with total confidence that everyone thinks you are wonderful.  When people smile at Judah, he mirrors those good vibes.
  • baby basketJudah reminds of us that life is about the basics. Getting enough food.  Staying warm and dry. Love.  There are a ton of products that advertisers will tell us we need for babies.  But babies don’t really care if their clothes are new, or if they are wearing hand-me-downs or thrift store finds.  Babies all over the world are pretty much the same, whether they sleep on a mat with their mothers, or in a $2,500 Egg Dodo Baby Basket. (No, I didn’t make this up.)   All they really care about is food, staying warm and dry, and love.  How do we so easily stray from these priorities?
  • Judah makes us laugh. We laugh when he splashes in the tub. We laugh at his funny faces. We laugh judah awakewhen he laughs.  Laughter lowers our blood pressure and sets off a small explosion of endorphins to increase our sense of well-being.  I’m convinced that if I took a ten minute “Judah break” every morning and afternoon, I’d be more productive and happier at work.  I just need to convince my boss and work out the logistics…
  • abby and judah 9.Judah is an extension of me. I watch Abigail- my first born- deftly tend to him and am in awe that this capable mother who is clearly this baby’s favorite person on earth was once my own helpless newborn.   I’m sure his other grandmother feels the same way when she looks at Judah and remembers his daddy as a little tyke.  The continuity of this life cycle is comforting and reassuring.
  • Judah has made two families one.  I thought this would happen when Abby and Johnny first got married, and while it did in theory, the relationship was more one of the head than of the heart.  But when Judah was born, we gathered together in one room, as one unit, to welcome him to the family.  We all love him- grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins- and as a family we will raise him to know this.
  • Lastly, but this speaks most loudly to me, Judah has my mother’s eyes. They are big and gray and serious, just like my mother’s.  They laugh easily, but sometimes I catch Judah’s eyes studying mine, as if he’s looking for what’s hidden deep inside my soul.  My mother’s eyes searched mine- when I was a child and wasn’t telling the truth, when I was a young woman sharing my hopes for the future, and in her final hours, when I held her hand and reminded her that the faith that guided her in this life would carry her to the next.  I look into the deep gray pools of Judah’s eyes and I see my judah eyespast and my future.  And somehow, for a few moments, everything is right in the world.

Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Puccini Early in the Morning

mimiWhen I was growing up, my mother often listened to opera music on the record player.  She had loved the opera since she was a girl, and often took the train into Boston to see a matinée performance. My siblings and I heard stories of how she always missed the final act of La boheme, never seeing Mimi fall into her final repose, because she had to catch the final train back to Andover.  She explained the story lines, encouraging us to read the librettos that were neatly folded in the record jackets.  I would scan the page, listen for a few polite minutes, and run off to play hop scotch or kick ball.

My father disliked opera music, and openly complained if my mother played it, but when he was not home, my mother had free reign over the hi fi.  On days when she planned to sew, she carefully removed a vinyl disc from its cover, blew off any dust, and gingerly placed the needle at the beginning.  Soon, echoes of Carmen, Rigoletto and La Traviata would fill the house.   We children often made fun of it, mimicking the mezzo-soprano arias, but my mother blissfully hummed along, pins in her mouth, sewing machine at full tilt.

As I matured, so did my taste for music.  One Sunday evening, Aida was on PBS and having never seen an entire opera, I sat down to watch – just for a few moments.  By the end, two hours later, I was sobbing.  However, my family did not enjoy opera so for the next ten or fifteen years, I never listened to it, save part of an aria bastardized for a television commercial.

Over the years, Mom replaced her scratchy records with DVDs and even put some of her favorite performances on her Ipod.  When she died, I inherited much of her collection, and about a year ago, I began listening to the opera music she loved so much.  I find it enchanting.  Enrapturing.  I forget what I’m doing and find myself in the midst of the scene, surrounded by the players

This morning as I readied for work, I listened to Maria Callas sing “Un bel di” from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.  The aria is sung by Butterfly – a young Japanese woman who had married an American at fifteen years old.  She married out of love and reverence. He, out of convenience.  As she awaits his return after a three-year absence, she sings, not knowing that he brings his American wife with him, intending to divorce the naïve Japanese teenager.

…He will call, he will callbutterfly
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.
All this will happen,
I promise you this
Hold back your fears –
I with secure faith wait for him.

It is a heartbreaking piece of music- filled with emotion that wrenches the hardest heart, pulling tears from the driest eyes.

And therein lies the rub.  For a few short rapt moments, I was sitting by Butterfly and she poured out her heart, forgetting that I had just finished applying my morning makeup.  I remembered my first love, the excitement and intensity of it all, and the crushing blow at the realization that it was not to be. My heart swelled with the music, and spilled over, leaving streams of black mascara in its wake.  I had to wipe it off and start all over. Mom would have been proud.

Okay, I admit I am a bit overly emotional.  But here’s the thing.  Opera speaks to the soul as much as it does the eyes and ears.  If you’ve not ever sampled it, try a small sip- just a small bit.  It may be like a fine wine, where you have to acquire a taste for it, rather than say, a margarita that you have to keep yourself from chugging.  But it is truly worth sampling, again and again.

So try it. Just not in the morning when you are putting on your makeup.

The Secret’s Out

When I was in sixth grade, my sister Martha-Jean and I agreed that we would reveal what we had gotten each other for Christmas before the big day.  We stole to our bedroom and she showed me a gold bracelet with an iridescent heart charm that dangled from one of the links.  I thought it was beautiful but some of the thrill was gone.  I realized that part of the fun of giving and receiving gifts is the anticipation and surprise and I vowed never to peek again.

baby cubSo when my daughter Abigail and her husband John announced that they were to find out the gender of their unborn child (AKA “the cub”) I had mixed feelings.  To me it seemed that the most exciting part of birth is when all eight months culminate in the gender announcement from the attending doctor or midwife.  The memory of those choruses from the doctors and nurses in the delivery room, followed by the cries of my newborns are among the sweetest songs I know.

Still, this is John’s and Abby’s pregnancy, and I’m glad to stand at the sidelines and let them call the shots.  They wanted to know, and because they wanted to know, I wanted to know.  So Monday morning, they had an ultrasound.  Abby called me on her way to work and told me the news.

“It’s a boy!”

Now, the truth is, I would have been equally thrilled if she had told me the baby is a girl.  I adored having children of both genders and I welcome any grandchild, no matter what sex, color, size or shape.  But hearing the announcement and subsequently seeing the ultrasound pictures, made it real. 

The cub is a boy.

sailor suitI told everyone in sight, and immediately started imagining my little grand-cub dressed in one piece sailor outfits and saddle shoes.  (Yes, I know it’s cliché clothing, but baby boys dressed like that are so darned cute!)

A short time later, Abby emailed me from her office:

“WHAT THE HECK AM I GOING TO DO WITH A BOY?????!!!!!!!!!!”

abby2Abby is my firstborn.  From the moment her little blond head and blue eyes appeared, she liked everything glittery and girly.  She loved sparkly jewelry, My Little Pony and ballet shoes.  She never drooled or made a mess, or got into trouble.  She waved like the queen and grinned at strangers who crossed the grocery store to shake her dimpled hand and tickle her blushing cheeks. 

And then I had Gabe.  From the beginning, he was different.  Abby had squeaked and murmured when she was hungry, and gently sipped at my breast, taking a break to gaze at my eyes and utter a ladylike little burp.  Gabegabe2 was like an industrial strength vacuum cleaner.  He roared with hunger, latched on like his life depended on it, and drained me in minutes, belching his grand finale to the feeding frenzy.  He constantly drooled, soaking his bibs, t-shirts and overalls.  He threw his rattles and screamed if he couldn’t find his pacifier.

So when I read Abby’s email, I chuckled, but I understood.  I remember that feeling of uncertainty, that first step into unfamiliar territory.  I remember bringing home my son from the hospital, how I wondered if he, his father, his sister and I would be able to become a family.  How I feared that I would not be able to relate to him.  And then I remembered the years that followed, and typed my reply:

“You will LOVE having a son.  Sons create balance our lives.  They keep us grounded and from buying too much pink.  He will be his daddy’s mini-me, and he’ll think you are beautiful when you cry because you don’t have the right clothes to wear or your belly sticks out more than you want.  He’ll make you jewelry from macaroni for Mother’s Day and boast that you are the best cook in the world.  He’ll want you to watch him flex his muscles and count while he stays underwater in the tub, and when he hugs your neck and kisses you on the cheeks, you will feel like the world could explode around you and you won’t care.”

Abby needn’t worry.  I know what she doesn’t yet known- that the moment the little cub arrives they will bond with a love stronger than she ever knew possible.  I know that she and Johnny will figure out what soothes him, what excites him, what makes him giggle with glee and what drives him to their arms for protection.  I know that the cub will grow up to be a companion who brings them a world filled with excitement, joy, and pride.  He will pull them to their fullest height and drive them to their knees. 

And as for me?  I will try to restrain myself from buying too many cute little hats, toosaddle shoes 2 many cuddly teddy bears and too many books about pirates and knights in shining armor.  I’ll bake him cookies and read him stories and snuggle him close, whispering secrets in his ear about the antics of his momma, aunt and uncle.

So the secret’s out.  The cub’s a boy, and I couldn’t be happier.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

tempNew England, like much of the country, is deep in the clutches of winter.

I woke at four Friday morning to find the furnace had stopped working sometime during the night. The thermostat in the living room- the warmest room in my apartment- read a frosty 45 degrees (Fahrenheit.) The temperature outside was a mere 1. After several attempts, I was able to get the furnace started and when I left for work it was still chugging away. Crisis averted.

Later, I told my daughter Abby about the furnace. She said it reminded her of times we lost power when she was a child.

I remembered one of those times. We had a power failure one snowy February evening. While the children huddled under blankets in the living room, I braved the snow to heat canned soup over a propane burner on the front stoop. We supped by candle light and then Abby and Elizabeth entertained us by reading “Hamlet” aloud, each creating a different voice for each character. We snuggled together laughed until the lights came on. It is one of my favorite memories.

Another year, when the children were much younger, we lost power early in the first day of a huge ice storm. Abby and Gabriel had fevers, so I bundled them into bed and told them to stay there. With Elizabeth in tow, I emptied the refrigerator and buried the food in the snow on our deck, then turned the faucets to a slow trickle to keep the pipes from freezing. But as the hours passed, the house became dark and cold as a tomb. When my friend Sue called to see how we were faring, I told her we were without electricity. She quickly arranged for us to stay with her parents, who hadn’t been affected by the power failure. I joyfully herded the kids into the car, and skidded to their nearby home, where they greeted us with warm smiles and warmer hugs. Our communication was limited- they spoke mostly French. We spoke only English. But hospitality crosses all cultural barriers. We were given the whole lower level of their home- living room with two fold-out couches, TV, kitchenette, bath and bedroom. We remained there for five days, until the power to our townhouse was restored. It took several hours before the townhouse was warm enough to bring the kids home, and the ice coating the power lines and trees didn’t thaw for a week. But the warmth of the Lacroix family burns in my heart still and I will never forget their generosity.

During our most recent snow storm,  I reluctantly bundled up to take the trash to the dumpster across my apartment house parking lot. It was 6 degrees and the wind swirled snow in every direction- certainly not a night for a winter stroll. The storm raged like a banshee as I trudged through the snow, and I hunched my shoulders and bowed my head against the wind.

As I walked, I noticed how dry and granular the snow was. Under the streetlights it sparkled and shone and the earth seemed suddenly covered in diamonds. I stood enchanted by the dumpster forgetting about the wind and the cold.  “How often we miss out on beauty like this because we are blinded by our discomfort,” I thought, and I took a longer and slower route back to the warmth of my apartment.

jan 2014It’s funny how the worst of circumstances can provoke the best responses. After last night’s storm, there is brilliant sunshine that sparkles against alabaster roof tops. In much the same way, many cold nights filled with icy winds and frigid darkness, have brought memories that melt my heart and fill me with the warm embers of yesterday.
Tonight promises temperatures well below zero, and while I hope my furnace holds up under the strain, if it dies again, I’m sure we will find a way to stay warm. And who knows- maybe a whole new set of memories will be born.

A Grand Dilemma

You know that you have entered a new phase of life when you realize that you want to become a grandmother.

Five years ago, if you brought up the topic, I would have said that I wasn’t yet ready for grandchildren.  I thought of grandparents as being old, with wrinkled skin and gray hair.  Like my grandmother.  And my mother. 

But then my siblings-even the younger ones- began to have grandchildren.  My friends began to have grandchildren.  None of them look old with wrinkled skin. Okay, some of them have gray hair, but then so do I.  It’s just well-hidden by my hair colorist.  I saw them with their grandchildren and recognized the special bond they shared.

I began to notice that it’s been more than twenty-five years since I’ve had a baby to snuggle.  I began to miss the scent of baby breath and tufts of silky baby hair tickling me under my chin.  I missed the weight of an infant’s head resting on my shoulder and the way a newborn’s droll little face contorts when she pulls up her knees and stretches out her arms upon waking.  In short, I miss having a baby in the house.

I’ve heard some people say that they were happy when their children outgrew the infant stage so they mompainting_G could do things with them.  While I loved having older children, I also cherished the years my kids were babies.  Crazy as it sounds, I especially loved getting up with a hungry baby during the night.  I would quietly pad to the living room so we wouldn’t wake the rest of the household, wrap a blanket around the two of us, and settle in a rocking easy chair to nurse.  It was peaceful and quiet- time for my baby and me to stare into each other’s eyes, stroke each other’s cheeks, and feel the warmth of each other’s bodies sway back and forth with the rocker.  More often than not, the baby would stop feeding long before I could bring myself to put him down and go back to bed. 

Too quickly those days faded into the past and I moved on to basketball games, band concerts, and waving goodbye at airports, and one day my little ones were all grown.   I adjusted to life without children- eating at odd hours, leaving scissors on low tables, sleeping through the night without opening my eyes to find a three-year-old staring me awake.  Indeed, it is easier.  No running out late at night to buy Pedialyte and popsicles for sick tummies.  No wrestling to assemble toys at 2AM on Christmas morning.  No snowsuits and mittens and boots and “now-I-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom!”  I can come and go as I please.  I do not need to plan meals, or trips to the store, or shuttles to practice.

But then there is the empty arms thing and my friends and siblings with their toothless grandchildren bouncing on their knees.  And I know it’s time to once again have a baby in the house.  So when my daughter Abby and her husband Johnny not-so-casually announced that in June the two of them will become three, my heart leapt with joy.  We refer to the unborn child as “the little cub” and I can’t stop hoping he or she has red hair. john and abby pregnant

There is one dilemma, however.  What shall I be called by this precious little bundle?  It is complicated.  Johnny’s father’s name is Gary.  You cannot have a grandmother named Garrie and a grandfather on the other side called Gary.  The poor little cub will be too confused.  “Nana?”  No- it doesn’t suit me.  “Grammie?”  That’s reserved for Johnny’s mother.  “Granny?”  Not while I have breath in my body.  I thought of a long, trilled “Grrrrrrrrrrrandmama” but that’s just plain ridiculous.

And so, I extend an invitation to my readers to weigh in.  What shall the little cub call his or her grandmother-on-her-mother’s-side?  I await your suggestions.

Back in the Saddle Again- A.K.A. New Tricks for Old Dogs

I’ve been spending the last several weeks recuperating from back surgery.  It was much more invasive than I had anticipated, and although my recovery has been steady, it has been much slower than I expected.  Before surgery, my plan was to spend a few days resting, and then the following weeks reading and writing.  I was disappointed to find that my body needed every ounce of energy just to heal, and I felt exhausted and ill most of the time.  Books didn’t hold my attention.  I couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes at a time.  Even conversation was difficult, and putting words to paper impossible.  So I napped, watched snippets of daytime television, and dabbled on the internet.  The worst part is that I’ve barely been able to string three sentences together. It is as if the part of my brain that translates concepts into words seeped out with the excess spinal fluid.
 
Numerous times I have tried to post on my blog and become frustrated with how clumsy my writing has become.  My WordPress account is riddled with abandoned paragraphs waiting to be expanded upon.  Stories are left untold.  Opinions left unstated.
 
But we all have times to start anew, and now that I have left the confines of my apartment and returned to work,  I know I must post again.  But where to start?
 
This evening I read a blog written by a photographer.  Her post reminded me of one I crafted as a guest blogger on the website of my photographer friends in 2011. (http://www.dachowskiphotography.com/
 
As I read her post and re-read my own, I was reminded of the common truth both posts hold, and how timely a reminder right before the Christmas holiday.   I thought that for me, my new beginning as a writer might be to rework something done once before.  So, dear reader- enjoy, but be gentle.  The saddle is not so easy to climb into once again.
 
Photographs
 
family photoI don’t usually categorize myself as an old dog, but I’m thinking it’s time to learn a new trick.

I’m one of those people who hates to be photographed. In snapshots, I always seem to be caught at the exact moment I look my worst. When I look at them later, I always cringe. I focus on the bags under my eyes, or the way my chin looks like it has doubled, or how much heavier I seem than when I last looked in the mirror. In fact, the photograph to the right is probably the last candid one taken with my family, and it was 1991.  Consequently, at family outings I am the person who is nowhere to be found when the cameras come out. I was okay with this until the winter when my mother died.

After the funeral I sifted through piles of photographs- black and whites from the fifties, colored ones that had yellowed with age, even faded Polaroids from the seventies.

Images of my mother smiled back at me from all stages of her life- Mom swollen with pregnancy. Mom dressed in a black lace party dress and red lipstick. Mom disguised as Elvis for Halloween. Mom digging in her garden.

Some of the pictures are flattering. Some are not. In most of them, she is surrounded by her family. There she is with Dad. Here is one with my siblings. And in this one she is with all of her grandchildren. However, there were no images of my mother and me together. There are no reminders of how close we were, of how we laughed together, and worked together, and loved each other.

I realize that this is because I avoided having my picture taken, and now it is too late. I wonder if I will remember, and if my children will remember. And I wonder how their children will know.

When I look at photographs of my mother, I don’t see the lines on her face or that her chin had doubled. I see the love in her eyes, and the laughter in her heart. For me, looking at her images is comforting, and uplifting, and precious. Her images warm me and make me smile. mom beach

They remind me of how capable she was, and how she enveloped me in her long arms and how she was strong and gentle at the same time. I look at the gray eyes in her photographs- eyes that were stern when I was disrespectful, and steady when I was afraid, and soft when I was sad. I have the same gray eyes. Someday, my children will need to look at my picture and remember my eyes. But just as I cheated myself out of photographs with my mother, I have cheated my children out of the same thing. 

So I’mcamera rethinking this camera-shy thing I’ve had going on. Maybe  this Christmas I’ll consider sitting in front of a camera- especially if the photographer can disguise my double chin and baggy eyes. After all, even Momma G can learn a new trick or two.

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