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.

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.

Labor of Love

This weekend while I was reorganizing I came across a box full of fabric that had belonged to my mother.  In the box were several yards of green flannel. I suspect my mother intended it for a flannel shirt, perhaps for one of my brothers.

For as long as I remembered, my mother sewed.  I thought perhaps it was because she was very tall and found it hard to find ready-to-wear clothing, or maybe it was the generation in which she was born, or even because she hated shopping.  Whatever the reason, her old White sewing machine was usually left open and our dining room was often strewn with patterns and fabric.

One of my favorites of Mom’s sewing projects was the snowsuit she made for my older sister, Martha-Jean.  Like many young couples, my parents’ income was limited, and heavy wool was a luxury she could not afford.  She cut up my father’s Navy topcoat for the outside and lined it in soft plaid flannel.  After Martha-Jean outgrew it, it became mine and when I outgrew it, I passed it to Robin.  I’m not sure how many Madison children the snowsuit survived, but whenever I see pictures of it, I smile at my mother’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Over the years, many outfits were fashioned in our dining room.  My mother, ever pregnant with yet another of her eight children sewed maternity jumpers to cover her swelling belly.  She made skirts and dresses for the girls, wool shirts for my father and brothers.

I never really appreciated what it took to clothe eight children.  In fifth grade I was to play the clarinet in the Memorial Day parade.  We were instructed to wear navy blue serge skirts, and I didn’t own one.  Mom went to her sewing machine and made a skirt out of gray wool that was left over from another project.  The morning of the parade the other girls pointed out how different my skirt looked from everyone else’s.  My cheeks burned as I looked at my gray in a sea of blue and realized that they were right.  I only thought of how embarrassing it was to stand out from the group.  I never considered that my mother had stayed up most of the night making do with what she could afford.  And although I never mentioned it to her, I never thanked her for it either.

When I was in junior high school I came home to announce that a boy had asked me to a dance that was to take place the next evening. My mother hid her dismay, smiled and worked most of the night to produce a beautiful blue dress.  She finished the hem minutes before my date arrived.  Far too late I appreciated the fact that she had taught school all day, cooked dinner for ten people and tucked her children into bed before she even started to cut the pattern.

As she did for many of my sisters, Mom made my wedding gown.  When I called her from Idaho to announce my engagement, she took my measurements over the phone, and went to the fabric store to select yards of sparkle organza and two dozen pearl buttons.  She carefully cut and sewed three underskirts, painstakingly created fabric loops for each button and meticulously measured and sewed tiny tucks in the bodice.  The dress was magnificent- a frothy confection of sheer layers with a long train and billowing sleeves.  I returned to Massachusetts only a few days before the wedding and again she stayed up late to hem the skirts and take in the waist so it would fit.  She never complained and although I thanked her for it, I didn’t fully realize how difficult and time-consuming a project it was.

Now that my children are grown, I know that my mother sewed partly out of necessity and partly because she loved to make something from nothing for the people she loved.  I know this because I did the same thing.  I sewed Bermuda shorts and matching tops for Elizabeth.  I made MC Hammer pants for Gabe.  When winter came and the children needed pajamas, I cut and stitched thick flannel to keep them warm while they slept.  And when Abby’s huge eyes grew large with envy at a classmate’s floral dress with a black velvet bodice, I sewed late into the night on Christmas Eve to finish one for her.

What I know now is that creating something from scratch for someone you love is an expression that speaks louder than words.  Every slice of the scissor, every stitch of the needle, every pressing of a seam sings the phrase “I love you.” 

So now that the holidays are over and I’m settled in for a long stretch of cold weather, I’m thinking that it’s time to pull out my sewing machine and work on a new labor of love.  I wonder who would like a shirt made out of that green flannel?

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.

Circles of Love

My daughter Abby got engaged last week.  The day before he proposed, her fiancé, Johnny, showed me a picture of the ring and told me of his plans to propose.  The picture did not do the ring justice. It is breathtakingly beautiful and is outshined only by the smile on my beautiful daughter’s face.  It is a series of circles, the symbol of love itself.  The center is a round aquamarine, and around it are two halos of tiny diamonds.  The two halos are like Johnny and Abby- two separate individuals, the aquamarine the blending of two colors- green and blue, like the melding of two lives to become one.

I never had an engagement ring.  We were VISTA volunteers in Idaho in the late seventies, and were paid $240 a month, plus food stamps.  Diamonds were not in the budget.  But for our wedding, my intended and I bought matching gold bands, engraved with floral filigree.  We began our search for rings in Boise, Idaho, where we were stationed, and found the set on display at the first jeweler we visited.  Immediately, we fell in love with the rings, but decided to continue our search, in case we found something we liked better.  After several more shopping trips, we decided to return to the original jewelry store.

My children’s father was a farm boy, with large hands and meaty fingers.  My hands are not small either, so when we asked to see the rings, we expected to find them both too small.  To our surprise, both rings fit our fingers perfectly.  We decided it was kismet and bought them on the spot.  When we exchanged them at our August wedding, we promised to wear them always, blissfully ignorant of the storms that awaited us.

For the next twenty-eight years we wore these golden vows, until Paul had a minor accident which flattened his ring.  His finger swelled painfully and it was obvious that the warped and twisted ring had to be cut off.  By this time our marriage was as troubled as his finger and as I wedged a ring cutter under the gold band, I noticed that the filigree had disappeared, worn smooth over the years.  It did not resemble the ring we bought at that little jewelry store in Idaho, any more than our marriage resembled the two young lovers who had purchased it.  As I gripped the cutter and snapped the ring in two, my eyes filled with silent tears, knowing that breaking the band that symbolized our union was a foreshadowing of the lonely nights ahead.

When we divorced I removed my wedding band and placed it in the padded protection of my jewelry box.  Occasionally I pick it up for a short moment, and then return it to the velvet lined case.  Like my marriage, I can no longer wear it, and yet I cannot bear to turn my back on it.  I tried a few days ago, when the rising price of gold enticed me to a jewelry store that purchases precious metal.  I thought I would sell the ring and use the cash to help out with Abby’s wedding expenses, and drove to a local jewelry store while trying to convince myself that it was only a useless circle of ore.  But the lump in my throat wouldn’t go away and when the jeweler told me that it was worth only a fraction of what we paid for it, I took it back home to lie in wait with the earrings and brooches that fill my jewelry box.

People often say that a wedding ring symbolizes the never-ending love of a husband and wife, but I believe it symbolizes the continuity of love itself.  The love symbolized in that gold band produced three beautiful children who will love three beautiful children who were produced by the love symbolized in a little gold wedding band.    Abby and John will love each other in a way that is as unique as the aquamarine ring that signifies their promise, but as traditional and continual as the love that produced their very existence.  It is the circle of love.  It is the circle of life.

Christmas Tribute

This morning, my very large family filed into Immaculate Heart of Mary Church to say a final farewell to our mother.   The last several days have been filled with tears, laughter and embraces, and although my heart is still too tender to do much writing, I wanted to honor her by posting the eulogy I delivered at her funeral.  Here’s to you, Connie Madison.  I will love you forever.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.                                                                          First Corinthians 13: 1-3

The reason I chose verses from this chapter of scripture is because it is commonly called the “Love Chapter, ” and it is impossible to speak of Mom without mentioning love at the same time.

I often thought that God created a special mold when He formed Mom.  One with big feet to keep her stable when she carried her babies.  One with broad shoulders to bear the burdens of people who would sit at our kitchen table and pour out their troubles over a cup of coffee.  One with large hands to knead several loaves of bread- some for her family and some for a neighbor.  One with a mind that searched and questioned and taught her children and grand children and great-grandchildren to do the same.  One with long arms to embrace many- to draw them close enough so it is hard to know where they begin and she ends. One with a heart that beat a constant cadence of love and acceptance and inclusion.

We grew up feeling as if there was nothing Mom couldn’t do.  She could sew just about anything- from a snowsuit cut from Dad’s Navy uniform, to flannel shirts for her three sons, to wedding gowns for her daughters, and quilts to keep her grand children warm at night.  Her garden grew like her family- plentiful, large and robust.  She knew how to read music and do math in her head- skills that to this day still escape me.  She was strong enough to wield a hammer and gentle enough to put a cool hand on a feverish forehead.  She wasn’t afraid of lightning storms, didn’t faint at the sight of blood, and she had the compassion to adopt a mange-covered puppy and make her a life long companion.

There were a few things that Mom never could master. She never learned to like asparagus.  She never learned to call her children’s names out of birth order.  (all together now- Martha, Garrie, Robin, Scott, Teri, Kevin, Ricky, Missy.)  She never learned to save her money instead of giving it away.  She never learned to say no if somebody needed her.  She never learned to put herself first.  She never learned to feel sorry for herself.

Mom took an old house with crumbling plaster walls and made it a safe haven for anyone who entered its front door.  It was a loud house- a symphony of children running up and down the stairs, music from the hi-fi, and a washing machine that was constantly running.    There was always room for one more person at the dinner table, always a cup of hot coffee for a visitor, always time to help with homework, always a moment to kiss a boo boo or mend a broken heart.  And there was laughter.  Lots of laughter.

Mom didn’t keep her love inside the confines of our house.  She was a favorite teacher who could find something loveable in every child she taught.  They felt her acceptance and I remember many occasions where I would walk into her classroom after the last bell had rung to see a ragamuffin kid that no other teacher wanted snuggled by her side while she helped with a difficult lesson.  They would lean into her, and she would embrace them, no matter how dirty, how smelly, how unruly.

I saw one of her best examples of her acceptance shortly after I graduated college. She and I were walking on Main Street in Palmer, and a dirty, disheveled man came toward us. His eyes were rimmed with red and he staggered a bit.  As our paths began to cross, Mom recognized him and called his name.  He realized who she was, and she gathered him close and hugged him like a long lost brother.  They spoke for a few moments and he smiled, wiped a tear and went on his way.  I was aghast.  I had no idea who this man was and why my mother would hug him.  She explained.  He used to bag her groceries at the old A&P, which had closed many years before that. She said that he never complained about the many bags and he always helped her load them in the car.  She wanted him to know how much she appreciated his help and valued his service. We went on about our business and she didn’t give it a second thought, but I learned a lesson about love that I will never forget.  Love is not selective. It is to be given liberally and freely and without expecting return.

During Mom’s last days, we talked a lot about love. She reminded me over and over that all people need to do is love one another, and the rest will fall into place.  She asked me to pass on this message.  It is her legacy.  The reason for her life.

A lot of people have remarked to me how sad it is that Mom passed during the Christmas season.  But I think it is one of her most appropriate acts.  Christmas is the time when we celebrate God sending His only son to earth so He could die for us.  It is the ultimate act of love, and she based her entire life on it.  When we celebrate Christmas, we acknowledge love in its purest form and we encourage ourselves and each other to mirror this love in our daily walks.  We honor God and we honor Mom each time we speak a kind word, or soothe a troubled soul, or help a wounded stranger.  If we loved Connie Madison, and I know everyone here did, we will carry her message of love, and teach it to others. 

For if we have not love, we are nothing.

My Mother’s Hands

I have always hated my hands. Unlike the slim soft hands of most women, they are work hands- made for wringing diapers and kneading loaves of bread, like my mother’s.  Other women wear colored nail polish and sparkling jewelry to call attention to the delicacy of their hands.  They easily slip into slim leather gloves and tiny gold rings with diamonds that catch the light.  But I am embarrassed by my hands and do not call attention to them, but rather keep them hidden, even stuffed into pockets whenever possible.

Today, I helped my mother prepare for her transition to a nearby hospice house. After several days in the hospital, she was unwashed and uncombed.  Her soft curly hair was matted from lying in bed and her hospital gown was twisted and wrinkled.  Knowing how this made her feel worse, I volunteered to give her a sponge bath and she agreed.  As I gently rubbed her back with a warm wet cloth, she sighed in contentment and told me how she remembered washing her mother shortly before she died.  I felt honored to be part of this legacy of love- to be the one to carefully wipe her face and rinse her feet.  Her hands were bruised and swollen.  Afraid that her rings would become so tight they would hurt her, I soaped her hand, and in one gentle motion, slipped them from her finger to mine.

We moved her to the hospice house where angelic nurses fluttered in to welcome her to her new room. The walls were washed in sunlight and the furnishings cozy and inviting.  The sterility of the hospital was replaced soft footsteps and cheerful chatter, as the nurses worked to make her comfortable.  She smiled in relief and appreciation.

Later that evening, as we stood by her bedside, I watched her hands shakily finger her rosary beads while praying the Chaplet of Devine Mercy.  Her hospital gown had been replaced by a soft white flannel nightgown, her hair combed.  Her hands counted their way through the prayers.  The same hands that rubbed my back to put me to sleep. The same hands that braided my hair, and hemmed my dresses, and hammered nails into the wall to hang my artwork.  The same hands that wrote on the chalk board for hundreds of middle school children.  The same hands that held my father’s when he passed from this world to the next.

When I got home this evening, I took a long hot shower, letting the water wash rivers of tears down the drain.  As I dried my face, I caught a glimpse of my hands in the mirror.   The two silver rings, one filigree and the other turquoise, still were on my finger.  They fit my hands.   My hands.  Made for wringing diapers and kneading bread, and washing my mother in her final days.  They are big and strong.  And beautiful.  They are my mother’s hands.

The Toppling of the Towers

I play computer Solitaire.  A lot.  It started when I discovered it as a free game on our first family home computer, and it grew into an obsession.  I play at rocket speed, timing myself to see how quickly I can sort the cards until they are organized into neat piles.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure this out.  I hate chaos and disorder.  I detest clutter.  And I have formed a pattern of coping with problems alone.  It began when I was a young woman in an unhealthy relationship.  Grey clouds would gather, the air would thicken, and rumblings would be heard from a distance.  Slowly, deliberately, the sky darkened and large raindrops randomly splashed against the pavement, and then, little by little, they quickened.  Soon there was nothing but chaos- crashes of thunder, flashes of lightning, rain like sheets falling from billowing masses of black and gray.  When they passed, I never talked about the storms.  When the sun again emerged, I would smile, clean the debris, and act as if nothing had happened. 

I did this for years, until I could no more.  Finally, I began a new chapter of my life and on a different computer, learned a new version of the Solitaire game.   This version was harder, requiring much strategy and careful maneuvering.  I lost more than I won.   Still, I sorted and organized and piled the cards into neat harmonious groups.  It was systematic.  Orderly.  Tidy.  But a few weeks ago, after I successfully finished a game, I realized that once the piles are completely sorted they topple, crashing to the ground where they shatter into small bits and shards.

I have thought about this a lot. From the moment we are born, we crave the company others.  Babies know this. We can feed them and change them and wrap them in the finest of blankets, but sometimes they cry because they just need to be held.  They nestle into our arms and snuggle their heads into the crook of our necks.  When they get scared, they run to their parents, holding up chubby little hands to be lifted to the safety of a daddy’s shoulder or a mother’s lap. 

Animals know this. They herd together for warmth and safety.  Elephants form protective circles around an injured or weak family member.  Puppies and kittens lie so closely when nursing from their mother that it is hard to tell one from another.  Ants move in armies, relying on the strength of the group to bear a load that greatly outweighs each soldier.  Horses bay and whinny when one is removed from the other’s eyesight.  Sheep move as one when lead from the pasture to the fold.

This lesson has never been so obvious as it has during the past month.  My mother, the hub of the mighty wheel of my family, has become ill.  The knowledge that she will not be with us for long emerged from a vague distant fog and has become glaring and stark.  She has always been there, soft and warm, with strong arms that pull us close to her breast.  She has taught me how to live, how to laugh, how to love. Imagining life without her leaves me with flowing eyes, and a lump in my throat that cannot be swallowed.  I want to run from this, to hide in my game of Solitaire.  To sort and order and make neat piles. 

But as I watched the cards topple from their towers, I remembered that life was never meant to be a game of Solitaire.  A different strategy is needed.  Instead, I reached out to my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my friends.   We did not sort ourselves. We did not pile into congruent towers of like suits. Instead, we formed a circle.  And here we stay.  We stand together, shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other’s weight, wiping each other’s tears, bearing each other’s burdens.  In the circle, there are no towers to tumble, no crashing of cards to shatter on the floor.  Towers fall when they are stacked too high. Circles widen to embrace new members. 

I will always try to sort my life into neat, orderly piles.  And I will always live my life with a healthy sense of independence.  But in the days ahead, Solitaire will be played on my computer.  Life is a team game, to be shared with the people I love.  If you look, you’ll find an opening in the circle.  Come on in.

Make a Heart

The early dawn’s cold left a thick coating of frost on my car windshield this morning.  I searched my car for the ice scraper, my thoughts returning to past November mornings when I would drop my three children off at their elementary school before I drove to work.  As I dragged my scraper across the surface, I could almost hear the ghosts of their laughter from inside the car.  They would sit shoulder to shoulder in the back seat, chanting “Make a heart!  Make a heart!” until I traced a heart in the windshield’s frost.  When the heart was complete, they would clap their mittened hands and cheer as heartily as if it were for Santa himself.

I like hearts.  They are circles, with a few side steps, much like life itself.  Like wanderers in the woods, we put one foot in front of the other, thinking we are traveling in a straight line, only to find we have walked this path before, and that the curve of our path indeed took us to our beginnings.    Somewhere along the way there were roadblocks, obstacles that diverted our steps to a different path, but the detour is not forever, and soon we are back on the path.  When the journey is complete and we look from above, the pattern we traced is a heart. The symbol of love.

I thought a lot about love this week as I spent time with my mother.  Like many people, my earliest memories are of her.  Those early memories are shadows, hidden too deeply in my heart to clearly define, but the shards of them trigger my senses with amazing acuity.  I know her scent, and they way it feels to rest my head at her breast, and how her long arms and strong hands cradled me.  I know the softness of her hair and the way her body sways back and forth when she walks, and the thump, thump, thump as she rhythmically pats a baby’s back to work out the burps.    I can hear her alto voice and my father ‘s tenor singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” in harmony during car rides, and their laughter rising through the stairwell to my darkened room where I was supposed to be sleeping.  I see her silhouette in the wool skirts she sewed to fit her tall frame, and I smell her red lipstick when she kissed me goodbye before she and my father left for a rare evening out.  

All these memories are laced with love.  Love that is palpable, that has a scent, that bleeds through trials and arguments and obstacles.  Love that did not divide among eight children, twenty-something grandchildren, a bunch of great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and the kids whom she taught in junior high school classrooms, but instead multiplied again and again like a geometric progression.  It is too abundant to be contained, spilling over and dripping on everything she touches.  It grows like her children did, with long arms that reach out to gather others into the fold.  It stains the heart crimson, bleeding through tears shed for strangers and aching to change a world that closes doors on the untalented, unpopular and unlovable.

 The frost on my windshield is clear, but I see clouds gathering to the north and know that a long cold winter lies ahead.  There will be treacherous days and frigid nights, and times when I want to bury my head under the covers and lie alone in the dark.  But I will remember the voices of my children and the lessons of my mother.  I will make a heart.

Love Notes

A couple of weeks ago, my son Gabe received notification from the University of Leeds that he had indeed met all the qualifications required for his Master’s degree.    This, of course, made my mother’s heart swell with pride, and I immediately conveyed my congratulations to him and emailed all one hundred of my closest friends to give them the good news.  There is an unspoken pact among mothers that when it comes to boasting about our kids’ educational milestones, all rules of etiquette are suspended for a twenty-four hour period, allowing us to brag ad nauseum without social repercussion or consequence.   I took full advantage of this.

And then,  this morning, while rummaging through some photographs, I fell upon a wrinkled slip of paper that made my heart swell to the extent that it leaked out of my eyes.  I unfolded the paper to find a note that my young scholar wrote when he was seven.  My thoughts flew to Gabriel in second grade.  He was tall and so thin that the other kids made fun of scarecrow physique and his missing teeth.  He loved to read, but he hated any schoolwork that resembled mindless repetition.  One day, while visiting his classroom, I searched the brightly decorated bulletin boards for my son’s work.  At one end of the classroom was a display of poems, obviously meant to be second grade gifts for Mother’s Day.  There were rows of papers, neatly penned, framed with hand drawn pictures of flowers, kittens, and bunny rabbits.

                “Roses are red

                Violets are blue

                Sugar is sweet

                And so are you.”

Where was my son’s work?   I looked back and forth across the rows of red roses and blue violets.  Surely he did one -he hadn’t been absent.  Perhaps he hadn’t finished.  No, the dates on the papers indicated that they had been done several days prior. Surely he had time to finish his work.  Maybe he didn’t want to participate in a Mother’s Day gift. I had yelled at him last week after stepping on his little green army men with my bare foot.  And I nagged him to clean up his room. Again.  And to stop teasing his little sister.  Again.

God.  Maybe my kid hates me.  

At last I found it, the last in the bottom row, scrawled in pencil, barely perceptible amid the riot of cheerfully crayoned pictures labored over by his classmates.   My eyes welled up then, as they did this morning. 

For the next several years, school was a challenge.  Gabe never learned to color, or to do the same work the same way that everybody else did. 

But you know, I’m kinda glad he didn’t.

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