I Choose Peace

dogI’m not usually afraid of anything.  Really.  There are things I don’t like- the dentist’s drill, high places, the idea that there might be a shark swimming around me when I’m in the ocean- but generally, I don’t get scared.

I’m not sure when this happened, because as a child there were things that made me shake in my boots.  I hated scary movies and was fearful of snarling dogs (but that’s a story that involves a trained police dog and a scar to be told at another time.)  Sister Lucien’s death grip on my arm made me wish I had never been born.  My mother’s steely glare when I talked back froze me in my steps. And I was afraid of Donald Routhier, a bully who was four years older and at least four feet taller than I and would block my path with his bicycle.  My older sister gave him a bloody nose once and that was the last I heard of him. For all I know, he may have turned out to be the kindest man around, but when I was eight years old, he turned my blood to ice.

When I went to college, I became an RA, and with my position came a new-found bravado.  I was a skinny twenty-year-old with no training in self-defense, but I had confidence, and was fearless when it came to breaking up drunken brawls and kicking misbehaving townies out of the dorms.

Once I had children, I realized that fear is not a word for mothers.  A mother cannot be afraid of thunderstorms, or bad dreams, or monsters under the bed.  She has to be confident during the administration of flu shots, casts and sutures.  She cannot show fear when putting her first grader on the bus, or watching her daughter aim for the final free shot before the buzzer, or listen to her seventh grader strain to hit the first note of his solo in the Christmas concert.  And although the tears are hot against her eyes, she cannot let worry show as she waves goodbye to a child on a plane to faraway places.

I’ve had lots of practice being fearless.  I’m not afraid to walk alone at night, or stay by myself, or drive across the country.  I’m the person at work who confronts angry customers.  I even went into a smoke house at the Massachusetts Fire Academy when IPicture 031 was older than most of the instructors. Well, okay, it was very controlled danger, but still, there was fire and smoke and high places, so it counts.

Tomorrow is different.  I’ve had a nervous knot in my stomach for days.  It’s not that I’ve never had surgery before.  Indeed I’ve had several.  But this time it’s a little more invasive, with a lot longer recovery time.  Maybe it’s because the surgeon is young enough to be my son. Or that I’m old enough to be his mother.  I’ve planned this well.  My apartment is spotless. My job is covered.  I have books to read and food in the freezer.  Friends and relatives have wished me well.  I should be all set.

But I’m filled with fear.  I’m afraid of post-operative pain and sharing a hospital room and of something going wrong.  Panic rises in my throat and I want to run away.  I want to be home in the house at 30 Green Street where everything is made all better by the sound of laughter at the dinner table.  I want to feel my mother’s cool hand on my forehead and I want to hear the jingle of the change in my father’s pocket.  I want to have Greta nuzzle her collie shepherd nose under my arm so I can get her a treat.  I want to be snuggled in an easy chair, nursing one of my newborn children.  I want to be young and strong and fearless again.  I want to be calm.  I want to have peace.

I’ve wrestled with this for a few days and then this afternoon it dawned on me.  Fear and peace do not come from people and situations.  The scenarios that scared me as a child still exist.  There are still bullies and snarling dogs and angry people.  The reality of tomorrow is that I will be put to sleep and surgery will be performed.  But the fear that I feel is not from the surgery itself.  It comes from within me.  The surgery is not within my control.  My fear is.

And peace?  It comes from within as well.  Peace did not come from the house at 30 Green Street.  It did not come from my parents or a sleeping baby.  The peace I seek is dove from God himself.  Inside me.  It was granted to me long ago, and it too is in my control.  I can either let it flow, or I can squelch it with the “what ifs.”

So today, I choose to count on the God who has always been there to lead me.  If I’m right, the kid surgeon who looks like he should still be in high school will clean up my spine enough so I can walk the beach next summer.  If not, then God will lead me through the next adventure.  In any case, I choose peace.

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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.

Ten Things I Learned from My Mother

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day.  My mother was never a huge fan of the holiday. She said that she had children because she wanted them and didn’t need a holiday to honor her for that decision.  Still, whenever Mother’s Day comes along, I think of her soft gray eyes and hearty laugh and wish for a way to celebrate her impact on my life.  She taught me many things; here are a few.

Ten Things my Mother Taught Me

1.  Don’t do anything half-assed. This colorful phrase was one of the few instances when Mom used cuss words.  I’m not sure where the phrase originated, but I knew it meant slopping something together without taking the proper steps to do it right. Mom detested doing a half-assed job of anything and did not tolerate it from her children.  We were taught to make beds with square corners.  We were taught to press the seams open when sewing.  We were taught to prime before painting.

When I was eight years old, it was often my job to dry the dishes after dinner.  One evening after dinner, there seemed to be an unusually high number of dishes draining in our big two-sided sink.  My brothers and sisters were playing, my parents watching the evening news, and I was left alone to dry and stack.  I finished the glasses and plates, but the pile of cutlery seemed enormous.  Instead of meticulously drying each utensil, I decided it would dry on its own and proceeded to dump the whole lot into the deep drawer were the silverware was kept.  I smugly closed the drawer and ran to the back yard to play kickball with my siblings.  Ten minutes later, my mother called me to the kitchen.

“What is this?” she asked, pointing to the dripping drawer.

“Um…er…” clearly I had no answer.

She pulled the huge drawer from the wall and dumped all of its contents into the sink. Filling the sink with hot, soapy water, she instructed me to wash all the silverware, dry it and put it away properly.  Every time I am tempted to take a short cut I remember how it took me three times as long to finish my chores than it would if I had done them right the first time.  Half-assed I will never be.

2.  Kids do stupid things and they do not know why.  The spring of my sixth year, I was to have my First Holy Communion.  My mother was an ambitious seamstress and she bought snowy white fabric and yards of tulle to make my dress and veil.  I do not remember the act, but apparently I thought I could help, and while the unsewn pieces of fabric were lying on the dining room table, I took my mother’s fabric shears and sliced the skirt down the middle.  I do not remember being punished for this, nor do I remember hearing my mother chastising me, and at my First Communion, the dress was flawless.

I should have never been entrusted with scissors again, but in second grade I decided that the best way to deal with the tuft of hair that kept  falling from my hairband was to cut it.  I took the tuft in hand and with a pair of fingernail scissors from the bathroom, lopped it off at the scalp.  To my horror, the hair that was left stuck out straight, like the top of a crew cut.  My mother dried my tears, and taking a razor, gave me a pixie cut that hid the shorn spot on my forehead until it grew out.

3.  Forgive one another.  God did it, so should we.  Enough said.

4. How to squirt water with your hands.  One of my favorite memories is watching my mother teach my children how to cup their hands together and squirt water through the little opening where their thumbs met.  They took such glee in squirting the brine of the Atlantic into her face and she took such glee in watching them do so.

5Off color songs.  Actually, it is one song.  My mother’s family was not prim and proper, but they were classy, and rarely spoke in ways that were not appropriate for all audiences.   But for some reason, my grandfather taught her this song when she was a child; “I love to go swimming with long legged women and swim between their legs.”  She loved my shocked expression when she sang it to me, and I daresay I have repeated it to my children, relishing their wide eyes and gaping mouthed reactions.

6.  Stand straight, shoulders back.  Mom was a large woman- tall and big boned.  She embraced her height and admonished us to do the same.  When the circumstances of her life threatened to bow her head in humiliation and send her scurrying for secluded refuge, she pulled herself up to her full height and greeted the world full-face and smiling.

7.  Just because something isn’t easy, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.  When she was in college, my mother was terrible at mathematics.  She nearly failed a required class and out of kindness and her promise to never teach math, her professor passed her.  Several years later, she taught seventh and eighth grade math and she was a favorite teacher of many kids who struggled with the subject, probably because she taught in a way they could understand, and with the kindness and empathy only learned by one who had been there.

8.  Put it to music.  Whenever there was a chore to be done or a lesson to be learned, it was much more pleasant when set to music.  At Mom’s instruction, we memorized times table, the books of the Bible, and spelling lessons by putting them to rhythm and music.  Dishes were washed while singing Girl Scout camp songs.  We dusted and polished furniture while listening to La bohème and Aida.  Music made every task more fun, every challenge more easily met.

9.  People aren’t here to live up to our expectations.  Mom taught me a lot about acceptance.  This did not always come easily to her- she worked at accepting people, and as she aged, she became more tolerant and less judgmental.  She looked past dirty faces, foul language and bad attitudes and recognized the beauty inside.  Social stature, wealth, notoriety and education did not change people’s worth.  People did not need to change for her to love them.  But often, because she loved them, they changed.

10.  Love is always the answer.  I learned from my mother that love is a verb that functions much like a muscle; put it to work and it becomes bigger and stronger.  Fail to exercise it, and it becomes weak and ineffective.  The harder it is to love, the better at loving we become.

In the last few hours of my mother’s life, I sat with her in a small room in the Hospice House.  All the things of this life had faded away.  Nothing mattered- not her education, not her possessions, not the pets she raised, or even the children she reared.  In those final moments, when she hovered in that place between life and death, I watched her struggle to raise her arms up to God.  Her last act was an attempt to embrace Him.  To love Him.

And so Connie Madison, I honor you by carrying on your lessons to yet another generation.  You taught me well.  I hope I can carry on your legacy.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Mother-Loser-of-the-Year

“I had to drop my kids off at the before-school care center this morning.  I always feel so guilty when I do that.”  I smiled at the speaker, a pediatrician with whom I work, and noticed her eyes were a little teary. 

“Mother guilt,” I said.  “We all have it. For me, the first pangs of guilt started when I sipped a cup of coffee during my pregnancy with my firstborn.  I paid the price eleven-fold in heartburn, but every time I watch Abby stumble to the coffee pot and pour a cup at six a.m. I wonder if she shares my caffeine addiction because I couldn’t wait nine months to feed my habit.  Still, these pangs of mother guilt are nothing as compared with the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award. 

It’s true.  I won the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award two years in a row, and was runner-up more times than I can count.  As hard as we try to be perfect parents, we mess up.  The bigger the mess-up, the closer we come to wearing the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” crown.

My first attempt at this award came when Abby was an infant.  She was a beautiful baby, dressed in cotton dresses I had carefully washed in Ivory Snow and soft booties I had hand-knit during my final months of pregnancy.  I had nursed her and burped her and rocked her and gently carried her to her perfectly decorated bedroom to lay her down in a perfectly padded crib.  Momentarily distracted when the phone rang, I misjudged my distance from the door frame, smacking her sweet little bald head against the woodwork.  Because the boo-boo left no mark, I didn’t qualify for an award, but I clearly felt the pangs of mother guilt and wondered if I should be allowed to even touch my firstborn child ever again.

To my amazement, no troopers stormed my door to remove my baby from our home, and despite my ineptitude, the fates saw fit to send us two more children within the next three years.  You would think that as I became more experienced, I would have drifted further and further from the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award, but that is not the case. 

When Gabriel was five, he fell off the playground equipment down the hill from our townhouse.  Gabe was prone to dramatic performances, so when I heard him wailing at the foot of the hill, I stood at our door to assess the damage. There was no blood, but he was dragging his right leg behind him, and wore an expression that would put Sarah Bernhardt to shame.  Rather than running to his aid, I called out, “Come on, Gabe- you’re fine.  Don’t be so dramatic- you can walk home.” 

By the time he reached the house, my son’s face was streaked with muddy tears and his howls had not subsided.   All my efforts to soothe him failed, so I finally took him to the pediatrician’s office, only to find he had fractured his coccyx.  That year’s “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award was mine.

Perhaps my finest moment at “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” was the spring when Elizabeth was three.  She and I were wrestling on the carpeted living room floor.  Tickling her tummy, I began to roll over when I heard a sudden snap.  Her giggles stopped and her eyes widened in shock, and then filled with tears.  I was on the phone to the pediatrician’s office within seconds, and a few hours later, she was wearing a cast from her thigh to her toes.  Yes folks, Momma-G broke her baby’s leg. 

For six weeks, she wore that cast, and every time I looked at her, I felt horrific pangs of mother guilt.  To add insult to injury, while we were in public places she would loudly plead, “Mommy, why did you have to break my leg?”  I could actually feel the stares burning into my flesh.  I felt that I had reached the apex of my “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” career, but as all mothers know, it can get worse, and it did.  While still wearing the cast, she got chicken pox. 

Actually, Gabe came down with them first.  He suffered from allergies, so I didn’t really pay attention to his scratchy throat and sniffles, and sent him to school on a warm spring day.  He came home from kindergarten sweaty and uncomfortable, so I helped him take off his shirt. His belly and back were covered with pox, and two weeks later, two thirds of the Weston School kindergarten were absent with chicken pox.  Thank you very kindly, Momma-G.  Please straighten your “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” crown.

Now that my children are grown, these stories are fodder for hearty laughter at family reunions.  I have come to realize that children are really quite resilient and forgiving.  I have found that the things that caused the most guilt in me were the things that mattered not at all to them.  They do not care that I sent them to school in mismatched socks, or spilled coffee on their homework.  They do not mind that I made them wear hand-me-downs, watered down their orange juice to make it stretch further, and fashioned Halloween costumes from old sheets instead of buying them from the party store.  They don’t care that we celebrated birthdays on the weekends, ate the generic store brand cereals and carried brown bag lunches.

What they did care about is this.  They wanted to be hugged often, no matter how sweaty, dirty and sticky they were.  They wanted to be listened to, even when their stories were long and convoluted and peppered with “and then, you know what happened?”  They wanted see smiles more often than frowns.  They wanted to hear encouragement instead of criticism, and coos instead of growls.  Mostly, they just wanted to be loved.

When Abby was eight, we moved to a brand new town house with beige carpets and pristine walls.  I wanted so badly for my children to live in a home they were proud of that I spent part of every day scrubbing fingerprints from the white walls.  One day Abby asked me to play ball with her and her siblings. I was washing walls and told her I was too busy.  She burst into tears and cried, “I hate this house!  Ever since we moved here, all you do is clean!” 

I looked at the the sponge dripping soapy water onto the beige carpet.  I looked into daughter’s watery green eyes and realized that in ten short years she would be out of high school and never want me to play ball again.  Tossing the sponge into the sink, I kissed her soft pink cheek and grabbed her hand.

“C’mon.  Let’s play ball.”

Careful Mom… your crown is slipping.

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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