Lifelong Friendship – A Return to Diapers and Bibs.

My earliest memory of Lori is faded and worn, much as most photographs from the 1960s. I was a tiny thing – I maintain that I was three while Lori insists we were five (we squabble over that detail to this day) – and can still feel the searing in my eyes from the noontime mid-summer sun. Stubbornly, I persevered through my headache because I couldn’t care less about the pea green chairs and brown plaid sofa being unloaded from the moving van. I had one interest and one interest alone as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house four down from my own. Did the new family have a girl for me to play with?

Those early years with Lori saw hours of hopscotch, chalked with precision on her driveway under my exacting eye. We played Chinese jump rope like pros as I insisted that we practice to perfection. In the fall, we arranged piles of leaves into floor plans for our dream home, arguing over how many bedrooms there’d be. In winter, we built igloos and had spirited snowball fights. In spring, we’d eyeball each other’s new Easter dresses and bonnets, each secretly assured that our own was the prettiest. In summer, we swam in her above ground pool or pumped our legs hard, until the poles of her metal swing set lifted out of the ground, competing to see who could soar highest. And, somewhere along the way, Jackie, who lived around the corner from us, seamlessly joined our adventures and we became a trio.

grade school (2)

Half a century later, I joined my two lifelong compadres for one of our time-to-catch-up dinners. Over the years, we’ve drifted in and out of each other’s lives as our days were commandeered by the usual marriage/kids/careers frenzy that puts all else on hold. Somehow, like a homing device that leads us back to those who knew us in our simplest incarnation, we intuitively convene over food and Pinot Grigio when one of us has hit a life obstacle. What is it about those friendships formed in childhood that we gravitate toward knowing no explanations will be required?

It’s like slicing a baseball in half. At the core, at the very heart of the ball, is a round cork. This is how I picture old friends – stripped down to their authentic selves before life’s demands and responsibilities begin building layers around it. The ball’s center is covered by two sheets of rubber, then four separate layers of tightly wound yarn. Next comes a coating of rubber cement before two coverings of cowhide are applied and stitched into place. Through our lives, we add layers to the raw center of who we are, creating facades, wearing multiple hats, and building an image as we meet our parents’ expectations, peer pressures, career demands, and become upstanding members of society.

baseball

I’ve known Lori and Jackie since we were cork. I don’t have to wonder about their upbringing or life events that have made them the resilient, polished women they are today. I don’t have to question why Jackie’s children have been openly and unabashedly showered with her love since they were born. I know without asking why Lori is fiercely loyal yet emotionally delicate. And, in turn, they understand why I am demanding and defiant.

As we raised our glasses to toast fifty years of friendship, I realized that I never notice our time-worn faces, professionally enhanced hair color, or crow’s feet. Age spots on hands go undetected. Softening abdomens and saddlebags disappear as these friends are forever youthful through my retrospective lens. I see three little girls with flowing blond hair; I hear Lori’s infectious giggle; I picture Jackie’s open and engaging smile; I recall my endless rebelliousness.

As children, a favorite pastime was slapping metal roller skates onto the bottom of our sneakers and racing to Schmidt’s Corner Deli to peruse the shelves of chocolate and jars of penny candy. We’d pool our money – allowances or loose change dug out from under sofa cushions – then calculate what we could get when divided by three. Candy cigarettes made us look cool. Wax lips were both entertaining and tasty. Often, we’d settle on candy necklaces because who wouldn’t want edible fashion? After we made our selections, we’d hang out on Schmidt’s porch and greet other friends who came and went until I had to leave for my afternoon schedule of homework and piano practice, followed by an hour of baton twirling.

            Them: “Why do you have to do this every day? You never get a break!”

            Me: “You don’t get really good at something unless you work at it.”

            Them: “Yeah, but we want to play, and you’re always busy.”

            Me: “If I don’t get straight A’s and practice piano and baton, I’ll get in trouble.”

And, off I’d go, conflicted. I was sad to think of my friends having fun without me, and nearly tempted to stay a little longer, but I was more afraid of my mother’s reaction if I disobeyed her.

By the time we hit our early teens, my friends were used to the demands on my time, and I had learned how to game my parents’ system. As boys became more important to me, I spent less time procrastinating and became efficient in accomplishing my chores. Also, I’d learned to remove the screen from my bedroom window so I could sneak out whenever I pleased. Our favorite place to hang was a nearby busy road where carloads of teens would cruise up and down. We perched ourselves there on the split rail fence in front of the motorcycle dealership and waited for the ego-boosting honks of appreciation. Often missing from those adventures was Lori.

              Lori: “I can’t make it. I have to do the laundry and vacuum.”

              Us: “How about when you’re done? Meet us then.”

              Lori: “I can’t. I have to watch my little brothers and sister.”

              Us: “How about when your parents get home?”

              Lori: “They won’t be back until really late. Go without me.”

A huge milestone was when I was the first of us to get my driver’s license. We immediately gained the freedom we’d been craving since watching older teens cruise past as we waved from the wooden fence. Soon, we were driving with the rest of the group, stopping at a 7-Eleven for a Slurpee with me showily twirling the car keys around my index finger. That summer we cruised back and forth to the Jersey shore several nights a week just because we could. My parents thought they’d curtail my roaming by denying me access to their cars. No problem. Jackie’s mom let me drive hers so off we went. For hours we cruised, often with no destination in mind. When it was time for Lori and me to get home, Jackie would usually go with one or the other of us.

              Us: “Don’t we need to get your mom’s car back?”

              Jackie: “Nah. She doesn’t care.”

              Us: “Well, you should call and let her know you won’t be home tonight.”

              Jackie: “It’s okay. She probably won’t even notice.”

Fifty years of friendship. We’ve been each other’s cheering section, best audience, and most honest critic. We’ve been there through it all. First kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks. Family history, family dynamics, family secrets. Marriage, children, divorce, death. We’ve argued and hurt each other’s feelings and always moved beyond. We do more than listen and sympathize. We know. Know, only in a way possible because we’ve been together from the time we were cork.

Today

Our recent dinner was both a celebration and the mourning of Lori’s impending move to South Carolina. For numerous reasons, this is the best decision for her family, and we are excited for her. For selfish reasons, Jackie and I will miss the easy camaraderie that comes with our lifelong friendship. Always sentimental after a couple of long pours of wine, I lamented that it’s hard to break up a trio that’s been together practically since we were in diapers and bibs.

“But,” I said, thinking about buying Depends from the smirking teenager at Walgreen’s (long road trips can be tricky and sneezing fits are a big mess), “I guess we’ve been friends so long that we actually need diapers again.”

Jackie looked pointedly at the blob of salad dressing that had landed on my chest and said, “And bibs.”

Lori laughed that infectious laugh and said, “I guess when you’ve been friends as long as we have, you come full circle.”

 

The Go-To Gal

Guest post

laundry

The requests began to sound all too familiar.

“Mom, I need my (insert item here) washed, and I don’t have time to throw in a load, can you throw it in?”

Or, “I don’t have time to stop at the cleaners before work, can you grab my dry cleaning?”

Or, “Mommy, I don’t have time to drive to UPS, and it has to be mailed today, can you drop it for me?”

Why is it when young adult children return home for a period of time from college or their independent lives, that they fall into the pattern of having Mom do their bidding?

I am reflecting on this as I get ready for another re-entry. Winter is coming and that means the long holiday break is imminent. Don’t get me wrong. I love to have my family under one roof, but I am also dreading the backslide — the people we become when we get back into familiar roles.

A few years ago, when I first became an empty-nester, I remembered that I could not wait to have my kids home to “mom” them again. I made favorite dinners and cleaned their rooms. I couldn’t break the habit of over-loving.

The second time I welcomed my brood home, something had changed. I had changed. I gained a sort of acceptance about the way my life without children had progressed. I reinvented my career and began freelance writing from home. It had always been a dream of mine, and since the house was empty, I dived into my new line of work without the distraction of the family around.

When my daughters came back into the fold, I noticed something. I guess adulting was harder on them their sophomore year because my 20-year-old children began to rely on me just as they did before they were in college. When I saw the laundry pile up, I figured I would help them out and throw in a load or two. I said to myself, they were both working full-time summer jobs and were so busy. But, “helping out” really meant that I assumed a chore that they were doing independently for the past two years. While away at school, the girls did their laundry when they needed something to be washed. Once home, instead of doing it weekly (like I thought they should) they just let it pile up. That made me nuts, so I dutifully picked up clothes off the floor and threw them in the washer. I even folded their stacks in neat piles and placed them on their beds.

I began to feel resentful. I asked myself, did my daughters think that I suddenly had all the time in the world to do the chores they couldn’t work into their schedules? Did they believe that mom is working from home, so she has the time to run to the cleaners, the market, the department store, or the pharmacy? Did they think, I’ll just ask her instead of planning to take care of these things on my own time? I started to feel like a personal Gal Friday.

I can’t blame them if they did think that way. I did all of these things when I worked outside of the home. Even with my full-time job, I prepared dinner, unless I was too exhausted and ordered take out. On Saturdays, I would take the time to food shop and run errands so my work week would be less hectic. Inevitably, no matter how much I planned, there were times when I would dash home from work, make dinner and find out that we had to go to the store for something needed for that night’s homework, project, or presentation. When I was working outside of the home, my children were younger, and I believed that it was just part of my duty as a mom. The kids are older now and self-sufficient, and yet we seem to have fallen back on our familiar routines.

I guess it dawned on me when a friend invited me to grab a coffee last summer. I was dashing around trying to get all the errands done to meet up with her on time. I was late. We started comparing our hectic mornings, and to my surprise, hers was just as frenzied as mine!

“Is it me?” I asked. “Why does my family feel like they can load their responsibilities on me?” She and I compared notes, and we both had an “AHA” moment. We were part of the problem. We were allowing our kids (and, to some extent, our spouses) to let us carry the load for them. In turn, I was giving them permission to eat up the precious time in my day and lose focus on my work. I had applied for, and gotten the job as, the “Go-to Gal.” Was I forever doomed to be caught in this endless cycle becoming a momager every time they returned? So that got me thinking that something or someone had to change.

As I prepare for the return of the flock to the nest, I know that the best way to handle re-entry is to discuss my expectations and theirs. I can’t blame them entirely, as I am guilty of taking on a lot of the work. I want them to feel happy about being home, but I also want to promote a discussion about us falling into our familiar habits. I want to set boundaries on my time. I still want to be helpful, but I want to make the point that they can’t expect that I will be able to drop everything and do whatever they need.

I will have to remind my young adults that they need to make their own doctors’ appointments or any other appointment from now on. They have to be the keepers of their calendars and their wardrobe supply (including dry cleaning runs). I will have to respect that laundry will be washed on their timeline and not mine. And, any holiday returns or packages need to be mailed back by the receiver of said package.

Many of the women I surround myself with have similar stories. Parenting nearly adult children is hard for all of us. It can be hard to let go. At times, I wish I had a “Go-to Gal or Guy” to perform all the mundane tasks that take up my daily life, but alas, I don’t have a personal assistant. We all have to manage our precious time, and that takes forethought and planning. When you reach young adulthood, you have to assume your own responsibilities. You don’t get to pick and choose which ones you feel like doing; you have to do them all. It is mommy guilt that keeps us on the hamster wheel out of some desire to help or feel needed. My children will still love me even if I don’t do all their chores. I need to check that guilt off my already too long to-do list, and hand in my resignation as the “Go-to Gal.”

Jeanine Consoli, travel writer, photographer, foodie. https://jconstravels.com/

…The Girl’s Girl

Girl's Girl

I met Jennifer at the farm stand. We got to chatting about the unbearable humidity that had plagued the U.S. northeast for much of the summer. We agreed that the only comfortable places to be were in air conditioning or a swimming pool. Although we’d never met before, she was one of those people with whom I immediately clicked. We talked unhurriedly on a range of topics, including that we were both looking toward retirement. Trying to find the measliest bit of shade to cover us while we chatted, we agreed that we’d prefer to deal with cold and winter over this insufferable heat and humidity.

“Your hair looks great, by the way,” she said.

Confused, I lightly touched it to assess if the humidity had turned my sleekly styled bob into a wiry Brillo pad. “You mean, in spite of the humidity?”

“No,” she said. “No qualifiers. I just like the way you have it styled. It’s very flattering.”

I continued to stare at her, not sure why she was telling me this.

“Isn’t it a shame that women can’t just compliment each other and build each other up,” she continued, “without suspicion of an ulterior meaning?”

Then it hit me. Jennifer is a Girl’s Girl.

I remember as a child, the friends I made were predominantly based on convenience. Who lived nearby. Who was in my class. Happy lunch hours were spent playing hopscotch or duck-duck-goose on the playground. I mainly hung out with my “best friend” or whoever shared my current interest in books and games. I recall being friends with many of the boys, too, particularly those who lived on my street. The only competition I noticed was athleticism – who was best at kickball and therefore chosen first for teams – and report cards. In the fifth grade, things shifted.

A new girl transferred into the school. Colleen was perky and adorable with enviable dimples and a splattering of freckles across her cheeks. The preadolescent boys were gaga, and several girls rushed to befriend her to establish themselves as “popular,” if only by proxy, and I watched the rise of Middle School Mean Girl Mentality. Whereas we’d once all played together as equals, a new hierarchy of who’s in and who’s not was established. Suddenly, cruel names, like “four-eyes,” “fatty,” and “dork” were spit at other girls, thereby verbally discarding former friends. At the tender age of ten-ish, the chubby girl, or the introvert, or the girl with a mouth full of metal, had her developing psyche and sensibilities stomped and ground to a pulp by those jockeying for social position.

In the seventh grade, the competition among the girls became based largely upon their physical appearance. Who was the prettiest? Who was the thinnest? Who was developing breasts? Who did the boys like? Of course, there were still plenty of girls competing academically and athletically, but they weren’t the ones society was instructing us to hold in esteem. Billions of dollars were spent annually on make-up, hair care, diet pills, the latest exercise craze, short skirts and low-cut tops. I don’t recall any of the messaging campaigns for “self-improvement” directed at boys.

By high school, it was clear that, while a girl could excel in areas such as soccer or physics, what was of utmost importance to most was if she was liked. In my own teenage mind, I believed I was in the popular category. That didn’t stop me from anxiously checking my friends’ schedules every day to make sure I would have someone to sit with in the dining hall; it didn’t stop me from spending all week arranging social engagements for Saturday. Better yet, if I had a steady boyfriend at the time, I never had to suffer the humiliation of sitting home over the weekend without plans. The residual insecurity and self-doubt that began during those middle- and high-school years haunt me still.

Are there exceptions to this thesis? Of course. But, it’s not difficult to see the evolution of how girls treat each other and understand the underlying problem. What if, instead of the cattiness and put-downs, girls were raised to encourage and support each other? What if, instead of eying one another to assess if the hair/make-up/weight/clothes were up to some superficial standard, we eyed each other with genuine caring and compassion? What if put-downs were no longer in vogue, having been replaced with build-ups?

And, what if girls weren’t taught that their value lay in youth and allure but, instead, on character and accomplishment? In Beyoncé’s song Flawless, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:

We raise girls to see each other as competitors/Not for jobs or for accomplishments/ Which I think can be a good thing/But for the attention of men.

Unfortunately, by the time we graduate high school, this shallow value placed on a woman becomes normalized for many. I can remember in my 20s, one of my college friends was studying a picture of the two of us. It was before I dropped the freshman fifteen I’d put on five years earlier. It was also during the time when she began struggling with bulimia. I can still envision her, as if she’d forgotten I was watching, looking from her image, to mine, and back, using her fingers to measure the thickness of my waist compared to hers, my thighs compared to her thighs. She walked over to a full-length mirror and began turning one way, then the other, to admire how skinny she’d become. Not that there was anything wrong with her wanting to look her best. But, during her short 20-something years, she’d become convinced that her very worth hinged on her appearance.

If we’re lucky, we have role models who can help buck the ideals society dictates. But, those lessons are always in competition with pervasive images and influences that are difficult to ignore. In Hollywood, there is a saying that “there’s always someone younger and thinner.” How many brilliantly talented actresses spend copious amounts of time and money being nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into plastic-looking oblivion? Renée Zellweger is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, having won multiple awards including an Oscar. Why, then, do entertainment sources concentrate less on her body of work and more on her body, with every pound she gains or loses? Susan Lucci, the undisputed queen of the soap operas with a career spanning over forty years, has undergone the plastic surgeon’s knife over and over to maintain her vixen appearance into her seventies. Sadly, the male-controlled industry continues to reinforce its standard of value. And, tragically, women continue to buy into it.

My girlfriend Kathy, who I’ve known for almost thirty years, is a Girl’s Girl. How many times has she come upon me in the throes of emotional self-flagellation to rescue me from my torment? When my thighs are too big, or my love handles have become a full-blown muffin top, I have only received support and encouragement from her. “I think you look great!” or “Really? I thought you’d lost weight!” When I complain about my slackening jawline or the turkey neck I’m developing, she tells me, “You have beautiful skin, and you always look great.” She builds up my confidence in the areas that have been my lifelong demons and focuses on my accomplishments, instead. When I announced I was taking the plunge and “going for it” as a writer, she became my unpaid marketing hero. This should all be a given between friends, right? Unfortunately, by the time many of us reach middle-age, we are still sifting through the women who are stuck back in that Middle School Mean Girl Mentality. So, when we find those who have managed to leave that all behind and enter friendship with real love, support, and kindness, we hold them dear.

I won’t say I have been above all that nonsense through the years. The appeal of being part of the “in” crowd is strong, and the influence of society is intense. I believe I’ve softened and grown, and I intentionally practice extending kindness to other women as I’ve learned from those in my life, like Kathy. A couple of years ago, I was on a mission trip to Guatemala. Each morning, we’d all meet in the dining room of our hotel for breakfast. Early in the week, I noticed another guest at the hotel, a woman slightly older than me who was always by herself and seemed a bit sad. Something from the Middle School Mean Girl Mentality days stirred in me and it felt like watching a high school classmate sitting alone at the lunch table. I made it a point to catch her eye, offer her a smile, and say “good morning” to her. Each day, I watched her face light up in response. At the end of the week, as we were getting ready to leave, the woman approached me in the lobby.

“I need to tell you,” she began. “I’ve been here all week to visit my son in the hospital. He suffered a brain trauma and has been in a coma. I live in Canada but flew here when I was notified of his accident. I have been sitting by myself at the hospital with him, each day, not knowing if he would survive.”

“Every morning,” she continued, “when I came down for breakfast, I was worried about what I would find when I went over to the hospital. And, every morning, you were in the dining room, smiling at me. You’re a complete stranger, but somehow you could see I needed that smile. Yesterday, the doctors said that my son was going to be okay.”

She reached out to hug me, and for nearly five minutes, we held each other. I had tears in my eyes for all she had been through with her son. She cried with relief that he was going to make it. It was such a small thing on my part, but to learn that merely offering someone a smile had helped her during the darkest time she’d ever faced, made me think.

Women can offer so much – to themselves, to each other, to the world. Why, then, do we allow ourselves to be pitted against one another from a young age? What if a conscious effort was made, instead, to teach our daughters how to build up other women instead of tearing them down? What if we stopped placing such value on the shallow and superficial? What if we cherished character and accomplishment? What if competition was based on how to be our best instead of how to look our best? Imagine how much healthier and happier we’d be if we were all Girl’s Girls like Jennifer and Kathy.

…Does My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Son Make Me Look Old?

Avery 25th

Our son, Avery, just turned twenty-five. Twenty-five! Two and a half decades! I still have vivid memories of that towheaded, blue-eyed toddler, with the ever-present grin, who was running as soon as he could walk. He called me “Mama” and displayed clever wit from the start. At eighteen months, his favorite toy was a Playmobil firetruck complete with a bucket ladder that could go up and down. There were firefighters and a Dalmatian that fit into the bucket. One day, I put the dog into the ladder in the down position, and said, “Look, honey, a Dalmatian. Dal-ma-tian. Can you say that?”

Avery didn’t miss a beat. He put the ladder, complete with dog, in the up position and said, “Upmatian.” He grinned, waiting to see if I got the joke. When I did, I spent the next several weeks – or couple of decades – bragging about my son’s sense of humor.

Twenty-five years. All those milestones and goalposts that he’s hit. The physical growth – he’s six feet tall; the personal growth – he no longer regards himself as the expert on a given topic as he knows there’s always more to learn; the academic achievements and strides in his career; the ease and confidence that come with maturity.

So, while Avery has spent the past twenty-five years growing into this fine young man, let’s focus on the important question: does my twenty-five-year-old make me look old? Because, let’s face it, in my little world, isn’t it always about me?

Do I miss the infant I used to cradle in the sleepy hours of the morning or the pudgy little hand in mine as we crossed busy streets? Of course. His sports teams that became part of my life. His church classes that meant I became an instructor. His school field trips that I attended as a chaperone. I was his chauffeur, his organizer, his chef, his doctor, his teacher, his cheerleader, his comforter. I was his everything. So, what happens to me now that he’s all grown up?

First, I had to get past the notion that he was “mine.” He is my son. He has never been “mine.” Instead, I focused on the burgeoning adult and consciously shifted my approach to interacting with him. I gave him space to develop a sense of autonomy. I listened with respect to his thoughts and plans before offering advice. Did he always take it? No. But, he learned to appreciate me as someone equipped with experience, unconditional love, and genuine interest in his well-being.

Second, I rediscovered what I like to do for myself. I heard all the suggestions. I read all the articles. So, I started to focus on my writing, giving it the attention that had been back-burnered while the kids were little. Also, I joined a gym and began having regular facials because, let’s be honest. While I’m proud of my twenty-five-year-old son, I don’t want to look like I can have a child that old.

Our son, who was born with a need to always be on the go, returned last year from a graduate program that allowed him to study in Africa and Abu Dhabi. During that year, he indulged his wanderlust and visited several countries, including Thailand, Australia, India, Portugal, and Spain. Upon his return from Seville, Spain, he informed us that his new life plan included moving there. He’s had some random and far-fetched schemes over the years, but this one seems to be sticking. So, when he said to me, “Hey, I’m going to Spain for a couple of weeks. Wanna go?”, of course, I said yes. Truthfully, I felt a little honored that he invited me. I’m sure he had ulterior motives, like convincing me that his latest plan has merit (and that I’d foot the bill for food and entertainment, at the very least). But, still.

I’ve traveled with Avery throughout our lives together, but this trip was different. I was not in charge. He made all the plans, from the airplane and accommodations to leading me on sightseeing tours through both Barcelona and Seville. He’s visited those cities before, while it was my first time. He’s fluent in Spanish, while my anxiety causes me to spit out bad high school French in a pinch. He eagerly showed me ancient relics and regaled me with detailed Spanish history, while I learned from him with mixed fascination and pride. He strode with relaxed, cosmopolitan confidence, while I fretted over figuring out which subway line to catch.

In Barcelona, we watched the World Cup Finale of football (a.k.a. soccer) on tv in a restaurant. We walked the usual tourist spots, from the magnificent Arc de Triomf to the endless stalls of La Boqueria Food Market, to the quirky tiled intricacies of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell. We dined on paella and strolled the Rambla, down to the marina. I scurried to keep up with my long-legged companion, reminding him with frequency that, “I’m not doing too badly for an old lady, right?” as we crammed a week’s worth of sightseeing into two days.

We hopped a 90-minute Vueling flight to Seville, during which time Avery squirmed in anticipation at returning to the city he’d come to love. I forced a smile on my face every time I cracked my knee on the seat back in front of me while crossing my legs. I maintained a serene expression while furiously elbow wrestling with the man-spreader on my other side. By the time we arrived in Seville, I was suppressing fatigue from my tribulations and irrational annoyance with the country at large.

One look at the city of Seville acted as a balm on my angst. It was every bit as beautiful as Avery had described. Within three days, I was in love with it, too. Less international than Barcelona, Seville gives a more authentic sense of Spanish culture. I became very adept at day drinking sherry, beer, and wine with my tapas, accepting the more relaxed rhythm of the Sevillian life. Still, we saw much of the Old Town, from its modern structures, such as the wooden mushrooms, as Avery coined the Metropol Parasol, to the ancient ruins, Antiquarian, dating back to ancient Roman times. I feared Avery would be impatient, dragging his old bag of a mother behind him, as I begged for occasional breaks in a park or tapas bar to rest in the 100° weather. But, he wasn’t. He seemed to enjoy sharing the city with me.

We managed to squeeze in a walking tour, combining history with the culture of tapas. We hit roughly ten tapas bars while we were there, loving the lighter, more frequent meals. We saw the Spanish royal palace and gawked at the magnificence of the Seville Cathedral. We spent hours roaming the Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, expressly designed and built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. Everywhere we walked, in every direction we looked, we found ancient buildings with rich history. All the while, Avery chatted happily, explaining the influence in the city from the Romans to the Moors and through the Christians.

We spent five days together in Spain, just Avery and me. I kept waiting for hints of him wishing I could attend a free midnight flamenco dance show instead of paying for the 7:30 PM version. I expected that he’d laugh at my goofy hat designed to keep the scorching sun off my face. Instead, he offered me sunscreen for my nose. I apologized for my (comparatively) early bedtime of 11 PM, but he insisted that he needed to catch up on his sleep, too.

Then, it struck me. Avery hadn’t simply grown up. He was an adult. We’d moved through all those wonderful moments of childhood where his every decision relied on me. We’d survived the turbulent teenage years when sarcasm reigned supreme. And, we came out the other side as two people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Our son is twenty-five-years-old. A quarter of a century. He remarked to me that the milestone was a startling realization of his advancing years. My knee-jerk thought was, “Well if you think that makes you old, imagine how I feel!” Instead, after I bought myself a new advanced skincare line, I basked in the recognition that, while our dynamic has changed, I am still every bit as relevant in Avery’s life as when he was a child. He may no longer need me to hold his hand while crossing the street, but he values that I’m still eager to cross that street with him. He’s no longer pulling away from me, as he did his first day of preschool, racing to explore the world. Now, he’s inviting me along for the ride. One thing hasn’t changed, though. At my insistence, my twenty-five-year-old still calls me “Mama.”

…Timber! A Christmas Tale.

christmas blog

When I was a teenager, I was a member of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As with all churches, the highlight of the year was the Christmas celebration. For us, this included the annual decorating of the tree.

The congregation planned for months. The format was always the same. Our priest read the Christmas story – from Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to arriving at the stable filled with animals, to the birth of Jesus, to the arrival of the Three Wise Men. As the story progressed, we listened for our cues and, when it was our turn, we proceeded to the massive tree by the altar to hang homemade ornaments. Once the story was over and the tree was bedecked in all its glory, we sang hymns and rejoiced in our shared fellowship.

In 1976, the year Lori attended this beloved service with my mother and me, we were asked to make two angels and the crown jewel, the baby Jesus. My mother took this honor seriously. To the craft store we went, up and down the aisles, hunting and searching. Mom was on a mission, and she’d be damned if anything would stop her from displaying her strong religious faith and her artistic talents. We arrived home; our arms were laden with heavy cardstock, colored pencils, markers of varying thickness, new scissors, feathers, glitter, and a sheet of gold leaf.

Mom looked through old books and children’s Christmas stories, hunting for models for her designs. No, she wouldn’t copy or trace or rip off anyone else’s creations. She was too much of a purist for that. This was the woman who handmade every Halloween costume I’d ever worn. This was the woman who had baked and decorated every one of my birthday cakes. She doodled while on the telephone; she crafted stained glass treasures for gifts; and, she created magnificent bouquets of flowers, each petal made of twisted wire dipped in liquid plastic, dried, then assembled into lilies, roses, and orchids. My baton twirling outfits were of crushed velvet and bedazzled with rhinestones and pearls. Hell, no. This year’s Christmas ornaments were going to be showstoppers, she determined.

The patterns were drawn, nearly a foot high, and laid carefully to the cardstock. The new, razor-sharp scissors precisely hugged every turn and sharply snipped each corner. With a pencil, Mom sketched in the details of the angels’ faces, with wide eyes and rosebud lips, then colored brilliantly with markers. The plump, baby Jesus was in a manger, a crown angled impossibly on his head.

The finished products were magnificent. Scraps of shimmery white gossamer, leftover from an old project, had become angelic robes. Feathers crafted wings. Long, acrylic hair, cut from discarded dolls – one blond, one dark – had been attached to their cardboard heads, parted in the middle in front and flowing nearly to their feet in back.

And, little Jesus – what a triumph! Real hay had been glued inside the manger and, on his head, the crown shimmered with gold leaf. He was pink-cheeked and cherubic, a nod to the Gerber baby. Crafted in loving detail, you could almost hear him gurgle with joy as the angels sang.

Lori and I could barely contain ourselves as we waited for the big day. We filed into church, proudly holding Mom’s masterpieces, but we couldn’t help noticing what the others had made. Skimpy hand-drawn images on paper – colored only on one side, some curling at the bottom – were so pathetic that we found it difficult to hide our ridicule. But, we were in church, after all, so we smiled graciously to the others, reveling in their naked envy.

Entering the nave, we gasped when we saw this year’s tree. It rose higher and higher, reaching toward Heaven in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. We took our seats, jittery with anticipation for the service to begin. As the priest read the Christmas story, families and friends rose to walk down the center aisle toward the towering tree to hang their ornaments. We followed along in the program, waiting for our turn. At last, it came.

Mom, Lori, and I rose as one, paused as we entered the aisle to allow everyone the chance to see our extraordinary ornaments. A sprinkle of glitter from my dark-haired angel fell like fairy dust as I held her high for those in the back to admire. Lori, with the blond angel, did a similar sweep. But, Mom took the lead as she was carrying the most precious of all. Like a bride approaching her awaiting groom, Mom proceeded reverently toward the front of the church. There were whispers and smiles of appreciation for the gold-crowned baby she held delicately in her hands. Lori and I followed at a respectful distance, our angels reaping equal admiration.

When we reached the front of the church, we turned to face the congregation and, once more, raised our ornaments high for all to see. Then, Lori went to one side of the tree to hang hers while I went to the other. Mom, holding the heart of the entire event, moved to place hers front and center. I struggled to secure my angel to the branch I’d chosen and began searching for a new one. As I reached to loop my angel’s hanger over the pine needles, it moved away from me and, simultaneously, I heard someone from the back of the room yell, “Timber!”

I watched in mixed horror and fascination as that colossal tree tipped, almost in slow motion, toward the congregation. Suddenly, Lori was staring at me, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, over the branches of the fallen tree. I think my face must have mirrored her shock, but then she began laughing. Lori has an infectious laugh that makes it impossible not to join in. Plus, we were fourteen. We found everything funny at that age. We were nearly doubled-over in hysterics.

The priest rushed forward to help Mom out from underneath. She crawled from where she’d been trapped, pine needles sticking at all angles from her hair, a sprinkling of glitter across her fiery red face. Lori and I looked at each in momentary panic as Mom was helped to her feet. But, when she yelled, “Goddammit, Lori! You pushed the tree over!” we pressed our hands to our mouths to hold the laughter back.

The entire church was silent except for the echo of Mom’s words. As we slunk back toward our pew, I glanced left and right from beneath my lowered lashes to see that no one was admiring us now. In fact, they deliberately avoided looking in our direction. As some helpful people at the front of the church worked furiously to right the tree, we kept right on going past our seat and headed out the back door. That was the last time we participated in the yearly Christmas story tradition at our church.

…Does Grief Have A Deadline?

taranana

My daughter phoned me the other night and, as usual, when I see her name on the caller ID, apprehension kicked me in the gut. It’s not that I don’t hear from her frequently, but an unscheduled call from my twenty-one-year-old living two hours away in New York City revs my mom-anxiety into overdrive instantly.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” has become my normal greeting when either of my adult children calls me out of the blue. They find it annoying, yet comfortable. My kids get me.

This time, though, I wasn’t greeted with her usual, “Of course! I just wanted to tell you about my day.” This time I heard sobbing on the other end and a plaintive, “Momma…”

Tara had just finished reading the letters my mother wrote to her on her first birthday. The letters were part of a time capsule I had assembled when Tara turned one, that was to be opened on her twenty-first birthday. It included birthday cards, balloons, the hospital bracelets she and I wore when she was born, a fuzzy blanket, a baby rattle, a memory book, and so on. At the time, I had asked her surviving grandparents (my father was deceased by then) to each write letters to Tara about whatever they felt might be important for her to know twenty years in the future. Those letters, along with the other mementos, were then carefully tucked into the time capsule tin and sealed for two decades.

While Tara’s paternal grandparents are still with us and have watched Tara grow into the bright, funny, compassionate young woman she is, my mother passed away when Tara was only nine. Throughout those nine short years, Tara and her older brother were the center of their nana’s life. She retired from her job to spend more time with them, often relieving me when I was cross-eyed from fatigue. She planned day trips, made crafts with them, played games, and spent hours showing them how to take care of their Sims on the computer. Nana attended all their school events, cheered their triumphs, and held them close when they were hurt. When she became ill, Nana even lived with us for a time.

When my mother died, Tara was inconsolable. Even at that young age, she was eloquent about her emotions. “I’ve lost one of the three most important women in my life.” (The others being her other grandmother and myself). “Nothing will ever be the same.”

I remember that exact feeling when I suffered my first real loss. I was twenty and a week away from starting my junior year in college. My beloved great-aunt, Ellie, died suddenly of kidney failure. She had been an ever-present figure my entire life, loving me despite my often-difficult temperament and giving in to me when my own mother wouldn’t. Her death was an agony I’d never known. Those around me offered comforting words, but it did nothing to ease my broken heart. Friends didn’t understand when they found me sobbing in bed. They didn’t get it when I wasn’t my usual life-of-the-party self and that I couldn’t go on with my life as if a gaping hole hadn’t been ripped straight through the middle of it. For me, it was clear. This woman, around whom my most cherished lifelong memories revolved, was gone forever.

Seven years later when my father died, I was thrust into the role of my mother’s emotional rock. I remember her telling me that well-intentioned people in her life said she should get into therapy and needed anti-depressants. She wondered how many of these suggestions were based on their own discomfort at witnessing her pain. Then, a co-worker, someone she’d never known well, emerged with exactly what she needed at that point in her grief. He began stopping by her office every day to check on her, his presence acknowledging her need for time, human interaction, and patience as she adjusted to the dramatic change in her everyday life. He validated her dread of celebrating Christmas without her partner, of the birthdays and celebrations he’d miss, of the looming one-year anniversary of his death. Despite countless setbacks during the next several years, she found new interests, spent time with friends, and found joy in her grandchildren.

So, when Tara, at nine-years-old, uttered many of the same emotions I’d experienced at twenty and again at twenty-seven, I immediately understood what she meant. She cried. She didn’t want to go to school. She held onto the memories of things she and Nana had done together, reminiscing over and over, as if repeating them would cement them in her very being. On one hand, I was concerned because I couldn’t comfort my daughter, but at the same time, I knew her grief for such an enormous loss was to be expected.

What I found peculiar, though, was the feedback from some of the adults in her life. Several staff and faculty at her school informed me that her reaction wasn’t “normal.” That she should be “getting over it” by now. I received a few calls a week during the month following her nana’s death, saying Tara wanted to come home from school. Her inability to bury her grief quickly after burying her grandmother prompted suggestions of anti-depressants. Her well-meaning peers, while trying to relate to her, told her, “I lost my grandmother too. I know exactly what you’re feeling.” This infuriated Tara, who felt that her level of pain was based on the close bond she had with her grandmother, not the biological connection. Again, a feeling I understood from my own relationship with Ellie. But, when my uncle began expressing doubt that Tara should still be so grief-stricken a month later, I made an appointment for her to speak with a therapist.

“Tara’s response is absolutely natural,” I was told. “She understands the finality of death quite clearly and is heartbroken over losing her grandmother. Wouldn’t it seem odd if she wasn’t grieving for someone she loved so dearly?” She then said that medication could be an option if Tara was unable to function, but we weren’t there.

I was relieved by the professional’s conclusion, and more than a little vindicated with my own assessment of Tara’s show of grief. No, it wasn’t abnormal. No, she wasn’t overreacting. No, she shouldn’t be “getting over it” according to someone else’s timetable. She needed to be allowed the dignity to properly go through the entire grieving process.

One thing that the therapist uncovered, though, was something I had not thought. The loss of her grandmother had awakened Tara’s awareness of the impermanence of life. As children, we are secure in assuming things will never change and that those around us will always be. For Tara, losing her grandmother made her suddenly realize that, at some point, she would lose her other close family members. Most terrifying to her nine-year-old self was the thought of losing her parents. In addition to the loss of her nana, Tara was now weighted under the loss of her sense of constancy and security.

At that moment, I remembered my own feelings when I suffered my first loss. When Ellie died, I had the same sense of being adrift in the world. The people who I thought would be my anchors through life, providing the safe harbor I took for granted, would not always be there. It was that enlightenment that marked the end of my childhood.

Tara moved through the stages of grief, predictably arriving at acceptance. She continued through middle school, high school, and into college. It turns out, she has many of her grandmother’s traits, including a flair for acting, a skill for writing, and a keen sense of humor.

Having grieved, though, doesn’t mean unexpected reminders won’t slice our heart open again. Hearing a song you shared, a sudden familiar scent, visiting a place you once walked with your loved one will inspire dormant feelings of longing and sorrow to burst to the surface.

So, when I got that phone call from Tara, sobbing because she had read her nana’s letters lovingly hand-written all those years ago, my heart jerked with concern for her emotional state. She read me excerpts, sniffling at times, laughing at others. Predictions that Tara would be tall and green-eyed—she is. Transparency about her own fragile health and her belief that she would not live to see Tara turn twenty-one. Her hopes and visions of Tara’s bright future. Background on who she was as a person outside of just being “Nana.” Honest revelations about choices made, paths chosen, and regrets for dreams never achieved. Each word was written in my mother’s beautifully artistic hand; each word was poetically chosen.

Near the end of the conversation, Tara commented on what an incredible writer Nana had been. “You get that from her, you know,” I told her. “One of her biggest regrets in life was that she never followed that passion. She always wanted to be a published writer, but never pushed herself to accomplish it.”

“I guess that’s why you push me the way you do,” she said. “So, I never regret not having tried.” Then, she added, “I’m coming home to see you this weekend. I need to make sure you, Gran (her other grandmother), and Aunt Pat (my mother’s sister) know how important you are in my life.”

When I hung up the phone, my heart felt a little swollen. Not with concern that Tara had renewed grief, but with relief. My daughter has learned to express grief when she’s feeling it, instead of hiding it for fear of being labeled “not normal.” Most significantly, as a twenty-one-year-old, she has learned the importance of showing the people in her life how much she loves them while she has the chance. With my emotions tangled by the revelation, I realized that my baby has left her childhood behind.