Holiday Traditions

 

My mom was big on holiday traditions, especially the Fourth of July and Christmas. Her closet was filled with bedazzled American flag t-shirts and a collection of ugly Christmas sweaters that were the envy at every holiday party. Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” on the stereo console, repeating “treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten…” until Mom moved the needle past the scratch in the album. Dad was no slouch in the holiday celebration arena, either. Just twenty hours after downing copious quantities of turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings, he was covered in cobwebs in the crawl space under the house, dragging out tattered cardboard boxes filled with ornaments and our artificial Christmas tree frosted with semi-realistic looking snow.

Dad’s job was outdoor Christmas decorations. What should have been a two-hour endeavor achieved with holiday cheer inevitably stretched into an entire Friday of swearing and grumbling. He pulled out string after string of outdoor lights, the extra-large, opaque kind in red, blue, green, and white, that somehow were a tangled mess despite the care with which they’d been stored the previous year. I loved watching him stretch the strands across the recreation room floor to check for outages, replace the faulty bulbs, mutter under his breath when those didn’t work either, then beam with accomplishment when everything lit up properly. Just as eagerly, I’d watch his frustration as he’d drape them around the 18’ White Spruce he’d planted by the front door the year my parents bought the house. Inevitably, as soon as he’d reach the top of the “A” shaped step-ladder, an entire section of lights would suddenly go dark. The stream of curse words that accompanied his up-and-down the ladder to locate replacement bulbs and twist them into the sockets put me right in the festive spirit.

Mom was one of those crafty types whose projects adorned our house year-round. The blown-eggs at Easter time were painted with artistry and care, then arranged in our table centerpiece. In the spring, tissue paper flowers bloomed in the living room. Or, flowers constructed from wire shaped into petals, dipped in some sort of goopy molten plastic, dried, then twisted together to make tulips and irises. Even Mom’s paper dolls were works of art. Christmas was when she pulled out the big guns, though. She’d start in September, buying pre-made kits of wooden ornaments that required the painting of her steady hand to bring them to life. Or, the satin balls that she’d embellish with ribbons, cords, beads, and sequins. Then, there was the year of the intricately nipped and cut snowflakes created from high-quality vellum paper that she’d sprung for at the art boutique. Our tree always carried the traditional glass ornaments that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but each year’s theme was based on Mom’s creative whim-of-the-moment.

My two older brothers and I were assigned the yearly job of finishing the tree with shimmering silver tinsel. I remember waiting for Mom’s signal, telling us it was up to us to put on that finishing touch. My stomach got a tingly excited feeling, knowing that with this final act, the Christmas season was officially ushered in. Every year it was the same. I gently lifted the tinsel, delicate strand by delicate strand, to hang them individually over each branch. My brothers grabbed handfuls of the stuff and threw it in the general direction of the tree, hoping some would stick. I’d scream at them. They’d laugh and tease me. I’d burst into tears. They’d call me a crybaby. Mom would yell at them to knock it off. I’d hear my father somewhere downstairs, cursing and swearing. I’d scream louder. Mom sent my brothers to their room, which was precisely where they wanted to be anyway.

As the actual day approached, pots of Mom’s favorite flower, the poinsettia, would appear. They took over the recreation room windows; they inhabited every open table surface; they even crept up the base of the railing on both sets of stairs. Reds, pinks, whites, mixes of all. Food for the holiday began appearing in the kitchen with notes reading “For Christmas – do NOT eat!” taped to it. Every year, the menu was the same — a glazed ham; baked, New England-style macaroni and cheese based on the recipe Mom had received from her late grandmother; green bean casserole with crispy, fried onions on top; canned cranberry sauce; fresh from the oven Pillsbury dinner rolls. My grandparents would show up about noon, my aunt and uncle soon after that. Following our feast, the grown-ups would loll on the couch, my brothers would disappear to play with their new Major Matt Mason toys, and I’d be left to entertain with a magic show. Through the years, my tricks became more complicated and my theatrics more absurd, but how I loved donning that top hat, whipping out my magic wand, and dazzling my snoozing family with the jug that endlessly poured water.

Christmases of my childhood were magical. As I got older, some traditions fell by the wayside; some were altered to adjust to changing times. Mom lost the stamina to create complete sets of ornaments each year, so she began reusing old ones. Dad compromised with the outdoor decorations by purchasing fully-assembled manger scenes, reindeer cut-outs, and life-sized Santas secured with stakes. My brothers were “too busy” to help with the tinsel, so the tree trimming fell to me. I loved the newfangled sparkly garland that I could put up in minutes, allowing me to hurry back to spending hours on the telephone with my girlfriends. Late night church services interfered with my social life, so I’d cajole Mom into going to the 7:00 service, instead. We cut back on the poinsettia overgrowth when Mom learned that they’re poisonous to cats. One thing that remained through shifting family dynamics – marriages, divorces, deaths – and changing times was the macaroni and cheese. That was always Mom’s secret weapon to ensuring she could get us all to the Christmas dinner table together.

When I started my own family, and the building of new Christmas traditions fell to me, I reached back into my childhood for inspiration. The weekend after Thanksgiving, we brought the bins of decorations up from the basement. I assigned my husband the responsibility of adorning the outside. I’d even searched out those retro extra-large bulbs in red, blue, green, and white. The kids helped put up the tree. Since I didn’t inherit my mother’s gift of craftiness, we started our version of collecting ornaments. We’d brave the mad rush of shoppers to find our yearly Hallmark ornament for the family, and each of the kids would pick out one for themselves. I began collecting nutcrackers, displaying them on the tall staircase in our foyer, lined up against the banister going all the way up, just like Mom used to do with the poinsettias. I created a tree skirt and, every year, would trace my children’s hands on felt, cut them out, then glue them to the skirt, marking whose hand it was and the year. I’d long since given up meat, but I continued making Mom’s New England-style macaroni and cheese for our Christmas dinner.

Christmas skirt

My children loved and anticipated Christmas the way I always did. So much so, that their excitement would wake them up by 2 AM, cause them to sneak downstairs to see if Santa had come, then grab their stockings and race back to their rooms to open the only gifts they were allowed until their parents got up. Unfortunately, that meant they’d be waking us up by about six because they could no longer contain themselves. You’d think they’d have learned over the years that a sleep-deprived mother makes for a lot of the same cursing and grumbling I learned from my dad. But, no. Cranky Christmas Day Mom became part of our family tradition. And, that sibling teasing from my youth was passed down, too. It began the year my daughter, about five at the time, slipped on the top step. What we heard from the family room below was a series of boom-boom-booms, accompanied by clackety-clackety-clacks that seemed to go on for hours. When the noise finally stopped, and we were no longer frozen in shock, we leaped to our feet and ran into the foyer to find Tara laying on the floor surrounded by an army of nutcrackers. She had fallen down the full flight of stairs and wiped out the entire line of nutcrackers on her way. My son, being the concerned older brother, made sure she was uninjured before whooping in delight about the “glorious sound” that Tara had created. To this day, Avery gleefully recalls the “glorious sound” of those nutcrackers crashing down the stairs with his sister.

My mom passed away several years ago, just before Christmas, and knowing her love of poinsettias, I bought out the local nursery to bedeck the funeral home for her service. Since then, I have given up decorating with poinsettias for the holidays as those flowers now hold painful undertones for me. Many of the other traditions have evolved, as well. My children’s hands are no longer growing, but I continue to use the tree skirt with their handprints all over it. They each have bins of their own ornaments that we collected as a family since they were babies. We don’t put them on the tree at our house, but my son and daughter have them for their own homes, now. The kids still return home for the holidays, still expect their stockings to be filled, but now stay up until 2 AM to sneak down the stairs to grab them before racing back up to their old rooms.

This year, traditions continue to evolve. I still make Mom’s old New England-style baked macaroni cheese but now include a non-dairy version, too, for the vegans in the group. Also, my son’s girlfriend will be joining us and, since her religious background is Muslim, it will be fun to have her experience Christmas for her very first time with us. I hope she enjoys the traditions we’ve built; I hope she likes the macaroni and cheese that’s part of our heritage; and, I hope I get to sleep past 6 AM.

* * * * *

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/

Halloween 1999

  Baton 1             Baton 2

My mom sewed. I was her living mannequin, not to mention pincushion. When I became a competitive baton twirler, she sewed all my costumes. We spent hours at Raymond’s Fabric Store, selecting soft velvets and stretch fabrics, and perusing Simplicity patterns. We chose elaborate rhinestones and cabochons, beaded and lace appliques, braided trim and metallic twisted cord. Those costumes represent so much love and hard work that, over forty-five years later, I still have my treasured favorites.

Mom made some of my regular clothes, too, but the highlight of her year was Halloween. While my classmates put on their flimsy K-mart costumes-in-a-box and chintzy masks, I’d proudly don the beaded headband and moccasins of my hand-sewn faux animal skin Pocahontas costume. Or, my snuggly gray mouse costume, complete with pink belly, matching mittens, and a long tail that forced others to get out of my way. While I trick-or-treated in warm comfort in late-October New Jersey, my friends shivered under thin plastic while trying to breathe through their Wonder Woman masks. I wore those works of art with joy and a dash of hubris.

Wonder woman

When I became a parent, I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps – scratch that. I felt compelled to live up to her example. No. That’s not it either. The truth is, I wanted to make bigger and more elaborate Halloween costumes than even my mother had produced. My son, Avery, was the lucky first recipient of my determination, competitiveness, and maternal love. He was a plump pumpkin with an orange hat and green stem perched above his cherubic face. If you looked closely, you could see several blood stains that erased any doubt that it was homemade. The next year, he was a clown, with a shimmery multi-colored outfit and matching pointed hat.

Clown

When my daughter came along, it seemed prudent for her to wear her brother’s hand-me-down costumes until she could put in a request for her own look. At four, she made an adorable bunny.

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At five, when I suggested recycling a 1950s style sockhop outfit, complete with a handmade poodle skirt, that she had worn to a birthday party, she stomped her stubborn foot and demanded to be a fairy. Well, if Tara wanted to be a fairy, Tara was going to be the most elaborate and beautiful fairy our town had ever seen. There was a delicate pink fleece involved. And, some silver thread infused organza in multi-colored pastels. I think there may have been some stiff tulle, too, probably to keep the skirt just so. I made wings, shaping the wire and covering them in that same organza. For weeks, I spent late nights cutting, scrapping, recutting. One morning, I woke up to find my face pressed into a pair of scissors and my back sore from sleeping bent over my work table. I mastered the zig-zag stitch and the multi-stitch zig-zag. I learned to install a zipper. I did fittings on my tiny model, taxing her patience with my perfectionism. The entire month of October was lost in the frenzy of making my baby girl happy. Thankfully, that was the year my son’s obsession with Star Wars began, so he insisted on being Anakin, a costume he found himself on one of our frequent shopping trips.

The final week before Halloween of 1999, I was applying delicate crystals until well after midnight and fashioning a sparkly headpiece to top my little fairy’s head.  By the time Halloween finally arrived, I was exhausted and achy but, oh, had I produced a masterpiece! I could barely wait until the time to present my daughter with her heart’s desire. My mother arrived with her camera to document my success. First, I dressed Avery. Then, I applied sparkly powder to Tara’s face and styled her hair in bouncy, corkscrew curls. At last, I pulled the fairy costume from hiding in the closet and unveiled it in all its splendor.

Tara gasped as her hazel eyes grew wide; my heart filled with excitement. Her mouth dropped open as she took in that showstopper. At last, she exclaimed, “I’m not wearing that!” and snapped her face away from having to look at it.

My heart stopped, then dropped to my stomach. Surely, I had misunderstood. “What?” I wheezed.

“I. AM. NOT. WEARING…THAT!”

I covered my eyes with my hands. My hands that sported several Bandaids on fingers that had cut, stitched, and decorated until they were covered in lacerations and sores. I drew a long breath, holding back the fatigue and disappointment until I regained a measure of control. Looking up at my mother, I moaned, “What do I do now?”

Mom looked at my grief-stricken face, then turned to her pouting granddaughter. She picked up the fairy costume and said, “Go get yourself ready. I’ll get her dressed. Because, young lady,” she directed at my little brat, “you are wearing this!”

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. My husband Guy came home and got himself dressed in a red flapper dress and long, brunette wig. I applied prosthetic skin and heavy make-up, a gray wig, baggy pantyhose, and granny shoes. When we convened as a group for Mom to take pictures, Avery was confident and brave as Anakin. Tara, with tear stains streaking her face powder but looking deliciously adorable, laughed when she saw her father oddly resembling his older sister. But, when I entered the room, bent over a wooden cane, she screamed in terror. Just about at that time, Mom snapped the picture that would go on to grace our Christmas card that year.

By the time next Halloween approached and the topic of costumes came up, I was still smarting from the whole fairy fiasco. I was inclined to throw in the creativity towel, but Guy offered to pick up the mantle. While my productions had leaned toward the intricate and ornate, Guy’s handiwork embraced one-of-a-kind, enormous scale construction. There wasn’t a chance that my kids would run into anyone who could compete with Soap-on-a-Rope, Mr. Potato Head, or Fuzzy Dice. And, never again, did Tara turn her nose up at one of her homemade Halloween costumes.

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The Image Stuck In My Mind

 

My great-grandfather, John C., passed away when I was eight years old. Throughout my life, I’ve seen pictures of him as a child, as a schoolboy, as a young husband and father, as a middle-aged professional. But, when I think of him, the only image seared in my memory is that of a frail, ninety-year-old man in his nursing home bed. This freezing of someone in time in one’s head is common. Friends that I’ve reconnected with after over thirty years have the benefit of The Picture of Dorian Gray phenomenon – they’re forever adolescent in my mind. A person stuck in time this way is “foto stecken,” derived from the German meaning “stuck picture.” (Okay, I just made that up, but I’m copyrighting it.)

After my mother died, I found a collection of family history records that she’d been gathering to pass along to my brothers and me, and I spent the next two years completing the genealogical project she’d begun. She’d scanned photographs, put together birth/marriage/death certificates, land deeds, and military enlistment records. Included in it were her own stories and childhood recollections as well as several written by John C. in 1961. The memories about his young uncles particularly captivated me because those rapscallions were wild and raised hell at every chance. Had we been contemporaries, I imagine we’d have been friends.

John’s first solid memory of his uncles was when they set him on fire at his grandfather’s farm. They didn’t mean to set him on fire. They were just engaging in a little tomfoolery. They wanted to scare their five-year-old nephew while he was seated in the yard, so sneaked up behind him and lit a string of firecrackers. The child screamed and leaped to his feet but, Webster, fourteen, and George, thirteen, were paralyzed as they watched his shorts smolder and flame. They argued – while John continued screaming – about whether to dip him head- or bottom-first into the rain barrel. Grabbing him, they were about to hoist him in when their older sister Charlotte raced from the house and patted out the fire. No permanent scarring resulted, John recounted in his memoir, except for his lifelong revulsion of July 4 celebrations.

That little firecracker mishap might have scared straight those of lesser fortitude, but Webster and George thrived on a symbiotic competitive relationship. As with many teenagers, the fascination with explosives drove them to devise bigger, better, and more exciting ways to blow things up. They needed a cannon. Somewhere, they found an old piece of a gun barrel and managed to attach it to a wood block and plug up one end. Next, they put a hole in the barrel for a fuse. They had a powder horn full of gunpowder. They were set. Each took turns ramming shrapnel into their weapon to see who could create a bigger eruption. Wadded paper produced nothing more than a sizzle. Pulverized brick and small stones were more satisfying but still too tame. Webster was delighted to remember where he’d seen some ball cartridges and soon lead balls were flying out into the fields. George wanted a target to see how good their marksmanship was, so they chose the newly installed outhouse. This was no ordinary outhouse. At that time, the Chick Sales House was the Cadillac of outdoor toilets, decorated with fancy stars and half-moons. And, it was a two-seater! My great-grandfather recalled that for as long as they owned that farm, one could take a jackknife and pick out lead balls from the side of the outhouse.

In late 1800s New England, Sundays were devoted to church: preparations for service, attendance, then a large family meal or community picnic would follow. A full day of solemnity was too much to expect of the young scallywags. When they weren’t pestering the younger children seated in the pew in front of them, Webster and George would surreptitiously disrupt the worship by making noises or using a piece of glass to reflect the sun into the pastor’s eyes. It seemed God had a little light-hearted retribution the Sunday afternoon the boys went swimming in the grove behind the church picnic area. While all the congregants, including some comely young ladies, were lunching, George hobbled yelling from the water with a crab attached to a toe.

Another favorite pastime of Webster and George was damming up the nearby streams. What began with leaves and sticks morphed into boulders and fallen trees. The goal was to create ponds to play with the marine life trapped there. This sport created an additional perk for the boys. Early one fall morning, after several days of heavy rain, the banks of the streams overflowed. Their father went to the cellar – accessible solely by an outdoor ramp – to fetch an armload of firewood only to find himself waist-high in water. When word got out, Webster and George were jubilant. They grabbed a skiff and launched it down the ramp into the pool where they paddled happily collecting floating wood and any other trinkets they could reach.

My favorite story about Webster and George took place the day their older sister, John C.’s mother, was getting married for the second time. Her first marriage, to John’s father, ended in an acrimonious divorce and the family was thrilled when she found happiness the second time around with Matthew. Described as a bit of a dandy, Matthew was particular about his wedding outfit as he prepared for the ceremony at the local Unitarian church. His frustration mounted when he couldn’t find his newly purchased bowler hat and ascot. Finally, he had to settle for an old hat and necktie as he set out to meet his bride. A wedding luncheon for fourteen was spread for the newlyweds and their family. Upon returning home from the service, the groom was greeted by the family dog, nattily dressed for the occasion with a black bowler hat affixed to his head with a striped ascot. Conspicuously missing from the welcome party were the bride’s young brothers, Webster and George.

 

Even though I’ve read the humorous tales of my great-grandfather’s childhood and am aware of his celebrated career as a city planner, in my mind, I picture a bedridden elderly man. Sort of like when I show up at high school reunions, and I can’t reconcile the reality of my middle-aged peers with the teenage classmates of my memories. Webster and George lived to be men in their late sixties/early seventies. My own family tree search has traced them through decades of censuses and, while Webster never had children, many of George’s descendants still live in the New England area. Even with that knowledge, Webster and George will forever be foto stecken as impish young teenagers who relished leading their young nephew astray.

…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.”

…I See Your Headache And Raise You One Kidney Stone: The Game Of One-Upmanship.

One-up

It’s summer. Beaches, barbeques, and baseball. And, my mid-thigh length white shorts that reveal the paunchy waist that’s been kept under wraps all winter. The paunch and the colossal ropey scar that runs from two inches above my kneecap to about an inch below. I wish I could say that scar was something I wore like a badge of honor along with my gray hair and wrinkles. Unfortunately, it’s merely the result of the reconstruction surgery on my kneecap following a kitchen slip-and-fall.

That injury, which required a year of physical therapy to regain use of my leg, wouldn’t be particularly story-worthy except it came directly after my daughter’s diagnosis of Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common cause of knee pain in adolescents who are going through growth spurts. My family “jokingly” alleged that I was trying to steal my 10-year-old’s thunder by one-upping her with my shattered patella. There may be a subconscious element of truth to that accusation. Every time my daughter would explain to someone why she’d quit Irish step dancing or couldn’t jump rope, I found myself chiming in about my own knee.

What is that? Why do we feel compelled to pull out our own illnesses and injuries for discussion when we learn about someone else’s woes? I have a theory.

When I was a child, if my mother wasn’t reading me a lively story from the countless fairy tales and children’s books that crowded our living room bookshelves, she would regale me with stories from her adventurous childhood. While I loved hearing about her Airedale Terrier, Tippy, and how she and my father met in college, nothing piqued my interest more than the antics of the Blue-Haired Ladies. These were the socialite friends of her maternal grandmother from New Haven, CT who would gather weekly for tea and a cutthroat game of pinochle. My mother, who spent a month every summer with these grandparents when she was a little girl, told me how she would hang out under the card table, assessing who had the baggiest stockings and chubbiest ankles. In her boredom, she would eventually tune in to the conversation taking place above her.

“My William, we were all day at the doctor’s last week. You know…diabetes.”

Another would pipe up. “Oh yes, diabetes. My father had diabetes. He lost his right leg up to his knee.”

Loud gasps.

A third could barely wait to contribute. “Well, my sister, Minnie, poor dear. Her diabetes caused kidney failure!”

A chorus of, “Ohhhh,” ended the conversation.

I can remember thinking what a boring bunch of old ladies they must have been, sitting around with their blue-tinted hair and nothing better to talk about than their illnesses and injuries. Did any of them ever read a good book? What about travel to foreign countries? Or, didn’t they have hobbies like making tissue paper flowers or blowing the insides out of eggs and painting the shells? Couldn’t this group of bored, wealthy Blue-Haired Ladies find ANYthing else to talk about?

As I got older, I started to understand that it wasn’t just that select group of elderly women who discussed their health incessantly. I began witnessing it in my grandmother’s generation. The only difference then was the hairdressers had stopped using that bluing agent. Now, I heard nearly identical conversations from the Gray-Haired Ladies.

Gray-Haired Lady #1: “Oh, my sciatica. I’ve never known such pain! I can’t sit. I can’t lie down. And, forget sleeping.”

Gray-Haired Lady #2: “You think that’s bad? Try having a herniated disc in your neck! Talk about pain. I can’t even turn my head! My doctor says I can’t drive until it’s better.”

Gray-Haired Lady #1: “But, the amount of aspirin I have to take. Oy! In the morning…before bed. Too much! It’s too much!”

Gray-Haired Lady #2: “Well, I’ve taken so much aspirin that I’ve developed a stomach ulcer.” This statement would be followed up with the kicker: “Now I’m on Tagamet.”

A collective gasp arose. Then, another eager contribution.

Gray-Haired Lady #3: “Patti’s husband was just diagnosed with…” voice lowered to a whisper, “…cancer.” Pausing briefly, she added with a nod, “Lung.”

At the mention of the C-word, all conversation would halt, and the wagging of gray heads would confirm that no one could top that. That’s when it hit me. This prattling on about illness and medication, injuries and emergency room visits, wasn’t just to fill the silence. It was a competition.

My tiny 4’10” grandmother couldn’t hope to keep up. As she aged, she remained in nearly perfect health while her friends began dropping like flies. By the time she was eighty and diagnosed with osteoporosis, she was the last woman standing. Osteoporosis was an impressive candidate for entrance into the competition, especially when Fosamax was prescribed as treatment, but there was no one left with whom to compete.

Until my mother broke her foot. Then the games began a little closer to home. Grandma was first out of the gate.

Grandma: “You don’t have thinning bones, do you? That wouldn’t have been the cause. You’re too young for osteoporosis, but maybe you should be checked, just to be sure.”

Mom: “No, I tripped and fell down the steps. That’ll do it to anyone.”

Grandma: “Lucky for you. If it had been me, I could have broken a hip!” She takes the lead.

Mom: “Well, I did break my foot in four places.” Whoa, what’s this? Mom pulls ahead.

Grandma: “You know, a broken hip for someone my age is usually the kiss of death. First, it’s the hip, then pneumonia sets in, then…” Neck and neck.

Mom: “They had to put pins and screws in my foot to hold the bones together. You haven’t even broken your hip, so I don’t know why you’re talking about it.” We have a winner! The blue ribbon goes to Mom!

I’d chuckle to myself at the intensity of these Games of Injury and Illness. How silly, I’d think. Spending so much time and energy trying to outdo the other person. Then, I began hearing the competition taking place everywhere I went.

In restaurants:

Opening bid: “I just had to find a new cardiologist.”

I’ll see your cardiologist… “I have a cardiologist, too, plus a nephrologist. I spend half my life in doctors’ offices.”

And, the pot goes to… “Well, after having been twice to the emergency room in the past month, I’m having my gallbladder out next week.”

At funerals:

“This is my second funeral this month.”

“This month? This is my second this week!”

I may not be the quickest learner, but I’m pretty good at a game once I know how to play. I was raised on the playbook of the Blue-Haired Ladies. I watched the occasional match of the Gray-Haired Ladies. I had front row seats to the Grandma vs. Mom bouts. I became tuned into the contests that happened all around me. I listened, I watched, and I bided my time on the bench.

And then, it was my turn. I was called up to the Big Show.

I was seven months pregnant with my son when I made the mistake of mentioning to my mother that I had to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. She took that as a challenge. On your mark. Get set.

Mom: “You have no idea. I’ve had three children. Imagine the havoc that’s wreaked on my bladder!” Go!

Me: “Yeah, well, I’m up three or four times a night. That’s a little tough when I’m working full-time. You weren’t working when you were pregnant.” What’s this? Was I gaining ground?

Mom: “I wasn’t working because I had three children under the age of five.” She elbowed me in the gut, and I fell behind.

Me: “Try giving a presentation to a room full of people while a baby is doing a tap dance on your bladder!” I strained to catch up, but she pressed toward the finish line.

Mom: “I was a little busy with my three little children while finishing my master’s degree.” Arms raised in victory as she broke through the tape.

To be fair, she’d had more experience than I by that point. She’d been groomed by pros – her ferocious mother and grandmother – and had years to hone her skills while I was still on deck. I made valiant attempts over the years, but she always walked away with the spoils. Even at the end, she would be victorious.

Me: “I’m so exhausted all the time, I can barely keep my eyes open.” My opening jab.

Mom: “I’m exhausted, too. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed.” A block and counter punch.

Me: “But, I’m forty years old and work out regularly. I shouldn’t have to drink six cups of coffee just to get through the day.” A hard left.

Mom: “I’m going to have to quit my part-time job because even that has become too much.” Uppercut to the jaw. I’m down but not out.

Later that year:

Me: “The doctor thinks my problem is peri-menopause.” A swing and a miss.

Mom: “The doctor says I have Multiple Myeloma.” Knockout. Ding, ding, ding.

Fortunately, I had children to whom I could pass along my competitive skills. My son refused to participate, but my daughter gamely picked up the gauntlet. She hurt her back while playing soccer but, luckily, I managed to herniate not one, but two, discs in my lower back. She developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but I won with the Chronic Lyme Disease that my doctor had initially thought was peri-menopause.

That Lyme Disease got me a lot of play until a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. As I said earlier, that one pretty much always takes the prize. Recently, the doctor told me I also have Hashimoto’s disease, causing a sluggish thyroid, and that I’m pre-diabetic. You can imagine how that made me feel. Yep, I raced home to my computer and logged into Web M.D. to find out how weighty were the new weapons I’d been given to wield in my next competition. Because, I’ve decided that by this stage, I don’t need any more badges of honor. I’m going for Olympic gold.

…Here Comes The Bride…And A Reality Check

IMG_20180609_171129 (1)

I recently attended a wedding in Virginia Beach. Nice, you say. Yes, it was nice. Actually, it was rather spectacular. It was held at the bride’s family home on the Chesapeake Bay, outside in weather that could not have been more ideal. Every detail — the customized ceremony reflecting the couple’s personalities and aesthetic; the strung globe lights and high-end rustic décor; the perfume wafting from the landscape’s burgeoning hydrangea and the florist’s skillfully arranged rose bouquets; the catered spread and the energetic band that featured Motown classics — was orchestrated to perfection. For one evening, I felt about twenty-six again. Instead of my usual two glass of wine limit, I lost track of how much wine and beer I downed. I danced with youthful energy and vigor, hoping that my torso-hugging shapewear would keep my love handles in check under my clinging flowered dress.

You see, the bride is the daughter of my dear friend and college roommate, Kathy. There’s something reality-checking about attending the wedding of a young woman whose mother I have known since we were girls, just eighteen-years-old. It’s not that I’m unaware of the fact that I’ve rounded the corner of my mid-fifties and am sliding out-of-control downhill toward sixty. It’s not that I ignored my 30th wedding anniversary just two days after our trip to Virginia. It’s not even that I’m in denial about my age. I own and brag about every wrinkle, stretch mark, and gray hair I’ve earned through my life.

Maybe I tend not to think about my age too much; maybe I’m not as profound in my assessment of aging as others. Or, maybe I have my own perspective.

I view the passage of time less as a linear journey ending in the inevitable conclusion. I see it more as an amassment of experiences — gathering memories along the way, like precious gems, that I store safely in the treasure box of my mind. Of course, I know that with each birthday, each anniversary, every annual holiday, and each loss of a loved one, time is moving forward. I simply tend to view these events less as markers and more as another reason to enjoy the here and now. I think maybe that’s why attending Kathy’s daughter’s wedding jolted me so. It caused me to step out of my little mindset, unpack some of those dusty memories, and poke through my personal history.

My life’s story is no more remarkable than the next person’s. It’s just mine. Memories, unlike flat photographs, are filled with three-dimensional sensory nudges that can return us to any given event. My treasure box is crammed with a childhood of Fluffernutter sandwiches and Florida Punch flavored Hi-C. The pervasive stench of Sulphur, courtesy of two older brothers whose preteen years were enlivened by setting off cherry bombs in the sewer in front of our house. My dad’s rusty, old Rambler created frequent excitement — could he get it started today or not? Summer nights meant chasing the mosquito spray truck, piling into the car for family night at the drive-in, or hanging out at the local Little League to eat stale concession stand candy and cheer on my classmates.

Throughout my teens, priorities shifted. I was caught up in the usual school work, friends, and boys. I struggled to conjugate the French verb aimer — j’aime, tu aimes, il/elle aime — with Queen’s “Somebody to Love” blaring on my 8-track player for inspiration. Who was dating whom? Where were we hanging out on Friday night? My college days were much the same. I balanced an impressive schedule of Chaucer and macroeconomics with frat boys and Bud Light. I lived in the moment without much thought of my future. Post-college, I floated through various jobs, eventually married, then had children. All the while, I collected my memories.

My father died when I was twenty-seven. I’d suffered loss previously, but this was the first marker that I viewed in those terms. An actual passage of time; a sharp realization that my life wasn’t static. While I continued to create memories — with my husband and children, with my friends, in my career — I was peripherally aware of my own life’s calendar flipping page after page. Still, the years were an abstract to me. A human invention that didn’t hold much significance other than a sudden realization like, “Huh. My kids have moved out, so I guess that makes me an empty-nester.” I’ve always known we were all getting older; I just never framed it formally in my mind.

Until the recent wedding in Virginia Beach. Suddenly, there was my college buddy. The one I’ve known since I was eighteen. The one who could always finish a beer bong faster than I could. The one who, when I picked up the lead singer of a local band, picked up the rest of the band. Despite the 300+ miles between us since college, we’ve shared weddings; the births of our children; trips to see each other in various locations, sometimes with, sometimes without kids in tow; and, sadly, the burial of our beloved friend from school, Samantha. I’ve seen her children growing up through the years, so it shouldn’t have been a shock to see her oldest exchange vows under the flower-draped wedding arch. But, suddenly, my college buddy was the mother-of-the-bride.

Twenty-six years earlier, I’d attended Kathy’s wedding. My memories from that event are crammed with the young faces of our entire college group and their significant others. There were pre-parties and after-parties, abundant food and ever-flowing alcohol. But, as is the case with many of my life’s memories, there is one that stands out from the rest, like a 16×20 portrait capturing the essence of a special occasion. I was privy to a moment between Kathy and her father that remains one of the most poignant exchanges I’ve ever witnessed. Kathy’s dad, handsome in his tux with a smile so proud that it demanded my attention, put his arm around his daughter and asked, “Are you happy?” I can still hear the din from the music and boisterous guests in the background, as she returned his radiant smile and said, “I am, Daddy. I’m so happy.”

I recounted that moment to Kathy’s father when I spoke with him at his granddaughter’s wedding. He chuckled and smiled that same handsome smile. I don’t think he remembered, but I sure do. It occurred to me, as I glimpsed the bride and groom snatch private moments — grabbing a bite to eat, just the two of them; a sweet kiss by the water’s edge; gazing at each other as if they were alone among the guests — that their shared treasure box began when they met six years earlier. They’ll continue to fill it with fiery sunsets as they stroll hand-in-hand on the beach; the bold smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning; the exotic spices of ethnic foods they’ll sample on their travels; the cherished words “I love you” that are sweetest when spoken by one’s partner; the hot sun on their skin as they go for a run together; the pounding of rain on the roof as they curl up on the sofa with a favorite book. Their lives will be filled with their own remarkable moments that become treasured memories.

As the party wound down, Kathy and I had the chance to catch up. We sat and chatted, laughing about times shared in college and, more recently, a trip we’d made into New York City. I invited myself on a future visit to see the newlyweds at their new home in Seattle. We made tentative plans to travel to Sicily to learn Italian cooking. I look forward to storing those future memories along with the ones we were making the evening of her daughter’s wedding.

And, as is often true with old friends, some long-time traditions never fade. Kathy’s son appeared with a smile as radiant as his mother’s, wielding his own beer bong, identical to the one she and I had used for the first time almost forty years earlier. So, the mother-of-the-bride and I showed the rapidly growing crowd of twenty-somethings what would always be true. Kathy will always finish a beer bong faster than I will.

…My Life With The Upstager

The Upstager

Like all marriages, my husband’s and mine has had its share of joys and sorrows. Over the past thirty years, we’ve raised two amazing children; we’ve lost loved ones — friends and family. Through challenging times, we’ve recommitted to the partnership we vowed to uphold during our wedding ceremony when the priest symbolically bound together the hands of two twenty-somethings. And, like most marriages, we’ve learned the art of compromise. You might fall into the conventional mindset, laughingly assuming the husband makes all of the adjustments, being “trained” by the wife. Well, I take umbrage with that characterization because while, yes, Guy knows better than to raise my ire by tracking filthy shoes through the house or stacking his dirty dishes in the sink instead of emptying the clean ones from the dishwasher, I maintain that I’ve had to make the biggest adjustment. You see, I married The Upstager.

I was born the only girl, the youngest of three, and learned from an early age how to garner attention. I was a champion baton twirler — a bookcase jammed with trophies to prove it; I was a practiced pianist, the result of countless hours of running scales and transposing chords. By the time I hit high school, I had balanced a rigorous academic schedule with weekend parties and keg stands. I basked in praise for my accomplishments while, simultaneously, developing an inflated sense of self. By the time I was twenty-two and met my future husband, I had come to expect that my attributes and abilities would be lauded.

The first time I saw Guy, I was drawn to his disarming smile and boyish charm. I learned that he had that effect on most people. Somehow, he could do and say things that should be offensive, but with his mischievous grin and genuine goodwill, he got away with it. While in college, his friend, Sue, had a motorboat accident during spring break, losing all of the fingers on her left hand. Others pretended they didn’t notice or carefully avoided looking at her injured hand, but not Guy. He cheerfully yelled, “Hey Leftie!” across the quad, causing her to laugh for the first time since returning to campus.

From our early days together, I saw glimmers of Guy’s natural ability to attract attention. It should have been a warning that, no matter what I had to offer, I would be outshined by the irresistible allure of a perpetual adolescent.

Nevermind the wedding gift for friends of a one-of-a-kind serving platter that I commissioned from a local artist, with a hand-painted likeness of the pagoda where they’d gotten engaged. Instead, oh!, the excitement and exclamations over the ditty Guy had whipped up on the accompanying card with a perverse slant on “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue.”

Then came the time we threw a Christmas party and I, two months pregnant and in the throes of morning-noon-and-night sickness, spent weeks cleaning and decorating the house and preparing a lavish buffet, laden with sweets, savories, and rose lemon champagne punch. Guy spent an equal amount of time sweating over a comical poster that he titled “House Rules.” Yeah, it was funny, I’ll give him that. But, my mini quiches, lemon Madeleines, and eggnog cheesecake bars were distractedly scarfed down in between laughter and guffaws at Guy’s singular 36” x 48” creation that detailed punishment for offenses like drinking too slowly or being caught in the master bedroom.

I’m not saying I’ve never had my own opportunity for recognition. It’s just if my husband is within a square mile of my accomplishments, I become invisible. And, it’s not like he hip-checks me out of the way so he can stand center-stage in the spotlight. It just…happens. Let me continue.

After my father died, my mother and I, looking for an activity we could do together, signed up for a beginner oil painting class. I used the painter’s palette to mix colors and learned impressive words like “cerulean” and “viridian.” I began assessing the world around me with my newly acquired artistic eye and snapped photos to be brush-stroked into masterpieces. A corner of our living room was crammed with my easel, painting supplies, and sweeping landscapes and realistic still lifes, stacked on end in rows eight-deep. I was one step from completing my new image with a black wool beret when it happened again. I awoke one morning to find Guy perched in front of my easel, canvas in place, with all of my paints and brushes strewn on the table next to him. He’d been up all night, inspired by my enthusiasm, and decided to dabble in my artistic realm. In front of him rested a completed and, I’ll concede, pretty convincing replica of one of those jet-haired, pasty-faced women made famous by Patrick Nagel. That sort of stylized human likeness was Guy’s aesthetic and, ultimately, elicited gasps of appreciation from our friends and family. By contrast, my sunset seascapes had been met with lukewarm, murmured nods of acknowledgment. I never picked up a paintbrush again.

Still not convinced? Well, then there was the time Guy and I were driving down the highway and slowed when we saw several cars pulled off to the side. There was a commotion which we soon realized was a frantic dog evading capture by a group of good Samaritans.

“Stop!” I yelled, to which Guy responded, “There are plenty of people to help.”

“Pull over right now!” I opened the door, ready to jump out whether or not he stopped. By the time he reached me, I’d already gathered the terrified Beagle in my arms. A quick survey informed us that the dog had run into the road and been hit. Climbing carefully into the car, the shivering dog on my lap, I told Guy to drive to the nearest animal hospital.

“How are we going to afford this? We don’t even know if he has an owner.”

I checked the dog’s collar and found only a tag registering “Monty” with a town in Connecticut.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “He has to see the vet. We’ll figure it out later.”

Fortunately, Monty wasn’t badly hurt, just bruised and frightened. We brought him home with us and placed him in a quiet room to rest. I began making phone calls, trying to get information about dog licensing in that Connecticut town, determined to track down the owners. My persistence paid off. The family had just relocated to New Jersey but had called the township office in their old state to let them know the dog had escaped. I got the owners’ phone number and left them a message.

The following day, Guy was home when Monty’s owners called back, and they spoke at length. Guy learned that the owners had been in a car accident and Monty, traveling with them, had been thrown from the car and run off. They had searched for days but had been unable to find him. Guy assured them that Monty was safe and arranged to bring him home. When we arrived at the house, Monty yelped with excitement and ran to greet his people. They hugged us both then turned to Guy and said, “How can we ever thank you for rescuing our precious Monty?”

I believe my jaw sported a bruise for a month from where it hit the ground. To Guy’s credit, he informed them that I had been instrumental in the rescue, too. Still…

By this point, it was clear a trend was developing. You might try to tell me that these are flukes — rare occurrences. I contend that despite what I do, somehow Guy swoops in and gets the credit. Let me offer more proof.

It was dusk on a hot summer evening. Our car had broken down but, miraculously, we’d managed to coax it into a service station just north of town. This was back in the mid-1980s, b.c.p. (before cell phones), and we used the station’s landline to call our friend, Chris, to pick us up. As we waited, an enormous boat of a car drifted slowly into the station and up to a gas pump. An elderly couple sat in the front seat — the woman in tears and the man shaken. The attendant spoke to them, then told us they were looking for a place to stay overnight. I hurried to the passenger window and leaned in, asking if I could help.

“We are on our way to the Pocono Mountains and it’s taking longer than we thought,” explained the woman. “My husband can’t drive at night and I don’t drive at all. We don’t know where to stay for the night.”

“Not to worry,” I said. “Why don’t you let me drive you back to town and find you a place to stay?” I told Guy what I was doing and that once Chris arrived, to come and find me.

I got behind the wheel and maneuvered the car onto the road. The couple told me they were from West Virginia and going to visit their son’s grave. I learned about their daughter and grandchildren who lived in Maine. They asked about me, and I told them that Guy and I were soon to be married. I kept up the conversation during the drive back to town. The couple was relaxed by the time we got to the hotel.

“Wait here,” I said. “Let me just run in and make sure there’s a room for you.” There was not. I racked my brain for another option and decided on the only other place I could think of nearby — a tiny bed and breakfast. Hoping Guy would think to look there next, I smiled for the worried-looking couple, got in the car, and continued to drive. When we arrived at the B&B, again, I jumped out to check on availability. This time, we were in luck. I returned to the driveway, nodding my head in affirmation.

Just then, a car sailed into the drive behind us. Chris was behind the wheel, but Guy was sitting up on the passenger door, upper body on the outside through the open window. He was grinning, with arms spread wide, and I swear I heard the Mighty Mouse theme song playing somewhere in the background: “Here I Come To Save The Day.” When the car stopped, he swung his legs out and leaped to the ground.

“Please! Let me get your bags for you,” my Mr. Joie De Vivre offered gallantly, pulling their suitcases from the trunk.

As I linked my arm through the elderly woman’s to steady her climb up the steps, she turned to me and gushed, “Honey, don’t let him go! He’s one of the good ones!”

See? Are you seeing what’s happening?

I’ll offer one last story as evidence. This one happened while our kids were in elementary school. I had signed up to be a substitute teacher at their tiny Quaker school and received a call asking if I could fill in for the 4th- and 5th-grade math and science teacher for two weeks. Those two subjects aren’t necessarily my strongest but I figured 4th and 5th grade? Pfft! I could handle that! I arranged to take off time from my day job (full-disclosure — I do the finances for Guy’s business, so it didn’t take much convincing) and jumped right in.

A couple of points to note. First, the teacher I was covering had gone MIA and left no lesson plans, or even an overview, of what I needed to do. Therefore, I was left to fly by the seat of my pants. I spent my evenings reading the next chapters in the science and math books, developing lessons for the following day, and having my own children teach me the math that I hadn’t seen in about four decades. During school, I taught upwards of five classes while having to earn respect and cooperation from the children. I mean, who was I? Some mom? They thought that sounded like party time! The other point to note is that, while I wasn’t aware at the time, I was already very ill with Lyme Disease. The fatigue and headaches alone were enough to make me want to stay in bed and sleep all day. The seven-hour school day with another four hours of planning at night just about did me in.

Those two weeks turned into three months. The teacher had vanished and, by now, the kids were seeing me as a viable replacement. I enjoyed the job immensely but, by the time summer arrived, my illness rendered me nearly bedridden. When the yearbook came out, I wasn’t looking for accolades. I knew I had done a great job and was proud at having watched those children flourish. But, wait. There’s another piece of information pertinent to this tale.

My husband had “adopted” field day at the school. This meant that on the last day of classes, he sprang for pizza, six-foot subs, and cake for the entire school. Additionally, he purchased customized gifts for the graduating eighth graders. Everyone anticipated this day, and Guy was dubbed “Queen for the Day.” (That is a whole story for another time).

Back to the part about the yearbook. Yes, you’ve probably guessed. I flipped through the pages, positive I’d see a picture — just one measly photo — of me in my esteemed role as a teacher. I looked through all of the faculty and staff and did not find one. Oh well, I thought. It’s no big deal. That’s not why I took on the job. As I continued to leaf through the book, though, wouldn’t you know? There, prominently displayed in a section named “Field Day” was my husband! And, not just a single picture, but several. That’s right. One day — that man spent one day at the school! — with his food and his gifts and his cake, while I sacrificed day and night to educate those children. And, he got an entire yearbook section devoted to him.

As accustomed as I had become to my life with The Upstager, that one left me nearly speechless. Until I ran into the Head of School and then, oh boy, did she hear about it! I gave her the complete rundown of what I’d endured for all of those years. With the wedding gift and the Christmas party and the oil painting and the rescued dog and the elderly couple and on and on. That poor woman. She and I ended up laughing about it, but she could see my point.

So, while I’ve spent the majority of my life overshadowed by my husband, I’ve learned to adapt. That’s right; I’ve learned to compromise. It’s something my twenty-year-old self would never have imagined but, I guess there’s always room for growth. I’ve stopped looking for recognition for what I do and, instead, embrace the notion that it is the deed itself that is important. Plus, I have to say that even though I’ve been married to The Upstager for thirty years, I still find his mischievous grin pretty charming.