Grateful

Holidays are the hardest, people say, especially the first holidays after the death of a family member. Even though I hadn’t spent a Thanksgiving with my Dad in 25 years, I still feel an extra pang of loneliness today.  I recall how he loved the big turkey dinners my Grandmother prepared, how he and I would watch the Hudson’s parade together on Thanksgiving morning and what a treat it was to have him home in the daytime instead of working.

Gratitude is often felt but rarely expressed. There were so many things I appreciated about my father – his generosity, his unwavering support for everything I did (even when he had misgivings about it), they way he encouraged my interests in music and reading and writing, his unfailing good humor and playfulness that never faltered even after long hours of work. I learned a lot about being a parent from him – about having patience and letting your children follow their desires and make their own decisions. But, as often happens, I let the opportunity to thank him for those things pass me by.

As adults, we can look back at our parents’ lives and learn from them in entirely different ways. I am now approaching the age my father was when he and my mother got divorced and he started his “second act.” From my current vantage point, and I can see his reasoning a lot more clearly than I could when I was 30. Cliched as it is, I can see how he was longing for something new and exciting, how he felt as if life would soon pass him by and he needed to make the most of it. I can see the warning signs that he chose to ignore and instead speed through on the way to his exciting new beginning. I am grateful for that insight, even though it came at the price of our family.

There were years when we were at odds with one another, my Dad and I, years we lost touch completely. I am grateful, especially today, for the grace which led us to reestablish our relationship. Grateful for the times we spent together in the past few years – for the day he spent teaching me to play poker, for the time he talked for hours telling me stories about his youth that I’d never heard before. I’m proud of the way he fought to live, with a strength and determination that amazed all his doctors.

Because he died very suddenly, I didn’t have an opportunity to express my gratitude or say a real goodbye. I say it now, hoping somehow he listens, somehow he might know.

I am grateful.

 

It’s All About the Memories, Thank You Very Much

“I can’t tell you how much I used to dread Thanksgiving,” my mother said yesterday as we headed out to the grocery store to do our shopping for the big dinner.  ”My mother used to invite everybody over and then bitch about it for days.  She made life miserable for me and Dad for weeks. “

I looked at her aghast.  My childhood memories of Thanksgiving were pure happiness.  I never sensed any tension or angst…all I recall were the wonderful aromas and tastes of my southern grandmother’s cuisine.  The huge turkey, slowly roasting all day long in the oven (“Oh yes,” said my mother, “she woke us all up at the crack of dawn to get that turkey in the oven by 7:00 so it could cook all day long”), stuffed with the moist, savory dressing (“I had to search all over town for fresh sage to put in that stuffing”), and smothered in rich, brown gravy (“She wouldn’t let anybody else stir that gravy for fear it would be lumpy!”)

Well.  Who knew?  I was so tickled at the prospect of a house full of people, all my my favorite aunts and uncles with their interesting conversations, laughing and telling stories about family members I’d never seen.   And all the while the day had been filled with aggravation for my mother.

Of course, 40 years later, I’m no stranger to the memory of aggravating holidays.  When Jim and I married, it somehow evolved in our little family that his mother would prepare the Thanksgiving day dinner at our house.  (The one they so graciously sold to us when we got married while they moved into a tiny apartment which was of course far too small to serve Thanksgiving dinner.)  So every year she’d appear (at the crack of dawn so she could get the turkey in the oven) and then be puttering around in my kitchen all day, muttering about the way I arranged things or cleaned things or didn’t have the right kind of things.

However, if you were to ask my son, he might recall the times  he stood on a tiny step-stool and helped Grandma prepare the turkey, watching intently as she cleaned out the cavity and tied the drumsticks together with twine.  Or he might remember running into the kitchen each time the oven door opened, so he could hold the baster and squeeze  hot pan drippings over the bird’s golden breast.  He might not have had any inkling that his mother was in her bedroom, silently screaming.

All that’s left of those holidays are memories -for my son, who lives far away and is never home on Thanksgiving; for me, who has dinner with an ever diminishing number of people; and for my mother, who prepares the meal for the three of us in her own kitchen and in her own expert and individual way.

Thanksgiving is becoming more and more the forgotten holiday, crammed in between Halloween and Christmas which garner a lot more attention in this consumer driven society of ours.  We’re even having our regular trash pickup on Thursday – as long as I’ve lived here, pickup was postponed until Friday on Thanksgiving week.  I’m not sure I approve of that.  I think the sanitation workers should have Thursday so they could enjoy dinner with their families and friends same as nearly everyone else.

Thanksgiving is a holiday built around emotions – of being grateful for family and friends, for health and happiness, and food on the table.   It’s not about buying presents, or wearing costumes, or elaborate fireworks displays.  It’s not even about concerts of beautiful music, or rooms of gorgeous decorations.

It’s simply about making memories, good or bad.

I hope you make some lovely ones this year.

 

(note: This post was originally published in November 2010.)

Direct Your Gaze

Early this morning, coffee in hand, I stood in front of the sliding doors that lead onto our deck and listened to the birds thronging happily around the feeder. One of the things I love most about our new house are all the different birds – who knew that moving eight miles down the road would put me in completely new ornithological territory. I’m learning to identify them now – the bright golden finch, cuddly tufted titmouse, chickadees and wrens – all scrabbling for territory on the perches.  But when the red-bellied woodpecker makes his appearance, they hover reverently on the surrounding bushes, allowing him to sup in regal splendor.

Today, something caught my eye and directed my gaze upward into the soaring branches of an oak tree. Maybe it was the shimmer of that tree’s last golden leaves, or the piercing blue of winter sky. What might have been a passing glance turned into a stare of wide-eyed wonder. For every bird gathered around my feeder, there were at least a dozen flying in and out among the branches of that tree. I had to crane my neck to see them, those flecks of gold and brown as they swooped and dived in and among the uppermost branches. It struck me at once that they lived SO high in the sky, like high rise apartment dwellers, and must be constantly looking down on my, pitying me for my groundedness. 

And I knew then that I’ve been walking through life with my head down, my eyes in the wrong place. There are entire other worlds to see if we just look up once in a while. 

Direct your gaze and see the world differently.

I know I will be doing that more often after today.

Preparation

I thought I was prepared.

After all, for the past two years, my father had been living with Stage IV colon cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and kidney failure. That’s a lot for an 87 year old. But when my stepmother called me on the phone the other night, I could tell immediately that I was about to hear the worst news possible, and I realized I wasn’t prepared after all.

In the past two years, I’ve made four trips to Florida on what I assumed were “last time” visits. But my Dad’s will to live kept trumping the frailty of his body.  Even though I knew he was living on borrowed time, I was expecting him to keep pulling miracles out of his hat, keep surprising us with unexpected rallies and recoveries.  When he was hospitalized briefly two months ago, I contemplated making another trip down, but decided against it. I had a lot going on, the tickets were expensive…yadda yadda.  I would wait, I thought, wait until November. And indeed I did make a trip in November,  but it was to help my stepmother make arrangements for his cremation. I said my goodbyes, but only to his body lying still and cold in a makeshift casket.

It was slightly strange being in Florida alone with my stepmother. She has been my Dad’s chief caregiver throughout his long illness, even as she works a full time job in retail, and for that I was so grateful. But I felt as if I were the representative from the first part of my Dad’s life, the almost 50 years he spent married to my mother, his high school sweetheart, while Sharon stood for his Second Act – the new life he embarked upon in his mid-sixties, moving to Florida, marrying a woman two decades younger, cultivating new hobbies (golf, poker) and new friends. We had completely different memories of this man we were putting to rest, and we were trying to reconcile that with the reality of our loss.

Meanwhile, back at home, my mother deals with her own private grief, one not even acknowledged by society. The break up of their marriage was not by her choice, and though she had come to some sort of terms with it in the ensuing 25 years, there was still a large part of her heart that belonged to that young man she fell in love with in the early 1940’s, the one to whom she devoted four decades of her life.

As for me, I find myself speeding through the stages of grief.  Those few days in Florida had a tinge of unreality, as if I were going through the motions without any sense of rhyme or reason. Then I started to feel angry – first with everybody around me who were oblivious to my sadness and continued about their trivial pursuits as if everything in the world was normal, and then with my Dad, who had once again taken me by surprise like he did 25 years ago when he packed up and left our family to start his new life.

Now, two weeks later, there is a veil of sadness inside me, one that washes over me at odd times. Like when I see his handwriting on a box of tools still sitting in my mother’s garage. When I look at the wedding picture of he and my mother that I keep on the mantle.  When I drive by a Walmart Store, where my Dad worked during his retirement. When I see his phone number in the Favorites list on my phone.

When I see my grandson, who will never know this great-grandfather who would have loved him.

I am no stranger to death. In the past few years I have lost my in-laws, a beloved uncle and aunt, and three elderly neighbors of whom I was inordinately fond. I thought I knew what grief was all about, was almost smug about my ability to handle it.

But the loss of a parent is something different, and I think it’s especially so for an only child.

I wasn’t prepared for it at all.

TLC Tours: The Supreme Macaroni Company

supreme macaroni companyI’ve read nearly all of Adriana Trigiani’s books, and I love her down-to-earth characters, love the small towns they live in, love their histories (which are much like her own, growing up in New York, with her mother’s love of cooking, her grandparent’s shoe making and clothing design instilled in her very blood).

The Supreme Macaroni Company opens on Christmas Eve and continues the story begun in Very Valentine and Brava, Valentine, the story of Valentine Angelini, a shoe designer, and her fiancé Gianluca.  It’s a story of love, of family, of legacy.  It’s a heart-breaking and heart-warming tale of real life and real people. I raced through it and enjoyed it immensely.

When I said that I had “read” most of Trigiani’s books, I should have said I “heard” them, because I’ve listened to them on audio. Of all of them, I’ve most enjoyed those read by the author. What a surprise to hear her voice – deep and mellifluous, a mixture of Southern drawl and New York speak. But since hearing it, I can’t imagine her stories told in any other voice. Trigiani writes great dialogue (no surprise she’s also a screenwriter and playwright), and is now in production for a TV movie based on her Big Stone Gap series.

I highly recommend The Supreme Macaroni Company, and all of Trigiani’s books. When I read them, I feel like I’m immersed in the big families that characterize each one, wrapped in the embrace of their joy of living. And that’s always a good feeling.

Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

 

 

TLC Book Tours: The Round House

I’d thought she was the same mother only with a hollow face, jutting elbows, spiky legs. But I was beginning to notice that she was someone different from the before-mother. The one I thought of as my real mother. I had believed that my mother would emerge at some point. I would get my before mom back. But now it entered my head that this might not happen. Some warm part of her had gone and might not return. This new formidable woman would take getting to know, and I was thirteen, I didn’t have the time.  from The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

the round houseI’ve always been a little bit afraid of Louise Erdrich’s books. I don’t have any good reason for that, and I’m happy to state that reading The Round House has completely cured me of any fear.

Other than the fact that she’s a damn formidable writer.

This National Book Award winning novel, published in 2012, has been compared to a modern day To Kill A Mockingbird, and I think that’s apt. It’s the story of a 13-year old boy who lives with his family on an reservation in North Dakota. Joe Coutts’ mother Geraldine is brutally attacked one spring day in 1988. She is too traumatized to discuss the event or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband Bazil (a tribal judge).  Joe tries to help his mother, but she refuses to leave her bed. So he finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world of intrigue, long-held grudges, avarice, and tribal injustice.

In short, 13 year old Joe Coutts has to become an adult before he’s quite ready.

With remarkable maturity,  insight and courage, Joe and his friends set out find his mother’s attacker. Their quest takes them to The Round House, a sacred place of worship for the Ojibwe. It is here that the attack took place, and the four boys eventually uncover an entire realm of secrets that lead them to exact a very personal justice.

As coming-of-age stories go, The Round House should be considered at the top of a list. It’s marvelously written, and displays amazing insight into the mind and heart of this young man. I loved the interplay and relationship between Joe and his father and mother. It felt so familiar to me as an only child – Joe’s heightened sensitivity and sense of responsibility.

The portrayal of life on the reservation with it’s many injustices was enlightening, if maddening.  There is so much work yet to be done to create an equality of life style for our Native Americans, and it shames me.

The Round House was a fabulous introduction to Erdrich’s work. Since I finished it, I’ve already picked up two more of her novels, and look forward to reading them with eager anticipation.

Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this novel.

September Saturday

15586816-the-pile-of-autumn-leaves-with-a-rake-and-wheelbarrowAlready, the last Saturday in September.  There is a purposeful intensity to the sun – it hangs low in a purely blue sky and penetrates the long sleeves of my t-shirt with heat. I’m still here, it tells me, burning through the cotton shirt, don’t count me out yet.

Oh don’t worry, sun, I will not ignore you. I step out onto the deck, intending to to sweep it clear of grass clippings and the first flurry of golden poplar leaves that have started raining down on it. Instead, I just open the gate and let the dogs scamper down into the yard. They each find their own patch of sunlight and lay right down in it, looking up at me with grateful eyes for the opportunity to replenish their own stores of solar energy. I am supposed to  keep them on a leash , but this is a rule I break all the time. My dogs always stay close to me, and as long as I keep a sharp lookout for squirrels that might entice them, I know they will behave admirably.

So I sit on the step and lean back against the railing. There is no human noise today, and I love that. Birds are constantly chattering here because so many of us have feeders, and there is just enough breeze to rustle the dry leaves. But no lawnmowers, no cars, not even any dogs barking. Hard to believe there are 320 homes in such close proximity.

It’s 3:00 and I’m tired. Every afternoon about 3:00, my energy gives out. The pattern of my days is such that I’m usually finishing up errands or work about 3:00, often driving back from my mother’s house after taking her shopping or picking up the dogs. I think I’ve always gotten tired about 3:00 – maybe after all those years of being on school schedule, my body is used to the end-of-school-day let down. Until recently, I would just power through…continue on with whatever was next on the schedule, push myself to keep going, keep doing.

But last week I decided to stop doing that, stop pushing myself farther than my body wants me to go. When 3:00 comes and I am tired, I will rest. I will find the nearest bench and sit on it for a while. If I’m home, I will take off my shoes and curl up on the corner of the couch, pull a soft blanket around my shoulder, and read. I will treat my tired 3:00 body with tenderness and care. I will pour it some water, make it some tea, listen to it’s creaks and groans and let it be still for just a little while.

And on days like this beautiful last Saturday of September, I will sit on my porch and lean my shoulder against the rough railing of the deck. I will let the sun splash across my face, I will breathe in the dusty smell of drying leaves. I will not look at nor give a thought to Twitter feeds or Facebook posts. I won’t even bury my nose in the pages of whatever book is usually in my hands.

Because September Saturdays don’t last forever, and neither will I. It’s  alright for me now, in the September of my own life, to just be still sometimes. To be quiet. There is no need for me to always Do Something, even if it’s something pleasurable. Sometimes the gift is not in Doing but in Being.

And so here I Be.