In less than two weeks, I will be celebrating my 44th birthday. I love hearing from old friends who leave eloquent birthday voicemails (I save each one!); reading all of the Facebook posts from a cross-section of my past; opening handmade cards and hastily wrapped presents with my family by each shoulder; and indulging in seconds of my guilt-free birthday cake.
However, this year will be different (the theme of the past nine months). This year, I won’t be receiving my birthday wake-up call from Mom. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate my birthday — I just don’t want to spend 16 hours on August 8th with that emptiness in my stomach. My brother warned me back in January that his first Mom-less birthday was a tough day. I’m mentally prepared, but still dreading it.
For I can only think of three birthdays that Mom has not been blowing candles next to me. Only three (my 8th, 18th and 26th)! This day is as much her day as it is mine. It was just the two of us back in 1972 and while other loved ones have joined the party, she was still such a integral part of the celebration for 40 of my birthdays.
As a way to honor Mom on “our” day, I’ve decided to sprinkle some of her ashes in the Atlantic Ocean. A nod to her love of swimming, her awe of Mother Nature, and as a way to literally have her with me. And of course I’ll end the day with my precious little family and a huge hunk of ice cream cake. And when I close my eyes to extinguish the 44 flames, I’ll quietly say thank you to all of the birthday love I’ve felt over the past four decades….from the angel in the sky and from those whose heartbeats surround me.
This is the height of reading season for me. By the pool, in the bathtub, on the adirondack chair on our backyard hillside…I always seem to find more time for reading in the warmer months than another time of the year.
A few favorite books that are worth mentioning:
1. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
Beautiful words about the course of a marriage — beyond the early googly-eyed stages. The story introduces us to Kristen and Rahbi and their love story…which is not just full of romantic picnics under an elm tree, but includes the realities of a marriage — work stress, financial strain, exhaustion, the weight of children, neglecting oneself and partner, etc. I’ve highlighted many passages in the book, including this one:
“We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.”
All three novels are psycho thrillers that kept me staying up way past bedtime to find out who did it! My favorite was Finding Jake — so intelligently written from the father’s point of view.
3. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Warning: don’t read this before an airplane flight! A small plane crashes leaving only two unrelated survivors. This story digs into each of the passengers past to investigate if they had anything to do with the sudden crash into the Atlantic ocean. The author is a writer and producer for the TV series Bones and knows how to tell a good story.
4. Where the Light Gets In by Kimberly Williams-Paisley
My favorite actress from my favorite movie, Father of the Bride, writes a beautiful memoir about her mother’s struggle with a rare form of dementia. I’m incredibly grateful that Williams-Paisley shared her personal and intimate experience that has resonated with me and so many other daughters. Each chapter was familiar and really captures the impact on the entire family. I loved this quote below which captures the discord I’ve felt the past year; and provides some sense of validation that it’s ok to have conflicting emotions of ache and peace.
My mother is not only presenting me an opportunity to love unconditionally, she’s also allowing me to practice being comfortable with what is uncomfortable. To grieve and also embrace what is broken. To know that some days I can receive who my mother is now and some days I struggle with it. To allow that two opposing thoughts may exist in my head at the same time.”
5. Next on the list? A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. This has been recommended to me by a number of people and I can’t wait to learn more about the backstory of why Ove is a grumpy old person (which I’m quickly becoming at the ripe old age of 43).
Any good book recommendations that have captured your attention this summer?
One of my great joys in summer is tending to our backyard garden. The roses, dahlias, salvia, azalea, rhodies, lilacs…they all bring me such joy with their bold colors and symphonic appearances. And it seems that each week a new bloom opens, providing me with a rush of awe over Mother Nature and her grand gestures.
As I’ve written before, the row of eight hydrangea bushes placed center in the backyard is the equivalent to the July 4th firework finale. The colors explode and will remain in eyesight of my kitchen window through the end of September. Fresh cut hydrangeas would populate the house or arrive as a thank you on friends’ doorsteps.
This year, however, an early and warm spring followed by a weekend cold snap froze my hydrangea blooms. And while the rest of my garden is blooming on cue, the hydrangeas are noticeably absent and missing their seasonal debut.
It looks like summer. It feels like summer. It smells like summer. Yet something is missing.
We are spending days at the pool, beach and tennis courts. We are eating ice cream, crab rolls and watermelon. We are smelling humid air, fresh rain and cut grass. Yet something….or really someone….is missing from these 80 degree days.
You see, summer was my Mom’s season. She relished in open water lakes. She commanded we stop at every ice cream parlor (an hour before dinner, gasp!). She loved summer walks around the neighborhood and sunsets over the open fields.
So as I sit on our backyard cushions and sigh over what is absent, I also am mindful to notice what is present and grabbing my attention. I suppose that is what we are supposed to do after a loss — appreciate what we have.
So thank you roses, dahlias, salvia, azalea, rhodies, and lilacs for reminding me there is a backyard full of floral joy to appreciate. And thank you children, husband, family and dear friends for reminding me there is a life full of beating hearts to love.
I recently stumbled upon this article, How to Graciously Say No to Anyone, and it was just too valuable not to share. With the many demands on our time – family, work, volunteer obligations, and more – learning to say “no” is essential for maintaining a semblance of balance and harmony in one’s life.
According to the author, there are three tenets to a gracious decline:
- Say it fast.
- Explain why – briefly.
- Propose something else.
The author even offers a script from which to work for saying “no”:
Thanks for your note. I’m so proud of you for ___—and I’m flattered that you’d like to bring my brain into the mix.
I need to say “no,” because ___.
But I would love to support you in a different way. [Offer an alternative form of support here]
Thank you for being such a wonderful ___. I am honored to be part of your world. [A few closing words of encouragement, if you’d like]
[Your name here]
I am notoriously terrible at saying “no”, always feeling obligated to help out (or just totally do) most anything that comes my way. But, as my boys grow older and busier, my time is more scarce and valuable. I am learning to be more judicious about what I take on for work and volunteer projects. This article found me at the perfect time; just today I employed her script in my (hopefully gracious) decline of a request for pro bono writing. I feel a huge sense of relief for protecting my time and doing so in a succinct – yet polite – manner.
Hopefully, you find this as helpful and freeing as I did. Just say “no”, quickly and nicely.
It’s been almost three months since Mom has passed away. I still have a hard time writing “died”, which has the connotation of an end, forever gone. “Passed away” implies a transition, which aligns with my belief that Mom is with me spiritually — but in a different form.
If I am mindful and paying attention, she greets me in many delightful ways. The duck leaving his pack to follow me to the bus stop pick up, quacking the entire 1/4 mile walk. The shooting star that crossed above my head, interrupting my “conversation” with Mom under the moonlight. The Schuman song she used to play, performed by a pianist right as we were leaving the library (we stayed). Her handwritten note found hours after her death, with the Isaiah 41 passage, “So do not fear, for I am with you”.
I still feel her parenting me. Guiding me. Encouraging me to choose the light, even in times of darkness. These overcast winter days can be depleting, and yet when I think of her words, a burst of energy and clarity enters my body. She is here.
Which is why I’ve been loving this beautiful poem by Henry Van Dyke, who uses a beautiful analogy of a ship at sea, continuing to be a ship at sea — even when out of eye sight. Just like my Mom, continues to be a Mother to me, even when out of sight.
GONE FROM MY SIGHT
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
- Henry Van Dyke
What I’m Reading:
Amazon just delivered Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air this morning. This is a memoir o fa 37 year old Stanford neurosurgeon that was given a terminal diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. The reviews have been tremendously positive and I look forward to some quiet time this weekend soak up his words.
What I’m Eating:
I ventured beyond the weekly mashed potatoes and served a celery root puree with my favorite beef stew last night. My husband was the most impressed with a new flavor at the table and it’s given me some inspiration to top that for tomorrow’s dinner. Any suggestions?
What I’m Thinking:
Oldest daughter has been out of school for five days with a virus. It’s given us a lot of home-base time with quiet moments to snuggle, read or chat. Makes me think back to this article on setting your priorities – am grateful to have a family-centric calendar that allows me to step on the breaks and breath in these hours with my tween.
What I’m Looking Forward to:
Snow. Crazy to hear that four letter word uttered from my mouth, but I’m excited for a good old fashioned snow day. To turn off the world and be home in front of the fire, wearing my polar bear print pajamas and eating Cheez-its.
What I’m Wearing:
Lots of Kiehl’s Creme de Corps, my favorite body lotion that seems to keep Winter Itch at bay.
Replacing “Serendipity”, my new favorite word is: SENTIENT
There was a time in my newlywed life when my husband and I would pack our weekends full of social events. Brunches, bike rides, cocktails, suppers. And around the time we added children to the mix, my husband kindly asked that we commit to only one social event a weekend. It was too much, he explained — social outings, chores, errands, house projects, etc. We need more downtime. Us time.
So we started to scale back about ten years ago and have been more or less abiding by this rule ever since. And having open afternoons and evenings has been one of the most treasured traditions of our family. We ride bikes around the neighborhood, embark on ski days at Sunapee, play Ticket to Ride in front of the fireplace, swim at our down-the-street pool, run laps around the high school track, read books while lined up like sardines, light candles over a Saturday night dinner, hike in the local woods. I hope these weekend moments will be the anchors of our daughters’ childhood memories.
We’ve certainly had our share of over-packed weekends — the holidays is especially a tough time to abide by our family rule. And I’ve found that when we have weekends jam packed — whew! — our family seems flat, disconnected and unbalanced. Which is why we prioritize this time together, especially a the girls get older. It is our fuel to re-charge as a family and our job as parents to protect this time for just the four of us.
I know this doesn’t work for all families, but it works for us. And given the 12 degree temps today, I’d say whatever the plan is for this weekend will be in front of the fireplace. Together.
Our traditional New Years Day hike — just our tiny clan and a quiet forest.
This Christmas was different.
The weather was unusually warm. Almost 70 degrees on Christmas Eve! Unheard of around New England to wander coatless to church services.
I caught yet another dreaded sore throat and cold. (It is not lost on me how my body is symptomatic to what my heart is feeling). Christmas week was full of naps and rest.
And of course, the biggest change this year was that my Mom wasn’t there to adorn our house with her Christmas cheer and Danish Pastry.
The Danish pastry was originally a recipe from my great-grandmother back in the 1930s. Full of crisco and butter, the braided piece of glazed dough was the breakfast treat served Christmas morning from 1972 until 2014.
After many years of excuses to avoid making this family tradition, I started the arduous three-day baking project. I placed a lot of weight on the outcome — a light fluffy perfectly browned danish would continue the ties between many generations; a flat doughy overly done danish would banish me to the bedroom in tears.
The latter happened.
In hindsight, I know what to do differently next time — this is definitely more art than science. Yet in that moment, I just felt that I was letting down my Mom, grandmother and great-grandmother by not continuing this family tradition. Especially on this first Christmas without Mom by my side.
As usual, I went to the moon that night and openly shared my frustration. And the moon — the first full moon on Christmas Eve since 1977 — shone brightly on my face and gave me the strength and perspective I needed to move forward to Christmas day.
There is something about that moonshine that makes me feel that my Mom is right by my side. And as is becoming the pattern, any heaviness and sadness was lifted immediately and replaced with gratitude.
And when I awoke to sounds of giggles and excitement the next morning on December 25th, I too felt hopeful and dare I say filled with joy?!? And even the Danish Pastry tasted pretty darn good.
There were two Christmas Days that I spent away from my parents. This story is about the first one, when I was a 23 years California transplant recently settled in Boston. My first job out of college was working retail management at Banana Republic which required me to be around for the bulk of the holiday season.
Sensing my sadness to be away from home on Christmas Day, my parents sent me a surprise plane ticket to join them for a lavish weekend in NYC. They booked a suite so we could be together and made reservations at Le Grenouille, one of the most exquisite french restaurants in all of New York.
I remember carefully packing my outfit in Boston — using shoe bags for my new black Ann Taylor slingbacks, my black pant suit that made me feel like a grown up, and my hand-me-down pearl earrings. My Dad gave both my Mom and I an arm to escort us through the magic restaurant doors.
I don’t recall what we ate for dinner, probably nothing too french as I prefer chicken to rabbit and hamburger to steak tar tar. Yet I do remember dessert. Chocolate mousse, chocolate souffle, creme brûlée ….it was all too tempting to a girl who ate wheat thins as a meal. I may have been acting as a grown up that night, but my face betrayed me once the dessert menu was in my hands — my eyes were like a 5 year old on Christmas morning. I could not make up my mind and our patient waiter kept scribbling in his notepad as my mind changed between chocolate and vanilla cream and meringue. After what probably felt like hours to the waiter, I landed on a favorite — chocolate pot de creme.
And when the desserts were brought to the table, you can imagine my complete delight and utter shock when EVERY dessert I contemplated was presented in front of me. All seven desserts.
“On the house!” he declared in his french accent. He gave me a night that I’m still talking about 20 years later.
So even though I spent a Christmas apart from my family, that December 1996 will still be a treasured holiday memory. The sugar plum fairy absolutely delivered. And as my husband and I plan a winter excursion to NYC in early 2016, I plan to make dinner reservations at Le Grenouille to reminisce that magical night. Although this time there will be no hesitation as I’ll just go ahead and order all of the irresistible treats for our table of two.