September has been a whirlwind of activity and schedules. I now must keep a “cheat sheet” card in the car to ensure I am where I am supposed to be each day.
Both kids have been in school for 6.5 days. New school clothes have been purchased. Stylish haircuts were given. Forms, form and more forms were signed. The morning sun is sleeping in until 6:15am. The evening temps are dropping to the 50s.
This is my season. All of the colors that a redhead can wear. And all of the pumpkin a redhead can consume. Soon, I will be walking through piles of golden yellow and burnt orange leaves on the way to the bus stop. This is my season.
And yet, sadness continues to sit in my heart. For we are inching closer to the 1 year anniversary of losing my dear Mom. Forty more days and I can no longer say “a year ago we were together”.
A year ago September, we were shopping at Iviva for back-to-school leggings. I was distracted by two daughters who wanted the same leggings but didn’t want to be twins. Too distracted to think something was off when my Mom sat quietly near the mannequin with her eyes partially closed.
A year ago September, we walked hastily to lunch. My fast stride keeping up with the children, while motioning to my Mom to hurry up. I chalked up her slower pace to her bad knee.
A year ago September, we attended a memorial service together. We found my Mom a comfortable chair at the reception where she was greeted by old friends. I assumed she was emotionally tired having said a final farewell to a dear family friend.
A year ago September, Mom sat at our dining room table for the last time. I was consumed with kitchen duties and entertaining the family and that I didn’t notice her discomfort until she stood up to go home (a clear signal that something was off, as she left before dessert).
Glennon Melton Doyle writes about us sensitive souls as being the “canary in the mine and you need my sensitivity because I can smell toxins in the air that you can’t smell, see trouble you don’t see and sense danger you don’t feel.” I’ve used this analogy more times to explain that my deep sensitivity is actually a good thing…I smell toxins that are odorless to others.
I’m the canary in the family, yet I failed to tweet my warnings last September. When I saw Mom a few days later after that final Sunday night dinner, the danger signals were flashing and sirens were going off. She could not stand up straight. Her balance was off. She looked tired. It was that moment that my eyes opened and I knew…
Toxins. I smell toxins.
Two weeks. My canary senses were off for just a two week window. And in that time, I managed to miss the most important signals of all. The ones that might have saved her.
Summer 2016 is over and we crawled to the finish line. The past few weeks have been a bit challenging, to say the least. The kids have had ear infections, swimmers ear, braces and a surgery to remove a benign bump. We have been holed up at home more so than any other end of August…hibernating as if it’s winter when the sun is shining and the pool is calling. Where typically I feel bittersweet with the end of the lazy unstructured summer days, this year I’m only looking ahead.
And with that, here is a snapshot of my early September:
What I’m Reading
So many good books recently! After somewhat of a lull the first half of the summer, I found myself immersed in wonderful storylines the end of August. Two favorites: Lilac Girls, which follows three women during WWII whose storylines collide; and After Her, about a Northern California girl growing up in 1979 whose father just happens to be the detective chasing a notorious serial killer.
What I’m Eating
After feeling sluggish and tired by 9pm, I’ve decided to focus less on exercise and more on nutrition. A few friends and I are starting the Whole 30 plan today…which will explain future grouchy behaviors as I omit soda, crackers and other food crutches for the next 30 days. I’m optimistic as my friend completed her 30 days in May and not only looked rested and energized, but also lost 15 pounds.
What I’m Watching
Stranger Things has been the favorite for the past few nights. Only 8 episodes, we are half way through this original netflix series. Think goonies, ET, Nightmare on Elm Street, Carrie..all of those 1980s cult shows wrapped up into one. I’m not a fan of sci-fi/monster shows, but this one managed to pull me in. If you were a kid in the 1980s, you will recognize parts of your childhood on screen.
What I’m Looking Forward to
Excited to be attending Dani Shapiro’s weekend of meditation and writing at the end of September. A birthday gift from beloved Husband, I’m eager for the alone time, to learn new tools and to release some of the stories in my head.
What I’m Dreading
Already signs of fall bring me back to last year, the last season I had with Mom. I have her angel date, 10/24, marked on my calendar and am already thinking the best way I can honor her that day. More later on this topic…
The last hurrah of summer.
When the girls were 3 and 5, we introduced a new tradition to our family — Sister Day. The plan was to dedicate one day in August to celebrate and honor the Sisterhood that these girls were blessed with at birth. It was very important to me, especially after witnessing the fall out between my Mom and her sisters, to ensure that this bond would be unbreakable into adulthood.
It surprises me that this tradition has stuck after seven years (consistency is my biggest challenge with parenting). Yet when we gather around the table in May to brainstorm our summer list, Sister Day is always first to be documented. The anticipation starts early in the summer as the Sisters debate and negotiate what to do and where to go on their special day.
This year was a last minute switcheroo. Plans were for a small amusement park in New Hampshire along a lake — a fun spot now that Oldest has discovered mini-thrill rides. Yet the clouds overhead and cooler temps brought us to Kimball Farm, where we packed in four hours of miniature golf, zip lines, bumper boats, and batting cages. The day ended with a small pint (yes, this place knows how to scoop ice cream) of cookie crumble ice cream topped with hot fudge.
We celebrate the Sisterhood, as only a sister:
Understands which Lovies make the cut for bedtime and which ones stay on the shelf.
Shares her denim shorts so you can dress as twins.
Plays dolls when your school friends roll their eyes at the mere mention of American Girls.
Gently puts you to bed when the babysitter falls asleep on the couch (yes, this happened Saturday night).
Nudges you (successfully) to try the extra-scary ride at the local fair.
Cheers loudly for you at the swim meets, even if you are last to touch the wall.
I’m hoping that this annual tradition will carry on with both girls long after they fly the proverbial nest. That just as birthdays, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are revered on the calendar each year, so is Sister Day.
For I strongly believe — from cradle to grave, no one will love you as long and as loyal as a Sister.
Second Sister Day, 2011 (the day comprises of a big outing followed by a mini “ceremony” that is completely cheesy but marks the day as extra-special).
I love reading the NY Times By The Book, where writers share their thoughts on literature and the literary life. For fun, I answered some of the questions asked to those well-versed in the written word.
What books are currently on your night stand?
I have a tower of books by my bedside! Love that as soon as I close the final chapter on one, there is another great story waiting to be read. Next up: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen (soon to be movie); Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly; The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain; and After Her by Joyce Maynard. I love following authors/readers on Instagram and usually find great recommendations based what’s trending in cyber space.
What’s the last great book you read?
I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life last summer and have failed to find another great book on par to this storytelling masterpiece. A Little Life and the heart of the main character, Jude, will stay forever with me. I read that the author wanted to explore if it was ever possible for an adult to recover from a tragic childhood. Warning: this book can be a tough read with pages of abuse and self-harm — but the words are so elegantly written and capture the fragility and beauty in tragedy.
“If you love home — and even if you don’t — there is nothing quite as cozy, as comfortable, as delightful, as that first week back. That week, even the things that would irritate you — the alarm waahing from some car at three in the morning; the pigeons who come to clutter and click on the windowsill behind your bed when you’re trying to sleep in — seem instead reminders of your own permanence, of how life, your life, will always graciously allow you to step back inside it, no matter how far you have gone away from it or how long you have left it.”
What book read for school had the greatest impact on you?
I loved John Knowles A Separate Peace which I read in a 10th grade english class. It was a time in life where envy, trust, rivalry and self-esteem were themes of high school life and it was easy to relate to the dynamic of Gene and Finny’s friendship. It was also the first story I read when a character I’d grown to love died. (Side note: I remember acting a scene in class and playing Finny, with toilet paper wrapped around my leg to simulate a cast on my broken leg).
Disappointing, overrated, just not good. Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I tend to stick to books and ”finish what I started”. However, that was not the case with Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers. I enjoyed her previous book, The Vacationers, but could not attach myself to the storyline of so many unlikable and self-centered characters.
How and when do you read? Electronic or paper? Bath or bed?
I like a paper book. I like smelling the pages, using a book mark, and modeling reading for the kids (as oppose to using kindle, another “electronic” in their world)! I also love it when the rest of the world is reading paper books so I can see what others are reading! If I see the same book in the hands of others by the pool, it will inevitably end up on my nightstand.
What do you like to read on the plane?
As a nervous flyer, I can’t read anything that requires a 3 minutes attention span. So I embrace that that shallow, unintelligent, Real Housewife look with hands full of People, In Style, Oprah, and Real Simple magazines. Pictures and short paragraphs are all I can handle 30,000 miles above earth.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My brother and sister-in-law just gifted me the first edition copy of Gift of the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It was one of my Mom’s favorites books and one that she encouraged me to read at different stages in my life. Her wisdom was spot on, as the pages of gems I found during grad school are very different than the ones I find as a 40-something mother.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was not much of a reader as a kid (unless you count Judy Blume books). My brother was labeled The Reader of the family and every holiday/birthday he would receive the books and I would receive the clothes. It wasn’t until my 20s that my Dad shared his Patricia Cornwell book with me while on vacation it unleashed the reader in me. Those early reading days were all about James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwell. (And a side note, I shared this with Husband who gave me the latest James Patterson book last Christmas. I rolled my eyes a bit as I haven’t read one of this books in over a decade, but felt right back at home with the main character, Dr. Alex Cross).
Youngest is now discovering the magic of a good storyline too. In fact, last night she burst into tears when Stella, the Elephant, died in “The One and Only Ivan”. As much as I wanted to remind her that Stella is a fictional character, I stayed silent and touched that her emotions were stirred by the storyline. That’s the sign of a good read.
I recently wrote about the birthday blues that I was experiencing in anticipation of my first birthday without Mom by my side. The day before was full of tears and anxiety as I wished the August 8th away. And then something shifted….
I woke up and felt loved.
A 9-year old came joined us at 6:30am for birthday snuggles. An 11-year old had decorated our door with streamers (tradition in our family). A husband had hidden flowers in his closet so I could be celebrated in bed with roses and dahlias.
The family gathered as I opened birthday cards. From California, Oregon, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Vermont. The written words from these wonderful family and friends transcended my day from good to great. How could I not feel glee when my 11 year old writes “you are one of the best people on earth”!
I escaped to my fitness class to do a little something for me. I was drenched with sweat and as I was leaving, my trainer stopped to give me a birthday hug and card.
There were errands to be run and dr appointments to cross off the list. Yet we made time for a fun outing to the Charles River, where my little ladies and sister-in-law kayaked along the side of the purple wildflowers. I felt sun kissed and alive as I floated in the river under the vast blue sky.
Voicemails and texts rolled in through out the day (and yes, Erin, I listened to the entire voicemail this time!). My heart felt love from around the country.
The day ended with a special dinner in the city, just the four of us. Husband “hid” an ice cream cake in the freezer (because in reality, there is only one place to hide an ice cream cake in August). We sat in the backyard opening presents, eating oversized slices of chocolate chip ice cream cake, and listening to the cicadas sing their lullabies. And then the day came to a close and…
I went to bed and felt loved.
Thank you to all six of our readers. My Mom was known for the small birthday gestures that left big imprints on the heart….and so many family and friends stepped up and filled that gap. What could have been an off-kiltered day, turned out to be treasured. My cup runneth over with gratitude.
We arrived home from a week at our favorite spot on Lake Champlain. My freckles have doubled and my shorts are a bit tighter…a sign of a vacation well- enjoyed.
It was a favorite week of the year, for all of us.
So wonderful to connect with fellow travelers who have become friends. Our family values and parenting approaches are in perfect alignment, making it for a week void of bumps.
The weather gods blessed us with sunshine and warm air most every day. The sweatshirts and jeans stayed packed in the suitcase all week.
The girls were full of laughter after late nights of BINGO and early morning donuts. I took 373 photos and captured so many looks of pure glee.
And one of my favorite moments, although very emotional, was spreading some of Mom’s ashes along Lake Champlain. I had brought about 2 tablespoons of ashes in a plastic ziploc bag and tucked them under my bathing suit. They were grainier than I expected — more like sand than ash. I uncomfortably joked that Mom was ready for her vacation swim.
So Husband and I took some paddle boards towards the middle of the lake, directly in front of our cabin, and released Mom to the water. It was a beautiful moment, and one that I’m grateful that my sister-in-law captured on camera.
A sense of peace surrounded me, knowing this was the first of a few special places I will leave traces of Mom. One day, she will be able to eternally swim off the coast of Barbados, in the waters along Pebble Beach and at Green Lake next to Interlochen, Michigan.
Mom may have not been able to enjoy her ice cream or the gardens at Basin Harbor, but she was definitely with us in spirit. And as I return to mounds of laundry and back-to-school lists, I will smile knowing that she is enjoying her mid-August swim in the clear waters of Lake Champlain.
The only time I’ll ever post a photo of myself in a swimsuit.
My childhood senses were implanted with all things Southern California when growing up in Pasadena –the warm Santa Ana winds, the scent of purple jasmine on every street corner, the Palm trees that lined the Rose Parade route and the fresh oranges that we squeezed year-round. All things very familiar and representative of home to me.
Yet once every few months, I would walk to the end of the driveway to our mailbox and find Vermont Life magazine stacked on top of bills and correspondences. Where was this magical place of covered bridges, orange leaves or green fields? I remember sitting at our breakfast table, flipping through pages of a childhood that was completely unfamiliar to my own. Swimming in a lake? We only swam in oceans. Berry picking? We picked berries from aisle 7 at Ralphs. Bike riding hands free on empty farm roads? We were city savvy kids who knew to follow the traffic rules or get hit.
My Mom was smitten with Vermont, thus the lifelong subscription to Vermont Life magazine. So much so that she even convinced my Dad to spend a few Christmas seasons in picturesque Woodstock. Vermont Life was no longer just a magazine spread, but a tangible destination.
So it was somewhat of a no-brainer when eight years ago, my extended family started spending part of August along Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont. Soon, we will be surrounded by farmlands and lake living, soaking up a much slower pace of life with other summer vacationers we now call friends.
And as life continues to come full circle in so many ways, so has my story with Vermont. Once a childhood obsession for my Mom is now a reality for my children. Soon we will go to the land of lakes and home made ice cream. Where childhood memories will be anchored in my daughter’s hearts for decades to come. All because of one magazine subscription.
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.