Family

Did I Sign Up For This?

Even though so many of our New Year’s resolutions get tossed out the door before we even take down the Christmas lights, January is still a time of beginnings. Fresh starts. Clearing out of clutter. Reorganizing. Building new habits.

Well, I’m doing all of that. And I hate it. My whole life needs to be reshaped, but not in a way I initiated or would have chosen.

My beloved partner of 14 years was hospitalized in early October for a severe infection. After a series of complications that included dramatically severe reactions to medications and a high-risk surgery, in mid-November he died.

So my reboot for this new year means adjusting my days around the huge empty space where he used to be. The man I woke up with, hiked with, enjoyed deep conversations with, and worked crossword puzzles with (I did names, puns, and references from classic fiction; he handled geography, science, and French.), is gone.

Gone too soon. This active, younger-than-his years man left so much unfinished. Research projects not completed, students not graduated, grandchildren not grown, trips not taken, and so many conversations and experiences not shared. He left behind memories, stories, sadness—and a whole house full of artifacts of his life.

One of them is this school picture from first grade. That sweet, tentative smile and the vulnerability of those eyes behind the big glasses just melts my heart. I want to reach back in time, scoop that innocent darling child up onto my lap, wrap my arms around him, and tell him some things he couldn’t know back then. This is what I would say:

“You are going to have such a wonderful life. You will grow up to be a man of honor and integrity that people trust and respect. You will have a long, fulfilling career doing work that you love. You will travel to many of the fascinating places you are just beginning to learn about. You will be a learner and a teacher, helping shape the lives and work of people all over the world. Of course you will have hard times and disappointments and pain; everyone does. You will also have much happiness. Many, many people will learn from you and love you and be grateful for your part in their lives. Your life will be rich and full, and the things you do will make the world a better place.”

The long-ago photograph of an endearing little boy captures just one moment in a full life. Then, too, his painful last weeks were just one tiny segment of that life. The distance between the lovable child he was and the beloved wise elder he became was a long, rich path.

I’m so grateful that I was able to walk part of that path with him. This new beginning of a new path that I’m coping with now is hard. I didn’t want this transition I’ve been handed. There are so many painful moments: I find the stub of a play we attended in the pocket of a coat he’ll never wear again. I pick up a page of unfinished research notes in his handwriting. I walk by myself on a trail where we held hands the last time I was there. It’s all hard. It all hurts.

And it’s all a fair exchange. This difficult life change wasn’t really forced on me at all. I chose it, as one of the inevitable possible consequences of choosing to share life and love with someone else. No one made me take the risk to open my heart. I did it myself. I would do it again. The past 14 years of partnership, conversation, laughter, and love were worth it.

Categories: Family, Loss and Healing | 16 Comments

Deciding Made Easy, In One Easy Lesson

For two or three months now, a green plastic bottle cap has been collecting dust in my car. Along with a few pennies and a couple of mints, it sits in the flat little compartment by the cup holder that is probably meant to hold parking-meter change.

The cap is from a bottle of Sprite, I think. Since as an infrequent soda-sipper I don’t pay much attention to the finer points of bottle cap design, I’m not sure about this. Besides, I didn’t get this cap by personally emptying the bottle it came from. It’s in my car because it was a gift.

I received it from my five-year-old grandson when he taught me how to flip a bottle cap so he could defeat me in—er, challenge me to a cap-flipping contest. He demonstrated exactly how to tuck the end of your thumb under your curled forefinger, balance the cap on top, and flick up your thumb to send the cap into the air. It also would work with a coin, he explained.

How, you may or may not wonder, does a person get to a grandparentish stage in life without ever having learned the proper way to flip a coin? Continue reading

Categories: Family, Odds and Ends, Remembering When | 3 Comments

If We’re 65

Turning 65. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite milestone birthday.

So many things about getting older are annoying. Vanishing hair, for instance. Those silver ones are fine, even attractive if the light is just right; it’s all their friends and relations that have disappeared who are the problem. Or joints that start to creak when you move and stiffen up when you don’t. And skin that begins to look and feel somehow too big for you.

Even worse are the reminders that, at 65, you have suddenly moved into a new demographic category. One populated by “those to be condescended to.” Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | Tags: | 1 Comment

Dusting Off The Family

The family has all been banished from my workspace. No more eyes on my computer screen to know when I’m working and when I’m playing online Scrabble. No more distracting smiles in my direction while I’m sitting in my comfy chair with my pen and notebook. No more hanging around in my office.

The only one left is a single grandchild. For the sake of family harmony, let me hurry to add that this isn’t due to his particular place in my heart. It’s due to his particular place in my office. He’s on the inside wall.

The others, on the outside wall and just around the corner from it, had to go. But truly, it was for their own protection. The siding crew starts work on our house tomorrow, and we certainly don’t want family members bouncing off the walls when the thumping starts.

Continue reading

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The New Colossus

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This, of course, is the poem inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It is a stirring, moving testament to the ideal of and belief in the United States as a haven for newcomers. The last few lines are quoted frequently; they come up in almost any discussion of immigration.

Yet today, terrorism and wars and natural disasters are creating not only a crisis of refugees, but also a climate of fear. In that climate, some Americans seem to think Lady Liberty ought to lay down her “torch of world-wide welcome” in favor of laying bricks to build a wall. In that climate, I’m not sure that glibly repeating Emma Lazarus’s words is all that helpful.

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Yarn Yoda and the Force

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I don’t know whether my grandson Henry, at age five, can quote Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back. Chances are he can.

I assume this because long, long ago, in a theatre far, far away, I remember watching Henry’s father watching the original Star Wars movie when he was about a year younger than Henry is now. He didn’t fidget; he didn’t talk; he didn’t get drowsy even though he had just finished a huge Thanksgiving dinner. He sat enraptured through the whole film, meanwhile munching his way steadily through a big bag of popcorn that he should not possibly have had room for.

Here and now, in this galaxy, Star Wars has come around again. This means a whole new universe of toy light sabers, action figures, and other galactic merchandise.

Including Yarn Yoda. Continue reading

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The Perfect Christmas Tree

Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)

But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)

These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Leaving the Lights On

Even by the standards of an early-morning person like me, 8:30 p.m. isn’t really late. But in the short days of late November, when you’ve just staggered off of an airplane at the end of a day that started 20 hours earlier on a different continent, 8:30 p.m. can feel like the deep, dark middle of a very long night.

But the plane landed promptly, my friends were at the airport to pick me up, and when we turned from the dark street into the dark driveway of what I expected to be our dark house—there was light. My daughter had stopped by to turn up the thermostat, and she had left the porch light on for me. Plus the light inside the entryway, plus a lamp shining warmly through the front window.

The impact of this simple gesture went far beyond the practical kindness of making it easier to lug my bag up the steps and unlock the door. The light allowed me to walk into a warm, bright haven instead of a cold, dark house. It made me feel safe and welcomed me home.

And I was reminded of one of the stories my father told. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 4 Comments

Hollyhock Dolls

Hollyhocks are weeds. Or so I’ve been told by several “real” gardeners. The kind of gardeners who know the proper temperature for compost, whose tomatoes flourish, and whose gladiolus (gladioluses? gladioli?) win awards at county fairs. The kind of gardener that I definitely am not.

Maybe feeling intimidated by those experts is the reason I never got around to planting hollyhocks, even though I always wanted some in my yard. Even though I carried a secret stash of hollyhock seeds in a little plastic bag through six moves. Both their identity and their provenance were definite, because in the bag with them was a scrap of cardboard torn from the top of a cereal box. Written on it, in my Uncle Ernie’s careful handwriting, was “Hollyhock seeds from the Smith place, 1983.”

Three years ago, I finally planted those seeds, along with some others scavenged with permission from the garden of an old mansion-turned-museum in Trinidad, Colorado. Amazingly, some of them sprouted. Some of them grew. Some of them even thrived.

This year, despite drought and heat, they and their descendants have taken over half of one bed in our flower garden and are blooming vigorously. I have to admit that they have spread like, well, weeds. And that with their huge leaves and tall stems they do look a bit, well, weedy. I might even acknowledge that I would be wise to cut some of them back this fall before all those seeds mature.

But in the meantime, I can show my grandkids how to make hollyhock dolls the way my sisters and I used to do.

Here’s how: You pick a few blossoms that are fully open, plus a matching number of half-open buds or smaller blossoms. You strip the stem off of the buds, along with the green leaves that support the bottom of the flower. (A real gardener, no doubt, would know what those are called.) This reveals a little eye-shaped opening between each partially furled petal. Carefully slide the stem of one of the open flowers into one of those openings as far as it will go. The larger open blossom, upside down, becomes the long, full skirt of a gown. The white bottom part of the half-open bud becomes the doll’s face, adorned with a frilly hat.

 

Okay, maybe the faces are a little rabbity, the hats a bit crooked, and the gowns a trifle uneven. But they’re fun. And, given the generous abundance of hollyhocks, nobody cares that you pick them.

The other day, as we passed on our daily walks, one of my neighbors said, “I just love your hollyhocks. They remind me of my grandmother.” She asked if she could harvest some seeds, which I’ll be happy to share.

So it isn’t just me who understands what’s going on here. It doesn’t matter that, to some gardeners, hollyhocks look like weeds. To some of us, they look like memories.

Categories: Family, Remembering When | Tags: | Leave a comment

Cool Dudes and Cooler Dads

A quiet summer evening, the Safeway parking lot, a family heading to their car with a few groceries. Mom was walking beside a child who looked about five, holding the hand of another little one who might have been two or three. Dad, behind them, had an even littler kid up on his shoulders.

And Dad was skipping. The toddler, held safely on top of the world in his father’s firm hands, with his own fists full of Dad’s hair by way of insurance, bounced high with every skip and giggled with glee. No one, seeing this, could help but smile.

Well, almost no one. Coming after this happy pair was one more child, a boy of around ten. He was slouching along several steps behind, looking down, with his cap pulled down over his face. Everything about his posture said he was doing his best to pretend the rest of the family had nothing to do with him. You could practically hear him thinking, “I can’t believe this. My dad is skipping. In the parking lot at Safeway, in front of everybody in the whole wide world. Please, please, please, don’t let any of my friends see this.”

Back when Dad was 19 or 20, he might have felt the same way. He probably couldn’t imagine his future self doing something so undignified and so uncool.

Several children later, he knows better. It will be a while yet before the embarrassed older brother appreciates the value of the lesson his dad was demonstrating there in the parking lot. That good fathers care more about getting shrieks of delight from their children than about whether they look cool to strangers.

Categories: Family | 1 Comment

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