The Fifth Bowl

The Fifth Bowl

I was emptying the dishwasher, one of the most mundane of household  tasks, when I came across a bowl. Nothing fancy.  A plain glass bowl for  a dinner salad, or morning cereal. As I returned it to its shelf I counted its set. Five, five glass bowls. Not six, or four, but five bowls nestled in the cupboard. Oh yes, I thought to myself, I had purchased them years ago after we  had moved my mother-in-law to our Wisconsin community from  New Jersey. I knew she would be often having dinner with us and I wanted enough bowls for us all. So, five bowls.

There was an envelope on the  kitchen table with the rest of the mail when I came home from work one evening this past fall.  I recognized the name on the return address immediately, the husband of a good friend and college roommate, who had died a couple of years earlier. As soon as I picked up the envelope I knew what it contained. Photographs.

It’s Christmastime again. And I can’t help thinking about these two things and the people they remind me of. They are both gifts of a sort. Inadvertently placed in my hands and challenging me to see their worth.

My friend Barb was many things. Really smart, very short (shorter even than me) and a prolific picture taker. Armed with her Kodak camera she was famous in our college circle for taking pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Later we would learn she would catalogue the pictures into albums with copiously hand written captions of who, what when and where in her famous ,fine,  (nun instructed, she always added)  small print. She created huge photo albums of our college years that sat on her desk.  The first time I visited her in her hometown, I saw she had even  more albums. Her family life and high school years all recorded in color, and a sprinkle of black and white.

So, I knew what was  in that envelope that day. Inside were more than a dozen pictures of Barb and I through our college years and the early years of my marriage. Lifted carefully from her albums, along with a note “I thought you would enjoy these.” from her husband. And I thought about what those pictures meant and about what I learned from Barb.

Likewise that plain glass bowl reminds me of my mother-in-law and what I learned from her. She was different from me in many ways.  In other words she was quiet, very quiet. In the early years of my marriage I was certain that she did not know  me well enough to dislike me, certain and sad that  our relationship would always be distant. But after a few years, two grandchildren she adored, and many salads we found our friendship. Her quiet acceptance of her immersion into our midwestern cold winters, big golden retrievers, and our family life taught me to try quiet and steady as attributes. And while I still would never be described as quiet, I know how to use that muscle. A gift indeed.

And what did I learn from smiling for the camera in all of Barb’s photographs? Well simply to smile. And really anyone who knew Barb would tell you that was one  her strongest dearest qualities. She was a smiler. She chose to be  happy every day that I knew her.

Back in the day before selfies and cameras in phones, Barb was an unintentional historian, to our lives and friendships. And unlike most people she arranged and curated her pictures rather than boxing and forgetting them.  People and  memories, were to be cherished and remembered, in Barb’s world.  So that is what she did.

My husband and I recently made our annual trip to Chicago to view the Great Tree in the Walnut Room. It’s the old venerable restaurant on the seventh floor, in what used to be the flagship State Street store of what used to be, Marshall Fields.  Lately absorbed by Macy’s, and now no longer with an eight floor viewing site, the tree was beautiful but the shrinking of its home was sad.  Despite  this, we enjoyed the tree and made the predictable comments on changing times and old traditions changing or disappearing.

Christmas marks many things including the end of one year and the passage of time. Gift giving has long been a part of the holiday but sometimes Christmas gives us a chance to ponder the gifts not wrapped in colorful paper and bows. Rather it gives us an opportunity to look back and see the gifts we received from those no longer with us that we may not have recognized  when received.  The Christmas song Happy Happy Christmas sums it up,

                                        I hear them singing outside my door..      

                                       But I know you’d want me to sing in the snow        

                                                            Live well and let go

                                                        Happy, Happy Christmas

                                                Love the ones who love you too,

                                           They say time flies, baby it’s true so

                                                 Happy, happy Christmas to you

I’m   just say’n.

                                           

 

 

The Mother Thing

Recently, I was selecting my Mother’s Days cards. Looking for just the right card for a neighbor and another for my cousin, and a mix for my girlfriends.  My own mother died 25 years ago.  I still remember that first Mother’s Day with out her. The card racks in the local Hallmark store practically brought me to tears, and the holiday brought a level of sadness I had not planned on.

When your own mother is gone you not only miss the intimacy of the bond but the immediacy of that font of support and information. Advice and knowledge on a range of subjects you never realized you would miss that she shared.  Sometimes with out you even asking for any of her input at all.  Oh yes, a mother’s prerogative.   From stain removal to work issues, chicken pox identification to book reviews, my mother always had something to add to the conversation. And when that voice was gone the silence mocked and saddened me.  The next year I made a plan. I would send a card to the friends who had helped fill in the blanks, the ones who had “mothered” me.

And so to the friend. who showed up to help me pack my mother’s kitchen when I moved my parents closer to my home I send a card. The packing was work.  But the conversation while we marveled that anyone would have that many colanders, was light enough to keep me moving in the face of my mother’s illness.  To the friends who called me and held my hand when an adoption plan went south, I send a card. And when that longed for baby finally arrived and friends showed up to hold the baby, take his picture and make a fuss with the same enthusiasm as if I had experienced labor and delivery, I sent a card.  The other moms in my playgroup,who helped me navigate roseola and teething, card worthy indeed. Then there was the experienced cousin by marriage who cemented her place in my heart with her steady reassurance during the tumultuous teenage years. She told me that I was capable and loving and that all would be well.  Mothering friends helped me navigate the healthcare system when my parents faced their final illness.  And mothering friends helped me plan memorial services for another friend when he died. These women took my child to soccer/school/ballet when I was sick and my husband was out of town. They made me soup after surgery, picked up my daughter and cared for her while I was at the emergency room with my son. They even stepped in to visit my mother-in-law when we travelled, to ease our worry when we were far away. And when the time to close up and pack up my parent’s final home came, so did a  friend or two to help with the task and hand me tissue for my tears.

Sometimes I hear people say that women treat other women badly. That at work or socially, we undermine and attack.  Like the characters shown on one of those “real”  television shows, we plot and plan to hurt and demean.   That has not been my reality.

This past winter, a week or so before Christmas I was in the parking lot of our local gift/card/toy emporium.  The same one where I buy all those Mother’s Days’s cards. On this day, I saw a young mom soldiering toward her car carrying a baby in a carrier,while she tried to shepherd two older boys into her mini-van.  The older one, maybe 6 or so was cooperating, but the younger perhaps two or three-year old, was having a good old fashioned melt down.  I knew just what had happened; toy department, little boy, two parts fatigue and one part “no toy” disappointment. This almost always equals tears and the dragging of feet as mom tries to get everyone home, something we all remember.  I parked my car and walked back to the family. I didn’t want to add to the drama so I asked her quietly, “Can I help you?  Would you like me to carry the baby while you get the boys into the car?” By the time she had everyone in and seat belts fastened she and the younger boy were in tears. He had tried to make a run for it but between the two of us he was finally in his car seat.  “Thank you so much,” she said between sniffles, “I don’t know what I would have done.”  I smiled and told her she would have been fine. “We’ve all been there, you were so patient and calm you’re  doing great.”  She thanked me again, this time with hug, and we said good-bye.

So this year once again I’m buying Mother’s Days cards. For the women who’ve  taken the time to lovingly mother this motherless mother. I couldn’t help thinking about them that day in the parking lot.  I think each one of them would have done the same thing I did. Being a mom is hard, but being a mom with the mothering of others helping and supporting us, that makes the experience more rich and meaningful. Thanks, and Happy Mother’s Day, I’m just say’n.

Hoarders Much?

Walking out the door of  a local store I glance at a sale display of odds and ends. I spy it. A large  white , metal, free formed bowl. Half off original price. Wouldn’t that  look nice on a summer table on the patio filled with flowers?  Or fruit? Or Chips? Or stop! Put it down. Exit the building.

I have of late developed a fondness for dishware. Beautiful floral pieces of china. Cups and compotes. Plates and tea pots I love them. At the same time I know I should be paring down such items from my life and pantries. But they sing a siren song and draw me in. Is it the beauty of their design? Their echo of grace and and lovely times spent with food family or friends?  Or something else?

I am not alone in this collecting coalition.  One friend is inexorably drawn to handbags. She only half jokingly had me promise to enter her home in the event of her sudden or premature demise and remove the bulk of her booty before her husband and children could discover the real size of her collection. Another friend’s husband, a card carrying re-cycle, re-use type has acquired quite the collection of second hand leather jackets.  My own husband had a serious fling with duffel bags, the kind  you  put tennis racquets in. He had not only several for himself, but he also started picking them up for the kids and me. He was always looking for the perfect bag. One for just match play, one that would work as an extra suitcase for air travel, or hold multiple racquets. It was after a family intervention when he had brought me yet another bag that we finally convinced him to stop, since I don’t play tennis! 

The world is full of collectors. Did you know the number of doll collectors is only exceeded by those who collect coins?  Numismatologist or arctophile, pick your poison. Actually  the latter specializes in teddy bears but you get the  picture. Tea cups, baseball cards, stamps, movie memorabilia, stuff and more stuff. And open the door on a quilter’s closet and prepare to be overwhelmed by fat quarters, a quilter’s  phrase for  fabric squares.

It was said that Mother Theresa owned but two saris and a bucket to wash the one she was not wearing. I am making no judgement on collecting or  anyone’s appreciation for whats-its. Just that for   many of us some things draw us in and hold us fascinated. And in this we have something in common, even if my treasure is your “not another one of those??”  I’m just say’n.

A Letter Not Sent

I am a card sending, note dropping, letter writing kind of person. I have raised two children who always send “Thank You notes.” It is an important touch of civility in a sometimes un-civil world. And I cling to the notion that sometimes a written expression of thanks, congratulations, or condolence is welcome and appreciated. So early this year when our dearest friend announced his retirement as well as his relocation to his Florida retirement home I knew a letter was in order. Almost immediately I started composing in my mind what it would say. In the five months between his announcement and his leaving I considered all his contributions to our family life and how to put them down in a meaningful way on paper. It would read something like this. “I want to thank you for all you have meant to me and mine and how much we will all miss you when you are soaking up the sun and enjoying your retirement. Over the past 39 years you have been the best kind of friend. More like family or “framily” as I have called it before. You have shared holidays, trips, good times and hard-times with us. A member of our wedding party, a pallbearer at my father’s funeral, you have always been there. When we were adopting our oldest and the process turned into a dreadful drama of disappointment and tears. You were with us every day in court. And when it all ended improbably with a wonderfully happy ending you were there too. Was it any wonder that we picked you to be our son’s godfather. You had already demonstrated your love. Six years later when we drove to the airport to pick up our daughter when she joined our family you were there again. That night I had carefully orchestrated the order of her welcome. First to hold her when she was brought off the plane would be her father, I would take her next. But after the ride home from O’Hare and the entrance of us all into our home, I handed her off to you. When I think about it, the relationship you have had with our children has been one of the most gratifying parts of our relationship. Even during those angst ridden teen years your presence was always appreciated by them. And the buffer you sometimes provided often gave their parents much needed breathing space. The laughter we have all shared, at holidays, sporting events, backyard barbecues, birthdays, graduations. These have cemented your place in our lives as a family and I am grateful for all of them.” That’s something how my letter would have gone. But, as summer went on busy days and no little amount of denial of your departure on my part, the letter went unwritten. So on that early morning of your departure I had no letter for you. Instead, I handed you a framed black and white picture I had taken of you with my daughter, both of you intent on the iPad she held. Perhaps you were helping her with her resume, maybe she was showing some goofy U-tube video. The picture just exemplified that close relationship you shared. You looked at the photo and I could tell you saw in it what I had. We hugged goodbye and you left for the airport and winters without snow and ice. We spoke often over the next several weeks. And you being even more dedicated to the U.S mail than I, sent me a card for my birthday as well as flowers. Ten days later our anniversary brought a card from you, I told you I would not open it until the actual date, just as I always did with every card you have sent for every birthday, Easter, Mother’s Day. You laughed and said you counted on it. I was still formulating the letter I would send to you, as we ended the phone call. Sadly I never wrote that letter. But you had one last note for us. For somehow, a dark insidious sickness had followed you on your journey. One you had hidden from all those who knew and loved you. From your brothers and sister, from your beloved mother from all of us. And on a rainy day one day before I would open that last anniversary card the darkness over took you. You wrote that you were sorry, you said you loved us all. And you were gone. My husband as shocked and horrified as all of us, warned me that we all would probably process the grief and feel anger at you and your decision. His expertise is founded on eduction and practice. And more than one person has shared with me that they were indeed angry with you. But I cannot find it in me to be angry. No, someone else can have my “mad.” The despair that laid you low was a symptom of a disease that you tried to protect us all from. It was the wrong choice, I wish your judgment had been clearer. But the dark cloud of depression somehow overtook you and we are left with sadness and only speculation of what might have been. So there was no final letter from me to you. And yet somehow I know that you knew everything I would have written in that letter. The understanding is there in your smile in the last photos I took of you. A group of us at the botanical gardens and then a concert at Ravinia, enjoying a summer day and laughing. You knew you were appreciated and loved by many. You will be missed. The poet Dickinson wrote, and I paraphrase, “This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me,- Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!” You could say our last notes to each other crossed in the mail. But the thing I will remember is that our lives crossed. And I am glad.

Better Than Gold

We’re Olympic crazy at my house. The DVR is in full use. My 19 year old could not be pried away from the Archery competition. It’s a family tradition. And though my own athletic experience peaked as a high school cheerleader, the rest of the family has a more personal relationship with wins,losses’ and scoring for the team. Still I have a favorite Olympic moment.
In 1984 my husband, two close friends and I attended the Summer Games of Los Angeles. That experience was so good that I encourage anyone to go to an Olympic games if at all possible. During the days and nights of events I saw preliminary competitions as well as finals and medal ceremonies. The venues themselves were artfully landscaped  and decorated. The volunteers friendly as they practically chased down spectators to hand out sunscreen. From rowing to boxing, swimming to basketball, every event was exciting, every day was memorable.
But the event, the ticket we were so excited to have was the day pass to  track and field at the LA  Coliseum. It was the event that might just make track and field history. Carl Lewis might break the World and Olympic record in the long jump.  A record set many years before and thought  to be possibly never broken, except maybe at this Olympics. It was hot, after all it was southern California in the summer. And as we sat down in the upper section of the historic stadium that morning we anticipated  seeing great athletes and athletics.
If you have never been to a track meet you may not know that it is something of a three ring circus. Runners may be racing around the track while at the same time field events are underway at either end, or in the center of the the oval. That day a Brazilian won the men’s 800 meter and two American women won  two races. But it is safe to say that most of the more than 100 thousand people in the stadium were most looking forward to the men’s long jump.
As the late afternoon wound down ,discus preliminaries were taking place in the oval, and on the track the first of two heats in the men’s 3000 steeplechase began.  The steeplechase is a long distance race broken up by the runners jumping over not just hurdles but hazards of water. It’s a long race, multiple laps taking over 8 minutes in 1984. There were 12 runners in the heat, there would be two heats and the the fastest times   would seat 12 runners out of the field of 24. By 6:30 that evening most of the spectators were planning where to have dinner after leaving the early session before  returning  for the long jump finals. I myself was chatting with a family from Australia. I glanced up periodically to watch the runners circle the track, jump the hazard. As  the race  progressed  the field separated, the fastest runners distancing themselves from the rest of the field. Then, as the race continued I noticed the runner in last place. He was just not last in the field of 12, but was in danger of being lapped. Not only I noticed this. My new friend from down under agreed with my assessment. And eerily the stadium was filled with the whispering of thousands. “Poor kid, how embarrassing to be lapped at the Olympics.” The multi -language whispering was unlike anything else I had heard then or since.
The runner was from Kenya. Who knows how he trained to come to those Olympics. What was his life like before he got on a plane  and traveled so far to compete in the Olympics?  I am sure that being last in his heat and possibly lapped was not in any of his Olympic dreams.
We all sat, silent now, as the heat leader lapped the the Kenyan. The  other runners ran. And then the leader finished the race. The runners ran. And then one by one 10 athletes crossed the finish line. Now in the waning afternoon sun there was only the Kenyan, running by himself. The field athletes had already exited the stadium. The volunteers were packing up the measuring tapes from the  discus, cleaning up the oval. And the Kenyan. ran. Finally,his tortuous race came to an end, he approached the finish line. He crossed the line. No chance for a Gold or a medal of any kind. And as he ran across the finish line, as if on cue 120 thousand people stood and cheered. It may not have been a World Record run, but it remains my favorite Olympic memory, a runner from half a world away and a stadium full of spectators , together realizing  what the Olympics can truly be. I’m just say’n.

Farewell Old Friend

I said good bye to and old friend today. A relationship only five years shorter than my 32 year marriage. An association that outlasted two dogs,six cars and numerous soccer socks and beach towels. Today my new washing machine was delivered and my old one removed by two young men who seemed unaware of the history they hauled out of my basement and onto a waiting truck. Am I alone in feeling slightly sentimental over an old appliance? We bought the washer at the same time we purchased all four of our major appliances, for our “new” old home. Our first house. They all made the move (with the first golden retriever) to the next house. But, alas they all were replaced and updated by newer shiner models. Happily not all at the same time as was my fear. But that washer kept on washing. Four years ago I thought it was done for, poor timing, as my eldest was on his way to Spain to study abroad in a few days, and a college tuition bill was due. But a gifted repairman worked his magic and the fix we hoped would last about a year stuck. Even now it wasn’t broken, it just wasn’t efficient enough, too many trips up and down the basement stairs coaxing it to the next cycle finally sealed its fate. And so I gave it a gentle pat and bid it adieu. Now those who know me know that I sentimentally attach to things. The Wedgewood dishes from my college dorm residents,a bridal gift to their R.A. The watercolor painting my cousin painted of her grandson and my daughter. The Spode tea set a beloved friend found in an antique shop and sent for my birthday. These are treasures to me. Not too hard to understand. But just as valuable to me is my ironing board. On my 22nd birthday ten days before my wedding my mother gave me what I thought was the lamest gift ever, a new iron and ironing board. I smiled to myself at this most practical and least sentimental gift a mother could give a daughter days before she left her home to marry her college sweetheart. It was a total representation of her practical nature and outlook. And, these many years later I think of her every time I pull it out of the closet and press a shirt. It still sports the pad she purchased and fit over the old white sheet she covered it with, to provide what she thought was the necessary padding for optimal ironing. Yes, just like the pink handled pie server the ironing board and the washing machine were the not so glamorous tools of some of the least romantic and sentimental aspects of family life. Our family life. Not as pretty as a picture or graceful as fine china, but used and reused and touched and explained and instructed about to each of us in this family. Sometimes memories are not made of parties, graduations or holidays. Much of our lives are connected by daily tasks and chores. A son ironing a shirt shocking and impressing his mother, a daughter finishing and folding the laundry. The times that mark the passage of time as household appliances age and wear out. So farewell old friend. I still remember how excited I was the day you arrived. I promised my self and my husband that I would never complain about the laundry now that I was released from the pay laundromat.

I’m pretty sure I kept that promise. I’m just say’n.