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.

Original Recipe

The Thanksgiving feast was no sooner put away when I began to think about when I would begin Christmas baking.  Not because I love those cookies so much but rather I love what my family says about them.  They speak of my egg nog logs in dulcet tones, they praise my Mexican wedding cakes  with effusive smiles. But, I don’t for a moment think it is because of my superior baking skills. I think it is because I have harnessed an important part of the holidays.  Repetition.

Let me explain.  We’ll return to the Thanksgiving meal. When my husband and I were  dating and he came to my family’s home for Thanksgiving for the first time, he was looking forward to a home cooked turkey dinner.  But not, he told me, to the stuffing. He did not like stuffing, he told me. As a matter of fact, he rather detested it. (Why I continued to date him after he confessed to this heresy I don’t recall.) He arrived at my parents home on time and suitably charming and as dinner began I watched to see how he would handle himself when the stuffing was passed his way. He must have decided that  tasting was the better part of valor and he took a small helping. Which he ate, I noticed.  And then he went above and beyond and asked for seconds. I whispered to him, “You, don’t have to.” “I want to.”  “You don’t like dressing.”  I said. “I like your mother’s dressing, a lot.” And that was that.

After we married I made the dressing for each holiday. And he asked most years “You’re making your mother’s dressing, right?”  If  I ever thought of  switching to cornbread or adding sausage, I was quickly   reminded of the superior nature of “your mother’s dressing.” And to this day the dressing (that’s what we call it now, stuffing no more) is much like my mother’s.  A basic herb seasoned, bread concoction with celery and onion.
Families are a lot like dressing and holidays. The recipe for our days depends much on that which we can count on. The parts we play in the theatre that is our life story are based on birth order, hardwiring, and repetition . Maybe we call it tradition. Big brother is freakishly adept at assembling legos. He grows up and is still the one everyone asks for help in assembling all that needs putting together. Princess daughters know/remember who wants/needs the gifts and where the nutcracker looks best. And everyone wants the dressing to be just as it always was.

“Should I make the onion tarte?” I asked my husband. “You will if you don’t want writhing on the floor and gnashing of  teeth,” he replied.  It makes us feel connected to the holidays of our past. And yes even to those no longer with us. I think of my mother every time I make the dressing.

And yet, some traditions are ripe for change. Like most people my age, I was served (and in my case, did not eat) canned cranberry sauce. It was probably a function of the 1960 grocery store that cranberries sauced or gelled and in a can, were most common. And it is a sign of the 1990’s and the 21st century that homemade fresh is so common today. But I have one friend who still loves that scary canned concoction complete with ribs imprinted on the the gelled  sauce, best. We serve it to him with a wink and a nod while everyone else enjoys the other. It is his tradition we respect.

So, here is my metaphor for the day. The food, the decorations, the music of the holidays are how we connect to our past, to our families, to our younger selves.

And here is my confession. Sometimes we need to tweak or refresh those recipes.  I make my mother’s dressing. But, a few years ago I snuck in mushrooms, and a year or so later I added wild rice.   It seemed to work. That’s  the dressing at my house now.

Our children grow up and bring others to the table, just like I did all those years ago. We set another place and add a chair. The beauty of the holidays is that they are able to grow and morph while still retaining their original “flavor”  if you will.

It’s a gift more beautiful than the crystal returned to the china cabinet, or any gift under a tree. We belong to each other because we remember  the dressing and how we all fit together.

It’s a dish we can have second helpings from. 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.

Wedding Season

The mother of the bride leaned over to me on the dance floor “It seems not to long ago we were dancing at each other’s weddings.” Her smiling comment echoed my thoughts completely.  It was as if she put a book mark in the chapter of life I’m experiencing right now — wedding season.

My husband and I have attended 4 weddings recently, and we have another still on the horizon.  And I have been thinking how these happy events have reflected the different eras of my life. Maybe you have had the same type of wedding party timeframes.

The first weddings we often attend are those of older relatives when we are ourselves just kids.

Those 20-something cousins or perhaps even siblings seem so grown up,and well old, when they walk down the aisle. And we sit and watch in our new scratchy clothes a little bored and yet entranced with what even then we realized was a big deal. My first time as a wedding guest was a sweet scene in the brides living room. The room was dressed in white flowers on the mantle and the stairway bannister. And when the bride entered the room down those stairs, in a 60’s style white min-dress to marry a young uncle, I thought it was just perfect. The dress, the flowers the room crowded with family. Sandwiches and punch were served afterward.

A few years later at another family wedding I experienced my first church wedding with  a reception afterward with a BAND! Wow! Party! Dancing! In a new dress and wearing my first heels and nylons, I felt very mature dancing with 2nd and third cousins I had only just met.

Living in a small rural community  I attended several weddings  of older friends who married at what now seems an almost shockingly young age. Brides and grooms just 18 or 19 taking the step right out of high school. At this point for me my wedding attendance really multiplied as I made extra money for college singing or playing for wedding ceremonies. I developed a reputation as one not only able
to sing the wedding songs brides favored but I was also generally helpful and unusually adept at defusing little wedding disasters.  Especially calming down young flower girls and ring bearers who had locked themselves into bathrooms and such.

College graduations came and with them more weddings to attend. This was the first big wave of my peers and close friends tying the knot. Those days were filled with visions of pastel dresses and caravans of friends on the wedding tour.  Definitely, one of the most fun rites of passage.

And then I myself was married and working and being a grown up when the next wedding stage occurred.  I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of a co- worker.  So now I became one of
“those” guests. One the bride or groom would not recognize in a lineup. When I realized my role, I truly felt like a grow up. ( and couldn’t help wondering if at the family meeting to put the guest list together had the bridal couple said.  “Who’s she? And do we have to invite her?”

The years pass, a wedding here or there, late nuptials,a much younger cousin or sometimes a second marriage. The parties are fewer and further between.

Which brings me back to that comment on the dance floor.  It did seem like just a moment ago I watched the bride’s mother walk down the aisle. And I can’t help but  think of all that has rushed by in these 30 odd years.  The children of the brides and grooms of my past are inviting me to their weddings. They are the children in the pictures of my son’s first birthday. The dressed up cherubs at my daughter’s christening. The groom in the elegant New York skyline backed wedding is my godson, whose mother only allowed her mother and I to baby sit him. I remain dry eyed and smiling through the beautiful ceremony and dinner. Until he dances with his mother and my eyes unexpectedly fill. Where did the time go?

Yes, we danced at each other’s weddings.  I never knew that a wedding would be such a marker for not only the couple marrying,  but for all the guests as well.

Weddings really do join people together, and not just bride and groom or two families. I am connected, and so are you, to all those couples trading I dos, whom we have witnessed. I have gone from a little girl big eyed at the beautiful bride, to bridesmaid, to bride, to anonymous guest, to honored to be there guest. I may not be up front singing the “Wedding Song”  but back here in the pew near the aisle,  I’m enjoying the day and the flowers and the wedding. Taking it all in with gratitude and love. I’m just say’n.

What We Keep

Christmas cookie time.  I’m measuring and sifting, mixing and  pouring. And for one batch of cookies I need to roll out with a rolling pin. As I’ve written of before, I use my mother’s rolling pin. I think we can safely  call it old.

My mother was a very good cook. A maker of beautiful pies. But she was not a cookie baker. I have only one  memory of her making cutout Christmas cookies when I was about 7..She made them. No one ate them.  They were burned and broken. We wouldn’t make cookies again until I was in college and came  home with an idea and a recipe.  But I have that rolling pin.

The pin, wears a sleeve to better roll out pie crust or cookies. And when I was using it the other day I noticed that the sleeve is showing its age and has a few small holes in it. It also has one really old hole which it appears, my mother darned close with green thread. (Darning; another word and skill lost in the years, perhaps a blog for a different day.)

All of this goes to saying that it is Christmas time and that I miss my mother. Her Birthday is fast approaching and I will think of her and how we always put up our Christmas tree on her birthday.  These days, I put my tree up soon after Thanksgiving. She preferred a late tree trimming and remembered  fondly shopping on Christmas Eve.

Our  Christmas’  may not be picture perfect. The cookies may have been burned, or never attempted. But the season, the calendar, the sounds, the snow that falls softly from a gray sky. These all bring that essential sense of Christmas.  The feeling that even with our imperfections we are tied to one another deeply and often quite happily. Despite less than perfect cookies.  The rolling pin sleeve is worn, it is darned.  It may not last too much longer. But in those stitches made by my mother, are reminders that sometimes what we keep is something more than what we could touch.

I’m just say’n.

Parental Guidance

When my son was four years old he came down with the chicken pox. It was winter time, he was quarantined at home (which meant I was quarantined at home.) It was not a lot of fun.  But worst of all I wanted my mother, and she was gone. I wanted to ask her how she dealt with my bout of the chicken pox, how best to apply to calamine lotion. But she had passed away a few months before and I was on my own.  Oh, I talked to a friend who had live thru her two daughter’s almost simultaneous pox-a-rama, I talked to my pediatrician. But it wasn’t the same.

Recently, when I read the pages of my Facebook, or those of my local newspaper I learn that the parents of my childhood friends, my peers and co-workers are dealing with serious health issues, and yes passing away. If you’re a Disney character you sing “The Circle of Life.” If you’re a real person you pause and remember. You remember the room mother who made and delivered the cupcakes for the Valentine’s Day party. The father who drove a carload of girls to the roller rink for the twin’s birthday party.  The store owner, the teacher, the bane of your best friend’s existence, and the person smiling and tearing up at the same friend’s wedding.

I was a young mother when I lost my parents with in two years of each other. It was not how I wanted to lead the group. I still had questions I wanted to ask, advice  I wanted to ponder. My son confessed recently he barely has any memory of my dad with whom he had so much fun at Disney World at age 5, and that he does not remember at all my mother who died when he was four. My daughter never met either of my parents. I’m only happy that she had a sweet, close relationship with my mother-in-law. Twelve year olds tend to remember things. Things like famous deviled eggs, or funny stories about your dad’s older brother.

I once read a quote by a sociologist that when one loses a parent the loss is compounded by the feeling that a barrier  between our self and mortality is breached. This may be true. But I also remember a favorite client telling me something when I offered my sympathy for the loss of her mother. She herself was a grandmother already and at least 20 years older than I. “I’m just kind of mad, I want my mom back,” she said.

This is what I know about losing your parent. You will look at old pictures of them from when you were young, and you will be struck by how young they look. You will be unable to replicate the meatloaf/lemon meringue pie they made. You will wish your dad was coming over to  help fix the car or watch the game. And if any of these things are true for you then you will have been very blessed in deed.

I read an interesting quote a while back. I noted it, and it fits this topic as well as any other. “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s good to know that the first people to hold our hands are part of the memories of not only us but often of the people we played, laughed, and grew up with.  I’m just say’n.

Winter Wind Down

It’s not quite the big melt down today, but  I can  definitely  see it from here. And for the most part we are all  ready for spring. And here is something I have noticed; no matter how mild the winter, how few snow days were called most people commenting on the weather want winter over, gone, finished, done.

It seems that our patience with snow, ice, and its next of kin slush, diminishes daily in proportion not to how many inches we may have shoveled but instead how many days we must wait before slipping on sandals and shorts.

I have lived in the Midwest (capital “M”) most of my life,  and I wonder why we have all gotten so whiny over winter. I like spring as much as the next person, but this constant moaning over windchill and accumulation totals is getting old.

Maybe it’s the television media’s overuse of “storm watch” forecast bulletins. And does anyone else think it unnecessary to see another poor reporter standing in another local parking lot describing how snow “falls” (down) while the camera zooms in on the reporter ‘s foot showing us, guess what, it’s snowing.

I like snow, and winter, in moderation. And that, is what we have most every year. As a mater of fact we are somewhat under our usual snowfall totals to the extent that we need more rain and snow to get our water levels up to healthier amount.
A friend recently commented on her winter walk how “very quiet , no lawn mowers and garden tools running. It’s like everything is resting. So quietly peaceful.” Sounds divine  doesn’t it?  It is.

So let’s put our big girl\boy snowpants on and get a grip. We live in the Midwest, we get four seasons, delivered to our doors. One of them involves boots,hats, and mittens. It also brings pristine clear mornings, laughter on snowhills, crisp evening walks, and ice-laden branches auditioning for fairyland. Shovel what you must, walk carefully if you will, and hang in there. Soon enough it will be time to complain about high humidity and mosquitos. I’m just say’n.

After The Ball

Halloween night my husband and I went to view the Great Pumpkin event our little village hosts. For all of the time I have been a resident here, I have enjoyed this wonderful kickoff to autumn. A village consortium of volunteers and a non-profit foundation put the event together. My children and I have all volunteered in the past. And, I remember fondly,now, how when they were young, they would ask to go see the pumpkins at night  –every night– that the jack-o-lanterns were lit. Truth be told, when a Whitefish Bay child stops asking to go see the pumpkins, it’s a little sad.Sort of like when they no longer believe in Santa.

I was thinking about the folks who put the event together, neighbors, scouts, schoolchildren, teachers, civic group members. And it dawned on me that some of those contributing time, candles, doing the carving, the unloading of the more then 1000 pumpkins, were not all on the same side of the political fence. Why, just as the pumpkins kick off Fall so too do the appearance of election yard signs. This realization gave me pause and yes, a really  good feeling. Despite our political differences our resident can work together towards common goals. No small thing when you read and listen to some of the words that pass as “public discourse” these days. I would venture to say that civil discourse was the norm for all those involved working on the display. And probably, no one volunteered using a “pen” (re: false) name while engaging in name calling or character bashing at any time while working on the display.

While I was walking my dog  through my neighborhood Halloween week, a neighbor who ,yes, has an election sign in direct opposition to the one in my yard, came out to talk to me. We often chat. Sometimes I ask him about his daughters, now grown and on their own. Often he just wants to say “hi” and pet my dog as we are both longtime pet owners and we have even hugged when one of our dogs has passed away. He’s a good guy. He’s my neighbor. I like him. He will still be a good person the day after the election- no matter who wins.

On the day after Halloween the DPW came to clear away the tents and the pumpkin remains. The little park is empty and the fountain is closed up for winter. In a few days the yard signs will be all gone too. Let’s all remember that the day after the election we will all still be here as neighbors and citizens. Let’s work together on small neighborhood projects and insist that our public servants follow our lead and be civil and work together too. Whether it’s a school, civic, or charity project we all do know how to get along. It makes our communities much better places to live, and working together also actually gets things done: I’m just say’n.

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.