Thoughts On A Teapot

Thoughts On A Teapot

The first time I noticed it my daughter was 16 and going to the prom. In the photos we had taken of the prom group, the girls all had one thing in common.  It wasn’t a hair style or a dress length, high heels or flats.   No.  It was  their arms.

Almost, without exception all of those beautiful high school girls were posing with what I would describe as “teapot arms.”  Do you remember the old nursery rhyme we sang as children?

“I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my spout.”
As we sang about the teapot’s handle we put our hand on our hip to make a right angle.

Teapot arms.

So why, in all their prom finery were the girls doing that with their arms?

It’s not a pose limited to my small Midwestern town.  When I saw photos of other girls in other towns I saw them posing in the same way.  And lately I have noticed women of a certain age (namely mine) posing in the same  way as well. Arm bent, leaning out, what was going on?  I asked my self when did smile for the camera also involve  bending your arm in an artificial pose?

Finally I was so curious  by this phenomenon that I asked my daughter.  “What gives with the teapot arms?”  “This is not a pose that happens naturally.”  So she told me.  “It makes you look skinny.”

What!   All those beautiful, fresh faced young women, many of them athletes, concerned enough about the size of their silhouette  to strike a pose looking so forced?   I was one part stunned and two parts disappointed.  All the work we had done as mothers trying to instill confidence, to negate body shaming and we had daughters with teapot arms?

Being a parent is fraught with guilt and the fear that we are making mistakes every day.

“Was I home enough ?”

“Did I listen enough?”

“Was I too strict?”

“Was I too permissive?”

“Did I teach her that good health was more important than any idealized thin size?”
We hold ourselves to standards that move continually farther away from us.

Happily our children grow up and for the most part succeed. They may do so not on our preferred schedule, but they do fine.   They learn to take care of themselves, They work, they contribute.  They say please and thank you. They volunteer in their communities.  We see all this and hope we did right by the motherhood thing.

My daughter did look lovely for the prom. She finished high school. Went on to graduate from college and yes find a job. That Christmas we were all together posing for the usual family photos, the two of us in front of the tree.  “Smile for the picture,” someone said.
And then she did something with her arms.

She put them around me.  And we both smiled for the the picture.  All of my teapot arm concerns fell away in her embrace.  Finally, a pose I could love.

I’m just say’n.

imageCloset Wish

Ride On A Time Machine

I recently changed the cover on my ironing board.  Well, actually I recovered the old cover.  The cover my mother put on it when she gave it to me 36 years ago. On my birthday, ten days before I was to be married. I puzzled then over the gift. Somehow not the sentimental type of gift I imagined I would be given just prior to such a life changing event.  But I kept my questions to myself,  accepted the gift (graciously I hope) and got married. And I even did the ironing.  But recovering that old ironing board recently propelled me back to my mother’s kitchen and that day in August. Whoosh, like a time machine.

Gifts can do that to us. And at this time of the year when gifts are such an integral part of the celebration of Christmas, we can be riding a roller coaster of memory and emotion daily.  That may be one of the reasons we all hit  the mall, and the internet.  Not so much trying to buy love or win the best gift contest. But rather, trying to connect with our family and friends and earn that place in their memory. A special place where it is not the gift that is valued but the relationship, yes the thought.

Have you ever given someone the perfect gift? The one you know hits all the right notes in your relationship?  Have you ever been present when someone else gives the gift and witnessed the look on someones face that says “This is just it!”

Maybe.  Or maybe like me unwrapping that ironing board, and the cover my mother put on it you received the perfect gift and didn’t realize it for quite a while.

I want to be clear. I am not a regular iron-er of clothing.  I love permanent press as much as the next person. I iron only sporadically.  But I don’t remember any other birthday gift I received that year.  And I never iron without remembering my mother. I can see her ironing in the living room, there’s a game show on the television. She works her way through my father’s dress shirts, the sheets, my own cotton dresses. I see her, hear her voice (correcting my ironing technique sometimes) every time I haul that a board out of the closet.

Last night as I walked by my Christmas tree one of the ornaments caught my eye.  It was backwards. A simple muslin square with a holly wreathe and a red bow. The design did not show so I re -hung it.  Whoosh. Time travel.  The ornament in question was given to me by my college roommate. She gave it to me the year my husband and I bought our first home. She had come to our Christmas party and she brought  a set of or muslin ornaments to give me. I remember I asked  her if she had made them. “No, I just liked them. Saw them on vacation, and picked them up.” That was 30 years ago. This year no one had any idea she would not make it to Christmas. She passed away in early spring. We had lived together our sophomore year. She stood up with me at my wedding. She had given me other gifts I’m sure.  But it was that  Christmas tree decoration that propelled me to that Christmas long ago. To her smile. Even to her voice.

I am sure her sisters, brothers husband  and son, will have similar experiences this Christmas. I hope they’re comforted by the memories of their own time travel. I hope her other friends, of which she had so many, will also be reminded . Of her voice. of her smile. Of her ability to sing the entire score of “The Sound of Music.”

That’s one of the gifts of the season. The connection we feel to those so special to us in our lives. Our parents, a dear friend, gone but not ever forgotten.

That’s what the unexpected perfect gift can bring us. Someone once said, Christmas is a time machine. The rushing, the noise, the wrapping is just background noise. Listen carefully. It’s a carol worth enjoying. I’m just say’n.

The Bittersweet

The Bittersweet

It has been very bittersweet around here this spring and early summer. Perhaps in your world as well.  May and June often bring important transitions and changes.  Graduations, weddings and the like are just two of the  traditional bookmarks of this time of year and we have seen both in our family this year.

The word itself colors our perception of the events.  You’re all set to be happy on your way to the wedding or graduation, baby shower or parade and someone says “How nice, bet it’s bittersweet.”

Well, now that you mention it.

The dictionary defines bittersweet as “pleasure alloyed with pain.” It’s also a woody type plant that gardeners can’t quite decide whether or not  is friend or foe. Invasive species or decorative vine?

And  of course there is the baker’s world of bittersweet chocolate. And that last one does it for me.  I see the dark, rich chocolate. Its aroma deep and heady. I break off a small piece, take a bite… the smoothness covers my tongue and palate, its essence warms my taste buds.  And then, it bites back.  Not the sweet confection of even semi-sweet, like the chips I bake into cookies. But bitter. Is it disappointing, or just surprising? A happy respite from sameness or the taste of something foreign and unpleasant?  Oh yes, bittersweet.

My niece in her bridal gown perfectly beautiful. But nothing defines bittersweet to the parents, aunts and uncles like her happy march down the aisle. Wasn’t it just yesterday, that we all explored the beach together? Took photos with Minnie Mouse?

My own daughter took her own walk this spring to pick up her college diploma. It was her commencement. But to her father and me it seemed like an ending. Oh yes, happily we are done with tuition payments, but we know she has taken even more steps away from us and our sphere of influence. And as she is our youngest, for me at least, the feeling is more intense. I am pondering all these things while knowing full well that the bitter of the bitter sweet is probably only being experienced by those on the older side of the equation.

My recollection of my own to walks down those two aisles of adulthood is only of the joy, the happiness, the fulfillment, the sweet. I felt no sadness, no pain, nothing bitter. Oh perhaps some fear, anticipation, but pain? No.

And that is the bitter pill we not so young and not (quite thankfully) old parents must swallow. The sadness is all ours. We know that they, our babies our children have more wonderful moments to experience and that some of them will be bittersweet. They will take a child to school for the first time and think “where did my baby go?” They will leave a job or move  or end a relationship and know it’s for the best and yet be sad, bittersweet.

It’s my understanding of bitter sweet that colors my understanding of not only the milestones but of the seemingly regular path of days. Summer with its longer days and smells of cut lawns and the flowers in my garden are experiences I try to embrace and appreciate. All to soon the temperature will change and the days will shorten. Bittersweet. To me it lends a richness and a dimension to my days I had no understanding of while I accomplished the milestones. An though I know I have many more wonderful experiences and days ahead (God willing) for me and my family and “framily” this view of bittersweet keeps me in the moment and joyful. Breathe in, taste, embrace the bitter  it makes the sweet taste even better. 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.

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.