Monday, January 15, 2018

I See You

A few years ago someone I vaguely knew from the church we went to friended me on Facebook. I have not gone to this church very much in the last few years, but for a long while we were pretty active there. Mark joined the bike club and I got involved in social events - a couple of auction committees, the 150th anniversary of the church, the going away party for a beloved priest. I met a lot of people doing those events, and I knew this friend requestor. He and his wife were musicians and were frequently asked to provide entertainment. I was never the one doing the asking and our interchanges were no more than brief "hellos", but I don't think they ever said no to helping out in whatever way they were needed. So in light of the brevity of our interactions and my absence from there for awhile, I was surprised he even knew me at all.

He didn't post much but occasionally his name would pop up on my feed. The regularity of that happening seemed more in recent months and I got the impression he was sick. I thought about inquiring of mutual friends who would know but that seemed intrusive to me. Does the health of someone you barely know in person, and only incrementally more through social media, allow you to poke around in their life to ask why the sudden surge in photos of a noticeably thinner version? I didn't think so but I wondered about it often, because even in a digital world there was a kindness to him that I had recognized years before.

What I had gathered on my own was confirmed when his wife posted on his page that he was turning inward on his journey, and though his page was still up, he was headed elsewhere. It was poignant and not a surprise. A few days later, she recounted their wedding day - not with the grief that must have been bearing down on her for months, but a touching recounting of the snowy day that started their marriage. Three days after that she wrote that her husband had died peacefully. It wasn't until the following morning that I read the news and the shock and sadness of the death of someone I barely knew surprised me. Why I was staring at a Facebook post on my phone crying for someone on the periphery of my life? Someone I was certain wouldn't know who I was if he saw me in the grocery store. Why did this feel like a baseball bat to my knees? The condolences that were shared would confirm what I thought I already knew about him. This was a very decent man.

In the hours that followed I would chalk up my sad reaction to his death as the stress of my own life lately, and the toxic swirl of hate that seems to be overwhelming us all. It wasn’t him that was making me sad, it was everything, and all day that everything-that-wasn't-him sat like a rock in the pit of my stomach. I decided to pick up the rock and flip it over to see what I had missed, and underneath I found plenty of chances to know this man more. It was clear that he was deeply loved and admired so why didn't I go further than the briefest of greetings? This rock was laden with regret.

And then I remembered something. Following my dad's death, somebody left a handwritten letter in the mailbox saying how sorry she was when she heard the news, that she had admired my father from afar when she saw him at church, and though she never knew him she wanted to express her sympathies to his family. We were stunned when Mom passed the letter around. “Who is this,” we asked her. She had no idea.

There are a lot of reasons to admire someone who would do something like that but it wouldn't be until this week that I would come to understand it.

Many people live in the periphery of our lives and their leaving is not a cruel teaching moment for conversations that never happened, friendships never formed, a thousand missed opportunities.

It is an affirmation that all along the way you saw them. Oh my did you ever see them, and for reasons you couldn't begin to explain you are better for it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Thieves of Joy

I am an overly frequent user of social media. I have long perused Facebook, all while having a conversation with myself about how much time I am giving away for something as useless as sitting at a slot machine. I wish I could say those conversation have made me more aware of how often I could be doing better things, but the truth is I let my time slip away like I've got it banked in a Swiss account that even the Grim Reaper couldn't touch.

My social media drug of choice for months now has been Instagram. I started dipping my toe into it this summer, taking and posting photos of our house and garden. There is a twofold reason for this. I have always loved decorating and if I could make money doing store displays, which I've done plenty of in my life, I'd quit my accounting gig and just do that. Retail display work, however, is part of the package of working retail and so I had to let that one go when I could never get out of a pay scale that exceeded ten dollars an hour. Crunching numbers and paying the bills for a business is at the lucrative end of how not to make much money over the course of your life. The other reason is that friends and family, who know how much I love all things house, have encouraged me to write a decorating blog and I have thought about it, but it is something that I clearly don't have the time for with my part-time job and overloading on social media.

The rose that is posting on social media, though, has started to turn brown on the edges. I started to notice it a few months ago, these accounts with the perfect homes, the tablescape for fall, the perfect outfit to wear for the dinner party around the tablescape, the boots, the blanket scarf, the throw pillows, the sofa, the newly painted rooms that were newly painted a year ago BUT YOU GUYS THE BUFFALO PLAID. Overall, it seems to me that most of these accounts are women far younger than me and I couldn't fathom having that kind of disposable income twenty years ago. That turns out to be something I'm grateful for most of the time. There isn't much that is new around here - most of it has come from estate sales, flea markets, antique malls, Craigslist, and from the side of the road, and therein lies the untold stories of these things in a different house with different people.

Oh but.....

I study the photos, enlarge them, envy them, and even though I know better I have to remind myself often that comparison is the thief of joy.

Two weeks ago the very styled Instagrammed Christmas decor went up and my feed was flooded with dozens of pictures of trees and mantels that were decked in glittery goodness and I started to feel my chest tighten. We were going to Portugal, we were returning on the weekend, we were working two days and then driving to Chicago for Thanksgiving until Sunday. Sunday??? That's the 26th of November. Why even bother? It's like the season will practically be over by then for the savvy decor minded and in those perfectly styled photos was a decorated linen closet.

Somebody decorated their linen closet.

We headed to Portugal and had a fabulous time and I forgot that I should be decorating my home and now my linen closet for Christmas. Instead I was grateful that my husband working and me working allowed us the means to travel to an incredible place.

And I came back with a new perspective which is the pot of gold at the end of the travel rainbow. I saw churches that made me so overwhelmed I couldn't talk, sculptures so preserved that I thought surely they could not be a thousand years old, cobble stone walks that have been traversed for centuries, a castle, custard tarts from a secret family recipe from the 1800s.

I saw that the things that make a life are never going to be found where I have been looking and that when the paying jobs are over there will be other work to do. Worthy and quiet things like packing bird seed and heading off to a park bench to sit with an old friend, and watching joy unfold for those who choose to live a life beyond comparison.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I write something about my dad. It is how I honor him, this dad of mine who also was a writer, but writing, in general, has been hard this last year. Writing something worthy about him is daunting on a tank that runs dry most of the time.

I started mulling over this empty tank of mine while I was in the car running an errand which naturally led me to think about the last few days of his on this earth. Those were his toughest days, waiting to die. They were also tough to witness and there are a lot of painful memories that rise up every September. He got admitted to the hospital and a nurse was having trouble getting his catheter in and she was pissed. Banging stuff, half-yelling, frustrated, and from what it seemed like to me waiting in the hallway, taking it out on Dad. Everybody calls him Bill, not William, I wanted to say to this nurse. He raised six kids in a small house so you couldn't begin to imagine how much he loves the quiet. And since he's dying and this catheter business you're so mad about is preventing him from getting to his destination, why don't you just let him have some of that fucking quiet so he doesn't look so scared and then maybe the rest of us won't be so scared either. But that's the sort of thing you think to say a couple of decades after the fact which is a useless exercise in coulda shoulda.

Rather than a melancholy piece, I thought about writing about the parts of him that drove us nuts. He was a perfectionist, which in these days is more likely to be referred to as a healthy dose of OCD. We all inherited some of that from him. I have to write a grocery list in the same color pen. I can't start it in black and then go to blue. No, I cannot or I would have have to start over or breathe in and out of a brown, paper sack until the next black/blue trigger. Or when we were kids how we all had to take our turn picking up sticks in the yard before he mowed, and after what seemed like hours of bending over and picking up stick after stick, he'd look out into the yard and say, "I thought I told you to pick up sticks. There's some there, and there, and there...." When you were the one old enough to mow he'd look out over the finished lawn and tell you that you needed to work on making your lines straighter. If your first line is straight, he would say in all seriousness to your flushed, sweating face, all the rest of them will be straight. And the straightness of mowed lines have plagued me ever since.

He died a few short months after he retired, which was the result of using up all of his disability time with the company when there were no tricks left up anybody's sleeve to keep him there. They gave him a big sendoff and we were all invited. We were in a packed room at the offices of Commonwealth Edison in downtown Chicago, with coffee and cake, and his boss said some nice things, and somebody else said some nice things, and they gave him a lamp made from an old meter and he said that was just wonderful. He'd always wanted one of those. When it was his turn to talk he thanked everyone, said he was grateful for the 45 years he worked there, that my goodness just look at all of you who came today to wish me well, that he didn't know what the future held but he had Ger and the kids and the good Lord and so we'll just take it as it comes. Before we left the house that day, Mom said just pray he makes it through this because he's not good this morning and if he can't say goodbye to his work friends I don't know what we're going to do.

His bad luck in getting cancer meant that we all took it as it came and twenty seven years have passed since then. There has been so much that has transpired in the family that he has been absent for - marriages and divorces, a slew of kids born, graduations, the death of his brother, a nephew, in-laws, the deaths of more friends of him and Mom than could be accurately counted.

So what is there to write about when it seems a lifetime has passed?

Sometimes I have imaginary conversations with him. When things are worrying to me, I am likely to run them by him in my head. I often wonder what it would be like if he just showed up on my doorstep one day. Rang the bell and when I opened it he would be standing on my front porch like he took a detour years ago and just now figured out people were looking for him. Would he even know it was me? I was a 33 year old pregnant mom of one living in Maryland when he died. Now I'm the 60 year old mother of three adult kids, one granddaughter, and living in Kansas. Kansas, he would say. That's quite a leap you took there, kid. Two years after you died, Dad, I would say.

Almost to my destination I waited at a stoplight and watched an inflatable, green stick man announcing the grand opening of a used car lot. It bent and twisted with the wind over and over, never staying in one place for more than a second. Disappearing and nearly on the ground one second only to pop back up with an ever-present smile until the wind had other ideas. That's me, I thought. That's me in this country for the last year. Buffeted by the wind of current events, trying to smile, bouncing up and convincing myself that sooner or later it's all going to be okay. Look at me. I'm smiling. That means it's all okay and bad credit and no credit are our specialty, and thank God for being unplugged because night brings relief from another ugly news story.

By the time I reached the parking lot of Jo-Ann Fabrics I sat in my hot car and had a good cry thinking about all the things I thought I didn't have left to say.

Sometimes I wish my dad would show up on my doorstep and ring the bell, and even if it only lasted a few seconds, I could look at him and remember it all. How he always said to us don't you kids forget that you are your brother's keeper, and then because he knew we watched more than we listened, he lived the life of a keeper. Maybe then I would know that no matter what happens or how the winds batter me, I have been and always will be tethered to goodness.

I forget that these days.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Every year in September, Mark rides the MS150. This is a two day biking event to raise money for multiple sclerosis, and as the name implies it is 150 miles. The starting point is twenty miles away from our house, so for him it is two days, 150 miles, and an extra twenty thrown in at five a.m. on day #1 because he is muy macho.

He has been doing this ride for about fifteen years, however, when he started he was under the age of 50, and things have changed a bit since then. Now he is knocking on Medicare's door and 150+ miles in two days isn't quite so easy. Unlike years ago, though, he doesn't push it or isn't trying to finish day #1 in record time. No, these last few years he is content to take his time on this ride with a more leisurely pace and chat with his fellow pre and post Medicarers.

The first day of the ride ends in Lawrence, Kansas which is about forty miles away. Mark used to bring a sleeping bag and a change of clothes and camp outside but he came to his senses about that few years ago. Biking all day and then sleeping on a cot? No, not any more. This year he ended up at the Days Inn and called me about 4:00 to tell me he was checked in, all was good, he didn't push it, no problems whatsoever, and he was going to a dinner gathering for all the riders and would be going to bed soon after.

Considering the upbeat call the day before, I was a little unprepared for what I saw when he walked in the door on Sunday afternoon. My husband looked like he'd been run over by a truck. It turns out that the night before his legs started cramping up. They woke him up out of a sound sleep and that is something that in all his years of biking had rarely, if ever, happened. He got plenty of fluid in him in the morning and he was fine, but, that man was worn out.

He started some laundry and laid down on the couch in the basement, where it is cool and dark and just how he likes his sleeping quarters. He was down there for a long time and said he never slept but he was so tired that I was sure he must have dozed off. When he finally came upstairs he headed straight to the shower which lasted nearly as long as his non-nap.

At 9:30 that night he flopped into bed with his usual sleeping gear - ear plugs in each ear and a black sock over his eyes. He was sound asleep in seconds. I came to bed later but was abruptly woken up by a thud in the middle of the night.

My husband had fallen out of bed.

He had fallen out of bed, hit his face on the nightstand, thudded onto the floor, and was stringing a litany of curse words together.

I bolted upright and said, "Did you just fall out of bed?" And he said yes and that he was bleeding and there was an added bonus of about twenty five ef bombs between the yes and the bleeding part. I asked him how he fell out of bed. The short pissed off version was that he had a dream that somebody was in the house trying to get Will and he was trying to stop them. By this time he was in the bathroom saying his goddamn nose was bleeding and he had to stop it and then go downstairs and get a goddamn band-aid.

And I'm wide awake at three o'clock in the morning wondering how in the hell my husband could fall out of bed.

After a few minutes he came back upstairs with his green earplugs sticking out of each ear and trusty black sock in his hand to mask the night vision. His second attempt at sleeping didn't last long as he was still mad about the dream, the falling out of bed, and the bleeding nose, and so he decided he would sleep downstairs. As he pulled the bedroom door closed behind him he hit the back of his foot with the door. That launched a whole new string of ef bombs.

And I'm wide awake at three thirty in the morning wondering how in the hell my husband could fall out of bed and then hit his own foot with a door.

The next morning he got up and looked worse for the wear with his beat up body from biking 150 miles over the weekend and a bandaid covering his bashed up nose. "I didn't sleep very well last night," he said, which might have been the understatement of the year.

Later that day when he got home from work (which he biked to and from) he told me more about the dream and how he was trying to grab the boogie man who had been hiding in our closet and was trying to get to Will which is why he hurtled himself right out of bed. I told him it was a good thing that we have a lower bed now or he could have banged his face up even more. Nope, he said, it's that low bed and that Ikea nightstand right next to it. That was what did it. That Hemnes nightstand. It was a pain in the ass to put together and a pain in the nose when you smack your face into it. I didn't really buy into any of that but I wasn't about to argue with him or his band-aided face.

Thankfully the next night was uneventful - no dreams and no falling out of bed. It was a blissful night's sleep. In the morning I noticed that my husband had taken some extra precautions the night before to prevent a Hemnes attack leading to further injuries.

All these years I have blamed the kids as the reason we couldn't have nice things around here.

Turns out I was wrong. So wrong.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Going To The Chapel

For the past two weekends, we have been fortunate to have been invited to two weddings. The first was a long-time friend of our son, the second was a graduate student in Mark's lab.

Each wedding was different in style and feel. At the first wedding, we knew many people and met long-time friends of our son. Friends that he had gone to college with and has talked about for years. At the second wedding, we knew the bride and another graduate student who could only stay for the wedding. For that reception we were on our own.

The first wedding was in a church, the second in an event space. A minister did the first wedding, a brother-in-law officiated the second. There were many examples given of love. What is it? Can you find a clear definition in books, songs, movies? The brother-in-law rattled off examples from Beauty and the Beast to Titantic. Why, he asked, did Rose not just scoot over on the door to make room for Jack and change her whole future?

I wanted to jump out of my seat in the Amen Chorus and yell, PREACH, internet ordained preacher. Why did Rose hog the whole door?

During each wedding the bride and groom recited their vows and promised to be true to each other in good times and bad, in sickness and health. Thirty four years down the road, I thought about those good times and bad. How sometimes they blindside you. How you can look across the table at your husband on an ordinary day and wonder how you got so lucky. Or when you tell that same husband three times that you have to go to West Elm before the wedding to get a gift card for the couple because he keeps asking you what we are giving them. Let's be generous, he says, they're good kids. And you snipe back that you are not known for cheapness, and he says "what" for the third-times-thirtieth time because he blasted Pink Floyd relentlessly in his youth and now his hearing sucks.

I thought about both of our dads dying before they enjoyed much retirement. How we aren't that much younger than either of them when their circle closed and what is that like? To be the one left to go on? I thought about the fight we had a few weeks prior, a screaming match that in the end was about two people worried about one kid in two different ways.

At the second reception we introduced ourselves to our table and it was filled with amazing, interesting people. Mark's end was about gastroenterology, protein folding diseases, teaching medical students, bbq, the best Kansas City restaurants. Mine was hearing about the Spinach Festival that day, Denver, housing prices, closeted nut jobs on Facebook, a brunch to attend the next day with one of those closeted nut jobs.

Before we left, we had a long chat with the parents of the bride. While Mark and the dad were talking, I told the mom that this was the second wedding we'd been to in as many weeks. You forget, I said, how beautiful it is to hear two people pledge their love to each other, to throw caution to the wind, to look in the eyes of each other and go for broke.

An honor, I said. It's an honor to be at a wedding.

It is, she said, and there we were. Two women with decades of marriage between us. Two women who could fill hours with stories of the good times and the bad, stories of the ones we saw around us that we were so sure would last but didn't, stories of love and honor and joy and despair.

Two women quietly standing next to each other in a hallway, giving all those leaps of faith an overdue moment of silence, while just inside the doorway the music played and the dance floor filled.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Costumes

How did you do it, she asked. How did you ever get dinner on the table with a baby?
I don't remember, she answered back. I know I did but I don't remember.

In the midst of an overhaul of closets in a bedroom that the great and magnificent Oz of an air conditioner has deemed less worthy of the cool air that the rest of the house enjoys, I found my sweaty self sitting on the floor in the middle of a disaster I created.

I was having a bit of a problem finding my mojo for this bad idea.

One pile at a time I told myself. One foot in front of the other and one ridiculous pile at a time, right? Isn't that how all hard things start? I began to sort. Yearbooks from this kid, posters from that kid, a pile to donate, a pile for the garbage, the biggest pile reserved for I Have No Idea. It was a slow process and after many hours it might have looked to an observer that I had accomplished nothing, but a plan was starting to take hold. The closet got painted, the chaos go its marching orders via black, plastic bags and the end of the day and my ambitious plan was coming together.

In the midst of this mayhem there was an actual plastic tub - the premiere organizational tool that has its own aisles in Target and the preferred method of storage for a million Martha Stewart wannabees. Where did this beauty come from? Who thought to put anything in here protected from the dust that layered everything else? I opened it up and the inside contents were reserved for one thing - the dance costumes that the third and last inhabitant of that room had stored. One by one I pulled them out, held them up, sighed, smiled, felt my eyes fill with tears. Each costume carried its own memory - tap, ballet, hip hop, solos, group dances. I remembered every dance that each costume was for. At the bottom of the tub were the head pieces that went along with the tutus, the sparkling, wow-them-from-the-stage earrings, the box of stage makeup that had long dried up, dozens of hair clips and bobby pins.

Years of memories carefully stored in a single plastic tub.

Like her siblings and their interests, I remembered everything about these first solo flights of bravery. Sitting on the bleachers for a track meet - the last being the state competition that the girls 4x400 qualified for, on the sidelines of cross-country meets at the crack of dawn- the ending being the senior banquet where the one who hated public speaking the most eloquently thanked everyone who helped him across every finish line, or the final recital where years of training ended on a stage with a bow and a wipe of tears. I remembered them. I remembered me watching them.

As a witness to these events over the years, my posture was always the same. Leaning forward, feet propped up, elbows on knees, fingertips resting on my lips, the same mantra on repeat over and over. C'mon kiddo, you got this. C'mon kiddo, you got this. C'mon kiddo.... I always knew that mantra was for the benefit of my jangling nerves and not theirs.

In a closet full of the accumulated messes of three kids who had all taken their turn passing through the biggest bedroom in the house before heading off on their own, the best had saved itself for last. I wiped out the bottom of the tub and folded each costume and headpiece and put them back inside. I ran my hands over the sides of the lid to make sure it was snapped on tight so any lingering dreams that preferred to remain with the tulle and the sequins wouldn't fly away.


How did you do it, she asked. How did you ever get dinner on the table with a baby?
I don't remember, she answered back. I know I did but I don't remember. Ask me about the good stuff. I remember all of that.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Though I have been doing my best least to let this blog fade quietly into the sunset, it would seem that the universe clearly had other thoughts about that idea.

So where have I been?

A perfect storm of changes happened within a short spring season and I continued a long established pattern of using as much energy as I could to fight every one of them even though I knew going in that the outcome would never claim me as the winner.

After nine long months of not having a boss (or at least a readily available one) that changed mid-March and it has been good. I like him a lot but there is the dance of "what are his expectations of me" that I am still figuring out. A week after he started my work buddy left. He and I worked on the same things in different capacities and so my paper moving daily work changed to what are we supposed to do with this contract, how do we book student travel, how to do we pay for this $20K bill. I used to refer to Richard as my "work husband" for many reasons. He and I talked and problem solved all day long and all of it was conversations about money with a couple of recipes and current events thrown in - not unlike my real husband. His leaving left a void in many ways and my work life got inundated with more responsibilities and emails. Oh my the emails.

A few weeks after that, our wee bird left the home nest for a grand adventure and we did our best to make that happen for her in the most positive of ways. She is an adventurer. I am not and would find that kind of move intimidating so the challenge was to remind myself that she is not me and must do what she thinks is best for her. It was easier said than done when my own baggage was bulging and begging to be unpacked. Six weeks later it is clear that our wee bird is happy and thriving and made the right decision.

Our nest had fluctuated for years with the comings and goings of kids after college. I loved when they came back and loved when they got to start off on their own. The difference this time is that there are no more kids to move back. We have reached the end of the line in daily parenting and getting used to that has been harder than I thought. Our house got terribly boring and quiet with only the drumbeat of Russian interference and impeachment in the background which has not been exactly helpful in staying upbeat.

In the midst of all that was our last Listen To Your Mother show. The work of doing the show kicks into gear after the first of the year and by spring is a daily juggling of details. With everything else in a state of flux this gave me the chance once again to throw myself into something bigger than myself. I got to meet a dozen new writers who quelled their public speaking fears and stood on stage and told their stories. The friendships made and bonding before, during and after the experience has has been invaluable.

And with a final bow on the stage of a historic theatre, all the changes that I was in the middle of for months ended on a Sunday afternoon.

I know that I am a person that always needs a project and what to do next is the big question. I have some ideas that are simmering so I will wait and see what bubbles to the top. In the meantime, I finally painted the banister that was installed fifteen years ago but that I could never make a commitment to as far as color. I went white and lord have the mercy...why didn't I do that at least a decade ago? I painted the hallway and convinced my very skeptical husband that a birch branch was the perfect handrail.

None of this has filled my empty house, satisfied a new boss, or provided the direction to a new path to wander down, but it is one foot in front of the other and that is a start.