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In Honor of All Veterans (and their mothers)

(My column from December 6, 2001)

I’m being weaned, figuratively, from my children by my children. At 17 and 18, Cassie and Carlene don’t need me for many things anymore, except maybe to buy face wash, body lotion, or tampons. Then it’s not really me they need, but my Visa card.

From the minute they were born, I’ve been letting go. I let them go with the nurses to be cleaned, weighed, and measured. I let them get on a bus to go to their first day of kindergarten. I let them go to birthday parties, sleep-overs, field trips, and to the mall and movies with their friends. I’ve even let them go on dates with boys I didn’t like, not because I trusted the boys, but because I trusted my girls. And trust is at the heart of letting go.

While Carlene grew up, her letting go of me was harder than me letting go of her. She hated day care, she wanted her first-grade teacher to call me after a thunderstorm one afternoon, and she usually sat on my lap when strangers or people she hadn’t seen in a while were in the room. As she got older, though, Carlene grew a strong backbone, and combined with her level-headedness, she’s turned into a strong young woman, even though I still buy her razors and shampoo.

On the opposite end of parenting is Cassie. Our letting go experiences have been of her pushing me rather than me pushing her. She had no problem disappearing into clothes racks when she was 2 years old while we were out shopping, leaving me frantic looking for her. She couldn’t wait to go to school, and loved it when I hired a babysitter if I went out. I always knew she needed me in some esoteric way, but she hasn’t given up the secret of why.

She’s done some fast talking and gentle pushing lately to help me face the hardest letting go of her yet. Last Tuesday, I signed a consent form allowing Cassie to join the Army Reserves. She made this decision before September 11, and I was mostly OK with it since she could finish high school without interruption, and go to college while doing her military work. Then as I watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse, and saw the Pentagon on fire and the smoldering airplane debris in a field not far south from where we lived, I decided there was no way in hell I was going to let her join anything that might put her in the middle of whatever was coming.

But when she came home from school that day, she was more determined than ever to sign up.

I knew out of my fear I could be the control freak I’m known to be and refuse to let her join, to make her wait until she was 18 and no longer needed my permission. But I’ve spent 17 years reigning in this child, and to hold her back might break her.

After all, this is a girl who, when she was 3, thought she could stick a penny in an outlet like it was a vending machine. When the lights flickered, I heard a “snap” and felt a bump on the floor. I ran in to her room, and there she was, blinking and stunned, with a penny bent and burned near the outlet. I didn’t punish her. I figured the electric shock that sent her flying a foot from the wall was lesson enough.

This is the same girl who, when she was 7, decided to visit her 80-year-old friend for five hours without telling me where she was. How do you get mad at someone who’s doing a good thing, but who didn’t follow the rules?

Just as control defined me as a parent, dichotomy defined Cass.

I read the consent form. It was perfectly clear. My signature meant I understood Cassie might be put in dangerous, life-threatening situations should her reserve unit be activated. It meant I promised to not sue the government if something happened to her while in their care, like a broken leg, loss of eyesight, or death. This form made the paper I signed so she could get her belly button pierced seem like a sales slip for lipstick. I was granting permission for the government I live under and pay taxes to, to use my child’s talents and interests for the country’s best interests. God help me, the government had better appreciate her.

She’ll go to basic training this summer, a complete letting go if there ever was one. If she screws up, it won’t be me talking to her about her mistake or grounding her for a night. She’ll have a drill sergeant in her face calling her names and screaming at her to do 50 pushups. Instead of her favorite mashed potatoes with cream cheese and sour cream, and Italian chicken drizzled in butter, she’ll be eating chipped beef on toast. Instead of sleeping in on warm summer mornings, she’ll be up at 4 a.m., running, learning to shoot an M16, and throwing grenades. They’ll even put her in a gas chamber. “Cool,” she said.

So, I signed it. She’ll come home a soldier. A lean, mean fightin’ machine. But she’ll still be my little girl, and she’ll still need me. And my Visa card.

I’m being weaned. Weaned from directing and controlling my girls’ destinies. But you know something? When I look at them, when I think of all we’ve been through, I smile like a Cheshire cat and think, ‘Damn, I’ve done a good job.’

 

 

Families (Un)Defined

I don’t remember what program I was listening to the other day, but what stuck with me was the person being interviewed said that it was his mother’s third husband who was his best father; the man who listened to him and raised him up to be the caring and kind person he is today. Paternal biology had nothing to do with it.

From the outside and in writing, my family history may seem (understandably) complicated to a newcomer. But like all complex family structures, if you take the time to look around it, you’ll see they are often a beautiful amalgamation, a patchwork quilt of daughters and sons and nieces and nephews and friends who are as close as sisters and brothers. No two families are alike, and that is grand!

When my husband died in 1983, my love for his family didn’t die with him. Parts of his family are still my family, 36 years later, and no one dare tell us otherwise. The same is true of my stepsons, now age 26 and 27, both of whom I’ve known since they were born. Their father and I were together for 14 years before we separated in 2010. But even though our marriage broke apart, our family didn’t. The grandkids still have their Papa Larry, and I’m still Evil Stepmother. We’ve remained a family through thick and thin, and right now, things are a little thin, which has me a bit nostalgic, to the days when the boys were little and I was a newbie stepmom.

To all the step and other families…rock on, despite what anyone else thinks. Your support and love for the people you consider family is all that matters.

Little Women Meet Ren and Stimpy

December 1999

If the number of stepfamilies continues to increase in the twenty-first century, as they are expected to, then stepmothers need some better press than they’ve received in the past.

Ever since Cinderella, people have a picture of stepmothers as cruel, mean, nasty creatures who rank just below mothers-in-law as the most ostracized family members. All my life I was sure I never wanted to be a stepmother. But I am one, and life, for the most part, is normal, as normal as it can be when a woman raising two teenage girls meets and marries a man with two young boys.

This coming together of our families is a little like Little Women meet Ren and Stimpy. My girls have learned to accept, or at least ignore, the boys’ burping contests, and the boys pass off the girls singing Dave Matthews songs loudly in the basement or prepping in front of a mirror as just weird.

Bras don’t dry over chairs in the kitchen anymore, and the froufrou lady stuff shares space in the bathroom with bubblegum flavored toothpaste and Star Wars toothbrushes. Marbles are strewn throughout the living room, and plastic bloody eyeballs are sometimes hidden in the refrigerator.

The boys taught the girls their favorite song: “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat the more you…” You can guess the rest. The girls have turned the boys on to “cool” music – no more Raffi in this house.

The girls read Chicken Soup books and Brontë novels. The boys prefer Captain Underpants. The boys tell a lot of stories, usually the “Know what?” variety, and they take every opportunity to say the word “butt.” In their world, having smelly feet is a good thing. So is pro wrestling and Pokémon.

Unlike Cinderella’s stepmother, the chores I make them do are pretty benign. They clear the dinner table, dry dishes, and make sure the toilet lid is down. I’m kidding about the toilet lid. They never remember to do that.

They like to talk about their futures as astronaut paleontologists or anthropologist brain surgeons. We’re especially encouraging Andy’s most recent dream: to be a guitarist and a professional baseball player – professions that are sure to keep his dad and me comfortable in our retirement.

We’re fairly sure Kevin will be a detective or a biologist. He likes to crawl in bed with us and explain how ladybugs eat aphids, and he spies on the girls while they are watching television using his telescope. He also checks the cats for fingerprints.

This quasi Brady Bunch life didn’t just happen. Adjusting to each other’s personalities, needs, fears, and aversions was often difficult. But of all the relationships in this new family, the stepmother-stepson one was the hardest to forge.

By the time I married their father last year, the boys and I had interacted on several occasions, few of which were particularly memorable. Their behavior usually translated into: Who is this strange woman with our dad, and why should we listen to her?

I did few things right in their eyes and spent many frustrated moments in tears asking friends what I was doing wrong.

Finding my place in their lives and they in mine took time. But with each visit, we saw how important we were to their father, and realized, subconsciously of course, that if we wanted a part of him, we had to accept a part of each other as well.

I think our difficulty was mostly due to my desire to nurture them as I nurtured my own children, and their fear of allowing me to nurture them. Since they already had a mother, they didn’t feel they could be true to her while letting me wipe away their tears or laugh at their jokes. The words, “You’re not my mom!” frequently rolled off their tongues, especially if I didn’t allow them to jump on the couch or swing from their bunkbeds. There were times I wanted to give up.

But the tears, the time, the patience, and the prayers gradually paid off. I’m not exactly sure when or how it all happened, but their most recent visit demonstrated how far we’ve come in three years.

Andy, who just turned 8, doesn’t usually want to be hugged. The other night, he had a bad dream. He started crying because he missed his mom, but he let me hold him and stroke his hair and tell him it was OK to be sad. He thanked me the next day for listening to him. I told him I listened because I loved him. He said he loved me, too. I’ll bet Cinderella never said those words to her stepmother.

Kevin, on the other hand, is still a little boy of 6, and likes to be sung to and to sleep with his stuffed dog, “Pup.” He won’t let any of us catch him under the mistletoe, but he and Pup always snuggle on the couch with me while we watch holiday movies. He listens to me when I correct him, holds my hand when we cross the street, and climbs on my lap while we play a game on the computer – oblivious acts now that three years ago would have been met with resistance.

Being a stepmother isn’t about being cruel and nasty or having warts. It’s a lot like mothering, a little like friendship, and a lot like love. In fact, it’s a pretty good deal. I inherited two terrific boys without going through labor, highchairs, or potty training.

It’s a great beginning to happily ever after.

 

Happy Grammyversary to Me!

October 12, 2007

What a day! Little Claire Raelyn is perfect. She was born at 12:02 p.m. She weighs 6 pounds, 13 ounces, and is 18 inches long. She has big dark eyes and black hair, her mother’s long narrow feet and fingers and thick earlobes, and her father’s nose. Her skin is porcelain pink and soft and flawless, and she pooped three times the first hour of her life. Watching her birth and holding her for the first time changed my life in ways I can’t process yet. I love her so much.

And to think I almost missed it! Carlene and I had gone to the cafeteria around 11:15 to get food for us and for Matt after being assured nothing would happen before we got back. Thirty minutes later, as we walked toward her room, we saw a lot of activity, and I heard Cassie asking, “Where’s my mom?” The doctor walked into the hallway, saw me, and told me I needed to get in there now!

I dropped my food in the waiting room across the hall and took my place on Cassie’s right side near her head, supporting her as she pushed. Matt was in front of me holding her right leg. As the baby’s head crowned, he looked at me and asked, “Boy or girl?” I said, “It’s a boy.” He said “I think it’s a boy, too.” Cassie, annoyed with both of us, yelled with the final push, “It’s a girl!”

And true enough, it was a girl.

I stood over my granddaughter’s bassinette, stunned, amazed, and so completely and utterly in love as I watched her looking around and breathing. I couldn’t stop staring and smiling and saying, “Oh my god, she’s perfect!”

Someone offered to take my picture. Then my daughter called to me from her bed. “Mom, her name is Claire Raelynn.”

Are you kidding me?

My name is part of her name.

I drove home in stunned silence. The world is completely different now.

I am a grandmother.

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Claire and me in 2010.  I am and always will be so happy when I’m with her. 

Chelsea Handler Made Me…Cry?

Chelsea Handler has made me gasp in disbelief (“OMG, did she just SAY that out loud?”) and laugh until I cry. But never has anything she’s written or said made me cry cry, as in, real tears of sorrow.

On Monday, Handler was on the NPR show Here and Now promoting her new book, Life Will Be the Death of Me…and you, too! Broadly, it’s a memoir about her psychological journey after the 2016 election, and more specifically, coming to terms with her oldest brother Chet’s death when she was 9 years old.

Handler and Here and Now host Robin Young covered a lot of ground in the eleven-minute interview, and I was … surprised? Is that the word? … by Handler’s serious and thoughtful exploration of her white privilege and the not-so-funny parts of her growing up.

At around minute nine, Young acknowledged that people tuning in to an interview with Chelsea Handler typically expect her to take down, in comedic fashion, the latest societal ridiculousness, but that their interview was pretty serious. Young asked, “Is Chelsea Handler going to be funny still?” Handler answered, “Of course! That muscle is fit and ready to roll. This other stuff is what I needed more of; this seriousness and thoughtfulness and to think about talking before talking.” I was sitting in my car, high-fiving (no one but me) Handler’s honesty and thinking how great it is to face that sh*t head on.

Then came the next question: “Where is Chet now? Where is he now in your life?” Handler broke down, and her answer is so heartfelt that I couldn’t help crying along:

“In my mind, now that I have a deeper understanding of awareness, of mindfulness, of like, you know, that people aren’t really gone, now I believe that he’s like — not that people die and they’re sitting around floating above your body, not that stupid nonsense — I believe that he’ll always be a part of me, and so will my mom…The people that we love are with us, and we should be spending our time honoring them, instead of grieving for so long. We can grieve, because we need to get that out, but we have to honor those people, and the way to honor them is by fixing yourself and getting healthy.”

I’ve written a lot about grief over the years, and countless numbers of readers have shared their experiences with loss, too. We’ve often engaged in what feels like an online support group. I will forever maintain that grief has its place.

To Handler’s other point (and maybe I’m splitting hairs), though, “fix” feels akin to “heal,” and nothing really gets “fixed” in our efforts to deal with or understand loss. When we experience loss, we’re forever changed. But she’s spot on about getting “heal”thy.

Something my pastor said to me in the days after my husband died has stuck with me, and I share it often with others who grieve. He said that time doesn’t heal, it only gives us perspective.

At the moment he said that, I was angry.

“What do you mean time doesn’t heal?” I cried. “It has to! It must! How else am I supposed to feel better and normal ever again if something doesn’t heal me?”

“Time doesn’t have the power to ‘heal,’” he replied. “Healing implies it all goes away.  But years from now, you’ll be able to recall this time, and feel everything you feel at this very moment. In time, you will get stronger, you will feel joy again, you will build yourself up, but this comes from inside you, not because a certain amount of time passes.

“It’s a lot of work and you won’t be the same person you were before he died. You can’t be.”

In time, I understood that he was right, and once I accepted that grief is a journey down a long and arduous road, I no longer put a time line on when it “should” end, because it doesn’t.

While “fixed” isn’t my go-to word or believe it should be our desired outcome when we are living with loss, Chelsea Handler is right about healing. We honor those we’ve lost by taking care of ourselves and not living in a rabbit hole of grief. It’s brave and takes a crap-ton of self-awareness to achieve acceptance, and I believe that it’s healthy grieving, even years later, that allows us to do that.

 

 

 

 

Running Naked Through a Graveyard (in loving memory of my grandmother)

Leave it to my Grandma Signe to die on a leap day. (February 29, 1996)

Unusual is too strong a word to describe a woman who chews gum with her front teeth, but to me, my grandma was eccentric for keeping a small bottle of Southern Comfort in her refrigerator.

Signe had an Andy Warhol eye for color, and was a slipper knitter and a first-rate doily maker. A coterie of widows were her loyal companions. She drove a big green boat of a Chevy, and with her right foot on the gas and her left foot on the brake (usually at the same time), and on Thursdays, she’d pick up her friends and road trip five blocks to the senior center for potluck and gossip.

Signe never forgot to send a card and a couple of bucks for every grandchild’s birthday, and when she came to visit, she always played games and talked to us about us, never about herself. She was careful to stay away from stories about her past. It’s as though she didn’t have one, like she was always a grandma, never a girl. To me, Signe was born at age 60 and simply grew older as I did.

We all have defining moments in our lives, some more difficult than others. Signe’s was when her husband Martin died. She was 33 and eight months pregnant. My dad, also named Martin, was 6.

When Martin died, Signe never spoke his name again, and insisted my dad be called by his middle name, Donald. Maybe she didn’t see the point in talking about something she couldn’t change, but I suspect she loved Martin so much that his death knocked the wind out of her, and the only way she found to breathe again was to not talk about it.

Signe and Martin grew up on farms just a few miles from each other. She went to college and eventually taught school a half mile from Martin’s homestead. They dated for many years, marrying in December 1930. My father was born in February 1931. You do the math.

Martin was good friends with Signe’s siblings, and was known around the area as the guy with the fancy car with a canvas top and side curtains.

Signe was never an overly-talkative person, but she was no wallflower. She had a way of letting you know you did something she didn’t like. My dad’s memories of his faather are few, but clear. He told me how one day, Signe poured Martin a cup of coffee. When it was full enough, Martin yelled, “Whoa!” Signe kept right on pouring, letting the coffee spill over the cup and onto the table. She said curtly, “Don’t you talk to me like you do your horses.” It never happened again.

Maybe her refusal to speak of Martin seems strange in our modern world of readily available therapy and support groups. But in 1937, a farmer’s widow with two small children didn’t have much time to feel everything she was feeling, let alone cry or talk about it. My guess is she simply shut off those emotions and went on with the business of raising her children in a world wary of single mothers.

Signe obtained a loan to buy a house, which she fixed up as a boarding house for single female school teachers. For extra money, she made donuts and sent my dad down the street selling them for two bits a dozen. He never got more than three blocks from home before running out.

During World War II, she went back to the classroom, teaching school until she retired 20 years later.

Signe’s parents moved in when they retired from farming, and from then on Signe kept busy with choir and Bible study and playing cards with her friends. Apparently, Signe’s mother griped about her never being home, but if you knew my great-grandmother, you’d hardly blame Signe for getting out once in a while.

And that’s how I knew Signe: as a woman who got out once in a while.

Toward the end of her life, Signe suffered from dementia. She said some things that, in more lucid moments, she would never have said. But with dementia, she no longer lived in the present, as she had since Martin died. Her past was all she had. She spoke of her parents, her siblings, her friends, and of running naked through a graveyard.

I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, but I hope a long time ago she did run through a cemetery, carefree, happy, beautiful, and spontaneous. I hope the last few years, weeks, and hours of her life were filled with the thoughts she spent all her life trying to forget. Warm, wonderful thoughts of how much she loved and was loved.

 

Polar Vortex Revisited

Another polar vortex is heading south, and a lot of us are in its path. The last time it was this cold – at least in my neck of the woods – was February 2013. I was living in a 100-year-old duplex with pipes that were about that old, too. From the archives, a story of water. (And the Jim of the story is the same Jim I love and adore, and for more than his mad plumbing skillz ♥)

Wishing you and your plumbing a safe and warm Polar Vortex 2019!

February 2013

To survive, we need air, food, water, and shelter. Last week, on the two coldest days of the Polar Vortex so far, I had air, food, and shelter, but for 36 hours, I was without running water due to what I thought was a burst pipe.

I knew I would be away for a few days, but I would be home before it got seriously cold in order to open the cupboards under the sinks and place space heaters in front of them. In Minnesota, I never experienced a frozen or burst pipe, but a few years after moving to Pennsylvania in 1991, the pipes in my apartment froze, and I spent several hours in the basement thawing them with a hair dryer. This time, I had a plan. And you know how the universe loves a plan.

Confident that I was prepared and in time for the deep freeze, I opened the door and walked into a lake in the kitchen as water hissed from a pipe under the sink. I stood there for a moment, confused, like the house yelled “Surprise!” Only there were no balloons, streamers or confetti, and there was definitely no cake.

When the shock wore off, I went downstairs and turned off the water main, and with every towel I owned, sopped up the flood in the kitchen. Next, I called my landlord, who called a plumber, who called me and said he might get a chance to stop by the next day. It was noon, the temperature was dropping, and I had one flush left in the toilet.

I needed water.

I have very little concept of distance or volume. I can’t tell you how long my driveway is or how much gas it takes to fill the tank of my lawn mower. And if I guessed, you’d laugh. That’s why I’m not an architect. At Target, I stared at the gallons of water on the shelf and wondered how much I’d need to get through a day, or at the very least, a night. I settled on 10 and wheeled my purchases out to my car, cursing the minus 10-degree wind chill.

It was sobering to realize how much water I use to simply wash my hands, brush my teeth, and flush the toilet. Ten gallons seemed like so much, and yet by morning, there were only two left. With no plumber in sight, I headed back to the store for six more.

Cold, cold, ridiculous cold. My Jeep was not happy. My exposed skin was not happy. When I got home, I turned on the stove and mixed up a batch of whole wheat, low-fat chocolate chip cookies. I heated a gallon of water on the stove so I could wash dishes, and poured another gallon in a plastic pan to rinse them, acutely aware that I normally use more than two gallons of water when I wash dishes in the regular way, when water magically comes out of the faucet.

Potentially-more-than-a-friend Jim the Carpenter called and asked if the plumber had been there. No, I told him. I’ll fix it, he said. I thanked him and told him I’d baked cookies. (I just didn’t tell him what kind.)

Jim arrived with everything to fix a broken pipe – gater bites, a piece of copper pipe, and soldering equipment – because from what I told him (in my “The pipe is hissing!” voice), he thought the pipe was split. I followed him downstairs and stopped just before the entrance to the creepy dark room in the basement under the kitchen. I’ve never been in that room because the bulb had burned out and I’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Jim scanned the wall with his flashlight and said all the pipes were fine.

We walked back upstairs and he looked under the sink. He found the valve to the outdoor water spigot (so THAT’S where that is!) and turned it off. He went back to the basement, turned on the water main, and – low and behold – no hiss, no leak.

The valve, he explained, had most likely froze from the skimpy temperatures a few days before, but I was only half listening. The sound of the toilet tank filling was like a symphony.

The temperatures warmed the next day. I washed dishes and took a shower. I am fortunate, and I hope to not forget that.

As I write this, there are 300,000 people in West Virginia who are without running water because of a chemical spill, and there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who lack safe drinking water. What I take for granted is another person’s precious commodity.

While my short-term water inconvenience hardly makes me an expert on chronic water shortage, I can allow it to teach me compassion for those who experience it.

‘Twas The Night Before The Night Before Christmas

Growing up, my family opened gifts on Christmas Eve, including Santa gifts. This meant that the night before the night before Christmas, Santa came to our house.

Defying logic (like there is anything logical about Santa), our parents told us that Santa started his trip at our house before heading to where it was already Christmas Eve: the International Date Line. Of course I believed them. Magic and logic were all the same back then. Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Jolly Green Giant… They all seemed perfectly real to me, until I was 10. That’s when I cracked the whole Santa mystery. More on that in a minute.

Every Christmas Eve, Dad read the Christmas story from the book of Luke before we opened gifts. I always felt sad for Baby Jesus, getting gifts like gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe back then those were considered awesome gifts. But to me they were the equivalent of socks and underwear. Not that socks and underwear aren’t good and often necessary gifts, but I was fortunate that there were usually a few things from my Sears catalog wish list under the tree, too.

Of all the gifts I’ve received over the years  – gold, frankincense, and myrrh not withstanding – one gift from 1980 is still the best. And most mysterious.

I was a senior in high school and was a waitress at Country Kitchen. A week before Christmas, I came home after the dinner shift, and there was a 12-inch red and green can on the front stoop. On top was a note: “To Lynn, From Santa.” I brought it inside and asked if anyone knew who left it. My dad said it wasn’t there when he came home from work, and no one remembered hearing a car pull up in the driveway.

Whatever was inside was sealed like a can of peas and could only be opened with a can opener. I brought it to the kitchen. My mom yelled from the family room, “You can’t open that until Christmas!”

“But why? We don’t even know who it’s from!”

That didn’t matter. Haraldson Christmas Rule No. 1: No gift shall be opened until Christmas Eve. No exceptions.

Perplexed (and ticked about Rule No. 1), I spent a few hours analyzing the handwriting on the lid. I was no stranger to handwriting analysis. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden were my literary idols.

The Christmas when I was 10, I noticed that the thank you note Santa left was written on the same notepaper my mom kept in the cupboard. The handwriting was just like my dad’s. Being a wary and somewhat nervous child, I was relieved!! to know the truth about Santa; to know that on the night before the night before Christmas, no old guy wandered around our house looking for paper and a pen while we all slept. It was my dad all along! Whew…

Seven years later, though…

I couldn’t figure it out. The handwriting on the can wasn’t obvious. Was it a boy’s handwriting? A girl’s? I couldn’t tell. There were a few strange customers at Country Kitchen who might leave me gifts outside my house, but that was too creepy to consider. I wasn’t dating anyone seriously, and definitely not anyone of mystery or intrigue.

Out of guesses, there was nothing more I could do but let the can sit under the tree for seven torturous days.

On Christmas Eve, I sat on the couch with a can opener in my hand. Dad read the Christmas story. Then my little sister opened her first gift. Then my little brother opened his first gift. (Haraldson Christmas Rule No. 2: Gifts are always opened in order of age.) When it was finally my turn, I cranked open the can as fast as I could. Inside was a teddy bear and a note: “Merry Christmas. Love, Dad.”

Best gift ever.

Wishing you all a very merry night before night before Christmas!

Twin Daughters of Different Fathers

I’m (finally) putting together a book compiled of my favorite columns and blogs that I’ve written over the past 20 years. The process has been like looking at photo albums with commentary.

I wanted to share this particular column I wrote in 2004 because I am stunned/happy/laughing at how, 14 years later, what I wrote about my daughters still holds true. Carlene and Cassie, you still are the lights of my life, and I love you both so much. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Twin Daughters of Different Fathers 

Sometime in 2004 

Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisburg collaborated on an album in 1979 called Twin Sons of Different Mothers. It was my favorite nighttime music, and a welcome change from disco. Fogelberg’s words and Weisburg’s flute fed both the angst and peace of my typical 16-year-old self. I knew every note, every crescendo, every run. I even taught myself the flute part from the first track, “Twins Theme.” Life was full of possibilities. I was going to be either a veterinarian or a roadie for the Eagles. I’d have died laughing if someone told me that instead, within 5 years, I would produce my own “album”: Twin daughters of different fathers. 

Never one to do things the conventional way, I turned the old saying “The first child can take any time, the second one takes nine months” on its ear. 

Everyone assumed daughter number one was a guest at her father’s and my wedding. Otherwise, why would a 23-year-old farmer marry an 18-year-old city girl? When Carlene made her appearance, reluctantly, three weeks shy of our one-year anniversary, the finger counting had ended and people realized she took the “morally correct” nine months to come into being. 

We were a happy little family unit of three, making plans to expand. But just as life requires birth, it requires death. My farmer boy died, leaving me and our little daughter a family of two. We moved to the city, where I went through the motions of life, feeling very little and making choices I wouldn’t otherwise make if not for the constant numbness. It was within this almost hypnotic state that daughter number two came into being. 

Cassandre was an actual guest at my second wedding. She was 9 months old, teething and crawling, and unaware of the way she turned my world right side up again. Carlene had nicknamed her Cassie Bear in the hospital, and liked to hold her like her favorite Cabbage Patch Doll, which in so many ways Cassie was. They became like the Chinese symbol yin-yang: two opposite energies that could not exist without each other. So it was no surprise to me when Carlene moved to Pittsburgh recently, living as close to Cassie as she could without actually having to share a bathroom. 

When Carlene was born, her burgeoning personality was not like anything she’d exhibited in utero. A constant kicker and puncher inside, there was no child as quiet and modest as Carlene. Cassie, on the other hand, moved very little, which kept me anxious nearly the entire pregnancy. If not for the hiccups she got nightly, I’d have been a constant basket case. Once she was out, she hit the ground running, and made sure everyone knew she was alive. 

Carlene loved to nap. I had to wean her from them a few weeks before she started kindergarten. She still likes to get 10 hours of sleep when she can. Cassie, of course, liked being awake, and stopped taking naps at age 2 simply because, like Bartleby the Scrivener, she preferred not to. She still thrives on motion, and I usually need a nap after spending a day with her. 

Everyone has a ratio of book smarts to street smarts. Our ability to think more than feel or feel more than think parlays into our daily lives and influences everything, from the choices we make about which car to buy or clothes to wear, to the jobs we take, the people we choose as friends and lovers, the movies we watch, or the games we play. Mothering two such opposite children gives me a front seat to this psychology. Carlene thinks deeply and methodically. Cassie feels deeply and passionately. Carlene carefully plans. Cassie makes decisions on the fly. Carlene follows directions. Cassie makes up the rules as she goes. Both are independent in very different ways: Carlene stubbornly so and Cassie instinctively so. 

Cassie is a defender of the underdog. Carlene prefers justice. 

Carlene got As in calculus, but it took her weeks to learn how to check the oil and fill the windshield wiper fluid tank in our car. Cassie couldn’t see what the Pythagorean theorem had to do with her, but she earned enough money from dog sitting, cat sitting and a paper route to buy a stereo, computer and television. Cassie instinctively knows things most of us have to learn. The world outside of books makes sense to her, where Carlene would be lost without books. 

The girls often flew to Minnesota, Seattle, and Los Angeles to see family. As you might guess, Carlene was an aisle-seat girl and Cassie loved the window. Yet for all her adventurousness, it was Cassie I put in charge of the money and calling card (and her sister, too, for that matter). 

Sighing “I’ll do it” accompanied by an eye roll was a common occurrence for Cassie, killer of spiders and plunger of toilets. Yet it was Carlene who risked bodily injury to clean Cassie’s room while she was away so that Cass had a path to her bed. 

Cassie takes pride in her physical strength. I often wonder if it wasn’t Cassie’s example that convinced Carlene to join the track team in high school. We’d always said Carlene was smart as a whip, but ran like a girl. Challenging herself physically that way uncovered a new side of her, one she still embraces today. 

Their similarities are what we all want children to be: hard working and kind. They were courteous to my friends and co-workers and, except when Cassie would crawl under the table in restaurants to pull out a loose tooth when she was little, I was never embarrassed to take them out in public. 

Carlene never left home easily. Cassie was out the door almost as soon as she got her diploma. That they live in close proximity again makes me happy. I worry less that Carlene will get lost (she has a lousy sense of direction) or that Cassie will be sad (that dominant “feeling” side of her has its downside sometimes). 

I found my copy of Twin Sons of Different Mothers while writing this column. “Paris Nocturne” is still a lovely song, and it reminds me that the 16-year-old I was still lives inside this 42-year-old body. At 16, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, a groupie, a poet, and a pilot, but becoming a mother in a circuitous fashion to two engagingly polar opposites was more heady and humbling than anything I could have ever imagined sitting in my room in the dark, listening to music. 

 

Don’t Let the Anger Eat You. Please.

20171227_120043Around 2 a.m. this morning, Zuzu the Wonder Dog needed to go outside. Most nights, in a sleepy stupor, I open the door, she does her thing, and she trots back in. This morning, though, before I opened the door, I saw standing under the neighbor’s yard light the silhouette of a large buck. He was looking in our direction and Zuzu was looking in his. God knows she loves to bark at and chase wildlife (just ask our cats and the bear she chased away from the garbage last week), and so I snapped on her collar and leash and took her out manually. I thought the buck would run away, but he just looked at us. He was quite amazing.

After heading back to bed, I laid awake for 30 minutes before I gave up sleep and went to the spare room. The windows were open and I listened to the crickets, and heard the faint call of an owl. It warmed me inside. Melted some of that ice cold anger I’ve felt since Dr. Ford said #MeToo.

#MeToo is so big that it can be overwhelmingly draining without self-care. It’s as important to make space to listen to stories of sexual assault as it is to honor our own emotions and reactive feelings. For me, the good that’s come out of the last few weeks is that I’ve strengthened my meditation practice, heightened my awareness, and deepened my compassion. Have I been a perfect practitioner? Just look at my Facebook posts. But I won’t turn away from the anger – it has an important place in our emotional lives – but I won’t let it swallow me whole.

In these times, I’ve found the practice of inquiry to be the most useful. Rather than try to fix anything, I sit with my feelings of anger, disappointment, and downright despair, and I name them. Examine them. Allow them to wash through me without doing anything except being fully aware of their power. My mantra is “I don’t understand why this is happening,” rather than a question such as, “Why do people knowingly inflict harm?” I’ve found that sitting with a statement gives me strength to contemplate a question. As Tara Brach explains, “The intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment. While inquiry may expose judgments and thoughts about what we feel is wrong, it focuses on our immediate feelings and sensations.”

Sexual power and religious absolutism are the gods de jure, and they need to be brought to justice one story, one protest, one vote at a time. But please, take care of yourselves and your emotional lives as you journey on. Use inquiry to identify what’s good in your life, too. Breathe. And then breathe again. And again. Listen to crickets or children laughing or even the hum of a fan. Before you act, do nothing more than focus your attention on a tree, a house, a piece of artwork, or a deer standing in a yard light in the middle of the night. Inquiry builds the emotional muscle we need to carry on.

Namaste, my friends. Have faith that in the long run, justice and goodness – and not paranoia and fear – will prevail.

Grief Really Shouldn’t End. Here’s Why.

Recently, the husband of a dear friend was killed when a tree limb fell on him while he was working in his yard. A freak and random accident, it has left my friend stunned and so very, very sad.

I’ve written many times in this blog about grief, and how it bounces in and out and around our lives, and sometimes lands in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times (like there’s ever a good time for loss). But you know grief. It doesn’t wait for an appointment.

Sudden loss can feel like an ambush. It barges in and takes over everything, and the accompanying emotions crawl inside us, infiltrate and define our most tender feelings, and they never really leave, even when we don’t feel them as acutely anymore. Time goes by and we go about our lives, not thinking about grief, perhaps even (foolishly) thinking we’ve conquered it, feeling like we’re so over ____________ (fill in your loss), and then WHAM! We find ourselves in a friend’s kitchen, helplessly hugging her as she cries desperately in her own mourning, grieving a loss that, while uniquely hers, feels very, very familiar. The emotions from our own day of loss flood back, perhaps not as strong, but it is grief’s way of reminding us that it never, ever goes away.

There are times, too, when grief is more subtle. It refuses to readily identify itself. Your life, by all accounts, is fine, you’re holding it together, and you even dared to be happy and smile again. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you wake up one morning with an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, feeling like you can’t pull the blanket off from around your head. You wander around dazed for a while – a day, a week, a month, longer – unable to put your finger on the culprit because, you know, that death/loss was so long ago and you’re, like, totally over it, so it must be something else.

But it’s not.

I write this to remind us that grief is not something we ever finish. And honestly, I don’t think it’s supposed to end.

I’m not saying we should feel miserable all the time or constantly remind ourselves of what we’ve lost in our lives. But loss and grief are inevitable for each one of us, and instead of trying to drink it away, drug it away, fuck it away, eat it away, or work it away, why not we use the hell out of it and grow empathy where perhaps there wasn’t any? Even if someone’s loss isn’t exactly the same as ours, understanding that the experience of loss is overarching and universal can train us to be more understanding, kind, helpful, and – when warranted – involved in bringing change to what is wrong.

Grief can strengthen us and, sadly, destroy us, but there’s no in between. The thing is, though, that even when we think it’s destroying us, it just might be strengthening us, teaching us more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know. This is not to say that what brought us to grieve is somehow a good thing. Personally, I’d rather my (and my friend’s) husband was alive, or the baby I miscarried had been born, or that the things I lost in the fire hadn’t burned, or that my brother’s memory was intact, or that any of the other losses I’ve experienced in my life hadn’t happened. But all of these losses make up my real life. Subsequently, grief, too, is a part of my real life, and I want grief to have meaning and a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to listen to a friend who is hurting.

P.S. We witnessed a simple and bittersweet lesson in grief recently when a female orca whale carried her dead baby on her back for 17 days before finally letting it go. She didn’t adhere to some cultural agenda that said you get a few days to grieve and then you’re supposed to get on with your life. She grieved in her own way, and so should we.