The headstone at my grandparents’ grave bears witness to at least five generations of my family who lived and died in the same few cities north of Boston.
Having spent his whole personal and professional life in the same city, my dad knows everyone. Students who had him forty years ago in junior high hail him at restaurants. He went to high school with former mayors and my childhood soccer coach. He met his two best friends in first grade, and all three still live within a couple of miles of each other.
When I graduated from college, I did not even think about going home.
Never mind actually living with my parents. I wanted to see what else was out there: live in a different part of the country for maybe a couple of years and then settle within an hour or two drive from my hometown. I don’t consider myself adventurous or risk-taking or even brave. My gut told me that someplace new was the right choice.
Through my post-college years, I’ve discovered my inner West Coaster. Despite my deep and abiding love for my family, I feel like I belong to a place far away from where most of them live.
For a while I felt like I didn’t belong in my hometown. I didn’t fit in. I felt like a black sheep in my family. (Hormonal teen angst may have had something to do with this.) I chafed against the old familiar streets, houses, sights that were so much part of my early life.
In early adulthood, when I went home for a visit, I returned to the same house just like I returned to the same habits and behaviors I had worked hard to move on from. I became 8 again. Or 12. Or 16.
Now, having established my identity elsewhere, I have discovered that my fondness for my hometown increases as I get older. Each time I go home, part of me still feels like a little girl again. Especially with my extended family–and especially in the past six months for my two grandmothers’ funerals.
Except this time, that little girl cherishes the sense of belonging to family that has always been there, rooted deep beneath the blooming of individual identity and self-discovery. The little girl who adores her aunts and uncles, who is teased by her cousins and brother, who trades sarcasm with the best of them, who knows that her tribe started with them.
That little girl misses her Nana and Grandma, Grampy and Grandpa.
That little girl is also the woman who has heard the wheels of time shift: that my little girls and little boy are now the kids growing from the roots of this family, that we are the parents, and my parents and aunts and uncles are the grandparent generation.
When I visit the cemetery, I can see the line of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and on carved into concrete. My name will not be among them.
Instead, that place is in me. The person that I have become can go home again–not to stay, but to remember, and appreciate, and love the place for its part in who I am.
My kids turn five on Tuesday.
There have been some rocky times around here, behavior-wise. We’re working on things. Like anger management. Like impulse control. Like “the grown-ups are actually in charge here.”
Yesterday and today got a lot better. Here are some gems:
- Theresa: Mama! I made you a fruit salad [drawing]. It has spinach, chocolate, strawberries, and blueberries.
- On Jamie getting excited about various forms of transportation: Audrey, sighing: “My brother. The elevator man.”
- Alan imitating Theresa, who mispronounces “hoisin”: “Would you like some ha-wa-zin?” Jamie: “It’s wa-zin. The H is silent.”
And finally, a conversation in the car:
Jamie: I have two god-dads. [Uncle Jeff and Uncle Colin]
Theresa: Jamie, when you say ‘god-dad,’ you really mean ‘godfather,’ right?
Audrey: It’s okay to say god-dad in the house, but in public it’s more polite to say godfather.
Last Thursday, I delivered a eulogy for my Nana, who died at almost 96 after suffering with Alzheimer’s for 15+ years. I wanted to share it here in case anyone wanted to get a sense of who she was or what she meant to me and my family.
On behalf of my family, thank you for being here. Even if you did not know my Nana well, if you know any of us, you know her. Nana and Grampy shaped a large part of who we are, and we come together today to celebrate her.
In the Jewish tradition there is a saying when someone dies: “May their memory be a blessing.” After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and started living at the Atrium, I asked family members and friends to send me memories of Nana. They used words like warm, caring, compassionate, loving, thoughtful, welcoming.
She would be the last to accept this praise, just as she was always the last to eat the holiday meal that she had prepared, spending most of her time leaping out of her chair to get something from the kitchen. She would probably instead say “Glory be!” and “Now, dahlin’” as she recited another rosary.
Her mother died when Nana was 18. Although she was not the oldest in her family of eight siblings, she was the one to take care of them all, including her father. When she told me about this, she said,
“And my pa came to me, and he said, Anne, you’ll help me, won’t you? And I said, sure pa, that’s just how I said it. Sure, pa, I’ll help you. And I did.”
She devoted the rest of her life to taking care of others. Having lost her own mother, she found one in her mother-in-law and cared for her until the end of my great-grandmother’s life. Her three daughters-in-law called her not Anne or Mrs. Ruth, but “Ma”: a symbolic syllable of deepest affection. When my brother discovered that he and AJ were pregnant with their first child, my mom asked them if she could be called “Nana”: the best tribute we can bestow.
My Nana’s children and their friends remember her as the neighborhood mother. Everyone was welcome in her yard and, maybe more importantly, in her kitchen.
She loved children. When my cousin Michael was brought home from the hospital, Nana held my hand and practically dragged me down the back stairs to run down the driveway to see the newest member of our family. Many babies in Lynn and beyond were warmed by her crocheted baby sweaters or blankets.
For each holiday, Nana sent each grandchild a card with two one-dollar bills and “Love, Nana and Grampy” scrawled with thin Palmer penmanship on the inside. When I was in college and brought home friends for Thanksgiving, she started sending them cards, too. My first-year roommate said, “I remember when I first met her and she just welcomed me as if she had known me for years. And every time I saw her after that, it was like I was one of her grandchildren.”
She nurtured the Ruth competitive spirit playing board games with us and Bingo for quarters. She read books from the child-height bookshelf in the main room. Her cookie jar perenially held peanut-shaped cookies that I thought only came from Nana’s kitchen–it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered you could buy them in a store. She made sure each of us never forgot that she was proud of us, that we were loved unconditionally.
She and Grampy were the center of our extended family, the Celtic knot that wove us together. They showed us what a solid, faith-filled and faithful marriage looks like. Neighbors, friends of friends, parishioners at St. Pius were drawn to them. The mailman, delivery person, construction workers doing street maintenance: they loved my Nana. She brought them cold drinks, cookies, and friendly conversation.
She spent her entire life giving to others. Now she has entered heaven to embrace her parents, her siblings, and her husband, and to be embraced by Christ and Mary and all her beloved saints. She is free from suffering and at peace.
She leaves some tangible things: Aunt Rea’s eyes twinkling with generosity. Uncle Bill’s red(ish) hair and good humor. Uncle Jim’s bear hugs. My dad’s smile of pure joy as he plays with his grandchildren.
She also leaves the intangible: the bond we have as Ruths. Hers was a strong, centering influence in our lives, and that influence holds us together even without her presence. She turned everyone she knew into her family; so we too take the memories and love from 214 Maple Street into our own lives, sharing Nana’s generosity, her fairness, gentleness, and patience, with everyone we meet.
May we love as fully. May we serve as selflessly.
May her memory be a blessing.
I’m traveling alone. The last time I flew, I met Elise in Denver and we drove to Aspen to visit Paddy and co. There were so many joys of that trip, and sadness.
Traveling alone is weird. I’m used to running an odd errand alone, or commuting alone, or even from time to time connecting with a friend without my kids in tow. But flying alone feels a little like missing a limb. My carry-on backpack is so empty without the three days’ worth of snacks and books and extra-things-just-in-case.
When I was a new mom, other new moms would tell me they felt weird going out without their babies. They were so used to having to check on or hold or address the needs of their babies that when going solo, these moms felt like something was missing.
I felt guilty, sure, but also free. Like my old self.
Becoming a parent rocks one’s world in a way I could not have anticipated and still have trouble describing. Yesterday I met my college friend Pete and his wife and their eleven-month-old (super incredibly adorable) baby. Pete and I connected briefly about the weirdness of getting up in the morning and having one’s child dictate the routine, rather than having our old adult agenda.
When I went back to work, there was so much chaos around my new job: crammed into the only available office space, lacking a phone number (or phone), starting a week into the school year. Still, the instant I set up for my first class, I had an overwhelming sensation of being home. Where I am meant to be. Where people know me as a professional and not as “the mom of triplets” (which of course I am proud to be, but it’s odd to have that become my defining quality after over a decade of teaching).
Now my identity is so bound to my kids that I miss them like crazy already, and I haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.
My mom identity also has helped me look at others differently. More compassionately. Last weekend, we went to the crowded Tulip Festival and people-watched. Today I walked the length of the airport to get to an empty security line, and noticed. The people I used to silently mock for their pretension or their disorganization or their tackiness.
I mean, how do people look at me, corralling my troupe or in my Value Village playground-friendly fashion?
My new identity has become, simply, my identity. More complex than it used to be. At first it brought confusion and instability; now it is its own stability and comfort.
I’m glad I miss my kids now. It makes me appreciate solo travel and people-watching and working. And flights without negotiations over Mommy time are refreshing when they happen.
It’s about routine, they said.
If you don’t have a routine, then kids won’t know what to expect, and they’ll act out.
It’s about quality time, they said.
If your kid is acting out, maybe it’s their way of asking for attention.
It’s about Talking So Kids Will Listen. It’s about 1, 2, 3, Magic. It’s about Emotionally Intelligent Children.
It’s about time parenting experts shut up.
It’s not us. It’s the kids.
It’s two nights in a row of one kid throwing a screaming tantrum, throwing toys and running around–and last night, biting my husband on the shoulder–because it’s a rule in our house that you can’t eat dinner naked.
It’s fights with us at bedtime: No, you can’t have more water because I have to wash your sheets several times a week as it is. No, I already gave you plenty of hugs. Your question can wait till tomorrow. No, you don’t need a band-aid.
It’s about kids pulling the I don’t want to, I don’t have to, you can’t make me resistance to perfectly Normal and Routine requests that escalates said requests into crying and consequences.
[Incidentally, I bet my parents are rolling on the floor right now.]
We are doing everything we’re supposed to. We have routines. We have expectations (like, wash your hands before you eat). We get push-back all the damn time.
And oh, of course, they are adorable–like all three holding hands with their friend Ella as they walked to Children’s Liturgy yesterday. Of course they are hilarious–giving themselves and each other the giggles. Of course they are super sweet–like Theresa, without being asked, giving Audrey her balloon on Saturday after Audrey’s popped.
And of course they are boundary-pushing, sometimes overtired, sometimes hangry, jealous, shoving, biting, toy-throwing little…people.
I started this post two weeks ago. Then the brilliant Janelle posted this on Renegade Mothering the other day. Spot on, sister. With more cussing but more wit.
And there you have it.
I started this post just after Christmas over a year ago. Which is only fitting, because it takes us many weeks to take down our tree and put away our decorations. Anyway, happy holidays from us, 14 months ago:
On accentuating the positive: having the 24-hour stomach bug had two upsides:
- It was like a cleanse, but took a lot less time.
- It involved a very tired Theresa being plopped next to me on the bed and saying, “Mommy, the only thing I want to do is snuggle with you.” Good thing, too, because the only thing I could do was lie down and hug her.
Trip to CA:
Hanging out with some of our favorite people in CA (apologies to Maya, Noah and Mikey, and others I didn’t get pics of):
Lots of exercise:
And more moments:
My students wonder why all the literature we read is “so depressing.” It’s hard to tell these teens the truth: that much great literature, great art, great music are born out of suffering and teach us how to live with pain.
Some of them already know great pain. They have lost parents, siblings, other relatives. They endure deep betrayals, debilitating illnesses.
Not all pain has to do with death, but it has been much on my mind recently.
One morning last October I walked to our church to sit in our familiar pews among familiar faces and celebrate a funeral Mass for our friend Anne.*
Anne was 62 and had been suffering from several different serious illnesses. She was a beautiful spirit, musical, laughing, genuinely interested in others. Deeply prayerful and faith-filled. I did not know her as well as I know her husband, but I knew her well enough to know that her spirit radiated generosity and kindness. When she died, I wrote to her husband, who was and is devastated by the loss of his other half and true love:
And now death’s wake is only praise,
as when a neighbor writes and says,
“I did not know your father, but
His light was there. I miss the light.”
(from May Sarton’s “A Celebration for George Sarton”)
The light that day in the church poured through the stained glass like honey, illuminating the faces and heads of those who received Anne’s love and loved her in return. It shone on the lectern when the priest gave his homily focused less on Anne’s life than on her death.
“It was the most peaceful death I ever saw,” he said. “She gave her love to her family members and graciously received their love for her.”
Her husband eulogized her as authentic–that she lived her passions. In his homily, the priest told us to “take the best from her and make it part of the best of you.”
Anne’s daughter, herself a new mom, bent in half in her pew, unable to walk out of church after Mass. Her suffering seemed a tangible burden.
When I was a high school student in love with great literature, I considered the idea of grief in the abstract. Then when I was in college, my high school French 1 teacher was murdered by her husband, who then shot himself, with their 5-year-old son in the house. I did not know what to do with the weight in my chest that wouldn’t go away.
After Madame’s death over Christmas break, there was a heavy snowfall. Thick, wet snow bent in half the arbor vitae behind my parents’ deck. My mom asked my brother and me to help with snow removal, so I grumblingly trudged outside in pajama pants and snow boots, heavy coat and gloves, to brush snow off the limbs.
As I did so, it occurred to me that what I was doing for the trees, my teachers and former classmates had done for each other during Madame’s wake and funeral. Taking turns helping each other stand upright again after being bowed with grief and loss. That this is what we are here for: to help each other through the hard stuff.
Last week, I had a karmic moment with my friend Jen, who was our friend group’s point person during Paddy’s illness. Paddy or his wife would send her information, and she would relay it to all of us, and flow messages back to them. I called her to talk through my irritability, my lack of patience, my sadness.
She told me about how Paddy, from his experience losing his brother at such a young age, helped her learn her own grief process when her friend died years ago. These strategies she now teaches to her students through her Writing to Heal classes.
In this way, Paddy, via Jen, is teaching me how to grieve.
I know that he would not want us to wallow in our sadness, to let it overwhelm us to the point of not being able to function in our families or in our work. But it was healing to learn from Jen that it’s okay to have sad days, to let the sorrow come and also to let it go.
My yoga teacher loves the word “equanimity.” I am trying to reach a place where equanimity rests–where grief and joy can coexist instead of being mutually exclusive. Hamlet does not learn how to let his grief go. Hester Prynne does let her grief go, but does not attain any sense of equanimity with joy, either. Tim O’Brien turns his grief into “story-truth,” figuring out how to live with it.
That’s what we do. We read great literature. We listen to great music. We look long at the mountains across the water as their snowcap glows in the winter sun. We lean on our friends and family when we are bent in half by the weight of pain, and they help us stand up again. We do the same for them. And by being present to this pain, we may still experience our joys and loves in the face of loss.
“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.” –J. Krishnamurti
*not her name
When I turned 18 on the 18th, one of my high school teachers told me that in Hebrew, chai means “alive” and can also stand for the number 18.
Twenty years later, I raise a glass in gratitude:
- to my compassionate, hilarious, awesomesauce husband
- to poetry, from Hamlet read in my classes to “Casey at the Bat” read at bedtime
- to weeknight dinners with friends
- to theater
- to all my kindred spirits
- to health insurance
- to my students
- to my teachers
- to competent, supportive bosses, past and present
- to letting go
- to my children, whose initial foray into “Go Fish” was similar to their initial understanding of Hide-and-Seek: “Do you have any fives?” “Let me sort them.” [Kid spreads all cards from her hand on the table.] “No. I just have threes, eights, ones.”
- to those whose memories are blessings
One of my very favorite quotes (from one of my very favorite books, To the Lighthouse) is this:
What is the meaning of life?…the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.
L’chaim tovim ul’shalom (For good life, and for peace). L’chaim v’l’vracha (To life and to blessing).
Since Valentine’s Day gives me the great opportunity to reflect on love in all its manifestations (like chocolate!), here are some recent examples:
- my friend Cari’s husband, a nuclear astrophysicist, explained the spacetime continuum to me after I enthusiastically brought up the gravitational waves discovery. It’s about time that astrophysicists have their time in the sun (haha) to profess their love for the universe. Plus, he got an interview on the radio! He sent me additional articles like this one to help explain what happened and why it’s SO AWESOME.
- we saw Cari briefly with some other friends for the first time since she moved to Knoxville, and I love having friends with whom I can hug and laugh and drink wine and talk about everything from teaching to kids getting their learner’s permit to the Oscars, like we have never been apart.
- I love this new restaurant, Eve, which is reasonably fancy and delicious and has lots of things I can eat.
- a great pediatrician who prescribed eye drops for the kids when they came down with pinkeye–she prescribed an extra bottle because she recognized that more than one of them was more than likely to get it.
- my husband and I get to pretend we’re living the pre-kid married life for a couple of days. It’s very relaxing.
- our technician came back on Saturday with the necessary parts to fix our water heater, broken since Wednesday and not scheduled to be repaired until Monday. They expedited the parts to his boss’s house and he installed them Saturday afternoon.
- our neighbor let me shower at her house twice.
- I love that I found my wedding rings. They had been missing for two weeks and I couldn’t remember where I had last put them, so I tore apart our bedroom, the kitchen, etc. trying to figure out where they could be. Where they actually were: inside a finger of a kid’s play glove, on the floor of the basement by the toy storage bins. [I do not love that one of my children must have taken them to play with…but I do love that I found them.]
- my cousin met up with me at the Frye Art Museum for lunch and art and conversation. I love lunch and art, but mostly I love her.
- last week, my school had several fundraisers that clubs put on for Valentine’s Day, including individual faux roses. My very, very, very shy and withdrawn student, whom I make sit with some table group during discussions so he can listen but otherwise let sit by himself, usually sits with a group of four wonderful young women–the kind of young women that I hope my kids grow up to be like. My shy student sent each girl a rose. I cannot overstate how amazing this is. It makes me tear up just thinking about it.
“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Return of the King
Part of me has already said good-bye to my dear friend, Patrick, in the two years since his diagnosis of brain cancer.
Part of me never will.
Paddy died yesterday morning in peace and surrounded by love, especially his mother, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter. His passing brings grief to all of us who were blessed to call him friend. But I want to talk about how he lived, not that he died, because it is his living that changed me and impacted so many.
I met Paddy in college. A month before he had his first seizure that indicated the presence of glioblastoma multiforme, I wrote to him:
“I was searching through some really old e-mails yesterday and discovered a bunch that we had sent to each other in 2003-ish. An online spirit support group. They made me smile and miss your voice (in writing or otherwise). It has been a long time since we have talked! Marriage, children, careers, establishing new homes in new places: these things take our time, and rightly so. Still, just wanted to say that no matter how much time passes between our connections, you will always be one of my very kindred spirits.”
Paddy’s spirit left this earth far, far too soon. The best I can say I have already written, in a letter for his daughter; our college friends combined our letters and photos into a book for her, that she may someday know her dad.
When I think of your dad, I hear his laugh. If he finds something funny, his infectious “heh-HAH!” bubbles up from his deep well of humor, and he rocks back and forth, slowly clapping his hands as the guffaws roll.
When I think of your dad, I see his blue eyes, crinkled at the edges over his ear-to-ear smile or focused intently and earnestly on whomever is speaking. His eyes indicate his desire for understanding, his immense compassion, and his ability to be fully present.
When I think of your dad, I think of this quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“The creeks…are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation…The mountains…are a passive mystery, the oldest of all…Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”
When I think of your dad, I remember how he taught me to climb trees. I grew up as a city kid whose parents thought that trees around our house were dangerous, that woods were only a gathering place for illicit parties and a receptacle for broken bottles. At Middlebury, and later at Queechee and Plymouth and Great Barrington, I followed his lead, clumsily straining my arms to pull myself up onto branches the way he did so effortlessly. Once there, I understood why he loved this new perspective, being cradled in the arms of a tree after using muscle and grit and strategy to gain altitude, and looking out at the world through the leaves.
When I think of your dad, I remember how he played: tennis, soccer, skiing, biking, frisbee, hiking, running, swimming. I’m sure you know how he loved the outdoors–even at our New Year’s gathering in Great Barrington, before dinner we spent an hour or more on the basketball court near his house, slipping on the ice and playing basketball in the dark and frigid air. One of my favorite memories of senior spring at Middlebury is our hike up Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks. I was a pretty novice hiker, nervous about the slippery trail downhill, and he guided me all the way down, encouraging and offering a hand. Earlier that spring, he and Maya brought me swimming in the Middlebury River; I watched them splash in, buoyant and energized by the icy water. I leaped in, nearly had a heart attack at the shock of cold, and got out in minutes. He seemed so at home in the water: cold or warm, creek or ocean.
When I think of your dad, I remember our thoughtful conversations about spirituality, love, ambition. He introduced me to the writings of Terry Tempest Williams, Henri Nouwen, Wendell Berry. In 2003, he started a Spirit Circle with me, Jen Crystal, Elise, and later Maya: an e-mailed discussion of our lives, our struggles, our successes, our questions. How to change the world without ruining ourselves. How to make a difference–a real, systemic difference as well as personal difference. We talked about self-improvement. About how run-down we felt as young adults, eager to do good: save the environment, help children, advocate for the voiceless and powerless. How we weren’t sure we could sustain the level of energy we thought that goal required. I am happy to share any of his e-mails with you.
When I think of your dad, I feel his generous spirit, exemplified in his strong-armed bear hugs. He and his family opened their homes to all of us: we were not only welcome; we were family. He danced with me on my wedding day and became friends with my husband Alan. When I went through an emotional crisis, your dad sent me messages of hope and support and love. I hope we have been able to lift him up throughout his life in the same way he has lifted us.
When I think of your dad, I think about the work he has done: for Senator Houghton, for Orion, for the Aspen Institute. He has used his God-given gifts well: his gifts of thoughtful criticism, intellect, compassion, creativity.
Your dad lived the spirit of radical amazement: that constant state of wonder and gratitude that all of us aspire to.
Paddy was a fundamental part of my journey into becoming myself: that passage from teenager to adulthood defined by our passions, our failings, our experiences, risks, and loves. He taught me by being himself: asking thoughtful questions, living joyfully and in thanksgiving. It seems trite to say that all who knew him loved him, but I think that is the case for Paddy. His spirit of light shone through and illuminated the best in each of us.
I visited him and his family in Colorado last summer and processed a small part of his journey of illness with them. His wife, C., did what for me is unimaginable: helped her husband and best friend cope with dying while caring for their young daughter. C. poured out her grace, love, and strength to sustain her family through this most challenging time. Hers is a beautiful, courageous spirit, and I honor her here as I honor him.
C. helped him walk that part of his journey so that he could truly live every day of his life. He died with dignity, grace, faith, and above all, love.
This is what he wrote in an e-mail on Dec. 12, 2008:
“I wanted you to know that my beloved uncle…died last Thursday, and it has put everything else on hold. I flew home Tuesday, for the funeral Wednesday. It’s so extraordinarily sad. And yet, as always – the love rises up, covers the grief, rises above it – abounding, overflowing, covering us in light.”