barreling on, gently…
it wasn’t the winter break it was supposed to be. or the christmas. or the new years. two of us were behind closed doors for days on end. one of us is still shuffling from armchair to armchair, plopping down for little puffs of air. another one has blotchy red spots on the back of his hands, covid rash they call it. the other two of us strained to keep two steps ahead and out of the path of the red-spiked intruder.
but we barreled on, the four of us. christmas-morning bread pudding finally billowed in the oven on january 2. and ever since we’ve been trying to shove the train back onto the rails, to make the most of these 10 days before flights and calendars dissipate us once again.
it dawned on me in the middle of the night, as i shuffled through the dark to trace my way to the bathroom down the hall, that we were––at that very moment––all four of us safe under one single roof, as is my most settled equation, as is the variable i’ve prayed for, waited for, for two long years. and it hit me just as quickly how the four of us, over the years, have grown to be our own impenetrable force, a circle of loving each other fully and thoroughly through thick and thin and whatever the whims of life hurl our way.
we’ve worked hard at that. it doesn’t come without determination and practice. it’s a living, breathing exercise in turning the other cheek, in forgiving, in listening, in quietly knocking on a bedroom door and asking, “can i come talk?” it’s long long hours on the long-distance line. it’s jumping in the car and driving hours, if necessary. it’s showing up, again and again. it’s being willing to admit, i blew it. i worry too much. i got scared. (or whatever is the foible of the hour.)
it’s believing in the best of each other. and giving yourself the time to see it. it’s figuring out that if someone else sees the best in me, maybe the best is deep down under there, after all.
it’s a lifelong practice in practicing. in knowing there will be days when you don’t quite do your best. when your voice comes out in sharper tones than you’d intended. when you wish you lived alone. when tears sting your eyes, and eventually you hold each other tight.
it’s a testament to loving played out in episodes that take your breath away: the time the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, strewn on the bike path; the time your kid called to say he got into the law school of his dreams; the time the brand-new driver slunked in the house and handed over the speeding ticket he’d just gotten on his first friday night out; the time your mom turned to you and said they’d found a tumor, and weeks later your then-little one proposed a hat party to make a little bit of joy out of grammy losing all her hair.
those are the strands that make a family, that stand a chance of weaving something whole in a world of rampant brokenness. it’s the little asides at the dinner table, or while stirring onions on the cookstove, the gospel spelled out––again and again––in certain truths you dare impart. it’s the notes you slide under the bedroom door. the stories they hear you share at the kitchen counter, or listening in on one of your phone calls. that’s the slow-unfurling whole of who you are, and what you believe, what you stand for, that gets spelled out, inscribed, passed on without a slip of parchment.
families are made by choice or by birth. both stand strong against the cold winds of history. families take endless work, and infinite joy. at our house, it’s the laughter that is the certain glue. the antics that punctuate the pure delight. sometimes, too, it’s tears, the willingness to cry. always, it’s the listening, and the curiosities that drive the questions. hours and hours of questions. of true and telling replies.
it’s the most important work i’ve ever done. making a family, day after day after blessed loving day. it’s the hardest work, and the work that lifts my soul more than any other aim i’ve reached for.
my definition of family is nothing like it was when i was little. i used to look to the scrubbed and polished clans who filled the church pew, all in matching hats and coats, lined up like stepping stones in graduated sizes. a lifetime of paying attention clobbered that flimsy facade. now the ones who teach me how it works are the ones who weather heartache, who do not give up, who tell the truth, don’t hide the hard parts.
i remember in the hours before my firstborn was born, i was sitting all alone at the kitchen table, and i whispered words to God, promised to envelope that sweet child in all the love i could muster, to harbor him from every hurt. i’ve found out over the years that you can’t keep the ones you love from hurt, from heartache. but you can build a mighty shield, you can build an unbreakable ring of love and light, and you can be there to catch ’em when they falter, you can wrap them in your arms, rest their heads against your heartbeat, and you can promise them your love is one inextinguishable force, and your light will always always burn for them. and you can always make ’em laugh. and listen to their secrets, their hopes, their dreams, their prayers.
and when the days don’t unfold the way you’d wished, the ways you’d dreamed of, well, you can wait till the darkness ends, and you can tuck a new bread pudding in the oven, and you can shuffle to the kitchen table, join hands, squeeze tight, and whisper, thank you God for bringing us this holy, holy moment, and letting us weather all of life––its best, its worst––with each other at our backs, our sides, our wholes.
every family is its own story, is a vessel for a hundred thousand stories, some passed down from generations, and it’s hard work to make a tiny community of similar-but-unique human beings coalesce into something whole. how do you get through the hard parts? what’s your one essential ingredient? (questions need only be for your own personal reflection, as is always always the case.)
tis january, a month of new beginnings, and a happy birthday blessing to the one and only MJH, loyal reader, dear friend of this ol’ chair, and to my longtime beloved comrade MBW, whose birthdays are today!
My goodness, Barbara, this is every mother’s wish and prayer, all in one: the good, the terrifying, the sublime aspects of building and keeping a family. Thank you for the new gift in this new year. Sending love and healing to your home.
oh, sweet andrea. i smiled ear to ear when i saw you here! i am always so touched and surprised to discover who has pulled up a chair. it makes me so happy to picture you by my side here. sending love. and a big big hug.
Only you, in your own dismay- can bring from the storm, solace. I love you for all of this. Please, please, please- be well.
and i love you, beautiful true wonder, true wisdom. xoxoxoxox
Prayers are answered every day. This post is one of them. Bless you, bless you, every one. ❤
and bless you, sweet angel…..bless you, bless you. xox
You speak truth, Barbara. Especially “and when the days don’t unfold the way you’d wish…” – The condo building that my friend’s daughter lives in had a fire in the middle of last night and when told to leave, she dashed out grabbing her phone, wearing only her pjs, forgetting a coat, keys, purse – and shoes. In below zero weather. Grateful to the police officer who gathered her into his warm car. She is safe, the fire was small, but oh your words and prayers for when life gets rough…
oh, honey, this is sooooooo wrenching. what can we do? can we do anything?
Thank you for your concern! The management company has informed all residents that it will be 6-10 months (!!!) until they will be able to move back in – with no explanation about why it will take so long. She will move in with her 79-year old mother. What is heart wrenching is that she just can’t get a break, with other things that have happened. If we remember that God is in this, I am curious to see how this may transform into an unexpected positive…
The photo of the boys put a big smile on my face. Bread pudding does the same thing. Yum!
me, too! ❤ ❤
What a beautiful, moving read!!! I just loved it! This is the bones of a beautiful book!! So many wonderful messages right here!!! Wonderful messages to show the way to a be, loving family! Love!!!!( Happy Birthday to your sweet friend xx)
Sent from my iPhone
xoxoxo thank you, beautiful mar….you probably saw the same “perfect” families lined up like graduated stepping stones in the pews of holy cross……..we are so much wiser now….
You are amazing, finding the light in all the darkness. You are an inspiration. Thank you. Continued strength and healing.
thank you, beautiful jackie……xoxox may the light find us all in all its shards and beams……
Dear BAM thank you for inviting us to your table so that we in turn can return to the tables in our homes and hearts. May healing, courage and hope be with you, your family and all who pull up a chair today.
gosh, slj, it’s been a long while since we’ve been gathering here. this all started just a month or so after we met you in the ICU. here’s to long unbroken heartstrings…..
I love this photograph – and the news that you are all on the mend – SO much!
Ellen Blum Barish
Writer and Coach
Author of Seven Springs: A Memoir (Shanti Arts)
Author, Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family & Life (Adams Street Press)
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thank you, dear ellen. slowly but surely……
Fabulous. Amazing. You are the poet of family life, seeing it not through rose-colored glasses, but for what it really is—a joint effort, one that requires endless practice and endless love. Thank you for putting these thoughts into beautiful, bracingly honest words.
love you fred. xoxox through and through.