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Category: mama

a bubbling up of gratitude

giving thanks 2013

any minute now, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots. it’s take-to-the-woods day here at our house. no malls, no credit cards need apply. we’re decidedly not interested in all things consumer-esque. the only things we care to breathe in today are cold air, wide-open sky, and the sound of our boots crunching dry prairie grasses.

but before we zip the triple-thick parkas and slide into the fattest mittens money can’t buy, it’s the hour of bowing our heads and unfurling gratitude.

i begin this year, and this particular season of life, with deepest thanks for all that’s conspired to take it up a notch. and the notch that matters most around here is the devotion to paying attention. paying supreme attention. in so many ways i’ve taught myself to live in a way that holds most frames of life up to the light. i’ve gotten quite skilled at stopping time, hitting the pause, relishing the breadth and depth: the way the light scatters across my wide-planked kitchen floor, beholding the scarlet flash as papa cardinal settles into the branches just beyond my kitchen door, absorbing the metronome of the schoolhouse clock’s tick and tock, the soft tickle of my little one’s curls against my cheek when he climbs in bed — still — for one last cuddle before i drift into slumber.

but in the past week, as my mama and i have stepped into this new corridor of time and holiness, i’ve noticed something new: it’s as if veils have been lifted, and conversation is purer than it’s often been. stories are unspooling abundantly. there’s a gentleness. forgiveness. it’s as if our hearts have melted toward a common purpose: we are forging into the unknown. we don’t know what’s around the bend. but what’s now is a newborn chance to relish. relish time. relish each other’s gentle company. relish the gift of an afternoon spent rolling out my mama’s mama’s butter-cookie dough, pressing the tin gobbler just so, dotting tail feathers with raisins, and through my mama’s keen invention of spatula and speed, airlifting from cutting board to baking sheet before the doughy gobbler loses half his heft.

it is the velvet underside of uncertainty, of doctor’s diagnoses stirring you from sleep, of waking up with a wobble in your belly, because you don’t know these woods. don’t know quite where the brambles are.

it’s the gift of reawakening. realizing all over again that every blessed hour is a miracle. and that you can choose just how to live it: rush it, or relish every drop.

thank you, Maker of All Holiness, for the noodge to relish.

thank you, too, for the gift of being home. for being back in this anointed old house that seems to know me from the inside out, to soothe me, and some days keep me from toppling. thank you for the red-checked chair with ample arms that invite me in, for the straight-backed sturdiness, across from where the logs crackle and the flames leap high and mesmerizingly.

thank you for the windows. for the flutterings and flashes just beyond the glass, as the clouds of gentle creatures take off and land, from sky to limb and back again — each time, lifting just a little bit of my heart.

thank you for telephones, for the rare sound of a voice that nestles soft against my heart. that, within a syllable, brings joy, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness, amplifies the hours spent in coming to this holy bond of deepest knowing.

thank you for the bits of news — of whatever ilk, good or bad or nasty — that percolate the hours of each day, make one slice of time so vastly different from the next, stitch drama to the script of life, offer us the chance to absorb each and every frame from an angle never known before.

thank you for wisdom, the sort that comes in unexpected flashes, when you only know you’ve found it as you feel your heart go thump, and you sit bolt upright, or feel the goosebumps sprout. might come reading along the pages of the news, or in a poem slipped under your transom, or from a stranger passing by. might come in the holy gospel of the wonder child, as you catch one last phrase tossed over a shoulder from the exiting seventh-grader at the schoolhouse door.

thank you for the dawn, that sacred cloak of in-between, when crescent moon dangles just above, but night gives way to morning’s light, and heaven’s dome, at the seam of earth and sky, soaks up scant threads of all-absorbent pink. thank you for the stillest hour when all that moves is barest breeze that rustles leaves, and far off, the stirrings of the lake that never cease.

thank you, most of all, for the deep down knowing that you, Holy Depth and Gentleness, never leave me adrift. never let my quakings take me down. ever bring me light, and tender touches. ever hold me up, against the chilling winds. and bring me to communion with all that’s glorious and bountiful in this rugged, rugged landscape.

so that’s the starter list, the scattershot splats of gratitude. here and there, hither and yon, as my heart and head skip here and there. as always, take up the gift of unfurling whatever makes you deeply grateful….

stack o turkeys

the power of five

power of five. four at zoo

this is us.

power of five. five.

this is the rest of us.

there are five of us. four boys + me. i’m number 2, and these days, the only one living near our center of gravity, our mama.

my mama ran into a little bump a week or so ago. and ever since, the five of us have been circling her like electrons to the proton that started it all. which, scientifically, she more or less is.

my mama, you know, if you’ve been pulling up a chair for a while, is one deep-of-the-earth mama. she’s often reminded me of those heavy-bottomed tipsy toys that never fall over, no matter how hard you push. (and before you go imagining my mama with a big heavy bottom, STOP!, she has nothing of the sort. she always prided herself on how she had to eat a whole pan of fudge to keep some weight on her skinny bones. what i mean is she’s taken more than her share of hits over the years, and she never ever wobbles. it’s rather uncanny.)

i’ll never forget one scene with my mama: it was at the kitchen door of the house where we did most of our growing up. the long black funeral car, the one that would carry us off — the five of us plus our mama — to the funeral home where we’d say one last rosary over my papa, before he was carried off — in a hearse — to the church and then to the cemetery, that funereal car had just pulled into our circle drive. you could hear its somber idling, telling us it was time, time for what we so deeply dreaded. but before she put her hand to the knob, my mama gathered us in a tight little circle. i was sniffling back sobs, and i know i wasn’t the only wet-eyed one in the bunch. but not my mama. she looked us solid in the eyes — mothers of five have a way of looking straight into five pairs of eyes all at once — and she said four words that i’ll never forget: “do your father proud.”

there’s another scene that i can’t help recalling: it was shortly after i’d miscarried my sweet baby girl, and the doctor kindly let me keep her beautiful little self. so i’d tucked her into the most beautiful wood box i could find, and with all the ceremony of yet another funeral, we drove — my husband, my firstborn, and me, clutching the box — into the cemetery, and up to the spot where, in the rain, we spotted my mama, with her foot to the blade of a shovel, standing atop my papa’s grave. she was digging a spot for her unborn granddaughter, right on the chest of my papa. “she’ll always be safe,” my mama whispered. and before we left, she handed me the sack of flower bulbs she’d brought along, thinking we might want to tuck in more beauty, along with our sweet little girl.

those are only two scenes. but they’re pretty much all you need to know about my mama to understand why the five of us — scattered just about as widely as you can be in this country and still be in the same country; from maine on the northeast, to long beach in southern california, from the mountains of northern arizona to the plains of toledo, ohio — tightened our orbit around her, soon as word went out that, in her words, she’d “flunked her physical,” on the eve of her 83d birthday.

somewhere deep inside, without anyone ever saying it, we all know that we are her lifeline (as she has ever been ours), and, marvelously, we all have a job. i’m the nurse, so it’s a good thing i’m closest in miles. i’m in charge of reading all the medical gobbledygook and driving to far-flung diagnostic outposts. brother number 2 is the one who will always always make her laugh, laugh so hard you just might wet your pants, but we won’t talk about that. another brother, the caboose at number 4, is the one we call the encyclopedia. he looks everything up, and knows the answer before the question is asked. and there’s the artist, brother 3, whose depth is immeasurable, and who always has had a connection with our mama that makes me think that in a past life they were strolling the side streets of paris together, ducking into ateliers of painters and thinkers, both of them in their french berets, their gauloises cigarettes dangling from chic cigarette holders. and then there’s the oldest, the one who takes his birth order to heart, and tries mightily to keep us in line. he’s the one who remembers every birthday, and slips in a $20 bill for each of his nephews, harkening a brand of uncle that is increasingly rare — and delectably sweet.

we’re it, the whole of the life squad. and, deep down, we know it. and, despite the miles and difference in time zones, and thanks to the miracles of texting and email, and the occasional phone call, we’ve all felt the centrifugal tug that’s pulled us tightly together. so tightly that before the doctor had even come into the wee little examining room yesterday, brother 4 had looked up and sent a link explaining the funny word i’d spotted on the medical report. by the time the doctor strolled in, i’d swallowed whole the national institutes of health take on this matter.

but the best part flowed in the hours after that appointment, after my mama and i walked out with sheafs of paper, and a date on the calendar. i’d be lying if i didn’t say our hearts felt a few pounds heavier in our chests. i’d be lying if i didn’t say i felt rather alone and a little bit wobbly (i’m still a student in my mama’s wobble-free school), and suddenly december was looking as gray as the snow clouds building in the late november sky.

but then, without asking, brother 4, the one with whom i’ve always shared far more than just that explosive BAM monogram, he announced he’d be here, right at our side. and not too many hours later, brother 3 said he too was mulling flight options.

and suddenly all my aloneness was wiped away, in that miracle that comes when you’re one of a gaggle. when your mama once looked you all in the eye, and admonished: do your father proud.

we will do our papa proud. we will be right there with our mama, as he so tenderly would have been. we will kiss her on the forehead as they roll her through the double doors, and we will try to keep the comedian from making her laugh so hard she tugs at her stitches. we are fully equipped, the five of us, to hold each other up, and most of all, to hold up our rock-solid sweet blessed mama, the one who’s always always there to rush to our rescue.

it’s what life brings when lived to the power of five.

so that’s the news of the week, here at the old maple table. pray for our mama, who will recover and be strong as an ox, as ever. undaunted by the week’s news, she’s joining me tonight in the kitchen of the homeless shelter where we’ll cook for folks whose lives are far more of a struggle than we’ll ever know. that’s how my mama keeps teaching lessons. she’s the tipsy toy that won’t topple, and she’s taught us all to try to live that very way.

when you travel through life’s tight spots, who clenches your hand and carries you forward? do you have brothers and sisters who lighten the load?

homey home

i didn’t find the squat yellow square right away. i wasn’t intended to. the someone who had scribbled it had tucked it away. left it in a hard-to-find place where i’d bumble upon it, oh, heaven-knows-when.

it was in the stack of post-its, when i eventually found it. not at the top where a name and a street address had been scribbled. it was one sheet down. quietly awaiting discovery.

actually, it was right on my desk, nestled beside my computer. so it wasn’t intended to take forever to find. just long enough. just enough to come up and tap me quietly on the shoulder. to say, psssst. here’s a message.

the message read: “you have a very ‘homey’ home!!”

i glowed when i read it.

especially because the someone who wrote it spends plenty of time here, but doesn’t live here herself. and i grew up in her house, a house i never really thought of as homey or not. it was simply, completely, capital-h Home. the place where most of my stories are rooted.

my mama wrote that note. my mama who is more inclined to note the beauty of a bird’s feather than to pay close attention to wallpaper. who cares more about tromping through the woods, in search of a bluebird’s nest, than picking out pillows for any old couch.

my mama, you see, grew up in a beautifully appointed house. a house where the living room was not to be touched. where nicknacks were to be tiptoed around. where when you sat down on a velvety cushion you tried not to move, lest you crumple the nap of the velvet.

i, growing up under the wing of these two house-makers, one spare, inclined toward the natural, the other well-upholstered, in a house with nooks and crannies that took my breath away, well, i seem to have landed plop in the middle.

give me a nook any day. give me a corner dripping with charm. but don’t over-upholster. and do bring the outside in.

the number one aim of this house that is ours is to make it feel like two out-reaching arms, arms that fold you in, hold you close to the bosom. arms that offer you tea, and maybe a crumpet, when the skies up above are gloomy and cloudy.

if that’s the very definition of “very homey,” and i think that it might be, well then, the words on the post-it did make me glow.

and to think that my mama, my mama who spends long hours here two days a week, hours when i’m not here, to think that she’d picked up on that bit of my heart, that one dream that i’ve sought out to catch, well, to say i was tapped on the shoulder, caught by surprise, made to blush, and glow just a bit, that might begin to capture the feeling.

i spend my workdays sometimes talking to folks about houses, how to unclutter, how to appoint. every once in a while, i’m told to gather a page-full of pictures of beautiful things, baubles, or doormats, or pillows. and now, don’t tell my bosses, but often, i couldn’t care less. it’s not what i’m after, not here in my house.

if there is any one thing i’ve worked hard to make here in this house is to make it be a someplace to come home to, a someplace where storms can’t come in, where the tock of clock, or the sharp scent of clove simmering on the stove are the soft things you just barely notice. notice enough to slow down the race in your heart, soothe the jaggedy edge of your nerves.

i want armchairs that hold you in their wings. and blankets so cozy you don’t want to move.

i want logs in a fireplace that crackle. and soft round cookies under the great glass dome on the kitchen counter.

i want neat and clean, yes, but only because i find it calms me. i want bits of the garden on my old kitchen table, even in winter.

i want candles on the table, and i want them most when they’re flickering, casting their soft seeds of light on plates filled with food.

if all of that makes me the poster girl for homey homes, well then bring on the cameras, slap me up on the telephone poles.

because long long ago, curled up on the patchwork quilt of my little-girl bed, daydreaming out a window, staring up through the branches of the oak that framed my view of the stars and the clouds, and mostly the heavens, i knew what i wished for when i was all grown: a wee cottage in the woods where the storybook could end happily ever after.

and my old gray-shingled house, under the limbs of an ash and a locust, it’s the closest i’ve come to that long-ago dream.

it is, at last, my homey sweet home.

what’s your definition of homey home? what parts of your house tickle your fancy, stoke the flames of your heart?

if she had a hammer…

if i close my eyes and conjure my mama, i do not see her face. i do not see her knees. or her lap. or her shoulders that have borne their share of weight–and then some.

no, i see my mama’s hands. ample hands. padded hands, not the sculpted sort at all, ones with nails clipped short, plain, unpainted, nails meant to steer clear from distraction, stay of out of the way, stand back and get the job done. i see fingers sturdy. fingers curled around a tool, most likely. most happily, for certain.

i see my mama with her bare, sure hands, on a chill spring day, the clouds erupted in an unrelenting mist. i see her baring down on the handle of a shovel. a shovel above a grave. where she is digging a hole that i might never have been able to dig. she digs a hole for the teeny baby girl we have come to bury, to tuck atop my papa’s chest. or what would have been, once.

i see my mama with a chair upturned, screwing in a leg. making a wobble vanish, disappear, with the alchemy of match sticks and paper wads she is known to pull from her bag of tricks when there is a job to be done and she does it her way. her unschooled, unorthodox, pay-no-mind-to-rules way. she employs pure common sense, and a bit of spit, when necessary.

and so it was, just the other weekend, she and i had at it. just steady hands and a screwdriver or two. maybe a tiny nail, at the start. and, of course, a hammer.

see, i’d cooked up this notion that what my ol’ screen porch needed was a long dining table. not the squat children’s table we’d been hauling over, nestled there between our knees and plates. half the beans, the blueberries tumbling to the floor, as they tried to cross the chasm between where the table left off and our lips began.

a year or so ago i’d eyed an old wood door, a fine door, a door that long ago had marked a fine separation from one chamber to another.

somehow, that old door had been discarded, its time up. its journey through.

it was tossed out where the dumpsters are. and where the great green garbage trucks rumble by, chew what’s left out for their week’s digestion.

i spied that door before the trucks rolled up. i hauled it home. breathed possibility down its rough-hewn, paint-flaked neck. wasn’t sure quite what i’d do, or how i’d use that plank of oak. but i was not letting it get away. not abetting its demise.

its journey hardly ended, i turned it on its side in my garage. i let it incubate, summer, winter, spring. and then, i do believe, once again as well.

but then, one too many blueberries lost between my thighs, i suddenly saw its next incarnation.

that door would be my dining table. it would be the launching pad for meals and nights that lingered on, until the last star twinkled. it would be the plane where elbows, deep in thought, were planted–despite the rudiments of etiquette that chide such churlish plunking down of joints.

upon my table’s woody cheeks, years and years of candle wax would drip. heaven’s sake, who would mind a spill?

i could picture it, the whole of it: that re-anointed door would anchor all the summers’ meals where lake breeze and nightsounds were as much a part of what was served as the gazpacho and the endless wine.

only thing is, i am the apprentice. my mama, she’s the one who forges on, without much thought. not a synapse stalled, worrying about a glitch that might or might not be. she’ll muscle through. she’s got the hands, after all.

me, i think and plot. take time to launch these notions.

not my mama.

day after i mentioned my passing thought, she was at the hardware store. and then the lumber yard.

i was still drawing pictures in my head. she had four legs and screws and metal plates, all picked out and paid for.

she was coming by, she said, on saturday.

well, well, i thought. so here we go.

sure enough. we had that table upturned in no time. brushed off the flakes of paint, sheared off years of dirt.

without a ruler by her side, she used her pointer and her thumb to mark off just where the plate should be. she screwed and screwed. showed me how to do it, and along the way, made me see, just how fine it is to build the things of which you dream.

don’t be afraid, she did not say. but i heard it loud and clear.

she’d said she hoped to teach my firstborn a thing or two that day. how to work the screwdriver. how to build with little fuss.

“he’ll be off in college soon,” she said. “he’ll need to know how to do things for himself.”

he was nowhere in sight that day. but i was there, all ears and eyes. i was memorizing all she said and didn’t say. i was absorbing my mama’s truest truth: barge ahead, have no fear. fend for yourself. screw madly.

we turned the table upside up. it wobbled just a little bit. but there it was, a place to dine. the table i’d imagined. complete with brass knob still attached. how fine is that, i ask you.

all weekend we ate, we talked, we laughed there. eight good souls pulled up that very night. didn’t wobble too, too much. what with the sticks of wood my mate stuffed underneath, despite the dent to my ego, when he declared no one could eat there, not the way it wobbled.

next morn, we had pancakes too. and syrup. and coffee in a mug that never dared to slosh overboard.

i am busy now, collecting chairs from rummage sales and cobwebbed corners of my friend’s garage. i am splattering each with paint. distressing.

i have no idea what i’m doing, really. but i am not afraid. and i’m not one bit worried.

i am doing what my mama taught me on that perfect summer’s afternoon: i am inventing as i go. i am making what i dream of. i am, deep inside, quite content with tools i never knew i owned.

not the least of which is powered solely by my willingness to try. and care not about a piddly little wobble.

do you like to bang around with a box of tools? do you get a kick out of building things you dream of? do you whip up the curtains of your dreams? or stuff a chair, perhaps, just because you see one in your mind? what are some of the lessons you learned at your mama’s side, or your papa’s, when you were old enough to have long been on your own?

beyond the double doors

maybe you’ve been to that place. the invisible line, where someone you love is in the hands of strangers you’ve not before seen. and, at the very last instant, the strangers turn to you, just barely, more like over their shoulder they remember you’re there, call out, almost a bark, “this is it.”

so you, quick, grab a kiss. you gulp, and you stand there, just this side of the big swinging doors. with barely a whoosh then a clunk, the doors open. then swallow the someone you love.

and you are left standing there. trying not to worry. trying to chase all the thoughts from your head. the ones that sometimes bang around in your brain. sometimes make you afraid.

or, not quite so dreadfully, there are the gallumps in your heart. the ones that remind you that forever–even though you are now gray, and drive your own car–the someone they just took from you, she is the one who long long ago kissed your knees when you banged them. she alone knew how to scramble your eggs the way you liked them the best. she, too, was the one who, that hot summer night when you were nine, maybe 10, sat in the dark with you, your backs against the door of the fridge. and together you nibbled away at the pan of fudge she’d slipped from the shelf where it set for an hour or so, after she’d poured in the cream and followed the steps on the little blue box.

you don’t quite line up those thoughts, one after the other. more like it all comes at you in a wadded-up ball. and as you watch the back of the big double door swing finally shut, sealed, you turn, all alone, and you realize how much you really are helpless.

there’s only so much we can do for the ones who we love. we are, in the end, passersby in this play. there are times, and there are places, where we can’t be and can’t go.

so we wad up our worries and prayers, and we get through the hours till we can be there again. can be the one to put cool washcloths to heads. can hold onto an arm. can dial the brothers–far, far away–give them the word: she’s out from the OR. i’ve talked to the surgeon. she’s resting. she’ll be all right soon.

and again, you sit by her side. you wait for the flutter of eyes. you wince as you see the arm you’ve long known and long held, now puffy and bruised, all sorts of tubes running under a gown that’s starchy and doesn’t stay closed.

you remember, your mother–who to you is so much a part of your story, your ups and your downs, your wings and your clodhopper feet–you remember she is, like all the rest of us, bones and flesh, veins and lumps that need to be cut and removed.

if you’re like me, most of the time we prefer to think of our mothers–and all those we love–as well beyond bones. we are not so much accumulations of tissues and cells, we like to pretend, as we are long spinning spools of story and myth.

we are narrative arc. we are themes that recur. we are denouement, and climax. we are character, deeply nuanced, and, more often than not, rather predictable. we stick to our lines. some of us work hard at refining, and raising our sights. some of us get stuck in a rut.

but always, we are eager to turn over each page. to see where this story is headed. to find out if, ever, we say what we mean, and we get at the truth.

sometimes, it’s sitting there at a hospital bedside that we are most keenly aware of just how deeply we’re tied. and how tender our hearts are for the one who is lying there, listless, and dopey on drugs.

sometimes what they do beyond the double doors is stir up our souls. re-jiggle the plot. lay out the players, starker than ever.

the one they return to us, we remember, is not and will not be here forever. and so we move with more care, and more purpose, as we tend to their wounds, put cool sips to their lips. and kiss them goodnight in the tenderest way.

my mama is all right, now. a little bit bumpy there, but now home in her very own bed. hospitals have a way of wrenching open your heart. whether it’s your story, or one you happen to catch unfolding down the long lonely corridor. home looks sweeter and finer than ever, once you’re back to stay. have you left someone at the double doors, marked “restricted area”? what thoughts have you thought while the clock ticked the hours away? how sweet, the reunion?

grammy tuesday

as long as anyone around here can remember, certainly as long as two of ‘em truly can remember, tuesday is synonymous with only one thing: grammy.

thirteen years. six hundred seventy six tuesdays. give or take only about one or two a year. at the very least, it’s 650 tuesdays.

that’s nearly two solid years of her life (ah, what a math wizard, i am…), utterly completely devoted to the love and tending of her only two grandsons.

from the get-go, grammy tuesdays have had rules different from the rest of the week. she is two parts indulgence, one part old-fashioned mama. there will be elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed. keep your bottom on the chair. comb your hair. tuck in your shirttails. patch the hole in the knee of your jeans.

she keeps us, and our house, in line. she will fix the wobbly neck of the lamp. glue the leg of the chair. rig up a rather impressive concoction to keep the cold air from blowing in under the door. and once she threatened to rebuild the inside of the toilet tank, the part where the water whooshes down into the bowl, does its thing. i told her to stop.

she reminds us to turn out the lights behind us. to not let the water run. to recycle every scrap in the house. she launches into her shpiel about keeping the world fit for her grandsons’ grandsons.

she reminds me i forgot to water the herb garden. forgot to deadhead the daffodils. forgot to haul in the porch furniture.

she thinks it a waste that we still have the little white lights strung on the crabapple. can’t believe i let the little one stay up ’til past nine, on a school night. asks for the umpteenth time if i’ve gone through the toys and the clothes to give to the place where the people have little to none.

oh my.

she is, in many ways, my walking, talking conscience. sometimes i’m sure it makes me crazy, leaping over this should, dodging that.

but you know something: i love her like crazy. she’s my mama. and i know i’m lucky to have one. right here in my house, every tuesday.

my papa died a long time ago, 26 years ago saturday. my mama was my age now when he died. she was 50. ever since, she once told me, she’s turned over her life to making life better for all those around her. a vocation of mercy.

wednesdays are soup kitchen. thursdays, for a long time, were a very poor school in what was once called the slums of the city. the rest of the week she is running a roast chicken to someone, cleaning the trail in the woods for the schoolchildren.

tuesdays, though, she saves for her boys. tuesdays are a day for chef boyardee, that gummy blah pasta in red runny sauce, a something their mama would scorn. tuesdays are a day for cinnamon toast and alphabet letters, all mixed, smack in the mid of the morning. for sitting on laps and reading of eagles. for building train tracks that curve ‘round the room. for going to the zoo. for getting the animal fries.

tuesdays are days for listening to stories while mommy types in the other room. for keeping things calm while mommy pulls out her hair. for making chicken rice grammy, a thing that i loved when i was a girl and now i eat it again, many a tuesday.

she’ll be here any minute, because it’s half an hour ‘til nine. and she is, like clockwork, always too early. maybe she can’t wait to come. maybe she knows that we need her.