The Age of Magic

Eleven is usually one of those ages that no one really notices. It’s not the first double digit, it’s not the last year before teenager, and it’s not thirteen (omg), which of course launches children into an entirely new category. So eleven typically kind of slides by…

Unless you happen to be a (huge) Harry Potter fan.

Because if you are, then you know that eleven is the age at which witches and wizards receive their owls inviting them to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Eleven is the age at which everything changes, where the chosen ones are weeded out from the muggles, where new horizons are tantalizingly around the corner.

Eleven is magical.

As I’ve said before, one of the most marvelous and astonishing things about sharing the Harry Potter series with Ella (and now Annie) has been that they see the story from Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s perspective.

By the time I met Harry, Ron, and Hermione, I was already an adult myself. It was fascinating to watch them grow, but I did so with an emotional distance – they were kids, and although I was extremely drawn in by the power of [the] storytelling, I never once imagined what it was like to BE eleven. Ella, on the other hand, is viewing the stories through the eyes of a child, almost as a peer. She doesn’t just envision the Gryffindor common room (as I did); she envisions herself IN the Gryffindor common room.

And so I suppose it should come as no surprise that, as she approached her eleventh birthday, Ella hoped she would receive an owl. She never told me so explicitly – she realizes that the books are fiction, obviously – but it was clear that, somewhere in the back of her mind, she was entertaining the possibility that maybe somehow, in some parallel universe we have yet to tell her about, there really is a Hogwarts and she really is a witch, and, well… Wouldn’t that be amazing?

It would. It would be amazing. And I have no doubt that, should such a place exist, Ella would be qualified for admission (if only due to sheer adoration and willpower).

Alas. If there is such a parallel universe, it has yet to make itself known to us. Or maybe we really are just muggles. Whatever the case, Nick and I knew that there would be no owl arriving at the house this past Friday when Ella turned eleven. We’d already celebrated with a Harry Potter party, which was one of our gifts to her (I really will write more about it soon, I promise), but I still wanted her magical birthday to be special…

So, the dining room became the Great Hall – kinda.
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Hogwarts house banners and colors, “floating” candles, and a balloon owl (it was the best I could do) — but with an actual letter from a super cool Etsy shop.

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It looked pretty neat all lit up.

A bunch of gifts, from all different family members, were Harry-themed. Ella loved each and every one. Even our Elf on the Shelf, Hermey, got into the action.
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He was waiting for her – amongst her HP collection – in her bedroom that morning.

Naturally, not every part of Ella’s birthday was about Harry. Annie contributed several additions that, really, were more than a little awesome. First up was a set of three shirts, one for each of the days surrounding Ella’s birthday.

The first:
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“TOMORROW IS MY BIRTHDAY!”
If you look reeeeally closely, you might see the “Can’t wait!” written in neon yellow on the side…

Next up:
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“TODAY IS MY B-DAY!” on the front… 
and, “I’m 1 year more AWESOME!” on the back.
(Photos “darkened” so the text was more visible.)

And finally:
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“Yesterday was my birthday” with – my favorite – “Waiting for next year!” in orange on the side. HA.

Ella was tremendously tickled and wore them proudly. Then, there was also Annie’s card to Ella, the middle of which looks like this and might be one of the greatest things of all time:
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In perfectly disconnected beginner cursive, the heart-meltingly sweet: “I couldn’t ask for a better sister…”
And beneath it, in print, the heart-stoppingly hilarious: “Well, I guess I could, but I think mom’s a little to[o] old now.” Maybe 40 is older than I’d thought…

Unfortunately, Ella’s birthday fell on a weekday so she couldn’t choose how to spend her day. She did, however, revel in her Great Hall, open presents in the afternoon, wander the mall with Nick (her birthday request; so help me, she is already pining to WANDER THE MALL), eat a dinner of her choosing (loaded baked potatoes and wedge salads), and for dessert – knowing she’s not particularly fond of cake – we surprised her with one of her favorites: cannolis.

Or, more specifically, cannoli “dippers” from Wegmans — a cup with cannoli pastry chips at the bottom and a container of filling at the top. Ella was in heaven (as always, Wegmans is my spirit animal and saved the day).
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When the night was nearly at an end, Nick and I called the girls into the living room to give them their final, joint birthday present. In a recent conversation with both girls, they told us that, of all the people in the world, the one they’d most want to meet was J.K. Rowling – they so admire her, they think she’s amazing, there’s no one cooler – but if they couldn’t meet her, at least they’d like her autograph. Nick and I told them such things are impossible; authors don’t do that.

So, yes, we lied to the children. Point blank.

Then I scoured the internet researching such a possibility. After learning far more than I ever wanted to know about autograph authenticating, reputable dealers, pricing, etc., I happened upon an Ebay auction of a signed copy of Quidditch Through The Ages. Long story short, the stars aligned and a few days later, I was – literally – chasing after our mail carrier to pick up the book.

I cried when I opened it.
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JO ROWLING TOUCHED THIS PAGE OMG OMG OMG

After calling the girls into the living room and informing them we had one last gift, we made them wash their hands and promise not to spit or cough or in any other way defile the item they were about to receive… and then handed over the book. At first, they were perplexed (“Oh, wow. A paperback copy of a book we already have… How neat… Oh? It’s the UK version? That’s… cool?”). Then, they figured it out and, well…

It was, in the vernacular of the Brits, brilliant.


Although we may be muggles, this book feels positively magical. So does having our E-Bean for a daughter. She is a tween for sure – with everything that you would imagine comes along with such a moniker – and we are just smitten with her. As she grows older, she grows more into and sure of herself, more empathetic, more sensitive, more intuitive and insightful, wittier, kinder, bolder, and oh so much fun. She is positively slaying the French Horn and remains a joy to watch come alive in the pool.

In short, she is incredible.

Happiest eleventh birthday, Eleanor Elizabeth. Although your owl may have been poppable and your Great Hall “floating” candles may have been suspended by fishing wire, our love for your is oh so real. You are magic to us and we will stay with you – to quote Harry’s mom, Lily, Until the very end.

We adore you. Always.
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Nini is Nine

Our Annie is nine.
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Her sister came down in the morning and made her this fabulous sign. Yay for sisters!

How this came to be, I am not quite certain… I really could have sworn that she and I were just playing games every morning before afternoon kindergarten, that she was just learning to ride a bike, that she was just dancing around like a lunatic before bed.

Scratch that last one. She still dances around like a lunatic.

But now she is nine and dancing around – nearly double digits, that in-between age before Big Kid but not quite Little Kid, either. Not that Annie has ever fit neatly into any single category… She sings Tom Petty and Elton John songs in the shower but recites schoolyard rhymes as she wanders the house. She adores Harry Potter and Junie B. Jones in equal measure. She will help make dinner and fold her own laundry but still carries her silkies everywhere.

As I’ve chronicled before, for the past many years, we have celebrated the girls’ birthdays in the summer (because I’m bad with The Math and somehow wound up with not one but two December babies, which makes for a freakin’ insane busy month). I’d always said that the summer celebrations undoubtedly lessened the stress of December, but it was really a theory; I hadn’t put it to the test.

This year, the girls elected not to celebrate early – they just weren’t feeling it. Ella did have a small (but awesome; more on that sometime soon, I swear) party, but Annie has decided that, as of now, she is content without a big celebration. Although a (not-so-small) part of me is grateful for this (because my theory? The theory that two birthday celebrations AND Christmas within a two week span would be freakin’ insane busy? ABSOLUTELY CORRECT), the other part is a little bit crushed.

How is it possible that she is perfectly happy just enjoying being sung to at school and then having a birthday day at home? When did she become so old?

Because of the lack of festivities, we offered to do anything that Annie wanted on her birthday: go to a museum, go bowling, go to an indoor trampoline park, take a hike (this “winter” weather has been SO VERY WARM and SO VERY WEIRD), see a movie, eat out, invite a friend to play, host a board or card game marathon (our Nini [pronounced knee-knee; my cousin’s son couldn’t say “Annie” and thus called her “Nini” and we’ve stuck with it because HOW CUTE IS THAT] loves games)… ANYTHING SHE WANTED…

Turns out, what Annie wanted was to stay home all day, open her presents, play with them, eat three home-cooked meals, design some Christmas wrapping paper, read some books, and chill.

Okay, then.
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As I set out the night before the big day to wrap her gifts, I was stricken to discover that I really didn’t have any birthday-appropriate paper. (See again: we usually celebrate in the summer so I was unprepared.) What I did have, however, was a roll of the frog-covered wallpaper that hung in my grandma’s bathroom. (It was super easy to find, too, because of how wondrously organized everything still is – a miracle, really. Holla!)
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Lemme ‘splain. Several years back, one of us had received a gift from Phoofsy… wrapped in what appeared to be the wallpaper from her bathroom. When we commented on the remarkable similarity, she informed us that it was, indeed, the very same — she had some leftover from when the room had been decorated and it was perfectly good paper so why not put it to use?

Thus, it all came full circle. As I’d written a couple of years back, when I discovered I was pregnant with Annie, I wasn’t exactly thrilled – especially not to be having another December baby. Still, we believe that everything happens for a reason, so surely her being due in December was no coincidence…

By the fall, the reason had become crystal clear.
Having Annie caused us to have to move – and, obviously, we moved to Rochester, where my grandparents lived.

To quote from my aforementioned post:

“If we hadn’t moved when we did, we wouldn’t have had that summer with my grandfather. We wouldn’t have been here when he died… We wouldn’t have been here with my grandmother after his death, dragging her gamely along to the children’s museum and the apple orchard, and accompanying her to mother/daughter celebrations at her social club. If we hadn’t moved when we did, she certainly wouldn’t have had Annie and Ella nearby to cheer her up, to make her smile, to give her hope.

It was all so ridiculously clear: If Annie had not been born when she was, we never would have moved when we did, and life as we know it would not exist.

… I don’t know what it was, but from the moment they laid eyes on each other, Annie and Phoofsy were smitten. Phoofsy had always loved Ella – there was no worry of that – but there was something special about her relationship with Annie. They lit up when they saw one another; where everyone else would be captivated by Ella’s stories and songs and dramatic reenactments, Phoofsy would go up to Annie and coo at her, instead. Annie’s biggest fan, we called her. It was pretty damn neat.”

We had (nearly) eight amazing years in Rochester with Phoofsy – none of which would have happened as they did if Annie hadn’t come into our lives exactly when she did. She and my grandma would not have had each other; and oh, how they were crazy about each other! Perfect timing, indeed.
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Phoofsy and Annie sharing iPad stories during a layover from our trip to Charleston last year.

So it seemed particularly wonderful that I could wrap some of Annie’s birthday presents in Phoofsy’s ridiculous wallpaper – bringing her into our little celebration.

Despite the lack of hoopla, I couldn’t resist attempting to make Annie more than just a cake from a mix (it was still from a mix, don’t you worry; I just tried to jazz it up a little and turn it into a stack of books). It wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned, but Nini seemed to love it – and that’s what matters (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself).
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I’m still not used to the fact that she is no longer eight; I misspoke the other day and gave someone her incorrect age, much to her chagrin. I am, however, more smitten with her every single damned day. She is a pistol for sure, but she is also joy and wonder and pure awesome personified.
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Happiest ninth* birthday, our Annabelle Grace. You complete us and we adore you – even when you dance like a lunatic.

(* no joke – when I wrote this, I originally typed “eighth birthday.” MAYBE BY THE TIME SHE IS TEN I WILL GET THIS RIGHT.)

Giving Me Grief

It was the squash soup that did it.

I thought I remembered how to make it – we’ve had it as an appetizer for the past five Thanksgivings – but I wanted to be sure. The recipe, however, was nowhere to be found.

I lost my shit.

Not just a little sniffle, but a full-on, body-heaving, gasping-for-air sob fest. ‘Cause this wasn’t just any recipe; it was one that Bill had given me years ago, his favorite. After it became a favorite of mine, I shared it with my grandma and it became a favorite of hers, too — so much so that, when we put together a video for Bill’s 68th birthday, my grandma’s well-wishes included thanking him for “that wonderful squash soup recipe.”

On Thanksgiving eve, everything came crashing down. The build-up of weeks of fear and sadness, the longing and the heartache. When Nick was, understandably, a bit taken aback to find me in hysterics over a missing recipe (“You can just email Mary! I’m sure she has a copy!”), I found myself explaining that although I knew I could, I didn’t want to… because I wanted none of this to be happening. I wanted Bill to still be here to call him for the recipe. I wanted my grandma to still be here to call her for the recipe. And, by God, I wanted her to still be here for Thanksgiving. The very thought of celebrating without her, of allowing these holidays to pass without sharing them, was more than I felt I could take.

I miss my grandma so damned much.

~~~

About a month ago, I had one of those Ah-Ha moments. Nick, the girls, and I were hanging out and Annie was telling a story… and I suddenly realized that, although I’d been standing there, smiling and nodding and probably even laughing, I hadn’t really heard a word that she’d said. It was as though I’d been floating above her, above all of them, detached — there, but not there.

In that moment, when I snapped back into focus, I realized what this drifting detachment must be:
Depression.

The same faceless but ruthless enemy I’d battled in 2009, the one who’d been trying to claw its way back into my life ever since but who I’d successfully held at bay… was back. Upon further reflection, I became aware that I’d been feeling this way for months – since the beginning of the summer, really. (I suppose that losing so many people – Angel, my grandma, and Sara – in such a short period of time can do that to a person.)

It explained why summer had been “just right” instead of too fast or too slow or too anything: in reality, I’d distanced myself from summer entirely, so it was… fine. It explained why, despite the countless amazing things in my life that should have had me walking around with an “I’m All That And A Bag Of Chips (Preferably Doritos)” sign — traveling, family weddings, healthy children, my 40th birthday (holla!), the gloriously decluttered house — I still didn’t feel joyful.

Happy at times? Sure. Grateful? Hell yes. But genuine elation, something better than merely happy? Nope. If my emotions had been charted in one of those line graphs, the line would have remained remarkably flat.

As soon as the lightbulb turned on, I was relieved; I’ve battled this a-hole before. Let’s do this. And then I was pissed. For years now I’ve been preaching about how important it is to be open about depression — and I didn’t recognize that I, myself, was depressed?? WTF? Plus also, I was mad as hell that all of these great things were happening and I wasn’t able to fully enjoy them. DEPRESSION, YOU SUCK.

I’d been going with that assumption for a few weeks – that I was facing another bout of depression – when my Facebook timeline linked me to a blog post I’d written after Bill’s death. At the time, I’d felt kind of insane — soaring highs and crashing lows — until my therapist informed me that it wasn’t insanity; it was grief. All of the highs and lows, the near-obsessive drive to do and keep busy, were actually part of what fancy-pants psychology folks call Manic Defense.

I was protecting myself from my own grief by trying to be wildly active, then falling down when the sadness caught up with me.

Upon reading the post, it occurred to me that maybe I’m not depressed because I’m mourning those who are no longer here. Maybe I’m simply mourning and just having a helluva time with it.

I asked my therapist about it the next time we met, saying that I wanted to write about The Return Of My Depression — that I feel it’s really important to do so, that I think it’s critical that we reach out and let others know they’re not alone — but that I also thought it was pertinent that I be honest and identify things correctly. Is this depression or is it grief??

After listening, my therapist gently assured me that I’m grieving, not Depressed. She then mused that I should write the post anyway – because depression and grief can feel remarkably similar and we, as a people, are terrible at dealing with both.
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Last Christmas, my grandma insisted that we make some pinecone wreath she’d seen in a catalog. It nearly did me in, but we succeeded. The wreath is now hanging in our front hall. 

~~~

So that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m putting this out there because we are awful at handling all of this messy feelings crap, especially if it makes us sad. When someone dies, we’re expected – we often expect ourselves – to “get over it,” to reach this magical place, cross some invisible line where, finally, we will feel better. All of the steps have successfully been taken! The grieving was done! It is now in a box over there and we are moving forward! Hurrah!

Staying with someone in extended grief is absurdly uncomfortable. It’s been, what? Three months already? Six? A year? And you’re still sad? Ugh. No one wants to live in that world, so we avoid it. We don’t ask questions. We don’t talk. We don’t share, because no one wants to hear it.

(I’m hardly immune. Two weeks ago, I was at the Y and noticed, from behind, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I remembered that she’d just lost her mother and the very first thought that ran through my head was: I need to go the other way to avoid her so we don’t have to talk about that. BECAUSE TALKING ABOUT GRIEF IS SHITTY. Thankfully, I got ahold of myself and deliberately sought her out to give her a hug… BUT SERIOUSLY. I SUCK AT THIS.)

Likewise with depression. Some people don’t get it at all (“What do you mean you feel depressed? But you seem so happy”). Still others do get it, at least to some degree, but they want it to fit into a tidy parcel that’s easily defined and overcome. Have you tried medication? Talk therapy? Exercise? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you making time with friends? Are you eating well? Are you getting outside? GREAT! You have officially treated your depression! All better now!!

Don’t get me wrong – all of those are important and can be keys to fighting depression – but becoming un-depressed isn’t that simple. Those gross, sad, blah, detached, scary feelings can persist for months or years, even with consistent treatment. But does anyone want to hear that you’re still feeling low three months down the line? Nope. Not so much.

Depression and grief are terrible. Among their worst faults is that they cause us to feel isolated. People tell you to reach out, to not keep it inside – but ironically, we often are isolated – because no one likes talking about depression and grief. No one likes hearing about it. We like to fix things; when someone isn’t “better,” when they’re still sad, it’s a total turn-off. No, thanks.

I’m really sick of it. I’m sick of not wanting to mention that I’m afraid of Christmas – afraid to put up the decorations that I inherited after my grandma died, afraid to trim the tree without her, afraid of looking over on Christmas morning and not seeing her sound asleep on the couch amid all the hubbub – because I don’t want to weird people out. I’m tired of us not talking about depression because it makes people feel uncomfortable. I’m tired of avoidance being the first thing that comes to mind when I run into a friend who’s grieving.

Please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying; if anyone is an Eeyore all the damn time, it’s a real drain. Even your bestest friends don’t want to hear the unhappy, negative stuff every minute of the day. But depression and grief don’t always fit into neat packages. They can’t necessarily be “fixed” no matter how much time has passed or what steps a person has taken – and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the person who’s still upset.

Grief and depression are normal parts of life – normal parts of living. Certainly, I work to compartmentalize my sadness – mostly because it can be annoying to be sad when I’m doing something happy – but it’s still there, commingled with the rest of things. It is fully possible to be missing someone so much, it physically hurts while also – at the very same time – absolutely reveling in the wonder of the present. Mourning and celebration. Depression and joy. Crappiness and awesome. They coexist together.

Negating or ignoring – or, worse, shaming – the bad parts doesn’t make them go away. It just makes them seem lonelier, which is really stupid because we’re all in this together.

So I’m going to try to be less worried about how other people feel when they hear I’m missing still my grandma. ‘Cause I miss her like crazy, and that’s okay. I’m also going to try to not be so uncomfortable around people who are depressed or grieving – or, at the very least, to still be there for and with someone even in my discomfort. I want my girls to know that my missing their Phoofsy doesn’t take away from my being ridiculously excited to decorate the tree with them; I want to show them that sadness isn’t something to be afraid of.

I just have to work on believing it myself.

~~~

As for the soup? After some sleuthing, I found an old email – hidden in the depths of my computer – that contained a copy. It was delicious.
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Click on it to see it in its glory. You’re welcome.