When I Grow Up

Although I’ve been going to the lake since I was an infant – with Nick joining me for the past 20+ years and the girls spending virtually half of their summers there – last Sunday we did something for the very first time: we spent the day and night there, all by ourselves. No extended family. No friends. No Phoofsy.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been… anticipating? dreading?… the anniversary of her unexpected passing a year ago this past weekend until I found myself reliving each day last year. Today was when we gave Gram the last-ever lake book… A year ago today, we played The Lake Game and she challenged Ella so she wouldn’t lose a chip… This was the day we spent the night in the hospital… And so on, right up to the phone call from the nurse telling me that, shockingly, Phoofsy was gone.
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Phoofsy giving Ella the business while playing The Lake Game last Memorial Day.

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking the On This Day function on Facebook as part of my daily morning media roundup. I love the memories (especially posts where the girls said something particularly amusing), but that week leading up to the day we lost Phoofsy was really hard. My status updates were so… normal… giving no hint that my world was about come crashing down. How was it possible? How did we not know?

Then, finally, came the post where I shared that Phoofsy was gone – a memory that probably should have been miserable and unsettling. Instead, reading through friends’ comments (most had never even met my grandma), I was consoled and made whole. Comment upon comment expressed sadness not only for our family’s loss, but their own personal sadness that Phoofsy was gone – because she had such an influence on them, simply through my photos and stories.

“I’m heartbroken.”
“I loved it every time you posted a story about her!”
“She seemed like the most incredible lady!”
“The time you posted the picture of her on the scooter made my horrible day so much better.”
“I feel like I knew her.”
“Thank you for sharing her with us.”
“I was in love with Phoofsy from here.”

A good half dozen people said: “I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up.”

Who could blame them? A strong, smart, independent lady who was always game for anything, was an amazingly good sport, had a fierce sense of humor, and kept an active Facebook account at the age of almost-95? Yes, please! I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, too.

She wasn’t perfect, of course. I mean, no one is, and Phoofsy definitely had her flaws… But she was crazy about me and Nick and Ella and Annie and told us so whenever she got the chance. That’s a pretty awesome thing, to be loved and to know it.

Often, when we told the girls we were headed over to Phoofsy’s apartment, they would groan and drag their feet (usually literally). “Do we HAVE to?” And every time I would tell them that yes, we have to. Not out of obligation, but because that’s what you do when you love someone: you show up. You’re there for dinner and to take them to the store when they can’t drive themselves. You check on them when they’re sick, bringing soup and crackers. You accompany them to events you’d never otherwise attend, simply because they asked. You call to say “hi” when you’re out of town. You show up.

(Okay, usually I just said, “Yes, we have to. Because she’s my grandma and your great-grandma and nothing gives her greater joy than seeing you. She probably won’t be around much longer, so we need to spend time with her while we can.”)

I’m so freakin’ glad I dragged them over.
And you know what? They’re glad now, too. Funny how that works.

Three days before Phoofsy died, I got a call at midnight saying she’d been taken to the hospital. As I hung up the phone, I groused to Nick. “Damn it. Grandma’s in the hospital again. But the doctors just told her they think this is nothing; I don’t even know why she’s bothering to go in.”

Nick asked if I wanted to go.
My first reply? “No. I don’t want to go. It’s midnight, for God’s sake, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do anyway and I’m sure she’ll be released soon but if she’s not I can check in on her in the morning.”

Nick was quiet. We let my words just hang there for a moment.

“Shit. I need to go, don’t I?”
“Yeah. I think you do. Or I can… but one of us needs to go.”

Thirty seconds later, I was reaching for my shoes.

I spent the rest of the night with my grandma, navigating several areas of the ER and finally settling her into a private room on another floor. In between being seen by medical professionals and being taken away for tests, we talked; we used her iPad; we browsed magazines and looked at old photos. The entire time, she kept insisting that I should go home – “But it’s so late! You’ll be so tired! This is silly!” – and I kept insisting that I would stay until I was sure she was settled.

At last, around breakfast time, I was convinced that it was okay to leave. Before I did, she reached over and squeezed my arm. “Thank you so much for staying. I love you a lot, you know.” I told her that I knew.

After Phoofsy died, the attending physician called me at home. Among other things, she told me that my grandma thought I was fantastic, and that it was the girls and me who helped keep her going all these years. I’d never met this doctor; her comments were based solely on whatever my grandma had told her about me.

So yes, Gram. I knew.

I am so grateful for the time we had here in Rochester with Phoofsy – for every stuffy dinner, every comment about how our house was too small, every grumble about how apples cost too much. Yeah, sometimes it wasn’t exactly convenient… but we – Nick, the girls, and I – got to be a part of such a tremendous story. We got to witness, firsthand, what it meant to grab life with both hands and hang on for the ride, to always be up for something new, to be a true friend. People would tell my grandma that it was lucky (for her) that we lived nearby; truly, we were the lucky ones.

I don’t think I understood how integral she was to our lake experience, though, until we found ourselves there without her last summer. Even when our extended family was in town, the house just felt… off. Incomplete. To quote my aunt, being there alone made Phoofsy’s absence all the more pronounced. No one yelling down to the kids to wear their lifejackets properly… No sound effects coming from her iPad as she played online bridge well into the night… No one sitting in her favorite blue chair. Just empty.

It hurt. A lot.
So we made a point of never staying at the house alone.
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Crazy sky, Memorial Day weekend 2016.

I missed it, though. A well-loved home should be… well, loved. It’s practically illegal to not have someone enjoying it – empty chair and all. And so, this spring, I made up my mind that we would try. We would go down more often; we would stay overnight. It might be lonely and strange, but we love it there, so we would try.

My cousin, Andrew, and his girlfriend had been visiting the lake in the week leading up to Memorial Day. I’d thought they were staying through until Monday, but they left at lunchtime on Sunday instead. At first, Nick and I considered inviting friends to join us; staying there alone seemed too sad, especially over Memorial Day, a holiday we always spent with Phoofsy.

But then I decided – out loud – that we would do it. Just the four of us. The house is here and we are here and it’s not the same, but we need to try to find a new normal. The moment I said it, I had this instant realization that this might be how my grandma felt about the lake after my grandfather died almost nine years ago.
But she kept going. She made new memories. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m sure she dreaded going to the lake without him. But she did it. She hung on for the ride.
I decided to hold on, too.
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Going for a ride… with Jitter.

~~~~~~~~

We had a delightful Memorial Day weekend. We grilled. We went in the boat. We played The Lake Game for hours – literally – and laughed until our sides hurt. No, it wasn’t the same without her… but it felt good. Right. True. I even sat in Phoofsy’s beloved blue chair – and instead of feeling lonely, I felt comforted.

If I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, now’s as good a time to start as any.

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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.

Sparking Joy (aka I Gots Me Some Organizing Religion)

I haven’t been around here recently nearly as much as I’ve been in the past. Part of that is due to a conscious restructuring of my time (I’m playing the piano a lot more – holla!), but part of it is because something really big has been going on that’s been taking up every not-otherwise-occupied moment of my time.

But now, it is done. It is finished and complete and the weight of the world is off my shoulders and I feel SO FREAKIN’ GOOD about it, I can finally declare it to all of the internet world:
MY HOUSE HAS BEEN DECLUTTERED. !!!!!!!!!!

What? You were expecting other momentous news?

THIS IS EXTREMELY MOMENTOUS NEWS! For the first time in – ever? – I’m actually happy with my house and what’s in it. This is big, people. Really big.

Nearly every time she’d come over for dinner (which was several times a month), my grandmother would comment on how our house was too small for us; we needed more space. And every time, we’d laugh and reassure her that we loved our house – it was plenty big for us – and as soon as we took the time to do some reorganizing and purging, it would feel much more spacious. Taking that time, however, proved elusive.

We were probably destined to go on much as we always had if not for the convergence of two things this summer: the plan to add on a mudroom and my learning about Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The former has been a longtime dream of ours. It’s tough to live in Rochester, where snow is plentiful and mud season is long, without any kind of mudroom.

Additionally, one of the main entries into our house (and the only one that the dogs access) is directly from the garage into the kitchen – meaning that the kitchen is constantly filled with mud, leaves, dirt, etc. Add to that a general lack of storage (see: dog kennels in the dining room, Nick’s and my coats hung on the side of a kitchen cupboard…) and we’ve been itching to create a space for our coats and winter gear, the dog kennels and food, and the girls’ backpacks and school accoutrements. After speaking with an architect and drawing up some plans, we were on our way to making our dreams become reality.

In order to do so, we knew we’d have to make some changes. Specifically, the stuff in the garage would need to be stored somewhere during the construction – ideally inside – meaning we had to have space to hold it. Thus, the first bit of inspiration: in order to make space, we should probably, like, get rid of some of our current stuff. Simultaneously this summer, we were unexpectedly the recipients of some furniture from my grandma’s apartment, so we had to make room for new (to us) couches, too – which involved a lot of shifting our current furniture around and getting rid of other pieces.

This might have gone off fairly smoothly and quickly had it not been for the second bit of inspiration: the book. Three different people, on three separate occasions, mentioned to me that they had read Ms. Kondo’s book – which (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly) instructs folks to go through all of the items in their house in a particular order and keep only the things which “spark joy.” Each of these three friends said that this advice was, indeed, life-changing, and that they loved what this particular style of decluttering had brought to their lives.
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Exhibit A: the area underneath the fish tank that had been used to store games.

decluttering games
Exhibits B and C: games now stored on bookshelf (books previously on shelf = donated), shelves and storage bins beneath fish tank for cold weather gear, school supplies, etc.
decluttering fishtank

I didn’t then have a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (my mom gave me one a couple of weeks ago – yay!), but my friends spoke so highly of it, I spent a lot of time with my boyfriend, Google, trying to determine whether or not the KonMari method might work for me. I read articles, listened to interviews with Ms. Kondo, and watched countless YouTube videos on her clothing-folding method (yes, there’s a method. And many, many videos… the internet is a strange place, y’all). As I did my research (so official, no?), I came to the conclusion that I could totally get behind her approach. BRING IT ON.
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New folding method. Not sure how long this will last; check back in a month.

And so, while we emptied out corners of the house to hold the stuff from our garage and rearranged furniture and replaced old carpeting with laminate flooring, I made a conscious effort to approach each reorganization and clean-out using (what I hope is) Marie Kondo’s plan.

Which means I went through everything in our house. No, I mean Every. Single. Thing*. I opened every drawer, every closet, every cupboard and took out every single item, held it in my hands, and determined whether or not it brought me enough joy to keep it. Every baking dish, every linen napkin, every bottle of nail polish, every board game, every mitten, every ornament. EVERY. THING. If the items made me happy (photographs) or were useful/necessary (staplers, Spanx), I kept them. If they didn’t fit those criteria, they were donated or trashed.
*except the things in the girls’ rooms. It’s crazy up in there, yo. That’s on them.

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Found these in the bookshelf. THIS WAS LIFE BEFORE GOOGLE. Good grief.

It took nearly six weeks, but it happened. One day, the kitchen cabinets and the area under the sink. Another, the drawers and cupboards in the girls’ bathrooms. The dining room hutch. The living room shelves. The front hall closet. Lastly came the basement, which held storage-y things like decorations and tools, but also the part that, according to Ms. Kondo, would be the hardest: memories. Photos and love letters and the boxes of my childhood mementos containing everything from first grade report cards to every single notebook and paper from every single class I took in college; EVERY SINGLE CLASS WTF.

It was the simple concept of Sparking Joy that made the clean-out process both easy and relieving. I hadn’t known just how many things I’d saved over the years because I thought I should — unused gifts from extremely kind and good-hearted friends, expensive kitchen gadgets that I’d felt guilty ditching, clothes that had made me smile but didn’t anymore. Once I realized that they were no longer making me happy but that they’d served their purpose (I loved remembering how wonderful it felt receiving the gifts, being thought of in such a sweet way; how excited I’d been for the kitchen tools, etc.), I felt completely comfortable in letting go of more stuff than I’d imagined possible. The same, surprisingly, went for my childhood mementos. (Full disclosure: I kept all of our photographs, every last one. They still spark joy.)

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Also kept: these, from my original cassette collection. 
Forget sparking joy; these are ON FIRE.

Taking up more space than anything else were my teaching boxes. If you’ve ever lived with a teacher, you know how much stuff we accumulate. Resources, ideas, professional development certificates, letters from former students and parents. It spanned my days as a K-8 music teacher, 5-6 homeroom teacher, 2nd grade teacher, and middle school music teacher — eleven years of papers, tests, quizzes, syllabi, transparencies, lesson plans, IEPs, meetings, goals, comic strips, and communications.

And that doesn’t touch on the textbooks, lesson books, planning books, references, gradebooks, three-ring binders, CDs, cassettes, office supplies, classroom posters (my favorite: “You can’t scare me. I teach.”), decorations, or hats (yes, an entire box of dress-up hats; teaching elementary music, these are essential, I tell you). Basically, when you’re a teacher, you need to assign an entire room of your house to hold all of your materials.

Once I finally accepted that, in all likelihood, I’d never be a regular classroom teacher again, I saved the music-related things (a good 10 boxes’ worth) but ditched the rest; it took a full Bagster dumpster to hold it all. Still-relevant resources were added to our donation pile, which took up half of our garage. When the day came to donate it to our school district’s annual second-hand sale, we wound up renting a U-Haul to hold everything.

There’s, like, an entire house’s worth in here!decluttering garage2
decluttering garage3 Steering this thing was not easy.decluttering garage uhaul2

It’s hard to describe the almost manic drive I felt to complete this project. For six weeks, it was all but an obsession; every spare moment that could have been spent on other things (like, um, writing) was devoted to going through the house. It was a completely consuming task… but in the end? Fabulous!

Above kitchen desk – beforedecluttering kitchen

Above kitchen desk: after
Because I actually made space in the cupboards (by ditching non-sparky things) to store the gift bags and tissue paper and boxes of cards. OH YES I DID.
decluttering desk

For the first time, every item in the house belongs there. Every room, every space, feels comfortable, joyful, clean. This isn’t (at all) to say that we no longer have stuff – we do – but the stuff we have is purposeful and meaningful. Plus now I have more time to write!

The one downside to this is that the house is so decluttered, when our awesome housecleaner comes, no one* notices.
NEVER THOUGHT I’D SAY THAT.

(*I notice. She is amazing.)

The mudroom project has hit a snag so we don’t know when/if it might be completed, but in the meantime, the house is a happy, cleaner place to be. My only regret is that my grandma never got to see it like this… But I’m confident that, somehow, she knows.

 

In Kind

Nick cannot hold onto gifts to save his soul. Once he’s purchased something – a birthday present, a Christmas package, a trinket from the airport – he has to give it to the intended recipient absolutely as soon as possible or his hair will fall out or something similarly dire. He’s just too excited; holding onto items for future giving is not going to happen.

It took me a few years to understand that his last-minute shopping wasn’t necessarily because he forgot about the upcoming event or because he didn’t put any thought into what he was purchasing. Okay, sometimes he forgets and needs to pick something up at the eleventh hour (thank God for Amazon Prime), but other times, it’s very purposeful because he knows he will simply burst with the anticipation of giving the gift.

I, on the other hand, tend to shop year-round for birthdays and Christmas. If I see something that is just right for a friend or my sisters-in-law or whoever, I’ll buy it – even if it’s July – and tuck it away until the “official” day arrives. This baffles Nick as much as his habits baffle me. Let’s just say that there have been a lot of compromises over the last two decades.

A few years back, we selected a hat for Bill (my father-in-law) on one of our family trips. I intended to hold onto it until Father’s Day – a bird in the hand, after all. Nick wanted to ship it off to Minnesota right then and there, just because. We argued. Nick won. He sent his dad the hat, which Bill happily wore. We lost Bill not too long after that, and I was damned glad that we’d mailed him the darned hat – just because.

For the last seven or so Christmases, I have made my grandma, Phoofsy, photo books containing pictures from the previous summer at the lake. Phoofsy adored photographs – she had them all over her apartment and the lake house – and just loved the photo books. She took them with her to the lake each summer and, whenever family visited, you could find someone poring over the many volumes, reliving another year’s memories.

This past Christmas, however, I didn’t make Phoofsy a book. You see, I’d already gotten her several gifts – ones I was quite pleased with, that I was sure she’d really like – and I figured, “Eh, why go overboard. I can make her a photo book for her birthday.” Naturally, because I had presented one to her each preceding Christmas, my grandma was eagerly awaiting the 2014 Lake Book and made it quite clear (as only she could) that she was bummed out that she didn’t receive one. I felt awful and vowed to create one in time for Valentine’s Day. And then Easter. And then Mother’s Day.

By mid-May, I felt annoyed enough with myself that I spent several very late nights on Shutterfly designing Phoofsy’s book and, when it was finally finished, ordering it with expedited shipping. It arrived the day before we were to head to the lake for Memorial Day weekend.

I almost didn’t pack it. Phoofsy’s birthday was only a month away and it would make a lovely 95th birthday present. But, for whatever reason, I changed my mind, brought it with us, and gave it to her the first night we were at the house. She spent a good half hour looking it over with Ella and Annie and I caught her intently going through the pages at least twice over the next few days. We came home on Memorial Day; that very night, she went to the hospital. Three days later, and oh so unexpectedly, she was gone.
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Going through the book with the girls.

I cannot even express how grateful and happy and relieved I am that I didn’t hold onto that blasted book until her birthday.

I guess that’s the thing with giving, with kindness: it’s pretty much always a good idea, and you pretty much always feel better afterward. Sometimes, it can be a tangible gesture like volunteering at a homeless shelter. Other times, it’s Random Acts of Christmas Kindness. Or maybe it’s donating money to important causes. Whatever the case, whenever I’ve purposefully set out to give, to extend kindness, I’ve never regretted it.

The smallest acts of kindness are often the hardest. Telling someone that I like their outfit seems so simple, no? Just say it? But when the time comes to actually extend the compliment, I freeze up like that dream where you’re naked onstage (is that just me?) and all you can do is open and close your mouth like a fish. I imagine that the person will respond poorly or I’ll be embarrassed or – I don’t know – a gazillion other things. I worry that I’ll regret reaching out and being kind. Christmas will come and there will be no presents because I will have already given them away.

I’m selfish, though, and I like how I feel after I do something nice, so I’ve been trying to just say it, already… “That mumu is such a great color!” or “I love your mohawk!” And, hey – you know what? No regret. None at all! Just happiness, which is really pretty cool.

So it goes with all of the other small kindnesses, the ones that are the hardest to do. “Liking” someone’s Facebook status even though they didn’t say hi at the mall. Sending Christmas cards to people who don’t send them to us, year after year. Inviting someone to lunch even though I wasn’t included in the last get-together. Reaching out to former friends who had pulled away from my life.

Never once have I wished I’d been less kind. Kindness always feels good.

This isn’t to say that I’m some Mother Teresa. Have no fear – I can be a real jackass (just ask my children), and there are many, many moments when I choose not to give, not to extend goodwill to others. And, to be fair, there are times when extra sweetness is not only unnecessary but potentially damaging. When someone has deeply hurt you, it’s okay to pull back instead of reaching out. When you’re completely overwhelmed, it’s all right to avoid complimenting strangers at Starbucks. My daughters will not receive their birthday presents the moment that I purchase them because sometimes, waiting is okay. There is a never-ending list of needy and worthy organizations and causes and we cannot give to them all. It just isn’t possible. We have lines to draw.

All I’m saying is that when I have reached out, when I have donated, when I have told a friend I was happy her kid made the cut (while mine did not), when I have told someone I’m so sorry about the loss of their mother instead of staying silent, I’ve never wished I hadn’t.
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This photo really has nothing to do with anything, but I wanted to put another picture in and the girls had already pre-approved this one, so… Yay! First day!

Life is really damned uncertain. In the past two months alone, I have had friends move from Rochester, move to Rochester, lose their beloved pets, lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their parents, and battle cancer. There have been ridiculously wonderful things, too – that’s how it goes with life, the joys and the horrors – but everything can change so fast. It’s tempting (and sometimes necessary) to hole up, to self-protect, to shut out. I need to treat myself well before I can do almost anything else.

But I also need to remember that kindness feels awesome – so, really, being kind is one of the best things I can do for me. And then I can give more to other folks, which feels super, so then I feel better. And I give more.

A kindness circle. How very 1970s.

This week, with school back in session, I’ve had a little time to get to things I didn’t do in the summer. While cleaning out a cupboard, I found some Harry Potter pencils that I purchased for the girls ages ago but never gave them because there wasn’t a specific reason to.

I think I’ll have them waiting on the counter when Ella and Annie arrive home. Maybe they’ll make doing homework just a bit more fun.

 

To Say Hello

My grandma (Phoofsy to Ella and Annie and many others) – always said that life was worth living so long as you were having fun. A little less than two weeks ago, unexpectedly and suddenly and to our stunned shock and heartbreak, Phoofsy stopped having fun.

You guys. I just… It’s simply not okay.

Living so near her these past eight years was one of the reasons that moving to Rochester was such a fantastic decision. My grandma was our guidepost, our touchstone, our sounding board and cheerleader, our adventure buddy, and our constant partner for dinner, games, and talking. We have never lived here without her and, honestly, I feel as though we’ve been cut adrift; Nick and I hadn’t realized how much she grounded us and made us whole.

I miss her so much, I cannot begin to put it into words.
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We have spent every Easter with Phoofsy since we moved here.
This year was no different.

Losing Phoofsy has been difficult for Ella and Annie as well. Sadly, they are quite familiar with loss (most importantly, their Grandpa Bill, and to a much lesser extent – although fresh on their minds – our Madison), but never before have they had to say goodbye to someone who was an integral part of our daily lives, someone whose presence would be noticeably absent at soccer games, swim meets, birthdays, evenings beside the fireplace, Sunday brunch, Wednesday nights, and every day in between.

This is an active, different kind of grieving, for all of us.
Not better. Not worse. Not harder or easier. Just different.

My mom and stepdad drove up to the lake the day after my grandma passed away and immediately got to the business of sorting through Phoofsy’s affairs (and providing lots of hugs and memories and laughs); we loved getting the chance to see them, even under these circumstances. As our little family foursome was driving back from the lake last weekend – the first-ever we’d spent there without my grandma – the conversation naturally turned toward Phoofsy.
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Playing The Lake Game on Memorial Day, my grandma was absolutely tickled that she managed to successfully flip her cup. We were absolutely tickled, too.

Things began simply enough, sharing stories and memories, but soon moved onto more metaphysical, abstract thinking. It started with Nick telling them that he was comforted by the idea that, one minute, Phoofsy was here and healthy, the next there was some brief confusion, and the very next, she was seeing Great‘s face as he said to her, “What took you so long?”

Annie and Ella were intrigued by this and wanted to hash things out, so we kept talking. “Where do you think Phoofsy is right now?” “If there’s heaven, do you stay the same age as you are when you die?” “Can people who have already died leave ‘messages’ for those of us who are still here?” 

As they discussed their conceptions of heaven, Nick and I grew more and more entranced. The girls’ ideas were absolutely fascinating and far more interesting and nuanced than anything I’ve imagined in my nearly-forty years. In fact, their thoughts were so lovely, so simultaneously comforting and thought-provoking, I asked if I could share them with you.
They graciously agreed.
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Chuckling that her poker hand was better than Ella’s.
Even when you’re 84 years older than your great-granddaughter, victory is sweet. 

—————-

“In heaven, you can be any age you want, and you can change that age whenever you like. So, if you had a really great time when you were twelve, you get to be twelve. Then, if you want to feel what it was like to be fifty again, you can be fifty for a while. Oh! And the person you’re with – like, if Phoofsy is with Great – can be another age, too. ‘Cause you know how Great was 86 when he died but Phoofsy was almost 95? That might not be fair, for her to be older, just ’cause she got to live longer. They might want to be the same age again – so they can be, together.”

(I don’t know what age I want to be yet, but that sounds pretty much like the best idea ever.)

“I think, in heaven, you can live out a dream while you’re awake. Like, you know how when you wake up after you’ve had an awesome dream and you suddenly realize it was just a dream and you’re so sad? Well, in heaven, you actually get to do the dream while you’re awake – you never have to miss anything! So Phoofsy and Great and Grandpa Bill can live out all of their dreams, for real – not just dreaming – every single day.”

(OMG THAT IS AWESOME.)

“But it’s okay to sometimes miss things. I think people in heaven might sometimes be sad. I mean, they’re mostly happy – it’s heaven after all, and they can see their friends and they can travel all around the world and have those dreams – but I think there’s a little sadness… Because life has sadness. We have to have some sadness to appreciate the happiness. Without a little, tiny bit of sadness, heaven wouldn’t be real.”

(Appreciation and perspective, even in heaven. Very cool.)

“When you’re in heaven, if you get to travel all around the world and be any age you want, I want to be a baby for a little while.” 

(Interject our incredulity. A baby?? But wouldn’t that be… boring?)

“Well, that’s the thing. We think it would be boring right now because we can’t see inside a baby’s mind and we don’t remember what it was like to be a baby. But if I could be a baby, but have my regular mind, I could see what life was like when I was a baby and actually remember it.”

(Scratch what I said before. THAT may be the best idea ever.)

“And I know that, once people are dead, they’re gone and all that. But I think they’re still with us, too — not just in our hearts, though, like people say. I think – and I know this is kind of weird – but I think that people can come and visit for a while. You can’t see them, you can’t feel them, you don’t even know they’re there… But they are. Maybe they walk with you to school. Maybe they sit next to you at dinner. Maybe they ride beside you in the car. Then, suddenly, you have a good memory of that person and it makes you feel better… and it’s because they were right there with you for just a little bit, visiting. Not all creepy like a ghost! Just a good feeling, because they came to say hello.”

—————
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Mother’s Day 2015

Ella and Annie don’t talk too much about being sad, but I know that Phoofsy is on their minds. Every day since she died, both girls, of their own accord, have made absolutely certain to keep something of hers with them; Ella now carries her books in one of Phoofsy’s old purses; Annie wears her hats around the house. Hardly a day has gone by when they haven’t worn one of her necklaces to school even though, normally, necklaces aren’t their thing.

Every time I see them toting her bags, donning her jewelry, adorned in her hats… a fleeting, glowing smile crosses my heart.

And I have no doubt Phoofsy has come to say hello.
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I think Mother Nature is just a little bit tipsy this week

We’ve had kind of funny weather at the lake recently – a bit windy, a bit choppy, a hint of rain here, a wickedly hot breeze there, a chilly wind over yonder. The threat of a severe thunderstorm kept the girls inside most of yesterday afternoon and evening, so by this morning, they were in rare (read: drive-you-insane) form.

In an attempt to curb their insanity (and preserve the rest of our sanity – or whatever little of it is left, anyway), I offered to take them for a boat ride. Ella, my most avid boater, immediately agreed, and although I couldn’t convince Annie to join us, my grandma, Phoofsy, decided to come along, too.

Upon hearing this, Ella was momentarily concerned. “But Mom – we won’t be able to go fast if Phoofsy comes with us!” I assured her that it would still be a lovely ride, and she conceded that it would be fun to have Phoof with us… especially if I took Ella out again for an even faster jaunt. After procuring life jackets and towels, we were ready to go. While hardly glassy-smooth, the water in front of our dock looked nicely suited for a simple, pleasant boat ride. Easy, peasy – let’s do this!

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A few light waves, but otherwise lovely, right?

The clouds, on the other hand, did not appear so benevolent. One of the coolest parts of living on a large-ish lake is that its open expanse allows you to see myriad weather patterns coming and going – rolling up from the south, sailing over from the west, very occasionally creeping down from the north. Even cooler, the size of the lake (1.5 miles wide and 15.5 miles long) means that it’s entirely possible for multiple weather phenomena to occur simultaneously. Today, the northwestern portion of the lake was blanketed in clouds with the potential for rain, so I opted to take us southward, where it was perfectly sunny.

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See: dark and stormy to the right (i.e. west); sunny with puffy clouds to the left (that’d be east).

As we made our way down the lake, it was, indeed, bright and shiny, but – for some inexplicable reason – choppy as all get-out. The peaceful landscape in front of our dock gave way to a roiling, jagged roller coaster of hell. One moment, we were bobbing happily along, all “Ooooh, what a beautiful summer morning!” and the next I was looking around for George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg to see if they, too, were struggling with their vessel.


 It may not look like it here, but trust me, it was totally Perfect Storm-esque.

I’ve been boating on the lake more times than I can count, and I am not exaggerating when I say that these were the roughest waves I’ve ever encountered. Ocean-like, they were taller than the boat, cresting with white, frothy peaks and dipping crazy low to draw up steam again. Ella hung on, white-knuckled, for dear life and Phoofsy (someone who is most definitely not a stranger to going out in the boat) sat, stern-faced, determined to – quite literally – ride things out as we flew up into the air and then plummeted down into the trough, water spraying at us from all sides. There seemed to be no speed at which the ride was any less formidable; too slow and we thrashed about like ping-pong balls. Too fast and we risked breaking our teeth from all of the machine gun-esque chattering.

Is it legal to send out the SOS signal because you’re worried that you might break your coccyx? What about your grandma’s coccyx? Should I stop mentioning coccyxes?

For as good a sport as she is, I knew that Phoofsy was hardly enjoying the brutal pounding we were taking, and it hadn’t really been my intention to torture her on our easy peasy ride, so I finally cried “uncle” and turned the boat around. (I might have said something other than “uncle” but thankfully it was too windy for Ella to hear me.) As we bounced our way north, the waves began to ease up a little, and I was thankful that the storm clouds remained mostly to our west.

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 Yep, just off to our left… there they are…
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Still looking relatively hospitable, no?

Things had just settled into a rhythm that didn’t make all of us feel as though we were rumbling over a rock quarry, and I had finally breathed a sigh of relief that, at last, this ride was taking a turn away from water boarding and toward relaxation… when it began to rain. Turns out that the clouds “just a bit to the west” were a little more “east” than I’d thought and, despite my attempts to outrun (outboat?) the droplets – despite the fact that it was STILL SUNNY – it was hopeless.

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By this time, even the CCI pups we’d brought along were like, ENOUGH.

Thankfully, the rain was not particularly strong, so none of us got soaked, but the message was clear: Nice try. Go home. With a sigh of defeat, I turned the boat back to the house, barely managing to ease it back into the hoist without doing any damage. Naturally, by now it had stopped raining, and the water surrounding our dock was as calm as it had been before we began our accursed journey. Rather than tempt fate, Phoofsy ambled out of the boat (“ambled” is generous, but hey, if you can climb out of a boat, perch on the edge of the hoist, and then traipse over a handmade, unsteady wooden bridge to the dock when you’re 94, I get to use the word “ambled”) and called it a day.

Ella, on the other hand, was bound and determined to take me up on my promise of a more raucous ride, so we lowered the hoist and motored back out into the open water… where Ella immediately refused to allow me to increase the speed any faster than we’d gone during our first ride. Without a hint of irony, she looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m fine with going slow, thanks. I’m so glad Phoofsy was with us the last time or else we might really have had trouble in those waves.” 

Given that the weather patterns have been changing so rapidly you could get whiplash trying to keep up, it was no surprise that the water that had been filled with white-capped breakers fifteen minutes earlier was now barely rolling. Our ride was as easy peasy as I’d hoped the first one would be as we took the boat across the lake and nearly all the way down to the south end, then back up and home again. Ella’s hair billowed behind her as she sat up front, arms outstretched horizontally as she “conducted” the air each time we crossed another boat’s wake.

As we approached the shore once more, I joked that she’d better brace herself because, as we all know, docking is not my specialty. She obliged and then waited for me to turn the dial and raise the hoist (and the boat) out of the water, but as I did so, nothing happened. The metal coil refused to budge, wouldn’t even make a sound, as the boat bobbed along beside the dock and we waited… and waited… for the motor to engage…

And then our neighbor called over from their beach to me to ask if our power was out, too, because theirs was – and wasn’t this just the strangest weather we’d been having?

Before I cursed her, I did thank Mother Nature for at least allowing my grandmother to get out of the boat earlier when the power was on, because without a functioning hoist, Ella and I were now floating a good three feet lower than the dock, and ain’t no way Phoofsy could have “ambled” her way out of this one. Unable to park the boat as usual, I realized I’d have to back it up and tie it to the dock cleats – while not banging it up against the posts and also while locating and attaching the bumper buoys – which is super fun if merely docking the boat is a significant challenge.

Well, it took me at least ten minutes (several of which were spent pulling the boat back in line with the dock after Ella realized that I’d attached the wrong end of the rope to the cleat and the rear of the boat had come unmoored – oopsies!), but by God, y’all, I attached it and set out the bumpers and managed to clamber up and onto the dock. Ella, of course, was already a good many yards ahead of me, having breezily climbed out of the boat and skipped her way up the beach without a care in the world.

“Mom? Once we have the power back and get the boat up, can we lower it again tomorrow and go for another ride with Phoofsy?”

Sure, kid. I’m sure she’d love that. Easy peasy.

Throwback Thursday: Birthday Girl

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June 26, 1995
Looking extra, super fine, especially my bangs.

 

For my grandmother’s 75th birthday, my mom and her sisters surprised her and flew/drove in to the lake to celebrate – bringing their daughters (my cousins and me) with them, so it would be a true girls’ weekend. (Except that I was in the throes of angsty adolescent love and insisted that Nick – my college boyfriend whom I’d been dating for only a year – accompany me. Nothing says romance like joining your girlfriend’s female relatives to celebrate her grandmother’s 75th birthday. And nothing says family time like bringing your teenage boyfriend along on a girls’ only getaway. I was cool like that.)

For my grandmother’s 80th birthday, my grandfather rented an 1860s-era replica paddleboat – one that still plies the waters of our lake (albeit not by water wheel) and serves meals to those making the journey – for all of their family and friends. I remember having a blast listening to the band play and waving to our house from the boat, as opposed to the other day around.

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We weren’t riding this time, but this is the boat. Very Huck Finn, no?

For her 90th birthday, my extended family came to celebrate. By now, Ella and Annie were around, so they participated in the festivities, too.

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Birthday card giving…

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Post birthday card hugging…

The next day, while we lounged on the dock, my grandma – whom my children (and often we) refer to as Phoofsy – took herself out in the kayak.Phoofsy kayaking one day after turning 90
 
Isn’t that how you plan to observe your 90th? On a freakin’ solo KAYAK RIDE??

 

For her 92nd birthday, we decided to nearly kill her by presenting her with a musical, spinning, flowery candle of death. She was thrilled, but that might have been because the temporary blindness messed with her reasoning abilities.
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Instead of a cake, I’d made her a peach cobbler, which is currently her favorite dessert – or so she says…
Peach cobblers hold flaming balls of death very nicely.

Until I was 31, I lived a minimum of 5.5 hours away from my grandparents – which meant that I didn’t see them more than a few times each year, and very rarely celebrated birthdays with them. Since moving to Rochester seven years ago, it has been our honor to spend all of our birthdays together – especially when flaming balls of fire are involved.

Today marks my grandma’s 94th birthday, and we have come to the lake once more to be with her. Again, we gave her cards and talked and devoured peach cobbler. Don’t worry that the repetition means that she’s lowing down, however; she is currently playing bridge with a friend via iPad.

On the one hand, I sure hope I make it to 75 and 80 and 90 and 92 and 94. But it has to be worth the ride, you know? As Phoofsy is fond of saying, “It’s no good if you can’t have fun anymore.” Thank God, she’s still having fun – be it through cobbler or kayaks, bridge or boats, family or friends.

Looking at the candles that adorned the dessert, Ella marveled that, if we switched them around, Phoofsy could be turning 49. Given that every medical professional we meet does an actual double-take upon seeing my Gram’s birth date (“OhmyGod, I thought you were only 80 at the most!”), Ella might not have been that far off. If I can kick even half as much ass at 49 as my grandmother is at 94, I will consider that I’ve lead one hell of a wonderful life.

That is, i I can survive the musical candles of death. Those things are crazy, even if, like Phoofsy, you do kick butt and take names.