Thinking about my mom

This winter I’ve been wearing my mother’s nightgown. Loose and soft, it flows along my body to mid-calf. I don’t know why I brought it back from mom’s house after she died over 20 years ago, although I do remember feeling sad and hurt when I saw it tossed aside at the end of the estate sale. I usually don’t wear nightgowns. My typical winter sleepwear is a silky long underwear top and flannel PJ bottoms but ever since my hip replacement operation this past fall, the nightgown has been my bedtime garment. Practical, comfortable, comforting.

I’ve been thinking about mom a lot over the past weeks and months, wondering how she would have responded to a woman running for president and to the final outcome of the election. I hope she would have supported Mrs. Clinton, although I’m not sure she would have, and I know she’d be horrified by Mr. Trump.

I thought of her when I recently donated money to Planned Parenthood. She regularly gave them money because she believed in access to women’s health care, including access to safe abortions. When she was a young married woman she’d supported two friends through recoveries from illegal abortions. She felt strongly that no woman should have to go through that.

My mother was a housewife and homemaker, a staunch Republican until the first Iraq war pushed her to vote for Mr. Clinton. We had some tense discussions when I was in my 20s because she thought my feminism was disrespectful of the choices she’d made, the life she’d led. And although I declared that I DID respect her, on some level she was right—there was an edge of dismissal in my rejection of her chosen path.

There’s a lot of my mother in me and much more to say about her and about us. But for now, just this musing as I sit here on the couch with the nightgown layered over my flannel PJ bottoms for morning warmth and I look out at blue sky and the beginning of a chilly February day.

And this is the challenge…

Five in the afternoon on a rainy, chilly late January day. The day began with freezing rain and sleet layered an inch deep. I worked from home today, which helped me get a tedious task done, but has left me feeling restless. I do some dishes, make hot chocolate, settle back on the couch with the laptop. My living room is warmly lit, dining table cluttered, trees barely visible out the back window against the quickly darkening sky. Running in the back of my mind is a list of tasks not done—bills to pay, a resume to update, a sympathy card to write.

This morning I heard the scrape of snow shovel on pavement and looked out the window to see my next door neighbor and his 2-year-old son shoveling my front walk, the 2-year-old bundled up in fleece, and a wooly hat, and boots, bashing the icy snow with his shovel. A kind gesture—snow shoveling is not recommended for someone with a newly installed hip.

img_0630Just a few days ago, on a warm, sunny day, I took part in a local march and rally that echoed and supported the Women’s March in Washington. An exhilarating day. Throughout the day I stayed in touch via text and email with friends and family around the country doing the same thing, marching, rallying, representing.

Today my Facebook newsfeed is filled with dire reports about executive actions; Cabinet picks; presidential temper tantrums; requests for phone calls, letter writing, donations. I want to act, keep the momentum going, and at the same time I feel overwhelmed, heartsick, deeply afraid. The exhilaration of Saturday fades.

I stand outside, stretch, breathe deeply in the cold, damp air. Daily life goes on. I work and remind myself that the work I do, even the tedious tasks, benefits children, brings kindness and respect for learning to the classroom. I connect with friends near and far. I welcome kindness and look for opportunities to give in return. It’s not enough but it’s a start.

And this is the challenge, isn’t it? To stay grounded in our ordinary lives, to hold on to hope where we can find it, to build out and up from there.

Silence and connection

Sitting on the couch looking out at evergreens and gray sky. The microwave beeping at me to let me know my oatmeal is ready. The cat sitting on a chair staring at me, telling me she’s ready for any food I might pass her way.

I hear the furnace blower forcing hot air up through the vents, the microwave letting me know breakfast is ready, a car passing by. But there are no other voices, except the cat’s occasional cry. No radio on, no music. There have been times when I’d get up in the morning and turn on NPR or a morning talk show on TV. But these days I crave silence in the morning. Later, after work, I’ll turn on the TV or cue up a video, tap into Pandora, call up a friend for a long rambling chat. But mornings, I want to just be. To wake up slowly, let my mind drift, let the world emerge. I told myself I’d let writing percolate this week, but the bubbles are rising slowly, without much energy.

What’s one word you carry from the weekend? the Facebook post asked. Community was the first word that came to mind. Weekends are when I spend time with my friendship community—routines of contact that weave a strong web of connection—Saturday coffee with one friend; errand running and conversation with another; time spent standing on the town common with another, taking a stand about the doings in Washington; regular phone calls with another friend. Casual, ordinary, essential.

Our conversations touch on dailiness, the rough grain of our lives, the many small ways we get by, the moments when we thrive. Updates on friends and family members, commiseration on politics and the state of the world, shared strategies for coping or resisting or venting, new streaming videos to watch, books to read, movies to see. At times the talk meanders into deeper territory—a health fear, the indignities or frustrations of getting older, a wondering about purpose, about calling, how to live in our messed up and beautiful world.

And writing this I see that the connection and the silence feed each other, that each gives me a different kind of strength, and that both are essential, especially in these difficult and contentious times.

Soup and Singing

Last night for supper I made Lentils, Monastery Style a favorite recipe from Diet for a Small Planet. These days I access the recipe on my iPad having long since lost the paperback copy of the cookbook that I first used, back when I was in my early 30s. If I still had the paperback it most likely would have gone the route of my other cookbooks from that era, the Vegetarian Epicure or the original Moosewood cookbook—spines broken, pages falling out, favorite pages so stained it’s getting hard to read them.

This is a simple dish—lentils, broth, onions, carrots, tomatoes, some seasoning, a surprising dash of sherry at the end and a sprinkling of shredded swiss cheese in the bottom of the serving bowls. I also add garlic because soup needs garlic and this time I added some turkey sausage.

Every time I make it I remember the first time I made it in the small kitchen of the Maynard Road apartment. It was a Sunday afternoon and friends were coming to make music—Pam with her fiddle, Beth with her dulcimer, Wil with guitar and mandolin, and me on guitar and dulcimer and penny whistle. We all sang, some of us managing to pick up harmonies, others holding tight to the melody. We’d pick and sing and then eat and pick and sing some more. We kept to this routine for a year or so and then got together less and less. I’m still friends with these people but we come together in different ways now.

But every time I eat this soup I’m back there, in that living room, snow on the ground outside, the sweet and savory goodness of the soup, its simple ingredients that blend to yield rich flavor, our voices and instruments blending as well.

Solitude’s “soft power”

This morning I saw a link on Facebook to an essay by Donald Hall about solitude vs loneliness. I’d seen this before but hadn’t taken the time until today to read the essay. It spoke to me in some way this morning. My sister is 12 years older and was out of the house by the time I was 6 so I spent a lot of time alone as a child. I’m an introvert, a writer, a single woman. This question of when does solitude become loneliness has long been something I think about, even more so as I’ve grown older.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been recovering from a hip replacement operation. All went well and recovery has gone smoothly. In the first weeks there was a steady stream of people—friends and neighbors checking in, a visiting nurse and PT, someone to help with cat care, people delivering food. But after a few weeks I no longer needed those services and that level of attention, which left me with long stretches alone in my house.

Mostly I saw this as luxurious. I could move at a more leisurely pace, sit for hours at the dining table in the mornings watching the world wake up, lie on the couch and watch the birds out the front window, neighbors passing by, kids bundled up and playing on the piles of snow at the corner. I read, I daydreamed, I wrote.

In the evening, when fatigue hit (all part of the recovery) I retreated into streaming videos and dozing on the couch. Mostly I was content. But as Hall writes, “Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over.”

I’ve just started back to work–part-time for now but I’ll soon be back to full-time, juggling work, social life, writing time, longing for more down time, more reflective time.

Hall is 20 years older, not driving, increasingly frail, increasingly housebound. My recovery time has been a taste for me of what age might bring—an interlude—a bit of time travel into the future.

Homesick for Christmas

I don’t remember much about childhood Christmases in our Cincinnati suburban home—my parents hosted an open house on Christmas Eve and I have vague memories of being fussed over by various neighbors and family friends and I remember my delight at dollhouses and dolls with wardrobes made by my mother . There’s one ridiculous picture of me and the 2 next door neighbor kids—I’m in a nurse’s hat and cape and they are both in cowboy costumes, posing on the wintry front lawn.

When I was 12 we moved to a nearby town and ended the tradition of the Christmas Eve open house. My sister was married by then and she and her husband had not yet returned to his home in England. On Christmas Eve, everyone gathered for a quick and simple supper with Christmas cookies for dessert—I particularly liked the butterscotch brownies—and then decorated the tree. Later we’d go to church for a carol service. When we returned home, my sister and I would fill the stockings and put all the presents under the tree. Christmas day began with Sara Lee coffee cake and present opening, then a long boring stretch of doing not much of anything before preparations began for Christmas dinner, which always had the same menu—shrimp cocktail for starters, some kind of roast and Yorkshire pudding and green beans and roast potatoes, plum pudding for dessert made from the recipe my sister found in the Cincinnati newspaper that she swore made a better pudding than any English recipe.

For years as an adult, I flew back to Cincinnati for Christmas. In the 10 years after my dad died, it was often just me and my mom, although sometimes my cousin and his wife were around or my sister and brother-in-law would fly back from England for the holiday. The routines surrounding the holiday got pared down but I always got a tree and decorated it and displayed a few of mom’s favorite Christmas candles. And I made plum pudding.

After my mom died, I became a Christmas vagabond—one year I flew to Chicago with a friend to spend the holiday with her sister’s family. Some years I made the trip to England; others I stayed home and cobbled together a celebration with friends, often being the only non-family member at their family gatherings. Six years ago my brother-in-law died and since then my sister and I make a point of being together at Christmas, sometimes in the US, sometimes at her home in England.

Over the years, I’ve established traditions of my own. I usually put up a tree (or if I’m heading for England I might simply put lights on one of my larger houseplants). I buy poinsettias and cyclamen and cut evergreen boughs for the mantle. If my sister is coming here, I make plum pudding. When I have a tree, I use the family ornaments I brought from my mother’s house.

But somehow, no matter how much I decorate, or play Christmas music, and no matter how sweet my time with friends or with my sister, I feel a little homesick, like I’m visiting Christmas and missing home.

 

“Wanna go for a swim?”

 

My friend Fran died 10 years ago on Valentine’s day. As I say this to mutual friends we all sigh. “Has it really been that long?” we wonder.

We met when I started a new job in the counseling center of the university where she was EAP coordinator. Our friendship developed over the next year or two and we were friends through all the ups and downs of mid-life: Her divorce and then new love and remarriage; my career searching, grad school, new job; parents’ deaths, kids’ struggles and successes, and finally, for Fran, in her early fifties, a brief and painful journey through cancer.

Fran and I shared a love of books, writing, and music. We sang together in a community chorus, bravely ventured to weekend vocal music workshops that pushed us each out of our musical comfort zones, took part in a multi session workshop on vocal improvisation. The riskier musical adventures were usually spurred on by Fran and with a loud gulp of apprehension, I’d say, Yes, sure, let’s sign up for that and then be glad I’d done so.

We also shared a love of being in water and would meet up with each other late in the afternoon on summer days to swim in a nearby pond. We’d meet on the grassy shore, drop towels on the ground and slip out of sandals, sit on the retaining wall and lower ourselves into the cold water. All along we talked (“gabbed” as Fran said) about what we’d been up to since we last met—Fran at work in the EAP office and at home with family, me with the summer off, saying I’d use the time to write but more likely gardening and reading, going for walks, chatting with the neighbors.

Conversation would pause as we plunged into the cold water and set out with our strong crawl strokes, bodies slicing through the cold. I would soon switch to the breast stroke and Fran would flip onto her back. “The top two inches are warm,” she’d say. We’d move at a leisurely pace for a while, a stately breast stroke, then rolling onto backs to scull along, then side stroke—these all allowed us to keep the conversation going—about everything and nothing, good friends, connecting as friends do, sharing the dailiness of our lives, keeping the bond strong.

Soon one of us, often me, would tire of swimming with head out of water, and we’d take off again with the crawl stroke, covering distance, warming up, reveling in the pull of shoulder muscles, the strength of our legs.

Then another pause at the halfway point. Both shores looked very far away and I’d feel a frisson of anxiety, aware of how deep the water was. But I knew Fran was there just as I was there for her and the distance and depth were no longer daunting.

We’d swim at a leisurely pace for awhile, not talking now, pulling closer to the opposite shore. Warm sun. Swallows and dragon flies darting around us. Kids’ voices sounding from the approaching shore and soon I realized I could touch ground. We’d wade in close to shore and sit submerged for a few minutes before one of us, usually Fran, set out again as we made our way back to the other shore.

Kris Kringle

My dad was always the one to put the old figure of Kris Kringle on top of the tree. This was the last step in trimming the tree, the prelude to the grand lighting up finale. Through memory’s lens I can see his movements, gesture by gesture. He unwraps the ornament from its shroud of tissue paper, hefts it in his hand, holds it for us to see then looks consideringly at the tree as if there were anyplace to put Kris Kringle other than the top spiking tip.

He walks over, reaches up, and gently places it, steps back, nods. “OK, lights on,“ he says and I crouch behind the tree touching plug to receptacle then hurry to join the collective “ahh…” of satisfaction. Kris Kringle, he’d tell us, was on his tree when he was a boy. He told us this every year and I’d imagine him, dressed in the short pants and high top boots of his childhood, watching as his father crowned the tree.

IMG_0460When I was a teenager I liked to stay up alone on the night we trimmed the tree, just sitting quietly at the edge of its radiance, moved by something I didn’t quite understand and couldn’t put words to. Kris Kringle knows. He’s huddled inside a hooded, snow covered coat; his arms are clasped in front of him, hands shoved inside the sleeves to stay warm. He clutches a bit of greenery in the crook of one elbow. His face is dour and fierce. “Yes,” he says, “this is the dark season.”

He sits on top of my tree now and I too carefully unwrap him, heft him, consider the tree, and gently settle him in place. I once read an essay about the solstice that said we put ornaments on trees to commemorate the dead. I gather friends to trim the tree. They admire Kris Kringle’s antiquity but can’t appreciate the shadows and ghosts that hover around him, the echoes that fall away from my gesture as I reach up, my father’s arm reaching up and his father’s before him.

“It’s time for the lights,” I say once Kris is in place. I go to the window to lower the blinds against the cold early dusk. Outside the garden lies dormant and stiff under its blanket of leaves. In the dark room I crouch behind the tree, touch plug to receptacle, and “ahh…” we exclaim, wondrously, reverently, touched once again by this reminder of life, its green smell, its host of ornaments, its fiery light.

Plum Pudding

How to make plum pudding:

First go to the store and beg the butcher for a lump of food grade suet. Grind it up. Soak raisins and candied fruit in dark ale. Mix together brown sugar and eggs until they are frothy. Sift flour and spices and baking soda–cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. Mix it all together and pour into a pudding mold–or a coffee can if you can’t find a mold–and steam for many hours.

Prepare a month before Christmas so you can soak it every few days in brandy. Resteam it for a few hours before Christmas dinner. Serve flaming, with buttery/brandied hard sauce.

My sister taught me to make this concoction using a recipe she clipped from the Cincinnati Enquirer. Her English husband claimed it was as good a plum pudding as anything his mother ever made and for many years it was a highlight of our family’s Christmas dinner.

After my sister and her husband moved back to England, I took over the plum pudding duties, working from an ale and batter stained recipe card. I chopped and soaked and stirred and steamed and proudly served the flaming result to our ever dwindling family gathered around the Christmas table. A rich, dark, spicy link to her, serving the same pudding to her English family.

But then my parents died and cousins moved away and I stayed in New England for Christmas with friends. Suet rich plum pudding didn’t really fit most of my friends’ food preferences. For many years the recipe card sat in the card file and the pudding molds sat on the shelf, sad and unused.

But a few years ago, my sister and I spent Christmas with relatives on the west coast and I brought a plum pudding, which was such a hit that I left a copy of the recipe and an empty pudding mold behind. I made it again last year to share with friends and my sister, who was once again visiting. I am looking forward to digging into the rich fruity goodness again this year, happy to see this tradition revived and pudding molds out of the cupboard. 

Photos and vases

I love to look at the mantelpiece—strange thing to say, but the objects arranged there please me. Two photographs taken by a friend, a lithograph of a black cat looking out a window, a collage of family photos, brass candlesticks that have been in the family for several generations, two small wood carvings. And vases, several vases.

–A raku vase made by a former pottery teacher. She’d studied in Japan and taught us that beauty lives in imperfection, in irIMG_0074regularity. In her class I learned to throw quickly, lightly, maintaining just enough control to pull the walls of the pot up. I have a set of small bowls I use all the time that I threw “off the hump” working with a large chunk of clay—center a small piece on top and quickly pull it up into a vase or open it out into a bowl and cut it off then center the next small portion.

–An old blue vase that’s been in the family a long time—
I love the color and the simple clean lines–and the knowledge that it’s been held and at some point used by mother and grandmother.

–A small wooden vase I bought in Australia, delicate as a seed pod, and a wooden bud vase from New Zealand.

I like to handle all these objects, look at them, use them when I can but they also—and more importantly—evoke memories of lessons I’ve learned, places I’ve travelled, people I love.