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The Shamelessness of Miss America

The plan was to watch the season premiere of Shameless on Sunday night. I had binged the entire series in May, getting seriously sucked in by the Gallaghers and couldn’t wait to see what kind of craziness was in store for Season 9. While some of the scenarios are stretchably relatable, my fascination with the family most certainly has more to do with the fact that the program drastically raises my self-esteem as a parent.

As I was flipping through the TV Guide, the online version, not the magazine version that I knew, loved and worked for in my formative years, my eye caught the Miss America listing which was on at 9 pm. The same time as Shameless. Hmm, I thought. I wonder if this is the Miss America pageant. The one that was once hyped as hard as the Super Bowl. The one I used to watch as religiously as the Academy Awards.

Sure enough, after a little googling, I learned that Miss America was due to be crowned that very night in Atlantic City . Thanks to the invention of something called a DVR, I could watch it live and save Shameless for a rainy day.

Betwixt and between all the Rachel Maddowing I’ve been doing in my determination to pay more attention than I did during Watergate, I know I heard snippets of Miss America news. Someone was being bullied. Someone was dissing swimsuits. Some executive quit. Or maybe two of them. I vaguely recalled our president being affiliated with beauty pageants. But was that someone he bedded, a pageant he ran, or both? Was it Miss America? I googled. Nope, Miss Universe. But, point being, beauty pageants haven’t been in the forefront of my mind in a long, long time.

I think the whole Jon Benet Ramsey thing did me in. After the six-year-old beauty queen was found murdered in her home in Boulder on Christmas night, pageants became the pariah of extra-curricular activities, eliciting consternation and condescension when defended in dinner party conversation.

But, the thing is, I was actually in a competition with Jon Benet’s mother, Patsy.

When we were seniors at West Virginia University, we entered an inter-collegiate competition held at Ohio State. Full disclosure. It was not a beauty pageant. It was the National Student Advertising Competition and we, the advertising and marketing majors, were tasked with creating an entire ad campaign for Wella Balsam. Patsy, who was still a decade away from motherhood and a lifetime away from becoming a nationally-known entity, was the spokesperson for the group. After all, she held the coveted title of Miss West Virginia, was the most poised, owned the nicest college clothes and had a world of experience answering pointed questions. My friend, Sue, was the media expert. Mary Ann and Andrea did the marketing. And I was the copywriter.

And what a clever copywriter I was! We chose a sports theme for the campaign and I can still hear Patsy declaring, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!” as she pointed dramatically toward the easels displaying our hand-drawn storyboards that portrayed athletes with long, flowing hair. Women athletes who not only looked good, but played hard, thanks to Wella Balsam shampoo.

We nailed it.

We, the panel of WVU creative geniuses, gathered gleefully, awaiting our crowning moment. And, just as they do in the Miss America pageant, the MC fueled the anticipation by announcing the losers first.

“And the first runner-up from the great state of ….”

Yup. It was us. We walked away with second place.

That night we stayed in a fancy schmancy hotel in Columbus where we drowned our sorrows in a manner not unexpected of grieving college seniors. When we staggered to bed, forlorn and forsaken, we noted an abundance of shoes in the hallways.

Apparently, back in the day, hotels of a certain ilk offered overnight shoe shines. You simply left your dusty kicks outside your room and they’d be whisked away, polished, buffed and returned by the time you stepped out the door for your coffee and crueler the next morning.

I looked at Patsy. Patsy looked at Sue. Sue looked at Andrea. Andrea looked at Mary Ann. And without saying a word, we did what any other dethroned and dejected advertising types would have done.

We got creative.

Room 312’s clodhoppers were replaced with 508’s Frye boots. Room 410’s clogs went to 432. Room 219 ended up with one penny loafer and one stiletto.

We ran up and down the hallways, in and out of the elevators, tossing shoes, tying mismatched laces, laughing our fool heads off as we wreaked havoc within the hotel hallways. We, hand-in-hand with the prim-and-proper Miss West Virginia.

I couldn’t resist watching Miss America on Sunday night. I watched every minute, from beginning to end. I googled the candidates, as they’re now called. I listened to their impassioned empowerments. I marveled at their omnipresent smiles, prestigious pedigrees and off-the-cuff responses. I found myself making my list of favorites as the top fifteen were cut to ten then cut to five.

And, I felt my stomach surge, just a little, as the fourth runner-up was named, followed by the third runner-up, then the second runner-up, leaving just two beauty queens clutching each other tightly, knowing that one of their lives was about to change forever while the other’s claim to fame would forever be that she was a Miss America runner-up.

I was rooting for New York. She was smart and pretty and when I checked her LinkedIn account, yes, I really did, I saw that she had worked in the same school system where the daughter is currently gainfully employed. She sings like a lark, is an advocate of the arts and is New York Strong. What’s not to love?

So, when she took the crown, I fist-pumped the air, alone in the living room. I smiled. And, I thought of Patsy.

I didn’t keep in touch with Patsy for very long after college. I was invited to her wedding, but it was far away in Atlanta and I was young and poor, so I graciously declined. I kept up with her for a while, and then later, only through our mutual friend, Sue. I followed every lead, every news account and every rumor of the Jon Benet story but never reached out to her. Too many years had passed. When Patsy died in 2006, it had been over 20 years since our paths had crossed. But I’ll never forget the lesson she left behind:

There’s a little bit of beauty queen in all of us.

What Becomes of the Titan-Hearted?

Yesterday, I began the arduous task of cleaning out Leo’s closet. As the youngest, he was used to sharing his space, so naturally, over the years, his room became a dumping ground. I slowly snuck off-season clothes, extra pillows, blankets and boxes of just plain junk into his closet, reasoning that he never used it anyway. All of his belongings pretty much lived on the floor.

Now that Leo is a card-carrying philosopher with a diploma to prove it and appears to be home for the unforeseen future, I thought it prudent to make room for his personal effects in his childhood bedroom.

Along with a family of spiders and a few dead stink bugs, I unearthed musty duffel bags, backpacks with half-full water bottles, a straw hat he wore on our family-and-friend vacation to Jamaica in 2006, the purple crocheted afghan my spouse picked up at a garage sale which I immediately hid, an old Xbox with a plethora of cable wires, a framed Wizard of Oz poster (also procured from a garage sale), dozens of baseball jerseys in a succession of sizes, three unmatched socks, a clip on necktie, one cleatless cleat, a deflated football and a children’s bible with the cover ripped off.

Once the floor was finally clear and I was able to reach the top shelf of the closet with my disinfecting agents, I felt something soft and squishy in the back corner. My first thought was that it was a dead squirrel, but my panic subsided when my brain reasoned that a carcass would be neither soft nor squishy. I reached up and pulled out a dusty, but fully-intact Titans pillow.

And my heart hurt.

“Keep or toss?” I asked Leo in an emotionless tone, trying not to skew his response.

Leo was a baseball player for his entire childhood. From six-years-old on, he played for the Titans, an elite travel team that demanded discipline, talent and dedication. When you played for the Titans, you didn’t go to your grandmother’s for Sunday dinner. Your grandmother came to your game. You didn’t go to a birthday party on a Saturday afternoon. You didn’t go swimming between double-headers even if it was 93 degrees in the shade. You didn’t complain about practices. You didn’t question line-ups. You didn’t cry.

Your parents didn’t send you to sleep-away camp. They didn’t balk at the cost of airfares and hotel rooms and 16-passenger van trips to Florida and North Carolina and Georgia. They didn’t hesitate to buy the finest gloves, the newest cleats, the snazziest uniforms.

When you played for the Titans, you trained year-round. Your parents drove you at ungodly hours to faraway facilities. Your friends were your teammates. Your parents’ friends were your teammates’ parents. Your life, your parents’ life, your extended family’s life, was baseball.

You studied it. You defended it. You discussed it.

Ad nauseam.

It was your dream. Your love. Your life.

I sat down on the corner of Leo’s bed with the Titans’ hat pillow and thought about those six and seven-year-olds playing in their first travel tournament in Pennsylvania. They were playing “up” in an 8U bracket and we were staying in a Spring Hill Suites in Plymouth Meeting. When we checked in to the hotel, each player was given a baseball cap pillow, in current team colors, complete with a Titans logo. Hand-sewn and delivered by my sister, Nancy. The kids went to bed at 8. The parents drank margaritas until midnight.

That was 16 years ago. It was the beginning of something we never thought would end.

But, sure enough, along with the passing years came the wavering spirits. The repurposed passions. The torn labrums. And the distinct possibility that you just might not play pro baseball after all.

“Keep or toss?”

“Keep,” he said.

And my heart smiled.

titans cap

Go Away and Don’t Come Back, said no good mother ever.

While mothers across the country are making their final Target runs, planning family dinners and blinking back tears as their college freshmen get ready to leave the nest, I feel their pain. I feel their anxiety. And I feel their guilt. Because in every mother’s heart there’s that teensy-weensy beat that says, “Yes! They’re finally going!”

However, very few mothers will admit to feeling something so contrary to what is written in the Mothering 101 Manual. And so, it festers inside, that gnawing guilt, until it all spills out with the fourth bottle of wine on a Friday night with the girls. But, inevitably, there’s one in the group who absolutely refuses to admit she feels even an iota of joy in the launching of her child.

But, it’s there. It’s got to be. After all, we’re only human.

The thing I have on those mothers of first-time freshmen, is experiential wisdom. When I became a first-time empty-nester, my house was clean. My refrigerator was organized. I had my own space in the driveway. I didn’t have to wait for the shower. Or the dryer. There was room in the hall closet and a place to sit in the basement. I could talk on the phone without going outside and cook and clean for two. And only two. I could regulate the temperature of the house without constant commentary on how hot or cold it was. And just when the getting got good, they came back.

They always come back.

I must say, I did well with the daughter. I pushed her out of the nest her freshman year and she didn’t come home for eight years. She spent summers working in her college town or tooteling around Thailand or doing just about anything she could come up with to avoid an extended stay back at the ranch.

And then, just like that. She moved back home.

She arrived just a day after the youngest and I left for the food truck. I suspect it was planned that way because the father, who we left behind to cover the Manafort trial, is way more forgiving of massive amounts of stuff coming into the house. By the time I returned six weeks later, the daughter had made herself at home. Especially in the bathroom we now share. My toothbrush has been relegated to a shelf I can barely reach while her beauty products have taken front and center. And middle. And top and bottom. And inside and outside.

“Don’t go in my room,” she warned. “It’s not ready for human visitors yet.”

I had spent hours and hours cleaning out her attic bedroom that had become a storage closet, recording studio and hang out room for those left behind. It also housed a full-sized ping/beer pong table and offered a friendly respite for dangling spiders, and their families. The room was pristinely clean and empty and ready for her return. I won’t go to the attic again until after she moves out.

If she ever does.

Meanwhile, the youngest graduated from college and brought home piles and piles of I don’t know what that is now piled and piled in his childhood bedroom. With the overflow piled in the once family-friendly basement. Then he turned around and went with me to Vermont for the summer. Within those piles and piles piled in his bedroom and basement, there are surely once damp, now moldy towels, smelly sneakers and half-eaten granola bars. I close his door as I pass by, vowing to open it again when he moves out.

If he ever does.

“I got the job!” my middle child texted while I was serving Caprese sandwiches on board the food truck.

While I was a huge supporter of the move he was making, I did one of those aforementioned blinking back of tears when he got the offer.

This job is taking him across the country to Los Angeles, where his girlfriend who loves him ALMOST as much as I do, will be the one waiting at the airport when he arrives with his multiple bags of stuff. And while she’s helping him set up his apartment and organize his kitchen, I’ll be sifting through what’s left behind in his childhood bedroom. I’ll box up left-behind clothes and throw away empty water bottles. I’ll dust the desk and fluff up the pillows and claim his room as the perfect place to do my writing.

But I won’t do it. I won’t take over his bedroom. I’ll leave it as is for when he comes home.

If he ever does.

A Wedding for the Ages

“You know I couldn’t get married without you,” Margaret said. And, of course, she didn’t. I was right there by her side with Carrie, Debbie and Susan as one of her bridesmaids when she said her I do’s to Tom. Margaret and I had been making mischief together since we were five years old and the thought of not standing up for one other on the most important day of her life was simply not an option.

I threw an engagement party brunch for Margaret and Tom at my mother’s house. We served homemade chicken divan and no alcohol because though we were old enough to drink, we were young enough to overdrink and I didn’t want my parents to see the seedy side of ourselves, especially on a Sunday.

Margaret’s bridal shower was an equally low key affair at her mother’s house with crudité and onion dip. The bride-to-be sat in a wingback chair and felt true joy when she opened the $80 wooden hamper that the four bridesmaids, Carrie, Debbie, Susan and I, all chipped in to buy. A gift worth giving, as it’s the same one that airs her dirty laundry to this day.

The wedding took place in an episcopal church with old-fashioned vows. The guys in the wedding party wore black tuxedos. We girls wore fairly flattering peachy-colored dresses and carried orange tiger lilies. Carrie and I couldn’t look at each other during the service knowing we’d burst into uncontrollable fits of nervous laughter when the minister “required and charged” the bride and groom in the presence of God, to reveal any reason they should not be united in marriage. Instead, we bit down hard on our lips and focused our gazes at opposing groomsman and blinked back tears. I worried way too much about smearing my self-applied Maybelline mascara to let my emotions win. But, Carrie welled and expelled, soiling the front of her gown with snot-filled tears.

The reception was at a private country club with a cover band that covered the appropriate mix of old fogey and top 40 dance tunes. By the time Margaret and Tom danced to Billy Joel’s You’re my Home, we were tipsy enough to scream out, “Home could be the Pennsylvania Turnpike” as if those were the most meaningful of the lyrics. And then, when Margaret’s fun-filled father swept her onto the dance floor, we bellowed, “Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry. So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you,” remembering with thankful hearts what Laird had found in the back seat of the red station wagon and chose to never expose.

Margaret and Tom grew up and prospered. They bought an old farm house in Lancaster County (accessible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike) and wallowed in wedded bliss, welcoming a bouncing baby boy, who they named Matt, shortly before their fifth wedding anniversary. Fifteen months later, they were doubly doused with twin daughters, Jan and Claire.

The children grew up and prospered. Matt became engaged to the lovely Lexie whose sole fault is that she grew up in the Bay Area. They met at the University of Richmond and after graduating, their cross-country romance grew roots in San Francisco, turning Matt into a Cali-convert. In Matt and Lexie’s pre-wedding whirlwind, Claire and Phil got engaged and snagged a date five weeks before her brother’s nuptials in San Francisco.

Which is where I found myself last weekend. Thirty-four years after the wedding of Margaret and Tom.

Claire is a mini-Margaret. Their high school graduation photos are interchangeable and both bolster bold personalities with kind hearts and sharp wits. Claire was a stunning bride with a radiant smile, a perfect dress and beautiful steel-blue-gowned bridesmaids. None of us could look at Jan, the weeping maid of honor, for fear that our self-applied Lancome mascara would streak our weathered cheeks.

The wedding came at the end of a heat wave, broken only by an afternoon rain storm. The ceremony was held in an idyllic setting under the trees at the river’s edge at 5 pm, with the day’s first rays of sun illuminating the bride and groom. As I sat with my spouse, who was not even yet my date at Margaret and Tom’s wedding, I took inventory of the guests, thinking about how many I had celebrated with a generation ago at Old York Road Country Club.

Tom is one of six, and they of course were all there, their offspring eerily resembling the parents I clinked glasses with three decades earlier. Two of my sisters were there along with my honorary sister, Mary Anne, Nancy and Johnny who we’ve known for a lifetime, many of Margaret and Tom’s college friends who I met over many a keg, Aunt Lucie and Susan who I’ve known and loved almost as long as Margaret has, Margaret’s brother and warm and wonderful wife, Monica, Margaret’s sister and former bridesmaid, Susan, Marilyn and her spouse, John, who we entertained with stories of who we had colluded with in our youth, and of course, Carrie, our generation’s emotional bridesmaid.

The wedding was perfect. Flowers were tied with shards of Margaret’s wedding dress. The guests were transported by shuttle buses. And the touches that Claire seamlessly, though painstakingly, wove through the decor, painted a perfect picture of the creative and artistic person she is.

The newlyweds danced to Coming Home. Claire and her father swayed to What a Wonderful World. Everyone danced to Bruce.

While the wedding was filled to capacity with joy, with love and happiness pouring out of every pore in the place, I have to admit, I felt a touch of melancholy. The guest list skewed strongly to the 30-and-under crowd so we didn’t know much of the music. We didn’t drink much of the wine. And we didn’t dance until dawn.

It brought me back to that wedding in 1984, a lifetime ago. Recalling a lifestyle I’ll never live again. A kind of fun I’ll never have again. A kind of hope I’ll never know again. A youth I’ll never see again.

But, after all was said and done, and my sister Emily and I sat with Nancy and Johnny in the hotel bar sipping a night cap while my spouse snored away upstairs, I did some reassessing. Fifty-five years into our friendship, I let myself realize the magical magnificence of no longer being twenty-seven years.

We’ve done it all. We’ve seen it all. And best of all, we’ve lived to tell the tale. We’ve found our careers. We’ve raised our children. We’ve danced at weddings. We’ve cried at funerals. We’ve wished for tough times to pass. And they always have.

Claire and Phil are just beginning. They’ve got a lifetime ahead of them which will be filled with laughter and lunacy. Problems and promises. Dreams and dramas. But they’ll get through it, just as we have.

And when they are old and hiding their gray, limping along on bum knees and trying their darnedest to keep up with conversations with ears that don’t seem to hear like they used to; when they can’t sleep like they used to, work like they used to, drink like they used to, let alone eat; when they don’t have the skin they used to, the word recall they used to, the stamina they used to…my wish for them is that like their parents before them, they will always embrace their friends and family and collectively agree that yes, indeed.

It’s a Wonderful World.

Bridesmaids

Margaret, the bride; Debbie, Carrie, Betsy and Susan. Bridesmaids, 1984.

Losing Control of the Nest

Last night I roamed the house at 3:20 in the morning, despite the Benadryl I popped at midnight. I reviewed lists, dug through piles and made new piles. I tossed a jumbo-sized bottle of ibuprofen in a canvas tote bag along with a second fan, just in case the first one were to stop working and added a box of straws for good measure. I checked the household supply of paper towels, laundry detergent, toilet paper and toothpaste and crossed that off my list. I added clean out refrigerator, order light bulbs from Amazon and find gray sweatshirt.

This behavior is nothing new.  I did the same thing before each of my babies were born, before going under the knife for my multiple surgeries, and always before the last day of school when a summer full of a houseful of children was imminent. My pattern of obsessive nesting seems to surface when I’m about to embark on an adventure or anti-adventure from which I’m afraid I won’t recover. In the past month, I cleaned cabinets and closets. Dusted blinds and shook out curtains. Cleaned under beds and wiped shelves. Scrubbed bathrooms and weeded gardens.

And made more lists. These lists include must-dos that I must do before I depart, must-dos that they must do while I’m away and must-dos that I must do from afar. My lists, originally confined to a brand-new notebook, have spilled out to post-it notes, scribbles on the back of receipts and spoken reminders from Siri.

For the past three years, Sister Nancy and I have spent our summers, in varied amounts of time, serving gourmet grub on a food truck at horse show in East Dorset, Vermont. Sister Nancy’s best buddy from Charleston brought us on board for our bubbly personalities, loyal companionship and because, despite our many handicaps, she knows that we keep our hands out of the till. This year, I’m going for six full weeks.

I haven’t been away from home for this long since college. And college can hardly count because all that entailed was fueling up the Ford Pinto, patting the family dog on the head and waving goodbye to the parents who would simply shut my bedroom door and keep it shut until I returned home at the next holiday.

I had nothing and no one to take care of but myself.

My youngest, the recent Philosophy-major graduate will be with me in Vermont, serving up healthy green drinks and less-healthy candy-coated milkshakes while reflecting on the meaning of life. And money.

But that leaves the middle son, the dang dawg, the ever-loving spouse and The Daughter to fend for themselves for six, long weeks.

The Daughter is en route from New Orleans, moving back home to save money as she starts a new career in the big city. She is transitioning in while I’m safely out.

Which is why last night’s mind spin began in the attic. The attic, which served as a bedroom for The Daughter before she left for college eight years ago. Since that time, it has become a playroom, complete with a very big and un-fold-up-able ping pong table, a speakeasy gone dry and a recording studio, with sound-proof foam squares velcroed to the closet walls, floor and ceiling. It has also become a very serious dumping ground. I cleaned it all.

And, as I did, I thought of the year when a family of squirrels moved into the eaves. The same eaves where a crumbled heap of hangered clothes resided until I painstakingly unheaped, sorted and relegated them to Goodwill last week. Will The Daughter know to barricade the easily-pushed-open eave doors if she hears the pitter-patter of tiny feet? Will she call our favorite handyman? Will she move out on the spot? Or will she simply turn the music up louder?

Will she turn off the attic air conditioner when she goes to work every day?

Will she flush unflushable items down the toilet? And if she does and the ancient plumbing can’t hack it, will she at least wait to call Roto-Rooter in the morning when emergency rates no longer apply?

I hope someone lets the dog out before bed and watches to make sure he pees, because sometimes he fakes it, just to get his treat. And if he does fake it and has an incontinence episode, will it be properly treated?

I think about how they roll their eyes when I tell them to turn the fan on in the bathroom while taking their hot and steamy showers. And how, after weeks of not running the fan, they’ll be grossed out by the inevitable, encroaching mold and have no idea how to get rid of it. Or maybe, they won’t see it at all.

I fear that they won’t take the trash and the compost scraps out before they start smelling and breeding fruit flies. And maggots.

I picture overflowing recycle bins swarming with bees, sucking the last sweetness out of the partially empty soda cans.

I see flowers withered and weeds gone wild.

I fret about the washing machine being overloaded with dog-haired blankets. I see the motor burning out and in an attempt to not be berated for blatant rule-breakage, they decide to replace it before I get home. With a front-loader. That I can’t return.

I worry that the ice maker will break in my new refrigerator while I’m gone and the weeks of inactivity and/or frozen water lines will make it irreparable. And then I’ll be back to manually making eight ice cube trays a day.

I’m certain that the mail will get soaked with torrential rains when it’s been forgotten in the partially-protected mailbox for days on end. And one of those letters will be the one with the Clearinghouse Sweepstakes check.

They will surely forget to turn the stove off after a frozen pizza frenzy and will discover it just when the pizza box, sitting on top of the hot stove, begins to smolder.

I know the dog hair will be left until the very last day, at which time it will be so abundant that it will clog my brand-new vacuum cleaner.

I picture lights left lit, Chinese food containers left out, and doors left open. I see leftovers abandoned, pre-prepared meals ignored and Uber Eats frequented. I hear water dripping into the kitchen from the upstairs shower, the garden hose saturating the house’s foundation and the sewer line choking until it vomits into the basement.

I imagine a drip-dry household, a toothpaste-spattered bathroom sink and perpetually musty-smelling bath towels. I envision misplaced car keys, disconnected WiFi and cracked phone screens. That I only find out about when I happen to check the latest AT&T bill. That should have three less phone lines on it than it does.

As my friend, Claire, always tells me, it’s the getting there that’s the tough part. And she’s right. Once I’m 200 miles and a lifestyle away, I’ll stop thinking about the loved ones I deserted. I won’t wonder if the house is still standing. Or if the poor children had dinner. Instead, I’ll transfer my obsessions to whether Lisa’s over-easy eggs are over cooked, if Paige has to wait too long for her BLT or if I remembered to add the lemonade to Eric’s Arnold Palmer.

I’ll serve with a smile and work like a dog and stop borrowing trouble. I’ll just sit back and wait for the panicked calls from home.

Which only led to further panic, as I thought of the worst case scenario.

What if the calls don’t come?

What if my grown children and middle-aged spouse are actually capable of living without me? Without my obsessions. Without my nagging. Without my lists. Without my constant where are you going, what are you doings?

It’s what I’ve long dreamed of.

And perhaps what I’ve feared, most of all.

Are Cardinals Really a Sign from Heaven?

We all have our Cardinal stories. Those mystical, serendipitous signs that appear in our lives at such a precise moment that deeming them anything but omens from above, or beyond, or below, as the case may be, would be nothing short of blasphemous.

My spouse’s father, Paul, suffered from congestive heart failure which made living not as much fun as it once was. After my mother-in-law died, he moved to what I view as a cruise-ship-on-land, a beautiful senior community called Blakehurst, right outside of Baltimore. If I could live out my golden years in a place like that, I’d feel like I had died and went to heaven.

Which is exactly what happened to him on Tuesday.

Paul was pretty sick for several months and had moved from his apartment in Blakehurst to a room in the assisted living wing where his daily excitement was a trip to the dining room. But even those excursions too soon became exhausting.

Paul could be gruff. But was easily de-gruffed with humor or talk of his grandchildren. Even though he rolled his eyes at what he deemed their craziness, those brown eyes twinkled as they rolled. He wasn’t one to hand out pats on the back, but  anyone who knew him knew he was so proud of the people his son and daughter had become.

Paul was a strong man. He was of that generation of no-nonsense, hard workers who supported his family, even if it meant going to school at night after working all day. But, he was able to fit things he loved into his life, watching sports, traveling and gardening. He passed the peace of digging in the dirt on to his son as well as the indelible belief that emptying the dishwasher is not a woman’s job.

He was a good man.

And the Cardinals concurred.

I was sitting at the kitchen table when my spouse called from Baltimore to say his father had died. And while I knew it was coming, it was still a punch in the gut. Because there’s no such thing as being prepared to say goodbye to someone you love. Forever.

While on the phone, I looked out the back door at the bird feeder. In that exact moment, two Cardinals dove in tandem across the yard. They swooped in wide arches, back and forth, up and down, over the fence and back, four or five times. And then they were gone.

The Cardinals came for my mother-in-law as well. They did the very same dance ritual the very same day she died, thirteen years ago.

There were no Cardinals when my father died. But, he spreads pennies all over the country for me and my sisters to find. Sometimes, when days are particularly dark, he’ll throw in a dime. And once, completely out of character, he sent me two one-dollar bills on the same day.

My cousin, Jackie, died in December. She was young at heart and full of life and loved by everyone who knew her. And by many who didn’t. Her sister, Wezo, was with her in the end.

“Make sure you open the door when I die, to let my soul out,” Jackie said. “I’ll send you a sign.”

When Jackie took her last breath, Wezo opened the door. And in perfectly playful Jackie fashion, in  bounded two Labradoodles.

Wezo’s son, Trip, had lived for a time in California with Jackie, his Aunt Jax. When he left to pick up his mother at the airport, a route he had driven a zillion times, he inexplicably went the wrong way. He made a U-Turn and found himself behind a car with a license plate that read HAPPY JAX.

Cardinals and Labradoodles and are not uncommon creatures. Dropped coins and vanity license plates are a dime a dozen. And in this big, old world, people die every dang day.

But, when it’s someone you love, it’s your life, your heart, your whole world that changes.

And maybe, we look a little harder for signs from beyond. Maybe we make a little more of coincidences than we should. Maybe we hear stories a little differently than how they were told. Maybe we see things that aren’t really there.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals really do have it covered.

Please click here for Paul Voreacos obituary

Kids and Cataracts

I’ve always seen things quite clearly.

Just ask my kids.

I can spot a dirty dish across a room long before the mice do. I can extract a driver’s license from couch cushions days before its reported missing. I can derail muddy shoes and paws before they’ve sullied the just-mopped floors. I can see weeds in the garden before they’ve even begun to grow. And I can see half-empty water bottles clogging up landfills before they’re removed from cars, bedrooms, bathrooms and bureau drawers.

But one day, I realized that everything had gotten fuzzy. I didn’t see the dog hair clumped in the corner. I didn’t see the spider crawling across the room. I didn’t see the pee drops on the toilet seat before I sat down.

I’d like to say it was because I had outgrown all those minor annoyances. But, no. The eye doctor had a more scientific explanation.

I had a cataract.

“It could be trauma related,” he said, trying to soothe the blow of being diagnosed with an old person’s affliction.

“Like the trauma of all three of my children moving back home?” I asked.

“I was thinking of something with a little more blunt force.”

I’ve worn contacts forever. And for years I’ve done the monovision thing. Which means that one eye is corrected for distance, the other for close-up. I was one of those mothers who needed to see things crystal clear at all times. Sometimes, of course, it worked against me. But, mostly, it gave me a one-up on what was going on around me, both near and far.

I put up with the cataract for a while, correcting it with stronger and stronger contacts and more and more pairs of reading glasses. And then finally, enough was enough, and I went under the knife.

I’ve had a zillion, or at least a trillion, surgeries in my life. I’m not scared of doctors or hospitals or getting put to sleep. But, cataract surgery is different. Your eyes are wide open for the whole dang thing.

“Don’t worry,” said the surgeon, who’s as adept at slicing out lenses as I am at folding laundry. “You’ll have a drip to keep you calm through the five-minute procedure.”

“Five whole minutes!” I shrieked. “There’s no amount of valium in the world that could keep me from flipping out when I see a scalpel coming at my eye ball.”

To which he simply chuckled and said, “It’s not a scalpel.”

And because I’m tough, don’t like to inconvenience my hard-working spouse, and like to support my local merchants, I took an Uber to the eye removal center that morning. And because they’re really strict about not letting their patients drive under the influence, I had my friend Ann scheduled to pick me up.

As I sat alone in the waiting room with dozens and dozens of other cloudy-visioned old folk, my angst overtook my ability to even play Words with Friends. I watched old patient after old patient disappear beyond the swinging doors, returning 20 minutes later with one eye patched and one arm hanging onto a nurse for dear life.

I checked the so-big-even-the-blindest-could-see clock across the room and saw that it was nearly time for Ann to pick me up. Being one who has an aversion to asking for help, I added fretting about how long my friend would have to wait to my rapidly-intensifying scalpel-induced anxieties.

But with enough pacing and heavy sighing, the front desk eventually realized they had forgotten all about me and sheepishly whisked me through the swinging doors before another old bat knew what usurped her.

“Just a little something to calm you down,” the very kind anesthesiologist said as he jabbed a needle into my vein.

“So I won’t care about the scalpel coming at me?”

“Exactly.”

“Wow, this amazing,” I said ten seconds later, feeling the only kind of Zen I’ve ever known coursing through my body.

“What’s really amazing,” the very kind anesthesiologist deadpanned. “Is that I haven’t put any drugs in your body yet.”

Well, as it turned out, I didn’t see the scalpel coming at me. And the surgery was as short and sweet as they promised. I was released with a patch over my eye and a refusal to be escorted to the waiting room.

“I’ve walked under the influence before,” I quipped.

It’s been almost a month now and my vision is crystal clear again. Just in time for my once-dwindling empty nest to slowly but surely fill to capacity.

But this time around, I’ve chosen not to see the piles of clothes that lie on the basement floor. I’ve chosen not to see the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter. The unmade beds, the rapidly-depleting refrigerator and the random pieces of furniture that appear daily in the various living spaces of my home.

Instead, I’m looking at it through the somewhat cloudy eyes of my children. Who don’t have the foresight or hindsight or insight to see that it’s all going to be just fine.

I reassure the daughter that the best times are yet to come. Even though she’s leaving the most fun place she’s ever lived and returning to her attic bedroom. I remind her that four years ago when she tearfully departed Chapel Hill and headed for New Orleans, she was sure that she’d never, ever have as good of friends or as good of a time as she had in college. But she did. And now, with her creeping ever-closer to old age, I can see clearly that whichever path she takes, she’s going to get where she’s going.

I watch the middle child with a middle-child mother’s eye. I know he would prefer to live just about anywhere but home. In the early morning, I hear his floorboards creak as he dashes to catch the 7:13 into Manhattan for another day of stifled creativity at his desk job. Then, I look at the photos he snaps in his spare time and see that sooner or later, one way or another, he’s going to get the shot he deserves.

I look at the recent college graduate and see my uncertain self behind his beard. I see as his eyes roll in tandem with his exhausted sigh when he reads the indulgent-less father’s chores of the day. I see how a summer on a food truck is much less inspiring than the life he’s been living as a philosophy major. But, I can also see that as he inches closer to figuring out the meaning of life, he’ll discover that his own is filled with purpose and promise.

I see what’s going to happen. There will be move ins and move outs. Good jobs and bad wages. Bad jobs and good wages. Full hearts and heart breaks. And it’s all going to be just fine.

And although, to me, it’s crystal clear, for some reason, I keep hearing one of my wise old father’s favorite sayings doing backflips in my brain.

“I see,” said the blind man when he really didn’t see at all.

What do you give a grown kid for his birthday?

“It’s your BIRTHDAY on Tuesday!” I texted my youngest son, but not until after his grandmother offhandedly mentioned that she had sent him a card.

Oops. I knew there was something about May 8th that sounded vaguely familiar.

“Do you want a present?” I asked.

I was fully expecting the response I’d gotten for the past dozen years.

“Nah.”

And he always meant it. Leo doesn’t like fuss or fanfare. He doesn’t like stuff. When he played baseball there was always a bat or glove or overpriced personal trainer that sufficed as a present. But we both knew he would have gotten those things birthday or not.

Leo doesn’t like money either. He’d just as soon live in a kibbutz. Or a monastery. Or under the stars in Colorado.

Leo is the only member of the family who’s not born in December or February. So, by the time May rolls around every year, we’ve forgotten how to celebrate. Poor Leo has had to share his birthday with Mother’s Day. With his paternal grandmother’s death day. With baseball tournaments. And final exams.

Leo was never much of a talker. He kept his thoughts to himself and, as third children so often do, learned to fly under the radar. He grew up in the shadow of his brother and sister and built his entire identity around baseball. It was all he did. And all he cared about.

Or so I thought.

Until we spent eight straight hours in the Old Minivan together.

Four years this very weekend ago, the whole family drove 500 miles down to North Carolina for the daughter’s college graduation. In two cars. The plan was that one parent would stay and help pack up the daughter. The other would head home after the graduation party with Leo so he wouldn’t miss his game the next day.  I am way better equipped to drive through the night than sort through the daughter’s personal possessions, so it was Leo and I who took off together at 9:30 pm.

“You better keep me awake,” I said to the least talkative human I had ever raised.

And he did. He talked. And talked. And talked. A lifetime of talk spewed from his heart. And he hasn’t stopped since.

Before that overnight drive home from Chapel Hill, I lived with the assumption that Leo would play four years of Division I baseball, followed by a short stint in the minor leagues before heading off to CitiField. Or Camden Yards. Heck, I would have even become a Yankees’ fan if I had to.

I never let go of that dream. But he did.

I learned in that car ride that Leo wanted more out of life than baseball. That he, gulp, had a creative side. I had long assumed that he and his friends were up to no good all those nights in the eaves of our attic. It never occurred to me that they were making music and shooting videos and writing scripts. And not a bit of it was about baseball.

Somewhere around milepost 315, Leo made another confession.

“I don’t know why I never talked to you before.”

Three months later, Leo went off to college and played his Division I baseball. But, after one semester, he gave it up to explore who he was without a glove on his hand. This Sunday, he graduates from Rutgers University. But, even with a degree in Philosophy and a minor in Creative Writing, he’s still a long way from unearthing his true purpose in life.

For the past four years Leo and I have been each other’s creative crusaders. We share our love for cleverly-crafted words and well-written movie scripts. And sometimes, we even agree on what is genius. We dream of one day sipping cocktails together at the Golden Globes. He knows that I want to write the next Juno. I know that he’s more likely to do it than I. And that, while it will be a far cry from Juno, it will be brilliant.

Leo and I bounce ideas off one another. He reads my stop-and-start again novels. He helps me develop characters. And tells me when he thinks I’m taking the easy way out. I read his screenplays and watch his short films and marvel at the places his young mind goes. And tell him when I think he’s taking the hard way through.

We send each other inspirational texts.

“Bang out a chapter today!”

And motivational quotes from writers like Paulo Coelho:

Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.

And memes that live on refrigerator magnets:

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“So, want anything for your birthday?” I texted my last born.

“Write me something!”

“It would be much easier to give you a thousand dollars!” I responded, knowing full well that he didn’t mean that I should write him a blog.

“$1000 has way less worth.”

Today, my youngest child turns 22. On Sunday, he’ll become a full-fledged college graduate. On Monday, his real life begins.

I have no idea where Leo’s life journey will lead. Nor, I’m sure, does he. But somewhere along the way, he’s going to take that step, intentional or not, that will point him down the path he was meant to take.

And in the meantime, as long as it’s legal, no matter where he goes or what he does, I’ll continue to be his biggest fan.

Because there’s something kind of endearing about knowing that your kid, the very kid who was put on this earth to defy, deny and demoralize you, has more faith in you than you have in yourself.

So, back atcha, kid.

My story is written. I just have to put it to paper. But, yours Leo, yours is yet to be lived.

Write me something, Leo. Write me something really good.

Penelope Makes her Appearance

“OMG! You’re going to be a MOMMA?”

It wasn’t an OMG, now what are you going to do? which would surely have been how I’d have responded to my own daughter under the same circumstances. Most probably followed by,  “And, don’t think for a minute that I’m going to help raise your child.”

Instead, it was an OMG, I am SO excited that you’re going to have a BABY!

And I meant every word of it. But, of course, Liza is not my child. So it was oh, so much easier to be charitable about her condition.

Liza is 22-years-old. She’s an adult. She went to college. She graduated cum laude. She majored in Family and Child Studies. She has a good job. She has a supportive family. She has tons of friends. So, there’s no reason on God’s green earth why she shouldn’t have a baby.

Except that she’s 22-years-old.

But, she’s Liza.

When I was 22, the last thing in the world I wanted was a baby. I was way too selfish, way too wild and just plain way too young to take care of another human. As a matter of fact, it took a dozen more years until I was ready, willing and able to set up house and start a family. And we all know how well that turned out for my poor offspring.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Liza was the first of my kids’ friends to have a baby. After all, she’s been reading and commenting on my blog for years. The blog that parentless youth have little interest in. The one that lays it all out there so honestly that my cousin’s twenty-something year-old daughter said, “You are so MEAN!” The blog with the life stories that a different sort of parent would never admit to having endured.

But Liza, in all her youthful wisdom reads between the lines.

“I know you. You’re happy on the inside,” she said after my rant over an impending onslaught of the offspring.

That’s Liza.

Last Wednesday a picture of the just-born Penelope popped onto my phone. Even I, of self-proclaimed baby neutrality, felt a little tightness in my throat and a pitter-patter in my heart.

“Ms. Betsy. Women are incredible. I still can’t believe my body did that!” she gushed.

“Oh, honey. Giving birth was the easy part. You have no idea how incredible you are about to become.”

Because, dear Liza. From this day forward, your life is no longer your own. You will never come first. Ever. Again.

It will be years and years and years before you eat a meal in peace. Or take a shower without keeping one ear open. Or read a full page of an adult book in one sitting.

And even more years before you will sleep through the night. Because after 2 am feedings comes “I want a drink of water.” And after “I want a drink of water,” comes “I had a bad dream.” And after “I had a bad dream,” comes “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” And after “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” comes “I forgot to do my science project!” And after “I forgot to do my science project!” comes “I don’t feel good.” And after “I don’t feel good,” comes sleepovers. And parties. And proms. And driver’s licenses. And kids in and out, slamming the backdoor, all night long. And water bottles filled with vodka. And worse.

You will see that babies turn into toddlers who turn into little kids who turn into big kids who turn into teenagers who turn into young adults who know absolutely everything. Except how to change the toilet paper.

You will learn that your adorable little baby who smiles and coos in public can turn on a dime and scream with fury in private. For hours and hours on end.

You’ll sterilize bottles and bosoms and throw away toys that the dog licks. You’ll record weights and smiles and how much she ate. You’ll use special baby detergents and shampoos and sound machines. At least for the first few weeks.

You’ll teach Penelope the importance of reading. Of learning how to learn. Of how cool it is to be smart. And then worry when she worries too much about her grades.

You’ll teach her tolerance. You’ll instill in her the belief that every person on this planet deserves the same respect. And then you’ll cringe when she falls in with the wrong crowd.

You will feed her breast milk. And organic snacks. And she won’t know what candy tastes like. And then one day, she’ll have that first chicken nugget and won’t eat another vegetable for the next 20 years.

You will take her to playgrounds. And parks. And museums. You will spend time teaching her about your culture. And her father’s. And she’ll still like grilled cheese better than empanadas.

You’ll spend hours and hours and hours watching Penelope play softball or soccer or do backflips at  cheerleading competitions. Or all of the above. You’ll watch her struggle. You’ll watch her fail. You’ll applaud her as she wins awards for Most Improved Player. Or Best Personality. And you’ll assure her that those accolades are so much more important than Most Valuable Player.

You’ll learn that it’s no easier to let your daughter cry it out when she’s a teenager (or younger) when her heart is broken for the first time, than it is to let her cry it out as a baby. When you’re trying desperately to get her to sleep through the night. At a year old. Or two.

You will never, as long as you live, ever make a single life decision without considering how it will affect your daughter.  And then, when there are two or (gulp) three kids to consider, your head will spin in perpetuity.

You will find that just when you think you can’t take another minute of whatever it is that is currently annoying you, because yes, even Penelope will eventually annoy you, that she’ll move into a new phase. You will wake up one morning and realize that you both slept through the night. Or that she didn’t wet the bed. Or that she went a whole day without whining, or rolling her eyes or eating a chicken nugget. Or that she no longer clings to your leg, or insists on wearing the ragged purple tutu or needs to watch the latest Disney movie for the thousand-and-fifteenth time.

And then, just like that, she’ll move into another phase. The phase you think is the final phase. When she goes off to college. Or gets her first apartment.

And you will cry. But you won’t let her see. Because even though you knew one day you’d have to let her go, you didn’t think it would come this soon.

And when she and her siblings are grown and gone and you can finally sit down and catch up on Shameless, you’ll reflect back on all that you’ve done. And you realize that no matter how hard you tried, you did it all wrong.

But then you look at your daughter. You look at her brothers and sisters. You look at the people they’ve become. You shake your head and wonder how you ever got through it. And how they turned out to be such interesting, adventurous and kind human beings. Which is when, for the first time, you realize that you must have done something right.

And that, my dear, Liza, is the most incredible part of all.

Let the Good Times Roll!

There’s always one.

That simple statement. That obvious observation. That epitomizing epiphany that encapsulates and validates the reasons why you feel compelled to spend money you don’t have, consume calories you can’t afford and belt out easy listening-lyrics at piano bars with people you don’t know.

And sometimes it’s a conglomeration of uh-duh’s that confirm what you’ve known all along.

When we turned 40, I gathered a dozen buddies for a Break-from-Babies trip to the Bahamas. At 45, ten of us Made Mischief in Mexico.  At 50 and 55, we were way too busy, way too poor, or way too foolish not to go on an epic excursion. At 60, I said enough is enough, and bullied them back into submission.

Last week, eight of us rallied for a four-day Celebrate Your Sixties sitcom in New Orleans. We all went to Shippensburg State College, a school in the middle of nowhere that once it got rid of us, elevated itself to a university. We all grew up in Pennsylvania and all have our stories of how we ended up at Shippensburg, as well as how, when and why we left. We have long since dispersed and now hail from North Jersey, Atlanta, Nags’ Head, Boston, Denver, Florida and two different towns in Pennsylvania. But, college roots run deep and our friendship has persevered for the last hundred-and-fifty years.

My namesake, Betsy, flew in from Boston. She detoxed every morning on the treadmill, while the rest of us felt that a meandering six-mile trek through town was more than sufficient to count as exercise. As we popped  ibuprofen and Celebrex and multi-vitamins in futile attempts to tame our aching bones, backs, hands and hearts, we collectively marveled how, “at her age,” Betsy’s knees were still fully intact.

“I run because I still can,” she said, knocking on wood.

When I graduated from college, I took a Trailways bus to Arizona to spend the summer with Ann. We went on tons of side excursions, one of which was to Las Vegas. For Christmas the following year, she presented me with a Golden Nugget silver dollar mounted in a shadowbox. You’ll always have one more silver dollar, she said, just as Gregg Allman had. Ann is generous, is always the first to pick up a tab and refuses to let money rule her life.

The morning after a 12-hour stint in back-to-back-to-back bars (including, but not limited to, aforementioned piano bar with my new best friend from Charleston), we got to giggling and gasping over crumpled receipts.

“Who cares?” Ann said, sagely. “It’s only money.”

Jeanne gets a kick out of life. But, and note the but, she doesn’t drink. At least not like the rest of us. I may be overestimating if I say she had three drinks in four days. Jeanne laughs loudly. Talks boldly. And remembers every minute of every minute we forget.

“You sure you don’t want a drink?” we coaxed.

“Nope,” she said, tossing dollar bills into the piano player’s tip basket between American Pie and Brown Eyed Girl. “I really don’t need one. It’s enough for me just to be with you girls.”

Kathy, on the other hand, knows that liquor licks wounds, warms hearts and wins hospitality awards. She had a bottle of Tito’s, a bottle of Maker’s Mark, limes, lemons, ginger ale and buckets of ice waiting poolside when I finally Ubered my way to the hotel. She upgraded her room to a suite so we’d have a place to pre- or post-game. And was never content to sit in one spot for hours on end.

“There’s just so much to do. So much music to hear,” she said, grabbing Sue and whisking her off to the jazz clubs on Frenchmen Street while the rest of us sat and sat and sat some more listening to background music, eating overpriced cheese platters and drinking copious amounts of wine at Bacchanal, an outdoor bar in the Ninth Ward, filled with kids half our age. And younger.

Sue has long been the friend to whom I turn when I need reassurance. No matter how bad, no matter how wrong. She will always find the light. She will never, ever place blame. Find fault. Or wish away what we’ve got. And so, naturally, I glommed (my new favorite Kathy word) onto her as we zig-zagged our way through the Big Easy.

“You think …?” I started.

“Stop. Relax,” she said, in a completely different tone than the ‘relax’ I get from the daughter. “Everyone is fine. Everyone is having a great time. We always do.”

And we were, indeed, having a great time. So much so, that the next morning I said to my cellmate, Ann, “When I think back to last night, I find myself alternately shaking my head with shame and cracking myself up.”

“That’s what makes it a good night,” she responded wisely.

Speaking of which, the daughter, who has lived in New Orleans for four years, was wise enough not to get too deeply involved with us. We met her amazing roommate, Tonia, at dinner one night and her ultra-lovely friend, Kate, for brunch.  Jill, who can procure a free meal for an entire restaurant when one poor soul has been served raw chicken, is the only one of us with a grandchild. At least that we’re aware of. The daughter, mine, not hers, is currently in flux over where to live, what to do and whether life is about to pass her by.

“One thing I’ve found,” Jill said in earnest. “Is that things come at you in the most unexpected ways. Don’t worry about boys or jobs or money. Just let life happen.”

On our last night, after barreling into a fairly subdued restaurant where Kate’s husband was bartending (we identified him from collective memories of wedding pictures on his wife’s iPhone), we hoofed it back to the hotel. Or hobbled, as the case may be. I have aching knees on the best of days, but that was not the best of days. I had awakened to an additional shooting pain down the length of my leg. I thought walking would be the best remedy, but found myself limping along like Tiny Tim. (Not the one who tiptoed through the tulips. The Dickens’ one.) I shooed my friends away, assuring them that I wouldn’t get mugged or fall down, or cry, preferring, as always to play the martyr. Peggy, who suffers from Reynaud’s Disease, which means that among other nasty symptoms,  she is always cold, shivered beside me.

“Go, Margaret,” I said. “Honestly. I am fine. Catch up to everyone else.”

“I will never leave you,” she responded.

And, before we knew it, another adventure had come to an end. We said our good-byes with lumps in our throats and promises to do it again soon. And, we will. Because each and every one of us had a really good reason why we should continue to spend money we don’t have, consume calories we can’t afford and belt out easy-listening lyrics at piano bars with people we don’t know.

Because we still can.

Because it’s only money.

Because it’s enough just being with the girls.

Because there’s so much to do. So much music to hear.

Because we know how to have a great time.

Because we shake our heads with shame and crack ourselves up.

Because we never know what life will throw us.

Because we will never limp home alone.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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Forever and ever, Amen.