Heart and Soul

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

IRISH MEMORIES

March 12 marks the anniversary of my mother’s death. Like any sorrowful commemoration, this day is filled with melancholy and longing as I reflect on the passing of the woman who gave me life and provided me with the Irish backbone that has served me so well. However, as in all circumstances involving the Irish, there is always a strong thread of humor woven through my day of tearful memories in recalling classic "mom moments" that always make me laugh.

Mingled in with those favorite lighthearted moments is a tale related to my mother that actually occurred after her passing.

The story goes that three months after my mother’s death, my daughter and I traveled to the Emerald Isle. Our purpose was to try and locate our ancestors by relying on a notebook of family tree information my mother had long collected. We considered it our posthumous tribute to mom and also a means of remaining somehow connected.

As we made our rounds through the various Irish towns marked upon mom’s genealogy map, the pieces of our family’s ancestral puzzle gradually began to fall into place. Then to our delight, one brilliantly sunny afternoon, we made a connection with a farmer who knew of our family’s whereabouts. Further, this kindly stranger assured us that there were indeed two members of our clan still alive. Brothers, both in their eighties, spry and active.

My daughter and I speedily followed the farmer’s directions and within minutes were picking our way through the overgrown walkway leading to our ancestral homestead. As we approached the side entrance of the simple, whitewashed house, I was sure I could hear the bagpipe strains of "Danny Boy" wafting over the fields. There was no doubt in my mind that we were home and about to directly connect with those who came before us.

Brother number one, the younger of the two men at 81 years, answered our knock on the door. He was unshaven and unkempt, missing almost all of his teeth, wearing torn and soiled clothing. Needless to say, I was taken aback. Yet not wanting to give up on our "connect with the past" dream, I pressed on, explaining our familial quest. After a few minutes of exchanging ancestral information, this sprightly leprechaun of a man welcomed us as long, lost family. He then took us on a tour of our "family" farm, complete with barns, creeks and waterfalls.

Upon our return to the house, our newly discovered relative extended an invitation to come inside and meet his older brother, who as if on cue, suddenly appeared in the doorway to greet us. Now, brother number two made his younger sibling look like a model from the cover of GQ. As I assessed him from the top of his matted gray hair, through his toothless gums, down his waist length, disheveled beard, through his torn and stained pants, into his knee high manure-caked boots, I found it somewhat hard to swallow that I was, in fact, related to this man. Yet in the true spirit of family ties, I began moving toward the door to greet my long, lost relative.

It was at this exact moment that this older sibling caught sight of my lovely daughter standing behind me. To say that his aging eyes undressed her on the spot would be putting it mildly. Suddenly, the bagpipe strains of "Danny Boy" that I’d been hearing were morphing into the banjo tones of "Deliverance." As one brother came toward us, the other brought up the rear, both insisting that we come inside with them.

It was at this point, trusting my always-reliable Irish instinct, that I turned, grabbed my daughter’s hand and took off toward the car, with both brothers following us in hot pursuit… "hot" being the operative word. As we jumped in, locked the doors and sped away, the two brothers appeared in my rear view mirror like a couple of Irish gnomes furiously jumping up and down in the middle of the dusty dirt road, yelling "come back, come back."

So while our trip wasn’t exactly the "searching for our ancestors" fairy tale that we had hoped for, in the retelling, it has become a story that always makes us laugh… and remember mom…who we miss on the 12th of March… and always.

HOME

Home: According to Webster, a place of support and comfort. According to an age-old adage, where you find your heart. According to the ruby slippered Dorothy, a place like no other.

Last week I spent time visiting two very special members of my family in their new homes. The experiences involved my nearly 30-year old son who just purchased his first home, and my 85 year old uncle whose declining health has forced his move into a senior community home.

My son’s new home is compact, light, and welcoming. It has a great kitchen with eat-in area, where he can exercise his superb culinary skills. There is also a sizeable living room with fireplace, two spacious bedrooms, and two baths. The home is situated on a large lot with a detached garage and, as a perfect finishing touch, a charming white picket fence.

My uncle’s new home is also compact and welcoming. It has a good-sized room subdivided into a small efficiency kitchen, a dining area and a living room. Alongside there is another area of equal proportion that houses his bed, dresser drawers and a separate bathroom. Two large windows provide him with an attractive view of the outside world.

In my son’s home I was enlivened by the excitement of his young life taking shape. I was enveloped by his decorating ideas, recent furniture purchases, and proposed landscaping options, all planned within the hopes of his promising future.

In my uncle’s home I was emotionally moved by the natural evolution of his life. I was surrounded by his time-capsule family photos, his varied personal momentos, and his prized sports-related possessions, all carefully chosen to accommodate his downsized living space.

At the end of my visits with each of these favored men, as I said goodbye, I began to cry. In my son’s case, out of joy for the rewarding life he is building within his own home. Yet I will admit, that a few tears also dropped in longing for this man/child, to whom "home" is now a place in his own world, definitively removed from mine.

In my uncle’s case, my tears flowed in bittersweet response to his forced move to a community home, and for his realistic acknowledgement that this move signals the end of his independent life. Too, my tears shed in unsettled acknowledgement of my own circumstance - clearly beyond the excitement of the future-gradually evolving toward memories of a revered past.

Since those visits I have continued to reflect upon the wide ranging spectrum of the word, "home" and the vast difference it now represents to these two special people that I love. It is a thought process that has been at once awakening, somewhat alarming and, most importantly, remindful of the fleeting value of time and the importance of leading a life well lived.

Once again, giving new definition to the word, "home."

DREAM OF A LIFETIME

This week is a very special one for my family, as on Friday my husband will graduate from the Police Academy. Beginning this Saturday morning, he will officially be recognized as a law enforcement officer in our quaintly rural hometown.

I am proud of my husband for achieving this accomplished level of success. He has long dreamed of becoming a policeman, but his aversion to academia always served as a deterrent. Yet to his credit, my husband finally undertook and completed the college level course with flying colors.

There was one main reason that my husband decided to tackle the police curriculum. he had no choice! I enrolled him in the program as part of his Christmas present last year! I took the action as a means of trying to repay this most special man for helping make so many of my own life dreams come true.

Yet, now that he is graduating and his law enforcement career is certain, I am beginning to have second doubts as to the wisdom of my Yuletide gift. For what is slowly dawning on me is that as a result of my husband becoming a policeman, I am automatically going to be inducted into a group that I never imagined I would join .. police wives.

Now, don't get me wrong, I bear no grudge against these women. It's just that anytime I see one of those gruesome news stories involving policemen who are wounded or die in the line of duty, I always consider myself lucky not to be a member of their particular wives club. However as of this Friday, like it or not, I will enter into that twilight zone of worry, fear, and uncertainty that defines the lives of all who live with, and love, officers of the law.

Over the last nine months, I've experienced a sneak preview of my impending "police wife" life, as my husband took part in on the job training. His initial assignments included riding the midnight shift, supervising a high school bonfire and keeping an eye on celebratory tractor pull crowds... all innocuous tasks that really never stirred my conscience. Aside from missing his company, the most frustrating part of his absence was the fact that my cold feet never warmed on the long winter nights that he worked.

Recently, though, my husband's service experience has changed. His hours on the job have been marred by incidents, which through the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes, clearly communicate that the work has unsettled his spirit and invaded his soul. Suddenly, this law enforcement job is no longer just the inspiring realization of a long held dream. Rather it is also the trauma and violence of the world directly invading our lives, tainting our home.

So this week as I sit in the college auditorium and watch my uniformed husband stride across the stage in his police uniform to receive his diploma, I will rejoice that this man I love has achieved one of his ultimate lifelong dreams. I will also sit in fearful knowledge that the path on which he is about to embark will change our lives in ways that I could never have imagined on that joyous Christmas morning one year ago.

THE GIFT OF LIFE

Despite merchandiser’s all-out marketing efforts to convince me otherwise, I firmly believe that the Christmas Holiday Season still officially begins on Thanksgiving Day.

Yet my ho-ho-ho holidays are not a simple six-week time frame set between Turkey Day and New Year’s Day with Christmas thrown in for extra insanity. Oh no. In my family we also celebrate seven birthdays, including my daughter’s and mine, in the merry month of December.

What’s interesting about this holiday birthday phenomenon is that until my mother passed away, our December birthday tally stood at eight. Which meant that three direct generations of women in our family were all born in the same month, my mother being a twin born precisely on Christmas Day.

Each Thanksgiving as my family’s holiday/birthday mania begins, I gird myself by engaging in an annual review of the true reasons to be thankful. The health/family/happiness categories always provide my heart and soul with a balanced antidote to the tinsel/cake/present onslaught lying in wait. However, this year atop my "things to be thankful for" list is a gift I received almost five years ago. It is a treasure that was neither Christmas nor birthday related, yet it is, by far, the most precious present I’ve ever been given.

This gift came from my mother, given in the wee small hours of a cold March morning. Mom was ill and living in my home. I was attempting to care for her to the best of my non-medical ability. In the middle of that night, I went in to check on mom and found that she needed care. Upon lifting her out of bed, tending to her needs and maneuvering her back into bed, my mother quietly whispered, "Christy, you are so good to me."

The kindness of her phrase caught me off balance. Although they were only seven unimportant words, together they represented the first time my mother had ever acknowledged that I pleased her. Reacting through middle-of-the-night cobwebs, I simply replied, "I try Mom," tucked her in with a hug and returned to my bed, unaware of the ultimate significance those words would hold.

In the day’s full dawn my mother passed away…she and I never spoke again.

The immediate impact of my mother’s final words was clouded behind the intensity of my loss and mourning.
As time passed, however, I continually replayed them as a means of dealing with my anger, my sorrow, my guilt and my relief.

Yet, most recently my mother’s words have evolved into a new and totally unexpected purpose, one that professional success, community recognition, and loving, supportive family and friends have never been able to fully achieve. For they have offered me the added confidence to believe in myself due to the long awaited affirmation that I am indeed capable, simply because, my mom said so.

So this Thanksgiving as I contemplate the beginning of my family’s holiday/birthday hurricane season, I am most grateful to my mother for the gift of her words. Further, this year when I blow out the 52 candles on my December Birthday Cake I am going to make one very special wish….for my mom…. the woman who, twice, provided me with the remarkable gift of a new life.

THE HAIRCUT

Three years ago this Thanksgiving, I cut my hair ….short…. shorter than my husband’s.

Now this shoring wasn’t about some up-to-the-minute fashion trend, nor was it related to a long desired, well thought out decision to chop my chestnut tresses. Rather I allowed my hairdresser to whack off more than six inches of my naturally curly locks in a knee jerk, scared-silly reaction to a life changing event … my mother’s hospitalization.

Being an only child, with no siblings for support, when my mother entered the hospital I felt alone, isolated and very unsure of what direction to take. To complicate matters, at the time of her emergency room admittance, my mother was unable to make decisions for herself. So, automatically and without warning, I was required to choose for her in matters of her life and her well being. It was an overwhelming power that I had absolutely no desire to acquire or maintain.

Being obliged to make those decisions for my mother made me feel as if my own life was reeling out of control right alongside hers. In hindsight, I believe my response to that feeling was a resolve to undertake an action that would prove that I actually had control over something in my life….that "something" being my hair.

People’s reaction to my hair cutting was immediate. My mother loved it. It was just the kind of short and simple hair-do she appreciated. My husband supported the cut as a choice totally my own and one, which he said, showed off my cute ears (now you know why I love the man!) However my kids hated it. They had never seen my hair shorter than shoulder length. To them I appeared as an alien mom, who they both had trouble acknowledging.

As for me, I was pleased with my boyish bob and almost felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It never occurred to me that my haircut was as much an outward symbol of my growing insecurities about my mother’s health and future, as it was a style statement.

This year as Thanksgiving approaches and I prepare to gather together with family and friends, I am reminded of those scary, overwhelming November days, just a short three years ago. I recall it as a time when my mother made the painful transition from parent/authority figure/caretaker to childlike/needy/dependant. I further remember the endless four months following that holiday season, watching as my mother seemingly willed her life away. They are bittersweet memories that color both my days and my emotions.

I am saddened that my mother is no longer with me to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and life in general. I miss her. Yet finally, I am coming to terms with the fact that life goes on, I cannot go back, and in reality, I have no control.

Once again, my hair is long.

IF IT ITCHES....

Ok….I’ll admit it. I love to scratch.

There’s nothing quite like experiencing an itching sensation rising up on a previously peaceful body spot that rouses my fingers into a cooperative abrasive reaction. I easily equate it to the like state of euphoria I enjoy when devouring a hot fudge sundae covered with spanish peanuts.

Now my scratching is not an obsessive-compulsive habit, nor has it ever been a problem in my fifty-year life span. That is until the tender age of forty-three when I contracted my first case of poison ivy.

In all of my years, I had never encountered someone with a case of poison ivy. So, at the conclusion of an intense round of backyard gardening as I experienced a rather enjoyable itch, I had no idea what was really happening. I just knew that a spot called out, I scratched it and it felt good.

As my persistent itching continued, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts for a prearranged visit with my son at his "very" bachelor apartment. It was a small three room flat that I quickly realized was perfectly suited to the living conditions of my "twenty something" man/child by his concentrated use of the apartment’s oven as an overnight storage facility for his odorous sneakers!

During the duration of my stay, as my itchies wildly expanded, I assumed their development was related to some type of flea or bed bug ensconced within my son’s bachelor digs. Not thinking that there might be any reason to restrain myself. I continued to self satisfiedly scratch...all through the ensuing days and nights.

Well, as you can imagine, by the end of my parental check-in visit, my itchy welts had spread from waist to feet, both legs included. It was at about this time that it occurred to me that my scratching had crossed the line from bliss to pain. Upon returning home, my friendly family doctor clarified exactly how my itching ecstasy had turned into agony.

Two prescriptions, one bottle of calamine and an extra large bottle of ivy dry later, my poison ivy itch was finally under control. However, it was almost a month before my skin no longer looked like a movie poster for Godzilla.

Since my ivy itching "first time" I have come to understand and respect the warning signs of this poisonous affliction. Now in the midst of summer when I feel that wonderful sensation enticing my fingers to scratch away, I reservedly search out and identify what evil may lurk behind the itching invitation.

Still, I do love to scratch and actually, I have come to resent the fact that one of my life’s most simple pleasures has turned into something that must be so carefully considered and monitored.

Next thing you know, someone will tell me I have to give up hot fudge sundaes because they have no nutritional value.

OPRAH CALLED

"Oprah just called!" I yelled out to my husband at the other end of the house. To which he replied in typical male form, "Oprah who?" To which I proclaimed in typical female form, "Oprah Winfrey….what other Oprah is there?" At which point he sprang into my office in questioning disbelief. "Come on. Are you kiddin’ me? Why would she call here?"

Which was exactly what I wondered? After so much time, why had Oprah finally called? You see over the last three years my daughter and I have submitted a number of letters to Ms. "O" in an attempt to appear on one of her upcoming television shows. The topic of our latest programming quest being mothers and daughters who are often mistaken as sisters.

Now anyone who has seen my child and me, side-by-side, will tell you that we fit this theme like an expensive, leather glove. In fact, when we are together, people continually ID us as siblings. So when this subject popped up as a future talk show topic on Oprah’s website, volunteering as participants was a no-brainer.

I e-mailed our genealogical similarities to the great and wonderful "O" on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday, she was on the phone. Well, ok, maybe it wasn’t exactly Oprah herself who did the dialing. Rather it was a friendly young woman named Anne the assistant, a member of the show’s staff. During our two-minute conversation Anne the assistant explained that Oprah would like to see pictures of my daughter and me, the sooner the better. I volunteered to e-mail a batch first thing Monday morning and in return, Anne the assistant provided me with an address.

Suddenly it hit me. I WAS IN POSSESSION OF Oprah’s e-mail address. Okay, maybe not her personal e-mail hotline, but none the less, I had just been given direct access to the world of Harpo Productions… The Oprah Show, O Magazine, The Oxygen Network. All at once, my life’s possibilities seemed limitless! With this connection to Oprah I held the key to my writing future. If I decided I wanted to interview Tom Cruise, profile Maya Angelou or duet with Aretha, any or all of it was only a computer click away. For as anyone who is anyone knows, through my new best friend Oprah, all things are possible!

On Monday, I e-mailed the pictures and waited…a half an hour. Then I e-mailed a creatively pithy note to Anne the assistant, asking exactly how long before Oprah would respond? Within minutes the reply came through stating that if we weren’t contacted by Friday, we would not be on the show.

The thought never crossed my mind.

I patiently waited through the rest of Monday, whiled away the endless Tuesday, envisioned the possibilities of Wednesday, focused on the routine of Thursday and grudgingly ground my way through Friday…all without, once, hearing from Oprah. Again, I sent Anne the assistant a creatively pithy note, this time expressing thanks for her consideration and a hope that one day, we would meet. This time there was no response. Obviously, as quickly as I had entered I was, once again, orbiting outside of the wonderful world of Winfrey.

The happy ending to my tale of woe is that I’ve managed to survive Oprah’s outright rejection. In fact, I’ve even managed to wean myself away from daily trips to her website in search of my five minutes of shared "O" fame.
I’m staying busy and remaining focused on other, more important things….

…like the call-outs for Martha’s new reality show!

MY NAVY BLUE DRESS

I have a dress of navy blue wool that means the world to me. I purchased it several years ago from a nearby designer outlet store. It’s fashioned in a neatly tailored, double-breasted style, delicately softened with a velvet collar and covered buttons. I bought it because of its impeccable construction, its sophisticated design, and it’s size…. an 8…which somehow miraculously fits me.

When I bought the dress I had no particular event or special occasion in mind. My reason was more that the garment appeared to me as the most beautiful "grown up" dress I had ever seen. Much like something out of the fashion pages of Vogue or Glamour and very unlike anything I had ever worn.

After searching high and low for just the right footwear to complete my dress’s "new me" image, I managed to find a pair of specially suited shoes. They were suede, navy, two-and-a-half inch pumps, detailed with subtle scrolling around each toe. Like the dress they were sophisticated, beautiful and, thanks to my friend who owns a wonderful shoe shop, very affordable.

I don’t really remember the first time I wore my new "grown-up" ensemble, but I do recall that whenever it was, my mother loved it. Now while that may not seem like a big issue to most, my mother and I did not see eye to eye on many of life’s topics, especially those of clothes and fashion. Yet at last, after forty some years, in her eyes, I had finally found a winner.

Shortly after I bought my blue wool dress, my mother became ill…life threateningly ill. When I brought her into my home to care for her, my life suddenly became void of beautiful wool dresses and matching suede shoes. Instead there were trips to the doctors, volumes of pills and medications, and innumerable daily struggles to meet the challenges of our life together, until the day she died.

On the morning of her funeral, as I furiously ravaged my closet for something decent to wear, my eyes focused on that navy blue wool dress. I knew it was the perfect choice…it was clean, it was appropriate and most importantly, Mom loved it. Since that day, my blue wool dress has become sort of a determining, life benchmark. One I save for occasions of great personal importance and, as with mom, moments of loss and sorrow.

This week, as the three-year anniversary of my mother’s death passed, I found myself, once again, pulling my navy blue wool dress out of the closet. A family friend had lost his valiant fight against cancer and died. He was a wonderful man with a great sense of humor and an inborn musical talent.

As I prepared for his funeral, memories of moments I’ve experienced while wearing my navy blue dress reminded me of the many people in my life who have come and gone. Yet as I lifted that dress off the hanger and wrapped it around my body, I felt no sense of sadness or grief. Rather my navy blue dress felt warm and welcoming…rather like a hug. It was as if the people who I have loved and lost have become intricately woven into the blue wool fabric, to stay forever close.

I have a dress of navy blue wool that means the world to me…

LIVING THE DREAM

Recently, a friend wrote me a note to say that she admired my determination to, "live the dream." Now for me, as a writer, words hold great meaning and this "dream" phrase particularly struck my fancy. I ruminated on it for quite some time.

Oddly enough, the very next day another friend made that same "live the dream" observation to me, using those exact words. Now I was perplexed. What was it these women were witnessing that convinced them both that I am striving to live my dream, when many times I feel as if I am far from hitting that particular mark.

After giving the quandary considerable thought, I came to the conclusion that the old saying of, "we never see ourselves as others do" must be true. Which further led me to wonder exactly what standards in life help us personally define when we succeed and when we fail? Is an outside observer a more accurate barometer than our own inner voice? Are family, friends and neighbors more qualified to pass judgement on the ups-and-downs of our lives from their perspective outside our own inner circles of self-doubt and questioning?

Realizing that this was much too weighty a problem for a mid summer’s day, I put the issue out of my mind and turned my attention instead to a tall glass of raspberry iced tea and my front porch swing. However, as I whiled away the perfect Western New York Saturday afternoon in a rock-a-bye motion, my insistent Irish mindset demanded that I reconsider the living my dream concept. Only this time, from my cradle like vista, contemplation evolved to conclusion.

What I determined was that perhaps the heart of this "living the dream" ideal lies in the fact that as human beings we are always trying to keep up, stay up, succeed and surpass. Which in turn, often causes us to not appreciate or celebrate our accomplishments before moving on to that next, all-important goal on our life list. In so doing, we often blow right by the fact that we have, indeed, achieved some individual part of our life’s dream.

I know it’s a simple concept…not rocket science by any means. In fact, I’m quite sure I’ve been blessed with this momentous revelation more than once in my fifty-year life span. Yet, still, I am grateful that my friends and family are around to remind me that I am living my dream, on a daily basis, just the way I imagined it…

…even on those occasional out of control days when my dream more closely resembles a nightmare!

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

Recently, one early Sunday morning I allowed myself the "lazy-day" luxury of engaging in the All-American sport of channel surfing. While flipping through the myriad of cable news shows and info-mercials I wondrously happened upon the movie classic, "Father of the Bride."

Now I realize that for many, their connection to this film may be attached to the more recent reincarnation starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. Yet if you have never seen the original cut featuring "everyman" Spencer Tracy as the tortured father and a youthfully innocent Elizabeth Taylor as the dewy-eyed bride, then, in my opinion, you are missing cinematic perfection.

I’m not really sure how many times I have watched the original "Father of the Bride," but I believe that as significant as the number of viewings are the time frames from which I have viewed them. Beginning with my first screening during my teenage "wanna-be bride" years through to my most recent "empty nester" stage, this movie’s well-written script and "right on" performances have always struck a chord.

The common denominator this particular Sunday came about three-quarters of the way through the film. It was at the precise moment when Spencer Tracy realizes that his daughter is not only getting married, she is assuming a new identity, beginning a new life, and will never again be his, "kitten." It’s a shock that sends Tracy reeling with a relentless melancholy through to the movie’s closing moments when, finally, Elizabeth Taylor remembers to call home and tell her "pop" how much she loves him.

Oh boy! I can so relate.

In a few months, my daughter will celebrate her tenth wedding anniversary. It is a most momentous occasion for all of our family and one we proudly acclaim. She and her husband are a well-matched couple who set an example in their devotion and love for each other.

That being said, ten years after the fact, there are still days when, ala Spencer Tracy, I find myself wondering how my child can possibly be happy, living with her husband in their own house, rather than at "home" with me where she belongs. The good news is that after a few moments in this delusionary wonderland I always manage to come to my senses and realize that, like it or not, the fact that my children are establishing their own lives is simply the order of the real world.

Now in Spencer Tracy's perfect "Hollywood world," his parental angst was eventually soothed in a movie sequel entitled, "Father’s Little Dividend." In this film, Tracy’s empty nest was re-feathered with a grandchild, which is the point where Spencer and I differ.

While I have no doubt that I would cherish a new family generation to bounce upon my knee, I’m also quite sure that grandchildren could never take the place of either of my children… they who filled my days and nights for more than half of my life and my heart forever.

So, I’m thinking that maybe I could work out a deal with my son-in-law. Offer him a lifetime supply of my garlic-mashed potatoes and homemade fudge sauce in exchange for alternating weeks with his wife.

Seems like a reasonable compromise to old Spencer and me.

WALKING GONE AWRY

Resolution. It’s a funny word... and also a very overused one this time of the year.

Personally, I like to spread my resolve around a little rather than lumping all that accountability and guilt into one big New Year’s Day load. I try and make resolute decisions each day, on an ongoing basis. It’s a personal formula based on the inverted Irish ideal that if my "improved life" choices are continuous, I might, on occasion, be able to maintain my resolve past the first three days of January!

This year my husband and I made what we called a New Year’s "deal" rather than a resolution. We agreed that we would try and walk together, several times a week, in a partnered effort to improve our health. Now walking through the neighborhood is something I do regularly. It is also something that I have consistently begged and cajoled my husband to do with me, to no avail. So on New Year’s morning when he suggested that we walk together I couldn’t get my hikers laced up quick enough.

We began bright eyed and bushy tailed, both determined to begin walking off the wealth of holiday dinners and parties that our flabby bodies ably evidenced that we had relished and enjoyed. I started off at my usual pace while my loving spouse stepped off at his own. It was a momentary speed differential that soon faded as we gradually found a stride that suited us both. We fell into a walking rhythm. We walked and talked. We silently strode. We enjoyed the scenery. It was perfect.

Then just about at the halfway turn of my regular walking route, my husband suggested we stop and say hello to a neighbor. Now adjusting to my husband's walking tempo was one thing, but interfering with my exercise routine was another. Everyone knows that you don’t stop and visit when you’re walking! You get out there and push those hips and raise those knees. Make those muscles work and burn the fat.

However, being a loving and thoughtful wife... and also not wanting to enter into a full fledged domestic in the middle of the road, before God and all the neighbors.... I did what most every woman has done for centuries. I sweetly smiled and said, "Ok Honey!"

So at the point in the walk where I generally have my pulse cranked up to a "burn the fat" level, my husband and I slowed down, meandered up the neighbor’s driveway and rang the bell. "We’re only stopping for a minute," I resolutely stated. At which point our neighbor swung open his door and welcomed us in for coffee, to which my husband enthusiastically answered, "Sure!"

Well, needless to say, a half an hour later we were still sitting at our neighbor’s kitchen table enjoying our coffee, playing tug of war with the dog and solving the problems of the world. My pulse was no longer stimulated and my metabolism was once again storing fat rather than burning. Yet somehow, it really didn’t matter. For I was thoroughly enjoying one of those real life moments of old fashioned neighborhood friendship as I remembered it from my youth. A time when houses went unlocked, children played unguarded and neighbors always had the time to share a cup of coffee.

Somehow I have a feeling that my "burn the fat" walking resolve will never be quite the same.

THE POPCORN POT

As I have once again celebrated yet another December birthday (number 51 for those enquiring minds who need to know) and as another New Year has come and gone, I find that I am oddly concentrated on people, places and things that previously have been taken-for-granted, parts of my life.

Now I’m not talking about items such as family, friends and health. I’ve always inherently understood their value and appreciated them to the fullest extent. Rather what I’m referencing here are things more along the lines of incidental, secondary-in-importance stuff… like my popcorn pot.

Now this particular pot is no ordinary popper. For starters, it came into my family’s possession long before my personal hard drive was even downloaded. It is best described as a four-quart aluminum pan with a matching lid, topped off by a black plastic knob and side handle. That’s it. No fancy copper bottom, no stick-free coating, no see through glass lid and definitely no high priced chef-endorsed logo. Yet truth be known, this pan was never designed to be a generator of the salty, buttery, snack food treat.

I can’t remember my mother’s original use for this pan. She really wasn’t much of a cook, so odds are it was pretty pristine when she willed it to me, some thirty years ago. Further, I’m not even sure why I initially decided to use it for corn popping. All I can clearly remember is that the first time I poured oil, salt and kernels into that shiny aluminum kettle, I was immediately distracted… for a substantial time period.

When my brain finally re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and I remembered that I had popcorn on the stove, I flew back into the kitchen fully prepared to deal with billowing black smoke and that one-of-a-kind burnt corn smell that can taint a kitchen for days. Yet to my surprise, when I reached the stove, there atop the blazing red burner sat a perfectly popped kettle of corn.

Needless to say I was shocked and amazed. So much so that I emptied the pan and immediately set it up to pop again, this time resolutely standing by to witness the event. Within minutes, the sizzling oil set the kernels slam dancing against the pan’s shiny silver interior. Soon the popping noise was a concerto of rhythm releasing that undeniable taste-tempting aroma with each successive beat.

As I stood enraptured by the smell, I realized that the popcorn was overflowing and raising the lid of the pan, pop by pop. Soon the top was distanced from the bottom by almost two inches…and not one kernel of corn had fallen out. I never shook the pan, I never adjusted the heat, I simply stood by and watched. Which apparently was exactly the way my popcorn pan wanted it.

Since that magical moment, I have continued to pop corn in that exact fashion and, as old Orville himself claims, every batch turns out perfectly every time. The pan is now completely blackened on the outside, the inside permanently oiled, despite the many ways I have tried to scrub it clean and clear. It has become a legend in my family as much as for how it pops, as for the tasty treat it produces.

My kids have grown up, my family has expanded and contracted, my friends have dealt with life-changing events, all while being mesmerized and nourished by my enchanting popcorn pot. It’s become a tradition, a treat, and a little bit of magic in our lives.

Whenever I pull it out of the cupboard, I am reminded of the long chain of popcorn kernels that intertwine the people, places and events that continually define my life.

Funny, how that old pot becomes more significant with each passing year.

PEDAL POWER

There’s something about summer that brings out the kid in me. Hot sunny days arrive and I find myself thoughtlessly reverting to activities, clothing styles and even foods that suggest memories of my long ago youth.

My latest seasonal blast-from-the-past relates to a constitutional bike ride that I take each day. It’s an around-the-rural-block trek that amounts to approximately a five-mile journey.

Now I have to tell you, it’s been a few years since I’ve undertaken bicycle cruises. Twenty years to be exact. So the prospect of hitting the hilly country roads surrounding my rural home was somewhat daunting.

However, as June’s official point of summer demarcation brought forth festivals, and fun, it also set my mind to believing that the lengthy time lapse and considerable age span since my last cycling adventures were irrelevant. Suddenly, somehow I thought I was totally capable of climbing on my tortuously butt-busting bike seat and magically pedaling away with ease.

RIGHT!

Week one: I managed to accomplish each complete, around-the-block circuit without once dismounting and walking. It was an achievement in which, on the downside of age fifty, I took great personal pride. Although I will tell you that during this period, my husband made mention of the fact, several times, that I seemed to be walking a lot like John Wayne.

Week two: I began to recover my old muscle memory and recall the concept of power pedaling, to the point that by day ten, I was cranking my riding machine up into the double digits of its twenty-one gear capacity. Soon I was embarking on actual trips with destinations such as the post office, the supermarket, and town meetings.
My bicycle was no longer just an object of excruciating exercise, rather, it had become an open-air transportation option. As I set off on my trips with a backpack over my shoulder and a Walkman cranking out my favorite tunes, I was once again a kid again……at least in theory.

Week three: Having fully re-mastered the basics, I began to playfully consider the joyful challenges of long forgotten bicycle stunts. Hands free, pop a wheelies, spinning a 360. Eventually my inherently mature sense of wisdom coerced me into pursuing the one stunt that posed the least danger to my aging, breakable bones…. hands free.

I chose a downhill stretch of my preset route, where the incline would minimize my need to pedal and allow me to concentrate solely on my balance. I tentatively let go of the handlebars and immediately re-grabbed them as I felt my two wheeler drifting wildly out of control. "Perhaps not a good move" my mature nature cautioned. To which my summer-child sense issued a "Don’t be a wimp" challenge. I tried again. This time, I succeeded in leaving the handlebars unattended for a thirty second span. Victory! I was still able to reclaim my youth.

The next day, at the crest of the same hill, bolstered by my limited success, I once again abandoned the security of my bike’s guidance system. Thirty, forty, sixty seconds passed and I was still hands free. Then with the wind whistling through my hair and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s "Why Walk When You Can Fly?" blasting from my earphones I slowly extended my arms up over my head and reached for the clouds. It was a moment taken directly from the Hollywood version of the Tour De France.

Who needs plastic surgery and expensive moisturizing creams? Just give me a bike and a good down hill run anyday!

LUCKY NUMBER THIRTEEN

According to the weatherman, spring has finally sprung. But according to the animals in my barn, local meteorologists are about thirty days late. For in mid-March, we had a wealth of births on this farm. To the point that I started to feel like a nurse in a barnyard maternity ward anytime I ventured out to feed.

The good news is that all the newborns arrived safe and sound. Oh there were a few minor hitches in my mare’s delivery, but fortunately nothing too complicated or life threatening. This year’s foal, a filly, was born on the 13th of March. She is also the thirteenth that I’ve bred. An unlucky number for some, but for me, a fortuitous total, for this young filly is a life changer.

Let me explain.

I used to train horses as a "part-time" job. One of those situations that was supposed to take up only a portion of my life but ended up consuming it. For ten years I worked shoulder to shoulder with a veteran horseman who trained me right along with the horses. He was a man totally consumed by his trade, as horse trainers tend to be, and he spent many hours talking about his passion while we worked.

Out of all the conversations we had over the years, one particular one came to mind when this thirteenth foal was born. For from the minute she fought her way out of the birth sac and nickered her arrival to the world, she was special. Not a "owner’s pride" special, but a "significant to the world" special.

To describe her, she is bay in color. For the uninitiated, that would mean a brown body and a black mane and tail; the ultimate choice for a horse of her Morgan Breeding. Her legs were longer than her mother’s from the first time she stood and the tops of her ears gently tip in toward one another in graceful refinement. She has a neck that is long and arched and an athletic ability to balance her wealth of beauty.

But it’s a characteristic that has slowly revealed itself over the last month that makes this filly so remarkable. For as her baby fur has shed out, it is becoming increasingly obvious that she is not going to be a bay horse, as she originally appeared, but instead will be black. Deep, dark, coal black, without a mark of white anywhere on her body.

This color transformation has come as sort of a shock to me as each day I have watched her medium brown color slowly dissolve into this unexpected ebony tone. Any other black foals born on my farm have had their color right from the start. Then again, as I stated, this filly is special.

Which brings be back to the remembered conversation with the old trainer. One that took place in the barn on a particularly cold winter morning while I was grousing about my frozen fingers and toes. He listened to my whining for a while and then looked me in the eye and predicted that one-day, I would have a horse that would make me want to get up and go to the barn every morning, no matter what.

I have a funny feeling that with this lucky number thirteen, that horse has finally arrived.

Close Encounters

Recently, I have been enjoying close encounters with women of the best kind. These ladies range in age from twenty to seventy and in categories of single, married, widowed and divorced. Some I have know for almost thirty years while others for as few as thirty days. But the interesting common denominator among them is that these women are all remarkably intelligent and sensitive.

Now I was not raised as a great fan of women. My mother was a hard-nosed businessperson who spent her adult life going toe-to-toe with commercial contractors, all of who were male. She had neither the time, nor the inclination, for mother daughter shopping trips or intimate teas for two. Nor were there ever motherly "June Cleaver" discussions on female topics during "girl talk" moments.

No, my mom worked at a tough job and that’s just what she was…tough.

As much as my mother avoided interactive moments with me, she also equally discouraged the development of any type of female friendships. For as long as I can remember, any woman who tried to approach my mother outside the work arena was absolutely stonewalled. Growing up, I watched women almost physically recoil as my mother issued a curtly rude, "no" to social invitations. Unknowingly offensive, mom never realized people were taken aback. She just believed in coming directly to the point. And her point was that she had no desire for interaction.

Unfortunately, I never experienced a counter balance to offset my mother’s role model values. There was no sister, aunt or kindly neighbor around to teach me that relationships with men and women are equally invaluable. I struggled, as I grew, trying to make the leap from simplistic childhood girlfriends to the more complicated world of adult female relationships. When I found myself unable to navigate landmines such as behind-the-back judgements and gossip-laden luncheons, I adapted my mother’s attitude and became anti-women.

That is until my daughter was born.

With her birth came a chance to fashion a friendship based on all the virtues I felt were important as a human being, gender issues aside. As she grew, we spent time doing all of the "girly" things that give strident feminists apoplexy. Lunches, movies, shopping, dancing, gabbing, eating chocolate.

But we also addressed life issues and focused on women as one-of-a-kind, with chemical, spiritual and emotional make-ups. We tackled (okay, argued) about problematic issues such as abortion, motherhood, traditional women’s roles, women in the church, women in the work force, female friendships and of course, men. For almost thirty years now, our friendship has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. It has also taught me what I didn’t know growing up. That woman can truly share supportive friendships.

So, today as I revel in the wonderful world of womenhood, I find myself truly wishing that just once, my mom had been able to experience the nurturing gift of female bonding and friendship …… I also find myself deeply gratified that my daughter came into my life and helped me to learn how.

HUGS

Recently, I was wandering through my personal memory bank recently and came upon a file entitled, "hugs." Inside it I found a fifty year life span of grasps and gropes of all sizes, intents and intensities….

The caring newborn caresses in which my mother so tentatively enveloped me.

The buried-in-her-chest, "funny smell" hugs of my well endowed grandmother.

The full blown, wrap-around, bear hugs that my uncle always used to welcome me.

The kindly, gentle hugs of my childless aunt that somehow always left me melancholy.

A hug from a classmate from my all-girls high school in celebration of my election as student body president …my first experience with the power of female bonding and support.

A whole collection of, "oh my gosh he asked me out," to the prom, to the party, to meet the family, to get married, hugs.

Another whole collection of, " oh my gosh he" didn't call, dumped me, cheated on me, left me," embraces that, according to the file size, went on for multi-megabites.

That first hug from my one and only high school sweetheart that kept me walking on air for days.

The unforgettable first hug which I experienced with my firstborn, my daughter, Lisa…the intensity of that moment thirty years later still able to overwhelm me with emotion.

The special cuddle hugs my son James and I shared when he was growing up that always required the inclusion of his well worn "blue blankey."

The "Pleasant dreams," hug that I gave to my children every night as I tucked them into bed.

There were two hugs between my son and daughter, one at her wedding and one at his college graduation, that as their mother, gave me hope.

The nightlong hug I shared with my daughter on the eve of her metamorphosis from my daughter to his wife.

The hug I received from my son when he unexpectedly came home to surprise me for my fiftieth birthday that imparted more intensity and love than any words we ever spoke.

The hug that I never wanted to end as I draped across my mother's lifeless body and suddenly realized her exact significance to my life and desperately, just once, tried to tell her how much I loved her.

The hug from Mickey Mouse at DisneyLand....something that I had waited for all of my life… and at the well ripened age of thirty eight, thoroughly enjoyed.

The amazingly passionate, joyful hug that my husband Michael gave me as we stood on our hillside farm overlooking the lake following our front porch wedding.

The ever constant up in the air, spin around hugs that my husband Michael gives me which always make me feel like a kid again.

As I finished scanning my Hug file I began ruminating on the power of this tiny three letter word and it’s enormous ability to evoke so many feelings, so many moments, so many facets of my life. What I realized in the process was that the most important thing about hugs is, quite simply, giving them and getting them. And while I tenderly treasure my lifetime collection of hug memories, I’ve also made room in my databank for a whole new hug collection.

For while conventional life wisdom may suggest that you can never too thin or too rich, I’ve decided that my personal life philosophy is that one can never be too well-hugged.
 
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