Monday, February 10, 2014

Beatrice

My grandma passed away yesterday. She was my mom's mom, the grandma I was closest to growing up. The one who had us over for sleepovers and let us shoot BB guns off the back porch at leftover utility line flags. The one with a huge backyard with a clothesline and a basement with spare bedrooms where my brother and I slept. The one who loved crossword puzzles and spoke German and Dutch and wrote me long letters from Florida in the winter, with spidery handwriting and drawings of the layout of their condo and maybe five or ten dollars inside. The one who was always doing dishes or wiping the counter. The one who served Ritz crackers and Schuler's bar cheese on Sundays when we went for coffee after church, who poured me iced tea out of a brown Tupperware pitcher. The one who came to all my birthday parties, hosted our Christmas Eve gatherings, went on our annual summer camping trip, cooked me the best fried potatoes ever with the container of bacon grease she kept under the sink. The one who came to the hospital to hold baby Annie on her first day of life. The one who canned peaches and pears and made strawberry jam and drove a school bus for disabled kids.

She was smart, stubborn, fastidious, faithful, and serious, though I remember her laughing a lot too. She drank coffee from morning to night. She smelled like lipstick and lotion. She had Alzheimer's, like her own mother did, and she hasn't been the same grandma to me for at least five years now. I brought her flowers and ate cake with her on her birthday in October. I saw her last weekend and I was stunned. She was less like my grandmother and more like a baby bird, lying in bed, unable to talk, unable to eat, opening her eyes off and on when we spoke to her or held her hand. For the last week, the image has been with me as I go about all the things I go about. As I was falling asleep, I was thinking My grandma is dying. As I stretched my hamstrings in downward dog, I was thinking My grandma is dying. As I hugged and kissed the girls when they got home from school, I was thinking My grandma is dying. As I took a bite of food, laughed with a friend, wrote an article, drove my car, shoveled snow, talked to my mom on the phone, read to my daughter before bed: My grandma is dying.

And now she's gone. She leaves behind my grandpa, her husband of 64 years, a number that is incomprehensible to me, and her four children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. I am at once guiltily relieved that she is no longer suffering in that bed and incredibly sad that she is no longer in the world with me. I'll never hold her hand again. I'll never smell her smell. Two months ago, I still had both my grandmas; now I have neither.

I have friends who have lost parents, siblings, unborn children. This -- me losing my grandparents in their 80s and 90s -- is not particularly tragic, I know. It's simply sad. So for today, I'm trying to get down the good memories as best I can before they fade. I'm trying to find the threads of these two beautiful, smart, funny, strong, stubborn women in myself and in my girls. I'm trying to remember that, in the word of a favorite, Ray Bradbury, "no person ever died that had a family."

"Important thing is not the me that's lying here, but the me that's sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that's downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I'm not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. I'll be around a long time. A thousand years from now a whole township of my offspring will be biting sour apples in the gumwood shade." - Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year End, 2013

It seems like, after weeks months of being absent from this space, I'd be bursting with things to report: lessons learned, moments savored, anecdotes recorded, adventures had. Instead, I find myself in the last hours of 2013 with not much to say. Not much to add, really, to a very busy season that went by in a blur.

Since I started working in an actual job at the end of the summer, my weeks have flown by in a new rhythm of life: Mondays are for cleaning, getting groceries, and running errands, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are all about writing, editing, and publishing a weekly issue, Thursdays are largely for meetings and various planning and management issues, and Fridays are a catch-all before the weekend appears. Email, once a fun link to the outside world, has become a whack-a-mole nemesis, something to be checked constantly and responded to multiple times a day. Writing, once a creative outlet for a brain that was subsumed with the details of mothering, has become a paid part of my existence. I'm responsible for a website that thousands of people read. I've met heads of foundations and city government and companies. A staff reports to me. I hired an intern. All these things sound like things someone else would do, and yet they are things I have done in 2013. I mostly love it.

Last week, Jemma lost her second front tooth, turned seven, and got her ears pierced in quick succession. She went from being a snaggle-toothed little one to a Big Kid in the blink of an eye, her new earrings glinting in her lobes, her new quiet confidence obvious in the photos I took on the 27th as she opened her presents. She's ripping into new piano songs daily, eager to practice and quickly catching up to her big sister. She has not lost her love for the Boxcar Children books, but she's branching out, too: Magic Treehouse, Nate the Great, Cam Jansen, and plenty of animal-related non-fiction, too. She had an All About Me week at school during December. I went into her classroom to bake with her, and I sent in photos for the bulletin board. She had to answer some standard questions (favorite book, favorite place, etc.) and under "I am special because . . . " she wrote, "I am special because I have a kind heart." Truer words never written.

Annie is blossoming into a curious, thoughtful, creative person. She notices everything. She has gobbled up fourth grade, and has been learning some good lessons about time management, studying, friendship, and responsibility. Her fall was full of soccer, and she was named captain of her team as much for her work ethic at practice as for her scrappy play during games. She's fast, smart, and tough, and I love to watch her figure life out. She'll spend hours at a time designing Lego houses (not from the books, but from her own brain), playing the piano, creating "training" courses for the kitties, and crafting bracelets and folders and god-knows-what from various materials she hoards in her bedroom. She's reading Harry Potter, singing in the school choir for the first time, and just learned to breathe to the side while swimming freestyle.

Jason and I fall onto the couch (or the porch furniture, or the hot tub) at the end of the day, just barely able to speak clearly about bank balances and car maintenance, holiday plans and vacation reservations. We've loved the last week: plenty of time to sit and watch the fire (truly plenty on the three separate times our power went out!), plenty of guitar and conversations and eating fudge and seafoam and watching Arrested Development. Six months ago, we were just getting back from Paris. I'm so very grateful we got to go there this year, and I actually dream about being there very occasionally and daydream about being there even more often. There is a small part of me that wants to live there, and you never know: it might prevail.

This fall, my annual college girls' weekend trip took us to Charleston, SC, a city I've now decided I'd be happy to retire to, and for some reason, this year was an extra-good dose of togetherness and excellent conversation, perspective, and eating. At a time when things were a little confusing here at home in the social realm, it was a solid reminder of the value of old friends and a lovely little getaway from the weekly responsibilities of being a working mom.

My grandma passed away a few weeks ago. She was 99 years old and had been begging, "Lord, take me now!" for several years, off and on. She was tough and beautiful and had a hilarious sense of humor along with a serious commitment to faith and family, and our Annie is her namesake. She was quite old when I came along since my dad was her youngest, so I never knew her quite the way my oldest cousins on that side did. At her funeral, though, I got a glimpse of a woman who, widowed young, found the courage to find love again; who, at age 65, took up golf; who, after having five kids in eight years, still managed to be a hearty and healthy mother and matriarch. I wished Annie (and Jemma) could have been there to hear some of her wisdom (we didn't take them to the funeral, just the visitation), but luckily my dad and I are still around to pass those traits on, and my grandma left behind a much-written-in Bible and many journals that give glimpses into how to be a strong and wise woman.

This Christmas, we surprised the girls with a little "clubhouse" of their own: an attic space that's been unfinished, now paneled with beadboard and wired with a little sconce and filled with beanbags. They've been holed up there for a few days with their Rainbow Looms and crayons and CD players and Legos, being lazy and cozy on their school vacation. Jason got me a Vitamix, which I've used daily and already wonder how I lived without, and I got him tickets to an upcoming concert in Ann Arbor, where we'll spend two nights sleeping in and eating out and enjoying good music together. There were, of course, other presents, but the clubhouse and the time with family were by far the biggest gifts.

I haven't been in this space much in the last few months, and I'm not going to promise to be here all that much in the future, either. Next week, we'll all dive back in to our crazy schedule and I'll dive into a much-needed detox from alcohol and red meat and sugar, and before I know it we'll be hauling out the porch furniture again and sleeping with the windows open. But I do hope 2014 holds more of the same (professional challenges, family time, travel, music, great food) and a few new opportunities, too. I hope for lots of small-but-wonderful moments. I hope for balance, and more vegetables, and spontaneous adventures, and meaningful service, and deepening friendships, and a better handle on my DSLR, and better posture. I hope we find a church that makes our whole family feel at home. I hope I remember that I only have this one wild and precious life and to seize the day with as much grace and good humor as I can muster.

No resolutions for me. Just pointing my compass in the right direction, fortifying myself with some green smoothies and hot yoga, and jotting down a list every night before I go to bed.

Happy New Year.

Monday, September 2, 2013

August and Everything After

It's the night before school starts, and I'm sitting in my office in the dark. Windows open, crickets chirping, my camera charging next to me. I'm sad to see summer go and fairly befuddled to see it go so soon. Maybe it was the two-weeks-in-Europe or the sort-of-crappy weather, but I never felt like we got into a groove this summer. I don't remember many hot, lazy expanses of time that we could fill any way we pleased. (There were some, I'm sure, and I was probably annoyed by them and tried to fill them when they occurred.)

So all weekend, I've been feeling a little stunned. A little emotional. A little desperate for the girls to leave tomorrow so I can finally think a thought or write a sentence without being interrupted -- "Mom! Mom? Moooooommmm?!?" -- every thirty seconds. A little panicky about how long it will be before they burst back into the house in the late afternoon. Their little outfits are lying on their bedroom floors, their new lunch bags and water bottles are waiting on the counter, their backpacks are hanging on the hooks in the mudroom. They're ready, even if I'm not.

This weekend, though, I've been replaying all the good things that we crammed into this past month. We jumped big waves with my parents at the beach. We spent a long weekend in a tent on the Leelanau Penninsula at a campground with a yoga instructor and got to soak in the sun at our favorite sandy spots. We ate at House of Flavors in Ludington, swung at the lake in Manistee, hiked through the Nordhouse Dunes to water, cozied into a booth at Harmony, ate Pronto Pups with cousins in Grand Haven, biked to Jersey Junction, made peach and blueberry crisp a half-dozen times. We spent a weekend at the cabin, playing cornhole and fishing off the dock and eating Pop Tarts for breakfast and reading in camp chairs. We went to the block party, had lemonade stands, hosted cousin sleepovers. We ate breakfast and drank coffee on the side porch. We played frisbee and baseball in the front yard. We tried to spend every possible minute outside.

This weekend, we stuck close to home: did laundry, mowed the yard, went running at the track a couple times, had friends over to watch Michigan football. We went to the home football game on Thursday night. Jason smoked a brisket and played guitar one afternoon, and we gobbled up the new downtown market two different days (tonight: filet, potatoes, cauliflower, and fresh tomatoes with goat cheese plus Love's ice cream on our crisp - all from the market. Swoon.). We picked peaches at Crane's yesterday, then spent the rest of the day at Pier Cove beach, where Annie made an elaborate castle and Jemma swam and swam until she was completely worn out. It was hard to walk back up the steps to the car and brush the sand off my feet; who knows the next time my toes will be in Lake Michigan?

Tonight we ate outside, and the girls donned sweaters (and Jemma, a hat), and I couldn't help but feel like it was the end of the season, and the end of an era. Tomorrow, when I leave them at school, I have plenty of work to come home to. I have meetings on the calendar and deadlines to meet and content to assign. I have a new computer system to master and a desk full of papers that need to be dealt with. Next summer, most likely, I'll be a "working mom," with some childcare juggling and at least a few days of the girls heading off to something sunny and fun while I edit articles or talk on the phone. I'm excited about my new gig - it's challenging and interesting work that matters in at least some small way to this community - but I feel a little wistful about "the good old days," when the girls were so small and the days unfurled at such a slow pace that I thought kindergarten would never, ever come. Tomorrow: first and fourth grade. Locker decorations. People who want to borrow my earrings and bring purses to school.

Ten years ago, I was starting my last fall as a teacher. I was training for the Chicago marathon and thinking (but only just) about becoming a mother. Tonight, I'm so glad for this strange, not-quite-normal summer (older kids, new job, PARIS), and my photos show a riot of color and joy these past few months. I wish I could slow it down, and I'm sure going to miss it.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good Things, July 2013

I . . . what . . . where . . . . what happened to this month? I'm just sneaking this edition of "Good Things" in under the wire, and feeling sad that another summer month is over so soon. I'm stiff-arming any mentions of school supplies, soccer practice schedules, or fall clothing and hoping for a solid month of sunshine, adventures, and sleeping in.

I MUST stop making these (I blame Smitten Kitchen, of course).

A festive 4th of July!


Lake Michigan love

Jemma playing "Cuckoo" after a shower

 . . . and burning through The Boxcar Children series.

Green beans from my grandpa's garden (also: bacon).

Memory out on the side porch

The way the play room has become the music room

Silliness

Sunset/moonrise

More (healthier?) Smitten Kitchen: The Wedge Salad
A scorcher of a day, spent at the pool

Catching crickets at nature camp

Late-night sushi

Happy girl at family happy hour

Ditto

Jemma-made peach-blueberry crisp

an afternoon at the park

underwater "talking"

My talented pianist with her fabulous teacher

An incredible concert

Morning faces like these

Funny Steve Martin at Meijer Gardens

Monday, July 22, 2013

For Katie

We had a good weekend: my sister-in-law's 30th birthday, which merited a cozy dinner at The Chop House; my brother and sister-in-law's backyard wedding reception, which involved two big white tents and lots of casual, yummy food with family; blueberry pancakes; a family bike ride and playground stop; hot tub baths last night before the thunderstorm; farmers' market; morning runs; burgers on the grill; a quick visit to Lake Michigan on Sunday afternoon.

And then today was back to normal: dentist appointments, groceries, errands, laundry. (Am I the only one who feels like a hero when I wash all the sheets and re-make the beds? I feel like that implies that I don't do it that often, which I'll neither confirm nor deny.) Tonight, Jason and Annie were taping a segment about the upcoming piano concert at a local TV station (I'll try to say that casually, as though my eight-year-old being on TV is no big deal). Jemma and I decided to bake something (I voted for this; she overruled me with this), so we were in the kitchen together - aprons on, little chair pulled up to the counter by the sink, flour and butter and measuring cups everywhere.

As I was peeling peaches, she stuck her little face close to the bowl to smell them and I could see the sun-freckles on her nose. I fed her a slice of peach and we talked about getting more tomorrow from the market, then putting on old clothes and eating them outside, letting the juice run down our chins and get all over our shirts.

"Did you ever do that?" she asked.

"Yep," I said. "Peaches only taste like this for a few weeks. You have to eat them as much as you can."

I sunk the paring knife into the skin of the last peach and slowly pulled the skin off the flesh in a big chunk. I was thinking about how some moments are extraordinary, like watching the moon rise over the Swiss Alps or under the Eiffel Tower, and some are ordinary, like teaching your daughter how to peel a peach. I showed her how I tugged the skin away slowly, pulling off a wide swath before starting again at the top. I told her how, in a few years, I'd let her practice doing it herself with the knife, and a few years after that, she'd be doing it all by herself.

"And someday, maybe you'll have a little boy or girl, and you'll teach them how to peel peaches in your kitchen," I said, thinking about baking with my mom and feeling all Circle of Life about this cinnamon-scented baking moment. "Who do you think taught me how to peel peaches?" I asked.

"I don't know," said Jemma.

"Guess," I said.

And she said, "Mrs. McIntosh?" Her kindergarten teacher.

And though my friend Katie did not, in fact, teach me how to peel peaches, I love that Jemma thought she might have. Because in Jemma's little almost-first-grade mind, her beloved kindergarten teacher can teach us all anything she wants to. Because in reality, that idea is actually pretty true in its own special way, especially this summer. This summer, Mrs. McIntosh is teaching me to treasure the moments - both extraordinary and ordinary - that make up a life, including a Monday night making peach and blueberry crumbles with my Jemma.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nightly News

It's the third or fourth ninety-something-degree day in a row this morning, so I quit trying to do anything productive (press releases, piano concert promotion, articles due, email) and declare that we're going to the pool. On the way there, Annie, per usual, is both looking at a library book and chatting up a storm.

" . . . And then in book 22 of Cam Jansen, the teacher gets arrested!"

Me: "Hmmm."

Annie: "But then I bet they find out that someone else is the thief."

Me: "Mmmmm-hmmmmmm."

Annie: "Because a teacher wouldn't ever do anything bad like that, right?"

Me, stalling: "Hmmm?"

Annie: "RIGHT?"

Me, brightly: "Not any teacher that I've ever known!"

*****

When Jason and I were gone last month, I left behind a four-page, single-spaced Microsoft Word document to instruct the grandparents on how to live our life at our house. It included exciting details such as how much to feed the cats, library card pin numbers, pediatrician phone numbers, when to put out the trash, how to get to tennis camp, how to leave the washing machine door ajar so as to avoid mildew on the seal, and where to find spare toilet paper (in the "Costco pantry" in the basement, obviously). It also included a paragraph that went something like:

"The girls may watch cartoons on PBS or Nick Jr. on demand, usually for no more than an hour at a time. They both know how to get to math and typing games on the computer, but no computers in bedrooms. Please don't have the news on while they're awake or around; we don't watch the news around them."

My parents came over for the afternoon a week or so before we were scheduled to leave, so they could look over the instructions and get familiar with the various machines and procedures, and my mom stopped abruptly when she read this section of the document.

"You don't let them see the news?" she asked.

"Nope. Not really," I said.

"Well, why not?" she said.

"Well, we actually don't watch it, anyway - never really have - and there's a lot of stuff on there that we don't especially want to explain to them yet, at ages six and eight," I said.

My mom made a face. "Well, they have to learn about the world eventually," she said, and it was clear that she disagreed with our policy.

The reason I gave her is partially true: Jason and I really don't watch the news, nightly, cable, morning or otherwise. I remember watching CNN in college during the Clinton scandal, and I actually like to catch the occasional "Meet the Press" or newsy roundtable on the treadmill from time to time, but most news these days seems like sensationalistic fear-mongering and incomplete sound-bytes. It raises my anxiety level and makes me feel helpless and depressed, and we don't turn it on. So our television-news-free house would probably be television-news-free even if we were also child-free.

I do, however, consume news. I read it online, and I listen to it on NPR. I like the longer, nuanced, in-depth perspectives that those formats provide, and sometimes I'll even take the time to read the comments on an article (though never, ever on MLive, where the commenters make you lose your faith in humanity), because they can poke holes in or confirm the conclusion of an article. And even when I do those things, I still shield the kids from it. I minimize the website when they come in the room. I turn off NPR when they're in the car on the way to the pool, asking their mostly-innocent questions about teachers and morality.

Why? I suppose I want to tell them the truth ("No teacher I've ever known!") but not the whole truth ("Some teachers would."). I suppose I want them to just BE KIDS for a bit longer, to let them make fairy houses and read mysteries and cannonball into the pool without letting them worry about a Florida teenager shot by a neighborhood watch patrol, without explaining bankruptcy or celebrity drug use or armed robbery or protests in Egypt.

Later, after we returned from our trip, I surveyed a few friends: Did they let their kids watch the news? The answer, resoundingly, was no. They didn't. Why, asked one mom, give them information that they can't do anything about? Why, asked another, fuel an anxiety-prone child by providing video footage of real-life nightmares? I decidedly don't want to shelter my girls from the reality of the world. But I don't want to push them too quickly into it, either, and I don't think I'm alone.

I can't remember, exactly, when I learned about the world and all the events on the nightly news. Based on my mom's reaction, I think I'm correct in remembering that the 6:00 news was always on in our living room after dinner, though I don't have any concrete memories of it beyond being shushed during the weather report. I remember watching The Challenger explode at takeoff in third or fourth grade, and then I remember watching the first Gulf War begin at some point during middle school. Between those two events, it's static, nothing.

Rationally, I know that there's a time, just around the proverbial corner, when Annie - and, later, Jemma - will deserve to know what's happening, and will need my help in interpreting it all. I just can't quite find the conviction that it needs to happen yet. Maybe next year, I think as we pull into the pool parking lot. Or the next.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Instagram Feed: Returned to Normal

One thing about being gone for much of June is that it took forever for me to feel like it was really, truly summer. In Paris, it was cool and cloudy, and the Michigan spring had been so cold and gloomy before we left. Up until last weekend, our family hadn't spent any time at Lake Michigan, hadn't been covered in sunscreen and sand, hadn't eaten inappropriate amounts of ice cream or stayed up to watch the sun set over the water or fallen asleep in the car, exhausted from a day of swimming in a pool with a diving board.

We've remedied that since we've been home, with a family reunion in Grand Haven (pool, lawn games, the same homemade vanilla ice cream we've been having there since I was a little girl), a trip to South Haven and Saugatuck (sandcastles, dinner out at Wally's, frisbee in the sand, and more ice cream), and a Sunday afternoon at the beach in Holland (with a stop for ice cream on the way home). We've caught fireflies, made blueberry pancakes for breakfast, instituted happy hour on the side porch as much as possible, dragged the sprinkler out, and spent at least one night in the hot tub looking at the stars way past our bedtime.









Then, this past weekend, we had two wonderful nights with good friends at their cottage. It meant paddle boarding, sandy hands reaching for snacks on the beach, hikes in the dunes, morning coffee and nighttime guitar on the deck, five very blond little heads at the dinner table (Luke's prayer: "Dear God, please help everyone to get more and more healthier and awesome, Amen") and reading bedtime stories, grown-up mishaps after the kids were in bed, holding other peoples' babies, water balloon launchers, great food, tons of laughter. Summer is here, indeed, and I've never been more glad and grateful for all the normal things.