Who let the dogs out?

This past Saturday I popped out of bed and jumped in the shower, eager to get the day rolling. We loaded up the car, braved the local Starbucks, and headed down I-81 for an early Christmas visit with our three grandsons and their parents.  It was a beautiful sunny day for a drive and Mr. Smith indulged me with Christmas carols on the car stereo, even singing along with a couple of his favorites.  He gave Elvis a run for his money on Blue Christmas.  When we pulled up to their house, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but three little grandsons offering to help us carry things into their house!  Despite their trying to be coy, Mr. Smith and I both knew they were checking for Christmas loot.  

We had scheduled this weekend for a visit because Glen Echo Pottery where Emmet takes classes was having their annual holiday pottery sale. Emmet, Mr. Smith, Eli and I loaded up to go to lunch and the sale while the rest of the group went off on their own adventures.  After a quick yummy lunch at Cava, we were off to the sale.  We meandered through room after room of ceramics.  I had a superb grandma time helping Eli with his Christmas shopping.  It was fascinating to listen to his thought process of who would like what and why.  It’s always a treat to get a little one-on-one time with a grandchild.

When we rendezvoused back home, it was time for Christmas fun.  I had brought Wilton Build it Yourself A Puppy for Christmas Gingerbread Doghouse Decorating kits so building those was our first order of business. The boys are no strangers to a craft project and did a great job.  Sam was a bit more interested in eating the candy bones than using them to decorate his house, but we all had fun.

The rest of the evening was spent playing a rousing game of Apples to Apples, devouring a platter of tacos and opening Christmas gifts.

As part of Christmas, the boys had received Barnes and Noble gift cards so Sunday morning the three amigos and I headed out to redeem them.  After a quick stop in the adjacent Starbucks for a latte for me and a sandwich for Sam, it was up the escalator and on to the toy section of Barnes and Noble. While I was hoping they would want to peruse the book selection, the visions that were dancing in their heads weren’t of sugar-plums or books, they were of toys! They spent a lively half hour selecting their purchases. Then it was back down to Starbucks for hot chocolate and checking out their purchases.

For any grandma in need of a little Christmas cheer, I advise getting a little old driver so lively and quick, loading your sleigh with toys and heading off to visit your grandkids!

C’est la vie.

My old house.

I miss my house.  Most of the year I’m amenable with our downsizing lifestyle.  It’s a luxury to be able to close the door and take off without any thought of mowing the yard, shoveling snow, or electrical failure.  But when the holidays roll around, I miss my house and all that came with that rambling old homestead.  We spent over 20 busy years there, raising our three sons.  Mr. Smith sanded, stripped, painted, and wallpapered every square inch of the place, creating a lovely home from a diamond in the rough.

I reveled in decorating for the holidays.  Trees, garlands, Santas, angels.  I would spend a week transforming the place, devoting one night each to the dining room, living room, kitchen and TV room.  Mr. Smith would hang fragrant fresh garland and lights on the outside.  It was a wonderful Christmas house, lots of bedrooms and plenty of space for everyone.

I miss being the hostess queen.  I loved planning the meals, treats and activities, as well as dinner parties for family and friends using Christmas china and candles, and bottles of wine and great company.  One year for Christmas, my son Elliot gave me a dinner party journal in which I would record the menu, the wines, the company and seating charts.  I was able to document the table decorations and party favors.

Perhaps it’s because of all the changes this year that I find myself particularly melancholy. The loss of family members, moving and leaving a job have left me at loose ends. And it’s the end of the year and time to reflect on things you’ve done and things you’ve left undone.  Goals reached and projects left undone.  

Luckily Mr. Smith and I have a bit of yin and yang in our relationship.  When I start to look at the past through rose-colored glasses (that old house had its issues), he’ll remind me how much our life has expanded by letting go of the past. It’s easy to think all would be perfect if we were back there, but it’s our todays that we should value and so I will.

C’est la vie.

The Butterfly Lady

This past Saturday morning I was packing away Thanksgiving decorations and bringing out the Christmas trimmings when my phone rang.  It was my sister Jeanne calling to tell me that our sister, Suzi, had died that morning.  It was unexpected and left us both stunned.

Me, Suzi and Jeanne – 1985.

Ours is a fractured family and I hadn’t seen Suzi in over 15 years.  We had sporadic contact at best, not truly part of each other lives, so I was taken aback by how sad I felt.  After the initial shock wore off a bit, my mind was able to drift to better times and those memories made me smile.  I thought about her letting me dress up in her prom formals and spritzing me with cologne. I thought about her coming home from school, turning on American Bandstand and dancing.  And I thought about my mother’s excitement when Suzi won a regional oratorical contest during high school.  My mother, who never showed much happy excitement, was jumping up and down screaming “That’s my girl, that’s my girl!” Suzi was ten years older than me and I saw her through adoring little-sister eyes.  Despite our differences as adults, she was a special part of my childhood.  

When I started high school, we were living on the same block.  But before I graduated, she moved out-of-state with her husband and three sons and we never lived in the same state again.  That marriage ultimately ended in divorce.  She went on to marry twice more, both ending in divorce. She experienced more than her share of tragedy, losing two of her three sons. And while she sometimes floundered in her overwhelming heartache, she somehow managed to get on with life.

For over the past decade, Suzi had been living in Texas where she made a life for herself.  She developed an intense interest in monarch butterflies, planting gardens for them and following their migration, earning the nickname The Butterfly Lady.  She made wonderful friends and did some traveling with them.  And she died surrounded by love, with her daughter-in-law and her best friend at her side.  Her friend held the phone up to her ear so her son, Todd, could say goodbye. 

The loss of a sibling leaves a hole in your life whether you had a close relationship or were estranged.  Suzi’s death means the loss of years and all the life events that mark that time which can never be recovered.  I will remember Suzi through my little sister lens, wonderful memories that were never lost.

C’est la vie.

And what a time it was…

Thanksgiving came to be my favorite holiday when my sons were in college.  Their arrival home on Wednesday would fill our home with renewed life.  We would feast on chicken enchiladas and decorate turkey cookies.  On Saturday, we would put up the Christmas tree together and Mr. Smith and I would try to persuade our sons to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with us.  We were never successful.  

My friend, LouAnne, turned us on to turkey cookies. The Smiths have devoured dozens and dozens.
My three sons.

Many Thanksgivings were spent with family, some with friends and one was spent just Mr. Smith and me.  Our first year out east, we spent the holiday on our own in the love nest 1.0.  Then on Friday morning, we hit the road for NYC and Mr. Smith made one of my childhood dreams come true when he took me to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular.

It was amazing!
Uncle Pete and Adam.
Hannah and Elliot. Everybody always wanted to sit by Elliot. I bet Rachel is on his other side.

It’s hard to recall all of the Thanksgivings over the past years.  However, the last two seem to accentuate the persistent drumbeat of time.  Last year we were with my mother-in-law in Cass City, Michigan.  We made dinner for her and her dear friend Mimi and Mimi’s husband, Dave.  There was much talk of Thanksgivings past and of course, Pat had many memories of the family over the years. 

Thanksgiving circa 1960.

Pat has since passed away so for the second time in three years, we shared Thanksgiving with our youngest son Adam, his wife Hsin Yi and their beautiful daughter, Eleanor Patricia.  Eleanor filled our apartment with giggles, energy and joy.

Helping make the whipped cream for the pumpkin pie!

It is sobering to reflect on all that has transpired from our early childhood through today and it is with a sense of wonderment that we look to the future.  By the time Eleanor is 18, we will (with any luck) be in our 80s.  I hope we are still making memories.

Long ago…it must be… I have a photograph Preserve your memories They’re all that’s left you.

Paul Simon, Bookends

C’est la vie.

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be, are full of trees and changing leaves. Virginia Woolf

We’re hosting our youngest son and his family for Thanksgiving tomorrow.  This is Eleanor’s third Thanksgiving and we will have spent two of them with her.  Today I’m baking pies, making a centerpiece for the table and thinking about Thanksgivings past.

Mr. Smith and I married in August of 1978.  Somehow three months later (I believe his sister Patrice was the instigator), we ended up with the “privilege” of hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the Smith clan and my sister Jeanne and her family.

I had never made a turkey, I was a less than stellar cook, and we had a kitchen the size of a small closet.  But with the hubris of youth, we said we’d be delighted.  The menu was planned, the shopping lists made, and I requested the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off work. Although I accepted all offers to bring a dish, there was much to be done. Intimidated by my always seemingly perfect mother-in-law, I thought everything had to be from scratch. I practiced making yeast rolls and tried out different cranberry relish recipes. We ordered a large turkey, borrowed some tables and chairs and cleaned our apartment top to bottom.

The day before Thanksgiving started with a little panic when I discovered the turkey was too big to fit in our miniscule apartment-sized oven.  Commence the scrambling to find a roaster to cook the turkey.  This was actually serendipitous because it freed up our oven for baking the rest of the dinner. Figuring out how everything was going to fit in that tiny oven wasn’t something that made it on to my to-do list.  That Wednesday, just like today, I baked pies, cut up the bread for stuffing, and worried about getting everything done at the same time!

Thanksgiving morning, I was up early chopping and mixing, getting everything ready for the oven and crossing my fingers that the roaster wouldn’t die on me.  Guest arrived, wine was poured, and dinner was served more or less on time.  

It was a convivial afternoon and no one left hungry.  By the time everyone was gone, I was exhausted and had no interest in going back into the kitchen.  In a move I’m not sure I could pull off today, Mr. Smith and I went to bed and left the mess.  This was the first of many times Mr. Smith’s odd sleep schedule came in handy.  When I got up the next morning the dishes were all washed and the kitchen was spotless thanks to my own personal thanksgiving elf!

We have now shared 41 Thanksgivings, some as hosts, some as guests.  Sometimes a small group, sometimes lots of family and friends.  The recipes have changed a bit over the years, there’s no longer any cream of mushroom soup on my green bean casserole.  But there is always pumpkin pie.  And Mr. Smith always helps with the dishes. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

C’est la vie.

This is the gift of the grandchildren…

As a grandmother of seven and a prolific reader, the title Unconditional Love, A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today by Jane Isay grabbed my attention. Ms. Isay is a former editor of Yale University Press and this is her fourth book. The book is well researched and draws heavily from Ms. Isay’s own experience, as well as from the hundreds of interviews she conducted with grandparents.

The book is written as a guide to help grandparents navigate their new role in a manner which keeps family conflicts to a minimum and strives for harmony. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure it was for me. The beginning focused on “grandparent prep” with suggestions on how to get up-to-date on the mores of today. Since I no longer have any infant grandchildren, I have no reason to check out Websites and blogs discussing the pros and cons of babies sleeping with parents. Then I got to the section where the reader was asked to close their eyes and take themselves back in time to the months when their child was first born. The frustration of not knowing how to calm your baby, the panic when a feeding didn’t go right, no shower, no sleep and no end in sight. Even though it’s been decades, I could still feel the fatigue and isolation. And even though the baby days are long behind my daughters-in-law, I wanted to go hug them all and take them out for a cocktail. And while they are hopefully all getting to sleep through the night at this point, the challenges of parenting continue. No matter how many books or internet articles you read, parenting is still on the job training.

Ms. Isay acknowledges that when our children take on the responsibilities of parenthood, they also take on new power. They get to set the rules! With a grandparent’s years of experience and perspective of time, some of these rules may seem silly, but they are to be respected. And who doesn’t want respect?

Just as much of parenting is learn as you go, so is grandparenting. Isay doesn’t provide you with a definitive list of things to do to be the perfect grandparent. But she does provide oodles of real life experiences. I was inspired by stories from the different grandparents who were interviewed for the book. Many found grandparenting to be a second chance, an opportunity to provide grandchildren with the time and attention they couldn’t afford their own children. My grandchildren consist of a single child, a set a three brothers and a set of three sisters. It is normally quite hectic when we are visiting one of the sets of three. This book reminded me of the importance of carving out some time alone with each child, even if it’s simply a walk around the block. The benefits of a grandparents individual attention are priceless.

The book also addresses the issues of grandparents who become caregivers when their children are incapable of parenting, long-distance grandparenting and fairness with time, money and resources in a straight forward manner. Unconditional Love was worth my time. I picked up a few thoughts on how to maintain close relationships with my grandchildren as they grow older. What I most appreciated was the reassurance that grandparents can be a powerful influence on how grandchildren show up in the world and that our time and conversations with them will exist as “tiny shards of color in the great mosaic of understanding.”

I want my grandchildren to feel unconditionally loved. I grew up without grandparents, but I was extremely lucky to have my beloved Aunt Ruby who exemplified unconditional love. I can only remember one occasion when she even came close to being short with me. I was nine years old and my younger brother and I had been spending a week with her and my uncle during our summer vacation from school. We had cousins who lived in the same town and we spent hours playing together, running in and out of Aunt Ruby’s house. On the day my parents were coming to pick us up, she was busy cleaning house and preparing food for their arrival. We must have run into the house once too often. She told us to go outside and stay outside and not come back in unless the house was on fire. We did as we were told and were well rewarded. A neighbor started a fire in a burn barrel, an ember blew over into the yard and started a grass fire. We were full of smug self-righteousness as we marched back into the house to announce the yard was on fire! But being Aunt Ruby, she simply came out into the yard, put out the minor grass fire and went back to work. I am lucky she is a part of the mosaic of my life.

C’est la vie.

The real Santa…

When my sister Jeanne read this past Sunday’s post, she remembered her days of pouring through the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog with her siblings long before I was born. She also remembered the first Christmas with the man who became her real dad. Here are her musings…

Christmas before my Dad….

            Prior to my mother’s marriage to Stormy’s father, our holidays were quite different.  Our household consisted of a single mom and five wild kids.  Mom worked days as a bookkeeper or waitress and evenings at a local tavern to support us.  She was an extremely proud and independent person refusing government help so Santa gifts were simple but often supplemented by our wonderfully generous Salvation Army and the local firemen, who refurbished second hand toys which were then dropped at houses late December 24th.   We didn’t really feel deprived because we lived in a post- war housing project for veterans and everyone was in the same boat. 

However, in early 1950’s Mr Ferguson came into our lives.  He was a tall quiet gentleman who met our petite raven-haired mom at his favorite bar where she pulled his pints and chatted up the regulars.  Dad had never been married and his partial deafness meant he often kept to himself but amazingly he was not put off by her rowdy brood.   Instead he arrived that first cold snowy Christmas morning with his arms piled high with brightly wrapped boxes each tied with colorful bows. We were stunned.

This long time bachelor had purchased games, dolls, ping pong pump guns, books, drawing supplies etc. wonderful fancy new toys.  But best of all Mr Ferguson not only laid on the floor to play games with us but later laughing chased my brothers around the house shooting each other with ping pong balls.  This sweet giant man become one of the kids, so later when a pin pong ball landed in the middle of one of mom’s homemade pumpkin pies we squealed with delight when the culprit was dad. 

What a wonderful first Christmas with Mr Ferguson.  And subsequent holidays were also fun, gift and memory filled.  When Mom would chide him for buying too many gifts, dad would respond with, “money is to spend to make folks happy”.  Dad had been an orphan and family was special for him.  He proved to be the best Santa five raggedy kids could hope for.  And we loved him.