I may not be walking on sunshine, but I am walking. In an effort to shake my COVID-19 blues, I’ve added a morning walk with Mr. Smith to my routine, dragging myself out of bed each morning a touch earlier than I would like. We were out for our daily constitutional on Sunday when I asked him what he had planned for the day. He thought for a moment and then said, “I thought I’d spend the day with you!” We both started laughing. We are definitely pandemic pals, spending even more time together than we did pre-COVID. Good thing we can find something to laugh about during this time or it would not bode well for our retirement years!
This week my trip to the grocery brought a smile as I scored some beautiful peonies. I decided this is another sign life is going to be all right.
I’ve started working in earnest on the Christmas ornaments for my grandchildren. I’m very happy with my charming little stockings and mittens.
My goal is to have them finished by the end of the month so I can get started on my next needlework project. I have ordered some hot iron embroidery transfers and vintage pillowcases and I’m going to embroider pillowcases for my granddaughters.
Like so many grandparents, I have been missing my grandchildren and looking for ways to stay connected. My sister shared with me a book she had sent to her 10-year old grandson out in California. She spotted Mañanaland in The New York Times. It received rave reviews from The Times and her grandson, so I thought it might also appeal to my boys. Rather than send them copies to read on their own, I have ordered one copy for me. What I will send them is a box with ten numbered treat bags, one to be opened each FaceTime reading session with grandma. I will read, they will listen and munch.
To avoid any scheduling stress for the parents and grandma, I’ll read with my granddaughters separately and I’m still thinking about that book choice. I’m considering a childhood favorite of mine, Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace. Originally published in the 1940s, the series was rereleased for its 60th anniversary. I squealed out loud when I stumbled on my old friends in a bookstore and have been purchasing the series to share with my girls and I can’t think of a better way to shake off the pandemic blues.
Most days I am able to see growing older as a gift. In the past, I wasted way too much energy worrying about things I couldn’t control. Worrying about what others thought of me – bosses, co-workers, contemporaries, even complete strangers! It is the crowning reward of becoming a true grownup to gain the perspective on life that only time and experience can bring. Most days I wear my crown with pleasure and no longer obsess over what others may or may not think of me or second guess myself.
Most days. Most days I can go about my life, looking for adventures and creativity that are not defined by age. Most days I can be my own cheerleader and focus and direct my energies into positive actions. Sadly, these are not most days. Current world events weigh heavily on me. The systemic racism in our country can no longer be denied. People are dying daily from a health crisis that has been allowed to spin out of control. At a time when I most want to gather my loved ones close, I need to stay away to keep them safe. I am definitely in a COVID19-funk and know that life will never return to what I thought of as normal. Perhaps that is why some of the tools I have used in the past to pull myself out of a bad mood aren’t working. I knew I needed a shift in perspective, or it was going to be a very long summer.
This week, that perspective came from seeing myself through another’s eyes. I received a pre-birthday letter of love from a niece. In her eloquent writings, she shared her favorite memories of me through the years. While reading, I was amazed at her litany of reminisces, including the story about me providing her with some sage advice at a time she really needed it. And her memory of coming to visit with her mom and brother for the Christmas holidays when she was four or five years old and sleeping with me in my big bed, snuggled up and being allowed to cuddle my Raggedy Ann doll. Wow! I am beyond touched that with all she currently has on her own plate navigating her family through this pandemic, she reached out with such a kind heart. People often have a hard time appreciating their own value, including me. How helpful that every once in a while, we can have the privilege of seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes.
While it is often human nature to stay with what we know, the times they are a changing. I am trying to use this time to reset my value system, figuring out where best to put my time and love. And as I bob and weave my way through our new normal, I am grateful for people like my niece who help me keep things in perspective.
Please enjoy this guest post on receiving by my sister, jgk!
Ah…that old bugaboo we learn as children that it is nobler to give than to receive, yet many adults find the act of receiving far more difficult.
There are so many events in our lives that give us the opportunity to say thank you. Day-to-day living, doors held open, kind advice, acts of charity, and even compliments from friends and strangers. There are entire corporations which encourage even glorifying the act of giving. Large and small charities screen colorful, sympathetic commercials encouraging us to donate to their worthy causes. We are virtually patted on the back for our generous donations. We feel positive and generous. The holidays of Christmas, Passover and birthdays create opportunities of exuberant gift giving. It’s great fun to watch a six-year-old tear apart a colorful box to discover her new toy, but when Aunt Emma is then handed a ribbon festooned box there can be a very different reaction. She may seem embarrassed and insist you shouldn’t have.
Most Americans are raised in a culture that encourages humility and scorns entitlement and hubris. We are instructed from childhood that we should appear thankful when we receive a gift even if it is not the shiny red firetruck we had our heart set on, or the Red Rider BB gun. Grandma’s gift of a new book and paper check for your college fund just doesn’t engender the same gratefulness as the latest Lego kit or sparkly stuffed unicorn, but its our job to pretend.
A number of psychologists suggest a more clinical view that one reason receiving is more difficult is because it denotes control. The giver is in control because they are the one to choose the gift, the price, the recipient. The receiver not so much. They are the passive party. While we feel positive about giving, to receive, we must open ourselves up to it, thus placed in a more vulnerable position. For example, how often do we hear someone respond to a compliment by brushing it aside, rejecting or deflecting it, often with a smile. We less often hear a sincere thank you. This seemed especially true of females who have been historically groomed to appear demure, nonaggressive, ‘not too pushy’, ‘feminine’. Uuuggh!
I have another position. I was raised by a parent who rarely said thank you. I realize now in my old age that she was a product of her upbringing. The father was a tyrant and her mother had died when she was only three years old. As a young mother herself, she was ill-equipped to raise children with healthy egos. Luckily the younger of the seven children seem to have fared better perhaps because she mellowed but also because of a wonderful stepfather who was kind generous and thoughtful. As my mother’s second child I have absorbed many of her irritating issues, yet my wonderful sister, the sixth child, has always been quite different and quick to acknowledge thoughtfulness. Perhaps for the next generation it will be easier to say thanks. As women’s grow into their voices and recognize their power and worth, we will all come to realize how liberating and comfortable it is to simply say Thanks.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man whose wife has a birthday approaching, is in need of a gift. So it came as no surprise when while sitting with Mr. Smith and savoring my morning cappuccino, he brought up the subject and asked the $64,000 question. “What would you like for your birthday?” Through our nearly 42 years of marriage, I have received many fabulous gifts from Mr. Smith and I am normally willing to provide him with suggestions or ideas. Blame it on the pandemic, blame it on the current administration, but I decided that this year, for my 65th, I wasn’t going to be so amenable. I was going to make him come up with his own idea.
It may sound a bit self-centered, but gifts are significant for me. I love giving and receiving gifts. It warms the cockles of my heart to find a gift I think will delight the receiver. I endeavor to pay attention to anything Mr. Smith might mention throughout the year that he likes or wants. I often write it down or bookmark a website so I can go back and get that item when I need a gift for my beloved. I want him to know he is important to me and that I listen to him. I even love wrapping gifts. Choosing just the right wrapping paper, ribbons, and tie-ons pleases my creative side. I do realize that while I take great pleasure in giving gifts, it may not be so for others.
I decided to conduct a straw poll among some of my favorite peeps to get their takes on gifts from their partners. I asked them how important gifts are to a romantic relationship. If their significant other asked them what they fancied, did that somehow make the gesture less treasured. The results were interesting and diverse. One friend responded that she and her husband don’t really give gifts to each other. She does appreciate that he shows his love and commitment other ways like handling a couple of household chores that she particularly dislikes, but she wouldn’t object if he wanted to surprise her with a weekend away somewhere fabulous as a birthday bonus. One woman responded that her husband refuses to buy gifts for all the customary occasions but delights her every now and then with a lovely gift out of the blue. The results were almost split down the middle on whether they felt that being asked what they wanted diminished the specialness of a gift.
In our family, Christmas was a big time for gifts and for many years the focus of Christmas morning was our children, trying to make sure everyone had enough gifts, but not too many. The joyful, noisy Christmas mornings are some of my favorite family memories. Our sons always started with their stockings and I loved filling them with candy treats and small treasures. When Mr. Smith and I relocated to the east coast, it was clear we would be spending some holidays alone. So in addition to our normal exchange of gifts, I decided to try a new tradition. I bought stockings for the two of us with the hope that we would fill them with treats and treasures for each other. So far this has not been a success, but perhaps in the future. In the meantime, they are handsome holiday decorations.
I believe exchanging gifts, no matter whether small or extravagant, with your spouse is important. When your home is full of kids and chaos, it is important to find moments to focus on each other and remember you were a couple before the family frenzy. And in our current empty nest years when we wake up on Christmas morning and it is just the two of us, I would find it depressing if we didn’t exchange gifts, so we have continued that Christmas morning tradition. With all the changes growing older brings, it is fun to still be able to delight each other with special and unique gifts.
My online dictionary defines gift as: a thing given willingly to someone without payment, a present. Nowhere in the definition does it say that a husband must be a mind reader or that the gift is less heartfelt if the giver has asked the recipient is there is something special they are pining for. Perhaps I’ll come out of my quarantine fatigue long enough to give Mr. Smith a suggestion or two. And on my birthday I’ll smile, say thank you, and coyly ask – how did you know!?!
Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, but with the all the current crises, it is a challenge for me to feel very patriotic. The more I try to keep up with the latest breaking news, the harder it is not to get bogged down and stressed. To avoid the constant “headline stress disorder” this week, I decided I would focus on something positive instead. Since most celebrations are necessarily curtailed this year, I’ve been thinking about Independence Day celebrations past.
While a little girl, my family lived out in the country on two green, green acres that were pretty much our world. Having grown up on a farm, my mother knew how to drive, but we rarely went anywhere. I guess the idea of loading up a bunch of kids and trying to corral them through an outing was not an appealing prospect. In retrospect, my early childhood may have prepared me for being in quarantine. We didn’t have Amazon to deliver everything to our door, but we did have a milk man and a bread man. And our big outing of the week was a trip to the gigantic Kroger grocery store in LaPorte, nine miles away.
Fourth of July was the highlight of our summer. After breakfast, we would pile into the family station wagon and head into LaPorte for their annual Fourth of July Parade. It was best to arrive early to stake out your place on the sidewalk edge with your blankets. Rumor has it that when I was really little, I hated the noisy jet flyover and all the firetruck and police sirens. My dad would walk me away from the action for a bit, returning for the marching bands and floats with girls in colorful formals throwing out handfuls of candy. I marched in that parade on more than one occasion. Initially as a Sears Stepper, proudly marching down Lincolnway with my group, trying to keep in line and hoping my sweaty little hands didn’t drop my baton. Mrs. Sears was my first-grade teacher and she and her daughter Norma, an Indiana baton-twirling champion, were my baton twirling teachers. A decade later, I marched in that same parade as a member of the Cougar Cadettes, a high school drill team. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the Cougar Cadettes. Just know, we were hot! Following the parade we would head home, often with Aunt Ruby and Uncle Ike, for a family picnic in the yard. I remember watermelon, hot dogs and all the soda we could drink. Like so many other things, that parade is canceled this summer for the first time in 74 years.
When Mr. Smith and I moved to Kendallville, Indiana with our three young sons we weren’t aware of the fact that each Fourth of July there was a huge firework display down at the lake. We lived on Diamond Street that led you straight to Bixler Lake. Our tradition became an afternoon picnic with friends and family, complete with hot dogs, watermelon and flag cake. After eating, we would grab a blanket, walk down Diamond Street and stake out a place to watch the fireworks. The summer of 1977, our oldest son was on a class trip to France and missed the annual celebration. Over the Fourth of July he was sick, most likely a case of food poisoning, so he stayed at his French hotel that day while the rest of his group went site seeing. His feeling lousy led to a touch of homesickness. As a gift to his mother, Emmet was keeping a journal of his trip. He wrote in his journal that day that he wished he were home; he wanted a hot dog and mom’s famous flag cake! He of course survived and we’ve spent many a Fourth of July together, but not this year.
On this Independence Day when we won’t be celebrating with family or friends, I decided to write a note to Emmet’s sons, telling them the story of their dad’s trip to France and missing Fourth of July with his family and made a request. Though they probably don’t need it, I sent them a photo of a flag cake and the directions, asking them to make one for their dad since I can’t be there. I also asked for a pic of the finished creation.
When scrolling through Facebook and Instagram and seeing friends getting together with family and friends, often sans masks and social distancing, I wonder if I’m being too careful. Then I see articles like Eighteen relatives test positive for coronavirus aftersurprise birthday party. That strengthens my resolve to do what I can to keep my family safe. In fact, I think it’s my patriotic duty. Mr. Smith and I will pass on the hot dogs this year, but I think we’ll have some delicious, juicy watermelon. And I hope Emmet will be getting flag cake this year, lovingly made by his three amazing sons.
There have been many milestones in the journey of my life. Some conventional – first kiss, first job, marriage, having children, becoming a grandparent. Other milestones have been rich life lessons – leaving home, surviving disappointment, gaining some self-awareness and autonomy, and realizing my parents are real people.
With my 65th birthday barreling down, I experienced another milestone. I signed up for Medicare. My wallet now contains my crisp, new Medicare card, my Medicare supplement card and a shiny red AARP card! There was a time in my life when I thought of 65 as over the hill. Now I think of it as just settling into the best years of life.
Many friends have told me that I am “aging well”, but what does that mean? To age well, do we have to look younger than our age? I am looking to be a better version of my younger self, not a younger version of my current self. Despite our ageist society, I see aging well as living a purposeful and creative life. I want to be open to new ideas and adventures, often stepping out of my comfort zone.
I still want to dress well and have the energy to hike a mountain trail with Mr. Smith. I still want to be seen. One problem with growing older is that you are often treated as if you are invisible. My sister and I were shopping one day and approached the counter for her to purchase a pair of pants. She must have really wanted those black and white houndstooth pants because she tolerated the rude salesperson who directed all her questions and conversation to me, ignoring my sister who was actually making the purchase! This is never acceptable, besides the person assisting us was a mature woman and should have been aware that older doesn’t mean invisible.
As my pandemic 65th birthday approaches, I know it won’t be the celebration I once envisioned. I will spend the next month thinking on how I can make it memorable. Champagne, cake and Mr. Smith come to mind. And what’s a birthday without gifts??? For my 65th, I plan to give myself the gifts of better perspective on life, more self-confidence, and letting go of old grudges. And should family or friends choose to add to my gift pile, all the better! Gifts from the heart are always the best. And of course, I never say no to jewelry, especially jewelry from the heart!
Mr. Smith and I made a quick trip to Philadelphia this week. Between Wilkes Barre and Philadelphia, the quickest route is the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension which runs through rural areas of mountains, forest and farmland. About halfway, you travel through a long tunnel that runs under Blue Mountain.
Normally views of the rolling landscape, rivers and rock cuts keep Mr. Smith entertained, but this trip he found something else that captured his attention. Every time we passed someone pulling any sort of a travel trailer, often with several bicycles strapped to the back, he would wistfully say, “They’re going camping.”
I have been camping with Mr. Smith. We went camping on our honeymoon almost 42 years ago. I had camped a couple of times as a kid with my parents or the girl scouts, but never with my beloved. He grew up going on a two-week camping adventure with his family every summer and was eager to continue the tradition with his new bride. We were two kids with no money for fancy hotels, so we borrowed his parents’ pop-up camper and headed into the wild.
With stars in my eyes, I said why yes, I’d love to go camping at Wilderness State Park. Wilderness is near Mackinaw City, Michigan. We drove down a curvy narrow road that seemed to go on forever before reaching the entrance. We were greeted with 26 miles of beautiful Lake Michigan lakeshore and an abundance of coniferous forests. We stayed a couple of nights, taking a day trip to Mackinaw Island and whiling away one lovely afternoon sipping cold beers in a bar in Mackinaw City, marveling at the fact that we were married.
Then we headed for Neys Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. There is no denying the natural beauty of the park, albeit rugged. This is where I discovered Mr. Smith’s love of sunsets and his pleasure in photographing them. We were doing ok for a couple of nights, hiking during the day and building campfires at night. Then came the morning we woke up a bit chilly and looked out to see everything covered in snow. It was August! I don’t consider myself a hot house flower, but my honeymoon visions had veered more toward us lying on the beach sipping cold drinks and listening to the waves, not brushing the snow off everything and wondering if we had another sweater we could put on.
I may be a planner, but Mr. Smith is a problem solver. He took one look at my not so disguised dismay and hustled us into the car and out to breakfast. Heading back from breakfast, he pulled over to the side of the road to use a pay phone. Yes, it was the time before cell phones and when you were out camping and need to make a call, you used a pay phone. The closest big city was Thunder Bay, Ontario. He called a travel agent there and booked us into the Canadian Pacific Hotel. We went back to the campsite, packed a bag and headed into Thunder Bay. The hotel was lovely and we swam, sat in the sauna, drank champagne and feasted on a lobster dinner. The next day we headed back to the camp site, hooked the camper back onto the car and headed home.
We eventually bought that honeymoon camper from Mr. Smith’s parents and took a couple of wonderful camping trips with our sons. I do prefer a nice hotel with an en suite bathroom but must admit sometimes camping facilitates experiences you won’t get any other way. I will always treasure the memory of lying on a sandy Michigan beach one night with our boys, watching their faces as they experienced a spectacular meteor shower.
The honeymoon camper is long gone. Our boys are now grown and vacationing with their own energetic families. We’ve come full circle and it’s back to just Mr. Smith and me. I know Mr. Smith well enough to realize that while he was looking longingly (lustfully) at the people heading out camping, he was thinking about his retirement years. He has shared many of the places he would like to visit when he has unlimited free time and that some of those places are best appreciated from a campsite. At this point in life, will I help him pack and send him off into the wild on his own, or will I throw caution to the wind and join him in his adventures. We shall see, Mr. Smith. We shall see.
There are many different kinds of fathers. Some are present, some are absent. They can be fun, serious, engaged or aloof, each giving what they are capable or willing to give. This Fathers’ Day has led me to think about my own dad. My late father was quiet and thoughtful while sometimes allowing his mischievous side to show through. There’s the story of my parents’ first wedding anniversary when he came home with a new garbage can as a gift for my mother, something she had requested, but hadn’t expected as an anniversary gift. He had been a bachelor until he was 37, but you think he would know better. Five kids were watching with delight when he presented the shining bin. When she opened the can, tucked inside was a beautiful bouquet of long-stemmed red roses along with a giftwrapped bottle of perfume and Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates!
When my parents married, my mother already had five children from a former marriage. There was no plan to have additional children, but then there was me and boy was my dad surprised! As a young child, I was a daddy’s girl. As I grew into a teenager, my contentious relationship with my mother strained my connection with my dad, but there was never a doubt in my mind that he loved me. His presence and stability were attributes I took for granted. Luckily the passing of years and my older siblings have helped me see him for the gift he was in my life.
My sisters have always been gushing fans of my father. My sister Suzi while attending her first prenatal visit and documenting her health history, spent several minutes providing Dad’s health information before she remembered, “Oh, sorry. That’s my step-dad.” To her, he was simply Dad and I know he didn’t think of her as a stepchild.
Jeanne has always been a tremendous champion of my father. Having been without that wise, kind and reliable father presence in her life, she reveled in finally having someone who would discuss the world with her and listen to her opinions.
But it was my older brother who had the strongest effect on my latent appreciation of my father. In his retirement, Danny developed a huge interest in genealogy. During one visit, he shared an album he had put together. In it he had an individual page for several of his closest relatives. There was one for his birth father in which he simply said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.” No drama, no harsh words, just moving on. Then came the page on my dad, technically Danny’s stepfather. There he talked about the enormous effect Dad had had on his life and how he still missed him. I was used to my sisters’ effusive admiration, but my brother’s quiet comments spoke more loudly to me than my sisters’ vocal admiration ever had. I am grateful to Danny for the shift in perspective he gave me.
And I’m grateful that the older I get, the more I can appreciate all that fatherhood entails. For many years of young motherhood running the household and having primary care responsibilities of our three sons, fatherhood sometimes looked like the better gig. Similar to my brother giving me the perspective to better appreciate my father, growing older has given me the perspective to appreciate the importance fathers can have in their children’s lives. As I watch my three sons as fathers, I have the vantage point of seeing all they bring to their children’s lives. And every so often, I see my own father’s mischievous side manifested in my sons. Happy Fathers’ Day to all the fathers, father figures and stepfathers. May we have the perspective to understand they often are worth their weight in gold.
Life here in Pennsylvania is beginning to open up, but Mr. Smith and I are still sticking pretty close to home. When we were choosing our new home, one of the attractions was the location and being able to go down the elevator, out the door and have several lovely restaurant choices nearby. Sadly our two favorites have been closed for nearly three months, but a couple of others that had been pick up only, are now serving at outdoor tables. The tables are six feet apart and the servers are wearing masks, but I think one day soon Mr. Smith and I will find ourselves embracing the new normal and dining a deux.
There ain’t no words for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair!
On Friday, our county will enter the ‘green phase’. That means the phone lines at my hair salon are ringing off the hook. At this point, you can leave a message and they will call you back to schedule. Operating at 50% capacity, they have scheduled 246 clients and are working on the remaining 936. I’m holding off. Still in the decision-making process about whether or not I’m going gray, I stumbled across the balayage method of hair coloring. The technique involves hand painting hair in a sweeping motion with a brush. I had never even heard of it, but apparently it’s extremely popular, giving you a natural effect that is low maintenance. I’m hoping I’ve found my transition tool! Has anyone ever used this technique? In the meantime, I’ve been using my scarves as my newest hair accessory to fashion turbans and more.
It makes me nostalgic for my bandana days!
Every rose has its thorns…
One thing that has helped me weather the quarantine without jumping out our 10th floor windows is keeping fresh flowers around. Many, many years ago when I was the young mother of three active boys and on a tight budget, I ran into a friend at the local grocery store. My eyes were immediately drawn to the fresh cut blooms in her basket and I told myself someday that would be me. And now it is. This week’s purchase was a bunch of white spray roses. I broke the bunch up into several small vases to go in different rooms. I have become quite fond of keeping fresh flowers on my bedside table.
Not so random acts of random kindness.
Mr. Smith and I were the recipients of a lovely act of kindness this week. When I opened the door on Monday to head to the grocery store, there was a box from California. An old friend (many years of acquaintance, not an old man at all!) had sent us a box of avocados that he and his wife had handpicked at from a neighbor’s grove who were sharing their bounty. Thanks Joe!
Our granddaughter Olivia also received an unexpected kindness. Mr. Smith’s thoughtful sister Patrice had seen a Facebook post by Olivia’s mom spot lighting Olivia’s new interest in embroidery.
So, what does a kindly great aunt do? She packaged up some of Great Grandma Pat’s embroidery tools and projects and sent them to Olivia, making her day!
And if you are in need of a book suggestion, I just finished reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Named one of the best books of 2018 by NPR, it interweaves past and present to explore our capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of upheaval. I liked it!
I did it! I wrote a serial story. It has been a wonderful distraction for me during quarantine. Has Libby found her birth parents? Is Frankie her sister? Here’s are the answers. Thanks for reading.
A Mother’s Gift – The Conclusion
Jack’s face suddenly froze. His thoughts abruptly changed from solving a mystery to wondering if in fact this young woman was his daughter and why he was never informed.
Before Libby or Jack could speak, a nurse bustled in and told the visitors it was time to leave. “If all Libby’s tests are good in the morning she will be released and you can have this family reunion at home.” Libby, Frankie and Jack all looked at the nurse, puzzled. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Libby is the talk of the floor being admitted with just that list in her pocket. And you two look like sisters, I just assumed. I’m so sorry.” Jack and Frankie quickly said goodnight to Libby and headed home, each of their minds swirling with questions.
Libby was still for a moment, trying to absorb the implications of this new information. Thankful to have her cell phone back in her possession, she considered calling Aunt Beth. But seeing the fourteen text messages and three voicemails from Carolyn, she knew who her first call needed to be. Carolyn answered on the second ring. “Oh my God! Libby, are you ok?” Even though she was still feeling a bit shocked, Libby smiled at the love and concern in her friend’s voice. “I’m ok. And I hope you don’t have a hot date tonight, because I really need to talk with you.”
At the very same moment Libby was basking in the comfort of being able to talk with her friend, Jack was being confronted by his daughter. “I can’t believe all the lectures I have listened to from you about safe sex and now I find out you had a kid while you were in college and never even told us! Does mom know???”
“First off, IF Libby is my daughter, her mother never told me. I didn’t know so of course your mother doesn’t know! Frankie, I know this is overwhelming, but at this moment I really need you to take your brother Adam out for pizza while I have a private conversation with your mother.” Frankie begrudgingly collected her little brother and headed out for dinner while Jack grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses and asked his wife, Julia, to join him on the patio. “So, who is this mystery woman Frankie is all excited about? Have you got it all worked out?”
Jack sat quietly for a moment, looking at his wife. The two of them had supported each other through the ups and downs of life for over 20 years, but he wasn’t sure how she would react to this news. “This mystery woman’s name is Libby. She came to New Bradford searching for some relatives she found through 23andMe. There are still some unanswered questions, but there is a strong possibility that she is the daughter of someone I dated my freshman year in college and a strong possibility that I am her father. Julia, I had no idea. I only dated Beth for a few months before she abruptly broke up with me and left school.”
Julia was silent, sipping her wine and looking out over the flower beds where she spent countless happy hours working, admiring the fruits of her labors all while trying to grasp what her husband was saying. Her husband, the father of her children, had a child with another woman! Jack took her hand saying “Julia, please talk to me.” “I think I’d like to be alone right now.” She went upstairs to their bedroom. closing the door firmly.
Jack remained out on the patio, reeling from the day. Had Beth had a baby and not told him? What if she had told him? Would they have married and his life taken a completely different path? He couldn’t imagine not sharing a life with Julia and their two cherished, albeit somewhat indulged, children. Frankie returned from dinner with her brother. Adam, oblivious to the situation, said hello to his dad but quickly returned to the TV room to play video games. Frankie asked, “Where’s mom? Is she ok?”
Before Jack could answer, Julia came into the kitchen and Frankie quickly wrapped her mom in a warm hug. It was obvious her mom had been crying and honestly, her dad didn’t look much better. “Frankie, I think your father and I need a little time alone to hash this through.” Frankie knew her parents had had the occasional disagreement in the past, but this was on a whole new level. Realizing the need for her parents to talk, Frankie was uncharacteristically agreeable. “Sure, mom. I’ll go hang out with Adam. I know this is all crazy, but for what it’s worth, Libby seems like a really nice person.”
With the dim hum of Mario Cart sound effects in the background, Jack and Julia returned to the patio. Jack couldn’t believe how awkward he felt in a place that had offered the two of them comforting intimacy on so many evenings. “Julia, I am reeling from this new information too. But I dated Beth before I even knew you. I was 19 years old!”
“I understand all that, just please put yourself in my position for a moment. This is a bit out of left field, not something I ever expected. When you see all the stories about finding your father/mother/siblings as a result of DNA testing, you never expect to be one of those stories. But I know you love me and we’ll figure this out. What is your plan for the morning?”
While Jack and Julia discussed what the next day would hold, Libby and Carolyn were finishing up their conversation. Libby had filled Carolyn in on all the new developments. They discussed in detail everything Libby knew about her Aunt Beth. Libby had no memory of any tender moment between them that would lead her to think she might be her birth mother. If pressed, Libby would describe her as politely disinterested at best. After spending the last five minutes of their conversation with Libby finally convincing Carolyn that there was no need for her to make a trip to New Bradford, they said good night with plans to talk the next day.
Despite the hour, Libby knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep until she made another phone call. It was early evening on the west coast when she rang her Aunt Beth. The sounds of the hospital and the traffic outside all faded away as Libby tried to find the right words. “Hi, Aunt Beth. It’s Libby. I need to talk with you.” There was a moment of silence before Beth responded, “All right.” Libby explained all that had happened since their last phone call. She told her about ordering the 23andMe kit, receiving the results, coming to New Bradford in search of people who shared her DNA and finding Jack Easton. “He said the two of you dated his freshman year in college and then you broke up with him, left college, and never contacted him again. With the 23andMe results and the fact that the two of you knew each other in college, are you and Jack Easton my parents?”
Libby realized she was holding her breath, waiting for Aunt Beth to respond. “Ever since your last phone call when you told me your mother had shared with you that you were adopted, I have been expecting this call. I did give birth to you, but I was never your mother. When I became pregnant my freshman year of college, I was totally freaked and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had no intention of following the path of marriage and motherhood, I was eager to get my college degree and go conquer the film business. It was our mom, your grandmother McCarthy, who brought up the idea of my having the baby and letting Elaine and her husband adopt it since they had been unable to conceive and wanted a child. The more she talked about it, it seemed like the best solution for everybody. Elaine’s attorney handled the private adoption and when you were three days old, we all signed the papers. It was the right thing. Elaine had every maternal instinct I did not. I still remember the look on her face when your grandma but you in her arms. I transferred to UCLA and tried to forget it ever happened. So, I’m not sure what you’re looking for. I know I was never an attentive aunt and I never thought I could be a mother to you. I barely remember Jack Easton. We were not some great love story, just a couple of dumb young kids floundering in our new-found freedom of college life.”
Libby took a deep breath and responded, “When this started, I was looking for answers. I wanted to understand why my birth parents put me up for adoption and now I know. I’m not looking for anything from you that you don’t want to give. You’re right, Elaine was my mother and I’m not looking for another. If you would like to get to know each other in the future I’m open to that, but if there’s no room in your life for that, I can accept that. I’ve had a really long day Aunt Beth. I’m going to let you go and try and get some sleep. Take care.” Libby hadn’t been expecting to be received as the long-lost daughter, but she’s hoped for a warmer response to her phone call. She had never given birth, but she was pretty sure she would have at least some curiosity about her child, feel some sort of connection.
Morning came and with the morning Jack and Frankie returned to the hospital. Jack and Julia had talked and decided that with the 23andMe results and Jack’s acknowledgement of his relationship with Beth, there was no question that Libby was Jack’s daughter and Frankie and Adam’s sister. They also talked with Frankie and Adam, reassuring them that while they had been a happy family of four, they knew there was room for Libby in their lives. Julia suggested if Libby was released, Jack invite her to stay at the house for a night or two. Libby was touched by this unexpected kindness, but said she was going to spend the night in a hotel before starting the drive back the next morning. “Well at least come for dinner. Please! You do need to meet my mom and we do need to talk more.” Frankie’s gentle pleading was hard to resist and Libby agreed to come to dinner that night.
Dinner was not the awkward affair Libby had feared. Julia had prepared a delectable meal of roasted salmon, fresh veggies and orzo. The Easton family did all they could to make her feel welcomed. They kept the conversation light, talking about a local festival coming up, Adam’s baseball team, and Frankie getting ready for her first year of college. After a yummy dessert of raspberry custard kuchen, Adam excused himself to go to a friend’s house down the street. Over coffee, Libby shared with Jack, Julia and Frankie an abbreviated version of her conversation with her Aunt Beth. Jack offered to try contacting Beth, but Libby preferred to leave the matter alone. Per her earlier decision, she returned to the hotel for a restless night and left on her drive back to West Grove shortly after daybreak.
Over the next month Jack and Libby exchanged a few emails, getting to know each other. If Jack was restrained and measured with his correspondence, Frankie’s correspondence was the total opposite. Hardly a day went by that Libby didn’t receive a text, an email or at the very least, a selfie of Frankie waving hello. While reviewing floral orders for the next day or perusing catalogs for holiday items, Libby would often hear her phone ping. There would be a note from Frankie just saying hello or wanting to know Libby’s favorite food, favorite movie or book. All the attention from Frankie helped counterbalance the fact that there had been no further communication from Aunt Beth.
July turned into August and Carolyn turned 30. She celebrated by throwing herself a beach party. Libby helped with the setup and decoration, complete with tiki torches, lanterns and trellises decorated with fresh flowers and strung with party lights. And another party was being planned. Frankie would be leaving for college the end of August and Jack and Julia were hosting a goodbye barbeque. Libby was particularly touched that her invitation arrived with a handwritten note from Julia inviting Libby to stay at their home. She also shared that Frankie would be very disappointed if her new “sister” wasn’t at her party.
Libby again left bright and early on a Sunday morning to make the drive to New Bradford, but this time there was no apprehension, just happy anticipation. Frankie squealed when she saw Libby arrive. She proceeded to drag her around the party, introducing Libby to all her friends as her new big sister. There was delicious food and a sound system with a play list that had something for everyone. The guest of honor, looking cute as a button in her cornflower blue sundress, had a ball.
Later that evening after the other guests had left, Libby found herself sitting at a table out on the patio with Julia and Frankie. Jack brought them a cold bottle of Pellegrino to share and glasses of deliciously cold, crisp chardonnay for Julia and Libby. He went back into the kitchen to look for a post-party snack for them, although how they could be hungry was a mystery. Libby couldn’t help but envy the easy family dynamics of the Eastons and love for each other. “I’m happy to be here and grateful that you invited me. It makes me miss my mother even more and the times we shared. I think that I was hoping for some of that family connection when I reached out to Aunt Beth. Perhaps someday.”
Julia turned in her chair to look directly at Libby. “Libby, I know you were taken aback by Beth’s matter-of-fact response when you asked if she was your mother. For your own sake, I’m hoping you can come to accept that she did the best she could at the time. And if possible, I’m hoping you can see what she did as a gift. Her gift to you and to the woman who loved and raised you. Motherhood is challenging under the best of circumstances, and at 19 it seems she was totally unprepared to be a mother.”
The three women sat with their thoughts for a moment. Frankie was the first to break the quiet. “I know I am a lucky girl with a good life. I’ve never sat around thinking something was missing, that something else was needed to make my life complete. Finding out I have a sister is simply a bonus! I’m so excited about getting to know you better. So from where I sit, Beth gave you the gift of Elaine. Then Elaine gave you the gift of me!”
At this point, Jack came out with a plate of leftover hors d’oeuvres and his own glass of chardonnay. “It’s been quite a summer. Julia and I are sending one daughter off to college and hopefully getting to know another daughter better.” Julia added “I agree! One daughter is great, two daughters are wonderful.” Libby looked around into the kind faces at the table. It had been quite a summer. She had gone from feeling rejected and unwanted after receiving her mother’s letter, to feeling grateful and extremely lucky. And Frankie almost had it right. Beth had actually given Libby two gifts – life and Elaine. But her beloved mother Elaine’s gifts were innumerable, and, yes, those gifts included the exuberant, sweet Frankie!