Serendipity, A South Dakotan Stranger, and me…

rick holm

I believe in serendipity, I do.  I believe that people join us in our walk for reasons designed by someone other than ourselves. Or so it has seemed in my life.

Nearly four years ago, I found myself impotently trying to punch my way out of the stubborn paper bag of depression.  The mounting losses had rendered me unrecognizable to myself.

Serendipity came then in the form of a powerful woman.  I met Maggie Callanan in my driveway. She was a new neighbor, but it was not until she told me she was a Hospice nurse that the familiarity of her name hit me over the head.  Maggie could not know then that seven years before someone had given me Maggie’s best-selling book “Final Gifts.” It was a gift given while my mother lay ravaged with stage four cancer.  Nor could Maggie know that three years later her second book, “Final journeys,” would join “Final Gifts” on my nightstand as my father lay dying. 

I leaned on Maggie when my elderly uncle moved to be near me for the final eighteen months of his life.  She patiently counseled me as Uncle Bobby’s health faded, all the while encouraging my writing. Maggie was the only soul who came to sit with me in the dark of-of a July night as I said my final goodbye to my beloved bachelor uncle.

Serendipity brought me an unforgettable friendship with a woman who helped me find myself again.

Today I want to introduce Dr. Rick Holm, a South Dakotan physician who has committed a significant part of his professional life to care of the aging.  He is also known as “Prairie Doc,” as host of a weekly, one hour, live medical questions program on South Dakota Public Radio and a 30-minute live radio call-in show.

You might wonder how a fledgling writer from Connecticut comes to know a Prairie-born, Doctor of Geriatrics of significant renown.  Serendipity, of course!

Rick and Maggie have known each other as distant colleagues in the business of death and dying. In the midst of writing a book about aging and end of life care, Rick was diagnosed with cancer. In an unexpected moment in time, his writing took on deeper personal meaning.  

Rick reached to Maggie for review of his manuscript.  Maggie suggested to Rick that she had a friend who might be valuable in tweaking portions of the book to inject some lyrical prose.  Two medical powerhouses and this neophyte writer? Humbled seems too mild a word.

These past six months I have come to know Rick Holm through his manuscript.  I wish it had been released in time to join Maggie’s books on my bedside table while I cared for the dying loved ones in my life.    I now consider Rick Holm a friend.

Please Welcome Dr. Rick Holm to my blog space.  If you are, or suspect you will someday be, given the gift of sharing the end of life journey with a loved one, I encourage you to purchase Rick’s book which can be found on Amazon: 

Image result for life's final season

Life’s More Rich as It Nears Its End    Dr. Richard P. Holm M.D.

I’ve lived a life formulated to live long: eating right, exercising daily and savoring friendships and family. Despite this, I still came down with cancer two years ago. I’ve been treated with chemo, radiation, major surgery and now, with spread to the liver, I’m back on chemo. I’m still here and truly feel blessed and thankful for every day, but you can understand why, lately, I’ve been thinking about death.

Loving my enemies has made this easier. As our kids were growing up, I would find myself saying to them ”I will always love you unconditionally, but sometimes I don’t like what you are doing.” We should say that to our enemies, too. Here is the lesson: hate is poisonous, especially to the one who harbors it. Remember what Jesus said (as did Mohammed and Buddha), “Love your enemy.” I believe hating others, even when justified, only destroys us. When angry, we should point the anger at what he or she is doing, not at the person. Use it as propulsion to fight to the tooth for the cause . . . but let go of hate. How is this related to death, you ask?

When people ask me how I contend with the prospect of my dying sooner than I’d like, I go right to the opposite of hate which is love. I know it sounds clichéd and unoriginal but the word love embraces the spiritual, inner-warmth I feel when I value the other person (even if he or she is my enemy). Truly valuing others gives more meaning to my time limited life and helps take away the fear of my own death . . . but there is something more.

Some say, “One day, you’ll be just a memory for some people.  Do your best to be a good one.” That’s not bad advice, but I think the measure of our worth after we die, has less to do with being remembered and more to do with the reflection of our actions in others. It’s that Pay it Forward or that Jimmy Stewart Wonderful Life sort of thing. I believe meaning and purpose comes with the good that we do and how that moves others forward (whether they’re aware of it or not).

Our lives are all like a book that becomes more precious as it nears the end, especially by savoring friendships and family, by letting go of hate and by paying good deeds forward. Why waste any time fearing death?

Common Sense and me

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My mother helped me navigate my life with her common sense-ical consistency and dismissed my natural impatience with simple wisdom, Don’t wish your life away.

She often reminded me that life was not meant to be easy, but, Stay the course, and things will work out as they are meant to.

Rather than plainly criticize me when I went about my young life with urgency, she applied idiom meant to remind me to slow down.  

“Well,” she’d say peeking over the reading glasses perched on her nose, one eyebrow slightly raised, “you’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”  

To which I might reply, completely missing the point, “Whatever, mom, gotta go.” and off I’d speed to fill my life with the kind busyness that has little to do with productivity.

It would take years to let that particular idiom resonate but, at 56, I whisper it to myself from time to time when busyness morphs into weariness and agitation.

Step away, be unto yourself, but most of all, breathe.

Last Saturday night I dreamt of a baby; a porcelain-skinned, nearly hairless, baby girl.  I didn’t hold the baby in my dream, she was just there next to me, her chubby arms dancing at nothing, serene and happy.  

As I made my coffee the following morning, I couldn’t shake that baby from my consciousness and I did what we do these days, I googled dreams of babies and two possible meanings flashed before me:  a need for affection or an impending life change.  

As I have ample love in my life, the latter made perfect sense.  

Last Sunday, the baby girl who sprung from me nineteen years ago hopped in a car filled with her worldly treasures and began her own journey,  nearly across the country. She intends to start a new life in Colorado. And, as is her wont, not in traditional fashion: work first, school second. After all, “Mom, it’s ridiculous to spend money on that when I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be.  I’ll take classes, but work is the best way for me to figure that out.”

Wait, wut?  That sounds oddly like common sense.

Just a year ago, she boarded a plane for Africa, returned home three months later for a brief respite, then off to Ireland for a two-month junket. In that time I marveled from a distance at her confidence and innate ability to maneuver herself. When she finally returned home?  Well…, I have enjoyed a companionable housemate for the last seven months. Sigh…

A week before she left, her belongings were either packed or vacuum sealed to ensure room in the car she made sure was given a thumbs up from her mechanic for a journey across the country.  She did not race about saying goodbyes, but rather carefully made time for the people whom she will miss the most. There were no anxious demands that this or that be done for her and, there was a small part of me that wished she needed me more.  She was well prepared for a major life change.

The night before she left, we took an early evening walk in my new neighborhood and meandered to the tennis courts, where a competitive match was being played.  We sat among the spectators and the former owner of my home sat next to us. He had not met Grace before and calmly probed her about her plans. The engagement between the two of them was sweet, and I faded into the background.  

At first, she only gave him the skeletal outline, but his interest encouraged a reflective conversation about seeking what you want in life. I listened as he offered her something beyond advice, follow your heart, work hard, just keep going, one day at a time.  I could nearly see his words seep into her.

Grace confessed to me the following evening, the same night I dreamt of that beautiful baby, that before that conversation with a man she met by happenstance, she had been feeling anxious, “I think I was meant to meet him, Mom. He calmed me.”

I understood why.  As I listened to him, I heard common sense.

As I said goodbye the next day, I was anxious and emotional. My baby girl?  Cool as a cucumber.

I write, not to share that I’ll miss my girl; that’s obvious and I am not unique in this change of life.  What most fascinated me is watching her “be”, rather than watching her become. It moves me to observe her welcome life with the kind of enthusiasm that only works when it’s wrapped in common sense.

I write with an awareness that the common sense my mother encouraged in me didn’t really find traction in my life until recently. It is likely that I will forever be a smidgen too impetuous and emotional for my own good.  

Grace was only five when her grandmother died and therefore never had the benefit of my mothers often lyrical counsel. I watch my daughter and wonder if perhaps the lessons of my mother, which too often passed through me, somehow made a home in her.

I suppose I’ll never know, but I suspect that the baby in my dreams was a bellwether of change in Grace’s life, as well as my own.  Of course, she’ll be back to visit from time to time, but Connecticut, I think, will no longer be her home. She has the common sense to know that we make our lives; that if we want one filled with color and texture, we seek it. It won’t knock on our door and beg us to join in, but rather will come to us when we are at peace with ourselves.

Applying common sense to the adventure? My mother would say, That’s as plain as the nose on your face.

My Ancestry and Me…

ireland

A funny thing happened on the way to Saint Patricks Day 2018…

Or, a funny thing happened to me on May 8, 1962…

I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and placed in a Catholic Charities orphanage. Within six months, I was adopted by a wonderful Irish Catholic couple who swept me away to the place I will always consider home: Rhode Island.

I was steeped in Irish lore from the start and my adopted lineage had a direct line to the Emerald Isle. I often selected the costumes of my childhood to incorporate the Shillelaghy (walking stick) of my deceased maternal grandfather. I still have, folded and stored, the Irish linens my maternal grandmother brought from the old country. I’ve no real use for them now, but can’t bear to part with their exquisite detail.

They were Barry’s and Murphy’s and I remember two great-uncles; one a policeman, the other who worked at the racetrack. They were immigrant stock, working class, and my grandmother Mary was their center. I loved the duplex she shared with Uncle Bobby and Aunt Rita until her death. I found comfort in the framed photograph of Pope Pius which hung in her living room, with a crucifix to its right. Sometimes, while she baked, she let me hunt through my deceased grandfather’s mahogany desk. In the lower right drawer was a yellowed newspaper, dated November 22, 1963, announcing the death of President Kenndy. The black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with a solemn Jaqueline beside him as he took the oath of office was haunting. The death of President Kennedy affected everyone. The Irish took it personally.

My paternal grandparents were Toole’s and Coughlin’s and lived in what I thought of as an enormous house in Pawtucket. They were “lace-curtain” Irish; prosperous beyond the newer immigrants. My grandfather Frank was a gentle soul. After his afternoon walk, he enjoyed a cup of tea with saltines and peanut butter. Occasionally, I joined him. The fine Belleek teacup and saucer made those small moments special. My grandmother Clare was hearty and bombastic and when she hugged you, you thought you’d never breathe again. She had, just outside her bedroom, a bookcase filled with fine literature which included Yeats, Keats and the indomitable James Joyce.

I have no memory of not knowing that I was adopted. No grandparent ever treated my adopted brother or me differently, nor loved us less than they did my naturally born cousins. Indeed, my father often announced with pride, “Weren’t we lucky that we got to pick you!”

It was me, of course, who inherited the luck of the Irish.

I wore Irish like I was born to it, helped along by reddish hair and the broad freckled-face associated with Irish lasses. I’ve heard time and again from complete strangers, “Why you’ve got the map of Ireland written on your face.”

I can trip into a decent brogue easily and fancy myself something of a story-teller. Adopted children can’t really escape wondering about their backstory and I was thrilled when I realized, sometime in my teens, that Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the few Irish enclaves in a state dominated by Scandinavians. I may not have known my birth parents, but there was one thing of which I was certain: I was Irish.

At 52, my heart was shattered. In an attempt to mend it, I went to Ireland for the first time with a dear friend. It is what we do when we are lost; seek something that might feel like home. While the journey to be wholehearted again would take years, that week in Ireland gave me the freedom to grieve. Ireland felt as familiar to me as the powdery scent of my Grandma Barry and as comfortable as the beautifully carved handle of the Shillelaghy owned by a grandfather I never knew.

Then again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Saint Patrick’s Day 2018.

My daughter selected Galway, Ireland as the second half of her in-progress “Gap” year. I was tickled right down to my Irish toes. Before she left in January she told me that she had done “Ancestry.com.”

My throat caught and I stumbled, “Oh, well… hmm? I have mixed emotions about that.”

She waved me off, “Mom… I have a right to know my ancestry.”

I recovered, “Yeah, I guess. But, I don’t really know my ancestry. I was thinking about doing it, but now you’re gonna know first.”

She thought on that and said, “Well, I don’t have to tell you the results.”

And that was that. Within two weeks she was on a plane to Dublin and concerns about undiscovered heritage floated away.

Until, a few weeks ago, she called from Galway, “Mom, I got my results back.”

I was silent for a moment, but couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Okay, don’t tell me too much, but give me one surprise.”

I knew there would be muddle in the D.N.A but, with her father able to trace back to Ireland on both sides, I assumed there would be nothing too shocking.

“O.K, 15% Scandinavian!” Clearly, she liked that.

As for me, no surprise – between the history of plunderous Vikings and the Minnesota connection, Scandanavian was no head-scratcher. I could live with a little Scandinavian in the mix.

It was surprisingly easy to swallow and so I encouraged Grace to continue, “So, Ireland’s the largest percentage, right?”

“Nope, only 8%, mom.”

I am no mathematician and frankly, numbers make my hair hurt, but that percentage grabbed me by the throat. If my daughter only held 8% Irish heritage, and we know that her dad holds quite a lot, then my chance of actually being Irish?

I shuddered, then recovered before I egged her on to spill the beans.

After all, I did enjoy the Ancestry commercial with the guy who traded his Liederhosen for a kilt. Scottish – that had to be it! Scotch-Irish is a thing, right? Scotland and Ireland; kissing cousins!

I love the spirit of Scotsmen, all rough and tumble. I could adjust to being Scottish and there’s the great accent, and Highlands, and Sean Connery. I was ready to order a tam and look for bagpipes on eBay!

Across the bandwidth to Galway, I gave Grace permission to give the final reveal, “So, what’s the largest percentage?”

My rascally girl drew it out, “Well, it’s huge…”

“Okay…”

“Mom, it’s 65%.”

“Wow! What is it? I’m ready.” My brain was swirling with the Loch Ness Monster, shortbread, and Mel Gibson’s bloodied torso in Braveheart!

“Well, it’s a little surprising… Great Britain!”

Bollocks!

It was not what I wanted to hear. Not because I don’t enjoy the Royals. I do. I also had a surprising attachment to this year’s Oscar Nominated “the Darkest Hour.” But England, really? Controlled, proper, high tea, Great Britain? One of the great bonds of my former homeland and my current homeland is that both countries broke free of the crown. Ugh.

To all my British friends, I apologize. But gosh, that was disappointing. I suppose it’s complicated enough for adopted children to spend a lifetime guessing what they are made of. When you adopt a homeland, as I did Ireland, you sort of want the fairy tale to live on.

I also imagine that when I do my own Ancestry.com, and I will, that the results will differ from my beautiful daughters. However, it’s quite unlikely that Irish percentage will be north of her paltry 8 %. I will root that my new yearning for Scottish blood just somehow missed her. I’ll be sure to report the results to my readers.

In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my dad’s book. I’ll continue to own Irish like I was born to it. If challenged, I’ll announce with pride, “Wasn’t I lucky, I got to pick Ireland for my ancestry!”

My Cottage and me…

cottage

“It’s no bad thing to be lost in a fog or at sea.
When land comes into view again, you will appreciate it with a keenness
that is denied to those who know nothing but the safety of the shore.”
Sister Monica Joan, “Call the Midwife”

Leave it to the perpetual parochial schoolgirl to find inspiration from a BBC series set in the 1960’s about nuns in London. But, so it was…

I bought a house. I had no such intention, but in a leap of financial and personal faith, I bought a magical cottage in the course of eight weeks.

Here’s how that goes:

I have a lovely friend who invited me to dinner at his new home. When I pulled in, I could see warm light from his windows and as he opened the front door, I was drawn in by the character of the place. Old-fashioned charm eeked from every corner. You know that house, the perfectly, imperfect cottage with nooks and crannies and “good bones.” It is the kind of home that suggests history, where you can imagine who may have lived there before.

I was surprised by my delight in his fortune. Over dinner and wine, I couldn’t stop myself from distracting our conversation with Tourette-like interruptions, “God, I love this cottage,” “How did you find this great cottage?” and finally, “Can I have your cottage?” He laughed and with the confidence born to him said, “You cannot have my cottage, but I bet I could find you a cottage of your own.” And that’s how this story begins; a lovely friend with an imagination for me that I did not have for myself, and a realtors license.

He sent me several listings the following day.  I approached it like a shopping expedition that would take years to complete.

When I divorced I bought a condominium, and it was a good one. It came with all the perks of condo living: plowing, shoveling, mulching, leaf raking and the safety in numbers. It was a good space and I shared it with a man I loved. It was a wonderful nest for a time. Then it wasn’t. When love takes its leave it’s hard to remember the good of it and so it was with me. No amount of sage burning, Feng Shui-ing, therapy, or kitchen renovation could chase the memories of the unkindness that replaced the love that once filled that space. My thoughts flew to moving far away from its memories. Rhode Island, Savannah, Nashville, or some lovely South Carolina coastal town became my goal. Pack up and go, start again, do whatever it takes to stop the paralyzing memories. It’s been three years since the crash and I still can’t quite shake the memories of what once held such unexpected promise. Good aura was replaced by bad and I was powerless over its hold on me.

But what of friends? What does one do when there is no family left except children, off to their own lives, on whom to depend? Enter my Russian, “You can move, but how do you recreate your family of friends?”

Those words, delivered across a bar, stuck in my soul. My friends, who stayed with me when I lost myself, could never be recreated. As I painstakingly find myself again, how can I possibly leave them behind?

The house my lovely friend presented to me was on Cotton Tail Lane. That’s a good start in anyone’s book. I met him there and as we entered the stone-framed front door I took note of the dormant climbing hydrangea. I walked into the home, built in 1938, and spied the original planked, fir floors and an endless bank of windows through which the sun poured on a chilly November afternoon. The mammoth stone fireplace was also original, though the kitchen and bathrooms were new.

The pièce de résistance was a magnificent screened-in south facing porch which led to a deck, which led further to a flagstone patio and a perfectly manicured yard built for a romping labrador. I have a romping labrador who has, for four years, not known the thrill of a leashless romp. Perrenial bushes and flowers, so many of them, had just settled in for their winter nap, but it took nothing to imagine them in the glory of a June morning. It was a cottage dearly loved by its owners. I wanted this house as much for me as for my seven-year-old labrador, Seamus.

The cottage was half the size of my condominium; a summer cottage which spent its winters unoccupied. Closets were sparse and it had no attic or basement. I tossed and turned that night with a gnawing question, “Where would I keep my vacuum cleaner, or winter sweaters, or sherpa lined snow boots?”

It’s hard to articulate when something is simply right. I returned to the cottage several times to test my rediscovered imagination and at the same time tame suspected romantic folly. Each visit bonded me to the space. Within two weeks a bid was accepted and before I knew it keys were handed to me. The gravity of being its next caretaker floated like a cashmere cloak about my shoulders.

It’s been nine weeks since that serendipitous meal at the home of a lovely friend.

It’s a magical place, my cottage; a soul grabbing writers space that at once summons peace and creativity. This morning, I am sitting on a new couch in the center of my tiny cottage. The original, large-paned kitchen windows are frosted from the inside and in the silence, you can hear the creaks of age. When I sweep the floor my mind swirls with thoughts of the summer lives lived here. It thrills me to think that my cottage was born when Franklin Roosevelt was President and Candlewood Lake was just a child of ten herself. If I close my eyes, I can hear the laughter of children and the happy slam of wooden screen doors competing with the hum of cicadas on summer evenings long before I was a thought in anyone’s imagination.

Sometimes, it takes a long walk in the wilderness to appreciate the light of open space again. Serendipity and a friend found my next chapter for me. Isn’t life full of unexpected surprises?

My Daughter and Me…

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It was about a year ago, following a college visit trip to Washington and Oregon, that my daughter said a profound thing, “$54,000 feels like a lot of money for “I think I want to study developing nations.” Grace went on, “How am I supposed to know, Mom?  How can you know, if you’ve never been to one?”

It was three months ago when I said goodbye to that same developing girl on the curbside of Jet Blue departures at JFK. Tears escaped my eyes as she hugged me and then hoisted an enormous backpack on her shoulders and blithely announced, “See ya in 3 months.”  And she was off: San Francisco to Tanzania to Kenya to Uganda to Zanzibar.

When I got home, I went to Grace’s room girded to take on her post packing tornado.  But there were no remnants of a storm.  Rather, the floor which had been covered for years with discarded clothes was bare, and drawers perpetually half-opened, spilling out tee-shirts, were closed. Pillows were neatly set atop a comforter which spent most of its life in a billowy ball. Shoes, sneakers, boots, and moccasins were lined up like soldiers.  Jewelry hung from a metallic tree, and as I opened her closet door, which in the past was an invitation to horror, I marveled that before she left she gave hangers the respect they deserve.

On a chair in the corner were clothes she regularly snuck out of my closet.  They were folded with precision.

My girl was more than ready to hop on that jet to spend three months in East Africa.

I adjusted to her absence and utilized Facebook to try and document her Gap Semester. I think it’s fair to say that Grace has never appeared so frequently on my Facebook feed. I have been careful to avoid editorial comment in my posts.  I posted so that my friends, who have invested so much love in my child, could follow her travels; could taste a little of East Africa from afar.

I have something to say about pride and parenting and millennials.

Our children are the most celebrated generation in history.  Social media has made it so.  Or maybe it started with the bumper stickers in middle school, “My son/daughter is an honors student at…” Pretty quickly, though, Facebook turned up the volume.  I chuckle every late August when the march of pictures of so many children appear, from pre-school to college, with the narrative.  “So proud of …, first day of school.”

Wait, wut?  We are proud that our kids hop on the bus, or drive a car, or get dropped off at the only job they actually have; being a student?

I know, I know… Our parents took our pictures, too, which found their way to photo albums or in frames set in built-in bookcases.  They did not, however, make placards and march around the neighborhood announcing our every minor accomplishment.  And I suppose, those posts we see today are as much for those grandparents, aunts, and uncles who live in other states.

I know that there is a reasonable, other side in all of this. But part of me just wants to scream, “Stop!  What happens to them when the celebrations end; when they get a “c”, or don’t make the varsity, or curl into a ball with a broken heart, or meander down a dark path that breaks our hearts?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see those faces of innocence and wish I could suspend them in time.  But, the world waits for them and if they disappoint, that same world will pounce and tsk and whisper not so sweet nothings in criticism. I know because I’ve lived it.

The students with whom I work through the college selection and application process are most often high achievers by any standard.  The pendulum swings wide; they either believe they are indeed exceptional or, often, they think they are not quite good enough.  After all, there is usually someone better. Anxiety rules the day in my business and it is most likely why I am still in business.  I try to tamp down expectations in a viciously competitive college admission world for the over-confident and put a little wind in the sails of those who don’t quite believe.  Anecdotally, the pendulum swing has widened in the last ten years.  Bumper stickers and Facebook and parent’s watching not only every game but every practice?

I remember an old friend of mine shared this the first time we spoke about his daughter, “She lives in the rarified air of the top achievers.  She amazes me.”  She was a sophomore in high school.  When she fell, the thud was deafening.

Pride in our children is essential, applying exceptionalism to them seems unfair.

Grace returns from East Africa tonight.  From afar, it appears that the semester was everything she dreamed it would be

In my documentation of her experience, kind-hearted people have written, “You must be so proud of her.”  It’s not really the right emotion for how I have felt these last three months.  It hints that maybe I think she is exceptional.

She’s not. Grace has magnificent strengths and glaring weaknesses.  She’s just a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. She’s a kid who thinks that maybe, just maybe, a three-month service program in Africa might help her figure out what her next step is.  College this year felt like something through which she might meander. Last spring, as parents announced their children’s college decisions on Facebook, I asked Grace if I could post her decision for a Gap Year. She groaned and with a classic eye-roll said, “Fine, but I hate when people talk to me about it.  They either think it’s heroic or I must not have gotten into college!”

And there it is in a nutshell: over the top praise or ‘gotcha’ cynicism.

Grace went to Africa because she has the privilege of financial comfort. She understands that the gains are more self-serving than world-changing.  She knows that the benefits of privilege are often choice and options.  Did my daughter change the world?  Of course not, but if the world reached her and she gained perspectives which inform her toward genuine compassion and humility then the choice was right.

She wrote this in a piece about her experience:

“Regardless of what we think of as constraints in our life, hijab’s, poverty, misogyny, or even American excess, through education and the prompting to think deeply, we can navigate the world and find happiness in it. I have loved this opportunity to learn a global perspective on life.  This year has taught me something that was elusive for me in high school; knowledge really is power, and whether in a classroom or through simple human interaction, being open to it is crucial to leading a fulfilled life.”

She comes home tonight. She will be exhausted, while I will be hungry for every detail.  I suspect that, within hours, clothing will be strewn across her bedroom floor and her dirty dishes will once again sit in my sink.

Three months in Africa is a step toward exceptionalism and, yes, I am proud that Grace navigated the three months with apparent joy.  True exceptionalism, however, takes a lifetime to achieve.  My beautiful daughter is all wrapped up in human skin and her exceptionalism requires many more years to marinate.

Rustic and me…

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The night before my intrepid daughter left for East Africa for three months we sat in my family room and checked off all necessities: passport, license, cash, stuff sacks, prophylactic antibiotics… the list was endless.

As I said goodnight, satisfied that there would be no panic when we woke at 5:15 am to head to JFK, Grace tilted her head as if in sudden discovery, “Mom, Thanksgiving’s going to be hard for you this year.”

“Aw, I guess so, kid. I’ll be alright.”

I was surprised on that warm September night that with a mountain of adventure in front of her she thought of me, at all.  It made me miss her already.

She went on, “I feel bad, Grandma died on Thanksgiving.”

Indeed, thirteen years ago, just past 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, my mother exhaled her last breath.  From that moment, Thanksgiving was never the same for me.  My world became untethered and has remained a bit wobbly ever since.

I looked at the beautiful face of my soon to be absent child and said, “Yeah, honey.  Thanksgiving isn’t really my favorite thing, but I’ll be fine.

And, in a strident, my kid is now an activist fashion, Grace waved her concerns away, “Actually, when you think about it, Thanksgiving is really only a celebration of the slaughter of indigenous Americans.”

Yup, my girl was ready to go; mentally prepared to find out what the great expanse of the world had in store for her.

I shared that story with a friend.  You know, the “take the bull by horns” kind of friend we all ought to have on our Board of Directors of Friends.  Without hesitation, she offered this, “Well, Greg, my mom and I go to Vermont every Thanksgiving. Join us.”

I knew this tradition of Jen’s.  Once the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving’s morphed into too much effort and precarious family dynamic, Jen and her immediate’s turned the holiday on its head and treated themselves to dinner and an overnight stay at the iconic Equinox Hotel in Manchester.  I envied her freedom in this and now that I would be unfettered for Thanksgiving, the temptation of it propelled determination.

I found a cabin.  A remote cabin in the woods outside of Manchester where I could bring my Labrador and I grabbed it.  I threw a gauntlet at the feet of Thanksgiving and booked it for Tuesday thru Friday.  That’s right, loneliness be damned, I would write and hike and build fires and feed the rustic woman within.

Ugh…. If you don’t know yourself by 55, well…

My Labrador Seamus and I arrived just as the sun set in Manchester, and then added about 45 minutes to the four-hour journey as I drove up and down route 30 squinting to identify the beaver pond where I was supposed to take a left down a dirt road where my cabin awaited.  Beaver Pond?  The only beaver I could identify appeared on a Saturday morning cartoon of my youth.  Does a beaver pond look different than the other ponds I passed in the shadow of Bromley Mountain?

The owners may as well have said, “take a left at the cow” for what sense it made to me. My bladder inspired me while my impatient Lab panted in my ear and I finally took a chance on a promising dirt road.  The second house on the left looked vaguely like the perfectly photographed cabin from HomeAway and the key was in the right place.  Loaded down like a Sherpa, Seamus and I tumbled through the door and took in our home for the next four days.

Ah… HomeAway or VBRO or really any realtor can make a place look as charming as your heart’s desire.  The right angle of a camera and your Visa number is flying off the keyboard.

I was thinking Rustic,  the new millennium.  It didn’t take long to figure out that this was 1980’s rustic.  Really, it was a box of wood with exposed beams and a magnificent hearth that was promising, but when I spotted the antler chandelier, the decorative corn husks hanging on the wall, Indian symbol lampshade with a tear, and a coffee table wrapped in dead animal skin, I burst into tears. Through the haze of water, I noticed that there were no blinds or curtains on the main windows that faced Route 30.

Rustic? New millennium?  More Like Rustic Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery!

Seamus was non-plussed.

I could turn around, hop in the car and head back.   I owned my life now.  I had options.

Then I remembered the pictures on HomeAway. There’s a bedroom somewhere; a magnificent bedroom and master bath with a Vermont-y comforter and enormous jacuzzi tub.  I scanned the square room and saw no door. Hmm…

Aha! There were stairs leading down.  But not your regular stairs.  They were split half-log that spiraled.  I gingerly headed down, while Seamus began to whine.

“It’s ok, buddy,” I implored as I reached the bottom.  “You can come down.”  Seamus would have none of it.  He turned tail at the top of the treacherous stairway and my dream of a beautiful sleep evaporated.

Here’s the thing about Seamus and me.  I am his human and while a bout with Lyme Disease ended his shape next to mine in my king size bed, he still slept on the floor by my side every night.  The magnificent bedroom on the lower level? Sleep would be but a dream with a whiney Labrador through the night.

I maneuvered my way back up the stairs, poured myself a glass of wine and thought,  What would Diane Keaton do?

True confessions; in the movie of my life, I imagine Diane Keaton as me: plucky, smart, and quirky with just the right amount of toughness and tenderness. One minute she is eviscerating a bad actor in her life with smart dialogue and the next she’s weeping over her laptop as she pours her soul out to her readers.

God, I love Diane Keaton!

I know she’d have a glass of wine and as I took my first sip, the phone rang, “Ellen, It’s Esther!  I wanted to make sure you made it to the Honeymoon Cottage safely.

Of course, the name of the homeowner is old-school Esther.

“Oh, Thanks, Esther, ” I said as a dabbed my leaking eyeballs

“Everything okay? We hope you love our home as much as we do.”

My defenses were down, “Oh, It’s great Esther.  Just lovely.” I felt a fake smile take over my face.

“Well, just make yourself a big old fire, take a nice jacuzzi and enjoy!”

“Thanks, Esther, will do.”

Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton….

Diane Keaton would make a fire.  Anyone can make a fire, right?  Sure, A fire would warm the freezing space up and set me in the right direction.

There was wood, lots of it, stacked outside.  I grabbed a pile of logs, brought them in the house, and placed them on the floor.  Firestarter? Kindling?  I know these rustic terms and I scanned the room confident that I could accomplish this one Vermont-y task.  Nope, nothing.  No sticks, no newspaper, no tools of the trade to be found.

Now the tears exploded out of my eyeballs.

I phoned a friend.  A fella I know in Vermont.  A rustic type.

“Hey, It’s Ellen.” The sobbing took but a moment to burst.

“Are you crying?  What’s wrong? Are you okay?

“I’m just…. I’m at my rental, and I can’t make a fire, and I think Davy Crockett lived here, and I hate it, and, I JUST WANNA GO HOME.”

“Okay. Umm.  I’ve never heard you like this before, do you want me to come down?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” I said pathetically.

“Good.  No kindling?  Get back in your car, go to the local store and by yourself a Duraflame log.”

Of course.  God!  Diane Keaton would have thought of that!

I chatted a little longer with my friend and found my bearings. Seamus and I hopped back into my Subaru, bought a box of Duraflame’s and the fire has been roaring ever since.

That night, I took the twin mattress off the daybed on the lower level, awkwardly dragged it up the spiral staircase and set it before the hearth.  Seamus has woken me each morning at about 8:15 with a lick and my eyes open to a sun-drenched room.  We hiked and cooked and my writing has been voluminous.

Yesterday, the very day my daughter so lovingly referred to in September, I met my dear friend and her family at the exquisite Equinox Hotel.  I met them in the lobby and clung to each of them as though they were the only humans I had seen in days.  It was true!  We stuffed ourselves with magnificent food and fine wine and Thanksgiving was good this year.

Seamus and I made it through and today we will say goodbye to our rustic adventure. I will leave a fine review for Esther, with a nod to the fact that while I think of myself as a Renaissance woman, I am not so much a woman of the North Country. However, I now fancy myself quite an expert of the hearth.   And that’s okay. Next Thanksgiving, we’ll try something new.

As for my brave, adventuresome daughter. She comes home in just about a month.  The fact that she cared at all about my Thanksgiving was enough for me this year!

My teammates and me…

winners

It’s not really about the tennis, you know. 

Sure, it’s a healthy hobby over which one might exercise unhealthy obsession.  But, on a brilliant, sunny, August Sunday afternoon standing on a hill overlooking a court in Holyoke, Massachusetts, it wasn’t really about the tennis.

Six of us had finished with mixed results in the deciding USTA New England Championships match.  We were Connecticut, they were Rhode Island.  My partner and I dragged our hot, sweaty, aggravated bodies off the court after a humbling loss.  We knew our top singles player had done the same in an epic battle.  Disappointment in ourselves was soon replaced by hope when we discovered that two of our courts had won.

So, there we were, deadlocked with the Ocean State team who sat on that same hill, adjacent to us, no less invested than we in the remaining match.  The final doubles court would decide who took the title; which team would advance to National Championships.

What a surreal memory.  It’s gotta be about the tennis, right?

As a team, we all play in a 40 plus league, and too many of us are of an age to play in a 55 plus division.  We battle all winter in our local leagues and we are good.  So good, in fact, that I can’t remember a year in the last ten that we didn’t qualify for district championships.  The summer is a march through playoffs.  First one on the block: 55 plus.  We are young for that category, most of us still in our fifties, often facing opponents a decade older.  Suffice it to say, our mostly older competition took us to the woodshed with great satisfaction.

So, forty and over!  Surely, that’s our sweet spot, right? On a baking August weekend North of Boston, we failed spectacularly.

And of all the unlikely scenarios, the team on the hill, overlooking the courts of Mount Holyoke, could taste a National Championship bid in the ridiculously competitive 18 and over division.

We are a team of women of a certain age.  Our youngest player is 42 and our oldest past the 60-year marker. While locally we see few players younger than 30, when we get to playoffs the kiddos arrive like clowns out of that tiny car at the circus. It’s really only a smattering of youngsters, but when you are called for your match, and the unlined complexion of a lithe young lady stares you in the face and announces, “Good Luck and have fun,” you contain this scream…. “Seriously?”

I am 5’8 and the exterior of my 55-year-old body looks much the same as it has for the last 20 years. The interior, well…ouch.  That would be the ligaments in my right forearm and the interior tibialis of my left leg.  I no longer hop out bed.  Rather, I gingerly place my feet on the floor and brace myself for ankle stiffness. It takes the morning walk with my dog before I am sufficiently stretched to feel whole again.

My sometimes partner, Loretta, is 5’2” on her tallest day.  On the court, she is a tiger and plays like she’s 5’10”.  We drew a youngster on the playoff journey.  A darling 22-year-old named Charlotte.  Oh, she was lovely to look at; tall, lean and my first thought was, “What a sweetie.”  I wanted to wrap her in a maternal hug.

Charlotte, on the other hand, wanted to take my head off at the net with a topspin forehand driven with the kind of power my aging body could never generate.

It was all slow motion as she wound up on a sitter and it was obvious that the open court was of no interest to her.  The rocket came so fast that I actually ducked and her ball kissed the baseline. While I  recoiled myself from a matrix like escape from concussion, sweet Charlotte pumped her fist.  I leaned toward her and glared.  She looked at me as if to say, “Is there a problem?”  I pointed my racquet at her and said, “I am old enough to be your mother and that was not cool.”  Charlotte was nonplussed and just games later went after my partner with such force that Loretta’s racquet was knocked out of her hand.

Within seconds, my Lilliputian Loretta, eyes barely visible under her orange warrior headband, strutted to the baseline, looked up at me, leaned in and seethed, “There’s only one way to handle this kid.”   I looked down, hungry for some nugget of strategy that would neutralize girl wonder and Loretta spat out this, “We beat her &%$# ass.”

And we did.

In victory, my petite partner jumped into my arms in a moment we are grateful was not caught on film

Listen carefully…  It’s hardly ever about the tennis.

As women, we give enormous time and treasure to our racquets and the fuzzy yellow ball. We are lucky to have the time and treasure to do it.  We would not do it if it were just about the tennis.

Here’s what it’s really about:

It’s about the teammate who methodically took apart a 20-something singles player under the glaring sun on that August day in Holyoke.  She had to leave before the final was finished because she has two beautiful daughters and a baby boy, just into his second year of life, who was delivered months prematurely. He has fought mightily through the difficult first year.  Ben is well.  Lillian had to leave to get to her kids.  Her story inspires me.

It’s about our Captain, who still waits for her youngest of five to complete high school.  In the meantime, with none of the break that most of us hope to enjoy, devotes two days a week to the care of her first grandson.  She does it with enormous generosity and love.

It’s about finding friends late in life who, without tennis, we might never have met. It’s about what you learn about others in small drips because you carpool together to matches, or sit in hot tennis clubs on playoff weekends, sometimes for hours, waiting for your match to be called.  It’s about the glass of wine or beer you share after a match, sometimes in victory and sometimes in defeat. These are the places we learn each other’s stories.

It’s about feeling comfortable enough in a group that if you happen to burst into song or dance suddenly, one or more of them will join you.  We never let each other look foolish alone.

Here’s the thing:  When twenty women, all over forty, become a team they share so much more than tennis.  Not one of us hasn’t known struggle: illness, heartbreak, disappointment, grief.  We worry about our children.   If we are lucky, we have elderly parents who need us.  Not all of us do.  Some of us enjoy wonderful marriages, others lost that gamble and wonder if they are meant to walk this life alone.  None of us have a perfect life, but on that tennis court, and in that car, and sharing that drink, we find a place to work it all out.

Eight of us stood on that hill overlooking the courts at Mount Holyoke College on a hot August Sunday and poured all our energy toward our teammates who found themselves in a grueling 10-point match tiebreak.  They may have hoped, but couldn’t be certain, that their match would decide the New England Championship.  As spectators, we were collectively anxious.  When Karen and Jill pulled ahead to an 8-5 lead, we could taste victory.  All sitting stood up and held hands, as though our communion could will them to victory.  They lost the next two points, at which point I barked, “no more holding hands, everyone, back to your original positions!”  The team scurried and those who were sitting before sat again.  Hands were unclasped and our girls won the final two points.

While Rhode Island spectators slumped, we rose, and cheered, and hugged.  Several teammates ran down that hill to the court to give the news to Karen and Jill that their victory sealed the deal.  Our Captain beamed as though this were no surprise to her at all.

And so it was, an unlikely extension of an extraordinary season.

Seventeen of us will share an enormous house in Surprise, Arizona the second weekend of October.  We will spend time and treasure to compete at USTA National Championships representing New England.  It will be our pleasure.

Don’t be surprised if the National Championships ends up not really being about the tennis, at all.