By Rebecca D. Martin

You arrive on a Sunday. The house is white with a purple porch swing; the lane is unpaved, historic, and one-way. Once the ferry docks, you debark the boat and follow the road to the right. Soon, you turn left onto the small, sandy lane. When you get to the purple porch swing, you have arrived at your vacation. You are on Okracoke Island, in North Carolina. It is a vacation spot so remote that only a ferry will deliver you, and that is what you came for. You did not come for construction noise.



Second Life

me without you

At the dentist the other day, I took note of one of the two receptionists. She looked about Mom's age. Like Mom, she was bubbly and laughed often, sometimes out of nervousness, sometimes because humor was simply her most accessible emotion. She had a well-established rapport with her colleagues, referencing inside jokes and moving between Professional Service Mode and playful banter with ease. I watched her take instruction from the other, much younger receptionist; she seemed a bit sheepish about not fully grasping some aspect of their scheduling software, poking fun at her age and separateness from today's all-digital world. She was liked by her coworkers, quickly recognized by most of the patients that came through the door. This could have been my mom if her brain were still functioning, if she'd left my stepdad long ago, if she'd fulfilled her destiny of following me wherever I ventured, living in an ornately furnished mother-in-law cottage/loft space/attic/basement and being full-time daycare to my son. That's what we always envisioned for ourselves, before I had work or a husband or a kid. Part of the fantasy was that she'd hold some low-stakes part-time job where it didn't much matter what she did as long as she was interacting with people, probably her greatest talent and skill. She almost got to do this — the part-time job part, anyway — in 2004, the year I got engaged. Mom hadn't worked or had her own car in 17 years. Independence was the casualty of her dysfunctional marriage. She'd fought this reality off and on over the years, never really resigning herself to it. My stepdad wanted her home — even outings to the mall and evenings at friends' houses (well, her one friend's house) were highly negotiated propositions. Sometimes my stepdad would wait until the last minute, while she was finishing her makeup or blow drying her hair, to tell her she couldn't go. It was his car she'd have to borrow for these infrequent jaunts, after all. He did not share enough of his income to even afford her cab fare.

But my engagement lit a fire under Mom's ass. She was going to contribute financially to her daughter's wedding, goddammit. She wouldn't hear my protests. For her, being so financially hobbled as to be unable to help pay for her daughter's wedding was a concession too big, definitive proof that her situation really was as bad as it looked. Because my stepfather was the sole breadwinner, she told him that either he allow her to work and earn some money of her own or he'd have to pony up for the wedding, a ballsy move for a wife who had become pathologically averse to rocking the boat. She pulled it off — my stepfather relented. Mom and I spent the next year planning and pricing, brainstorming inexpensive tricks and workarounds to craft a low budget but classy affair. She loved it. She found part-time work at a Restoration Hardware, racking up a respectable sales record. Most of her coworkers were young 20-somethings, and the upper-class clientele preferred to buy their expensive pieces of furniture from a mature adult who seemed to know a thing or two about furniture. She was enjoying a degree of independence she hadn't had in years, and I thought, with the naïveté and magnanimity of a new bride, that this could be her turning point. Maybe my wedding would give Mom her groove back, remind her that she could rely on herself, could survive and even thrive without a possessive, psychologically abusive spouse weighing her down.

It wasn't until after the wedding that Mom's bouts of forgetfulness became worrisome. The burst of confidence she felt at the start of her second working life waned under the pressure to understand the company's computer-based checkout system. She couldn't keep up with her younger, computer-savvy colleagues, who had cameras on their phones and did something called "texting." We had one computer at home, and my stepfather made clear that no one but he could use it. He even kept a protective plastic cover on it. Mom was a ball of nerves around the work computer. My husband, Adam, and I created tutorials for her, tried convincing her that she wouldn't break it, that it wasn't made of glass. But our reassurances didn't sink in. Work became a dreaded exercise in which all of her insecurities — all of the bullshit my stepdad had shoveled at her for years — were validated. Her once-friendly coworkers who had enjoyed chatting with her and hearing her maternal advice became irritated by her ineptitude, her seeming unwillingness to master one of her basic job requirements. So began Mom's slow slide backward. Her second life kicked her back into her first one, where she felt more dependent than ever on my stepdad, the man who'd stooped so low as to be with her.

I like to imagine my Second Life Mom flashing her wide, warm smile from behind the reception desk at the dentist's office, offering advice on grades of leather at the furniture boutique, or perhaps making small talk in the checkout line at the grocery store. I sometimes linger in front of the For Rent signs outside one-bedroom apartments in our neighborhood, envisioning her inside the blueprint layouts, getting crafty with furniture arrangement to determine the best flow for each room. I imagine her spoiling Henry, driving Adam and I nuts by not reinforcing our parenting rules, and Henry adoring her for it. It wouldn't be the life she imagined for herself or hoped for when she took her second marriage vows. Leaving my stepdad wouldn't have cured the deep-seated insecurities that drove her into a toxic relationship. And being a single middle-aged woman would surely present its own set of fears, including financial hardship and loneliness. But I'd have taken it, if only to witness her experiencing her own strength, the spark of her own possibility.

My Mom and My Son, the Style Icons

me without you

When the much beloved and mourned magazine Domino folded, its publisher tried to make up for my unfulfilled subscription by sending me Lucky magazine. I hate this magazine. Besides being a poor Domino replacement, it's basically a SkyMall for beauty products masquerading as a fashion glossy. Of course, there are pretty people in it and products! clothes! and stickers! But beyond its unmitigated advertising blitz, there wasn’t much for me to latch onto, except for one feature: the last page of the magazine was dedicated to the column "My Mom, the Style Icon" (based on a blog, which became a book for Chronicle). The one-page feature included an old photograph of a mom, dressed fabulously ahead of or very much of her time, plus a brief write-up from her admiring daughter.

I also grew up admiring my mom’s sense of style. Whether rock-show casual, girls’-night glitzed, or gussied up in her Sunday best, Mom could put an outfit together with flair. When it came to clothes, Mom operated with an instinct that I did not inherit. I loved clothes as much as she did, but my fashion sensibility was (is) more sweaterista than fashionista. Mom loved big costume jewelry, brooches, even (gasp) shoulder pads, but managed to craft those otherwise gaudy elements into something sophisticated and luxe.

Mom tried to impart her style on me to disastrous effect. I recall the epic fights we would have getting me dressed before school. She always wanted me in skirts and shirts with ruffles or — horror of horrors — to pop my collar. (Clearly, she always envisioned me this way.) I wanted to blend into the scenery, and she wanted me to burst out of it like the Kool-Aid Man. This struggle continued throughout my adolescence. In high school, after lamenting that none of the boys noticed me, she declared, “Sweetie, we just need to sex you up a bit, is all.”

She was basically the fabulous queer eye to my conformist straight guy.

While I never had the gumption to wear my fashion fantasies on my sleeve, it appears Mom’s sense of style has skipped a generation. My four-year-old Henry loves dressing himself. He regularly incorporates pieces of flair and elements of drama into his preschool outfits. Sometimes it’s a turban; often it’s a cape. He tucks muscle shirts into pink and purple tights, requests pigtails (like the girls at school) and buns (like Mulan) atop his head, and morphs his sleeveless shirts into tube tops. At the heart of this sartorial inventiveness is a pair of Hello Kitty rain boots worn so thin that they may disintegrate off his feet before he grows out of them. And lest you pigeonhole him as a rigid aesthete who is all form and no function, these outfits always leave room for a weapon. The tube top doubles as a holster for a foam sword, and the elastic waistband of his hot pink tights provides a secure spot for a plush baseball bat, should a villain present him/herself.

My son: the fashion warrior.

And the best part? The kid pops his own collar. I never taught him this or did it for him. Though he won’t know the stylish and fabulous woman she once was, Henry is definitely taking after his grandmother. (Though Mom always said she would never be called “Grandma”; it made her feel too old, and she was too vain. “What are you going to have my kids call you, then?” I asked long ago. “Can't they just call me Lee?”)

Whether this love of dress up is a phase or some strain of inherited fabulousness, Henry and my mom would have had a blast together. I imagine Henry picking through Lee's stash of costume jewelry and her dutifully rummaging through old clothes and fabrics to help him realize his Little Edie-cum-superhero visions. They'd have made a great (and well-dressed) team.

A Taco and Something to Drink

A Taco and Something to Drink

By Catherine Close

Last night, I got together with a friend for dinner. I ate a greasy taco and washed it down with a beer. Tacos — in fact, almost any kind of Mexican food — are my happy food when I need a little culinary comfort. While crunching on my taco, my thoughts ran to my grandmother Frannie, as they so often do. Frannie introduced me to Mexico, and at the end of her life, I supplied her with tacos.


My James Dean


  By Kimberly LaCroix

A year ago I took a graduate class about Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” technique. One evening we began with a simple acting exercise. We all walked about the classroom, filling the space, listening for further instructions from our professor. After a few in-between steps, she asked us to think of an ancestor and to picture them as clearly as we could. Then, we began moving as that person. Dropping our hips or lifting our heads as they would have, even saying ‘hello’ to those we passed. When it was all over, we circled up for a debrief.

The reflections were warm, and sad: disappointment at incomplete memories; aching for reconnection with family members past; joy at an opportunity for recollection. My reaction was joy. Enjoyment, truly, because when asked to picture an ancestor, I immediately thought of my grandfather. Well, I first thought of Meema, my maternal grandmother, but was overwhelmed by the task of stepping into her shoes. They're too iconic for me to inhabit, her spirit too dear and immense. But Grandpa? I have such memories of Grandpa! His characteristic irreverence makes him somehow more accessible than his wife.

Grandpa was my James Dean. I remember him short, strong and handsome, with a picturesque swoop of white hair. He was perpetually quotable, perpetually moving, and perpetually gruff. He carried a white, canvas sack that always contained Juicy Fruit gum, several decks of cards, York Peppermint Paddies, and, until his final years, cigarettes and matches. [Juicy Fruit Gum and Yorks will forever be my nostalgic treats.] He bragged about his family to anyone who would listen---we were his greatest accomplishments. He loved his wife more dearly than I think he ever knew how to communicate, even to her.

What joy to have an excuse to reflect on an ancestor. A family member who I see in my mom's energy and enthusiasm, in her pride for her family and her kids. I see Grandpa in his youngest son, when he uses his hands to build and create, and who can do a mean impression of the man himself. I see him in my brother's determination and stubbornness and in my own value of hard work and good humor.

The people who go before us shape us. They shape our time and our perspectives, who we are.

This piece was republished with permission from Kimberly's personal blog Just Enough Foolishness.

How It Will Come Back to the Beginning

postcards from france

More than seven years after I first meet her, Madeleine has a baby girl named Cléa. On Facebook she looks like any other baby, small and pink and bundled in blankets, but I can tell that she’s different. And I get to meet her in less than a week.

I’ve been working on the lavender harvest outside of Aix for two weeks, followed by a week at Juliette’s house helping her to make cheesecakes and scones to sell at the market. I’m making my way up north, stopping to visit Alice in Paris, where she is living my adolescent dream with her small apartment, her French boyfriend, and her studies at the Sorbonne. Now I’m catching the train from Paris to Caen, where Clémence, Roger, Pauline, Fréd, and Madeleine are waiting. And now Cléa.

I imagine her seventeen years old and coming to stay with me in San Francisco late one summer. She’ll speak classroom English and will be surprised that the bathroom and les toilettes are the same room in the United States and she’ll discover a newfound love for bagels, like Clémence did. She can stay for as long she wants, I’ve decided. It’ll be the least I can do.

[you can read all of Liv's postcards here]

A Little Walk


Flowers by Plenty of Posies. Photo by Wonderbliss Wedding Photography.

On the night before our wedding, I woke up when Brian came to bed and thought, “I can’t believe we got married and didn’t go to bed at the same time!” Then I walked to the hotel bathroom with its mysteriously and perpetually wet floor, flipped on the light and realized, no. It didn’t happen yet. That was just the rehearsal dinner.

When I woke up again, in the morning, it was grey and raining a little. “It’s supposed to be good luck if it rains on your wedding day,” I thought, and got dressed for coffee with the wedding team. Some logistics, vegan waffles, gossip in bed and a hot shower later and it was time to get ready.

A lot of the time, I try to want the minimum, take care of my own needs, be the helper. But on your wedding day, people don’t really let you do that. If you say, “Oh do her makeup first,” when it’s 3:00 PM and becoming clear that either you or your sister-in-law, but not both, will be getting her makeup done, nobody’s having it. So you sit down in the chair and someone brings you a bottle of water. Being able to feel fine about that feels freaking awesome.

While we were getting ready, my sister-in-law Wendy, a practical, hilarious class act, as both my sister-in-laws are, called down to order champagne. She possesses that innate understanding that some practical people have of how to celebrate—what to splurge on, where to pin a corsage, when to have another drink and when to call it a night. It’s a skillset that my parents and I lack, but that somehow my brother ended up with. All my in-laws have it, and I find it absolutely thrilling.

The guy on the other end of the phone told her, “I’m sorry, we only have sparkling wine.” (Who knew the Holiday Inn were such sticklers about authentic, Champagne-region Champagne, what with the baby poop in the lobby and all.)

“That’s fine,” Wendy said, in her quick, deadpan voice.

“Well, I don’t have a price list here. My manager will be here in an hour, so I can call you back then.”

“Well, why don’t you just figure out a price, and if it’s not reasonable, just . . . make it reasonable,” she said, before hanging up the phone.

My sister-in-law Karen looked at her approvingly, “That’s my kinda girl.”

My friend Allison’s wide-set baby mammal eyes trained on my face as she applied foundation and blush with little white sponges. I drank bottled water with my mouth in an O shape to try to avoid rubbing off my lipstick.

Around 5 PM, the photographer told us that she’d been down to the wedding site and the clouds had broken and the sun was out.

I hadn’t allowed enough time for getting ready and we had to start over on the hair a few times, so we ended up arriving at the ceremony about 15 minutes late. We pulled into the farmer’s market parking lot just as my cousin Ricky and his girlfriend Amanda arrived with their dog Buddy, a giant “man in a dog suit” kind of dog.

“Is it ok if we bring Buddy?” Amanda called out.

“I think I saw a sign saying no dogs in the pavillion?” I replied.

“Oh we asked someone, she said it’s really up to you.”

“Then sure!”

Who doesn’t want a man in a dog suit at their wedding?

The chaos, cheer, and rule-breaking of my family already in full effect, I felt heartened. We may not know how to class things up, but we know how to make things irreverent, which I think is equally important.

We walked through the gravel towards the market. Wendy and I held hands. When they dropped me off at my waiting area, Karen looked over her shoulder and said, in her 80’s movie star voice, “Don’t worry. You’re just takin’ a little walk.”

I watched them find their respective husbands and start down the aisle to the Peanuts song. The flower girl walked to her “mark” (the day before, at my panicked request, my friend Ted, a film director, had graciously taken over directing the rehearsal) and took the ring bearer’s hand. I started to walk out behind them and Ted stopped me, whispering, “Wait a second, we’re building a dramatic pause for you.”

The music changed to the traditional Here Comes The Bride. It was funny the things I ended up feeling traditional about. We didn’t have a cake or toss flowers or do the garter, but I wanted that song, and I made sure to have something old (my necklace), something new (my dress), something borrowed (thread and time from my friend Kara, who helped me hem my dress by hand, watching Pretty Little Liars on the internet, just like they did in the olden days), and something blue (my eyes.)

I went to my mark, and though my instinct is always to rush, I thought, “Molly, this is the one time it’s ok to make people wait.” Which is probably really for the best, given I rarely wear heels and my dress was nearly floor length.

I walked past the decorations, which I’d helped to coordinate but which were made into reality by friends. These friends who amaze me all the time with their creativity and art had made the space so beautiful, so much better than I’d envisioned it, and I’m pretty sure I started crying right then.

I made it (slowly) down the few steps to the area where everyone was sitting, and the first things I saw were a little kid and Buddy the dog sticking their heads into the aisle and I thought, “Yup. This is my wedding.”

Brian was standing all the way at the end of the dock, so he walked up as I walked down, and we met where the water meets the land. My friend Andrea was our officiant, and looked so beautiful that I got choked up like it was her wedding day.

I had to laugh at myself a little as she read the ceremony, which I had written, clearly in a time of great trepidation, for the whole thing is kind of a pep talk saying, “don’t be scared! You can do this!” But it turned out that once it was happening I wasn’t scared.

My friend Kallista read a poem about an old man saving toads in the road, because “they have places to go, too,” which Brian referenced a few days later as he carefully saved a large slug from getting stepped on. My friend Q read a passage by Pema Chodron and Brian’s brother Mike finished it up.

I’d partly picked that Pema Chodron piece because it talks about a pilot saving his passengers, and Brian’s father, who worked for a manufacturer that made airplane engine parts, starting in the foundry and ending up head of sales, loves pilots. But when I looked to see if he was enjoying it, I saw his eyes were closed and his mouth drawn in a frown, holding back tears, a pose he maintained the whole ceremony. I recognize that sensitivity because he passed it on to Brian, and it regularly breaks and melts my heart during funerals, weddings, and tv commercials alike.

I cried all during my vows, which I hadn’t thought I would. But with all those people there, showing up and making this day, how could I not be cracked open?

By midway through the reception, I became the “I love you, man!” guy from Wayne’s World.

I told family members I’ve never said it to before that I love them. My mom’s cousin Tamison, whose house we’ve stayed at about half the Thanksgivings of my life, whose house we’d stayed at, in fact, two nights before and who, incidentally, gave my friends and I her bed to sleep in, who spent the following day making 30 pies with us and then took us swimming, replied, with her signature wild grin and Mary Louise Parker-esque lack of jaw movement, “WHY?”

And I said easily, because for that one night everything felt easy, “I can’t help it, I just do.”

She seemed satisfied with that and replied, “Well, I happen to be very fond of all my family members, even the ones no one else likes!”

Which satisfied me.

When the reception was starting to wind down, a group of us went swimming, stripped down to underwear or nothing. The moon was almost full. I went in first (unlike me, but this night I was brave) and looked back at the glowing bodies wading through the water, like bathers in an old painting, or people performing a baptism ritual, or sirens.

When I was still in the midst of wedding planning minutia, my sister-in-law referred to the impending wedding as “the happiest day of Molly’s life.” I thought that was a ridiculously romantic thing to say. Why would a day that’s just about me and Brian be the happiest of my life? I love lots of people in lots of ways, not just him. But that, it turns out, is the point.

Swimming Lessons

me without you

We are Starfish, Henry and I. I pick him up early from daycare, and we worry through the traffic until we make it to his 4:15 class at the community pool. We are one of seven, maybe ten, parent-and-child pairs in the class. A teenage swim instructor has us circle up, parents holding toddlers. We sing "Motorboat" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" and "Ring around the Lily Pad," substituting swimming terms for the original nouns ("pocketful of posies" becomes "pocketful of frogies;" "ashes" become "splashes"). The kids instinctually do a sort of standing run in the water, legs kicking frantically and arms pushing the water down, as if to gain an imagined traction. Their little bodies are revved up on the new sensory experience, desperate to set out, not understanding that the pool isn't filled with invisible hands to support them. We parents hold them with one hand under their armpit, using our other arm to help us tread water in the deeper parts of the pool. We are treading for two. Our songs and supporting holds are an elaborate show, disguising the water's indifference to the kids' effort. I was holding Henry in this way, one hand palming the curve of his ribs where they wrap under the crook of his arm, as I made my way to the wall for a Humpty Dumpty (kids sit on the wall, parents sing "Humpty Dumpty," and kids jump into parents' arms). Most of the parents had already staked out spots on the wall, so I ventured into deeper water. I was on tiptoe — literally balanced on the tip of my big toe as I hopped my way toward the wall, my leg like a pogo stick. The arm holding Henry moved down through the water, involuntarily. I looked right and noticed that I had dunked him, pulled him right down, head under water. I jerked my arm up, and his head surfaced, wriggling and spastic, his suspended running legs supercharged and sprinting with fear. He let out a cry, then a high-pitched shriek signaling the turn from fear to anger. The other parents turned away from their kids to see. Henry's "Mom-eeee!" was outraged, accusatory, the kind I hear a lot lately.

"I'm so sorry, buddy, oh no. You're okay, you're okay . . ."

In these moments of injury and near misses and almost unlucky breaks, something in me shuts off, not down. It's not operated by a dimmer but a switch. My typically nervous, easy-to-panic nature flatlines. I am nonreactive, a passive cipher through which experience is happening, a situation unfolding where the only actor is inertia. I get self-conscious that other parents see this in me, that children stop to notice the adult whose instinct cannot be trusted. I am a milky-eyed inert mother who merely watches as her child acts out, behaves badly, drowns.

Is there anything more dismissive, more enraging, than being told you are okay when you're not?

I was four, Henry's age, when I learned how to swim. Before that, when I was a baby, Mom regularly took me to the pool in our apartment complex. She would get me comfortable in the water, swish me around with her hands cupping my armpits. There is a picture of us in the pool, Mom walking through the shallow end toward the steps, brow furrowed. She's carrying me under her arm like a football. I'm horizontal, head arched up and crying. The swimming lesson is over.

By the time I was four, I was playing in my godmother's pool. I was afraid to put my head under the water, so Mom urged me to practice by putting my face in little by little, starting with my mouth, then my nose, then my eyes. I was reluctant, terrified of the world under the surface, blurred and fuzzy with eerie, alien sounds. Mom suggested I jump in and that she would catch me. She stood a few feet from the wall, arms outstretched to receive me. I jumped, and she wasn't there. Water plumed up my nose, and in that first experience of flooded nostrils and burning sinuses, I was certain that something had gone horribly wrong and I was drowning. My hands paddled furiously in front of me to get my head out of the water. I coughed and sputtered. Mom held me and hoorayed, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the big achievement of getting my head underwater for the first time.

"Sometimes you can't think about things; you just have to jump in, feet first."

I was mad in that way that devolves into tears, which only makes you angrier because the tears betray the fury you want to communicate, and this frustration mixed with the inciting anger makes you cry more. I sulked, and my mom and godmother chastised me for not appreciating the lesson imparted. When they became lost in conversation, I sat quietly on the pool steps and practiced putting my face under the surface. Lips first, then nose, then eyes. I've been swimming underwater ever since.


By Nora Hill

When I was eight years old, my mama went to Atlanta for four days. I gave her my journal to take with her and write in every night, so that when she got back I'd know what she'd been doing and thinking. That's the first time I remember being at home when she wasn't. When we were little, she was the one who took my brother and I camping in Maine, brought us to visit relatives in Pennsylvania, drove us twelve hours to Toronto to see our cousins. Dad got two weeks of vacation a year; as a teacher, she got the whole summer. And so when Mom went away, we were with her.

When my mother goes away for the weekend, the rhythms change. There's coffee left in the press at the end of the day, since I'm the only one drinking it. At dinner, there's a hesitation before I remember that it's up to me to say grace. Small things, to be sure - but they cause a slight disturbance in the force, a difference in the way home feels.

With a weekend trip, the difference is negligible; my mom comes back after three days, and we slide back into the rhythms of home. But my family has reached an age of change, when 'home' is being redefined for all of us. Three years ago, my brother went off to college. For the first weeks after he moved out, the house felt empty - until my parents and I adjusted our habits around his absence. When he comes home each summer, we must adjust again, imperceptibly shifting to make room for him in our daily lives.

A year from now, I'll be preparing to head off to college myself. Chief among the myriad worries about that huge step is the fear of leaving home. I have lived in this house since I was four; I know the precise creak made by every step of the staircase and the every crack in my bedroom ceiling. But I'm realising it's not the house I'll miss, it's the way I live in it. What makes it home isn't the kitchen table — it's knowing where to sit. It's not the food — it's making and eating meals with my family. Home is as much about the people I share it with as it is about the place. The habits we share, our rhythms of interaction, are what makes the place we live become our home.

On Gardens


By Allison Valiquette Today the air is of the perfect quality; it’s cool with a hint of summer behind it, showing potential for warmth once the sun settles in the sky. I always think of my grandma on days like today. When her neighbors across the street left for vacation, they invited us to come by their garden to pick all of the green beans we wanted. Not wanting them to go to waste during their long trips, and knowing my grandma would put them to good use in a summer stew, they sought it fit for us to be invited in. Those summer days were always just like today. There was a sweetness in the air that I could swear was just a natural side effect of a perfect day, but was probably just my head spinning with a belly full of too many eaten beans.

With our gloves in pocket and wicker baskets in hand, we made our way to the neighbor’s backyard, and it always felt like we were breaking in. We both delighted in thinking that this was the case, and we giggled as we entered through the wooden gate. We piled our baskets high with beans and marched home, proud of our collection. I would always ask if we could stay in the garden forever, instead of going back home. She would laugh and tell me no, that our time in the garden was over, and that’s just how it goes.

And when the wind is blowing in nice and steady and the grass smells in that perfectly dewy way that summer grass smells, I miss her. When I try to cook and fail miserably, I miss her. When I find a random piece of jewelry in my vanity that was hers, or a photo of her holding me close to our perfectly matched faces, I miss her.

I would never again watch her curl her hair, or cook in that big yellow kitchen. When missing her becomes unbearable, I want to run to that green bean garden and live amongst the tall plants forever, where no one would find me. And if Grandma needed me, she would know that’s where she could go to see me again. But in my dreams of escaping to that garden, she never came looking for me.

But since she died, life has moved on, too quickly, as it seems. I lived to be sixteen to my grandma. She left this world with that as her memory of me forever. But I’ve lived a whole other life since then. I graduated high school, went to college, got a job, and became an adult. I’ve had boyfriends, travelled across the country, wrote stories, and lived as a whole other, grown-up self, one that she will never get to meet. I regret not soaking up every possible moment that I could with a woman who taught me that life is beautiful. That everything has a beginning and everything an end, and that is just how it goes.

I’ve been back to her old neighborhood just once since she died. The neighbors across the street put up a large fence and I couldn’t tell if the garden was still there. I like to think that it is, growing tall and feeding someone else’s family. It will continue to grow, and die when the ground gets cold, and grow again when the soil is ready. My grandma never saw me grow up all the way, and I will never see her through any more of her years. But there is still growth here, and there always will be. We all see pieces of the growth that we each have to give. Some see all of it, others a little less. But Grandma taught me to love and enjoy things while we have them, just as I loved and lived happily to have her while she was with us. And even if that green bean plant we loved so much is long dead and gone, at least I was there to see a part of its very special life.

Glass Pebbles and Life Changes

word traveler

I am greedy. Not greedy for money or clothes or pasta or jewelry. I am greedy for an exciting life. I expect it to be exciting all the time, yet I find excitement in the small things, too. When I was a kid, I remember I used to go to the beach with my dad to look for glass pebbles from long ago discarded bottles, and I literally was the happiest kid when I found a smooth and well-worn piece of glass. It was the size and the color of an apricot, light orange. Where did that come from? From a faraway shore? It was so big compared to the others. Was it the remaining of a bottle or some other object? Whatever its story was, I kept it to this day on the bookshelf of my old bedroom, to remind myself how little things can make you happy for a long time. But in time I have grown, and my needs and wishes have obviously grown with me. The dictionary states that excitement is a state of exhilaration, enthusiasm, stimulation or emotional arousal. Life doesn’t always gift us with strong emotions, there are days when happiness consists of the simplest things–a cappuccino on a Sunday morning, a good book in your hands, a walk in your neighborhood to try out the new ice cream parlor’s flavors, the cake that you always fail but that finally comes out of the oven with the perfect shape and taste. Or a simple photograph shot in a moment that doesn’t look so special, but that will be your only handhold on an instant that will never come back. Life isn’t always an exciting ride on a roller coaster, or something that leaves you breathless. This is why, at this point of my life, I feel guilty. Because months of roller coasters are ahead of me, and I’m not sure I will match up with the challenge of such a wild ride, or if I’ll need an oxygen mask to breathe.

I am about to leave with my better half for the most undreamed-of destinations, a one-month trip that will take us along paths we never walked, in Asia. We’ll meet the snow monkeys in Japan, see the Mount Fuji I remember from some cartoon I used to watch in my childhood, we’ll be in Hiroshima on August 6th, cross the Sea of Japan on a boat to reach Seoul, and then fly to Vietnam for an on the road journey all the way to Thailand. Feeling lucky. This is the best way I can describe myself at the moment.

But this isn’t it. The real life twist happens in September, when my family of two will move to Washington, D.C., a place that was home and shelter to us for two years in the past. So this is not a new feeling, or a new place to visit that carries secrets and unexpected discoveries. It’s a deepest perception, a sense, somehow, of going back home, and starting a new life in a place that we have always found welcoming and warm. Why do I feel guilty, then? And worried? Why do I spend some nights staring at the ceiling and wondering hey, what’s wrong with me?? Partially because I know I’m lucky, too lucky—we will have a second chance to live in a city we loved back in time, but with new prospective and hopes. And second chances are made of gold! But part of me feels bad, because this time I see the down side of a dream that is coming true. My parents and grandparents lives in Italy, and damn I will miss the daily life with them. I feel like I’m robbing them of the time we have left together, of Sunday meals to be shared, of coffees with grandma and shopping sessions with mom. A tennis match has been playing in my head for a few months now. The ball that is being batted to and fro has “Is this the right thing to do?” written all over it. It falls in the yes court, and then bounces in the no court. Back and forth, giving me headaches. And then I think I’m not the type who wastes second chances. I feel guilty, and greedy for wanting more every day, yes, but I also want to play my opportunity as good as I can, making sure that my beloved ones see the positive side of my life choices as well.

At the moment, I am suspended above the unknown and the many issues that present themselves as we are making this important decision, but after all this is who I am and I can’t deny it. I love feeling that I’m walking along an invisible thread staggering over a canyon---I want to see what’s below, and get goose bumps, and fear, and enjoy, and scream from happiness when I get to the other side! Me and my glass pebble, all safe in my hands.

Wish me luck :-)


I sat down and tried to rest. I could not; though I had been on foot all day, I could not now repose an instant; I was too much excited. A phase of my life was closing tonight, a new one opening tomorrow: impossible to slumber in the interval; I must watch feverishly while the change was being accomplished.” --- Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre



Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email for more details.

Always Move Forward

I learned a valuable adult lesson last week: you can’t go back. When I left Chicago for good, I didn’t have any kids, just a dog. And now, four years later, I’m married with two boys (and the dog still too). I used to play the ‘What If?’ game. Basically, ‘What If’ I had never left Chicago, would I be better off? Who would I be? What if I hadn't gotten pregnant, or married?  I have realized that this is a pointless game. You can never go back, and furthermore, you wouldn’t want to. I see that the person I was then and the person I am now are completely different. I can see this even more while staying in my hometown. The last time I was here, ten years ago, I was just a reckless teenager desperate to leave my small town. Now, I’m a mom and that small town doesn’t look so bad, in fact parts of it are downright charming. It sure doesn't feel boring anymore. I read this fascinating article the other week about identity and sense of self. It describes this phenomenon that people can see how much they have changed; we no longer listen to the same music, we changed our major or job, etc, but they just cannot envision how they will change in the future. We still think we will be the same. Even though we can see past change, we are incapable of picturing future change.

When we got our tattoos a year ago (they look like this <<<) they were meant to mean, Matt, Charley and I, the three of us. And then I got pregnant again, unexpectedly. People ask if we will add another symbol. We say no, we will just change the meaning. Now I tell people it means, always move forward. I should add, and don't look back to that, but I think it's implied.

This is all to say that I am no longer desperate to live back in Chicago. I still love it there, but a part of me can see that you can only go forward. And from now on I am going forward as part of a family of four. And that is tied into every decision we make, making it even more difficult to pick a place.


diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to or share their adoption website ( with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

Don't You Forget About Me

me without you

Dementia is a prism through which all memory is refracted. As the person my mom was continues to recede, I realize that I too am forgetting her. My memories have morphed into a series of impressions, like a Terrence Malick movie. I know her hands and feet, her long fingers and toes, her knuckles knotted from years of cracking. I know her hair, how one side flips out and the other curves in (like mine). I remember how she regarded herself in the mirror, working up courage to confront her reflection and accepting the disappointment that washed over her before moving on. I can conjure all these impressions, but our past conversations, the rhythm with which we spoke, is blurring. I have the general plot outlines of our stories, but they are Monets; there is no specificity of form, just the interplay of light and movement and feeling. Because I forget as Mom forgets, I figure it’s time to start record keeping. My son will not know the mother I knew, won’t experience the ways in which the two of them are already so similar. As Henry gets older, I’ll share my memories of Mom, fuzzy though they may be. But the prudent Virgo list-maker in me is compelled to document some details of myself that Henry may, one day, find himself straining to recall—the nuances, quirks, and peccadillos that make up and enhance the whole and which, unfortunately, are the first pieces of us to go. So, to the future Henry, here’s my List of Things I Don’t Want You to Forget About Me:

1. I like movie trailers. No, I love movie trailers. I do not miss them when I go to the movies, and I even regularly use my Trailers app to watch several. In one sitting. I guess I enjoy the anticipation of a new movie as much as the event itself. When done well, a good trailer reads like the short story version of the film, which sometimes proves better than the actual film. For reference, you can dismiss any trailer with voiceover, big red comedy font, or lines that begin with “This fall, celebrate the wonder . . . ” said in voiceover while appearing onscreen in big red comedy font.

2. I love a good blooper reel. Isn’t that dumb? It’s an elemental, base form of entertainment to crack up for no other reason than because other people are cracking up. The best outtakes lack any logic or shape; they are just viral, infectious energy. Of course, moments like this can be experienced firsthand, but if you ever need a shot of good, clean entertainment that won’t result in an arrest record or getting intimate with a toilet bowl, watch outtakes of Brian Unger interviewing Zach (Seth) Galifianakis from Live at the Purple Onion. Also of note: any outtake featuring Ricky Gervais.

3. My favorite time to watch a horror film is midday, preferably when it’s moody and stormy outside. I discovered this after years of yo-yoing between loving scary movies and being, well, scared shitless by them. I’m a fraidy cat and a safety enforcer, but I also love the (fake) thrill of a good (fake) scare. At the time of this writing, you are four years old, but when you hit sixteen, I plan to school you in some of my favorites. But only during daylight hours.

4. I take great (and somewhat undeserved) pride in my working as a server during college. I was mediocre at best—I refused to upsell and once spilled a tray of drinks on a family of four—but through it I developed a taste for hard work and hard play, learned how to hustle, and saw the best and worst of what humanity has to offer. You walk through life with new eyes once you’ve had to serve others, returning their perfectly cooked steaks to the grill guy and crawling under booths for their kids’ dirty diapers. But I like to think it makes you a better person and educates you in the art of appreciating others and treating them well. Also, I can carry three drinks in one hand and nearly all the sensation has been singed off my fingertips by hot plates!

5. I instigate tickle fights and turn into a spastic pinwheel of limbs when tickled back. I am not above biting, hair pulling, or eye gouging in a tickle attack. Daddy has learned this the hard way.

6. I sing a lot, subjecting you to weak and quavering renditions of Patsy Cline, Jolie Holland, Fiona Apple, Jenny Lewis, and Emily Haines songs in the car and at bedtime. My voice is lowish and my range limited, but I do not let that stop me. Sometimes in the car, you cover your ears and shriek, “Mommy, stop the singing you’re hurting my ears!” Sometimes when I’m bathing you and singing low, you look at me with doleful eyes and say, “Mommy, that’s lovely.” You’re the only person I do this around, and my mother did it with me. She and I used to harmonize to Simon & Garfunkel and Aretha Franklin and (god help me) The Judds. I don’t know how much longer you’ll allow me to do this without becoming critical (more critical than “you’re hurting my ears,” that is) and mortally humiliated, so I’m doing it while I can. But if by the time you’re older you have no memory of me singing, let this be your reminder.

Now and again, a forgotten aspect of Mom will float past me like a leaf swept up in a breeze, and I catch it by writing it down, committing it to paper. The remembering helps me to grieve in a way that is necessary and productive and deserving of her, rather than the rest of it, which is groping, blind, in a dark space. If I can give Henry some roadmap for remembering his neurotic, singing, laughing, potty-mouthed, loving mother, then maybe losing my mom in this particular way has purpose, has meaning.


Marriage Rules for Little Girls

peanut m&ms

By EBK Riley The other night, as my daughter Delia rearranged the peas and chicken on her dinner plate to make it appear that she was actually eating, she announced that she "wanted to marry a rich husband." Swallowing my chicken and the jolt of fear that arose because she is already contemplating marriage at six, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. She was very matter of fact, noting that if she married someone rich, she could have a big house, go on vacations, and get lots of clothes and her own car and anything else she might need. This is the first year she has seemed concerned about our family's comparative lack of stuff, and apparently it is shaping her ideas about a lot of things. Because she has visited the houses of school friends, she is less satisfied with our apartment, and as every girl who has had to share a room with her sister is bound to do, she is lobbying for her own room. "We could all have our own rooms if we had a house," she says, though she graciously allows, "you and Daddy could still share, if you wanted to..." We do. Thanks. But before we could turn the discussion away from lifetime commitments to talk about how having a lot of stuff isn't always so important, Fiona chimed in, "M used to have a lot of money, but he doesn't anymore and I love him anyway."

Fiona is in an imaginary committed relationship with a three foot tall plastic display version of a yellow peanut M&M. He was gifted to her before we left Boston by my CVS manager, who not only wanted to get it off his sales floor, but who was also touched by the true love of a girl and her candy pal. She can call him just "M" as a nickname, because he's her boyfriend. All of her dolls and stuffed animals are their children and she tells us often what he thinks about situations that arise with 'their kids' at school and about stuff happening on television. M has a lot of strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of them, but at least I know he's from a good home and he doesn't have a motorcycle that I have to worry about Fiona riding on the back of. We hope they're very happy together until she's about thirty, which is the age my husband Mike has decided the girls will be allowed to date.

The discussion of marriage continued when I asked Delia, "Don't you think love is more important than money when you decide who to marry?" Mike was also interested in the answer to that one. Again, she was matter of fact, "Well, if he was rich, he could buy me lots of presents and then I would love him." She paused for a minute, pretending to chew some peas, and possibly because she realized that this might be kind of shallow, she added, "I'm sure I could find someone who is nice and rich, and I would love him because he was nice, and he would still be rich. Then I would have the best of both." There it was, the admonishment of parents through the centuries: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

We were at the table for a while, because Delia never did really did make any progress on her dinner, so we discussed the possibility of her becoming rich herself. She had taken this for granted, assuming she would have a career (as a rock star or an astronaut or a professor) and her own money, but she was clear that her future partner should have his own too, because then they would not have to worry about money for sure. "And I might want to take time off to stay home with babies, or he might, so we both need to have money."

It all seems so simple when a six year old explains it to you.

Still, as we finally cleared the plates, after Mike and Fiona had gone in to muck out the girls' room in preparation for bedtime, I told Delia that even though it does really kinda suck to be poor, the real trick to marriage is finding the person you want to be with, no matter what else happens. "Yeah," she said, "like they say on a wedding, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, and then they both say I do and they kiss."

"Yeah, just like that," I said. And she giggled, because she's six.

Independence Day

me without you

My mom married my stepfather on the Fourth of July. Her second marriage and his third, the celebration was small and the guest list short on immediate family. The wedding took place across the street from my stepfather’s house — our new house — at the home of a neighbor who ran the nondenominational Christian church we attended. The following year, I would be baptized in that same neighbor’s pool, wearing a starched white robe, my sins washed clean in chlorinated water. Mom wore a mauve dress and a matching broad-brimmed hat. I donned a yellow dress and worked triple duty as flower girl, maid of honor, and ring bearer. My legs grew tired during the long ceremony, but I took my roles seriously, staring stoically at the minister.

Mom’s wedding ring was a cluster of diamonds and sapphires, my birthstone, because, as my stepdad liked to say, he was “marrying them both.” Unlike most men who spotted the truckload of baggage my 30-year-old single mother dragged into a first date and bolted for the nearest exit, my stepdad was thrilled to be a father. During the reception, he ushered me from table to table, showing off the trophy-sized version of his wife to his coworkers. Wasn’t his new family pretty? So charming, so pleasing, so blonde.

The reception took place on the neighbor’s waterfront deck. After the sun set and the new couple enjoyed bites of wedding cake, the stormy night sky lit up with a perfect view of the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display.

I wanted to like him, but I just couldn’t. He was too old, his tall, broad frame too physically imposing to find comforting. He was too eager to hug me. I felt bad that I didn’t like him, knew that I was being the stereotypical stepchild, unhappy with any parental copy vying to replace the original. I was softened by his prideful, paternal glow, but his hand on my shoulder was heavy and oppressive, like dead weight. The determined way he maneuvered me around tables of new faces at the reception made me uncomfortable. Well wishers and cheek pinchers said that Mom and I had much to be thankful for because my new dad loved us very much and would be very good for us.

Good for us. What about to us?

He was neither. This Thursday marks the 237th anniversary of our country’s independence and the 26th anniversary of my mother’s dependence on an abusive spouse. He was cruel and psychologically abusive, berating us — mostly her — on a daily basis. He picked fights, pushed us to breaking points, and then exercised his will, dangling our freedom in front of us like a carrot. If we took the abuse without “mouthing off” or “disrespecting” him, maybe we’d get what we wanted, which was usually a day without fights or insults.

I’ve found it difficult to convey the experience of living with him. He did not fit the familiar Lifetime movie mold of the abusive husband. He did not hit or molest us, but he told us we were unlovable and dim-witted. The golden trophy family he once proudly boasted became his “stupid bitches,” “lazy brats,” “fat pigs,” and “cunts.” Mom preached endurance to me; she saw our union with my stepfather as a trying but finite sentence. We would endure him until I was off to college. We would use his good neighborhood, zoned for good schools, to get me a good education and arm me with everything I needed — everything she said she couldn’t give me on her own — to get out. We strategized and conspired as if we were tunneling out of Alcatraz. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, it became clear that the dual escape we were planning was only meant for me. We argued and fought and Mom placated me, but her interpretation of our situation shifted from “I’ve made a mistake. I’ll make it right.” to “I can handle him. Don’t you worry about me.”

With each year of marriage gained, Mom gave something up in kind. First it was her job, followed by her car. Then she wasn’t to leave the house during the day. Next she was limited to one phone call per day (she snuck in more), with no incoming calls after 6pm. We spent the years keeping secrets from my stepdad to ensure I enjoyed more freedom as a teenager than she did as a middle-aged woman. She manipulated and cajoled and weathered his outbursts and accepted the brunt of his venom.

Five years ago, when Mom began forgetting things, withdrawing from family members, and acting insecure and fearful, I assumed that 20+ years of verbal abuse were simply taking their toll. Amidst the usual exhortations to leave him, I tried to give her perspective. “You’re not stupid. I forget things all time, and I’m not being berated constantly.” But her smile and trademark Pollyanna optimism weakened. Needless to say, recent research suggesting a link between depression and dementia comes as no surprise to me.

Now that early onset dementia has reduced my mother to a husk of her former self, my stepfather is in the unlikely role of caretaker. I believe he loves her as much as he is capable of the feeling. But he does not accept any guilt for Mom’s breakdown, and often counts her illness as another way in which she has made life difficult for him.

Only a few years into their marriage, my mom and stepdad stopped acknowledging their anniversary. There were no gifts, no cakes, no date nights. It was always just another 4th of July, just another Independence Day.

On Ashes: The Outtakes

memory and loss

This post is an add on to Katherine's piece, On Ashes, published on her blog Helping Friends Grieve.

After sharing the story of spreading my father’s ashes, other people’s stories have trickled into my life. Many more people than I had expected responded with their stories of the ashes they have spread and those that have yet to be spread. I should preface this piece by noting that there appear to be a variety of experiences that surround the process of spreading ashes and a multitude of ways that individuals interact with the process.

From what I have seen, we seem to strive for this seemingly magical moment where everyone finds peace with the death, the birds may sing, the sun rises above the mountains, and we know it is time. Of course, my description of the sun and birds, is a hyperbole, but it is meant to show that reality gets in the middle of our plans. The mishaps, planned and un-planned plans, and stories of carrying ashes around (for months or years) captivate me.

As always, many people have a story, and I am going to take the liberty in this piece to weave the narratives of others in with my own story of how I ended up on top of various mountains and rocks to spread my father’s ashes. Ultimately, I had my magic moments, the sun did rise above the mountains, the birds did sing, and I was overcome with a sense of peace---but not without the reality and hilarity of mishaps along the way.

Last summer, I had my first brush with what I call the re-personification of someone in the presence of their ashes. As we were walking into the small church in the center of town, a family friend asked me to grab her mom out of the back of the car and bring her in. Of course, I knew that her “mom” was the black box of ashes safely tucked in the back of her. This box, “her mom,” had accompanied her on her recent road trip, yet the banality of the request made me give her a double take. We joked that her last trip with her mom had been this road trip she had recently taken on the east coast. My family friend had visited her friends, accompanied by her mom, in the black box, in the back seat. In this moment, an uncle snapped a shot of me, in a cute blue dress, ready for the funeral, arms full of giant yellow sunflowers, with a small backpack, containing the black box, on my back. It is so mundane, yet, her mom, has such a huge presence.

I realize these stories may sound a bit crude, if you’ve never had ashes in your possession or reached in a box and physically touched someone you have missed for years. However, the thing about ashes is that they have to be transported (or at least stored somewhere) to wherever you plan to leave them, thus, you must interact with them. This moment of interacting, somehow forces the presence of the person who has died. Momentarily, the person takes a physical form or a presence in your journey, a journey they are no longer part of. Rarely, as living beings do we come so close to touching death. Rarely does it feel like something you can touch---something that can simply slip between your fingers if you open them just a crack. Yet, the presence of the ashes momentarily relieves the gaping hole experienced by someone’s absence. On the drive home from spreading part of the ashes, I was alone. I simply buckled my father, in his black box, into the passenger seat in the front seat. In a moment of unrelated frustration, I expressed to him a sentiment about wanting to be outside, running and climbing in the mountains---something only he a few others in my life understand. Perhaps I was able to have that thought pattern because my mind was attuned to his presence.

In my journey home to Colorado to spread my father’s ashes, I felt this sense of presence. I carried his ashes to Columbine Mountain outside of Winter Park, I carried them to the top of a peak at over 14,000, I climbed with them up a rock wall at my family’s cabin, and finally, I took them on a multi-pitch climb---testing my own climbing abilities. I felt invincible, as if the ashes could protect me, after all my dad had touched the ground in each of these locations, in his living life, so I imagined him guiding me there in his afterlife. I imagined, the natural world, making way for me to complete climbs, knowing that my father had to be returned to this very location. It all seemed clear as thunderstorms split, showing lightening on each side of our rock face, but leaving us safe and dry. The irony that I felt he needed to be returned to the natural world, the same world that had captivated his imagination and led to his early death, was not lost on me. But in that presence, it really felt right, and by right, I mean, that there was no other option---when someone is home it simply feels right.



As I wrote in reflection to spreading my father’s ashes, after eight years without touches or embraces, to suddenly touch his body, although reduced to ash, was astounding. Yet, I am embarrassed to say, a small part of me was disturbed at literally touching a dead body---after all, in spreading the ashes, you physically touch them. I had never really considered the consistency of ashes, but I imagined the fine ash left by a camp fire. I was surprised at the small remnants of bone that weighed down the ash when I spread it on my palm. Reaching my hand into the black box, only brought about more questions of how his body had become reduced in that manner. I teetered between loving the closeness I felt to my father and being concerned when suddenly the wind picked up and the ashes flew back at me---covering my jacket and black pants with white and grey dots. What do you do next---wash your hands? Wash your clothes? After all, those grey dots are still part of him. Or---as Coree---so appropriately notes after finding herself spooning her “dad” into an urn, what do you do with the spoon? You can’t just wash it off---after all, it has ashes on it.

Yet, you laugh with the process. After hours of climbing to recreate a picture of my dad on this specific rock in 1979 and to spread his ashes there, I reached the point---100 feet down on a free rappel. I managed to open the medicine container I had stored the ashes in with one hand (the other hand firmly on my rope---as I was still hundreds of feet in the air). As I prepared myself to spread them, the wind grabbed the ashes, whipping them up into my face. I was startled, but more than that, overcome with giggles at what a joyful hilarious moment this was. That picturesque moment became a hilarious struggle of me trying to rappel, laugh, and somehow get the ashes out of my eyes and mouth.


Like everything else, it wasn’t as planned. Yet it was a moment in which I felt closer to my dad and closer to his sense of home---which after all, really was the point.

Dream vs. Reality

Dream vs Reality

By Erin R. Van Genderen I turned twenty-three in June, and in no such way did I ever imagine my life to have turned out the way it has.

When I was younger, I pictured my adult life as a whirlwind of jet-setting, cosmopolitan adventures. I would graduate from college at the top of my class and move somewhere new to work a prestigious job or get a doctorate and teach upper-lever literature theory. I would be professional, impressive, independent, a bombshell. I would make my own life for myself and escape the stigma of my small-town upbringing. Eventually, I’d find someone and settle down, but only after I accomplished everything I wanted to do and worked the wandering out of my bones. I would probably be Thirty.

Move into reality, where I’m newly married to a military man and the name of our game is impermanence. In our current assignment, I’m a stay-at-home wife with a few little jobs on the side, looking forward to a more permanent station where I can pursue a couple of Master’s degrees I have my eye on. As external self-worth goes, I have very little---there is no boss to praise me, no co-workers to compete with, no promotions or raises for which to struggle---and so I’ve learn to give my own self a pat on the back when I get all of the laundry finished or meet a deadline.

And although the first scenario certainly sounds glittering, I’m happier than I could have ever dreamed with the second.

Chalk it up to the honeymoon phase if you will, but I like to think that the life I live now is so much richer because it’s taking me in directions I could have never traveled by my own volition. As a planner and perfectionist, I’m constantly stretched by the nature of my husband’s job. We don’t know where we could be going next---overseas? D.C.?---but I have to be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. We uproot and move on every few years, leaving behind little homes and orphaned potted plants, but the excitement of a new place is always just ahead.

It is hard. Sometimes it is sad. But this lifestyle is already exhilarating.

And that’s a lot of what marriage is, I’m finding---many of those everyday details transform into something thrilling, and many of the fluttery moments become the mundane. It is an adaptive state, never one of stasis, just as we are adaptive creatures.

The realities we dream up for ourselves are a little bit short of what we should really be expecting. But what a pleasant surprise it is when, if we are adaptive, we have the forethought to reach out and grab the good things flying by and hold on tight, leading us on to a brighter adventure than the one we had stashed away for the future.

Lessons from the Emirates...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Every so often, I’m able to be exposed to a part of the world I hadn’t known before, with customs and traditions and environments that are completely foreign to me.  We often seek that out in our personal travels, but my work trips tend to be confined to a set of usual locations.  That’s comforting in its own right, but sometimes, it’s exposure to a completely new place that perks me up and makes me interested in what it is that I do all over again.

I had this feeling just last weekend I traveled to the Emirates for the first time, taking in that intersection of the world as much as I could over the few days that I was there.  I couldn’t help but to see their world with new eyes and I noticed:

  • Modesty is not a bad thing: Regardless of one’s opinion as to why, women’s dress was largely more modest in the Emirates, and in the larger Middle East in general.  Like most people raised outside of that environment, part of me can’t help but be fascinated by women who cover up nearly all of themselves when in public.  But once you notice how much certain women do cover up, you can’t help but also notice how much women who are visiting do not---shirts that go lower, skirts that go higher. There was something about that juxtaposition that made me choose clothing and combinations that were more modest and more covering than I might normally, even though I don’t consider myself a revealing dresser.  And interestingly, it was in that additional coverage that I found a certain bout of comfort and confidence because I knew I was being judged by what I was saying, and not what I was showing.  You don’t have to change who you are when you go abroad, but you should absorb your surrounding environment and adjust accordingly.
  • If it doesn’t look natural, it probably isn’t: Across the city of Abu Dhabi, I saw plenty of things that were beautiful and modern but didn’t necessarily look like they were part of the natural scene.  For example, when approaching the city the road is flanked by sand dunes until skyscraper upon skyscraper rises to the sky . . . or until fountains of water appear in the desert heat.  One of the beautiful things about being human on this earth is building and improving and changing the conditions we might have been born into---we don't have to be confined solely to what "was" but we have the possibility to dream and build what "can be".  But we still need to be mindful of what belongs, and what we give up by adopting that change.
  • Invest your resources: The Emirates were fortunate with the natural resource of oil, but also with the foresight that money made from resources can always run out.  It’s amazing what the country has done by putting resources into building and tourism, and making itself a crossroads for the world.  But more importantly, they’ve also invested into education and transport, as these are the things that stay long after the money is made and pave the way for future possibilities.  When you are lucky enough to profit, make sure you set aside a portion into savings and activities that build your future.
  • Look behind the scenes: Most people who work in the Emirates aren’t actually from there.  And if you take the time to speak to waiters, drivers, hotel clerks, and just about anyone else, you’ll find that they are far from home and their families, and looking to make a living so that their children are entitled to those very basic resources that I mentioned above.  When you’re being treated to a wonderful experience, take a look behind the scenes to see what makes things work.  Chances are, you’ll be surprised at just how many people’s efforts go in to making that experience for you.  Compensate appropriately, it affects their future.

All my love,