Tag Archives: love

The Crescent Hip

I had forgotten, but my left hip remembered. My husband and I were in Costco, wondering if they carried mattresses in-store (they don’t) when I picked up a ream of paper. I feel badly about all of the trees I have killed, writing, but not bad enough to stop printing. Something about black words on a white page proves that I have accomplished something that day, and not just humored myself.

I shifted the ream — twenty-four pounds of extra-white premium multipurpose paper — to my left hip. Feeling its heft, I hugged it there, filling a space I hadn’t known was empty.

Had it been my toddler son or daughter, their warm bottoms would have straddled my hip, cushioned, perhaps, by a diaper. They would relax against me, legs dangling, rubber-toed tennies syncopating against my thighs as we walked. If I leaned too far for comfort, they would clutch my shirt, but without much anxiety. I would never drop them.

At some point during my father’s elder years, he began to hold my hand. Early on, I recognized the gesture as one that used to pass between my mother and father. When I used to observe them from the back seat, I saw how he reached toward her, how she slipped her fingers into the hollow of his palm, how they fit together. They stayed like that until she sensed that he might need both hands for a complicated maneuver like merging onto the freeway. Afterwards, they linked again.

The first time that my father took my hand in the car, I could tell that it comforted him, but it discomfited me. Hand-holding (and back-scratching and foot-rubbing and pat-pat-patting, always three pats on the thigh) was something reserved for the two of them. He wasn’t confused — I was still Betz and he was still Dad — but for a long time, his touch felt awkward.

Now I understand. There was a hollow space that was not empty.

My waist lacks the curve it once had — I’m more straight-up-and-down than hourglass now — so there’s nothing in the mirror to remind me of my children’s favorite perch. I love my adult children as much as I loved those little hitch-hikers, but, as dry as that ream of paper was, it watered something in me, and the memories swelled and became whole.

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Last Thoughts Before Sleep

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 6.29.22 AMMy last thought before sleeping: we are all under the same roof, and when did that last happen?

When did my adult children, my husband and I last prepare for bed in synchrony: changing into bed clothes, brushing teeth, settling beneath sheets?

In the void beneath my eyelids I transport myself many miles north, to years long gone. I imagine my body spinning so that my head points south, as it did in the bed of my youth. Through grainy gray mist, my old room drifts into focus: the octagonal pillars of my great great great grandfather’s bed (how it creaked when I crawled into it); the oval mirror of my dresser on the opposite wall (the first thing I saw upon rising was myself); the lighted mirror on the dressing table (where I separated my tarantula-like lashes with a safety pin); the folding doors of my closet (always popping open, like sharp elbows); the switch plate painted olive (from my blue and green phase). My door connects to the basement recreation room, and beyond it, at the foot of the stairs, my brother’s room, where he sleeps.

Cool air touches my face — always cool, smelling subtly of loam and rain and salt. The heater announces itself with an explosive huff, indignant at being held back for so long, determined to set things right, to restore equilibrium, to defend its charges, to breathe warmth back into the chilling house. When it is satisfied, the duct tick-tick-ticks in satisfaction.

My father shifts in the bed above mine; his snoring a deep, stentorian rumbling; my mother’s, a higher pitched rant. Suddenly he is silent. He is awake, thinking, perhaps, that his children sleep under the same roof, and when had that last happened?

My children — old enough, now, to have children of their own — sleep on. My husband’s breath has relaxed into the soft, slow rhythm I know so well after almost 35 years of marriage. These three, who I love beyond measure (beyond life, beyond time) have given themselves to dreaming. This moment is my blanket, my pillow. Their rest is my rest. I am at peace. And when did that last happen?

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The Clueless Bride

The happy couple - wearing a 1906 wedding dress and tux in 100+ degree heat!

I had no idea what I was doing when I married my husband, 33 years ago, at almost this exact time. Oh, I thought I did, in the way 25 year olds think they have everything figured out. I remember how I felt the morning of my wedding. After a restless night, I woke up next to Ellen, my best friend, who would stand up for me later. I had expected to sleep deeply, as I had done so many times before, when Ellen and I talked deep into the night. But I was nervous. And that was silly, I thought. I was in love and marrying a good guy and I knew what I was getting in to. Being anxious about the ceremony — that was silly, too. In our hearts Todd and I were already married.

I could write a book about what I didn’t know. Practical things like: how to sleep with a 6’3″ person in a water bed; where to look for missing things when you live with someone who likes things neat.

None of the practical things mattered. I quickly learned to search the drawer closest to where I last saw a missing item, even if it made no sense to put it there. We got rid of the water bed after a year of rough seas. Those early lessons were mere anecdotes.

It took years, decades, to understand the big themes. How hard a man will work to preserve a marriage. How unconditionally loving he is of his children. How there for family — mine and his. How supportive of friends. How committed to faith through service. How responsible to people he does business with.

When I was 25, I glimpsed these qualities but, without context, without experience, didn’t know what I was seeing. Is he perfect? No, but he’s pretty damned special. I’ve now lived with him longer than I lived without him. Clueless no longer, I know what I’ve got.

 

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The Sunset Years

Eileen reach for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

Reaching for Henry at a family wedding in 1996

A little heartbreaker on my way back from workout this morning. A familiar elfin woman strolled down the street, her hands clasped behind her back. Should I ask her? Until a few weeks ago, she’d always been with her husband. The two looked like the movie trope about the sunset years, in which the elderly couple walks hand in hand, smiling. And something about her reminded me of my mother. They were a neighborhood fixture, along with the woman who walks her two horses, the young parents with the double-wide stroller and two wiemaraners, and the walking-talking lawyer, always on a moving conference call. But the couple was my favorite. I imagined my mother and father into their shoes, living their last years together.

I decided to ask.

She shook her head and said, “He passed away.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that I’d always enjoyed seeing them out together and had noticed his absence. I felt it now, and was sorry for her loss.

“He was brave to the end,” she said, with her faint German accent. Her smile was still there, politely friendly to this inquiring stranger. Her eyes watered.

I remembered sitting with my father on the couch in my parents’ living room the day after my mother died. My mother was everywhere and nowhere. The living room had been redecorated with the help of an interior designer, but the scheme was all her. She chose light gold for the walls, carpet and drapes to compensate for the days the clouds hid the mountains and the landscape turned gray. She hated the dark. Of course there were pops of red, her signature color: true-red cherry blossoms on the Japanese screen, pink-red cranberry glass on the window sill, wine-red velvet on my grandmother’s chair. Next to the couch were the leather-topped end tables for which she constantly admonished us to use a coaster; one had a cigarette burn. I couldn’t imagine her having caused it, even after a glass of wine. She gave up smoking a few times but never kicked the habit. In fourth grade, I conducted my first communications campaign, barraging her with block-lettered “ads” bearing the P.S., “I don’t want you to die!” In the end, smoking killed her, but dementia robbed us of her before that.

I didn’t know how my father would live without her. They were one until death split them asunder.

But in grief there was still memory. At least he still had her image, the moments bad and good. Toward the end, my father said he could no longer remember my mother’s face. That struck me as cruel on God’s part. How could she go missing?

The old couple, walking down the street, always holding hands, allowed me to construct an image of my parents together. A pretend game that gave them back to me, just for a minute. The couple never knew. I never said a word until today. When the woman turned to me, inside the protection of my car, her grief was naked. I hope I let her know that it mattered, that a stranger noticed her beautiful partner was missing. I hope his memory never will be.

Writer’s note: I’ve been silent while working hard on manuscripts for my Bennington College Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. Graduation in June 2016, fingers crossed! Most of what I’m writing doesn’t quite fit the voice of “The Henry Chronicles” but periodically you’ll find me back here! It’s now been two-and-a-half years since my father died. Sometimes it seems longer ago, and sometimes like a few weeks ago. I continue to learn from him even now.

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A Little Moment

My brother's drawing

I remember sitting at our dining room table with an activity book of children’s rhymes when I was about six. On the right side of the page was a poem about a wee elf who seeks shelter from the rain under a toadstool, only to discover that a big dormouse already occupies it. The left side of the page was left blank for the picture that would come from a child’s imagination.

My coloring skills always failed to achieve what I hoped. When, on another page, I had tried to draw a woman in profile, she ended up looking like a cyclops. My brother came upon me with my crayon hovering in mid air as I willed the waxy instrument to conform to my ideal.

I see what happened next in snapshots. My brother Bruce came alongside, leaning over to examine the source of my consternation, his arm draped around my shoulder. I don’t know if I asked for his help or he offered, but he sat down and started drawing.

To watch him draw was to see magic in slow-motion: with pencil he outlined the toadstool, then the big dormouse slumped over in sleep, his paws folded over his chest, his legs hunched against his round tummy.  To the left he outlined the elf — a leprechaun to my way of thinking — with a top hat, jacket and and bow tie. Pointed ears protruded from the elf’s long hair and his finger wagged at the dormouse. Then Bruce traced his outline with crayons — he was careful to use the sharp ones — and lightly shaded the figures. Brown for the dormouse (of course), teal blue for the elf’s jacket and hat, red for the little bow. Bruce implied the grass with a zig-zaggy line of green (I would have scribbled it all in) and left the background alone. As he proceeded step-by-step, my brother gave a tutorial. He explained that I should always start with pencil; pencil can be erased. If I followed my initial lines with color and then shaded the interior, the product would be neater. His eyes met mine often while he demonstrated.The last touch: he penciled in tear-drops of rain. I treasured the drawing as if it were an oil painting of Jesus.

The masterpiece is less important than what it symbolized: that I was worth my brother’s time, his precious teenage time. At the point I am remembering, Bruce would have been sixteen. Older brothers couldn’t be expected to lower themselves to entertain little sisters. But Bruce was different. He smiled with encouragement from the pedestal I had erected for him.

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What We Remember

peanut butter and knife

I’m having a hard time finding enough sympathy cards this month, so many beloved mothers and fathers and husbands have succumbed to time and health challenges. Perhaps it’s the sheer quantity of losses, but I finally noticed: what funny, seemingly unimportant moments become the stuff of stories.

One lovely woman, my neighbor’s mother, was remembered from the pulpit by her four grandchildren. The one who is my son’s age said he remembered three things about “Grandy.” I’ve forgotten what one was but I remember the other two: peanut butter and a knife.

He listed the objects first. Then he started talking about what he remembered from his visits to see his grandmother. He said he’d never forget how she let him eat peanut butter out of a jar with a knife.

It conjures up a perfect moment, doesn’t it? This go-ahead-help-yourself-when-you’re-here-dear approach to visiting? There’s a grandmother who knew enjoying time together was more important than rules. She knew, literally, the sweet spot of her grandchildren, and in small indulgences, showed how well she understood them.

Sometimes it’s the smallest things we remember. The little rituals that stick.

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The Night I (Finally) Understood Christmas

Animal onesie hugsMy favorite Christmas moment was the last one before I fell hard asleep.

I’d been in commandant mode all day, maybe all month, but finally — finally — the presents were opened, the meal was produced, and the family was unpleasantly full after gorging on turkey and all the fixin’s plus some extra fixin’s for good measure. “Ben!” I’d barked at my nephew, “move it!” as I motioned for him to step away from the counter where I planned to set the brimming dishes. Then I added, “I want you to know I speak to you like my own children.”

As if he would understand that I only bark at those I love.

In the moment this picture was taken, this delicious moment after I emerged from bed to take it, my adult daughter and son had returned from checking on two pooches that my son was babysitting over the holidays. He seemed too tired to drive so my daughter, his older sister, agreed to go with him. When they returned, they had concocted the idea to take a picture in front of the tree in his-and-hers animal onesies.

They could hardly stand, they were so tired. I could hardly stand. But I’m so glad that I got out of bed to say goodnight just as my daughter was telling her brother that no one was around to take the picture. Then they saw me: problem solved.

Pictures were taken: arms flung wide, arms wrapped around each other. They’ve been this close since the beginning, a true gift to one another.

Why is it that I just figure Christmas out — remind myself what the season means — about the time it’s over? Until then, it seems, there’s just so much work to do to make it perfect for everyone. Or (let’s be honest, Betsy) to make it perfect enough for my own standards.

Christmas had begun to seep in on Sunday when I finally made it to church. As the advent candle was lit for the fourth Sunday, this blessing was said:

“Love surpasses the secure locations we would choose, the holy nests in precarious places and roots in the fragile.”

I’d been feeling overwhelmed. Broken. With my son applying to teach English in Japan, it had been like college app season all over again, characterized by my own frantic feeling that I needed to make sure he didn’t miss a step. He wanted this, after all, so I was all in. I know what they tell parents — it’s supposed to be their problem, not ours (there’s yet another “should” from whoever “they” are) — but I’m terrible at disconnecting.

So I was sitting in church feeling like a failure, like a rotten mother who, in her effort to ensure that things got done and done right, was turning the holiday season into boot camp. Instead of offering love, I was draining it. Ninety percent of the time I’d been in bitchy mode; the other 10 percent I tried to make up for it.

As the week continued, I couldn’t stop thinking about the blessing of the Advent candle. About precarious and fragile places. About brokenness.

Was this a reminder that love conquers all? That I could make all things right with enough love?

No, I had it on its head. It was a reminder that I was loved — am loved — even in my fragility and weakness. Even when I confuse motherhood with sovereignty.

Then I read Pope Francis’ homily on Christmas Eve. The meaning of the birth of Jesus, he said, “is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.”

God’s love could surpass my smallness? The way I sometimes fail in mothering, the most important role entrusted to me?

Here were my children, standing by the Christmas tree, engulfing one another in a hug, goofy in zebra stripes and leopard spots. Here it is, I thought, what Christmas is really all about. Love, just love. If only I let it in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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