Mr. Mom, Emeritus.

Dear friends,

sinkfix

I dare you to find a maintenance technician with better legs.

In my world, when a distinguished colleague retires, he or she is awarded the title of “Emeritus” if — in fact — the individual’s service and achievements have been exceptionally meritorious.

It’s an honorary title, bestowed infrequently, to only the best.

So imagine my great pride — and melancholy — in telling you Mr. Mom is becoming an Emeritus Caretaker.

In other words, he’s retiring. From Mr. Mom-hood.

Which, in a weird sort of way, really means he’s going back to work. Outside our home.

The transition, which begins today, is more than bittersweet. I’m happy for him because he’s happy for him. He’s been toiling as our caretaker for nearly a decade and with Parker off to college now, there’s only me to care for.

(Not to make light of this. Everyone knows I require a lot of care. And feeding.)

But the last three years in particular have been difficult for him with the Mountain, and he needs both a distraction and an intellectual challenge that doesn’t involve case law or laundry stains. And there’s no denying that with two kids in college, the extra money will be great.

But neither of us made this decision because of money. We made it because — like the last time we transitioned our roles and lifestyle — our careful consideration led us to a mutual conclusion.

We both agreed if we hate it, he’ll quit. I don’t expect him to hate it. I’m not sure about me.

We live in a small town with a first-rate university, a well-respected medical system, and our fair share of manufacturing and scientific industry. It’s a great place to get a job if you’re highly educated. Not so great if you’re a highly skilled tradesman with no desire to work for yourself anymore. So Mr. Mom will be joining the millions of Americans who commute far outside their community to serve as a maintenance technician with a food manufacturing company located an hour away. He’ll be working second shift with a good deal of overtime, which means our evenings watching re-runs of Gunsmoke while enjoying a cocktail are coming to an end. In fact, it means a lot of his free time is coming to an end.

And I’m no dummy, but I think it means some of my free time is coming to an end, too, as we figure out how to divide up responsibility for things like laundry and housekeeping and grocery shopping and all the things he used to handle solo.

It’s weird when I think back about how personally challenged I was by our transition to the lifestyle I now relish. I wrote about it in this essay and, at the time, I really was confronting an existential crisis. (Giving up control of the laundry was a big deal for me, which I’m not proud to admit.) Now — it’s not that I dread stepping back into the role of housekeeper/errand runner, it’s that I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my life is comfortable and I enjoy having Mr. Mom’s full attention and energy. I’m pretty sure evenings at home alone will be lonely until I adjust.

On the flip side, I’m so proud of my mate. Once we made up our minds, he embarked on a job hunt with great enthusiasm, careful research, and impressive results. After being unemployed for what feels like a lifetime in today’s fast-changing world, he found a good-paying job with solid benefits in less than a month. He impressed his new employer on day one, while touring the plant for an interview, when he made several suggestions to improve production efficiency based on just a few tweaks to the equipment.

So . . . that’s my big news. I don’t know what to think yet. Like everything else we’ve tackled, we’ll play it by ear and adjust as necessary. I have butterflies in my stomach, which after 23 years of marriage ain’t a bad thing.

Oh — but there’s this! What in the WORLD will I call Mr. Mom now that he’s not Mr. Mom?

Maintenance Man? Hunk o’ Husband? Hot Legs? I’m at a loss for worthy pseudonyms and welcome your suggestions.

One thing’s for sure. He’s more than deserving of the title Mr. Mom, Emeritus.

With gratitude {for a life that unfolds just as it needs to, just when it needs to},

Joan, who loves that man of hers more than you can imagine

Hell away: My messy beautiful.

*** This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.  To learn more and join us, click here. And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here. ***

Dear friends,

phyllis & jm beach

P and me, circa 1968.

The fact that Kate called me from college during the middle of a business meeting, which I was leading but which I interrupted to answer, was odd enough.

Her questions were even odder.

“I have Sunday off and I’m going to the city to have lunch with Aunt P. I was wondering if you know of a good place to eat in her neighborhood. Also, I want to go to the cemetery and place flowers on Grannie’s grave and I don’t know how to get there.”

On the surface, there are easy answers to Kate’s questions. But my sweet daughter unknowingly unleashed a hornet’s nest of angst in two simple sentences — so much so that I excused myself from the meeting to step outside, where stepping outside equals stepping into the vast wasteland of  my emotion on the topic of my sister.

I’ve had what can politely be described as a “difficult” relationship with my sister. At the time of my mother’s death nearly four years ago, she and I were estranged for reasons not necessary to detail here but related to her lifetime of addiction and my lifetime of carefully cultivated anger. Right before my mother passed, Mom said very little other than she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid to die. But she had a final request: “Please stay close to P,” she asked quietly. “She doesn’t have anyone and she needs you.”

Let me tell you — I could write an irrefutable essay on why deathbed requests should be immediately outlawed, but that’s not the point of this story.  To those living and those departing, deathbed requests are an unfair entreaty, or at least that’s how I felt after eight weeks of being the only family member holding vigil at my mother’s side during her final illness. But faced with my mother’s last request to do the one thing I knew I couldn’t do, I did what any loving daughter would do.

I lied.

“Okay,” I whispered. “I will.”

Six months later, I moved out of state. I moved for a lot of reasons, but being five hours away from my sister was surely at the top of the list.

And, now, here was my daughter, away at college and willing to drive two hours to have lunch with her aunt, whose calls I mostly don’t answer and whose texts I only occasionally return. I’ve always believed the universe sends people signals when they most need them. On this day, I thought the universe must be drunk, too. I didn’t like this signal and it surely was nothing more than a kind of cosmic glitch, an errant sign that had nothing to do with me.

But I took a deep breath and answered my daughter’s questions amid the traffic noise outside my office. I was surprisingly composed but unsurprisingly terse. I told her my sister lives in a terrible neighborhood and there’s no decent place to eat within miles of her house. But don’t take her anywhere fancy, I cautioned, because she looks like a homeless person. And don’t bother going to the cemetery because the grave is still unmarked and you won’t be able to find it. It’s a long story, I said, with the kind of exasperated tone that made it clear the failure to buy a headstone had everything to do with my sister’s broken promises.

It was the worst kind of explanation a mother could give a daughter, especially one as good-hearted as mine. It was shameful, really, but it was all I had. Love didn’t exactly win at that moment.

You know — those of us who are fans of Glennon Melton would break a leg to meet her. I adore Glennon, but you know who I really want to meet? I want to meet Glennon’s Sister. I want to pull Sister aside and ask how she managed to be Sister to the Drunk all those years. Because during my sister’s awful, horrible years when she stole my car and my money and my jewelry and found every way humanly possibly to hurt my mother and nearly got herself killed, more than once by a drunken male companion — I stayed the hell away.

I made sure P knew she was not invited to my wedding. I made my mother promise not to take my children around her. When she was sent to jail, many times, I never bothered to ask where or why or for how long. I refused to visit her in the hospital after she was nearly beaten to death with a steel pipe until my mother tearfully begged me to go, after which I stood in the doorway of her dingy hospital room because I wasn’t brave enough to cross the linoleum abyss between my anger and her pain.

You know, for as hard as it must be to be Drunk — and Glennon has given me so many insights into that experience — it’s also hard to be Sister. I’m not making excuses, I’m just saying sobriety, especially my kind of protective sobriety which looks a lot like furious disapproval, is hard, too. The addicted and the sober — we’re like two jagged stones tumbling down a dirt road, crashing into each other and knocking off our smooth edges, unintentionally making each other sharper and scarring up the soft earth around us. We might be doing the best we can, the only ways we know how — and for Pete’s sake we ought to give each other a break given the circumstances — but it’s so ugly and so painful we don’t know what to do so we just keep tumbling.

Surprisingly, though, after my mother died the anger I had nurtured about my sister over so many years began to fray in a way that startled me. The unraveling of what had safeguarded and sustained me, the tattering that had moved beyond the edges into the center of my tightly woven gall, left me unsteady, as if I had lost the only emotional compass that worked for me with P. I sought a counselor’s assistance because the problem with losing your anger is that it’s not immediately replaced with an emotion you know how to work with.  The absence of fury doesn’t create compassion.  It’s something more like benign forbearance, which isn’t particularly conducive to family reconciliations. The counselor advised me to set the boundaries I needed to protect myself, but to commit to taking action in keeping with my values. Apparently the boundary I needed was 300 miles wide.

I figured I’d think about the values part later.

You know, my husband has this theory that the incarcerated aren’t the only ones in prison. He believes the wardens — and the System that retains them — are locked in the same dreadful dynamic, and the keepers aren’t any more free to leave than the criminals. Who’s to say which side of the bars is more subjugating, he asks?

His insight resonates with me because I haven’t known for a long time who’s on what side of what jail, P and me. She’s paid a steep price, including her health, a good bit of her sanity, and an unbreakable tether to her daily dose at the methadone clinic.

But I’ve paid a price too, one I’m just beginning to calculate. I’ve never believed in a literal hell but I can tell you hell away is a torturous place, maybe exactly what God warned us about, but so close to our noses that we humans couldn’t see it and instead we told stories of fire and brimstone because, you know, speck in her eye.

I don’t have a tidy answer today. I know P loves me, because she never fails to tell me. I know I love her too, because I am starting to let myself feel it, no matter how hard I try to resist and how few times I say it. I know we are sisters because we are breathtakingly imperfect in our sameness and because a million years ago, when she was 16 and I was 6, we rode around in the car together, the windows rolled down and the am radio playing Janis Joplin, who taught us “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

The lyrics held true for her and I suddenly think they have held true for me, too.  Maybe we were destined to spiral downward together, to plumb the depths of our souls in tandem until she hit the rock bottom of reckless addiction and I hit the rock bottom of hardened sobriety.  The landing always hurts, I suddenly realize, but there’s comfort in finding hard ground, in stopping the free fall.

Who knew we would be emancipated together 45 years later?

With gratitude {for daughters, sisters, and second chances},

Joan, but, like my sister, you can call me JM

messybeautiful

 

 

Day 19: Mr. Mom.

Dear friends,

DougJoanStPats

Still crazy about him after all these years.

On the 19th day of this month of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for Mr. Mom.

It’s his 50th birthday. Give him a shout-out, will you?

I have written many, many stories about him. If you followed me over from my former blog, you’ve read most of them. I keep searching for new and better words to capture my enduring affection and respect for the man I met at age 22 and who — nearly 30 years later — still makes my eyes light up and my pulse quicken.

In this space, my favorite posts about Mr. Mom are this one,

and this one

and this one.

Despite continuing attempts, I seem to come up short at expressing what he means to me.

I’ve said he’s my genesis. My steady rudder. My love, my life, and my laughter. The reason I’ve achieved anything worth talking about. The most evolved man I’ve ever known.

And none of that scratches the surface of a man so kind, so thoughtful, so devoid of ego, so generous, so invested in becoming all he can to benefit those he loves that this writer — a woman who thinks she’s pretty adept at stringing words together — quietly contemplates the paucity of her prose and fervently wishes she could do him justice.

Since I can’t, I’ll simply say Happy Birthday, man of my dreams.

With gratitude {for the tall drink of water who took a chance on an over-dressed, under-evolved college girl on a blind date 28 years ago},

Joan, who kind of fancies herself the Diane Cort to Mr. Mom’s Lloyd Dobbler for more reasons than you can imagine, including wild romantic gestures, trench coats, “friends with potential,” and paternal frailties

Parkie Park and the Blue Moon.

Dear friends,

I had a magical day yesterday.

There was, of course, a blue moon and I stood outside in the cool night air to bask in its rare glow. It was a lovely, peaceful moment, standing in my yard in the moonlight while listening to the quiet hum of my home from just beyond its shadow.

Then I came inside and took this photo of my boy.

parker

He ate an after-school snack then fell asleep on the sofa and stayed there until bedtime. After snapping this photo I rubbed his head because I can’t help it. Rubbing the head of men I love is a compulsion. Then I thought about how when he was seven he used to hold my hand and tell me stories, and now he’s nearly seven-feet tall and still tells me stories but won’t hold my hand. So I rub his head when he sleeps and I touch him whenever I’m within arm’s reach because I can’t help that either. He’s nearly grown and sports a beard but he will always be Parkie Park to me and I can’t imagine not reaching for my beautiful boy every chance I get.

Then we all turned in, and just as I was about to fall asleep, Mr. Mom said very quietly “I love you, Bunny. I figure I ought to tell you at least once every blue moon whether you need it or not.”

It made me smile because we say “I love you” almost every single time we fall asleep together. Sometimes I say it, sometimes he says it, but we almost always say it, one then the other. And not in that perfunctory “luv ya” way you might say as you hang up the phone.  We say it in a quiet, deliberate way. Almost like a prayer because it’s that important.

I fell asleep thinking there’s no greater blessing than loving mightily and being loved in equal measure. Under any kind of moon.

With gratitude {for the magic of big moons and big hearts},

Joan, aka “Bunny,” and various and sundry pet names that shall not be disclosed

Love.

Dear friends,

mirror_Snapseed

You know what I love in January?

I love a national holiday that gives me a Monday off.

I love easy craft projects like Valentine’s pennant banners strung with heart-shaped twinkly lights.

I love afternoon naps under wool blankets when it’s 20 degrees outside.

I love being home all day with my boys.

I love chicken thighs cooked in wine and butter and then braised for several hours with mushrooms and leeks and brussel sprouts for supper.

And, I love a workweek that’s 20% complete before it ever begins.

With gratitude {for all of these things on a bright January day},

Joan, who can’t seem to reconcile her love for homespun pennant banners with her modern house and has given up trying

Abundant blessings.

Dear friends,

Not what we say about our blessings but how we use them is the true measure of our thanksgiving.

– W.T. Purksier

My heart is full this Thanksgiving, brimming with gratitude for our abundant blessings.  Our table is full and our bounty is evident.  A house full of guests, love for each other, good health, a delicious meal shared in safety and comfort . . . peace . . . these are the jewels of this day I dare not take for granted. May we use these blessings, in measures large and small, that reflect a glad and generous heart.

And I wish you, dear friends, abundant blessings.  Drop in sometime this holiday weekend, won’t you, and leave me a comment letting me know how you’re spending your Thanksgiving?  Power eating . . . football cheering . . . napping . . . traveling over hill and dale to see loved ones . . . whatever your activity, I wish you good cheer and godspeed.

I’ll be here on our beautiful Missouri acreage, happily humming ‘round the kitchen, delivering stealth hugs and kisses to any child within arm’s reach, and steeping in the life God has granted me.

With gratitude {for abundant blessings},

Joan, who’s got 13 tasks on her Thanksgiving to-do list today and has already completed three of them while the six other souls in her home sleep soundly

The teary thing.

Dear friends,

So I told you the other day I had a million things running through my mind, and this is the third thing that is falling onto the page, one I never guessed I would share.

You see, I was reading Momastery the other day and I stumbled across this post from a year ago. I was reading Glennon’s story about Anna’s story, about death and fear and courage, and I cried and cried. And all the crying prompted half of the million-bazillion thoughts racing through my mind until I pushed them away because, geeeeeez, who needs a downer first thing in the morning? And despite the teary start to that day, my week turned out pretty darn great (a hard project completed, a financial reward, a lovely surprise from my oldest child).

And so by Friday, you know, I went to bed feeling happy. I closed my eyes and one sentence, 13 words that began with “When I was nine years old . . .” popped into my head. Just popped into my head and announced that I needed to rise. And so I crawled out of bed well after midnight and found my laptop in the dark and opened a blank document and filled it with a story that spilled out fully formed in a matter of minutes, 1,226 words that were born out of Glennon’s story about Anna’s story.

My story seems heavy, but don’t take it that way. Because I feel a lightness, a peace, an unshakable confidence in the power of love. One minute I was afraid and the next I wasn’t and I just sorta thought well, huh, this is different. And two years later, Glennon inspired me to dig deep and write it down.

With gratitude {for all the real Superheroes of the world, also known as Mothers},

Joan, who also has an unshakable confidence in the power of telling our stories

Witness

When I was nine years old, my maternal grandfather died in our bathroom. He had been on the toilet and something happened. I’m not sure what, something with his heart I think. I was in the living room engrossed in The Waltons when I heard my mother yelling for help.

There was no one to help. My maternal grandmother had suffered a stroke a few months earlier and was still recovering. She sat lame and mute on the sofa while I sat frozen nearby, both of us listening to my mother’s pleas.

“Please help me! Please call someone!” my mother frantically pleaded.  This was before the days of 9-1-1. I have little memory of making the call other than fumbling with the phone. I don’t even recall who I phoned – the Fire Department maybe – because soon enough they showed up. A long time later, two men in uniforms took my grandfather out on a gurney, a black drape over his body. It was late and very dark outside and I remember sitting under the harsh overhead light in our living room and staring out our front door, which had been propped open by the firemen and seemed like the portal to a darkness I would fear for a very long time.

The next day my mother sent me to stay with my widowed paternal grandmother who lived an hour away.  I loved my Gram but she was even older than my grandfather and as soon as evening rolled around, I became anxious. If something happened to Gram, I knew I would bear witness to her passing all alone. I don’t recall how I coped through the first night or two, but as the days passed on, I started inventing reasons to invite younger adults over or spend our evenings anywhere but alone together in my Gram’s house. I was terrified of being alone with old people after dark for a very long time.

Two years later, my brother died in his sleep at age 26. He was married and – for reasons I don’t to this day understand – his wife called my mother on the phone to tell her. Once again, my disabled grandmother sat mute and I sat frozen in our living room on an early Saturday morning as my mother absorbed the loss of her son over the phone amidst the din of Looney Tunes on our hulking console television.

I will never forget my mother’s wailing. She rushed to the bathroom and lost her bowels and vomited violently and screamed and retched like nothing I had ever seen. I cried and screamed, too, begging her to stop. She couldn’t stop.  I left the bathroom and went to my bedroom and shut the door. I have no memory of who tended to my mother – or my grandmother, for that matter — on that day.

A few years later, my grandmother, who had been failing for so many years, finally died at home, too. I was away at summer camp. My father – who I rarely saw — arrived unannounced in the middle of the night to retrieve me. All I could think of was “Thank god I got to miss this one.” My father had been drinking, and as he drove dangerously fast for more than two hours over the narrow and curving two-lane road back to my mother’s home, I recall wondering if death by automobile accident was preferable to other options.

And so, by the time I was a teenager, I had grown to fear death like no other occurrence, no matter how it arrived. I had been witness to its ravages, on the souls departed and the souls remaining, poor souls wounded and grieving, mute and wailing, young and old. I figured I might do anything to sidestep its grasp, from siding with God or bargaining with the Devil, to living healthy so as to delay its arrival as long as possible, to closing off my heart so that if it claimed another loved one, I wouldn’t feel it, wouldn’t fall into a shock, wouldn’t retch until my bones crumbled into a dust that choked me from the inside out.

***

It was Winston Churchill, I think, who said the only thing to fear is fear itself.  I got it, the very first time I heard those words in school. The fear could kill you too, he knew and I knew, more slowly, more deliberately than any real threat. Because despite the shock of losing three family members at such a young age, the rest of my adolescence and young adulthood were free of death or even hardship of most sorts, except the kind you carry around in your heart that you don’t want to hold and yet can’t release because even fear becomes an old friend after so long, a friend just waiting for you to turn your head so he can strangle you.

It’s funny to me how adult coping mechanisms are so similar to youthful ones, the bargains, the distractions, the rationalizations, easily conjured in age-appropriate expressions. I watched as family members fell prey to the kind of distractions that came in a bottle, or a needle, or a capsule and vowed to find another path. Mine became a particularly astringent kind of stoicism that bent to neither pleasure nor pain, a furious sobriety that could just as easily choke you from the inside out.

And then I had babies and the whole world changed.  I hid under my wings two beautiful and miraculous creatures, rendered so perfectly, so wholly sublime I thought my heart might burst like the Grinch’s from growing three sizes too big in an instant.  And oh my god I panicked. I remembered my mother and I panicked. Most people didn’t see it, but my husband sensed it, the way I fretted excessively over every fever, every cut, every potentially injurious speck that invaded their realm. When they lived through all their childhood illnesses and seemed to be safe and thriving, I invented nightmares to torture myself until I awoke in a fright because remember how I said fear can be an old friend and I seemed to need one in the midst of so much happiness that I worried couldn’t last.

***

Not long before my mother died, I held her hand and we cried together in a dark hospital room. We didn’t talk much, just a few words. We were staring down death together, as we had those times before, but this day calmly and quietly. She said she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid either, for the first time. How had I blamed her all those years for frightening me so, and yet this time, she was leading me, helping me through it? Did she know, had she planned for this last gift to me of peace and courage? Her silhouette was so small, so frail, but she was a medal of bravery, burnished by life’s hard edges, glowing in the distant light from outside the door of her hospital room. We were looking from the dark into the light, a literal antonym of the portal etched in my memory on the first night I met death at age nine.  It was as if she was saying, “See, you can do it.  You can feel it and endure it.”

And I finally, wondrously came to understand that crazy retching love is not the thing to fear, not the thing that crushes you in the face of unimaginable loss, but the thing that sustains you and substantiates you and buoys your injured soul across the Sea of Healing until you are able to swim alone again.

My mother taught me that. It just took me many years to understand the lesson.

It’s a beautiful day in New York.

Dear friends,

It’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting in a Starbucks window seat on the Upper West Side drinking my latte and watching the world walk by (so very “You’ve Got Mail”).

It’s a beautiful day in New York City.

Over the last four days, my responsibilities and anxieties have melted away and all that remains is one fabulous, monumentally memorable mother-daughter trip.

I’m relaxed. I’m happy. My heart is full with gratitude for the gift of this time with Kate. I’m guessing it won’t surprise you to hear that I have very nearly burst into tears a million times — so many things have moved me these last few days. Even as I type this and look out the window while waiting on Kate to fill her coffee order, I am overflowing with joy.

There is beauty everywhere.

We’re off now — to soak up one last day in the city. Truth is, though, we could be anywhere. Mostly I am off to soak up one more glorious day of memories with my sweet child.

Here’s wishing you a wonderful Saturday, too!

With gratitude {for all the love and beauty in this world},

Joan, who is convinced travel is a fool-proof tonic for the soul

Welcome home, Mr. Mom.

Dear friends,

Mr. Mom will be home today. He’s only been gone for a few days, but I miss him terribly. In honor of his return, I’m republishing a story I wrote about him for Valentine’s Day a few years ago. He might be a creaky old man, but he’ll always be my sweetheart.

With gratitude {for love, sweet love},

Joan, who loves to call her man an old man with various other adjectives preceding it depending on her mood

A Valentine.

First published February 14, 2009

Twenty-three years and 52 days ago, I met Mr. Mom on a blind date.  And six years later we got married by the skin of our teeth.

But today — when I’m reminded of the particular way Cupid’s arrow pierced my heart so long ago —  I feel like meditating on love’s bloom.  After all, a Valentine is nothing if not a promise, and what could possibly offer more promise than the heady fragrance, alluring color and enduring propagation of love’s blossom?

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a girlfriend who was on the outs with her husband.  She didn’t want to vent so much as she needed a sympathetic ear to walk with her down marriage’s meandering path.  I listened and she processed, and by the time lunch was over she left with new insights and a softened heart.  But in the middle of our discussion about love’s annoyances, I inexplicably thought of a story about Mr. Mom, which I told her, but not without choking back tears.

And it seemed so strange to me, this sudden sweep of emotion over Pad Thai in a noisy restaurant during a conversation that was essentially about the millions of ways the male species make us bat-shit crazy.  And they do make us crazy . . . so crazy that on certain days, a certain woman might be inclined to sew her husband up in the sheets.

I know this doesn’t make sense to you.  It’s one of those inside jokes all couples have — code language that communicates emotion in an instant.

In our house, “sewing him up in the sheets” refers to a story Mr. Mom first told years ago and swears is true.  He claims he knows a guy who knows a guy who drank too much and had a tendency to get ugly with the wife when he drank.  And one night, after years of enduring drunken ugliness, the woman waited for her husband to pass out, then she sewed him up in the sheets.  And once he had been securely stitched in place, she picked up a baseball bat and beat the holy hell out of him.  And according to Mr. Mom’s legend, the man never drank or acted ugly again.

And Mr. Mom knows when I say I’m going to sew him up in the sheets that I’m on the edge of crazy and his next word might just push me over the cliff.  But what he probably doesn’t know is that, sometimes, the telling of his kindness moves me to tears.

My mother met Mr. Mom not long after I did.  And she only said two things to me about him.  First: “Lord, Joan-Marie, that is the skinniest boy I’ve ever seen.”  And second: “He’s very kind.”

I’d like to think that 23 years ago I was smart enough to know kindness is the first mark of a good man, but I wasn’t.  I think it’s a lesson the universe wanted me to learn — how to be kind and generous — and so I ended up with a partner whose every day in our home is marked by putting others first. Some readers might be inclined to assume I’m talking about everything Mr. Mom does for me.  And heaven knows he does a lot.  But I’m not talking about how much I love him because he cooks and cleans and runs errands and cares for children and generally makes my life easier.  If you read this post, you know there were many years of our marriage when our roles were reversed, when he worked very long hours and I carried much of the domestic burden.  So while his kindness is today marked by an uncommon level of service to our family, it wasn’t always that way.

But what has been a constant from Mr. Mom is a measure of respect and affection I don’t often see in other men.  There’s always been the sense from Mr. Mom that we’re in this together, no matter what, and that partners give first, take later.  I didn’t know that when I met him and it’s a lesson I still sometimes fail at today — both as a spouse and as a parent.  But his enduring example leads me toward a better me, the me I aspire to see reflected in his gaze.

When Kate was born 16  years ago, we spent a few extra days in the hospital because the little squirt had demanded a difficult c-section.  And during one of those luxuriously quiet evenings in our hospital room when both sleep and nursing help were still plentiful, I invited Mr. Mom to join Kate and me in the bed.  As the three of us spooned in the twilight and the silence, I whispered to him “Everything good in my life has come from you.”  I have no idea if he remembers that moment or the sentiment, but I still feel as strongly about those words as I did on that day.  He is my genesis, bringing both love and joy into a life that would be adrift without his sure rudder.

In case you’re curious about the story I recently told my friend, the story that moved me to tears of gratitude during a conversation in which she’s sharing love’s difficulties (yeah, that’s a little awkward), it’s this:

When I graduated with my master’s degree last May, Mr. Mom gave me a special gift.  He’s not known for hitting home runs with gifts, particularly if left to his own devices.  In fact, I once told him he’s a 2 on a gift-giving scale of 1-to-10.  But on that day, which represented the culmination of years of hard work and personal sacrifice and a lifetime of feeling like I’ve never quite done enough, he handed me a small jewelry box.  At first, I thought he might have actually gone for the grand gesture and purchased a diamond of some sort.  Instead, I was surprised to open the box and find a small pewter turtle inside.  And then he said this:

“In Native American mythology, the turtle represents burden because it carries the world on its back.  And you’ve been the turtle for so long in our family.  Now that you’ve accomplished this very significant achievement, I hope you’ll release some of your burden, let go of worry, and enjoy your life with me and the kids.”

And how can a girl possibly turn down an offer like that?

Mother’s way.

Dear friends,

My mother, circa 1985.

Like any daughter, I have a wealth of memories of my mother from my childhood.

But as a grown up, I have one abiding memory, a thread of recollection that runs throughout my life from young adulthood to now.

This memory is of my mother’s words – the question I most often heard her ask: How can I help?

How can I help?” is the question she asked more often than “How are you?” “How can I help?” are the words she offered more often than “I love you.” For my mother, service was love, and she stood by to help in any way that she could, on any day that she could, with anything I needed.

If Mom heard I was going to paint, she’d ask how she could help then show up with a roller. (My mother and I must have painted thousands of square feet together over the years.) If she heard I had purchased wallpaper, she’d ask how she could help then show up to watch the kids. (Strangely, she could do most anything but never learned the art of wallpapering.) Garage sale? She’d show up to tag and organize everything — and she was a master at pricing for a quick sale. Spring cleaning? She’d volunteer for the most difficult tasks, like tackling my oven. When I bought my first house at age 26 and declared I was going to spend Memorial Day weekend refurbishing the oak floors, she spent three days on her hands and knees beside me.

Mom, helping me string twinkly lights for my wedding reception, 1991.

When I was seven months pregnant with Kate, my mother heard me talking about taking a week’s vacation to decorate the nursery (on a shoestring budget, of course, because Mr. Mom and I had little money). She decided to take a week’s vacation, too. We set up two sewing machines, side-by-side, in the soon-to-be nursery, and together we made curtains, blankets, a quilt, a dust ruffle, a crib bumper and more out of coordinating fabric purchased on clearance. Then she painted while I wallpapered. I was 30 and she was 63 and it was one of the loveliest, albeit exhausting, weeks I ever spent with my mother. But when it was over, I had a dream nursery for my first child, purchased with not much more than the elbow grease of an expectant mother and her tireless assistant.

Sweet baby Kate in the nursery her mother and grandmother made, 1993.

And as if she hadn’t done enough over the years, she raised my children, serving as our nanny, cook, laundress and errand girl for the first 11 years of Kate’s life. She’d show up at 7:00 am so she’d have to time to prepare breakfast for anybody who wanted it — and, invariably, before I walked out the door to go to work, she would ask “Is there anything special I can do today?”

As a young woman with my own selfish interests, I always thought it odd that my mother was so eager to help. Every once in a while, I wondered why she never seemed to cultivate her own interests. As I grew older, I also grew to understand my mother’s heart and to realize service in any form – cooking supper, ironing a dress, scrubbing a shower – was a tangible expression of love for her, and expressing her love was her primary interest. I truly never knew a woman more selfless.

In recent days as I have contemplated Kate’s impending move and our diminishing time together, I have been unusually attuned to her needs, and I have stepped in to offer more assistance than is typical for me given that is Mr. Mom’s territory. As I helped Kate paint a sign Wednesday evening, it all of a sudden hit me – that’s why my mother was so eager to help! All that time she spent working beside me was not only an opportunity for her to express her love, it was also a chance for her to spend time in the presence of her “busy” adult daughter.

I can’t believe it took me 49 years to figure this out. I always thanked Mom for helping me, but I don’t recall ever thanking her for spending time with me.

And that was her real calling in life.

With gratitude {for the priceless blessing that comes with being loved beyond measure},

Joan, who will give her children an extra hug today on behalf of their Grannie who loved them so very much

I miss thee, my Mother! Thy image is still
The deepest impressed on my heart.

                                                             -Eliza Cook

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