The Great Clean Out of 2017.

kitchen

Dear friends,

One of my favorite memories about my unconventional father is his “honor garage sales.” Although I spent most of my life separated from my father, I lived with him for two full years in college. (It was a little weird; after all those years apart we were suddenly adult roommates.) Bob loved money and loved cutting a deal, but he didn’t much care for the logistics and customer relations aspects of hosting a garage sale. So he tagged all his items and displayed them in the front yard with a sign describing the rules of his garage sale. (“Take your item and leave your money in the envelope in the mailbox.”) Then he drove to the neighborhood bar where he threw back a few and waited out the crowd. Several hours later, Bob came home to an envelope full of money and a mostly cleared yard. What a deal!

I’ve started off 2017 with a New Year’s Resolution to purge my life of excess baggage.  My approach is a little different than Bob’s but it works for me. I made an extensive list of every “space” in my home to be purged, cleaned and/or reorganized. I mentally gave myself a full year to do the job, but I was exceptionally industrious in January and made a ton of progress. I purposefully avoided a list that said “Clean Den” because I knew it would be overwhelming. The key to success, I figured, was the satisfaction of seeing regular check marks indicating progress on my list.

In that spirit, my list says things like “De-clutter nightstands.” “Purge jewelry drawer.” “Tackle the den bookshelves.” You know . . . bite-size, manageable chunks. So far, I’ve tackled my dish pantry (it took an entire day); my dining room buffet; every single drawer and cabinet in my kitchen (all 39 of them), including the kitchen counter tops, coffee stand, and kitchen appliance cart; hung a new light fixture in the kitchen (okay, Mr. Mom did that, but I helped); repainted the fireplace mantle and screen; purged and reorganized the front coat closet; Mr. Mom’s closet; the mud room (really a glorified alcove); the master bathroom sink cabinet; every table surface and wall in the living room; and the half bath counter top. I’ve hauled too many car loads to count of purged possessions to a local charity resale store. And I’ve still got a long ways to go.

Including a basement that’s not even on the list because it’s too overwhelming.

But hey, it’s only February, right? And you ought to see my house. It really is looking so good.

I’m not sure that any woman who calls herself Magpie and has an entire pantry of dishes (on top of all the dishes in her large kitchen) can ever claim to be a minimalist. But, lordy, you ought to see how de-cluttered my house is looking. There are tables and counter tops and walls with plenty of open space. The drawers are organized. There are EMPTY drawers! (Okay, there’s one empty drawer in my buffet, but still. It’s EMPTY!) I actually gave away one bag of table linens and several boxes of dishes, my most treasured collections.

And I feel so good about my newly airy 2500 square feet of dwelling space!

Actually, I feel guilty. A little. Because no good deed goes unpunished in the Magpie psyche, I feel bad for living in such a big house and having spent money over the years on so many possessions I’m now giving away. But I read this article earlier this week and decided to “own my mistakes” and “let go.” And even Mr. Mom has given me an important affirmation. A couple of weeks ago he said “Things are really looking good honey. The key, I think, now is to maintain it. Quit bringing stuff home.”

No penance for past sins. Just forward progress. He’s a gem of a guy, ain’t he?

And I really feel like I’ve turned the corner emotionally. I amused my friends when I declared I was going to pare a little each year until five years from my death I would live in a very small space and be free of possessions. They are anxious to know how I’m going to know when I’m five years from death. But I figure barring a tragic accident or very sudden illness, I’ll know. And I’ll trim accordingly because I’m committed to not leaving a trail of possessions for my loved ones to deal with. It’s not what defines me, much as I’ve allowed it to as reflected in my self-selected nickname.

It’s worth mentioning my friend and colleague died suddenly two weeks ago at age 59. I absolutely adore his wife and our circle of friends’ shared grief has been a bit of a wake-up call. Life is short. Hug your people. Tell them you love them every day. Get your shit in order and focus on love and kindness, not things. I hear the message, dear universe.

I’m not only cleaning out the physical clutter, I’m sweeping away the emotional detritus. Or trying to, anyway. And I’m telling everyone I care about in every way I know how — I love you!

And there’s a minimalist quality to those three simple words that are fitting, don’t you think?

With gratitude {for the energy and inspiration to clean, for the incredible luxury of worldly goods I can share with others, for a large circle of peeps to love, for today’s breath},

Joan, who thinks Bob almost had it just right and is seriously contemplating a “charity garage sale” where everything is free, first come, first served, and wonders what you think about her crackpot idea

 

 

 

In memory.

Dear friends,

Bob Crenshaw Army

My father passed on Sunday, just nine short weeks after I learned he had brain cancer. Ever since I got the phone call Sunday morning just after 4:00 am, time has slowed down. Hours last days, and days last weeks, and I remember every little thing I thought I had forgotten. I’m in that odd space where grief seems like lead in my limbs and gravity threatens to crush me until the tiniest kind word or gesture lifts me up in unexpected ways and my heart swells again and I think “Maybe I won’t die of heaviness after all.”

We buried him yesterday and because I have an unnatural and acute fear of anyone I love suffering from a bad eulogy, I wrote my father’s. I’m sharing it here because talking about him and writing about him is comforting. Glennon Melton says when someone suffers a loss, gather up all your brave and rush in. You don’t have to know what to say or what to do, you just have to show up. I’ve been amazed at the people who have shown up, with texts and phone calls and emails and cards and gifts and — in the case of Mr. Mom — more kindnesses and favors than you can possibly imagine.

I needed your brave and I thank you for it.

With gratitude {for kindnesses from near and far},

Joan-Marie, daughter of Robert, son of Marie, family of an Indian Territory town that will always be home

My Father’s Eulogy

I want to begin by saying – strange as it sounds – how happy I am to be here today. This place, this cemetery, means so much to me. I feel like I grew up here and I’m certain my cousins know what I’m talking about. For my grandmother Marie, my great Aunt Hazel, my Aunt Mary, my cousin Big Betty (not to be confused with my cousin Betty Marie) and her sister Virginia, this place meant so much to them that they visited often and they dragged us kids along. “Let’s go to the cemetery” someone would say and off we’d go! I remember doing cartwheels and playing chase with my cousins while the adults did whatever it was they did here and so it never seemed like a sad place to me. When we had a family reunion at my house in 2009, three or four generations of us loaded up in cars and came here after our dinner. I have a photo of Daddy from that day standing near this spot. For the five years I lived in this town as an adult, I even used to run through here at 5:30 am, morning after morning, never once deterred by the thought of running through a pitch black cemetery alone. My family is buried here and the family of my lifelong friends are buried here and so there is something profoundly intimate and comforting about coming to this place today to honor my father. I want to thank all of you for being here to honor him as well.

A few weeks ago when I found out Daddy was sick, I wrote an essay titled “Questions for my Dying Father.” In it, I reflected on all the things I don’t know about him, all the things we didn’t talk about, like his service in World War II or, of course, his wives. I mentioned that I knew what his favorite steak was but not all the places he had worked — and I wondered how I had failed to learn such important details of my father’s long life.

A friend of mine emailed me not long after I posted my essay. Carolyn is a fundraiser for a facility that provides long-term care and aging services, so my friend has an informed perspective on the needs of elderly patients and their families. She reassured me by writing “Knowing your Dad’s favorite steak is infinitely more important than the stuff of life’s resume. The rib-eye is what matters and I’m glad you are there for him.”

It was such a kind and thoughtful thing to say to a daughter who spent far more time away from her father than with him. And it helped me move on from what I don’t know to what I do.

What I know about my father is that he was one of a kind. Everybody who knew him knew that. Highly intelligent and well spoken, he had the ability to command the attention of others whenever he wanted. He could cut to the chase like no one I know, and I suspect his directness complicated his life at times but you always knew where you stood with Bob. By the way, I have a reputation for candor and directness, too, so there’s no question whose daughter I am.

He enjoyed solitude and he spent a lot of his time there. I often wondered about the paradox of a man who married so many times yet liked to be alone as much as he did. The demands of solitude include being comfortable with your own thoughts and abilities and Daddy was clearly confident enough to sail his own ship. I think there is a unique valor required to stand alone, to swim against the tide, and I’ve always admired his sturdy self-reliance and willingness to – as he put it – “call his own shots.”

He was eternally optimistic. His love for gambling is proof of that. In fact, I think his willingness to put down his money and bet it all is a sign of immense idealism. Nobody would call Bob a pragmatist, he of the grand gestures and generous spirit. He told me not long before he died that he often loaned money to his friends and neighbors. Now I had always known that if you needed money, Bob was the man to see. Of his neighbors, he told me “Sometimes they pay me back and sometimes they don’t.” He could tell you in a heartbeat how much he was owed and by whom, and yet he never seemed to be keeping a tab beyond the dollars and cents of this life. For someone who was never rich, he shared in abundance.

When I was in fifth grade, I made straight As my first semester. He told me if I kept it up, if I made straight As all year, he would give me a hundred dollar bill. I spent months pouring through the Sears and Roebuck catalog at my grandmother’s house, making lists of what I would spend my money on. In 1972 you could buy a lot with a hundred dollars and I mentally spent my money 20 times over with various lists of goodies to be purchased. I earned the grades and Daddy paid up, of course, but I think he knew it wasn’t the hundred dollars that was the gift. But rather — the months of anticipation of a hundred dollars is where the real fun is. After all, he played the lotto up until the end of his life and he always said if he hit big, he’d share it all with his family.

Despite his generosity and candor, he could also be circumspect. I was looking through some old files the other day and I found a letter from my mother to me in 1988 when I lived in Boston. She had been writing me and begging me to move home but in this particular letter she wrote “I talked to your father today. He told me not to pressure you and to let you make up your own mind.” Then she told me that if I did decide to move home, he had already figured out three different plans for moving my household halfway across the country. That was just like Daddy: he understood the virtue of self-determination but could make you a plan like nobody’s business when needed.

Most things in this life that are wonderful or extravagant or refined, I learned about from my father. I ate my first lobster with him. I had my first room service meal with him, and I thought it was so fancy that our dinner came on china plates topped with silver domes on a rolling cart. I remember sitting at his kitchen table with him and eating steamed artichokes with drawn butter. He taught me how to eat the soft flesh of the artichoke petal with my front teeth. He made a terrific crab salad and avocado dip. I usually say I got my cooking skills from my mother but I know I got my taste from my father. He took me to restaurants with starched white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers. Once, when my mother offered to take me and my grandmother out for a hamburger, I protested saying “I want to go to a place like Daddy would take me. I want to go to a restaurant with atmosphere.” To this day I judge a restaurant by my father’s high standard.

My friend Carolyn has a philosophy about parenting. She says one parent brings the tree and one brings the ornaments and a child needs both to make Christmas out of her life. There’s no doubt that Daddy brought the decoration, the sparkle, to the life of his youngest daughter.

I love him and I will miss him.

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.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

Dear friends,

Now that both my children are older, both driving, both moving about the world in ways I no longer see and supervise, I find myself confronting a new kind of parental anxiety.

Hold on? Let go?

Of course, it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy. It’s always the degrees in life that get you.

A young child in our community died recently, of a sudden illness. Our school sent parents a note about contagious diseases and proper precautions, although we all know there’s never proper anything that makes us feel better in these situations. Our entire community grieved over this unimaginable loss, and all parents who hear this kind of story feel a sharp pang of fear in knowing it could have been their child. Could have been their loss.

Sunday afternoon I tripped across this mother’s story. She lost her 12-year-old son last year in an accident in a creek on a rainy day. Not long after I finished reading the story, Parker came home after spending the night at a friend’s house. He popped in long enough to say he was going to grab his swimsuit and return to the friend’s house to swim in the creek behind his house.

“Okay,” Mr. Mom said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.

Obviously, reading a story about a 12-year-old boy dying in a creek on a rainy day right before my 16-year-old announces his attention to go swimming in one after a day of heavy rain makes me worry. But even if I hadn’t read the story, I probably would have asked the same questions: Who will you be with? How deep and wide is the creek? Don’t you think it’s too cold and too early in the year to be swimming?

And the hardest questions of all: To what degree do I assert my concern, both with Mr. Mom and Parker, and do I allow their judgment to override my fear?

In the end, Parker went swimming. And he came home safe two hours later. Upon questioning, he said the water was not running fast. It was deep (perhaps 10 feet he estimated, which doesn’t make it a “creek” in my book) and cold. It was also fun, he said, in the same voice Mr. Mom had privately described to me what he considered reasonable boyhood adventures after Parker left with his swimsuit.

Mr. Mom lived through what I would describe as a largely unsafe adolescence. I lived through a very tame one. How I reconcile our varying degrees of parental comfort based on very different experiences is another one of those questions I struggle with.

My comfort level is further eroded because my brother died in his early 20s due to complications from a motorcycle accident. I was 11 when I watched my mother lose her only son, so I’ve spent a lifetime fearing that kind of grief more than anything.

If you are a person of great faith, I suppose you look to the Lord for comfort and answers. If you are a person of little or no faith, I suppose both are hard to come by. If you are a person in the middle, like so many are, I imagine you swing between divine purpose and pointless longing for what can’t be undone depending on the tenor of your grief on that day and hour.

To his credit, Mr. Mom has always been respectful of my concerns, even if he thinks I’m being overprotective. He usually starts on one end of the spectrum and I start on the other, and so far we’ve managed to grope our way to the middle. Or what feels like middle ground to the two of us.

At some point, I guess, all parents have to learn to reasonably judge their child’s strengths, frailties, attraction to risk, and ability to self-manage among peers in uncertain circumstances. I always judge more conservatively than Mr. Mom. I guess I’ve gotten comfortable with him tugging me his direction a little.

Some days, though, when you read of the tragic loss of others, you never get comfortable.

Until the child, who will always be your child no matter his age, walks in the door.

With gratitude {for two kids who have so far escaped serious injury and their mother’s worrying},

Joan, who comes from a long line of worrywarts but has managed to release some of her irrational fears, arachnophobia and batophobia nothwithstanding