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.

Cranking out the awesome.

Dear friends,

In the last few weeks, I’ve taken refuge in my quilting studio. Five years ago as my mother lay dying, I found solace in long runs. I cried my eyes out through most of them (and let me tell you . . . snotting through seven miles is no easy feat), but I managed to find the release I needed to make the transition to life as a motherless daughter.

Now that my father is dying, I’m quilting my way through it. It’s not that I’m not running. I am. But I have running buddies now and instead of being overcome by emotion as I pound the pavement, we chat about the minutiae of  our lives. So the place I go to escape, to reflect, to occasionally burst into tears, is my quilting studio.

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that I’ve been cranking out the awesome. Back in January, I committed to four quilts — two for babies of friends and two for strangers in Instagram swaps. After a long spring of doing very little, I finally kicked into high gear and got two quilts out the door last week and have another more than half finished. It feels good to turn my restless worry and sadness into something beautiful. Would you like to see my work?

(That was a rhetorical question. I’m going to assume you’re nodding.)

The first and most difficult is a baby quilt for a colleague. I was charmed by the pattern months ago and thought it would make a perfect child’s quilt with some whimsical fabric I had been hoarding for a long time. I started the quilt right after the new year, but it was a tedious pattern to construct so after making a block or two, I stalled for a very long time.

Nevertheless, I unveiled it last Wednesday at the baby shower and I think it’s the finest quilt I’ve ever made. Here’s a close up view.

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Isn’t it just as sweet as can be? When I began the quilt, I didn’t know the gender of the baby so I tried to keep it as neutral as possible. I later found out my colleague is having a girl so I started using a lot more of the dark pink tones. Little Hattie was born yesterday and here’s a view of her entire quilt.

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The back is also as cute as can be, with grey fabric that coordinates with the front border and pieced stripes using pink fabrics from the entire line.

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Once I finished this quilt, I quickly finished another — a mini I began back in March and also stalled on. It should arrive at my secret swap partner’s house TODAY, so I’ll be excited to watch my Instagram feed and see if she likes it.

The rules of the swap specified that we use a particular fabric line and do our best to match our partner’s tastes. She said she likes blues and greens and prefers traditional patterns, so — even though I like improvisational designs — I gave it my best go. Here it is:

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It’s a petite 24″X24″, perfect for hanging on every quilter’s coveted “mini wall.” By the way, the fabric line is called Cotton + Steel by RJR Fabrics and it’s the hottest thing to hit quilting in a long time. I kept the back simple with just  navy fabric from the front and a snippet of the selvedge to commemorate the Cotton + Steel theme.

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As soon as I finished this mini, I started another baby quilt. This one is for a colleague and dear friend’s first grandbaby. Unfortunately, sweet baby Pearl was born two days ago so I’m behind the curve on this one. But see what you think about what I’ve completed so far:

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The fabric line is called Pearl Bracelets. I used it a long time ago in Kate’s tennis quilt, so as soon as I learned my friend’s grandbaby would be named Pearl, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  Pearl’s nursery is decorated in bright colors so I think my quilt will strike just the right note.

Finally, after I started the first baby quilt (but before I finished it), I made three table runners as birthday gifts for friends. I won’t bore you with photos of each since they were all made with the same fabric selections and constructed with slight variations, but I’ll show you one of my favorites:

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Purty, huh?

And, somehow, that helps. The act of creating and sharing has sustained humans since the start of time, especially during periods of great pain and loss. The definition of art is “something created from imagination that is beautiful and expresses important ideas or feelings.” I’ll let the recipients decide if my work is beautiful but I’m certain it expresses the love I’m feeling in abundance as I contemplate the last Father’s Day with my Daddy.

With gratitude {for another day, to breathe, to love, to create, to share},

Joan, who wishes you and yours the happiest of Father’s Day near the ones you love

Questions for my dying father.

Bob and JM 1962

“Hi Daddy,” I said cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”

“No good,” he said, firmly but quietly. He sounded far away and tired, which he was. “No good” came out sounding like one word . . . nogood . . . as if enunciation of separate words was a chore. It was the same answer he’d given me the last few days in a row. Why I kept asking is a bit of a mystery. He’s 93. He’s dying of kidney and brain cancer. He’s in hospice and hasn’t eaten in nearly a month. Do I expect him to suddenly report he’s feeling better?

“I have a question for you” I said confidently, as if I had rehearsed. Truth is, I had, sort of. Mentally at least.

“I want to know about your wives.”

“What?” he asked. He sounded astonished or possibly just confused. Like maybe he thought the phone wasn’t working properly. Or maybe his brain wasn’t. Cancer does weird things.

“Your wives. I want to know about them. You never talk about them.” My heart was pounding.

“Oh Joan-Maire,” he said, his voice and his precious little stamina trailing off. “You’re asking me to remember things. ”

***

I remember things, but the problem for me now that my father is dying is that I don’t remember enough. I don’t know enough. For years, I didn’t hear enough or see enough and I don’t know the stories. Like any writer, stories are precious to me, the jewels of my life and my connection to my family and it feels like there simply aren’t enough stories about my father to knit me to him. After 52 years, he’s like a ghost. I see him out of the corner of my eye but I can’t really know him.

***

One recent evening I told Mr. Mom in tears that I couldn’t even begin to write an obituary or a eulogy for my father. I took great care with my mother’s, but here I am at the end of my father’s life and I don’t know basic facts like where he was born, where he worked, the dates of his service in WWII, who he was married to. How had I failed to gather this kind of information all these years?

“Listen, honey” Mr. Mom said, trying to comfort me. “Think about it. We’ve been married 23 years and in all those years he’s never once talked about himself.  In the times I’ve been around him, he might say ‘Isn’t it great the Saints won the game?’ or he might tell you about a horse he bet on, but he’s never said one word about himself. You know how your father is.”

My husband’s sweet attempt at absolution calmed me, but I vowed to ask my father a different question each day during my phone call to him. I started with the wives because, why not?

***

It’s a family secret how many times my father has been married. Most bets are on seven, but those who know for sure (his parents, his sister) are dead. Growing up I knew it was a lot but my mother and my paternal grandmother never talked about it for obvious reasons. Of all the things that bothered me about my family when I was young, his marriages wasn’t one of them. I didn’t know the word unconventional back then but I  knew he was, and in some silly, school-girlish, unexplainable way, it made him a kind of folk hero in my eyes. Everybody knew Bob marched to his own drummer.

Once long ago — I don’t remember when or the exact circumstances of the conversation — my mother told me Daddy wasn’t honest with her about his past marriages. She said not long after they married, my grandfather pulled her aside and said “I don’t know what Bob told you, but you’re wife number X.” For the life of me, I don’t remember if my mother told me the real number or demurred, as she often did on the topic of my father, but it drives me crazy that I don’t now know. Why did I ask so few questions when I was in the best position to do so?

***

On the fourth day of the long week I spent getting him settled into the nursing home, arranging hospice, and disposing of his personal possessions according to his handwritten instructions, he looked at me and sighed and said “This is no way to die.” I wasn’t sure what to say but he quickly added “Everybody should die like your aunt,” referring to his sister who got out of bed one morning about six years ago and simply keeled over. I was standing beside his hospital bed, leaning on the railing, looking at his bald head and his pale skin and his still-sparkly eyes and thinking how far this scenario was from what I had imagined would be his end. “I know Daddy,” I offered. “But I, for one, am glad you’re here with me today.” His eyes watered, betraying emotion I had never before seen in him and he looked straight into my eyes and smiled. “You’re a good Daddy,” I said, my voice cracking, as I leaned over, kissed him on the lips, and closed my eyes just long enough to hold back my tears and think it’s too bad he couldn’t drift away that very second.

***

Since I have so few stories of my father to tell, I go over and over them in my head. Perhaps my favorite is from my wedding day. As you know, my name is Joan-Marie. Joan is my mother’s mother and Marie is my father’s mother. My entire life I went by Joan, unless you were family or happened to be in the company of my father, who was prone to correcting you if you dared abridge it or made the mistake of choosing some abominable variation like Joanie. As we rehearsed our vows in front of the wedding party, the minister — who we didn’t know because we had a destination wedding with rent-a-clergy — kept calling me Joan. At one point, I stopped him and said “Will you please call me Joan-Marie? Please, out of respect for my father.” I hadn’t planned it and I don’t even know why I said it, except it seemed strange to be in the company of my parents and to be called something other than Joan-Marie on my wedding day. My dad shot me a look. It was a millisecond of pure love and gratitude amidst a whirlwind weekend but I knew we were connected in that moment no matter how many years we had been apart.

***

My second favorite story about my father doesn’t even involve him. My mother and my paternal grandmother and I had gone on a Sunday drive, as we often did during my childhood. The day had turned out to be a wild goose chase. We were looking for a landmark we never found and had gotten lost more than once. On the way home, we were all three sitting in the front seat of my mother’s car and I had my head on my grandmother’s lap and my feet on my mother’s lap. We were hungry and my mother suggested we stop for a hamburger.  “No!” I said adamantly and sat up straight. “Take me someplace nice. Someplace like Daddy would. I want to go to a restaurant with atmosphere.”

I was maybe 11 years old. I didn’t really know what the word atmosphere meant, but I recognized it when I saw it. My father had taken me to places with chandeliers and starched white tablecloths and lobster dinners in places like New Orleans and New York. I barely remembered it but I knew he had treated me to the kind of high class establishments he favored. I might be stuck in the boonies with my mother and grandmother, but I wanted them to know I knew the difference.

They laughed and laughed at me and I suppose they already knew I was my father’s child.

***

As I was sorting through my father’s belongings, I ran across an envelope of assorted papers and photographs. Among the photographs was the one at the beginning of this post. I’d never seen it and don’t recognize the surroundings, but I recognized my grandmother’s writing on the back: “Robert and Joan-Marie, August 24, 1965.”

Among the stack of papers were letters he wrote to his parents while stationed in Italy and North Africa during the war. One was a will he typed and signed in case he was killed as a 20-year-old soldier. I was staying with my cousin who lives near my father’s nursing home and after we went to bed, I stayed up late into the night reading my father’s correspondence. Many were signed “Your loving son, Robert.” It was the first and only glimpse I’d ever had into the young man he used to be. I recognized his refined and polite prose but not the affection, the humor, the warmth, the thoughtful reflection so evident in his letters. I cried myself to sleep that night, grateful for the carefully preserved history I had in my possession and sorrowful for the one-dimensional father of my memory.

***

“Never live close to your kinfolk,” my dad used to say.  I heard him say it a number of times and never asked why he felt that way. I suspect it was, at least in part, because he was a heavy drinker and an unrepentant gambler and book-maker and his kinfolk disapproved, as did his ex wives and his youngest daughter. His philosophy probably made his world a little less complicated in one sense because for most of my life, I saw him very infrequently. The flip side to that coin is that my father’s meager presence made him almost a mythical figure in my childhood. He was a kind of Santa Clause, a jolly gift giver who showed up on special occasions only, drunk and generous.  His drinking deeply hurt his sister and his mother, whose disapproval of my father’s lifestyle was a constant. My mother married three alcoholics in a row, so she said nothing, and later, one of the things I most admired about my mother was that even with all the reasons she could have counted to badmouth him, she always managed to take the high road. In the last years of her life, she grew close to him. She did his laundry and took him dinner and chided me when she thought I should call him more often.

***

The subject of calling him is a sore spot, so who better to bring it up than my mother? When Kate was a baby, my father had what I refer to as a mental breakdown. He was later diagnosed as bi-polar, which explained a lot, but at the time he was acting nonsensically and several members of my family were worried. At one point, I felt he was a danger to himself so I contacted the authorities and he was detained for three days. We went to court and he convinced the judge he should be released. He was deeply wounded by my intervention and we didn’t speak for years. I rationalized it was his choice to stay away but truth be told it was at least as much mine. I figured he’d gotten by all those years without his family meddling in his affairs and told myself to keep my distance, which was easy enough given his oft-stated philosophy. Eventually, he started calling again, and once he even called to chide me himself for my infrequent contact. In the most unkind moment I ever shared with my father, I told him I was doing the best I could to raise my children and that I was sorry to disappoint him. And then I added “You know, Daddy, when I was 10 and wondered where in the hell you were, I never once asked why you didn’t call me more.” It was a terribly cruel postscript to a painful phone call and I’ve always regretted it.

***

If you ask about my father to anyone who knows him, the first thing you’ll hear is that he’s smart. He’s also well-spoken. Meticulous. Demanding. Magnanimous. Opinionated. Precise. Generous. Grand. Infuriating. Optimistic. Calculating. Mercurial. Dictatorial. I saw all these sides of his personality and more, and now I wonder why it was so hard to know something more of him than his moods.

On a day he was adjusting to the nursing home and frustrated with me, he reminded me sternly “I’m still calling the shots!”

Later when I told Mr. Mom, he said “You gotta hand it to him, Joan. Bob has always called the shots. He’s lived life on his own terms and I admire him for that.”

***

I’ve traveled to Oklahoma twice since I learned my father has terminal brain cancer. On one visit he was lying down, in pain but uncharacteristically chatty. We were talking about our shared passion — a good meal — and he said “You know what my favorite steak is? It’s . . .”

He trailed off and I could tell he was searching for a name.

“A ribeye?” I said.

“Yes, a ribeye! I love a good ribeye steak!”

“Me too, Daddy,” I said. “It used to be my favorite steak before I became a vegetarian.”

“What’s your favorite steak now?” he asked.

The irony was lost on him and I laughed out loud, delighted by the humor of the moment and the fact that I knew the answer to a question about my father.

***

On another visit he was sitting up, quiet, and obviously in pain. He wiped his head and said, almost under his breath, “You know, sometimes I wonder what this life is all about.”

“Me too, Daddy, me too.” He dropped his chin to his chest and I said “Have you figured it out yet? I’d like to know.”

He paused for a long time then whispered “I think we’re just here to take care of one another.”

I figure we have. In our own ways. Maybe not the storybook way, maybe not the best way, but in a way uniquely ours, in a place strangely more intimate and more lovely than I ever imagined as a possible destination for Robert and Joan-Marie.

An Easter story.

Dear Friends,

It’s Easter morning and I am up early, drinking coffee and contemplating the day ahead of me. At my age, Easter isn’t what it used to be when I dressed my children in pastels and we hunted for eggs and ate chocolate until our tongues turned a creamy shade of brown. I’m a mother who no longer marks her life in the change of the seasons but in the change of family gatherings and rituals. Now that both Kate and Parker have flown the nest, they can’t always make it home for every holiday, major or minor, so I’m recalibrating what it means to celebrate Easter without my chicks ’round the table. Instead of dying eggs or preparing an elaborate family meal, I spent Easter Eve cooking for a new family that moved nearby. They’re vegans and, having transitioned to a vegetarian diet several months ago, I know how difficult it can be for a family on-the-go to find healthy, meatless meal options in our community. Cooking for others is a small act of neighborliness that perked up what has otherwise been a melancholy weekend.

For me, for now, Easter represents the last holiday I spent with my mother before she died. I still miss her so much it sometimes takes my breath away, and this time of year my mind often turns to our last Easter together. In April 2010, Mom was frail and I knew it, but as I contemplated the spring and summer ahead of me, I had no idea she’d succumb to her final illness on Independence Day and die before Labor Day. I remember in vivid detail the meal I prepared (of course I do!) and her utter delight in my menu and my table. She talked about how talented she thought I was and she said my lemon meringue pie was so good it was “outrageous.”

Mom had asked me earlier in that week if I would consider inviting my sister to my Easter meal. Without much consideration, I quickly declined. Mom came to my house anyway — she wanted so badly to spend Easter with Kate and Parker even if I couldn’t find it in my heart to include my sister, P. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I was so thoughtless. It’s a regret I’ll carry with me forever.

The one thing that cheers me from being too plaintive on what is arguably the most optimistic of all holidays is that I recently had lunch with P. I traveled to Oklahoma to celebrate Kate’s birthday last month and, while there, visited my sister. When Momastery published this post that I wrote about my relationship with my sister, a few commenters asked what became of Kate’s planned visit to P’s house. (P cancelled, saying she wasn’t feeling well.) Another asked about the nature of my relationship with P now. (It’s still complicated but improving.)

I had texted P a few days before my trip to ask if she would join Kate and me for lunch. She gladly accepted but then called a few hours before to beg off, saying she felt bad because she didn’t have a birthday gift for Kate and she didn’t have any nice clothes to wear. I encouraged her to come anyway. I told  her Kate didn’t care about gifts and neither of us cared how she looks. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I possessed benevolence on that day and so few others.

P decided to join us and surprised both Kate and me. She looked well, relatively speaking. (I had braced for the worst after hearing her say she looked terrible.) She was upbeat and funny and generous. Often, her conversation can be hard to follow but, on that day, she was mostly cogent. She was kind and I responded in turn. I can only think Mom had something to do with that. And I can only wish Mom had been present, but then in so many ways she was, moving our hearts even if she couldn’t sit at our table.

P gave Kate a small grocery bag filled with trinkets from her home, a sweet if makeshift birthday gift from a woman who has little to share these days. Because we were going to see my father later, she pulled an old photo from her purse to show us. The photo was of my father and me on a hotel patio. I didn’t recognize the occasion but my father later explained we were on a trip to New Orleans, his favorite destination. I also didn’t much recognize the long-haired young girl dressed in purple. Sometimes when I see old photos, or hear my family tell stories about us, it’s as if I am a victim of amnesia and while I can clearly see I’m the girl in the photo, I don’t know her.  So much of my childhood is lost to memory — a result, I think, of trying to forget the people and their addictions that threatened to swallow me.

When I think of the Easter story, though, I can’t help but contemplate the notion of redemption as it’s played out in my life. I can’t help but think of the resilience of families, even as circumstances threaten to shred any semblance of kinship. I think about how fragile the ties are that bind, and yet still bind. I think about two “half” sisters with different fathers whose mother desperately sought to knit them together and who must have died thinking she had failed at the task dearest to her heart. I think about deliverance, not from evil, but from dissolution, from each other and from God, which is surely as injurious to the soul.

I think about P. And me. And our next lunch.

With gratitude {for sisters and second chances},

Joan, who wishes you Easter blessings in abundance

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Oh so merry.

Dear Friends,

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I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit rigid when it comes to holiday routines. An improviser I’m not. I fastidiously plan all our family celebrations, from birthdays and anniversaries, to major holidays like Christmas, to even lesser holidays like Valentine’s Day. If there’s a celebration on the calendar, you can count on the fact I will have an associated timeline, to-do list, menu, and shopping list (organized by sub-categories for “groceries,” “gifts” and “supplies”) that I carefully create and monitor. I would argue my planning is a hallmark of the diligent, but truth be told, it’s probably just a hedge against spontaneity, which has never been my strong suit.

For some reason, though, this year I threw caution to the wind when I decided to ditch my typical Christmas plan by decorating before December 1. And, gasp, I even decorated before Thanksgiving. Normally I’m a real Grinch when it comes to pre-emptive Christmas displays. And, if you read this post, you’ll recall I have a veritable ritual related to my children’s involvement in tree trimming. But Sunday, November 23, was a cold and rainy day in my corner of the world and – with nothing better to do – I decided to deck my halls a full four days before Turkey Day. Mr. Mom was busy and my kids were at college and it just seemed like the thing to do for a sentimental old woman with time on her hands.

Of course when my children arrived home for Thanksgiving they were shocked to see the tree (in an unusual spot, no less), and the garland, and the bells, and my grandmother’s vintage Santa mug collection, and enough twinkly lights to fill a Target. “Wow, what got into you?” Parker said. “Oh . . .” whimpered Kate, “I was looking forward to helping.” I was stung by an immediate and familiar pang of maternal guilt, which was intensified when I arranged our Thanksgiving table a few days later and contemplated the clash of competing holiday décor on display in our dining room. I clearly had jumped the gun.

Despite my second-guessing, I felt a lightness about my decision and wondered what it would be like to have the Christmas season commence without the most time-consuming holiday chore hanging over my head.

A few days later, I was talking to a new friend, an older lady I recently met, about my early decorating spree. Dixie mentioned she just didn’t have the energy for such things. She said ever since her husband died a few years ago, she found Christmas decorating difficult. She recollected – sadly I thought – that she especially missed setting up her extensive Dickens village that used to bring her so much joy. “It’s just so much work,” she said, “and I can’t do it anymore.”

In any other year, I would have rushed to commiserate with Dixie. “Oh, I know EXACTLY how you feel,” I would have said. “I always feel so overwhelmed this time of year. There’s too much to do and sometimes I just want to skip it all!” But instead of this reflexive reaction that I’ve shared so many times with the similarly harried, a mindless statement borne of a working mother’s guilt and anxiety, I paused to listen to her words and, though I said nothing, Dixie’s sense of longing stuck with me.

I emailed her a few days later and offered to go to her home and do her decorating for her. She was gracious enough to take me up on my offer and that’s how I found myself in the midst of the most joyful and rewarding Christmas decorating spree ever.

Dixie indeed has a beautiful Dickens village, with every building and village amenity imaginable, including tiny carolers and dogs and electric street lamps and park benches and more, each carefully tied in bubble wrap and stored in their original boxes. When I was a young mother, I dreamed of collecting a Dickens village, but I couldn’t afford it. Unpacking and arranging Dixie’s village was like a Christmas dream come true. I felt like an 8-year-old girl who had just unwrapped Santa’s best dollhouse ever and – best of all – Dixie gave me full creative license to display the village however I wished.

While I “played house,” Dixie brought me tea and cookies and turned up the holiday music and told me about her life over the last 30 years in our community. After I finished assembling the display (and promised to return in January to put everything away), I couldn’t help but linger over another cup of tea, enjoying the scene before us and soaking up the unexpected joy of helping a friend, no matter how modest the task. It was a magical moment in time, one I will always treasure, made possible because I dared to step out of my comfortable routine and open my heart to the potential of something even more wonderful.

As this Christmas season offers its joys and challenges to you, as you deck your halls and bake your goodies and wrap your gifts and attend parties and otherwise seek holiday cheer in your own ways, I wish for you a moment of whimsy . . . a sparkling instant in which old expectations melt away and new memories – perhaps tiny but oh so merry – fill your heart with the love and joy of the season.

With gratitude {for holiday gifts of all kinds},

Joan, who loved her some Barbie back in the day

 

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

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