Why Not Friday Round-Up

Why, Arizona can be a question or a place depending on whether you use a comma. The first time we came through “town” I saw the official sign for Why that included when it was established and how many people live there. So the whole time we were somewhere else I thought about how clever it would be to Instagram a photo of that sign with the caption, “This is Why,” but we couldn’t find the sign coming back without making a dozen U-turns to check out signs which you don’t want to do on AZ 85 when the sun is setting.

We’ve been gone for much of March, first to Alaska and then to Arizona. In both places we drank their local beer and we came home fat from thinking every night was a special occasion. We live now in the land of corporate beer and an unforgiving scale which I constantly adjust to make sure the line is exactly on the zero before I weigh myself. I lost half a pound that way this morning.

I stopped writing for a week and it felt good. It felt like I was out from under for a while, free of practically every obligation (being out of town and on the road a fair amount of time will do that), and free from thinking about whether anyone was reading what I had written. I quit the constant checking of my phone, turned off the reinforcement faucet for a while. I decided not to write anything until I missed writing which I did, finally, this morning. In anticipation, I started to make a list of themes last night but I forgot them until now.

Being physically present is no accident. We took a bit of a detour on our way from Phoenix to Organ Pipe National Park to see our grandkids in San Diego. And their parents. But mostly the grandkids – 5 year old twin boys and a 14 year old girl. It was six hours each way which is a lot for most people but not really for us because we like being on the road so much. The next morning while I sat watching TV with one boy, the other one, slow to wake, came out of his room, climbed up on the bed  and hugged me. I sat feeling his blond head resting on my back, his little wordless morning self. I didn’t want to breathe or speak lest he quit to run off and begin his day.

I delivered 4,379 tampons and pads and 60 pairs of women’s underwear to the Salvation Army today. This was after lunch with a good friend who asked me, quite pointedly, if delivering menstrual supplies was my end game for my Time of the Month Club effort or was there a bigger agenda and I told her, yes, that collecting menstrual supplies for homeless women gives me ‘talking rights’ on policy and programs which is true but also true is that packing my pink bags with boxes of tampons and pads and new underwear for women I don’t know and will probably never meet is weirdly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Don’t even ask me why. I have no clue.








Playing the Long Game

For all my brave talk, all my “I’m really Stevie Nicks” under these black dress pants and sensible shoes, for all my aging is a joyous, beautiful thing, a lucky thing, priceless if you take it in the right way, all my advice to quit thinking you’re diminishing when you should be looking at your vast accumulation of riches, I have to admit this. I am legacy planning.

I am thinking about when I am not here.

Most people don’t talk a lot about death. So it would be hard to compare my thoughts about it with others. But just speaking for myself, it’s not something I dread. I say that, of course, from the position of good health as the daughter of parents who lived well into their eighties. Death seems closer but still a ways off, like the tip of a silo visible in the great distance only from the top of a hilly country road.

But lately, for many reasons, I have been working on the long term, what’s best for the future, for when I’m not here. What is my legacy?

With one of my granddaughters, this has meant learning to lean out. After years of taking care of her almost half the time, Friday to Monday every week, my husband and I made a very considered decision to transition that responsibility to her father, our son.

A very hardworking guy, my son, but a guy with a lot of ups and downs for a long time. Years ago, we decided to become his placeholders with his daughter, keeping her connected to our family, providing a second home for her, being a haven of consistency, predictability, comfort and care.

We did this for seven years. We potty trained her. Read to her. Took her to the library every week. Taught her to swim. Took her on hikes. Put her drawings on the refrigerator. We listened to her stories. Took her to acting classes and horse camp. We took her to the doctor and the dentist. Invited her friends over to play, texted with her friends’ parents. Carried her up the stairs to her bedroom every night and slept with the hall light on because she was afraid of the dark.

And then it was time.

It was time for us to lean out and for her father to lean in. Playing the long game meant looking to the future. What did we want for our granddaughter after we were gone? What would be best for her as a person, as a girl growing up, as a young woman?

She needed her father. She absolutely needed her father. She needed his presence, his approval, his support. She had ours. But it wasn’t enough. I could see the yearning on her face. Daddy.

In the many years of caring for her, our lives had become a re-enactment of our lives as parents. Only this time, we were much better at it. It was addictive being so good at parenting, so rewarding, so overdue. It made us happy, kept us going to the zoo and listening to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in the car. The CD of her ‘music’ was in my husband’s CD player all those years. We just recently retrieved it and put it in the glove compartment.

Oh, it was hard giving her up. So hard. I second-guessed my son’s every move, my skepticism and lack of faith in him shaming me as his mother. Hadn’t we raised him to be a decent man and a good father?  We, I, had to have the patience to let that happen. We had to lean out.

Now she comes to visit. She runs out of his car and runs back to it a few hours later. She knows her way around our house, her toys are in the same place as the last time she slept here, but now the clothes in the dresser are too small. She has new clothes at her dad’s. They text us pictures, send us messages to let us know they are doing the things we would do. They are outside, in the sunshine, they are swimming. In the pictures, they are smiling.

Last night, my son sent me a text from his daughter’s school performance. She is ‘the star,’ he said.  Yes, I thought. She is the star.

That’s what is important. That’s my legacy.

It’s What Happens Next

The alarming thing about wanting people to step up is that sometimes they do just that.

When that happens, everything that was set in place to accommodate their resistance to stepping up gets jumbled. All of the adjustments, in-fill, sacrifice, work-arounds, the vast repertoire of excuses and overlooks end up scattered on the floor like too many shoes in a too small closet.

Say a young dad who has been a hit or miss father to his child suddenly decides to get serious and be consistent. And say his parents who have been filling in the cracks, who were re-activated after playing too many seasons, both with probable concussions from hard hits suffered in the past, say they stepped up to fill a void left by the young dad’s flimsiness, his inability to consistently attend to his child. And say his parents spent years being place-holders, providing for their grandchild the upbringing they thought they had provided for their son so that, at some distant point, that son would show up and become the father they had expected him to be.

And then he shows up. And he makes noises like he’s not just visiting but that he means to stay. He cooks meals. He does homework. He makes a space for his child in his life that looks permanent, but it doesn’t have all of her toys, her stuffed animals, her winter clothes, all of those things are with his parents who hold on to those things thinking they shouldn’t trust something that is so new, so strange.

“It’s what we wanted,” the young dad’s father says to the young dad’s mother. “We wanted him to step up and that’s what he’s doing.”

“I know.  You’re right,” she answered. “It’s what we wanted.”


Happy is a Razor

The tiny box of razor blades was right where I knew it would be, buried on the second shelf of the linen closet, amidst hotel bottles of shampoo and bubble packs of cold medicine. It was on my walk that it came to me. All the Facebook postings about International Happiness Day had me thinking about a razor.

In the cabinet above the porcelain sink in my grandmother’s upstairs bathroom, a box of razor blades, much like the one in my linen closet, sat on the shelf next to my grandfather’s heavy black razor, his shaving brush parked for the past twenty years atop the round bar of shaving soap in a white dish, a blue stripe around it, a sight so familiar to me from looking so many dozens of times that I could draw it now down to the last bristle.

I don’t know and I never asked if my grandmother visited the bathroom cabinet to look at her late husband’s shaving equipment. She would have thought it very queer for me to make a special trip upstairs to look at it since she didn’t know it was only one of many rituals I observed at her house. I had to look out the front bedroom windows at the park across the street and inspect the brushes and mirrors laid out on the chest of drawers. Everything was perfect in the bedroom, clean and dusted, although she slept downstairs in what had been their library, leaving their upstairs bedroom as if waiting for an important guest. To my knowledge, no one else ever slept in their bed.

It wasn’t morbid in the least. There wasn’t a shrine-like quality to any of my grandmother’s house. Still, it was a house that had stopped. Doors never slammed. Curtains never blew in the wind. But she was comfortable in her house and so was I. It was peaceful and quiet. It just wasn’t happy.

We expect to be happy. We’re told that happiness is possible if we set our minds to it. The trick to being happy is to live in the present, to enjoy every moment and not regret the past or worry about the future. I wonder.

Maybe it’s enough to expect to be comfortable or just comforted. Maybe it’s enough, more than enough, to have been happy, along the lines of it being better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all. In my grandmother’s life, maybe it was enough that she had the razor in the upstairs bathroom cabinet and that she could remember the days when the shaving brush would have been left wet on the rim of the sink, her husband rushing to get dressed and to the lumberyard to open up for business. Maybe she visited the cabinet and heard in her mind her daughters talking in their bedroom down the hall about who would borrow whose new blouse or the phone ringing downstairs, the grocery calling to tell her the delivery boy was on his way.

Maybe it was enough that she could remember being happy. Maybe she didn’t have to be happy every day. Maybe that was just too much.

The Cozy Night

Words I never thought I’d say: I miss school nights.

Every night for the past several years, I have been grateful that it’s just me and the mister. We cook, we talk, we eat, we watch TV, we relax. We don’t do homework, wonder if we’ve got the right stuff for lunches tomorrow, or have to explain the mysteries of long and short vowels. We just act like adults. It’s precious and delicious, especially for someone who had her first baby at 24 and her last addition to the family at 46.

I’ve never mourned the empty nest. Enough was enough. When the last kid left seven years ago, I wasn’t crushed. I’d done my job and I was ready for whatever was next. I didn’t rush to change the locks on the doors but would have had I seen any of them coming down the street with their suitcases.

So tonight when I came home from a meeting to find my husband and our granddaughter, here on a rare mid-week visit, it threw me back to the days of endless school nights. The backpack full of homework, the child full of chatter, the requirements for tomorrow, the need to watch the clock so reading and homework and making cookies and having dinner and taking a shower and getting pajamas on all happened in time for her to go to bed early enough to get up early and eat the promised oatmeal. The wanting to make home a place everyone wanted to come back to at the end of the day.

At one time, I did this for three kids at once. It stupefies.

After years off-duty, I wanted the night to ring true. I wanted the house to smell like food cooking. I wanted to hear every detail of this week in 2nd grade, drink a glass of wine while she curled over her homework, sit together in the glow of the hanging light over our kitchen table. Be the June Cleaver I never was. It was only one night after all. Couldn’t I pull it off?

When my kids were little, school nights were sublime but rough. We had homey dinners at the kitchen table, but my younger three kids had learning disabilities. Nights at the homework table were often long and frustrating. Homework was maddening. Even with IEP’s and accommodations, the homework expectations seemed extreme. Many times, my frustrated kids would put their heads on their books and fall asleep; some nights I sympathized, others I exhorted them to wake up, get their work done, be mindful of their future, you get the idea.

Frustration and fatigue take the glow out of school nights, replace refuge with struggle.

It took a lot out of me those endless school nights. I can only imagine what it took out of my kids. It is rough stuff having everything you’re expected to learn be so difficult.

But tonight, it was the glow of the kitchen table and homemade mac and cheese. Everything on schedule. No stress. Sublime.

Like it ought to be, the beautiful school night.

Sorority Sister

Tuesday night just as the youth choir sang the first few bars of the Star Spangled Banner, after I’d drunk down an inch of my Miller Lite, and before the Milwaukee Brewers took the field to lose what would be a 14-inning game to the Minnesota Twins, I read a text from my son-in-law telling me my twin grandsons had been born.

We knew it would be that night. Before we’d left the house for the game, a text had told us that my daughter’s preeclampsia had morphed into a more dangerous version. The babies were to be delivered right away. I was ecstatic. Not to have the babies born. To have my daughter out of her terrible, long ordeal of being pregnant with twins and suffering every symptom in the encyclopedia of multiple pregnancies. If a pregnancy-related problem, especially the more painful and disabling conditions, had ever been invented, dreamt, or dreaded, my daughter had had it. She was flypaper for every rotten problem floating by. I hated it. Watching her suffer was awful.

I’d watched in person for a while when she was hospitalized with early contractions. I flew to California, walked in to her dark hospital room and spent the next twelve days trying to convince her to play Scrabble. I helped her make it to the bathroom and looked at Facebook on my phone. In the mornings, I walked her daughter to school and after school took her shopping for deli meat loaf and wine. We slept in the same room, my granddaughter and me. She’d roll over on her cot and look at me in the middle of the night while I tried to hide the light of my Kindle.

After I saw that the lamp had left scorch marks on the spare pillowcase I’d used to douse the light a bit, I’d gone all dark, relying only on my phone for light. Messages would come at night from my son-in-law at the hospital. Sometimes happy. Sometimes very scary. The message that she had preeclampsia came at 12:30 one night. In the dark, I Googled preeclampsia and my mouth went dry. My God, I thought, she has what killed Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey.

Why is this happening? Why is this happening to her? I couldn’t stand it. She was grown, my girl, a big accomplished adult. When she was sick, she looked like my 9-year old. Pale and tired and fragile.

I kept doing what I knew how to do – going to the hospital for my day shift, sitting by her bedside cracking lame jokes, and going on special missions to Target. My triumph was finding three Vera Wang nightgown at Kohl’s Department Store so she could get out of the hospital gown and into something cute. I bought a robe and slippers and felt like mother of the year.

And then I came home. Her father was coming for a week and having both of us there would have certainly confused the sleeping arrangements (since we’ve been divorced for thirty years) and produced layers of parenting that no adult could tolerate. Better to take my leave.

So I did. Then after her father left, her mother-in-law came. Now my daughter had been discharged from the hospital and put on strict bed rest at home.

“How do you like having her there?” thinking maybe it was a little irritating having one’s mother-in-law around. I’m not suggesting anything, just thinking about my own mothers-in-law and wondering how long I’d be ok with them being in my house. So I was thinking, let’s give the poor girl a chance to vent about her mother-in-law.

“It’s great. She’s been cooking. Her plan is to make double of everything and fill our freezer.” My son-in-law’s mother, which makes her what to me? I don’t know, is Italian and her husband is Greek and they used to have a restaurant and she brought her recipe book, or so my daughter told me.

I’m wondering if they got rid of the rest of the deli meatloaf.

After another few days in the hospital instigated by a spike in her blood pressure, doctors released my daughter back to bed rest at home, knowing that her mother-in-law, an LPN, would take her blood pressure three times a day.

I’ve had my blood pressure taken a million times. I know it involves pumping the arm thing up, fiddling with a dial, watching a gauge and tracking time on a watch. I could only do one of those things at once. I could never have taken her blood pressure. I could, however, put my hand on her forehead and know if she has a fever. I’ve done this for four kids ever since we lost our family thermometer.

When my daughter sent me the picture of the stuffed artichokes, I cracked. This woman is really beating my time. How do you even stuff an artichoke? My husband and I Googled it and found out where the stuffing actually goes. We resolved to stuff artichokes the next weekend. I suffered with the artichoke picture. “I’m going to try to develop more things that I can do,” I said to my husband. “I want to be more accomplished, more competent.” He said that stuffing the artichokes could be our start.

And then it occurred to me. It’s not a competition.

I was glad my daughter’s mother-in-law was there. I was grateful. I was grateful that this person whom I have never met in person was mothering my sick child. Grateful that she was cooking and taking her blood pressure and fussing over her. Like we were secret sorority sisters, I knew she was doing what needed to be done. I knew there was some serious mothering going on and I was glad for it.

I sent her a message the night our twin grandsons were born. “Congratulations, Grandma,” I said.

“Congratulations, Grandma Jan,” she messaged back and told me about how one grandson, moments after he was born, had pulled the oxygen tube out of his nose. She saw them first. She did.

And that was fine with me. Very fine.

Start Where You Are, Use What You Have: Involving Dads in their Kids’ Lives

This is week 2 of my little campaign to figure out ways to make my son have fun with his daughter.  Last week it was sledding.  Today, skating.

Don’t bother me with “you shouldn’t have to do that.”  I shouldn’t.  But I do.  And I am.  So lay off.

For the uninitiated, his daughter, our granddaughter, spends most weekends with us (her grandparents) – hence, inviting him to go skating with us at Red Arrow.  It’s complicated.

I texted him.  We’re skating at Red Arrow Park. Meet us there at 2.   Then I sat back and waited for excuses.

I have no idea where that is, he texted back.  After I sent instructions, he texted I’ll try.

“You used to do stuff like that with me,” my husband said. “Didn’t you?”  “Try to figure out how to make me do things with the kids.”

I admit nothing.

So about a half mile from Red Arrow Park, I got a text.  I’m here.

And he was.  Sitting in the corner of Starbucks.  Texting.

Wearing the same white warm-up pants with the blue stripe that he wore his entire senior year in high school (he’s now 27) and his favorite Klondike traveler hat. 

Ten years ago, heck, five years ago, or maybe last week, this outfit would have driven me nuts.  That’s before I had the deep realization that a) no one would ever imagine we’re related and b) he might be just as annoyed at how thrift store dorky I look.  We both still really like it – in a weird kind of way – when we act like mother and son and catch funny sidewise glances from other people.  We would have been a big hit on What’s My Line?

Walking out to the ice rink in our skates, I told him, “Hey, you know, I have this theory.”

“Yeah.  What?”

“Dads make kids braver.”

He’s oblivious.  As he is to much of what I say, said.  Ever.

But I’m right.  In ten minutes, he’s holding his little girl’s hands, skating behind her and they are going fast enough that her hair is flying out behind her.

She’s grinning.  Really grinning.

Last time, she was smiling while she held her grandparents’ hands and inched, inched around the rink.

This time she’s flying.  And she’s grinning.

I am so satisfied with myself. La maestra.


I can’t make life perfect.  But I can make sure this little kid can ice skate and I can make her dad teach her.

So that ain’t bad.  As my husband would say, “That’s not nothin’.”