On these dark, gloomy winter days, I am finding immeasurable joy in cuddling my new grandchild, Hazel. She’s wearing the little crocheted booties that my grandmother Juanita made for my first child thirty years ago. She made them for me, for all my cousins, for all my aunts, and for my own father. There is something exquisitely magical about heirlooms. They seem to hold in them all the love of all the generations that came before.
“For those of us with an inward turn of mind, which is another name for melancholy introspection, the beginning of a new year inevitably leads to thoughts about both the future and the past.” Michael Dirda
Sitting in a quiet living room, I’m finally settling down from the busiest Christmas we may have ever had. Why busy? Grandchildren. Specifically, a two week old, plus our bonus grands. There was a Paw Patrol fire truck, an Our Generation doll, lots of Legos, infant toys, candy, and noise. I usually take lots of photos, but to be honest, once the kids and grandkids arrived, the chaos was a little overwhelming, so I just rode the wave and tried to be present (I also managed to finagle rocking the baby during dinner. At seventeen days old, her coos made for excellent dinner conversation).
Amid all this, my father-in-law had brought a bag of old family VHS tapes. It was his intention that we all sit and watch. He even brought a VCR player since we no longer have one in the house. Now, you’d think I’d be all about sitting and watching my kids, who are now in their twenties, open the Thomas the Tank Engine train sets and American Girl dolls they got for Christmas when they were little. But I wasn’t. Not only was I not all about it, I was quietly but adamantly opposed to this activity. Why?
Because I just cannot allow myself to look back. I can’t. Hell, I already had all of our VHS tapes converted to DVD, but I haven’t watched a single one. As soon as they arrive in the mail, I organize and store them. Seems I can do the work of putting them in chronological order, that’s brain stuff. But pop them in the DVD player that we keep in the house so I can watch Harry Potter and Broadway musical DVDs? That’s a pass.
For what reason, I wonder?
There is a price to be paid when you choose to love. In this case, it’s my parental love, but I think that the same thing happens to loves that are romantic, or platonic, or familial. When you love someone with your very soul, and you walk alongside them for a lifetime (or what may only feel like a lifetime), to look backwards just reminds you of time spent. Of the grains of sand that have already fallen to the bottom of the hourglass. Of the years that are gone.
When I look back, I cry. It’s just that simple.
I don’t need a video to remind me what my children looked like when they were five- I can see my son, running alongside his border collie Trixie as she herded him in our back yard, his blond hair flying in the breeze. I hear my older daughter’s sweet little voice singing along to a Mickey Mouse cassette tape we kept in our bright red Ford Escort. I recall with utter clarity what the younger daughter looked like in the wedding dress I made for her sixth Christmas, complete with veil and silk flower bouquet. I remember their giggles when I tickled their piggies, and their cries when I pulled glass or sticker burrs out of the soles of those little plump feet; or when knees were skinned, requiring a mommy’s kiss and a Peanuts bandaid.
Their hurts are more significant now. The stakes are higher. The wounds deeper.
The eldest, grinning for the camera, four years old
The eldest, guest lecturing in a collegiate film class, September
Sometimes, there’s mascara on their pillows after a visit. If you’re the parent of a child in his/her twenties, you may have experienced this. She comes for a Christmas visit, all the way from Los Angeles, where her life looks wonderful, complete with lots of Instagram photos of cocktails with friends, acting and producing projects, her sweet dog, hikes. Lots of smiles. She insists she’s happy, and you know it’s true- but you also know that she got her final divorce papers in the mail just days before the holiday. You understand that a seven year relationship with a drug addict is finally, blessedly over. And you know that she’s grieving. That she knows what’s best, but that she also has to hurt a bit. And so…you find mascara on the pillowcases in the guest room when you go to strip the bed.
I don’t need any help in grieving for my children. No old VHS tapes are necessary to get the tears flowing, you know?
Two years old
a new mother
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: watching your youngest give birth to a beautiful baby girl in the very same week that the other was opening the packet of papers from the county of Los Angeles. This is the child who had struggled to find her place in the world, who second guessed every decision she ever made, whose anxiety over making the wrong decision about career has held her hostage since high school. I got to be with her for all of her labor, with her dear partner at her shoulder and me at her knees, helping to hold her legs up as she pushed out an exquisite little peanut with black hair. That daughter knows who she is, now.
I shed some tears then, too.
We regained a relationship with my son after a period of estrangement. He was back with us for Christmas. Alone and finally looking healthy and happy. There hasn’t been a day since our reconciliation that I have not looked to Heaven and sent up a thank you.
On a school hay ride, in kindergarten
Happily back in our lives
And so…with all that emotion swirling around in my spirit, with gratitude and grief and trepidation and joy, did I really need to look back? Did I want to? NO. I did not. I knew that sitting in a sentimental place from 25 years ago would tip the scales, that I would become an incapacitated blubbering mess.
Forward. Ever forward.
And yet for days now, my dreams have been…backwards. Having left the classroom four years ago, I find my dream self back in the classroom, helping first graders sound out words or directing high schoolers in a competition play. I look down to see a nursing baby at my breast. I see and hear myself singing, something I have rarely done since my vocal injury in 2011. My grandmother, June, keeps visiting. She died from breast cancer in 1982, but she’s been coming to me in all different forms: chemo-ridden, in her forties and wise, in her twenties and vibrant…all dreams from ago. My slumbering, defenseless brain and heart are taking me backwards when my wakeful, cautious self says no to looking behind.
I think my dreams are trying to tell me to embrace the past, while being open to the future. Maybe my heart is telling me to risk a peek back. I don’t quite feel ready- so for now the past will stay safely ensconced in the VHS tapes that now sit in our garage, awaiting digital transfer. And safely, forever and ever, ensconced in this mother’s heart. No rewinding necessary.
On a Sunday in early May, what I thought was an early birthday brunch ended up being the day I found out I am to be a grandmother.
This is not a title that sits comfortably on me. In fact, I have been dreading it for years, relieved that my older two kids planned to have kids much later if at all, and assuming the youngest would at least wait until she was married and settled.
The Universe has a sense of humor, though. What I have been planning is five years of travel and adventure and completely obligation-free Saturdays, weekends for sleeping in and drinking mimosas. Maybe with my daughter.
Now I am looking at a complete shift in identity. I am now “Grandma.” I utterly and unequivocally refuse that title. Perhaps I will be “Nonny” or “Lolly” or some such thing. But not “Grandma.” I couldn’t bear it.
I have several friends who are already grandmothers. They post sweet photos of squishy little faces, all cuddled up in Grandma’s arms. They have, you know, shirts that say grandma stuff. They swear it’s awesome. The best thing ever. Pure Magic. Which, of course, what I try to live, a purely magical life.
I had grandmothers. I had two completely beautiful grandmothers. You know what they were, though? Old. They were old. To a little girl, they looked ancient. I don’t want to be seen as ancient.
When my daughter and her beloved left our house that spring day, I told my husband as he held me, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” His reply? “Are you ready to help your daughter be a good mother, though?” Yes. Yes, I am.
And so, after a few days of mulling, I got excited, really excited about the sweet little peanut who will come into our lives soon. I am in love with this baby. I talk to my daughter’s tummy; I stare longingly at other infants, so anxious to hold this one am I; I window shop in baby departments, and I have a countdown to due date app loaded on my iPhone. I felt her flutter, and that was an enchanted moment like nothing I’d ever felt.
Grandmother…and yet, still mother.
Motherhood of young adults who are in their twenties is a whole different level of parenting. Skinned knees give way to broken hearts. Allowance shortfalls are now being unable to quite make rent. Not getting along with an algebra teacher has morphed into coaching an adult child how to deal with an abusive work relationship. Romances have moved beyond the land of “check yes or no if you like me” into the complex realm of co-dependence and infidelity.
Of course, the first step of this change is the college experience. With each child, I worried when we dropped them off at their dorm rooms. With the eldest, our consternation was much about her roommate, a reclusive and unfriendly gamer chick who stayed up late into the night, keeping Hilary awake and groggy. We worried whether she was making friends (she was), partying too much (she wasn’t), and studying enough (she most definitely was). I fretted about bugs in her dorm room and the quality of the food offered on her meal plan. I worried whether she would have the stamina to sustain her choice of major as she worked her way through the grueling audition process that is collegiate theatre. Eventually, she bought a car, changed boyfriends, and started being cast in phenomenal roles that challenged her as both artist and woman.
And yet…she fell deeply in love with a young man who played her romantic love in a play, and we watched as fantasy became reality. Red flags were showing everywhere, and her father saw them almost immediately. It took me a bit longer, though. Our daughter was in love with a drug addict. As a parent, you’re almost helpless. I would say it just feels like you’re helpless, but it’s actually true. You’re helpless. We pointed out the dangers: disappearing money, stolen debit cards and checks, evictions and creditors, a totaled car, even jail time for theft. Our daughter was so convinced her love would be enough to conquer all. Until the day it wasn’t, and reality hit her like a tsunami.
All you can do, then, is to hold your daughter close when she needs to cry, give her space for quiet when she needs to think, and the sure knowledge that her family is standing by to help her put herself back together.
The next child falls into a depressed isolation in his dingy dorm room at the east Texas college that no one told you was in financial crisis and would soon be shuttered, and you begin to question where you went wrong as a parent. You’re sure that your childhood role models of family perfection, Greg and Marcia Brady, never struggled like this at college, that they made it to every class with their shiny hair intact and their books perfectly organized. He’s just far enough away that you can’t get to him easily, and when he comes home, he’s hurt and angry, feeling abandoned, when what you were really trying to do, as a parent, was show him your faith in his independence and courage.
That one also dives deep into a couple of troubled relationships, also sure that his love would be enough to conquer all. Again, Tsunami.
And there’s the baby, who, by luck of the draw, ends up in upper classman apartments instead of a freshman dorm, has a near brush with dorm room forced sex, is panicked by the pressure to choose a major, and so flees to Australia to be an au pair in what turns out to be a house run by an unkind mother who refuses to provide her nourishing food, all the while eating her own Hello Fresh food service meals. If you thought your son was too far to reach, your daughter is even farther. She falls in love with a 38 year old man and stays Down Under for two years, then comes home heartsick, a bit bruised in spirit by what turned out to be a pretty controlling bloke.
Then, thank all the heavens and gods and goddesses, she returns to school and meets a good young man, falls in love, gets pregnant, and makes you a Lolly.
It is so, so hard to bite my tongue when I see my young adult children making decisions that might come back to bite them: car purchases, job changes, lovers, debt…
When my kids were little, my husband and I managed their income, their spending, their friendships, their schooling, their hobbies. I don’t mean we dictated, but we drew boundaries: only two after school activities (to prevent exhaustion), sleepovers only where we knew the parents (to prevent abuse), supervised spending (to stave off wastefulness). We worked to lay a foundation of love and confidence.
Now we watch as they test that foundation. They crack it, but it seems to hold. They move forward, sometimes with grace and sometimes with grief, but always forward. Their love is more precious to me now because it’s been tried and tested in the fires of anger and forgiveness, tug and release, and lessons learned. Not just their lessons, but mine, too.
I have learned to have faith in my children.
Now, I too move forward. Can’t wait to meet my sweet granddaughter, Hazel Elizabeth.
Just last night, I cleared off a space on my sage green corian countertop for a new-to-me Cuisinart CBK-100 bread maker. I found it on Facebook Marketplace after watching a video on which Zooey Deschanel described the making of store bought bread, and a friend who lives very wholistically posted about the bread she had just baked. After a short FB convo in which I described how I used to bake bread but can’t anymore due to a shoulder injury and arthritis in my hands, she sought out some whole grain bread maker recipes and sent me the links. Well, of course that necessitated a bread machine.
So there she is. I think I will name her Wilma. As in Flintstone.
This weekend I baked my first loaf, using organic flours and local honey, and I have decided to keep unsalted butter softening on the counter always, just in case I want to nosh on a slice of bread.
Reading bread recipes started me thinking about comfort foods, all those delicious tasty treats that I turn to when my soul is feeling in need of a little TLC. Macaroni and cheese, Brach’s orange slices, a big pot of pinto beans simmered for twelve hours with a slab of salted pork and a little pickle brine…yum. Yum, yum, yum.
I had two really amazing grandmothers. One’s homemaking gift was sewing. The other’s was cooking. Whenever my brothers and I went for a visit, we’d wake up on the first morning to the scent of boiling chicken. Once the chicken cooled, Grandma June de-boned it and put all the little pieces back in her big, heavy stock pot, all the while pretending she didn’t see us snatching little bites of chicken off the cutting board. Then she rolled out the dough for dumplings, letting us sprinkle flour atop the dough to prevent it sticking to the rolling pin. She cut the dumplings into strips with a knife and dropped their floury goodness into the pot of simmering broth and chicken. If memory serves, there were little bits of celery and a good amount of salt and pepper. She served it with an iceberg tossed salad, which I skipped so that I could have seconds of her wonderful chicken and dumplings. I have never, ever found their equal.
And her snickerdoodles? They had just the right amount of density, and she rolled the dough balls in cinnamon sugar to coat them all the way around, every bit of the cookie had sweet coating. I have not had one since 1982. I thought I would never, ever find one as good, until last fall, when a friend from the Renaissance festival where I work brought a batch in. They were just like my grandma’s. I actually teared up when I tasted them. So perfect.
My own mom wasn’t much for cooking, so we tended to eat a lot of Hamburger Helper. I could even make this for the family on my own, once I got to be about ten years old. Potato Stroganoff went over well, I was always fascinated by the texture of the dehydrated spud slices. I tried to eat one once, thinking it might be similar to a potato chip. It wasn’t. Sometimes we used Tuna Helper instead. It was okay. But the best? The very best variety? Hands down: Cheeseburger Macaroni. Oh, the heaven of that bright orange powdered cheese! I loved to watch it dissolve in grease and water as I stirred, becoming a cheesy gravy over broken up bits of ground beef and softening noodles. I confess that I fed this to my own children when I became a mom. The bulk of my motherhood years, especially the years when they were little, predate my awareness of preservatives and starches in prepackaged food. My kids loved it, and a box of Hamburger Helper and a pound of ground beef were within my tight budget. No regrets. Not one.
When it came to eating out in my childhood, there were really just three places: Whataburger, Furr’s Cafeteria, and my favorite, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Texans, especially Dallasites, will recognize those spots. At Pancho’s, you walked the line like a cafeteria, and once you ordered your size of plate, the server used tongs to slide an exceedingly hot metal dish into a color coded plastic trivet (the colors told the servers how many items you could have and the cashier how much money to charge). I watched, salivating, as servers filled my tray with cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and fried tortilla chips. Later, as an adult, I added sauteed calabacita (squash), but when I was a kid? Carbs and cheeses all the way. My dad loved the chile rellenos.
Each table had a little Mexican flag (sans coat-of-arms) on a tiny flagpole, and when you needed a refill on your drink, you raised the flag and an attendant came to pour tea or fetch soda.
But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the sopapillas. If you are not familiar with sopapillas, they are pockets of friend dough that you pour honey into. Some other Tex-Mex places serve them with cinnamon sugar on top, and that’s okay, but the best thing was to bite into the corner of the sopapilla and then use your hand to squeeze until the hole you’d made was just the right size to pour honey in. I remember when my dad showed me, then my little brother, then my baby brother how to do it. The sopapillas came in a basket, with free refills. Again, free refills. It was not unheard of to finish a meal with three of them. And a little tummy ache.
When I was about ten, the middle child, Lance, and I decided to play with our baby brother, Chad, and we convinced him that a tiny little man in a sombrero was running under all the tables, magically filling honey bottles and sopapilla baskets unseen. I remember watching Chad climbing over and under the booth seats and table, trying to catch the little man. Lance and I kept straight faces, somehow, until Chad shed frustrated tears and Daddy set everything right.
As an adult, I took my own kids there. Our last visit was on Halloween of 2003, and we took the younger two (aged twelve and nine) who had just finished trick or treating in our neighborhood. The youngest was still dressed in the kimono I’d sewn for her, and they took photos with the mascot, Pancho, on what ended up being the last night we took our kids trick or treating together. After that, they were just grown out of it.
When I was newly married and about to host my in-laws, daddy, and grandmother for Thanksgiving in our student housing apartment, I panicked. I didn’t have any idea how to make a Thanksgiving dinner! I ran to my Aunt Molly’s house, and she spent a day teaching me about green bean casseroles and mashed potatoes, turkey basting and yeast rolls. But the best gift she gave me that day was her recipe for cornbread dressing, which has become the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving dinner at our house. Her recipe came from her mother-in-law, Reba, and I have never tasted its equal: mushrooms and almond slivers sauteed in butter, sage sausage, and savory spices make this recipe unique, and our hands-down favorite. That, and the tortilla soup we make on Christmas Eve, are my own family’s two collective comfort foods, the dishes that serve as the accompaniment to our holiday gatherings.
I have spent my entire adult life in a love/hate relationship with food. Trying to be skinny, skipping meals, depriving, then rebelling by eating too much of the things that my body didn’t gain nourishment from.
I am on a new journey now, though, one that is allowing a feeling of joy and peace to return to my spirit: learning that food is actually powerful, and can work magic in a beautiful way. The closer I can get to the foods that nature Herself created, the better for my body and spirit. But sometimes, just sometimes, a generous helping of gooey cheese sauce or sugary candy just hit the spot. Bon Appetit!
What are your favorite comfort foods?
Here’s the recipe I used for my honey whole wheat bread:
Last night, I went shopping with my daughter, who is expecting her first child (my first grandchild), and watched as she fought off the panic that comes when you’re trying to prepare for a new situation, specifically a baby, and there have been many voices telling you what you need to cover on your baby registry:
car seat, stroller, carrier, mattress, crib, crib sheets, onesies, mittens, diaper bag, changing table, pack and play, organic wipes, ecologically friendly diapers, crib mobile, breast pumps, butt cream, pacifiers, bottles, nipples, tiny socks, and, well, the list goes on.
One particular dilemma that was plaguing her even after we got home was whether to get a baby monitor that would allow her to monitor her infant’s heartbeat by smartphone from wherever she happened to be.
At first thought, this seemed to be a good idea. Then I paused, and really visualized it: if she happened to have an outing with her guy, or maybe a friend, she might just sit, constantly glancing at the app on her phone, not really present with others, not really taking in her surroundings, not really living her life, except in a state of worry.
Perhaps there are times when simplicity is better. So her dad and I spoke of baskets for baby to sleep in, clothing to keep baby warm, car seat to keep baby safe, milk to keep baby fed, and diapers to keep baby dry. And a whole lot of love.
That’s really all you need.
I have been on a mission to simplify my own life, too.
Many of us have seen the book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s got a couple of things I already like, right there in the title: magic, and cleaning up. The author’s method is, in summation, to make physical contact with each item in your home. If it brings you joy, keep it. If not, send it away.
I do not like clutter. I might have gone through a phase in the early years of our marriage where gathering belongings gave me a sense of security. If I had stuff, it was evidence that I was doing okay. Then I visited a relative’s home, a four bedroom house with only two people living in it, where every closet was full to the brim, every bed had stuff stashed under it, every room had twice as much furniture as could be maneuvered around, and each surface of that furniture was covered in tchotchkes. I felt claustrophobic. I saw my future. And I reverted back to my true nature, the nature that had kept my childhood rooms neat as pins, with only decorations that had meaning and gave me joy.
Now, if something is in my home, it’s because I love it, it’s beautiful, it makes my heart sing. I don’t keep anything in my house because I feel a duty to do so. My own kids taught me the power of this, they say no if I offer something or other from my house that they don’t want. This was a hard thing to set boundaries against- the passing down of stuff you don’t want, the acceptance of the stuff just to avoid setting new limits. We had to learn. I am even going through all the boxes of family keepsakes: letters, sepia toned photos, letter jackets, etc. All that stuff is being passed through the same litmus test: Does it encourage love? Does it fill my family’s world with beauty? Is it a part of our family’s story, or the story I am creating of my own life? Does it sing a melody in my soul?
I have been reading the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother when they were courting, and then married, in the 1930s; and simultaneously reading the letters between my own sweetheart and me when we were courting, and then married, in the 1980s. What I am learning is that lovers are pretty much the same. Both couples simply recounted days spent at boring jobs while waiting for the chance to see and hold each other again. My granddad called my grandmother “Hun” a lot. My own guy spent a lot of ink describing each part of my body that he had fallen for. All those letters, representing two generations of married love, are staying with me, sorted into two-gallon Ziploc baggies with cedar balls tossed in for freshness, labeled with Sharpie markers, packed in the same box as the old photos that tell the tale of our two families.
Story is, to me, so magical and precious, it requires a corner of the attic and a corner of my heart.
But my house isn’t the only thing that’s being streamlined; I am working on the whole big picture, too.
Distillation. The dictionary defines it as “the purification or concentration of a substance, the obtaining of the essence or volatile properties contained in it, or the separation of one substance from another, by such a process.”
I am all about it. Distilling relationships, life goals, commitments, hobbies. It’s all going through a metaphorical sieve.
Here’s where I am landing, in these early days of my fiftieth decade:
Quiet is good.
Only friends whose hearts operate in kindness get in close.
Those trusted friends can challenge me to be a better human being.
Sometimes, even family requires careful boundary setting and protective shielding.
Routine is wonderful for a peaceful existence.
Spontaneity is essential for keeping routine from becoming mindless rut.
Travel, travel, travel.
Drink the wine.
Hit the yoga mat. Meditate. Get outside.
Get rid of the scale.
Reduce Facebook time. Read more worthy, nourishing stuff.
Only engage in hobbies that engender joy.
It’s okay to walk away.
My days used to be so full of activity, they were really a whirlwind. I was “The Flight of the Bumblebee” personified. I lapped it up like honey when people said to me, “I don’t know how you do it all. I am so impressed by you!” I didn’t realize, then, that I was burning out. My wings were failing to hold me. I was sustaining myself on a diet of anxiety.
No more. Life is gorgeous when it’s simple; like a magic potion, distilled down to its vital ingredients: love, grace, and reflection.