A Reader Reminds Me Why I’m Doing This

“May I just say thank you for caring about a really big issue. My son has his own story to tell about his re-entry and his attempt at suicide…we still have him. For this I am eternally grateful. And now I have a book to share with other single moms who are looking at re-entry.”
–A Veteran’s Mother

Dear Friends,

Those of you who are subscribers to my newsletter will have already seen this in your inbox (or soon will depending on how eager you are to open email!). I wanted to share it here too because it feels so important to share those moments when we all really connect. I won’t do this regularly but when there is something I think you’ll like, I’ll give it a try.

Here goes:

The lines above came to me a recent Sunday night in an email. I was about to shut down my computer and head to bed, my thoughts already focused on the week ahead with its to-do’s,  anxieties, and promises to myself to just focus on the writing and not worry about reviews or sales or my future as a writer.

Then I saw it. The subject line read, “Your book is helping yet another military Mom.” I opened it. I learned that the sender had not only finished Casualties but had lent it to a friend whose son was due home from San Diego after serving four years in the Marines.  She wrote:

“It made her rethink the times she was planning to spend with him and listen to the things she would normally dismiss.” 

Then she shared with me a bit of her own story: the return of her son, his attempt at suicide, the long road he is still walking. With tears in my eyes, I wrote back and told her how much her note meant to me and how glad I was that she and her son still had each other. In a second note she shared more of her story. With her permission, I share excerpts below because they give us all something to think about:

“We, (family and loved ones) somehow think that things will resort back to “normal” when they return. NEVER will normal have the same definition it had before they left.”

“The person returned to us from deployment is not the same one who left with dreams for making a difference…”

“They come home feeling guilty that they got to come home.”

There were times when I wasn’t sure I was the right person to write this novel. It took so long to finish. When I finally did publish, the triumph of the moment came with ever-growing worries I’d never anticipated. Then I began to hear from readers — not reviews actual letters from actual readers. I heard from members of book clubs who have shared their surprise, their concern, their sympathy and, ultimately, their empathy for families that may not have looked much like their own. Some readers have lost children in all kinds of ways and relived that loss with me. Some simply fell into the story and simply told me they couldn’t put it down. Some have not loved the book, or all of it, but were still glad they read it. And they took the time to tell me this.

Every time I connect with a reader I understand all over again why I wanted to write a story in the first place. Every time someone shares his or her own story with me, I understand even more why I wanted to write this one. They make me want to keep going. I am grateful every day for their gift.

Two new novels for two new winners

With gratitude in mind – and knowing what it means for an author to know her book is out there connecting — I’d like to share the work of two authors who have written novels full of life, conflict, adventure and the opportunity to consider questions that compel attention long after the last page.

First though, congratulations to Jodi and to Cyn who won copies of The Nest and The Forgetting Time after responding to the last newsletter.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond.  I gobbled this book down in two nights. I loved the story. Loved the protagonist and loved her first love: the continent of Antarctica and the penquins who live there. The premise is frightening: what would happen something like Italy’s Concordia cruise ship accident happened in remote, unforgiving, yet increasingly fragile Antarctica. Bonus: this copy is signed by the author!

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This wonderful novel just came out a couple of weeks ago but back in the spring, I was lucky enough to leave a writers conference with two advance copies. I’m reading one (and loving it) and I want to share the other one. “Dreamers” is the story of a Jende, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who imagines a brighter future for his family after taking a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy couple. This future is threatened by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and forces Jende and his wife to make an impossible choice. Here is what the New York Times book review has to say: “Mbue writes with great confidence and warmth. . . . There are a lot of spinning plates and Mbue balances them skillfully, keeping everything in motion. . . . Behold the Dreamers is a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

To enter, just respond to this email before midnight PST on Thursday, September 8. I will use an app from Random.org to draw two winners. If you’d like to check out all the official rules, just click here: giveaway rules.

Feel free to let your friends know and join us as subscribers.  Here’s the link to sign up: http://elizabethmarro.com/subscribe/

And if you are in a book club, let’s talk!

Thank you! So good to know you are out there!

Betsy

P.S. And now, here’s your moment of Zen courtesy of…Mr. Beans?

Sunday Sentence(s): From Mom’s Monday Letters ( A Reprise)

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I’ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

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They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

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These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters

Weights and Measures

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Since January 1, I’ve walked 153 miles, more or less. I’ve lost ten pounds. I’ve consumed an average of 55 grams of fat a day that account for roughly  30% of 1,440 calories net, per day. I’ve lost the tips of three different fingers on my left hand to knives wielded by my right.

I lost a friend.

I’ve caught a single cold that lasted for 10 days, driven 262 miles to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles by myself to spend two days with over 200 women writers at BinderCon. I’ve read seven books and bought or borrowed 10 more.

I didn’t lose my friend, she died. Every time I look across the yard separating ours from hers, I expect to see her shoving her walker along the edge of her retaining wall where she planted fennel, a plant that was supposed to be a yellow tomato, and ran her hands through the dirt which anchored blooms planted by her daughter-in-law.

I am not walking to lose weight and I am not restricting fat in order to fit into a pair of jeans. The walking project was planned before an unexplained, out-of-the-blue bout of pancreatitis in December altered my dietary habits. The kitchen accidents, one every ten days over the past thirty days leave me mystified and make it really hard to wash the dog. And my hair.

Once, I watched through the window over my kitchen sink while my friend stepped out onto her upstairs porch and bowed to the morning sun. Her long wet hair spilled forward in a shimmer of white gold.

Counting does not come easily to me. I tend to think in round numbers, approximations. I never know how many gallons of gas our car holds, or how many people live in our city, or any of the other numbers that many people note and retrieve.

I don’t remember how many minutes I stood at my sink, watching my friend shake her hair, then brush it, then twist it into the bun she wore every day that I knew her.

When I set the goal for my walking project — 800 miles for the year or a bit more than 15 miles a week — it dawned on me that I had no idea how many steps it took to get from my house to the cliffs or from the cliffs to town. I had even less idea of how many miles I could walk in an hour. I needed tools. I started with the pedometer I gave my husband a couple of Christmases ago. Now I have two apps on my iPod Touch that help me track my steps and miles. I have another app that tracks my caloric intake. We returned from our last trip to Costco with a sleek scale that is see-through and flashes my weight to the tenth of a pound in brilliant blue digits. The old scale, it turns out, was fine but that needle wavered too much. We were constantly fiddling with it to make sure it read “0” before stepping on.

I count with the fervor of a convert. I count everything, even when I know the numbers will tell me I failed to meet my objective. My weekly mileage is closer to ten miles and most of the miles I have walked have been in January, February, and March. I count with optimism. The year is only one quarter over and I’ve already walked far more than I ever would have if I hadn’t set the goal in the first place. I count the fat grams convinced that keeping the count low will ward off a recurrence of the pancreatitis and a return to the far more restrictive diet of boullion, tea, water, and other see-through liquids.

When I first started drinking tea with my friend, I had two dogs and she had one husband. After she became a widow, we visited more often. I would walk over at “the usual time” once or twice a month with my  terriers and we would sit in her backyard or at her dining room table, sip, and talk. We talked about our gardens, our children, her frustrations with the insurance industry, and we took turns tossing a ball for the dogs. Then the dog who loved the ball the best died. My friend gave me tea. She held my hand. We sat in her backyard sometimes not saying much of anything.

No matter how closely I believe I am keeping track, some numbers slip away from me. I can never remember how many steps equals a mile according to these apps I have. I can never be sure they are telling me the truth because they each say something a little different. Sometimes I guess at the calories and fat of the various foods I am eating because the app I use for that doesn’t have the exact thing its database. More and more, I test the limits of my tolerance. After all, the pancreatitis didn’t kill me and more and more it appears to be a fluke that will not repeat itself.

It’s becoming clear that recalling the numbers is not the same as remembering the sights that greet me as I walk, or the laughter over a meal I shared with my family without obsessing about what might happen. The number of books by my bed is meaningless when I am deep inside the world of each one.

I forget when my friend stopped making stars at Christmas. I forget when she started to let me make the tea for us. I forget how many times I meant to call her but let the moment pass.

I remember her laugh. I remember being enfolded in her large, welcoming arms. I remember the warmth of her cheek against mine each time we greeted each other and each time we said goodbye.

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What Nadia Wanted

Her name was not Nadia which means hope or desire. She was named for a mythical bird whose feet never touch the ground. Her privacy is important, though, so Nadia it is and, like her given name, it fits her.

She did hope. She did desire. And her feet never touched the ground for the entire hour I knew her.

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My husband and she began talking in the line at Phillipe’s one Sunday afternoon while I secured a table. We were there to grab a French Dip before a Lakers game. She too was there to buy a sandwich but seemed a little confused by the options.

I saw them laugh. Then I saw my husband point and begin to describe the choices — I know this because even though I couldn’t hear them, his hands described the shape of the bread, the dipping of the bread, and the layering of lamb or beef. He is eloquent with his hands.

She smiled up at him. I wasn’t jealous because as attractive as she was – with her swirl of auburn hair, eyes the color of rain-soaked cypress bark, and a lush Ava Gardner mouth – I was only fifteen feet away. And she was in a wheelchair. The gleaming motorized chair made it safe to admire her, easy to be happy that she’d found my husband to help her. Easy to assume lots of things that turned out to be wrong.

He glanced up to look for me and I waved. I knew we would be having company for lunch. I saw him lean down and carefully take her wallet. He plucked out some bills, handed them to the cashier, and returned the change and the wallet to Nadia who had trouble holding onto it. Then he picked up a tray with three sandwiches and she followed him to the table I’d found.

Minutes later any notions that we were being charitable skulked away. Nadia wasn’t interested in making us feel good about ourselves. She was only mildly interested in the sandwich my husband cut up and set before her. She wanted more. Much more.

“You have a good man,” she said after we’d established that we were the same age, she was married with three grown children, had emigrated to Los Angeles years before, had recently earned a degree in social work, and had muscular dystrophy. Her condition was another reason her sandwich lay between us mostly untouched. The mechanics of lifting a piece to her mouth and then swallowing without difficulty were arduous and time-consuming. She could eat it later; now she wanted to talk. She fixed her beautiful eyes on me and leaned closer.

“Are you in love with him?”

I didn’t have to think but I did have a mouthful of lamb sandwich. “Yes,” I told her as soon as I’d swallowed.

“What does it feel like?” she asked.

At this point, my husband disappeared from my peripheral vision. I don’t know if he left the table or simply leaned back to give her, and himself, the illusion of privacy.

“What does love feel like you mean?” I asked her.

Nadia’s fingers wiggled dismissively on the arm rests of her chair. “Not family love, not friendship. What does it feel like to kiss romantically, to want to go to bed with a man?”

What words to use? As I struggled to answer her, she told me that her husband was much older. They’d been engaged when she was thirteen, married when she was fifteen. “I ran away when my parents first arranged the engagement.” She loved school and wanted to finish. Agreements were reached and she married at fifteen. Three children were born, two sons and a daughter. All left their country at different times and gathered in a hotel before making their way to the United States. In that hotel, she fell the first time. The diagnosis came shortly after. Over the years, her disease progressively worsened until she could do little for herself and depended on her husband, her children, the caregivers who came every day to help her bathe, dress, and eat. Her husband worked nights and slept during the days. He was home as she spoke, she said, sleeping.

“I am lucky. He has been good to me. He never left me,” she said in the way someone recites a prayer they have said so often they no longer hear the words. “But it is not love. It is not romantic love.”

Her caregiver, she told me, was divorced and had had three boyfriends in the time she’d known her. There was always something dramatic, something romantic going on for this woman.

“I want that,” Nadia said. “I am not too old.”

No, she wasn’t.

Nadia wore the evidence of love bestowed. Caring, experienced hands had styled her hair, traced her eyebrows with pencil, colored her eyelids with the right shade of shadow and not too much of it. I thought of the daughter who she said visited her often and worried whenever her mother left the house and how Nadia had managed to leave the house anyway, to get a degree in social work, to ride a bus from a nearby city to Phillipe’s just to taste a sandwich she’d heard about on television. I thought of how easily she had engaged my husband and how naturally it came about that she joined us for a meal. She attracted people. It was not surprising when she told me that she had attracted a man in one of her classes.

“We talked all the time. We both knew there was something there but he said to me that going any further was pointless. It was impossible.”

For anyone else those moments might have been idle flirtation, a chance at a few dates, or even the beginning of a love affair that would soar, or crash and burn. For Nadia it was a whiff of what she wanted and believed she would never have.

I decided not to say what she so clearly understood and had probably heard before: that she was fortunate to have a loving family, that there were deeper kinds of love, possibly better love, that love born in desire and passion can sometimes leave us emptier than when we started. I didn’t say that love — any kind of love — was a crap shoot, a matter of luck as much as anything and that even people without a debilitating disease can wander their whole lives and never really find it.

Nadia wasn’t asking to be told what she already knew. She wasn’t asking for guarantees. She just wanted to the chance to try it herself. Failing that, she wanted to know from another woman what it felt like to be passionately kissed, to be held by a lover. With the directness of someone who knew there wasn’t much time for niceties, she asked me, a stranger she would never again see, to tell her.

I did my best.

One Thing

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 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Monday Letters

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I ‘ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

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They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

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These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Monday, Mom. And Happy Birthday.

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Love, Anniversaries, and Burps in the Night

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On February 2, 2012 my husband and I hung side by side at the start of the zip line at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The feeling I had at that moment steals back as I write these words. Pure terror. Pure bliss. The inching forward until the moment arrives in a rush. The platform seems to fall away and there is nothing between us and the earth below us but way too much air and the straps of our sling beneath our butts. He’s laughing. I’m laughing.

We never planned to celebrate our eleventh anniversary by leaping into the air and sailing over the heads of rhinos or giraffes. It was one of those thoughts that just morphed into action after we decided to use our soon-to-expire zoo passes and, while we were at it, celebrate Groundhog Day or, as we also know it, our anniversary.

As our choice of wedding day may indicate, neither of us has any aptitude for event planning. Even if we did, no amount of planning or orchestration could adequately commemorate moments like this:

A belch rips through the companionable silence that accompanies reading in bed before turning off the lights.

Me: “Sorry.”

Him: “That’s okay. As we get older, I don’t expect we will make fewer sounds.” Pause. “On the bright side, as we get older, we probably won’t hear them.”

Or this:

Him: “You know what? I’m sick of you.”

Me: “I’m sick of you too.”

Tense silence. Then both of us dissolve into giggles that nearly make us stop the car.

We are half-way through our three and a half-week drive from New Jersey to our new home in California by way of Charleston, Savannah, and a great swath of Texas. Until that point, we believed we’d figured out how to spend most of our time together. We work together and live together but we’ve never spent 24 hours a day wedged into a car loaded with our computers, bags, china, pillows, soap, a mop, bags, a case full of AAA books, and trepidation about the move we are making.

An expensive anniversary dinner out somewhere would be wonderful but it would never yield the memory of the time my husband finally nailed the art of sautéing baby artichokes. “Try this,” he says, plucking one from the small mound of crispy, glistening baby chokes. I do. I want more. I want to remain in that kitchen and be fed artichokes by this man for the rest of my life. He smiles, turns back to the stove, and says:

“Stick with me little girl, I’ll make you fat.”

A huge party would never drown out the memory of the ringing phone on election day 2004. The doctor’s name shows on the caller ID. I answer but my love is already there in the room holding out his hand for the receiver. I hear the doctor’s words clearly even though my husband clasps the phone to his ear and turns away as if to shield me. Positive is one word. Cancer is another.

We no longer care who wins the election.

Even though we celebrate our tenth anniversary with a trip to Kauai, we don’t need the ocean, the waterfalls, the whales, the coconuts to celebrate every day we’ve had since that phone call and the successful surgery that followed. We celebrate that with moments like this:

Him or me: “Hi, I’m home. Where are you?”

Me or him: “Right here.”

Here’s how our actual wedding went:

At around five o’clock on February 2, 2001, we’re standing in the living room of our condominium in New Jersey at the beginning of an ice storm. We’re dressed to the nines for our two best friends and a minister whose credentials came straight off the Internet. She wears a black judge’s robe although she’d offered to wear a clown suit, or a cowboy outfit, a top hat, or pretty much anything else she had hanging in the closet of her cabin in the thick of the woods thirty miles north and west of us. We saw them all the night we drove up there after work a few weeks earlier to go over the vows she insisted we review with her.

We think we’ve thought of everything. We’ve gotten our kids’ blessings, the rings, roses, the announcements we will drop in the mail sometime that evening. We’ve bought a video camera no one knows how to use.

Then the minister begins to read from the vows – traditional, feminist, with elements drawn from Native American spiritual prayers because we’d never thought about any of this before and, confronted by her menu, thought we’d better try a bit of everything just to be on the safe side.

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As she approaches the section for the first “I do,” my palms grow moist and then I realize there is a sheen on my beloved’s forehead that may or may not have to do with the intestinal infection he developed the night before. There is the moment when we realize that there are no guarantees that we won’t make the same mistakes we made in our previous marriages, that in a few more seconds the only way out will be a path neither of us ever wants to walk again. Then here it comes. “I do.” Fingers twined together, we jump. Our honeymoon is spent in the same living room while he rides out the rest of his bug and I sink into our big white chair with a few novels.

This year our anniversary went like this:

We sleep until our elderly terrier rouses us. We catch up on past episodes of Sherlock and True Detective. We talk about our kids, our family, trips we might take. We eventually get around to washing up and shifting from pajamas to sweatpants. We make breakfast. We make tea. We make lunch. We make dinner. We watch the Super Bowl. We never answer a phone or look at our computers. We find ourselves looking at each other or reaching for each other’s hand and just holding on for a bit.

It couldn’t have gone better if we planned it.

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Intervention

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I don’t know what kind of bird this is, I don’t know its sex. All I know is that for five days it occupied my backyard, walking around among my herb pots with a bemused air, as if hoping any minute to find a familiar face or landmark. There was no visible injury, no reason that I could see that it wasn’t flying but there it was, grounded among my pots of parsley, basil, sage, mint.

We came upon one another early the first morning when I went out my back door to empty the kitchen compost pail. The bird scuttled out from beneath my pots and, thinking it was a rat, I almost spilled a few days worth of coffee grounds and veggie peelings all over my pajamas.

When I calmed down I realized that this bird was not even trying to fly away. It moved around like a chicken, keeping its eye on me and edging away if I moved too close but it never flapped its wings. In fact it seemed not to realize it had wings.

I zapped into rescue mode. There was no sign of injury but the bird was clearly young and vulnerable. She (?) would be no match for the cats who patrol my yard, the raccoons, bigger and meaner birds, or the coyotes rumored to be in our area. I would have to keep our terrier out of here. How would she eat?

Resentment reared its head. Why did she have to pick my yard? Where were her parents anyway?

While I stood there trying to figure out my next step, the bird settled on the edge of a pot of cilantro and stayed very still as if hoping I would just go away.

So I did. I confess, I was hoping that she would somehow be gone the next time I wandered through. But there she was that afternoon and, after a long night, the next morning. I called the local wildlife rescue folks and reached a man who sighed into the phone as he explained about adolescent birds. They are sometimes out of the nest before they are sure of their wings. It’s pretty common. When I went online in search of more answers, the folks on a Cornell site explained that adult birds liked to get their kids out of the nest and care for them in nearby locations because they were more vulnerable if they all stayed in one place. The man on the phone and the folks at Cornell said if there were no adults in evidence over the next few days, that the only step I could take would be to throw a towel over the bird, scoop her into a box and take her to the refuge where they would keep her.

I wanted her to be someone else’s problem. But every time I thought of tossing a cloth over her, holding that fragile frightened body in my hands, something inside me resisted. So I gave it one more day. Then another. Every morning it seemed like a miracle that she was still alive. She even took a bath in a little dish of water I set out for her. I got used to her. I looked for her. I kept our dog away from her. I went to bed every night thinking of her. Then on the fifth morning, I walked out, said “Good Morning,” and proceeded to water my herbs as I had done twice during her stay.

A beat of wings and she was suddenly on top of our fence looking down. I was struck dumb by a sense of deliverance. When I checked a little later, she was outside the fence, on a cement retaining wall near the compost. That night, she was gone for good.

What if I had intervened? What if I had chased her all over the yard with a towel, forced her into a box and then into a car? What if I had left her with people with much bigger problems to solve? In other words, what if I had tried to save her and made her suffer or, at the very least, complicated her struggle in ways I could not begin to imagine?

I blush to think how many times I’ve done this. In the name of friendship, motherhood, or trying to be a loving daughter, I have intervened, rushed to the rescue with advice, books, quotes, lectures, analysis, yes, analysis. I love to dig into the facts, research, and present people I love or even some I’ve just met (I cringe as I type these words) with tomes of information about their illness, family dynamic, emotional pain, along with hugs and an intense desire to show them a way out.

Someone else’s problems are irresistible to me. Just ask my husband. Or my son. Both have watched me kill perfectly good plants (even the indestructible mint) with too much attention, too much watering. Both have let me know, gently but firmly, when I cross the line from loving kindness into interference with them.

My bird friend came along just as I was penning a long letter to a loved one who is struggling right now. My chest had been tight for days about what to say, what not say, how to find the words that would somehow fix what I saw as his problem. I sent it but not before backing way off the analysis and advice and just letting him know what I saw and that I cared. In some way, I suppose, the earlier version of the letter was like the towel I was considering throwing over the bird’s head. I would be trying to scoop up my friend, hold him in my arms, fix his problem for him so he would be safe.

That’s not what the bird needed. It’s not what my loved ones need either. It’s not even what I need. The bird reminded me that sometimes the best we can offer each other is a little room to breathe and a friendly place to sit and figure things out on our own.

I’ll keep trying.

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Love, A La Mode

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When I moved from the East Coast to San Diego in the spring of 2002, I found myself a stranger in a place that felt like home. There is no explaining that kind of feeling, it just happens. It happens more easily when you land in a community of loving, welcoming people who begin as acquaintances and become friends.

Some of those very special people came over the other night and we did what seems to be becoming an annual event: a potluck and ice cream social. We make baked ziti (okay, my husband makes that), and ice cream (that’s me), and they bring wine, beer, salad, starters and sides. They also bring lots of laughs, warmth, and the bonds that have formed over ten years as we have met weekly to explore our faith, among other things.

But the other night was all about ice cream. When it comes to food preparation, I pick my spots and increasingly, my favorite spot (or as my mate has begun to call it, my obsession) is making ice cream. Maybe it is because when I make it, it is always for people I love. Even better, my favorite recipes involve ingredients made by people I love. As I prepare the custards and try new combinations, I think of their faces and what they mean to me and I swear all that adds a little something wonderful to the finished product.

Here’s how it works. They tell me what flavor they are craving, and I go hunting for the best guides. My first stop is, without fail, David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop” as well as his website. If I am making non-dairy, coconut-milk based ice creams (which are amazingly rich and delicious) I always use Rori Trovato’s recipe for chocolate coconut ice cream as a base and improvise from there.

And when it comes to adding a little spirit to the whole production, I can’t go anywhere but Peach Street Distillers because, well, I’m the distiller’s mother. But I’m not completely biased, their stuff wins awards from people with no blood ties at all so they must be doing something right.

The other night, we enjoyed some new twists on the old vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry standbys. Adding Peach Street’s Colorado Straight Bourbon to the vanilla and chocolate turned them into something extra decadent and addictive. Slipping a little extra of their Goat Artisan Vodka into the fresh strawberry frozen yogurt kept it soft and creamy and never interfered with the fresh strawberry taste. Of course, all the recipes I share below can be made without the alcohol and will be delicious.

Enjoy!

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Vanilla Bourbon Ice Cream

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s recipe for vanilla ice cream in “The Perfect Scoop.”

Ingredients: 1 cup of whole milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, 2 cups of heavy cream, pinch of salt, 1 vanilla bean split lengthwise, 6 large egg yolks, 3/4 teaspoons of vanilla extract, 4 tablespoons of bourbon (I use my favorite, Peach Street Distiller’s Colorado Straight Bourbon. If you don’t live near Grand Junction, here’s where you can find it or order it online.

1. Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk with a paring knife, then add the bean pod to the milk. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.

2. To make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart (2l) bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Set a strainer over the top of the smaller bowl and pour the cream into the bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Rewarm the milk then gradually pour some of the milk into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Scrape the warmed yolks and milk back into the saucepan. NOTE: leave the vanilla bean in the warmed milk the entire time.

4. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula.

5. Strain the custard into the heavy cream. Stir over the ice until cool. The vanilla bean will remain in the strainer. Rinse it and then add it back into the strained mixture with the vanilla extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably (I say DEFINITELY) overnight.

6. Remove the vanilla bean, add the bourbon, and freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. NOTE: The high fat content of this ice cream, combined with the bourbon will make the resulting ice cream soft and luxurious – it won’t get rock hard. I always plan to let it have at least 24 hours in my refrigerator’s freezer after the ice cream freezer has done its work. But if you can’t wait, slurp some right out of the ice cream maker. It’s delicious.)

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Chocolate Bourbon Ice Cream

This tastes like a frozen version of those rich chocolate bourbon balls that often make an appearance at Christmas. In fact, this ice cream, along with a coconut milk based “frozen pudding” are going to make an appearance this winter at our holiday feast. I’ve adapted David Lebovitz’s recipe for Chocolate ice cream in page 26 of “The Perfect Scoop.” This is a rich, dark chocolate – no milky sweetness – and, with the bourbon, makes for a particularly decadent experience. Full disclosure: I’m a chocolate fanatic and often eat it unsweetened. One of the great things about David Lebovitz’s recipes is that they go easy on the sugar so the flavor of the Ice cream is pure and wonderful. This recipe is for those who like their chocolate nearly ”straight-up” but it can be sweetened up by using chocolate with lower percentages of cacao or adding a bit more sugar.

Ingredients: 2 cups heavy cream, t tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder (I use Trader Joe’s which is not Dutch process and it works and tastes delicious), 5 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use Trader Joe’s bittersweet bar with 73% cacao), 1 cup whole milk, 3/4 cup sugar, pinch of salt, 5 large egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 4 Tablespoons of bourbon.

1. Warm 1 cup of the cream with the cocoa powder in a medium saucepan, whisking to thoroughly blend the cocoa. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer at a very low boil for 30 seconds, whisking constantly. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate, stirring until smooth. Then stir in the remaining one cup of cream. Pour the mixture into a large bowl, scraping the saucepan as thoroughly as possible, and set a mesh strainer on top of the bowl.

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2. Warm the milk, sugar, and salt in the same saucepan. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

3. Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the chocolate mixture until smooth, then stir in the vanilla. Stir until cool over an ice bath.

4. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator (at least overnight – the longer the better), then add the bourbon and freeze in your ice cream maker according to  the manufacturer’s instructions. If the cold mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.

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Fresh Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

So easy and so fresh. Using Greek style yogurt (I get it from Trader Joe’s), makes it even creamier and gives a smoother taste.

Ingredients: 1 pound +, of fresh strawberries, rinsed and hulled, 2/3 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons of vodka or kirsch, 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Slice the strawberries into small pieces. Toss in a bowl with the sugar and vodka, stirring until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, stirring every so often.

2. Puree the strawberries and their liquid with the yogurt and lemon juice in a blender, food processor or bowl using a hand processor. Blend until smooth. If you wish, press the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove seeds (I always do this).

3. Refrigerate for at least one hour and freeze in your ice cream maker. I often leave it in the fridge overnight to make sure it is really really cold before freezing.