Jalopy

We are driving up the highway on our way home from a typical crazy trip out. The afternoon started with a long-awaited appointment, and spilled into a trip to the craft store for fabric paint for a school project, a hop into the grocery store for two necessary items for a cake, and a stop at the pharmacy, which (for future reference) closes early on Saturdays.

Just behind my peripheral vision, the clouds are on fire with the setting sun. Up ahead, the sky is tinged with residual pink, as if someone took a paintbrush and accidentally touched a couple spots with the wrong color. It is this time of day on this drive up the highway (as wonder streaks the sky with end-of-day color) when I am most likely to feel that Dad is present.

Suddenly, a large pick up truck pulls alongside my car, then passes me. He is towing a trailer on which rests enough of another truck to allow me to recognize it as an antique from the 1930s.

“There’s a jalopy,” I comment, speaking as much to myself as to my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat. The sight of the antique truck and the recall of the word “jalopy” bring to mind memories of being in the backseat as a child with Dad driving. He would comment on a jalopy on the road or sitting on someone’s front lawn.

“What’s a jalopy?” my daughter asks.

I smile to myself, remembering Dad. “Look it up when we get home.” It’s a Grampa word, I want to tell her, but I don’t.

“I don’t even know how to spell that. How can I look it up?” she asks.

“You’ll figure it out,” I say.

What a great word. Jalopy.

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Solitude

It is dark and quiet and claustrophobic. A dim light glows from my iPad, currently in “night” mode, as the words of my book dance across the pages. There are other lights shining in my periphery, the reading lights of passengers across the aisle, and a row of gold and red “fasten seatbelt” icons starts above my head and runs toward the front of the plane. The constant low roar of the jet’s engines fills the silence that might otherwise be deafening, stuffing the cabin with its noise.

The book I am reading is one I have been poking my way through for a month or more. Poking. I am not a fast reader, but I have allowed this one to stretch out because it fits where I am in my life, and it allows me to both reflect and catch up with my emotions. If I finish it, the journey will be over.

The journey through Kelly Corrigan’s Tell Me More is one that celebrates life and death, and focuses on both happiness and grief. She talks of the love she had for her father (recently deceased) who supported her through the bumpiest of times—the back-sliding, the disappointments, the struggles of growing up. She talks of his life, his death, and how she’s been since. But there are other stories in the book. Losing her close friend, raising her children, parenting mistakes and triumphs. But it is the stories of her father that resonate most deeply with me because I am right there.

At various points through the book, I have cried. And now, sitting in the darkened cabin of an airplane hurtling through the night, I push my way to the end of the book, and I cry once more. The dark masks my tears, but I am not trying to hide. Grief is a part of a life—part of our deep and loving relationships. This writer, she gets it. The grief doesn’t go away. It quietly walks beside us, slipping into our consciousness every now and again when we least expect it.

As I read, as I work, as I parent, as I live… the grief is there. Every day, I relearn how to live with it as my life situations change around me. Here, stuffed inside the cavity of an airplane, the lessons are learned anew. When the plane lands and the passengers tumble out, I will reflect on this moment of solitude among the masses. And I will remember that grief is a shared experience.

Fleeting Thoughts

I am sitting on the couch all cozy under a blanket as I watch my cat. She is looking for something to play with or something to do to keep her busy. She contemplated eating the charging cord to my computer, but then she remembered she’s not that kind of cat. She is the kind of cat who enjoys pulling my kitchen towel onto the floor, so she moved into the kitchen, perhaps to do just that.

The energy it took to get through the day has drained me, and I am savoring a few peaceful moments before I move upstairs to reread one of the books I will be teaching next week. Peaceful moments equal reflection and writing time, and since I couldn’t corral my thoughts into something coherent, I am writing down the ones that make sense.

Today was one of those days when the world seemed to stand still. The weather dampened everyone’s mood as the rain poured down in buckets and froze on every surface, both horizontal and perpendicular. In fact, everything has been so slippery that school was tardy for itself today, with a two-hour delay that came in an unexpected pre-dawn phone call. Since then, it seems, the day has been working to catch up with itself.

Here in the Northeast, I am craving sunlight and warmth, the advent of spring. It is the dead of winter, and my body is bereft of vitamin D. Like my cat, I want to spend the day curled up in a sunbeam, soaking in the light and the warmth, feeling the positive transformation within the depths of my being.

For now, perhaps sleep will have the effect of a sunbeam. And maybe tomorrow, time will follow a more predictable path.

Sweater Hugs

It’s been cold here in New Hampshire. And by “cold,” I mean take-your-breath-away cold. In fact, if you stay outside for more than a minute, one of your vestigial—but important—parts might freeze off: ears, nose, fingers, toes…. If you’ve ever lived in a cold climate, you know just the kind of cold I am talking about. It is C-O-L-D!

The cold sneaks through the walls of the house, around the windows and doors, dancing across the floor as a draft that brings the cold inside. The furnace is struggling to keep the temperature comfortably warm, so we need to bundle up in extra layers, even around the house. Turtlenecks, sweaters, and warm socks are necessary.

* * *

Back in the days when oversized sweaters were all the rage, I might (or might not) have usurped my dad’s old red wool sweater. I have a vague recollection that he let me borrow it for something when I was a senior in high school, and he decided he wasn’t going to wear it any more anyway (something about it being too small and not really something he was likely to wear), so it became mine. Now, I’m not sure if he really thought he wouldn’t wear it, or he wanted me to have it, but over the years, I have held onto it and worn it every now and again. Each time I sort through clothes to donate, I pass by the sweater, leaving it in the cedar chest just in case I want to wear it someday.

* * *

It has been almost a year since Dad passed away. The pain of loss was renewed with the holidays and the approaching new year. As I looked to bundle up against the cold this morning, I remembered Dad’s sweater, folded and ready for wear at the bottom of the cedar chest. I took it out and put it on, knowing that it was the perfect sweater to keep me warm today. Throughout the day, I cherished both the warmth of the sweater and the feeling of being wrapped in a gentle hug.

Since the cold is going to drag on, I think I might wear Dad’s sweater again tomorrow….

The Right Tools

On Christmas morning, we woke up to the quintessential “white Christmas.” Snow was falling thick and heavy, sticking to the trees and piling up on the lawn and driveway. It was the scene everyone longs for on Christmas.

But a white Christmas does not come without its challenges, most notably, the need to deal with snow removal. Snow doesn’t simply go away, and it can’t stay on the driveway and walkways… unless we want to be immobilized until spring, that is, and I’m pretty sure that was not in the cards. So I donned my warm winter snow boots, jacket, and gloves, and I trudged to the shed where—it was promised—I would find my dad’s “snow shovel.”

Let me take a moment to explain my use of quotes on the term “snow shovel.” In my parents’ house, the shovel that had been used (for many years) to rid the walkways of snow seems to be more of a lightweight garden shovel than an actual, dedicated snow shovel.

Sure enough, the shovel that I expected to find was standing at attention on the floor of the shed, waiting for me, taunting me, no doubt. Mom had also offered me a beautiful, rusty child’s snow shovel that I had when I was a child, back in the Dark Ages. This shovel held a picture of a cheerful snowman, and the handle was wiggly and just a few sizes too short for my adult frame.

I used the child-shovel to do a quick scraping of the stairs before I grabbed the larger shovel and headed out toward Mom’s car. After I removed the snow from the car (with a proper tool, not with the shovel!), I started to clean out the snow around the car. I shoveled, removing the snow so she would be able to get to the drivers side door without incident. The shovel was heavy with a long handle. It wasn’t flat like the scraper I was used to, and I struggled with it. With each scoop of snow I threw, I could hear Dad’s voice: “I’ve used this shovel for 40 winters, and it has always served me well. It’s a good snow shovel, nice and light.” Clearly, Dad had not held one of the newer plastic shovels designed specifically for snow. If he had, he’d know it was the right tool for the job.

From the car, I shoveled a narrow path down the driveway, a temporary walkway until the plow arrived to remove the snow from the driveway. When I was done, I retreated to the cozy warmth of the house.

The next day, I went out and purchased two new shovels for Mom, one large with a wide, flat blade and one, a very small scoop with a telescoping handle. It was far from an extravagant purchase, but Mom now has the tools she needs for the next storm. However, I am willing to confess it was maybe a little selfish of me. Now, when I’m at Mom’s house and it snows, I have the shovels I need so I don’t feel like I’m stuck and trying to dig out from the 1950s!

Rediscovered Treasure

This weekend, winter decided to move in. On Saturday, the temperature dropped several degrees, and the snow began to fall just before noon. And Saturday was the day I chose to sort through my Christmas ornaments to decide what I would keep and what I would give away. After all, some of the ornaments in my collection have been kicking around since I was just out of college. And even earlier.

Nowadays, I tend not to burden my tree with an overabundance of ornaments like I did when the kids were younger. Mostly because I like it simple—lights and a few sparkly ornaments to reflect the light back into the room. But there is also the fact that my teenagers are excited about decorating the tree, but not so excited about taking it down after Christmas.

So I sat on the couch and opened the large, green plastic tote, removed the first cardboard box, and began to unwrap small tissue paper balls to rediscover what was inside. Plastic animals dressed in Santa hats with wreaths, hand-painted cinnamon sticks and wooden disks picked up at a long forgotten craft fair, needlepoint plastic canvas squares… these were the items that found themselves in the ever-growing “give away” pile.

As I sorted, I came upon a yellowed box that said, “Mom’s dwarfs” in the handwriting of … I’m not really sure … one of my aunts, maybe? And in pencil, in a similar handwriting, it said, “For Suzanne from Nana.” More recently written were a number of notes in Dad’s handwriting: instructions about being careful, about the fact that there were extra parts wrapped up by themselves, about the things that Dad would typically warn me about as he removed these very fragile items from their carefully crafted tissue paper cocoons.

And now, I pulled one out of the box and placed it in my lap. I unrolled the tissue, getting closer and closer to the treasure it held. The weight of the ornament was less than one might expect, making it easy to fumble or accidentally drop it. But it was cradled securely in my lap. Finally, I was rewarded for my care when I spied the first glint of pointy shoes, a leg, and then a jolly face, its paint cracked and peeling from years of use.

My breath caught in my throat as I could feel Dad’s large hand carefully placing the “dwarf” ornament in my own then small hand. Each year, without fail, before he let go, he would ask, “Got it?” double-checking that this delicate figure was secure and would not fall to the floor where it might meet its demise.

The fact that these old ornaments had seen better days did not make them any less precious. The memories they evoked were worth the extra care needed. Of course, now that I have carefully unwrapped these very fragile ornaments on my own, I believe they are less fragile than all the past fuss would indicate. No matter. I still took great care as I hung them on the branches of my tree.

My one question that will never be answered: why, with elves all around at this time of year, did these ornaments end up being labeled “dwarves” rather than “elves” that might be more fitting for the Christmas season? I suppose I’ll never know. I will be left to devise my own theory.

 

 

Journeys

It’s been a tough week of walking the line. Some days, it seems gremlins have attached themselves to my brain, and they are sneaking around the edges, working their way into my thoughts when I least expect it. There has been much going on around me—accidents, illness, suffering, loss—all way too close. So many of these situations demonstrate how quickly our paths can veer off course and life can change. But these are also the things that tend to bring my blessings into focus. Being an eternal optimist, I always look for the blessings.

This year, our Thanksgiving table was filled with many family members. But throughout the day, I couldn’t help thinking about the one who was absent… Dad. There was much laughter around me, and I spent the day tip-toeing the precarious line between laughter and tears. Wanting to flee to a quiet spot to cry, but being drawn by the warmth of the laughter. I chose to show up and be present.

Life is a one-way trip, and we’re all going the same way. The clock always moves in one direction. We continue to move forward because… well, it’s the only worthwhile choice. There is no going back for a do-over. If you make a mistake, learn from it and keep moving. If there are gremlins in your brain, holding you back, figure out a way to get rid of them or sneak by them. Just. Keep. Moving.

Life is a journey. Pack what you think you might need, show up (with as much confidence as you can muster), and be present. If you need directions, I can help. Forward. Go forward.

And along the way, be the eternal optimist. Always look for the blessings.