Family Dance Party in a Hopeless Place (Love)

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Three years ago my entire family gathered in the wake of my mother’s death for a full family reunion.

That equates to my father, our beloved patriarch, four couples, and eight children, most under the age of 13. It’s a lot of people.

We stayed just two hours from home and rented hotel rooms in the mountain town my family spends a lot of time in.

There was wiffle ball and swimming and meeting up at the hot tub in the evenings. There were hikes and flower collecting and late night movie watching and a couple of very nice meals out.

There was a bit of friction, as there is likely to be when you gather that many related people in one place for several days.

But by far, the highlight of the trip for me was the night we held a talent show.

The talent show was the idea of my then 13-year-old niece, the eldest of the brood. When she first suggested it, I groaned inwardly. In the wake of my mother’s death, just getting everyone together seemed challenging enough. Planning something relatively organized that required all parties (my niece and my ever-eager daughters insisted all must participate) to do perform honestly seemed at worst impossible and at best sickly unpalatable.

And yet.

How do you deny a 13-year-old with an idea to bring her family together? Answer: you don’t.

Hand-drawn fliers were created immediately and distributed by doe-eyed girls eager for a smile and unbridled enthusiasm in return. Prima and my niece amazingly uncovered a clipboard and went around signing people up for the talent show. Like their overachieving parents before them, they were focused on 100% participation.

Soon, instead of reticent retreats, there began to be a bit of a buzz about what everyone was going to do – would my super athlete sis-in-law run a mini boot camp? My youngest nephew had an Adele song prepared. What would I do?

Mid-week, the evening of the talent show arrived and we gathered in the family room of our mountain house to take in the festivities.

Stories were told, songs were song, back-breaking exercises were attempted, and poems recited. We laughed a lot and cried a little, too. It was a thing of relieved, pure beauty. After a year under the afghan of grief, it seemed as if we were all, collectively, able to have fun again.

And then, the best thing happened.joyous dancing on beach

Someone had an iPhone, and someone put on music and a dance party began.

The next thing I know, our broken and rebuilding, hurt and hopeful, soulful and silly herd of a recovering family was dancing like maniacs to the persistent syncopation and perfection of that year’s biggest song.

As Rihanna crooned, “I found love in a hopeless place,” I jumped along with the herd, as high as I could, as long as I could and with as much gusto as I could. I screamed the lyric. My legs burned and my lungs ached. And my soul caught fire. And I sobbed.

For despite the despair of loss, in spite of what our mother’s death had broken in each of us and for all of us, we managed, in all of our neediness and selfishness and willfulness, to find love – and joy, and hope (that bastard) — and we managed to dance.

 

The spirit of the traveling gypsy

Mr. Bailey and I recently took Prima and Secondo on a summer vacation.mom on vacation

We like to call these trips “adventures,” and we describe them that way to the girls.

The two rules we repeat on these adventures with our young brood: “Be flexible” and “Don’t tease.”

(These twin gems of gentle admonishments were given to my family by a dear friend decades ago when he, his wife and his two high-spirited and very bright sons were visiting our family over Thanksgiving. They became family mantras that day and have served us well each trip since.)

Prima and Secondo are good travelers. At the tender age of 11, Prima has traveled to three foreign countries and Secondo to two. (We took Prima overseas before she turned 1, a fact which irritates the slightly competitive Secondo to no end.) They’ve endured delayed flights, mad dashes through the terminal to catch flights, in-flight medical emergencies, unexpected snowstorms, emergency landings and surprise overnights in hotels – all with little drama. Through travel, Secondo has tackled her fear of escalators (mostly) and Prima her fear of the unknown. They both relish the rental car pick-up and return and are only slightly phased when I squawk irritatingly at Mr. Bailey for ignoring my directions. (In Mr. Bailey’s defense, taking detours and turning blindly down interesting roads is what he enjoys most about traveling. I enjoy getting there.)

This last trip involved several days with my youngest brother and his family. Each of my brothers reside in fantastic cities to visit; we are spoiled our regular destinations read like a where’s where of places to drop anchor.

My late mother, a gypsy soul with an endless desire to roam and uncover, to dine and discover (local bistros and needlepoint shops and art galleries and quaint and charming sights) loved that about her progeny. She groomed us for it, in fact. She repeatedly told us growing up she expected us to live in four interesting cities so she and my father could spend three months in each locale in their retirement years, rotating through.

She began enacting this routine years before she hit retirement age – that prescient nymph. She would swing around the globe, sometimes with my father in tow, sometimes without – stopping in on each child and city, and exploring, then sprinkling her love for each place like she watered each of us as we grew.

Since she died three years ago, in each town I’ve visited since, my brothers or sisters-in-law always point out her favorite spots.

“Oh, your mom loved this little shop,” my sister-in-law told me on my most recent visit. “I’m not exactly sure why, it’s a bit odd. But see all those handmade cards? She used to love to go look at them and talk to the guy who owned the store.”

On visits to other towns, my sisters-in-law or brothers would say, “This was the needlepoint store mom always came to.”

Or, “Mom would walk down here every morning for a coffee and to read and then she’d walk home.”

For them, each memory shared elicits on a faraway look that’s part homage, part devastation, part longing and part joy.

For me, as each memory is shared I see my mother’s familiar gait, bounding down a narrow street or busy village path. I watch her walk into the sweet shop with her slouchy shoulder bag or her bulky red wallet and a book tucked under her arm, wearing her thick woven ivory sweater and jeans. (She was always cold.)

My chest fills with a sense of the sublime pleasure she experienced as she found and revisited all the special nooks of the places the four pieces of her heart called home.

The memory breaks me and sustains me all at once. I feel like I have become the channel of her spirit as I step through those shop or café doors.

I am infused with joy to be her channel. Then as naturally and quickly as that sentiment rises, I am suddenly and miserably struck with a renewed sense of loss, and I’m missing her so much my chest is a knot of pain.

I live in the town where we were raised, so I don’t have the same memories each of my brothers and sisters have of my mom, in her most joyful rendition, traveling, exploring.

I can’t go into her hometown needlepoint shop, which has since closed – perhaps for lack of her patronage. It still hurts to visit her favorite lunch spot. I would not dare set foot into either of the two tea shops I hosted her biggest – and last – birthday parties in.

But when I travel to new places, I always bring her along. If I have an hour or so to myself, she and I walk the beach or the boardwalk or I find an independent bookstore and buy something only she would encourage me to purchase (a book of poems or yet another journal). I place her memory in the city I visit, in the lake house we stay in, and let her roam around a bit.

And when we head home, I leave a piece of her where we’ve been – to make up for me staying close to home and to keep her beautiful gypsy spirit alive.

Tangled webs of midlife

I recently spent some time with a friend who caused me to think a little differently about my life, and my path.

It’s strange when that happens – one moment four decades into life you are fairly certainone way or two you have a good handle on where you are and where you are likely to end up. Then after that long conversation or a series of challenges or realizations, you are considering where you might truly want to go and if you should be doing things much differently to get there.

Over the last couple of years, Mr. Bailey and I have witnessed several friends and acquaintances hit a similar, more significant stage, mostly commonly referred to as the mid-life crisis.

It has manifested itself in a variety of ways – affairs, divorces, new sports cars, new homes, 20-something girlfriends and boyfriends, new careers, custody battles, co-parenting scheduling logistics from hell and fresh starts and second marriages.

It’s strange to stand alongside someone who is making radical changes to their life, and it can also be unnerving. The temptation to internalize – or to distance oneself too far – is strong. This could never happen to me, you think one minute, could it? I know exactly how neglected she feels, and don’t I also feel neglected?

But these are not monkey-see sort of situations.

When an individual has the impetus to blow up every part of a well-established life thatbattling oneself generally meets the Maslow needs and involves the innocent lives of their children, it doesn’t happen on a whim. Years of buried anger, resentment, regret, lack of appreciation or half-expressed emotion all play a role. And for some reason there is an internal clock that goes off sometime mid-life, forcing you to wonder – with the time I have left (and who knows how much that is) is this what I want?

When speaking about this to someone they brashly stated they did not believe in mid-life crises. I try not to act like the belief police – and so I absorbed that notion, rolling it around my brain like a good red wine that’s had some time to breathe and tried to place its terroir. I weighed it, I mused on it, and looked up the term “crisis” in the dictionary, as a word wonk like me loves to do. Crisis, defined by my faithful, trustworthy friend Merriam-Webster is “the defining moment.”

It’s fine not to believe in mid-life crisis. But in my experience, they exist. And so do early-life crisis and so do post-college crisis, and post-partum crisis and pre-partum crisis and empty-nest crisis.

As thinking and feeling human beings in relationships with others, we attract crisis. We are complicated creatures. It’s very easy, particularly in an increasingly noisy, distracting and cluttered world, to be so diverted by the banalities of everyday life that we numb out the overarching emotional energies that give us the horsepower to charge our lives, particularly when that energy wanes or does not feel well-placed. Once that begins, it’s much easier to generate numbness than it is to address the broken parts of our hearts, souls and relationships.

And though I’ve had a ringside seat and watched dear friends painfully sort through the
wreckage of a spouse’s mid-life crisis, these reality checks can be positive. They invariably cause growth. They are the way we legitimize our human need to tussle with our reality and rediscover our meaningful place in it.

And here’s another angle: the midlife crises that do blow up families and cause divorces are very visible, but that doesn’t mean there are not hundreds of others that do not inspire such radical results. What aboutkindess not judgment those that create newfound careers, a pursuit of one’s passion, a return to school, a renewal of vows, a new shared hobby, the trip of a lifetime, a fresh start with a beloved spouse, or the reconnection to a soul’s purpose?

They may not make the neighborhood gossip circuit, but my bet is that they are just as likely to occur as those that have tongues wagging from yoga studio to local organic microbrew bar.

In any case, wrestling your way through either crisis is much better than the alternative – a deep denial of feelings or yearnings or reflection, resulting in soul-numbing bitterness you get to cuddle to your grave.

Sounds like a “defining moment” that slipped insidiously by – unnoticed.

Forever summer memories

 

Sometimes I feel I’m marking the passage of time in summers.

Secondo basks in a mountain valley

Secondo basks in the glory of  a mountain valley in summer.

Prima and Secondo have birthdays at the beginning of summer and so the hourglass makes its annual revolution just as summer starts.

The long days cause us to linger a little longer over dinners, baseball games and family times.

We see each other a lot more. The kids are home, or at day camps, having new adventures with a lot to share about at night. We get to go on vacation together at least once. Friends are out of town, so while we socialize a fair bit, we also seem to circle the wagons and look to one another for entertainment. Every summer for the last few, I read books out loud to the whole family – Harry Potter or Pippi Longstocking or Anne of Green Gables or some other precious tome containing enough escapist magic to change all of our lives just a little.

Plenty of time to goof off during summer.

There’s plenty of time to goof off during summer.

Each summer, the girls seem to discover (either independently or with my steering) a classic television family. Two years ago, it was the Brady Bunch, thanks to a friend who loaned them the complete box set she’d been given for Christmas. It immediately piqued their curiosity when she bestowed it upon them in its green shag carpet box for safe summer keeping before they went out of town.

Within a day – they were obsessed with Cindy, Bobby, Peter, Jan, Marcia, Greg, Alice and Mr. and Mrs. Brady. Like byline-starved investigative reporters, they questioning me about it: Did I know how cute Cindy was? What about her curls? Did I think Secondo looked like Cindy? (They did.) Had I seen the one when they get Tiger? When they broke the lamp? What was up with Mrs. Brady’s hair? Was that actually a popular hairstyle at one point?

When they worked their way up to the double-episode trip to the Grand Canyon, I stopped BB locked in jailwhat I was doing and watched it with them. They were fascinated, riveted. Secondo clutched my hand as Bobby and Cindy weathered the night lost in the canyon and hid her eyes with the mean old Western man locked them in the dusty ghost town jail.

The Grand Canyon is now firmly planted on their places to visit.

Last summer, thanks to an impulse purchase at Target, they discovered I Love Lucy.

We were spending a few days at our mountain house and they were bored beyond all activity: having roamed through the forest, collected pine cones, taken three bike rides and the dog for a walk at least twice. And it was only 10 a.m.

I found the Lucy box set shoved into the TV console and peeled the plastic on that baby hoping I could get them to sit through one show before we had lunch. They were uber-skeptical. Why was it in black and white? What was it about? Did they have to?lucyandethel

Ladies and gentleman, if it’s been awhile since you’ve observed the magic that is Lucille Ball – it’s time to take another look.

My (at the time) 10- and 6-year-old responded accordingly: rolling on the ground laughing, watching for hours on end, talking non-stop about Lucy and Desi and Ethel and Fred, playing Lucy, mimicking her expressions – all summer long.

Invariably, these discoveries and adventures we share remind me of my summers as a child. Most memories involve my three brothers – particularly my youngest brother, who was only a year younger than me. Most memories include swimming in the pool, watching Dukes of Hazard, eating our favorite lunch of micro-cheese (Kraft cheese sandwiches on Roman Meal bread zapped in the microwave for 30 seconds) and then swimming until we were so waterlogged our wrinkled toes looked about to shrivel up entirely. Or traveling to Ohio to spend summers with my grandparents, hiking through the forest and along the creek with Gramps and walking to Arby’s for lunch, or visiting the rose garden at the park and dancing in the gazebo while imagining I was Liesel in Sound of Music.

Each summer, my mother heart – the fortress that carefully stows and stokes the fire of longing for the highest and best for each child, for each precious happy moment, and radiates those yearnings out to God or the universe – hopes together the summer discoveries and the camps, the new friends and the old, the books we read and the museums we visit, the baseball games and the spontaneous trips to Dairy Queen and the jaunts to the mountains and the long drives to the beach, Prima and Secondo will harvest memories of summer to warm them throughout their lives – and that they’ll laugh a little along the way, too.

1095 Days Later: ‘I’m Here, No Big Whoop’

“What is so significant about today?” my husband and I wonder.

Today is the day my mom’s spirit was released from her suffering body. Three years ago today, she died.

“Is this a day we want to mark?” we both wonder. And in the parlance of exam essay

It's 3 a.m. and I'm wide awake.

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake.

questions, “Why, or why not?”

For the last three years, in the wee morning hours of May 7 I have awoken. I rarely awake during the night. If I do, it is usually to roll over and resume sleep. The last three years though, near 3 a.m., I awaken. Fully.

It does not escape me that in these same wee hours, my mother’s spirit made her escape.

Is it a shift in the energy of the universe, revisited at this time, that wakes me up? The extraction of her physical presence and the vacuum that created in my life and the lives of so many others that rouses me from slumber? Is it some spiritual clock my soul has set within me, to go off once a year, a recollection, an alarm.

Is it her thumbprint on my soul, the smooth river stone she placed in my heart, which anchors my soul, full of all her teachings, her love, her goodness and complexities, pressing ever deeper into my memory, my being? Is her spirit nudging it deeper, each year?

I get up hours later and rush to Mass to meet my father and honor her. I’m doing OK until the priest mentions her name, her full name, during the intentions. “Shut up!” I want to yell at him and cover my ears. “Don’t you dare say her name as being gone, departed, dead. Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

Instead I sob and think, “My mom is dead. My mom is dead.” 1,095 days later this still seems unreal — and unreasonable.

The priest talks about the dispersal of the apostles after Jesus’ death.

Painting titled 'The ballerina' by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

Painting titled ‘The ballerina’ by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

I think about the many people who loved my mom, who were deeply touched by her love, who treasured her friendship, companionship, her loving heart. Siblings, cousins, her husband, her children and children’s spouses, grandchildren, other family, the families of her children’s spouses, her dear and loyal friends, distant relatives, childhood friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, children of friends, friends of her children, priests, nuns, volunteers, caregivers, doctors, nurses who cared for her, fellow patients, fellow church members, people who have read about her in my writing, before her death and after, the friends who I made simply because we both had dead mothers — all of these part of the diaspora of Judy’s love.

All of these people (and more) came together when she died three years ago, pulled inward by the transition of her spirit. Brought together to commune because of the magnetic energy and power of her love and how she made people feel. And then, they dispersed to all their different nooks, carrying with them that piece of Judy’s love and spirit.

Sometimes I feel sad about the dispersion. But more often I feel impressed.
I feel as if that’s the way it is supposed to be — and maybe the way my mom’s love was always destined to travel.

I am beginning to think that we only fully share what we receive from others, the gifts loved ones instill in us, after they are gone.

When they are living, we can imitate and approximate, but when they are gone, their intention of love becomes part of us, we own it. It activates and becomes a part of who we are and what we are now empowered to bestow on others.

A week ago, I had a dream my mom came walking back into the kitchen of our childhood home, after having been dead for three years. In the dream, I knew she was coming back to life!

She looked great, young and fresh and very calm. I stroked her cheek and marveled that she was whole again, all put back together, in health and beauty and peace.

While I felt shocked and awed in the dream, she was matter-of-fact and serene. Like, “hey, honey girl, I’m here, no big whoop.”

The Inhumanity of Marriage: A Homage

Standing in our kitchen recently, sorting bills, Mr. Bailey casually mentioned the day before had been his father’s birthday.

My head snapped up from Prima’s fifth grade social studies project, me gauging his emotional temperature accurately enough to decide where this surprisingly casual comment was heading.

(The senior Mr. Bailey died nearly nine years ago at an age well-qualified as “too young.”)

The comment had a peaceful tone, with webs of gossamer memory laced about it. There were no tears, just quiet recognition, and my neck muscles relaxed.

It wasn’t until hours later that the recognition of what the day was — and how it had passed — truly hit me.

****

I had remembered the day and noted it to a friend that afternoon, but had not seen Mr. Bailey long enough to discuss it with him. My head, crowded with thoughts, ideas, to-dos, pushed the recollection aside.

That evening, my Mr. Bailey had been out to a happy hour with friends after work and so had gotten home later than I expected.

Not that I was raging mad — I was just exhausted by the day, which consisted of work early in the morning, a field trip with Secondo’s class, a hurried lunch of peanut butter and jelly while rushing into the office for meetings in the afternoon, followed by school pick-ups, a workout, more work, culminating in dinner and bedtime routines with alternating quibbling and keyed up children.

I had just settled into the couch for more catch up work and guilty pleasure TV when he rolled in.

I admit: my reaction to Señor Bailey’s re-entry was underwhelming.

All I could think of at that moment was that he spent a kid-free, parent-taxi-free day at work, probably met a client for lunch, and ended his day with 4 hours at the bar in the company of four great friends, beer and food. (Did I mention I had eaten tomato soup and a grilled cheese, while standing at the kitchen counter, for dinner?)

OK, so I wasn’t actively angry, but I was annoyed. I was measuring up my day against his. I was chairwoman of the righteous campaign of me. And I was chillier than I could have been. I gave a half-hearted attempt at conversation then resumed my final activities, “as I was.”

And in that moment, I had forgotten all about his dad’s birthday.

If it was on his mind, he didn’t mention it. He was quiet and reserved and retreated to watch baseball in the bedroom.

We do things like this in a marriage. We give, we take, we hold back, we push, we pull, we dance. And sometimes in the very human act of being in this lifetime relationship, we forget to be human.

It’s surprising (albeit common).

It’s surprising a day that was crushing in year one, then heartbreaking in year two, dips unconsciously below the radar in year nine.

****

Once I connected my attitude that night and the significance of the day — I was ashamed. And I got human.

How could I have placed it aside so easily? How could I have been oblivious in those moments when his quiet should have tipped me off?

Did I not remember his dad, his curls fuzzy and black tie loose, dapper and rugged, smiling as he swayed across the dance floor with Mrs. Bailey at our wedding?

Or holding Prima on his lap, his big hand protectively embracing her little belly, his eyes on fire with pride?

Or locking my muscle-bound, mountain-tall Mr. Bailey in his vise embrace of paternal love and safety in a way no else ever could, ever again?

The truth is his father is enigma to me — I was not around him long enough to crack his strong-silent code.

But there are two things about him I know to my core.

First, he believed his greatest accomplishment in life was creating and raising three wonderful sons. (In a moment of heady expression and sincerity he confessed this to me in the middle of a noisy party about a year before he died.)

Second, his greatest accomplishment in life is the greatest joy of mine. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Warm milk + Chili Dot Com: Perfectly particular palates

Our girls are not picky eaters. They do, however, have discerning palates.

This is particularly true of Prima, who at the age of 5, while being babysat by friends, replied “shu-shi” when asked what her favorite food was. (They were anticipating a response more along the lines of “pizza” or “ice cream,” I think.)need for milk

As a baby, Secondo used to sit in front of a high chair tray full of black beans, avocado and cherry tomatoes cut into halves and quarters. I can still see her chubby little fingers chasing black beans around the tray and shoving them heartily into her bonny little mouth.

At age 6, Prima licked her lips and dubbed our easy homemade chili recipe, “Chili dot com” [“I love when we have chili-dot-com!” she announced, tomato cheeked.] I don’t know where it came from or how she created it, but I immediately fell in love with the moniker and her ingenious way of putting language together.

In a tribute to my mother, who began to wind down her day raising four small children when she poured her evening cup of tea, they both enjoy and drink tea. When Prima is sick, she asks for Britain’s favorite beverage.

“But Mooom,” she’ll whinny, “can I have PG Tips? With cream and two sugars?” This girl knows her tea.pg_tips

For the majority of her life, Secondo has preferred her milk warmed one minute in the microwave. If you pour too little in the cup or only go 45 seconds, she’ll know. Not even worth trying.

Over the years, as they have gotten older, their palates have expanded and contracted. They’ve settle in on some favorites.

Secondo’s major food group is cheese. Cheese crisp, mac and cheese (she prefers Annie’s Organic and not the blue box stuff), girled (not a spelling error) cheese, cheese quesadilla and – the holy grail of her dairy obsession – cheesesticks.

That should be two words but in our household it’s ubiquitous, so it is one.

Cheesesticks are serious business around here.

One brand does not suit all.

Prima prefers the Frigo variety (she lampooned an empty Frigo cheesestick package to our refrigerator as a reminder of what type to buy). And mozzarella only. Once in awhile, she likes to venture out to into sharp cheddar rectangles – but only Sargento, thank you very much. And never, never, ever, ever send a cheesestick in her lunch, even if you pack dry ice to maintain temperature. Without fail it will come back a greasy, flaccid half-melted mess of rejection, and the flustered admonishment, “Moooom, I DON’T like cheesesticks in my lunch.”shushi

None of this is suitable for Secondo’s tastes, however, who prefers Precious cheesesticks – “the ones with the guy on the skateboard on the front.” Bingo. Never yellow nor pepper jack nor provolone nor anything other than mozzarella. Packing them in her lunch is A-OK, however. She’ll eat them here or there or everywhere. Really. I’ve found them half-eaten stuffed between couch cushions or under beds, on bathroom counters and dried up in the playroom – a little dairy trail of her day’s activities.

Despite the annoyance of making an extra stop at another grocery store (of course my local does not carry both types of preferred cheesesticks — welcome to Mommy hell), their preferences please me.

They’ve always been the kind of kids to find something on nearly any menu to enjoy. They’re not limited to hot dogs or nuggets. They eat Japanese, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican (Prima has taken up Mr. Bailey’s Cholula obsession), Middle Eastern with regularity. They like salad. They love clementines and apples and berries. When I bring oranges for soccer game half time, they are genuinely excited.

Of course, left to their own devices, they would eat pizza with sides of breadsticks six nights a week and candy for breakfast each morning, but with a spoonful of our guidance, we’re getting them somewhere tasty, cheesesticks in hand. Dot com.