45 Things I’ve Learned on My Way to 40 (That I Wished I Knew Much Younger)

Image uploaded from iOS (15)My brain, and heart, and my vanity are a bit bruised with the realization that I’m stepping on 41. (This is how my father used to greet each year we celebrated a birthday. “You’re stepping on 14!” he’d announce with a huge smile, since birthdays mark the completion of the age you are turning.)

But I am.

At 40 I still consider myself young for several reasons. First, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and people read my obit, they’d say, “Oh! She was so young!” Second, I feel like I have so much more to learn about life, love, and the universe. Third, I’m only beginning to grasp the things that are most important to me.

And yet. The lines on my brow are more pronounced. My skin isn’t what it used to be. And I have a sideways Z-shaped scowl crease in between my eyebrows from using my deep-in-concentration face far too often.

Lighten up, lady!

I have lived here on Earth, in this body, for four decades.

Along the way, the one thing I’ve most consistently been (besides a female human) is a learner. Most of what I have learned has shocked me, challenged me and made me more whole. And still I persist in humbling myself to the incredible untouched knowledge that surrounds me daily. I am starving with the desire to devour it all.

Yet, learning comes at its own pace, in its own time, when we are ready for it.

As a tribute to the experiences of learning I have had, about six months ago I decided to try to document them, mostly because I wish I’d known most of these a bit younger. Like all my daring intentions begin, this one also started as an experiment. I figured once I documented them, I’d peruse my little experimental list to determine if it was worth sharing. (This is how I trick my ego mind into letting me do stuff without judging me to death.)

I’m not fully certain these are worthy of sharing, but what the heck? I’m 40 now, so who the hell cares?

Full disclosure: these have come from my own experiences as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a business owner, and an employee, and numerous other shoes I’ve stumbled around in thus far. That is to say, these ideas/recommendations/musings are unique to my perspective and not at all comprehensive or definitive. So don’t take them that way. I know I don’t.

They are the things I’ve learned along the way that may or may not be helpful to you.

One other detail: since I’ve been compiling these along the way, when tonight came I realized I had 45 to share. Instead of pursuing perfection and editing them down to a more cohesive 40, I got lazy and sassy and ornery, so there are 45. Ergo, in no particular order:

1. Choose your friends very, very carefully. Pick people who know how to handle a fragile heart, rampant self-doubt and are dedicated to helping you find the best version of you.

2. Comparing yourself to other people is a form of self-judgment. It’s highly addictive and highly toxic.

3. At least once be the homeroom parent.

4. Take some photos of yourself pregnant (each time) until you have one you would like to keep. (I’m not talking pre-arranged cheesy photo shoots. Just you, just being. Pregnant.)

5. Don’t stop developing yourself — separate from your spouse, your kids, your family or anything else. You are your best investment.

6. Buy Magic Eraser, OxiClean, Febreze, baby wipes, Clorox Wipes and club soda. They can basically handle any house/clothes/child/spouse/pet/red wine/Sharpie emergency imaginable.

7. Hire a cleaning service and protect it fiercely. Let it be the last thing you cut when times get tough.

8. Times will get tough, whether it is money, family, children, sex, friends, career. When it does, you may get bitter. That’s OK for awhile. But when you are ready, the best antidote to bitterness is to accept the choices you made and then infuse gratitude for the experiences you had because of them.

9. You don’t have to buy a house. You think you do, and it’s nice, but you don’t.

10. The messy, un-manicured moments are the ones you want to capture.

11. There is no formula for your faith. You must eventually create it on your own terms. It might be in the form of a religion. Or not. Either way, your connection to God is what matters most.

12. Take the time and huge personal investment required to teach your children meticulously good manners. This is one of the most useful, productive investments you can make in your kids.

13. Expect that what you will learn in your marriage is that your spouse is flawed. Deeply. And probably not in the way you think. Also, so are you.

14. Understand the unique needs you have as a person. Then create boundaries to protect and minister to them.

15. It really does not matter that: your house is messy, your kids’ socks match, your child’s lunch represents a balanced meal, your Christmas tree goes up on Dec. 1. It just doesn’t.

16. As much as you are able (and even if you don’t especially like them) get to know your parents, and their stories. Writing them down is a bonus. Ask the tough questions and dig into some family mysteries. Once your parents are gone, they will take it all with them.

17. Write lunchbox love notes to your kids as much as you can remember. These small gestures of kindness make a big impact.

18. Whenever you don’t know what to say as a parent: tell your son or daughter you love them no matter what they do or who they are.

19. In a business meeting, hone the art of knowing when to stop talking.

20. If you are the only woman in the room in a business meeting, you must consider this an advantage.

21. Beware the ones who tell you that you can’t. You’ll notice they’re the same ones who haven’t ever.

22. Never apologize for your gifts. Never.

23. Examine your relationship with conflict like a researcher might. Unlocking the pattern of it is likely to lead to greater happiness in life.

24. Hold your spouse accountable for his/her own happiness.

25. Great rules of thumb for kid birthday parties: never on a Sunday, no more than 2 hours and coordinate the number of invites to the age the child is turning.

26. Teach your children: you are not always going to be invited and we can’t always invite everyone.

27. Take time for yourself alone.

28. It’s a huge pain in the neck to pump the tires and keep them inflated, but take family bike rides.

29. Your lady parts will stretch significantly during childbirth. But don’t despair, with a little work, they will bounce back.

30. The best sex you have will be after you are a mother.

31. Keep a mental list of ridiculous things that make you laugh so hard you cry. Refer to them when times get tough or mundane and let go.

32. If you cannot find your ideal work situation, make a careful plan to create it. Test your plan. Then test it again, then test it some more. If it’s profitable, make the leap.

33. When you lead a team, learn something deep about each person involved. Appreciate that in them.

34. Naps are magic golden balm elixir, not signs of weakness. Even 15 minutes lying down with your eyes closed can completely shift your perspective.

35. Develop and regularly revisit shared inside jokes with your spouse, your best friend, your kids. Use these cues to evoke laughter — particularly in the times of life when you are facing the direst situations.

36. Consider the friendships you develop in early adulthood — particularly those formed when your kids are very young — as your family and treat them as such. These are the people who are walking at the same pace you are.

37. Fall in love as many times as you possibly can — with your spouse, with friends, with your kids, with your work, with mentors. Open up to it. Let love be a thing of beauty and a source of energy.

38. Figure out the type of clothing that works for your body type and then invest in pieces that make you feel confident. But play with your clothes. Experiment with trends. Your appearance is a way to find joy in who you are throughout your life.

39. Take videos or make recordings of your children when they are young. I recommend interviewing them about their age, friends, favorite activities as they grow.

40. Stash plastic shopping bags in the door wells of your car. They come in extremely handy with barfy children and over-served friends.

41. Death doesn’t end your relationship with someone you love.

42. Others may expect you to set aside your own needs. But don’t you dare agree.

43. Always clear aside urgent or pressing matters for a friend, employee or colleague who is in pain. There’s nothing more important in that moment than showing love and care.

44. What you are obsessing about in your [fill in the blank: options include child, spouse, best friend, business partner, parent, brother, sister, kid’s teacher] is really about you. Upshot: if it’s about you, you can fix it. Usually by thinking differently.

45. Learning how to breathe is half of getting through life’s most difficult moments.

There. Looking forward to the next 40 years, but mostly, just looking forward to bed.

Why I Gave Up Coffee: Mind Hacks + Memories

35mm_12302_ 023I recently gave up something I loved. It was something I thought I needed to function. It was something I was subtly and happily routinely dependent on.

 

I didn’t give it up for a religious reason or because someone confronted me about it.

 

I did it, as I do many things that I ponder long and hard, as a temporary experiment only.

 

I take this approach, I think, to trick my ego into releasing an established habit on a short-term, no commitment basis only. This little mind hack is super helpful for me because once I am committed to something I am, like, moon-landing committed. So I tend to tiptoe around commitment for a good long while, hemming and hawing, until I know either I am totally ready or I am terrified that I might not be. Either way, it’s that time when I jump.

 

Back to the regularly scheduled confession: For a few important reasons, about a month ago, I gave up drinking coffee.

 

Full disclosure: I still drink a cup of coffee once in awhile. Maybe once a week. Maybe.

 

But that’s it.

 

I used to be a 1-cup-before-I-leave-the-house, then espresso, then maybe an afternoon iced coffee sort of lady.

 

So it wasn’t obscene or gallon-ic level intake. It was probably modest caffeine-ism at best.

 

Honestly, it was the routine of this brown-eyed beverage that I loved the most. I loved the filters, the scooping, the brewing, the miracle of water into coffee dripping, the first pour, and, like many pleasures of mine – the smells. Coffee has the best roasted, earthy, rooted, caramel, smoky, tucked in scent possible.

 

One inhale brings me the full-bodied ideas of mornings of possibility, of standing espresso bars in Italy’s early light, of the care of another for me, of in-depth post-dinner conversations around crammed tables mostly cleared of food, of moments of reassuring sound, when all you hear is a sip and swallow and sigh.

 

I remember as a child, lying half asleep in my grandparent’s cool, dark basement on the sheet-covered sofa as my grandmother, up at 5 or 6 a.m., would put on the stovetop percolator coffee maker, just up the stairs. I would listen to her day beginning and feel intensely comforted. The shuffle of her slippered feet on the orange and cream-colored linoleum tile in the kitchen, the whooshing of cabinets opening and their soft close. The front door creaking as she went to fetch the paper, the tinkling of the cups being set out as the soft pop-pop-blop of the coffee perked on the stove and I drifted back off to sleep.

 

Coffee meant safety, home.

 

I recall watching my mother measuring out the coffee in the maker before guests arrived for dinner, so that all she had to do was hit the button as she cleared plates and – voila! – fresh coffee would pair with her homemade pavlova or pumpkin roll or angel food cake, to her guest’s delight and comfort. When my mother entertained, which she did regularly, her focus was always on her guests’ delight and comfort. My job in this coffee caravan was to fill and set out the cream and sugar in the delicate ceramic coffee service with the painted roses and dessert teaspoons with enamel handles. If she was totally on her game, I served sugar cubes out of a clear crimson glass sugar vase with vintage miniature silver tongs she found at an antique housewares boutique.

 

Coffee meant care, comfort.

 

I tried to like coffee on my own terms in high school and college, but I only pretended to. I drank it to stay awake to study for my AP exams, or to finish a paper. I masked my dislike of the way it hit my stomach and turned it a bit sour. I pretended being shaky after one cup was a fun feeling. I took the gateway cups and fancied them up with flavored creamers, flavored coffees, with cinnamon and raw sugars.

 

Then, I slowly drifted away from my consumption.

 

It was a secret relief.

 

Until 2003, when my daughter was born and coffee became pretty much the only way I was going to survive being a sleep loving, yet sleep deprived, mom of a child who only slept in 4-hour increments until she was 4. Not an exaggeration.

 

From then on, and throughout my time as a mom who works and raises kids full-time, coffee has been my wingman.

 

So why did I give it up?

 

There were health reasons I could have ignored. There were also the memories of shaky hands and sour stomachs that had been so keenly present when I first started drinking it.

 

There was the sense that I wasn’t even feeling those things anymore. Then, there was the notion, needling ever deeper into my heart, that I might not be feeling them because my mind was no longer taking my body’s phone call that coffee and I didn’t really get along. That perhaps all those symptoms were still going on, but that my mind was blocking them.

 

I began to wonder what it would feel like not to drink coffee. How would my body, my blood stream, my temperament respond? What if I could stop that phone from ringing from my body to my brain?

 

I had worked so hard to convince myself over the last 13 years that I needed it, but maybe, when it was all said and done, I didn’t.

 

Ultimately, that’s what made the experiment permanent.

 

Because the notion I couldn’t shake turned out to be right. I felt much clearer, calmer and less sour stomached without coffee. Without it, my hands didn’t shake. I felt less dizzy.

 

I didn’t get as snappy around mid-morning.

 

And I was just as alert, just as on, without it.

 

It was a welcome discovery.

 

It felt right – for me.

 

As I reflected on all of this, I acknowledged we were raised, more than anything else, on tea.

 

My mother was an avid tea drinker before my older brother married a Brit. Every single night when dinner was cleared up, she would put a kettle to boil on the stove. Warming water in the microwave for tea was always out of the question. A piping hot cuppa would accompany her to bed, perching on her stack of books, or would settle her down at the dinner table as she sewed loose buttons or reviewed someone’s final essay or sat you down to talk about your grade in math.

 

Tea greeted us on cold mornings beside bowls of grits or oatmeal or cream of wheat with brown sugar.

 

For my 8th birthday, a formal tea party was held and all the attendees wore gloves. For real.

 

For my mother’s 50th birthday, friends threw her a surprise birthday tea party. I was roped into bringing her to the cute cottage-like tea place for the surprise. She had no idea and was tickled to see her closest friends gathered for her. Surprising the best hostess in the group was never an easy task.

 

For her 61st birthday, we held a tea party for her once again.

 

She had just found out her cancer was on the march again. And I mean crying-in-the-car-all-the-way-there – just. None of her adoring guests, those who came in fancy dresses and ridiculous hats, knew yet that she’d just received her death sentence.

 

She wore one of her mother’s vintage pillbox hats with faux wild roses in pink and orange around the brim. Her hair was thin, her skin was yellowish and she was gauntly thin. But she would not cancel.

 

What I remember of her on that day were her wide smiles, her tears of joy, the sound of her throaty laugh, the one where she clapped her hands together in delight as she tipped back her chin and bellowed.

 

I remember giving her my gift — the ham-handed “MOM” child’s level cross-stitch I had made for her over the last two months – an attempt to be more of the handy daughter I thought she really wanted when I was a kid. I remember how she welled up then and I felt so deeply in my bones that this $5 token was successful at expressing something of the total devotion of love I felt for her.

 

I remember how all her friends fawned over her, showered her with gifts and generally made her feel as if she was the queen herself.

 

She loved tea. And she loved tea parties.

 

It was the last party we had for her that really mattered.

 

We all have to learn to let go of the things we think we need in this life.

 

When we don’t want to, when we can’t imagine ever doing it, and when we choose to and when we can.

 

Whether it’s coffee or tea, or a bad habit or a good friend who’s done you wrong.

 

Whether it’s something you use to cope with life or the someone who gave you life.

 

At 40, I think I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how we let go – if we use mind hacks, denial, dextox or heart-pouring mourning.

 

It’s only in the letting that we go.

 

 

 

Why I Love Reading the Obits

Reading paper

One thing I inherited from my parents and grandparents is a love and respect of the newspaper. Like, the actual printed one. (Yes, I still get the local printed paper, delivered to our door, two days per week.)

One thing I inherited directly from my mother was a love of the obituaries.

During her 62 years, she read them religiously. Especially the Sunday obits. Those she would pour over.

Yes, it was sad. Yes, she would cry.

When I moved out and eventually got married and took the paper at my house a few miles away, she would call me on Sunday morning, in tears.

“Have you read the paper yet? You must read this obituary,” she’d manage between tear-cracked tones.

So I would. Sometimes I would read it as she waited on the phone. Sometimes I’d read it and call her back, in tears. We’d swap highlights and pine, together, over it all.

Since she’s been gone, two things.

First, I took extreme care in writing her obituary. I felt it was a masterpiece and a ridiculously incomplete sliver of a tribute to a woman so much richer, fuller and more complex than those thin lines of ink and newsprint could bear. I think it was decent, though, because I received several letters from complete strangers who were moved enough to send me a note of their condolences.

Second: I still read the obituaries whenever I get a chance.

I cry to myself, inevitably tearing up and shedding saltwater over long lives, short ones, loves lost, details missing and those present. I trace the life lines of each individual’s path through the world, via careers, moves, re-inventions, second and third careers, pre-deceased children, rich relationships and charitable pursuits. You see so much in these concise pieces: meaning and measure, risk and failure, secrets and scars, and love, and love, and love.

It always overcomes me.

My husband asks me why I do it to myself, as my teenage daughter turns on her heel and storms out, embarrassed, and my youngest cuddles up with comforting hugs.

So imagine my delight when coming upon this Ted talk by Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, who shares our devotion to the obituaries and who used his company’s technology to analyze 2,000 New York Times obituaries to see what the data would reveal about the achievements of those featured – famous and common.

You should watch the Ted talk, it’s only 6 minutes.

Here are three things about what Lux and Unmetric found that jumped out at me.

First, the average age people made their first major accomplishments. There was only one age in the late 20s (sports), just one in the mid-30s (art, film, literature) – and the rest of the first major accomplishments (business, medicine, engineering, law, academics, science, politics) were made in the early to mid-40s.

For a lady about to turn the big 4-0, who has lots more she wants to accomplish, this was welcome news.

Second, of all 2,000 obituaries analyzed, the most significant words tended to be creative ones: Artist, Singer, Director, Writer, Pioneer. Also among the top: Leader, Led, Founder, Reporter, Advocate, Activist, Survived, Transform, Creator, Music, Author, Fight, Fought, and my person favorite, Voice.

How sweet it is that the artists, the rebels, the transformers are those we revere once they leave us.

(Spoiler alert: Here’s what wasn’t on the list: spreadsheets, timesheet, hours worked, stable, safe, corporate, retirement, insurance, follower, accept, allow, same.)

Here’s the last of my many takeaways: Narayan also did a side-by-side comparison of the famous obits and the normal people obits, looking at the significant and most frequent words.

Here are the top 7 for each:

Famous

Year

Art

One

World

Help

American

John

 

Not Famous

Help

Year

Time

One

John

Music

First

 

Three words are common between the two lists: Help, Year, One and, oddly, John.

(If you’re named John, good on you. If not, you won’t be offended that I don’t comment on that interesting tidbit.)

Help. Year. One.

What do these three words tell us about people who make enough of an impact to be featured on the New York Times obituary page?

Here’s my take:

They were compassionate doers.

They used their time wisely.

They exercised their courage enough to do something different, something that made them stand out.

That’s it.

As I approach my fourth decade, I am characteristically reflecting on my four decades. I’m sifting through my accomplishments and cross-referencing goals. I’m paying homage to the difficulties I’ve experienced and for the chances they gave me to grow. I’m getting a bit anxious over the pending “to do” list.

Since my mom died unexpectedly at 62, I realize time is short.

But this is welcome navigation.

Care.

Do – now.

Be the one.

Oh, and, keep reading the obits.

3 Lessons From My Mom On Her 68th Birthday

Happy birthday to Modern Mary's mother, Judith Elaine, patroness of living and travel, literature and art.

Happy birthday to Modern Mary’s mother, Judith Elaine, patroness of living and travel, literature and art.

July 15, 1948 was the day my life became a possibility. It was a full 29 years before I was born.

It was in Youngstown, Ohio. It was the day my mother, Judith Elaine, was born.

I’m sad I don’t know much more about that day than the date. But I know enough about what came after.

I know that was the day the beautiful, creative, kind, intelligent and profoundly generous spirit who became a daughter, sister, wife, mother, cousin, friend, teacher, editor and volunteer was born.

Each year since her death, I do my best to honor her birthday. It’s a challenge because it’s a day mixed with joy and pain.

I bounce between internal reflections of her personal influence on me and external sharing about the values her life embodied and the lessons she taught us with her fully manifested Judy-ness.

My mom treasured three things above all others in her life (besides her family, which was at the top of her list). Embedded in her passion for these three things are many lessons for each of us.

They were:

  • Travel
  • Literature
  • Art

Travel was a full-body and soul experience for my mom. It gave my mother the chance to step outside her life, to traipse beyond the rigors of raising four children, working and keeping pace with her frenetic routine. It gave her the chance to breathe in the ambiance, the art and the literature of the places she roamed. It opened her mind, her soul and her heart to new possibilities. It gave her reprieve from her constant giving and allowed her to receive, to fill back up.

She was no tourist. She experienced the places she visited: rambling through shops for hours on end, purchasing huge, heavy objects de arte my Dad deemed impossible to get home, sat at cafes, read books by local authors, talked to servers and docents and desk clerks. More than that, she applied her imagination to the place. She mused over if she could live there, what her life would look like if she did, where she would shop, what the local flora was like and how the morning air felt on her skin.

In her 62 years, she did not have the travel footprint she wanted. There were so many places yet for her to experience.

Literature consumed my mom, it was a daily indulgence for her. She ate it up, and it fed her in a most glorious way. One of my most powerful images is of her sitting up in bed at night in her pajamas, with her glasses on, knees up, reading, a hot cup of Earl Grey tea gently steaming on the antique dresser that served as her bedside table. Most likely a tea cookie or two, which she stashed stealthily in cabinets we kids couldn’t get to, would be waiting next to her tea. This was her sacred space. This was the most zen Mom.

Words, books, were an escape, a constant revealer and a companion. She read everything, and was a lover of the word. She took large canvas totes of books to the beach with her every summer. She had a stack of at least 50 books on her bedside, next to her bedside, in her car, and under her bed. Selecting books to take on a trip was a challenge and required a trip to the library for just the right read. My mom knew how to release into a time and place invented or real, and she had an uncanny talent for finding just the right book at just the right time.

Her writing reflected this consumption. Although a great loss in her life was that she never viewed herself as a writer the way she rightfully should have. She wrote legendary letters and cards, brief but meaningful notes for her sleeping children in the summers before she left for her part-time job as an editor. She was a master linguist who also had the ability to infuse heartfelt directness in her written words.

Art was a place of surrender for my mom. Each city she visited included a surrender to the power of the local art museum. In her mid-life, even with four small children in school, and very little free time, she spent precious hours and days training to become a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum. All too soon, she had to resign for lack of time.

I will never forget our post-high school graduation trip to France, and the long, meandering daily trips to the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, the Georges Pompidou. We’d learn all we could about the artwork, the artists, the times in which they lived, and swap stories, wide-eyed in front of the masterpieces. We let our eyes and hearts be overcome by Gauguin’s lounging women and Monet’s Giverny bridges. We would dive in and ponder Dali’s off-kilter conglomerations of ideas and Picasso’s disjointed madonnas. Memories of those precious days feed me on days like today, as do the way my mom flung herself, headlong into the appreciation of the art.

She commissioned art from her friends who were artists. She bought sculpture or paintings or handcrafted items that spoke to her, regardless of where she was, how she would get them home, if my Dad liked them or not, and where they would go in their home. She explored her personality in art and let it be a reflection of her: quirky and joyful, dark and abstract, bright and bold.

She would have never admitted she was an artist, but she was. She took photographs, made elaborate cards, drew on hand-crafted wrapping paper, did amazingly intricate needlepoint, sewed clothing, and took drawing classes, calligraphy courses. She applied her artistic style to her amazing cooking talents as well – and once launched and ran a highly successful catering company for several years before resigning for lack of time.

Once a profoundly influential person you love leaves you, there’s abundant time for reflection upon their lives. I think about my mom and her life, every day. Each day, I’m extracting new lessons. I cast what I remember of the 34 years I spent with her in a variety of differing lights. I consider the angles that light casts, the shadows, the highlights, the mid-tones, and the dear, dear candlelight person she was to me.

Among many other sunbeams she cast, my mom’s life was a glowing illumination of full-fledged experience of travel, consumption of literature, the surrender to art. It is a recommendation to me (and each person she touched) to not just to go places or read things or look at art, but to

Experience

Consume

Surrender

your passions. And do it now.

You will have disappointments, be short-changed and confront regret. But by in large, if you push yourself into your loves, the example you set by living your passions will create a legacy of living your loved ones simply will never forget.

I know I won’t.

Happy Birthday, my dearest Mom. I love you.

Two Novels, A Message + A Cardinal

I choose to believe nearly five years after her death, that my mother sends me gifts.IMG_2346

I have recovered from the soul-jarring break of her death. But my grief will never be over.

Like the general joy and contentment I face most days with, I also carry the grief of the loss of beautiful her with me in every breath, touch and big and little moment. I accept the joy so I must also accept and make friends with my grief. And I have.

Recently, my mom sent me two books.

They showed up suddenly near my front door, inside of my house.

I ignored them for a couple of days thinking someone – a friend or child or relative – would claim them soon enough. But no one did.

As the organizer and item resettler-in-chief, I eventually began asking about the books. “Whose are these? Where did they come from?” No one knew. Answers evaded. Finally, after several days, my dad stopped by.

“Did you bring me these books?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They must be yours.”

He said the second thing so definitively I stopped my already formulated protests.

“OK,” I relented.

I resettled the two seemingly frivolous novels to the top of a bookcase where they were mostly out of sight. There they stayed for a rest, as I silently wondered over the mystery of their appearance and took a decidedly dismissive stance.

“I was not,” I thought to myself in my most haughty internal tone, “reading frivolous chick lit fiction as of late. I was reading philosophy, business strategy, meaty non-fiction and neurological research. These two novels – apparently a series,” I’d have liked to spit out that word “– were not for me.”

Eventually, I begrudgingly moved the novels to my bedroom. Then to my bedside table stacks, which are considerable, where they were lost in the towers of titles.

Finally, one night when Mr. Bailey was away, bored and tired of the narcissism of nonfiction, I lie in bed and found myself staring directly at the binding of the first. I picked it up.

The first few chapters were entertaining, mildly engaging. But I read on.

It wasn’t until I sat on a long plane flight to a favorite destination that the heart of the story, which was really many stories knitted delicately together, unfolded something inside of me that made me realize the books were from my mom.

It was more than one story, more than one chapter, more than one character.

It was – above all else – the tone of the fiction, the spirit of the writing, the lilt of the prose. It was the delicate description of grinding grief, the honest portrayal of marriage, of love lost and wrenched away and found and chosen. It was the ache of trying to move on, to move out and to make magic. And, it was the stirred senses evoked in all of these things.

It was the sort of book my mother would have read and passed on to me. It was the sort of fiction she’d read in a night or two and then tucked into my purse as I bundled babies into car seats after we’d stopped by for dinner.

It was like one of the hundreds of books we read together in our short life-overlap and shared our thoughts about.

All of these precious pieces (the book, the memories of our life together, the fact that I had recently been traveling more, which was draining, thrilling and wearing) were a reminder to me from my mom – to suck the marrow out of life, to stop and see life’s bold and precise beauty, to bathe in it, to be sure to own and stir my own spirit, so my soul would be satiated, stilled and soothed. It was, I knew, my mom’s advice coming to me in her most treasured venue – a well-crafted book.

I wept, in my window seat, high above this earth. As I flew I felt the always and elusive near-far presence of my mother, in each damp-eyed blink.

When I arrived, I rushed to my accommodations, booked last minute and in haste, the novel’s scenes resting in the curve of my mind between my reading cove and my memory cubby. As I read the directions from my phone and opened the gate of my rented cottage, making my way through a wild, lush spring garden, a red cardinal perched on a branch ahead of me.

It hopped branch to branch and stayed, as I stared — a ruby reminder of my mother, and of her mother, and another precious gift to me.

 

 

Reviled or reveled? My mom’s mushroom barley soup

My mother ate like a bird.

Her favorite lunch was cottage cheese and red pepper, with a side of Ryvita crackers.soup+pot

Her aviary-like diet was the subject of much gentle teasing by those who loved her.

While she had the ability to cook a five-course gourmet meal or an Italian feast for 20, when we were growing up, she would often opt for a huge vat of homemade soup or chili.

One of her favorite soups was mushroom barley.

Mushroom barley soup was a lightning rod in our house. Some of us hated it, some of us loved it, and some of us thought it didn’t much qualify as a meal. But my mother loved it.

Usually focused on pleasing the masses, when it came to this broth-based delicacy, she refused to eliminate it from her repertoire.

Despite the variant complaints and rabid discussions about what constituted a filling four squares (“Not mushroom barley soup!” my little brother roared) she routinely boiled and brewed up the hearty concoction.

I remember her vivaciously answering, her hazel green eyes glowing, “Mushroom barley soup!” when asked what was for dinner.

She reveled in eating it – and could stretch it out into several lunches and mid-afternoon snacks.

While I liked MBS at first, it lost some of its luster for me as her fervor for making it grew.

I was ambivalent about it at best, when its popularity finally began to plummet.

But.

Always a family with a culture focused around food (blame our Italian-American roots), when my mom stopped cooking due to her illness, an intangible significant something was lost. Some part of our family fiber was broken. After she died, I was nearly inconsolable until I had her recipe books in my possession.

Oddly, the recipe for mushroom barley soup was missing. She must have committed it cleanly to memory.

Like so many, my mother’s cooking holds a powerful place in my heart-mind-belly. I miss it like the salty broth of chicken noodle soup after your fever breaks and you think, “I may recover after all” and you’re finally, blessedly, ravenously hungry again.

But she sends little reminders my way.

Recently, during a day jam-packed with meetings and measurements, calls and conferences, I fled for food.

It wasn’t too cool out yet, and my throat was fine, but I longed for soup. And for a respite from the break-neck pace of the stop-start-stop pace of my life, which had lately been presenting me with tough choices, hard conversations and a requirement for a conscious commitment to optimism.

After making two phone calls on the way, and feeling my frazzled nerves buzz between the vertebrae of my back, I found my way into a local café that usually proffered a few different varieties of soup.

Hoping for a hearty vegetarian option, I looked at the menu board to behold, “Mushroom barley soup.”

Thanks, Mom.

The Battle of the Tween

Once I locked my chocolate eyes on the dark round version of my Prima’s, I became filled with certainty of the connection we shared. I cannot forget the long first days, weeks and sleepless nights we shared trying to figure one another out.

She was wild and sweet, with a million distinct and curling dark brown eyelashes I knew by heart by day two.eyelash closeup

She knew me immediately and wanted me, and wanted me to know she was brave and centered and tuned into everything I felt. I knew because I felt everything she did, too.

There was never any emotional pretense between us.

Recently, Prima did something I had been expecting – she grew into a young lady. Or a grown girl. Not sure which, yet, but somewhere in between.

It happened gradually at first and Mr. Bailey and I expressed our nervousness with gentle teasing, whispered conversations and calm anticipation.

Then one morning our baby girl woke up and she was no longer little. At all. She became a pre-teen over night.

I was prepared.

Turns out, my mental preparation was crap. The pre-teen years are an emotional ambush. Mentally prepare all you want – it’s not really going to help you. Once you’ve been summoned to the battlefield you better be wearing emotional body armor and have a damn good backup plan. Or three.

In the wake of one moonrise and set, Prima was completely embarrassed by me, wanted me to disappear, needed my total attention and sage advice and seethed loathing at me.

And that was only the first morning.

Hurtled into the fighting, I felt woefully inadequate. It all seemed familiar and yet so foreign. It all made sense (I had been a pre-teen girl once, too) and it made absolutely no sense at all.

I screwed up my courage and got through the first few skirmishes with only a few minor injuries, with Mr. Bailey running the occasional air cover sortie.

'It's a twelve year old whiskey.' (I want more pocket moneyI'm boredI hate you.)

‘It’s a twelve year old whiskey.’ (I want more pocket moneyI’m boredI hate you.)

Once things seemed to stabilize for Prima, I retreated to my foxhole and completely lost my shit. How was I ever going to get through this? Just what were the rules of engagement? How was I supposed to be equal parts confidante, enemy, friend, mom, sex ed advisor, and understanding listener while avoiding any major, life-changing screw ups? Far from ever considering myself a perfect mom, I sensed the real risk of truly messing up like a looming offensive ground maneuver.

It reminded me of overcoming some of those early parenthood stages – night feedings and toilet training – only to find yourself smack in the middle of more – the biting stage and night terrors!

Parenting Prima hadn’t felt like that in quite awhile. Third, fourth and fifth grades had been pretty happy and smooth. She was confident, independent and fun to be around. And she liked us. She liked me a lot. She even told me once her friends thought I was cool!

But that time was gone.

Feeling the absence of my mom, I reached out to a friend for advice. Sobbing my woes to her over the phone in crackling voice, she heard me out. “What if I don’t get this right?!” I gulped.

“But you will,” she said.

“How? Why?”

“Two things: because your heart is in the right place, and you’re trying to do the right thing and you truly love her. And because you are Judy’s daughter and you learned from the best. You didn’t always think your mom was perfect or that she did right by you, but she set a wonderful example for you, and that’s what you’re doing for Prima. Let all that love guide you.”

Oh. So. That was pretty good advice.

A couple days later, Prima started liking me again – at least in the privacy of our home.

I soaked it in, knowing what a cunning opponent she could be – and snuck into her room that night to count her eyelashes.