If you recall, the press club awarded, Am I in the Right Room? a second prize in the blogging category for CPC’s 2020 contest.
As a side note, one of my travel stories also won an honorable mention in the 2021 travel writing category.
The awards will be presented in June, and I will keep you updated.
I am humbled and, at the same time, honored to be recognized. It has been a bittersweet, 40-something year writing journey. When my children were growing up, and I spent every weekend and holiday “working” on a project, I never doubted for one minute that my earnest efforts would pay off and, in the future, I would have ample family quality time. One day, I thought, I would be able financially to “retire” or, at least, have weekends off. Of course, living in my writer’s fantasy, my dreams were simply illusions, pipedreams dribbled down on paper. I am left with thinking about the years of Sunday movies at the theater that I did not have the opportunity to watch with my young and growing family.
When it comes to writing this blog, sometimes I fear that I shouldn’t be transparent and, instead, keep my vulnerabilities to myself. At this point in my life, though, I work hard at steering clear of judging others and keeping my opinions about others to myself and, as such, the only opinion about moi that matters is my own. This mindset has proven to be of great therapeutic value to me and allows me to express myself during the times I need to. In turn, I am grateful to you, my blogging community, for providing me with a judgment-free zone that is my safe sanctuary and certainly my faith muscle and a “winner’s circle” all around.
Every time I see a lawn sign: “Love Lives Here,” I think of Geraldine. She was decades older than I was and has since relocated to another state, but was my support group mentor for two years when I was in my 20s. Geraldine was a budding artist married to a world renowned architect. The couple lived by the sound in an area known as the Gold Coast, an affluent part of western Connecticut.
We spent a good amount of time driving around the area, deep in conversation about the messy sides of love and life. Every now and then, I espied a particularly luxurious house and the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head, leading me to ask with a sneer, “Why can’t I live in a house like that?”
Geraldine’s response was always the same. “Don’t make assumptions. Facades are built to impress. We forget they are not real. The people inside are real. We do not know them. They can be poor in spirit. Sick with cancer. The facade you are looking at right now could be a cover up for domestic violence or child abuse.”
Geraldine taught me not to accept things on face value, examine beneath the surface of what appears to be real and discern the truth. It only makes sense that whenever I drive by a lawn sign, “Love Lives Here” (or any of those other saccharine signs), I immediately wonder if the sign merely conceals what is really going on inside — disease, death, destruction, dread and despair — suburban hunger and poverty.
So, this brings me to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. We were fortunate to spend another Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Anna and her family. The family consists of mostly well-educated, affluent medical doctors. They had invited their neighbor’s caretaker, Jose, to join us. He lives in the basement of his employers’ mega mansion. The family he works for were away for the holiday, and he was alone. In fact, this was the case last Thanksgiving when Anna and her husband also invited him to join them, taking proper precautions since it was during the pandemic’s mandatory quarantine.
It just goes to show, Anna doesn’t need to display signs of love on her lawn. You will find all the love you can imagine behind closed doors.
I had never met Jose before, but I knew he feared returning to the political and civil upheaval in his Latin country. When he arrived at the door, he wore a polyester beige top, chocolate-colored, loose-fitting trousers, with his head lowered. He grasped a burgundy wool knit hat. The skin on his hands resembled the surface of a cracked asphalt driveway. His indigo hair was sleek, straight as a piece of construction paper and held that just-brushed appearance. I would estimate he was around 50, but, maybe, the life lines covering his hardened face masked his true youth.
Realize, too, Jose does not speak a lick of English. Fortunately, Anna’s husband is fluent in Spanish, and he translated our conversations. Before our meal, Anna asked Jose to recite the prayers that he grew up with in Mexico. He willingly obliged. The words came easy like a well-worn, comfortable melody, softened with grace and elegance. I did not have a clue as to what he was saying, but I understood every word, because the language of love is universal. It tears down walls and barriers and connects us in all things good, pure and holy.
Rising above my own grief and sorrow, Jose’s eyes revealed secrets of his own sorrow as he prayed. Our connection of despair actually made me smile. We were unicorns that felt solidarity built upon a foundation of truth and faith. I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I didn’t need a billboard to figure out that the meaning of Thanksgiving stretches to every day of the year when it is engineered with the grand and noble emotions of the human heart.
When my children were young, the first sharp breeze, autumn’s precursor, stirred my enthusiasm. It signaled for me to uncover a special jewelry box and open the top drawer gathering dust from the year before. Inside was a treasure of assorted inexpensive trinkets that I spent seasons past unearthing at flea markets and tag sales. To me, though, the pieces were priceless because they helped me amplify the excitement of holiday time. Halloween kicked off the tradition. Two weeks before October 31st, I reached for my favorite troll pumpkin earrings and cottony ghost pin.
Earrings dangling and pin attached to my top, I performed the annual traipse up the attic stairs and started to pull out the jack-o’-lantern and fall leaf wreath. Christmas carols played in the background simply because I lacked a repertoire of Halloween music.
As a first-generation American child, my parents, both Eastern European immigrants, were not accustomed to Halloween. When I trick-or-treated around the neighborhood, I either went alone or joined a family a few blocks away. Each holiday, I wore the same old sheet I had worn the year before. My favorite part was at the end of the night when I came home and uncovered the scarcely distributed Hershey Bars among the bag of loot. An hour later, the juicy crunch of a fresh apple lessened the overly sweetening taste in my mouth from my consuming endless tootsie rolls and candy corn pieces.
I’ll never forget the Halloween when the TV news broadcast warned about evildoers hiding razors in apples. Learning about the deplorable act marked my innocence with its first blemish and elicited a spooky creaking door effect on my world, my first experience in adult boot camp.
After Halloween passed, my parents were big on church during Christmas, but, apart from that, they both worked tirelessly and viewed Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as a burden. Looking back, my mother was completely bereft of organizational strategies, and her cooked meals turned out to be so late that my much older brothers had typically disappeared by dinnertime. She was exhausted and couldn’t eat. My father rushed through his meal, famished. I ended up eating my holiday meals in solitude.
It made sense that when I celebrated the holidays with my own family, I compensated for what lacked in the holiday memories of my youth. It all started with cracking open the dusty jewelry box and then pulling out the big decorations from the attic. A lot of the household décor I purchased the day after Christmas, long before frugal consumers understood the extent of the meaning behind “After-Holiday Sale!” savings. Christmas, in fact, got to a point where all the household décor was switched out for holiday ornamentation. Instead of one tree, we had two. We started with one fresh green pine and one white artificial that later transitioned into another artificial tree.
My then husband was not as keen on Thanksgiving and Christmas as I was. I feared I had recreated a familiar pattern, but I did appreciate how he loved escorting our kids trick-or-treating. Looking back, his crafted jack-o’-lantern had to be the spiffiest looking one in our neighborhood.
There wasn’t a moment that I did not burst with gratitude during any of the holidays, always feeling as if I were given a second chance to experience the magical component in them, and it started with flipping the lid open on the one dusty jewelry box. Even when some of the mostly China-made jewelry broke, I kept the pieces. To dispose of them was like discarding joy.
Some women might, rightly so, feel privileged by wearing mega-sized diamonds. For me, nothing could replace the delight I felt from the colorful plastic holiday turkeys on my jacket’s lapel and Christmas light bulb earrings catching on the collars of my clothes.
I am sure, if tragedy had not struck, I would continue to keep the jewelry box in my over-protective hands while woolgathering about myself dressed as a real-life ornament, a walking signal of joy among my future tribe of grandchildren. Instead, my hands are robbed by grief. The first sign was last year when I discarded the broken jewelry, only to slam the box shut, unable do anything else.
This year, I sorted through the rest of my holiday jewelry and then cleaned and polished the box before donating everything to Goodwill. As I did, I pictured the young children out there and moms who are cozy and busy with their lives, so much the way I had been. I know someone will uncover the stash at Goodwill with new eyes and hope for the future. Someone, I anticipate, who felt the same blissful way at Goodwill when they unearthed my freshly cleaned wedding gown that finally I was able to part with three years ago.
Like seasons, holidays are the ebb and flow of life. I read recently something I never knew. “Ebb and flow” means that sometimes our life flows toward our hopes and dreams, and sometimes it flows away. I see it as the rising and falling ocean, a harmony that can only continue if we hold tight while learning to surf, because the raw truth is, at one point or another, we realize we are all novices and there is no mastery at life, especially when it shocks us into knowing how true this is, and we are left grappling with abstract ideas like the meaning of faith.
This year, one of the retail business owners commented on the local news station how meat and other food products are flying off the shelves as compared to last year. As many of us turn the corner of COVID-19, people feel a need to compensate for the celebrations that the pandemic erased from 12 calendar months.
Calendars serve a lot of other purposes than just tracking special dates, holidays and appointments. For one thing, they can signify importance. When I was an adolescent, I was a recluse. Long before the days of personal computers in the 70s, I spent my lonely days updating my wall calendar, tracking holidays, birthdays and school projects in different colored markers, pens and embellished the days with a variety of seasonally themed stickers. In actuality, whether weekends or weekdays, rarely did I get invited to parties. The process elevated my life. Apart from gifting myself with a false sense of importance, my calendar also offered me a true sense of organization and control during the fragile coming-of-age period in my life.
In the 80s, as I started taking responsibility for my actions and allowed people, some of whom became lifelong friends, into my life. I “grew down,” becoming less self-centered, and reckoned with the fact that I didn’t have to color my life by bringing a false sense of significance to it. My fellow, Allan, aided the process. Some of his favorite sayings were, “Out of all the grains of sand, we are one mere speck!” and “In a hundred years, what will it matter?”
My calendars reflected my new maturity, and they became black-and-white, practical pages that kept track of appointments and reminders.
When my first child, a son, was born in 1993, ironically, at the beginning of the year in January, my calendar-keeping bug not only revived but sparked into an inferno. I purchased a new calendar and an array of stickers and markers and recorded every little hiccup, smile and gained ounce of weight. This practice continued with my second child, a daughter, in 1995. For years, it were as if I wanted to freeze both of them in time, like butterflies under a glass display case to admire them like an over-enthusiastic curator.
I’ve learned, especially through my son’s untimely death, that curators belong in museums. Life has a divine curator, and I can’t tell you all the particulars, but I have full faith that it is not me. For the most part, I ceased my over-indulged calendar-keeping duties when the children grew older. Sure, I noted appointments, assignments and important dates, but, as the stresses of daily life elevated, the new teeth and height spirts became too time consuming to commemorate.
Today, I continue to update my calendar with the bare minimum. In addition, I now have another calendar displayed on the wall downstairs that I turn on the 15th day to the following month, which happens to be today, because instead of chasing behind time, I want time to accelerate and move faster as if I will reach a finishing line for my grief.
The grief that tracks me month after month, season after season, is mine alone to process, not micromanage nor deny, but, wow, somedays its weight can cover me 10 feet deep in cement. I can’t turn the clock back, but I can turn the calendar ahead to give me some sort of symbolic reprieve.
Thankfully, after knowing such influential people like Allan, I can step aside and not allow my jaded vision to dilute others who have faith that their upcoming milestones, celebrations, commitments, important dates and special days ahead will come to fruition because they are marked in permanent ink.
Last year, my brilliant, beautiful 26-year-old son, who could light up a room with his smile, took his own life eight days before Thanksgiving. Subsequently, eight days before Christmas, my then 25-year-old daughter and I boarded a flight to Nashville, Tennessee. He had lived an hour away in Kentucky. Our plan was to fly in and drive his car, along with some of his belongings, back home to Connecticut.
During our stay on December 18th, which happened to be my children’s Nana’s birthday, who basically disappeared from our lives in 2010, we were scheduled to present a commemorative plaque that included his photo “Living Waters” at a memorial luncheon at his workplace.
Pre-pandemic days, a sea of travelers wearing ugly Christmas sweaters surrounded us on the plane. We wore the faces of shock, disguising them the best we could. We wanted to blend in with the crowd and not alter the holiday spirit.
Everything felt surreal and in slow motion. The plane ride ushered in another remembrance, not nearly as unbearable, that occurred about eight years ago, when we took the train to my daughter’s new university campus where she was enrolled to live and study for four years.
On the train, the two of us sat on our rock hard seats like misplaced weeds in a bouquet of happy students and their families, brimming with dads galore. (My daughter’s dad had experienced emotional breakdown and for the most part abandoned the family the day after her sixteenth birthday.)
How we managed to get through those tumultuous university years is nothing short of a miracle, sprinkled with a fairy dusting of faith I am sure.
Speaking of fairies and faith, I don’t know if it was coincidence, pure luck or a miraculous moment, but sitting next to me in the plane was a young woman about my son’s age. She was blonde with a smile that could light up any room and cowboy boots that could stomp rocks into dust. We started to chat, and she ended up showing me her tattoos. She had one of her handsome grandfather, rendered from his younger years, on one arm and one of Lucille Ball on the other.
In high school, one of my nicknames was “Lucy,” because I emulated Ms. Ball. Growing up, she helped me believe that laughter could solve the world’s problems. The comedienne certainly inspired me with enough smiles and delight to help me endure my difficult childhood.
Out of all the idols to select in her day and age and here this young woman loved Lucy in the exact way I had generations ago. Of course, in the 70s, tattoos were mostly reserved for sailors, and certainly taboo for woman, so I missed a Lucy face imprint opportunity.
During the plane ride, the Lucy fan revealed how she had battled depression for years and finally pulled through and was making a fresh start of it, but not alone. She had her beaming mom, dressed in an ugly Christmas sweater, on the plane next to her and her two other most favorite people in the world, one tattooed on each of her arms. I’m not sure about her dad, but like the famous Rolling Stones’ song goes, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you’ll find you get what you need.”
Pained, I thought about how my son could have easily identified with this woman as I watched her hair roll, bounce and loop into fun circles that you had to resist from poking your finger inside. Who couldn’t love her? Except, ironically, she revealed, she had to fight hard to win her own love. Finally, she won the battle to endure life in spite of it all. My son ceased trying. My daughter and I were on route to pick up the pieces.
The “Lucy woman” had no idea about our mission. We had no idea about her mission either. But I did have a sense that maybe in the chapters of life riddled with nemeses, one wasn’t forced to feel like they were delivered the book in error, because somewhere before the ending a hero materialized.
In my daze, confusion, shock and looking from the outside in, I remember when I touched that young woman’s Lucy tattoo, I felt like I had somehow landed while the plane was still flying thousands of miles above ground. In some bizarre way, I perceived that imaginary wings of equilibrium enveloped me, and I had a sense that I would walk tall and fake brave from that moment on. Maybe, by some slim chance, laugh again in the future watching an old Lucy flick.
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth. Psalm 34:1
During this past season’s midnight Mass, I found Christmas, but it wasn’t solely in the Mass. I found Christmas in a young father who sat in the pew in front of us. His eyes glowed in adoration of his special needs toddler. Despite the fact that the child squirmed, gurgled and occasionally jolted, for over two hours, the father cradled her with undivided attention and devotion. In the face of challenge, his face exuded peace, contentment and joy. His one-word response to his child: Christmas!
This upcoming New Year, when I am faced with challenges, I hope to respond in the same spirit of Christmas, no matter if it is in the dead of winter or heat of summer. In other words, no matter how my faith is tested, I have memorized my response that is so apparent in the father’s life that I encountered at church. “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth.” (Psalm 34:1)
Funny, how my relationship with God is sometimes one-sided, and I think He should ONLY bless me. Blessing the Lord at all times and praising him always is like laying a foundation of brick-like faith while the Lord spreads his love in the form of mortar.
Stay tuned!…until next time…walk by faith not by sight!
Never mind New Year’s resolutions. Wrap your mind around January reflections: A question a day every day for the next 30 days to deepen your faith.
29. Shaky faith?
Even Mother Teresa had times when she didn’t feel God’s presence. (And let’s face it, most of us are not Mother Teresa.) Don’t bury your doubts and frustrations. Find a friend who’ll listen respectfully. Keep the faith. While you’re trying to figure it out, God’s got you covered.Stay tuned!…until next time…walk by faith not by sight!