Memories and ghosts

I’m heading down to spend the 4th of July holiday with my children and husband, my mother, and my sister and her family, as we do every year.  We crowd into the house, which has at least one too few bathrooms for all of us.  We watch and cheer at the town’s old-fashioned parade.  We line the kids up for group photos, which used to feature at least one person crying and now feature at least one person being a little surly.  I used to dress the children in matching 4th of July pajamas, but that’s no longer happening.

This year there’s an echoing hole in the center of our experience.

We spent last weekend at Mum and Dad’s rambling house by the ocean, where we’ve spent so very many weekends.  I have been expecting the summer to be full of landmines and memories, and last weekend that proved true.  His absence colors everything in that house.  Sure, his absence colors my experience in general, but it is never more true than in that house.

That house where I brought Matt to meet my parents for the first time, a month after we met, in January 1998.  He and Dad were reading the same book (let me assure you it wasn’t an airport New York Times bestseller – rather a textbook-style book, about two inches thick, about the history of Europe).  After that weekend, Dad said to me, “Well, if he had only lived in Europe for a stint, I think he’d be perfect.”  To which I replied, “Did Matt not tell you about the two years he lived in London before business school?”

That house where Dad glanced at me as I walked downstairs in my wedding dress and turned back to the US Open.  Sampras was in a fifth set!  “Dad,” I remember saying with a sign, “We do have to go.”  To his credit, he turned the TV off then.

That house where Mum and Dad hosted Thanksgiving for over 30 people for more than two decades.  Where Matt and I pulled up, with a sleeping Grace in her carseat in the backset, on Thanksgiving morning 2002.  I have intense, vivid memories of that drive, arriving in front of Mum and Dad’s house, leaning against the headrest of the car, looking into the front windows through which I could see Dad in his bowtie.  Matt’s father was still in a coma after his heart transplant.  I was deep in the weeds of post partum depression.  The rest of the day is a blur, but I do recall with crystalline detail looking through the windows from our navy blue car as we parked.

That house where Grace and Whit lived with Mum and Dad for several summers, growing into themselves, developing their own relationships with their grandparents, learning to sail and playing tennis.  Where Dad and Whit took the boat out alone, where Dad and Grace went out to dinner alone, where we spent more nights around the dinner table than I can count.  Where for many years, Mum blew out birthday candles with all four of her grandchildren as Dad looked on from the other end of the table.

That house where, very often on a weekend morning, Dad and I were the first people up.  I’d bring him a cup of black coffee and he’d glance up and say, “well, thank you!” before turning back to his book.  I sat in the other room, reading, and could feel the pulse of him in his red leather chair.  The same red leather chair where he held Grace and Whit as infants, and where he later read to them.

That house where I had my last conversation with my father.  That house where I talked to him, hugged him, and saw him for the last time.  It was another Thanksgiving with over 30 people there, including this year’s foreign student (my sister and I have long maintained that it is the presence of someone we’ve never met before is what makes a Thanksgiving truly real). That house from which we went for our usual after-dinner walk on Thanksgiving, which wound home through the boatyard, Dad and I walking in silence among the boats, up on stilts for the winter.

That house where we gathered for Dad’s funeral. Where a few special family and friends gathered the night before to have dinner, solemn and laughing at the same time, where memory swelled into a present, tangible thing.  Where Matt and I retraced that same walk, the one we always do, early on the morning of the service.  Where Tennyson ran through my head, as he often does.  Where the old sailing friend of Dad’s quoted the same lines from Ulysses as he struck the canon as the crowd gathered for ceremonious colors in Dad’s honor.

And tomorrow, back I go to the same house, for the week with everyone together.  It will be the same in many ways and of course wildly, terrifyingly different in one enormous one.  All we can do is hold onto each other and proceed. Red and blue and white.  Fireworks and memories.  Ghosts around every corner, as well as memories of laughter and joy.  It’s still Mum’s birthday.  We are still together.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides.


Around Here Lately

The last few weeks have been incredibly sweet.  Bitter, also (specifically Dad’s 75th birthday and our first Father’s Day without our dads), but mostly just very sweet.  Grace and Whit have both been at home and though the early weeks of summer, after school but before camp, are always a particular logistical challenge, they are also surpassingly lovely.  I used to share posts regularly with photographs of small moments, and I want to revisit that habit.  I often share these observations on Instagram these days, and if you’re on there, please come find me!

I do the New York Times crossword on my phone every day (not really Friday or Saturday).  I was happy to see my POD in it recently (this the larger-then-mini Saturday “mini,” which I like best of all).

Grace and I tried aerial yoga one evening.  I think I’m too old to be upside down that much, but it was an adventure!

My sister-in-law invited us over to come pick some of her glorious, blooming peonies as she was about to leave the country for a week.  They are just my favorite.

When Grace snaps things like this, it makes me incredibly happy.  Nothing better.  They were fighting an hour later, but still, I love this, and love that they had dinner in the garden together.

We had family dinner at a fried chicken restaurant that both children wanted to try.  Not sure we loved the restaurant, but I loved the rainbow wall, the buttermilk biscuits, and the laughter.

One night Grace, Whit, and I went for a walk after dinner to the park.  We all like to swing, still.  This sunset greeted us. Another evening we had a picnic dinner in the park. The neighborhood park where both children toddled many years ago, where they played Micro Soccer at three, where so many memories of their childhoods crowd my vision.  I love it there, and love that they still want to go.

Grace and Whit gave me this card with a very thoughtful note (including how much they love having the whale pod under one roof, to which I say, me too) and a wooden spoon with a smiley face in it.  One of the best gifts I’ve received!

Whit and I went for a jaunt to Philadelphia (to see two of my dearest friends from college and their families) and to Baltimore for the bar mitzvah of one of his best friends from camp.  I’m not sure the two of us have been on an airplane alone before.  It was just absolutely great.  He makes me laugh so hard, this kid does.

He also remains sweet.  We had an awkwardly long interval between bar mitzvah and flight, and so we walked around the Baltimore inner harbor for a bit before heading to the airport early.  We had a relaxed dinner in the terminal and then, as we wandered around the airport bookstore, he said, without really realizing it, I think, “Mum, I just really like being with you.”  Oh, me too, Whit.  Me too.  One of my top ten parenting moments.

Father’s Day has always been, much like Mother’s Day, just a regular day in my world.  This year I was really cranky and about halfway through the day I realized it was sadness hiding as irritation.  Of course, that’s not fair since Matt, too, is in the exact same place.  The only downside of doing this together, that.  Still, all four of us went to see my father’s grave and talked to both of our mothers and took this photo and let’s face it, we are supremely fortunate.  We all know it.

Yesterday camps began and the regular rhythm of summer began.  I’m already nostalgic for the first two weeks of June.

Happy birthday, Matt!

Tomorrow is your birthday, and this is one of two times a year I explicitly write about you here.  I thought about various ways to tackle this birthday, this letter, coming as it does on the heels of the most eventful year in our lives.  Two new jobs.  Two new schools.  Two fathers gone.  It’s hard to really think about the world on your birthday last year and your birthday this year; so much is different.  But of course so much is the same, as well.

I feel a little daunted by trying to capture in words all I want to say this year on your birthday, and a little overwhelmed given everything that’s happened.  Truthfully, I feel a little blocked, and mostly I just want to say thank you.  So here we go, freestyle, inspired, as I often am, by Gail Godwin’s words: “the more you respect and focus on the singular and the strange, the more you become aware of the universal and infinite.”

Let me count the ways I love you.

I love the way you are handy and can take care of a lot of things – the stove in Cambridge and the dryer in Marion come to mind.

I did not love the way you broke the door off of our oven days before I hosted Christmas for 15, but I do love the resourceful way you got it fixed.

I love the way you sat alone on all seven flights to, within, and from Hawaii (see above).  I love the way you could laugh about some of your particularly colorful seatmates. I love the way you always give me the aisle at a wedding.

I love the way you make coffee in the mornings (sometimes, feel free to bump that up to always).

I love the way we spin and run together.

I love the relationship you had with my father and the one you have with my mother.  I’ll never forget the look on her face on Christmas Eve when you sat at the head of the table, in Dad’s seat.

I love the way you make me laugh, and our long list of private jokes (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” A-Aron, and the Kailach family come to mind).

I love the way you ziplined in Hawaii, even though I know it sort of unnerved you at first (see video above).

I love the way you call your mother every day.

I love the way you read books.  I do not love the way it often takes another person recommending a book I’ve already suggested for you to read it, and for you to comment on what a great suggestion that was X made!

I love the deep, almost-impossible way that we can relate to each others’ realities right now.  I do not love the way this makes us blow up at each other sometimes, but I do love the way we let the dust settle, remind each other of what’s going on, say I’m sorry, and move forward.

I love the way you told me, when we were on our honeymoon, that “I like to get up the morning and do things!” and yet sometimes you need me to remind you of the wisdom of this comment.  We’re all better when we get up the morning and do something.

I love hearing you speaking to our children, and watching you parent them.  I love seeing aspects of you animate in them.

I love the notes you leave for me, in my wallet, on my desk, often in brown ink written by my father’s fountain pen.

I love you for a million other reasons, big and small, and I’m not listing here.  I hope you know what some of them are, and I consider it one of the tasks of my life to keep telling you.

I love them, and I love you, and I love our family.  If we can make it through this past year, we can make it thrpugh anything.

Happy birthday.

Previous birthday posts are here: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

Preemptive mourning

this is an old photograph of Grace, but I love the way she is literally in flight

Grace went away to school last year.  Shortly after she left, our lives veered off the rails.  It’s taken until the last month or two for me to be able to see the last year with any kind of clarity (and I’m sure this is not yet perfect clarity).  What I can see now, that I could not then, is that I spent most of the year before Grace went in a state of suspended animation and almost overwhelming anxiety.  My angst and preoccupation was all-consuming.

I have friends preparing to send children to boarding school in September, and it is talking to them that has helped me understand in a new way how difficult the months between April (her decision to go) and September (her leaving) were for me.  In fact, that season was one of the most difficult of my life.  I say that even knowing what followed immediately on the heels of Grace’s leaving.

It is such a first world problem: a child going to boarding school.  Cry me a river.  I know.  It’s just the departure for college four years early.  And yet it was immensely, guttingly, overwhelming hard for me.  No matter how you slice it, Grace leaving for boarding school was the end of something.  What’s come in the wake of that end is something new, wonderful, and full of its own pleasures and joys, absolutely.  But last September was also, irrevocably, an end and a farewell.  Life since then is both a celebration of what is now and an elegy to what no longer is (a similar sentence to once I’ve used before, describing parenting in general).

A dear friend recently posited that perhaps my overwhelming anxiety and grief about Grace leaving was some kind of subconscious preemptive mourning of the other losses that last fall held for me.  I’m not sure about that,but it’s an interesting interpretation.  In retrospect, Grace leaving was more all-consuming than John’s or Dad’s deaths, in some ways, mostly because it hung over us for months.  Of course John’s and Dad’s deaths were bigger losses that helped calibrate Grace’s departure, but the truth is even by the time John died (3 weeks after Grace left), I was already okay.

As is true for me – and yet as I apparently need to keep learning – the anticipation of Grace’s leaving was a hundred times worse than the reality of it.  The months leading up to her leaving home were full of angst – I remember last summer, at one point, the mailman asking casually “how are you doing?” as he dropped off the mail and my responding by bursting into tears.  I was a skinless, fragile person, walking through the world haunted by the end that Labor Day represented.  And once we reached that end, we pushed off into a new world.  And that new world has been lovely.  Grace is happy, happier than she’s been in a long time.  I feel closer to her than ever.  We are fine.  We have a new configuration, and we are all adapting.  The most important thing, for me, is the knowledge that she’s in the right place, doing the right thing.  As a parent, that’s all I need.

I wrote about Grace recently that “watching her [you] fly is one of the two biggest joys in my life.”  And indeed that’s true.  I didn’t realize until I was through it what a painful season last summer was, but I can see it now.

It was letting go, writ large. 

Not something I’ve ever been good at, but oh, my, the rewards are glorious. 2017 had a lot of letting go in it, and it’s my belief that 2018 and beyond will show us those rewards. It has already begun to.


We went to Hawaii over Kauai for spring break.  For obvious reasons, we did not plan our trip during the fall as we usually do.  For other obvious reasons, I did not have the usual lots of planning/air BNB/adventure in me.  I am sure we will go back to Europe, but for now the whole continent reminds me of my father in a way I can’t sign up for.  So we went to Hawaii.  None of the four of us has ever been, and truthfully, I’ve always wanted to go.  We chose Kauai because we’d heard it was the quietest, most rural island, and that sounded about right.  The trip there was long (booking six weeks before travel, on miles, means you don’t get the most direct or convenient flights).

We arrived in Kauai on Tuesday afternoon.  It was gray and spitting rain, but we were thrilled to be there and the children ran right to the ocean.  On Wednesday morning we woke up to torrential rain.  Our phones vibrated with flash flood alerts.  The concierge at the hotel said they hadn’t had rain like this in years.  The forecast was for three days of torrential rain and maybe a peek of clearing on Saturday (we were leaving Kauai on Sunday morning). I had a moment of: can’t we get a break?  we just wanted something to be smooth and relaxing.  But I tried to shake off my grumpiness, and we headed to where we always go when we don’t quite know what to do: the bookstore.

The western-most bookstore in the United States, to boot!  Talk Story sells both new and used books, and the smell when we walked in reminded so much of my father I was almost brought to my knees.  Everybody bought a book, and we found a cute place for coffee and acai bowls, and I was glad we brought raincoats.  I woke up the next morning and lay in bed, listening to a constant whirring sound.  “Is that more rain?” I asked Matt, distressed but resigned.

“No, Linds, it’s the air conditioner.”  He replied.  I jumped up and pulled the curtains, and saw that it was gray but not actively raining.  Delightful.  We spent most of the day at the ocean, and the kids took a surfing lesson. The sun actually came out.

My favorite experience of our Hawaii trip was the three afternoons we spent floating in the water together.  The waves were big and rough, and we let them toss us around.  Grace, Whit and I had a long conversation about how when the waves get really big the best bet is to drive through them. The only way out is through.  True in life, too.  I told both children about how when I was in labor with them, I envisioned waves, and I thought about this particular adage: through.  Through to the other side.  Lean into the wave.  It strikes me that while my childbirths were long ago now, that advice is still good today.

Another day, we went zip-lining.  The landscape was spectacular, and all four of us tried it in the “flying” position as well.  Grace and Whit were the most fearless and also ziplined upside down. The scariest part of any zipline, we all agreed, was the leaning into thin air from the platform.  It’s the jumping off.  This is true, also, of life itself.

We also went for a beautiful hike along a ridge by the ocean.  We could see humpback whales leaping and spouting in the ocean.  The landscape was rocky and foreign and gorgeous.

We saw sunsets (below) and sunrises (below that).  By “we” I mean Matt and me, as Grace and Whit slept long and hard.  Kauai was as magical as we had been told.  The island felt relaxed and joyful, and strange coincidences made us both feel our fathers near.  A song that reminds Matt of his father was playing seemingly everywhere we went.  And we saw dozen of KCM (my father’s initials) license plates in Kauai.  Yes, all the plates there start with K.  But still.  Everywhere I turned I kept seeing KCM.

The first couple of days were rocky, and we had some family arguments I’m not proud of.  But once we found our groove, it was lovely: we ate well and slept well and rested well and felt the sun on our faces.  The difficult first days reminded me that all four of us have, individually and collectively, been through a lot these last several months. We are still limping. The losses, and their aftermaths, are still fresh. I think forgiveness and patience is called for.

Forgiveness.  Patience.  Two things I’m not good at, giving or receiving.  But the waves are big, and the only way through is to lean into them, with forgiveness and patience.  And some deep breaths.