Waiting for the Light to Shine

It was Christmas 2008, we were living in what we referred to as “the big house”, the house Jeff and I built 6 months after we were married to accommodate the wave of 5 of our 6 grown children needing a safe refuge due to the upside down housing market, job loss, divorce and going back to school.

In January of 2008, my 50-year-old sister tragically and suddenly passed away, and even 11 months later, we were still in a daze, just going thru the motion of celebrating a holiday, if you can even call it celebrating. My sisters two grown sons, both in their early twenties flew up from Florida so we could all be together. They were still numb with grief as we tried our best to focus on the 4, 2 and 1 year old grandbabies and not on the elephant in the room which was the absence of our loved one.

My sister was a vibrant woman, she could light up a room, she was beautiful and she fearless. Hers was the home where all the kids gathered, she was the cool mom, her door was always open to her sons’ friends. And on this Christmas day, she wasn’t with us, her absence was felt by everyone.

Added to the mix that fateful Christmas was my sister-in-law, my best friend, who made the incredible effort to be with us knowing this would be her last holiday because at age 56, she was in her final stage of terminal cancer. She passed away 11 days later.

When I was organizing my photos recently, I couldn’t find any photos of that fateful Christmas, not even one, no one took a photo that year.

When I think about a time when I was waiting for a light to shine, I think this was one of the darkest points in my life, and like everyone else, I’ve had my share of dark times.

What I regret most about that dark time was how we all did our best to keep busy so we wouldn’t have to deal with what we were feeling.  Christmas can act as the great diversion, there’s so much going on, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and craziness and not have to deal with the feelings of grief and loss. At least that’s how it was for our family.

Grief is a funny thing, at first, it’s like you’re at the ocean and you can’t take a step or even a breath without feeling a wave knock you over, but in time, the waves get smaller and less frequent, until one day when you think you’re ok, you hear a song, or see a picture, or have a thought and then you get hit with a huge wave. It’s as if grief has the last word, you never know how it will hit you. Even if you think you have total control over your emotions, guess what, you don’t.

And in a strange way, it’s the grief that will help make that light shine again, because when we grieve, we feel, and when we feel, we heal and it’s in the healing we have those wonderful moments when we know our loved ones are with us, when we can sense their presence. When we can talk about them to one another and laugh and cry and it’s OK because they will always be with us.

This Christmas, like every Christmas for the past 10 years, we’ll remember Janet and Joan and now Mom and we’ll laugh, and we’ll have tears, and remember, and in our love for those that are no longer with us, that’s where the light will shine.

Grandparent to Parent

It was a Sunday night late in the summer when we caught a rerun of 60 minutes. The featured story that evening focused on two couples raising their grandchildren. I can remember my stomach turning watching these two couples put aside all their retirement dreams to care for the most vulnerable ones in their family. My stomach was uneasy because I knew in my heart and head, just how close we were to assume this same role for our 7 year old grandson.

Fast forward two weeks to when his aunt and I along with our pastor entered a courtroom to seek legal guardianship. For those of you not familiar with the court system, this is a daunting and very emotional experience. As a mom and grandmother, there was a sense of betrayal to my own child in order to provide a safe and stable environment for my grandson. At the end, the judge saw that I was visibly upset and his response, “you did the right thing”, helped me feel better about my choice.

The reason why my daughter or her husband are unable to parent now is complicated, there’s no easy answer or quick fix and I’ve had to learn to embrace patience and the 3 C’s, I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it and I can’t cure it.  All I can do is love her unconditionally and to make sure she knows her son is safe and cared for with us.

I am grateful for a family and community who have embraced this new arrangement.  And, it’s often in the small things I see God’s grace. The strong bond with his aunties, uncles and his cousins, the church members that invite him to sit with them so my husband and I can sing in the choir, his Sunday school teachers and helpers with a kind word and praise for his work, his school teacher praising him for his achievements. It’s in these little things that I see his transformation, his awareness that others really do care about him and appreciate and love his quirky little self. It really does take a village.

I’m most grateful for my husband of almost 11 years who never signed up to be a surrogate father at age 70.  I’m appreciative of his patience, his thoughtfulness and the love he has for me and for this little man. He’s taken it upon himself to be the transportation parent, the one to wait with little man at the bus stop, to answer all his questions about the worms, the squirrels, the bees and our resident fox. And he’s also the parent to greet him at the end of the school day by meeting his bus. I’m also grateful to him for introducing his love of the outdoors, helping gather firewood and starting a fire and for taking little man on his first hike to Mt. Wachusett

Our retirement mode has morphed into full on parent mode, supervising homework, bed time and morning routines, eliminating processed foods as best as we can, and our personal favorite, monitoring the devices. He’s an avid reader, we can hardly keep up with his love of Captain Underpants, Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And we believe he may have inherited the artistic gene from his great papa Gray, as he loves to create his own comic books.

And an added benefit is his new relationship with my husband’s side of the family. Now that he lives with us, he comes with us when we visit my husband’s parents, so he’s gained a new set of great grandparents, Ahma and Great Papa and an uncle and two very special cousins, one with the same name as his, although they are 50+ years apart in age. And I believe he’s mastered how best to navigate the buffet line at their assisted living community.

Meanwhile our retirement travel plans have been put on hold, I’ve stopped looking at the glossy brochures from Viking River Cruises and an occasional night out is a real treat. But just as satisfying is our new Sunday night tradition of popcorn and hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire and maybe, just maybe, we get to eat dinner in the Living Room. And the joy of experiencing the magic of Christmas through the eyes of a sweet little boy.

I hope when he is older and looks back at this time in his life he won’t think of it as the most traumatic time of his childhood, of being taken away from his mother and father. I hope he’ll be able to look back and feel this was a time he was loved and cared for. And I hope my family and friends know just how much I appreciate their support and love for both our little man and his momma, as we all navigate this new journey in our lives.

I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know what the future will hold for him, but I do know he’s strong, he’s resilient, he’s incredibly bright and most importantly he’s loved unconditionally by many people and with all that in his favor, how could his future not look bright and wonderful?

The Summer Colony

Little did I know when our family first decided to vacation in Maine in the summer of 1985 with our three small daughters under the age of 9, it would put in motion a foundation for a tradition that to this day our family and extended family still enjoy.

Over the years we ventured back to our sweet spot in Maine where we met several families with children of similar ages that quickly became BFFs for life with my girls. The girls and their friends sobbed every year on the last day of vacation and 50 weeks later they all reunited like no time had passed. We were very fortunate that the parents of these children were wonderful people and over the years the adults enjoyed our times together as much as our children.

Over the years our colony families enjoyed campfires, canoe trips, hayrides, trips to the beach, the penny candy store, ice cream, playing restaurant, and eating lobsters caught the same day at our favorite lobster pound on the water. We also enjoyed the local entertainment, marginal rock and roll bands, karaoke night and hands down the kids favorite, a children’s singer songwriter, who to this day our offspring can still recite the lyrics and remember all hand motions to most of his songs.

The kids had a carefree two weeks in Maine, and we were not spared the teenage craziness, late night curfews, dating within the gang, and probably their hands down favorite, an overnight camping trip to a deserted island on the lake accessible only by canoe. Unbeknownst at the time to the teens, there was always a watchful eye by the parents. Upon their return the next morning,  we would awake to the loud commotion on the peaceful lake before 7:00AM of the tired, hungry, bug bitten, sunburned group, ready to shower, eat and sleep in the remainder of the day.

As the kids grew up, went off to college, got married and had children of their own, many didn’t make it back to Maine for many years, but by and large, the parents kept showing up. Each year when we reunite it brings forth a feeling of completing the circle, of friendship and warmth. We share the ups and downs of the past year, the good stuff, the not so good stuff and all the stuff in between,

Of course with a group of many families over the span of over 34 years there were many changes, we lost one of the dads to cancer in the early 90’s just as the oldest kids were heading off to college, then in the early 00’s two of the couples divorced, and a few years later, tragically, one of the youngest of the kids, at that time in her early 30’s died in a horrific accident. It was the summer after her funeral some of the original children, now adults with children of their own, decided to come back for a service of remembrance. We met at the dock at sunset and launched paper boats lit with tiny votive candle made lovingly by her parents. We sang songs, said a collective prayer and then sat around a campfire and exchanged our best stories about this brave, sweet woman. When her mother thinks of her daughter, she thinks of her in a kayak gliding across the lake to the sound of loons and that is the image brings her the most peace.

I was half of one of the couples that divorced and when the divorce was very new and raw one of my biggest fears was that I would no longer be part of the Maine Colony, but with time and healing, we’ve moved forward with our respective new spouses and we are all able to enjoy our friends, children and grandchildren for this one week every year.

Very shortly it will be time for us to gather in our special spot in Maine and reconnect with our Colony. The grandchildren are getting excited about meeting up again with the friends they’ve made in previous years, just as we’re excited about spending quality time our group of friends.

I hope you each have an opportunity to find your own special Colony, to share the ups and downs of life, to listen, to learn and to love….oh, and to eat lobster together!

Thank you Charles Eliot

Thank you Charles Eliot because way back in the late 1800’s you saw a need to preserve special spaces for Massachusetts residents to enjoy. You proposed that special lands should be overseen by a non profit organization and be free from taxes.  Thankfully the Massachusetts Legislature worked together and in 1891 they voted to establish The Trustees of (Public*) Reservations “for the purposes of acquiring, holding, maintaining and opening to the public…beautiful and historic places…within the Commonwealth.”  For the complete history, you can check this out: http://www.thetrustees.org/about-us/history/

Which brings me to our adventure to Worlds End in Hingham, Massachusetts. World’s End is a 244 acre peninsula that juts out into Hingham Bay and it’s one of the special spaces that the Trustees of Reservations purchased in 1967. This parcel of land was originally owned by a Mr. John Brewer and he had big plans to place 163 homes on this pristine piece of paradise.  He even hired the world renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to lay out the groundwork for the housing project. The acres of tree lined carriage roads Olmsted designed still remain to this day on the property.

And as we read more about this piece of property we found out that not only was it in the running to be the United Nations Headquarters, but the site was also considered to house a nuclear energy facility. Thankfully, the Trustees of Reservations stepped in to preserve the property in perpetuity.

So all of that background to get us to our 5+ mile hike around the peninsula. Just imagine the perfect hiking weather, low 60’s degree temperature, no wind and no bugs,  a combination of wide open carriage roads, with winding trails by the water, beautiful vistas, including a view of the Boston skyline, a healthy dose of history and strategically placed benches. A picture perfect day.

Because we choose to be members of the Trustees of Reservations by paying a membership fee, we get free entry or discounted entry to all the reservations, a wonderful book with a fold out map that describes each of the properties and other great benefits. All of this for or the price of a nice meal out. If I sound like I’m endorsing this organization, it’s because I am, I think everyone who loves the outdoors should become a member.

But back to Charles Eliot and all the forward thinking people in this world who have a dream and don’t back down. I don’t think Charles Eliot knew the impact of his idea would result in the preservation of over 100 properties spanning over 25,000 acres in Massachusetts, so people like me can enjoy the beauty and wonderment of this state I call home.

 

 

 

My Nana, Concetta

In 1946 my grandparents divorced, as you can imagine back in 1946 this was almost unheard of, people of that generation stuck together no matter what the circumstances. Except in this circumstance my dear, sweet grandmother was diagnosed with a form of  postpartum depression after giving birth to her third daughter in 1944. Back in the good old days a diagnosis of severe postpartum depression got you locked up in an institution with experimental medications and a prognosis of spending the remainder of your days in a mental health faculty.

My mother was 14 when her baby sister was born in 1944 and she spent her weekends alternating visits between her mother in the institution and her baby sister in an orphanage because her father was unable to care for his infant daughter. No parties and hanging out with friends for my mother, she went from carefree teen to an adult woman in a matter of days.

Then there was the middle sister caught in between who was 9 years old when her baby sister was born in 1944, she was too old to go to an orphanage, but she was old enough to be shuffled from relative to relative carrying her belongings in a paper bag…constantly losing her belongings along the way…

In spite of their early separation and the hardships they suffered, these three sisters were fiercely close their entire lives. They had a bond, maybe an unspoken pact of somehow surviving a childhood no child should ever endure.

My grandfather was told his wife would never be cured, that she would spend the remainder of her days locked up. So he made a decision to move on with his life and the first step was to divorce his wife, the mother of his three daughters. He didn’t have to look very far to find a new wife as his sister-in-law, also his ex-wife’s best friend, was  recently divorced. So in 1947 they tied the knot combining their new blended family of 5 daughters, first cousins by blood, now step-sisters by marriage into one big family of seven, and my mother and her two younger sisters were forced to choose their allegiance between their aunt, now step-mother, and their mother still locked away in an institution.

My parents were also married in 1947, my mother was a 17 year old bride…..and the newly weds continued to spend their weekends visiting mother in “the home”. When I was very little in the early 1950’s, I have vague memories of playing near a car with my brother and dad while my mother visited her mother in “the home”

So fast forward about 12 years to 1959 and with new medications, lo and behold, Nana is well enough to be released from the mental health facility. The decision is made for Nana to alternate her time between her two oldest daughters homes, now bursting with the combined addition of five small grandchildren. We lived in a very small post WWII Cape Cod style home, so when Nana stayed with our family she shared a room with me and my younger sister.

As a kid, I had a sense that there was something about my Nana that was different, I don’t recall having conversations with her or playing cards with her like I did with my dad’s mother, but I do remember she loved to cook for our family and she was the happiest when she could venture out to the local 5 and Dime store and pick up small toys and trinkets.

My Nana was about 57 when she was released from the facility. .I think about what must have gone through her mind…what happened to her life? Her home, children, husband and best friend gone, a faint recollection of her baby daughter, vague remembrance of her older two children. I regret not asking my mother while she was still alive who was the one who told Nana that her husband married her sister in law?

Once Nana moved in with us, it was an awkward situation for my grandfather and his wife to visit, that was until someone in the family came up with the idea to remove Nana from her home and take her to a relatives house so my grandfather and his new wife wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in her presence.  As a child, I didn’t give this a thought, it was a decision made by grown ups, so it must be right. But now, as a grandmother who has been through a divorce, to this day, I cringe when I remember how my Nana was treated.

Somehow my mother and aunts knew this charade couldn’t go on forever, that at some point, both women and my grandfather would be destined to be in the same place at the same time. That time came in 1971 at my brother’s wedding when during the reception, my mother went into the ladies room and found her mother and her step mother engaged in conversation. I don’t know what was said….but there wasn’t shouting, or fainting or wailing or anything terrible…all things that had been predicted for years to happen.

I often think about my beautiful Nana Concetta and her life, how after experiencing the incredible high of giving birth to her third daughter, her life completely changed. Everything that was near and dear to her gone and then to reemerge on the scene to find the ultimate betrayal of your husband and best friend.

In spite of all the challenges, Nana survived and in her later years she shared an apartment with her dear sister Mary where they both thrived.

My Nana was an inspiration to me several times in my life when I went through some difficult challenges, any time when I felt particularly tested I would think that my difficulties paled to what Nana Concetta went through. I know my mother inherited her strong willed tenacity, her love of books and music. And through our bloodline I know I have a bit of Nana Concetta coursing through my veins, and for that I am grateful.

Nana Concetta on her wedding day with her husband. The other people in this photo are Concetta’s brother and his wife, her best friend and the women who would eventually marry her husband….I like to name this photo “It’s Complicated”0195e272263888f8f5f248af6b1847fc1a31859d1d.jpg

Sitting on the Sand

It was March of 2005, I was in Costa Rica with my then husband, our daughter and Costa Rican son in law. It was my first visit to this paradise country and my daughter was anxious to take us to a secluded beach where they had spent part of their honeymoon several years back. As our rented Jeep wound around a sharp curve in the road, there it was, a pristine marvel of white sand dotted with amazing palm trees with large branches that would provide a shady respite from the glaring sun.

As we unloaded the car I began to panic, I didn’t see any beach chairs or benches on this deserted beach and I knew we didn’t have any in the rental car.  I turned to my daughter and said “where will we sit”, she replied, “on the sand”, oh crap….I knew if I sat on the sand, I didn’t have the core strength to get myself back up again. My daughter sensed my panic and asked her husband and father to run back to town and find a couple of beach chairs. They returned a short time later with chairs in hand and we were able to enjoy some time on that beautiful beach in Costa Rica,

For many years I blamed my fitness limitations on my bilateral hip replacements and carrying around way too many pounds.  And as I aged, I had a new excuse to throw into the mix, I was getting old….old people don’t sit on beaches, old people aren’t expected to be fit and beautiful and on and on…and in many ways I had just given up on myself, my self esteem had left the house with the door slamming in it’s wake.

A few weeks after returning from Costa Rica my husband and I parted ways and after 33 years of marriage began divorce proceedings. To everyone who has ever been through the whirlwind or the more accurate description, shit storm, of divorce, one of the offsetting benefits can be the loss of weight, and in my case my divorce diet netted me a 40 pound loss. With the weight loss and the new found freedom for the first time in my life I put myself first. Like that George Strait song “She Let herself Go”, I went to NYC, to Las Vegas, and even to the beaches in Mexico and began to live life through a new lens.

Part of the new lens was regaining my physical strength, I knew I’d never run a marathon like one of my daughters, but perhaps I could ride my bike for a few miles or walk for an hour on the rail trail, or utilize the hotel gym when I traveled for business. all small steps toward a healthier lifestyle.

Eventually I married an awesome guy who is the healthiest person I’ve ever met. While dating,  we spent lots of time biking and hiking together and he introduced me to the concept of gentle yoga. After retirement I began yoga classes, beginning with one class a week and now 3 weekly classes. There are so many healthy benefits of yoga, the core work, the balancing flows and the peace of shavasana, the restful, mindful, delicious part of just being at the end of each yoga session.

So this past week on vacation on South Carolina during a 6 mile walk out to a breakfront on the beach I managed to sit in the sand to take a break and on my way back up to standing managed a few downward facing dogs and a plank. Life is good and being healthy is the best gift we can give ourselves even if we’re old..

Searching My Roots

For Christmas 2016 my dear husband bought me Ancestry.com DNA test, so a few days after Christmas I spit in a plastic tube and sent my saliva to some lab somewhere and then I waited and waited and waited.

My moms parents were both born in Sicily and immigrated to the US in the 1920’s, my dad’s mom was from Canada and his dad was born in England, so I assumed I was half Italian, at least a quarter English and that other quarter would be a combination of Canadian, Irish and Scottish. Imagine my surprise when I reviewed the results and found out that I was only a quarter Italian, half English and a full quarter a combination of  DNA from France, Scotland, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, Turkey, Slovenia, Algeria, Tunisia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Greece. It was a very interesting exercise and I highly recommend using this service to analyze your DNA.

In the course of building out my family tree, I found many very interesting stories about my ancestors.  The most fascinating began with my 15th great-grandfather Ralph, who was on the wrong side of the War of the Roses and at the age of 29, was beheaded for treason. He was a Knight and his wife, my 15th great-grandmother was a Baroness, thankfully his son, my 14th great grandfather Edward was born before his untimely demise. That’s just one of many stories I have uncovered, just on my father’s side.

When your DNA results come back you have an opportunity to connect with other members on Ancestry.com that match to a certain degree to your DNA. This by far has been the most interesting part of the journey. I have discovered at least one new relative and it’s been wonderful learning about this part of my family.

I have almost 200 matches with people as close as 1st cousin to distant 4th-6th cousins that match my DNA. Through some of these matches I’ve found some pretty fascinating stories about my ancestors.

What strikes me most about learning about my DNA matches is the fact the world is a very small place and that we’re all connected to one another. We may live in different places, or look different, or speak a different language,  and there’s the Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation..