Hope on Her Birthday

Sylvia: Happy birthday, my dear! Older and wiser!

Erma: I don’t know about wiser, but I’m hopeful!

I don’t know what time she was born. I guess I could dig out her birth certificate and find out easily enough. To me, my mother was born the day I came into the world. Obviously, she had a life “b.k.”(before Kay), but I didn’t know her then. All I know of that woman who became my mother, both the little girl who wore braids and gingham and the young, blond-haired teen who played the drums before it was cool for a girl to play the drums, has been conveyed to me through others’ recollections, her own accounts as she would share an anecdote from her past with the slightly veiled purpose of teaching a lesson, and the photos that I have. And what connects all of the snapshots, real and those that I’ve taken in my mind’s eye which remain guarded like priceless treasure, is her eyes. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, it follows and must be that my mother, b.k. and always, was and remains one of the most beautiful, trusting, and trusted souls God could have offered this world.

Most of us, not all, love our mothers and have been loved by our mothers. I’ve been accused of worshipping mine. (In fact, my mother often reminded me, especially as she neared her last days, that she was indeed human, flawed like the rest of us, so she too should be allowed to make mistakes.) She would often say that the one bad rap that mothers had to endure was that they were held to a higher standard than everyone else on the planet! Now that I’m a mother, I admittedly understand this so much better. I digress though. I did worship my mother, something she never demanded or expected, but it happened nonetheless. How did it happen? Ah, that’s the question. The trusting and trusted eyes!

My mother had xray vision, vision that led her to know exactly what another human needed. To many and certainly to her family, this special sense- some call it a sixth sense while others deem it intuition- was who she was and how she lived her life at the very core. And while she may have regretted not doing all the things she had hoped to do before she died, I do believe she lived a purposeful life and her legacy is an honorable one. Her legacy? Her gift? She left it to everyone who had the honor and pleasure of looking into her eyes. My mother made those who crossed her path feel important, no matter their lot in life. She gave others hope. She found and saw something redeeming in everyone. She wasn’t oblivious to the harshness or evils of the world. She wasn’t na├»ve. She wasn’t optimistic. Mom was hopeful. I do believe there is a big difference between optimism and hope, and I think her trusting and trusted eyes became reflective of that difference.

I’m babbling a bit because as we all know the totality of a life cannot be put adequately into words. Indeed, my mother’s life cannot. Her legacy can though. Hope. She believed in me. She believed in her grandson. And if you had the good fortune of meeting her, befriending her, working for or with her, she believed in you. That belief – those trusting and trusted eyes- keep me hopeful. I don’t believe that life is perfect and I’m far from thinking everything will turn out well in the end. However, I am hopeful.

On her birthday, I’m going to trust her and her legacy. I’ll go to celebrate her life with my dad today, and in that gift alone, I’m offered hope.

Thanks, Mom. And I’ve come to realize that you never wanted to be worshipped; you wanted to be loved. You were. You are. You always will be.

Mapping Her Story

After weeks, months, and years of caring for others near and far, Sylvia feels more ragged and worn than ever. Luckily and almost intuitively, Erma senses her friend’s need for an ego-boosting, confidence-inspiring, pep talk. So, on this Sunday evening over old-fashioneds because Erma finds the libation tried and true, she shares with Sylvia the secret to embracing the ever-changing topography of the female body and face.

Erma: You see these lines across my face, Syl?

Sylvia: I only see a beautiful, mature woman who has navigated life with grace and aplomb.

Erma: Okay, but seriously, look at me. I’m going to tell you now the key to aging gracefully because you need to be less critical of yourself.

Sylvia: Oh good because I have new wrinkles and lines every single day. I’m thoroughly intrigued and hanging on your every word now.

Erma: Hold the mirror. Look at those creases, that pucker, and even that furrow. Look closely and deeply.

Sylvia: As deeply as that “11” between my eyes?

Erma: Deeper. Now, close your eyes. Can’t you just see your story? Those lines tell your story. You’ve lived. You’re surviving, and you have more story to write.

Sylvia: How do you know, Erma?

Erma: You have some smooth skin left. It’s not over until you’re wearing a complete map!

Sylvia’s Showing Up

Sylvia: Here we are again, Erma. In the homestretch.

Erma: Ha. You just wait. One day you’ll be looking back just as I am right now and wondering how you survived so many Christmases.

Sylvia: I have no illusions. I’ve watched you, and you’ve always come through with flying colors. Honestly, how have you managed?

Erma: I remember that all of the feelings – the wonder and joy, the sadness and stress- they won’t last. So, in the midst of it all, just show up, Sylvia. Soak it all in.

The most honest thing you can do to demonstrate love is simply to show up! Be present.

The month of December has never been a favorite of Sylvia’s, not since adulthood kicked in anyway. She recalls it also being an incredibly stressful month for her mom, her Erma, who worked her ass off to give her four little gremlins the most amazing Christmases. From decking the halls to writing out hundreds of holiday cards (a task which was the first to fall off the Christmas to-do list as the the years brought with them less time, arthritic and overworked hands, and more grandchildren) to baking the classic spritzes and cherry-walnut coffee cake, Erma did it all, year after year after year.

Looking back, Sylvia realizes her father worked too, of course, to make the holidays happen, but he never participated in any of the holiday preparation which Sylvia now sees as the real magic. If Erma, her mom, was the Christmas magician, then certainly Dad was the sidekick assistant who knew Mom’s routine and didn’t dare mess with it. As Sylvia looks back now, the memory of the side glances her parents exchanged as she and her siblings opened their gifts illuminates as brightly as the lights on the freshly decorated tree on a dark winter’s night. While her father’s look queried, “We bought that too?” Erma’s silent reply made only with her hazy baby blues (glazed over after all because she was the one up all night wrapping) rebuked matter-of-factly, “Yes, that too, dear. Smile, damn it. It’s Christmas. We want them to be happy, don’t we?” At that point, the side glances stopped because Dad knew the battle had been lost. Debt was inevitable. But when all was said and done, he and Mom had “worked together” to create the magic of Christmas. And to that I say, ” Not bad at all, folks, for the couple with the cards proverbially stacked against them – the always smiling, Jewish track star originally from Chelsea and the blonde, incredibly smart, Catholic girl from the project in New Britain.

How did they prevail? They held on tight! They showed up for one another. Don’t get me wrong. They had their ups-and-downs, their sad and angry moments. In the end though, at the close of each day, they were present- for each other and for their family in every way that mattered and made a difference.

So, as Sylvia stays with her father several nights this week until he falls asleep, she thinks about the gifts she has yet to wrap, yet to purchase, yet to give or receive. She’s going materially minimalist this year. Purposely. She has to. It’s time. She needs to declutter mind, body, and spirit. Oh, she’s purchased more than a few small items, enough to make the stockings bulge and be too heavy to hang. Big items though have yet to make their way through the lines at the stores, as Sylvia is just not feeling like suffering through the drama of commercial chaos at its best. Yes, it’s Christmas, but she is scaling back. Intentionally. Did you catch that- those two words? PURPOSE and INTENTION.

Sylvia and Erma intend to hold on tight. They propose you do the same. There’s purpose in an arm around the shoulder, a peck on the cheek, a phone call, a hand held across the table. The purpose- the goal? Presence.

I’m here. For you. For them. This year though I’m here for me. It’s a beginning. It’s something. It’s quite possibly everything.

Expressions of affection, like putting your arm around someone’s shoulder, holding hands, or giving a kiss good night, involve the principle of honesty.
~ John Bytheway

The Best and Worst of Firsts

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Out on the deck and under the umbrella, before the real heat of this August day, Sylvia wondered. Would it be more of the same? Coffee, household chores, lists. Or would she experience something new today? Perhaps a first of the best kind? As she gazed out into the woods behind the house, her curiosity wasn’t piqued by the panoramic view of the landscape that had recently changed in her life. From the quiet, seamless lines of blue where sky meets water on the cove to the lush drapes of greenery that fortressed her now, the change marked a beginning and an end. Or an end and a beginning. And that is where she stopped. The order of things had her baffled momentarily, yet with the very next sip from the sweaty tumbler of iced water, she was struck by a concept that she had never really thought about until that very second. Beginnings and endings are always, always, always firsts.

Sylvia: Firsts are daunting, anxiety-ridden, and paralyzing, Erma.

Erma: Firsts are exciting, hopeful, and motivating, my friend. Just think. When something unpleasant ends, it’s the last of it. That leaves you open and eager for the next step, a new lease, a new beginning.

Sylvia: I get that, but it also signifies the end of an era, a final point in the history of a relationship or process. That’s sad, wouldn’t you agree?

Erma: Sylvia, stop. Not every morsel of life needs to be qualified as happy or sad. It’s not that simple–or in your case, that complicated. Some times, most times in fact, firsts and lasts just happen. It’s not until you look back and you are in the thick or thin of another life experience that you can even begin to really define the impact of a beginning or an end.

Sylvia: Okay, for once I’m going to sit back with my mouth shut and let you explain. At this very second, every first of my life is flashing before my eyes and as I see each of them again, I’m becoming more and more distraught. Trapped somewhere between nostalgia and progress.

Erma: Jesus, Sylvia, it’s now afternoon, and we’re just beginning. No pun intended. I’m going to grab something out of your wine fridge. So, clear your mind, and don’t think until I get back. Seriously. Do not think at all. Do not deliberate, contemplate, and above all, do not ruminate. I’m going to share with you the best and worst of firsts over a nicely chilled Pinot Gris today. You’ll see. You can’t catalog the moments of your life as happy or sad, or as beginnings or endings for that matter. You can only define each moment as a first, for better or worse.

Firsts are when and where life takes place. All of it. Every moment. Some actions and events seem repetitive, and indeed they are! That does not mean that they aren’t different though. Two moments in time are never identical. Erma learned this powerful tidbit over the last seven-plus decades, and that fact alone imparted credibility to her words, even as she explained how brushing her teeth each morning had become firsts for her. She illustrated how she had gone from grinning ear-to-ear as she brushed her pearly whites each day of her teens and twenties to watching a reflection of a waning smile as she lost enamel and gained wine and coffee stains in her forties and fifties. And now, as she thought about those decades of brushing, Erma introduced more examples of firsts. Caps, crowns, root canals, veneers, and partials. “See, Sylvia. There are no instant replays or do-overs. Each brushing is and was a first. Each day is a first.” All of this seemed obvious and a bit comical as Erma so often tried to weave a lesson with just a dash of whimsy. It should have been clear, but it wasn’t to Sylvia. Until she and Erma mulled it over and hashed it out, Sylvia hadn’t considered that firsts represent both the best and worst of life.

Through smiles and intermingled tears of joy and sorrow (none of which either woman could attribute to the rich, sweet, golden elixir or to the fact that they had consumed the entire bottle of it as they indulged in one of their ordinary chats), Sylvia sat looking out on the verdant scenery she now called home. She reflected on those singular firsts which transported her from joyful and full of hope and pride one minute to melancholy and brimming with fear and guilt the next. First friend. First sleepover. First move. First date. First kiss. First one to travel abroad. First “D” and “F”. First one to graduate from college. All her firsts. She paused, took a breath in, and then exhaled. She began again. His first breath. His first tooth. His first word. His first step. His first tumble. His first day of school. His first heartbreak. His first paying job. His first apartment. She beamed for a split second. She hesitated, looked out to the woods beyond the fence, and started again. The first time she heard the word cancer. The first night without her. The first morning they woke up to her empty room. The first time he left the water running. The first time he forgot she had passed. The first time he couldn’t remember her name. The first time he needed to be fed. The first time he looked at her and somehow spoke more clearly than ever with his eyes because the words were no longer there. All firsts. Each and every one was the very last first of its kind. The best and worst of firsts, indeed.

Sylvia (sighing) : I get it now, Erma. It’s how you look at it and what you learn from it.

Erma: That’s right. You’ve got it, my dear. Love it or hate it? That’s not the point. Appreciate it all. Every first is your last first of that kind, with that person, in that place, at that moment. Beginning or ending.

Sylvia’s Choosing

Sylvia: I’m saving some this time. Not the whole thing but the best part. The strongest part. The piece that will sustain me the next go-round.

Erma: I’ve told you time and again, Sylvia, that you wear your heart on your sleeve. You give away too much of yourself, so I’m thrilled to hear you are beginning to see the light. But I’m curious. What finally made you realize that you need to put yourself first, care for you– save something for yourself?

Sylvia: There was no sudden epiphany, Erma. Like everything as you frequently remind me, it’s been a process.

Although the more serious wreckage from winter has vanished, some remnants of the chaos remain. Towering trees uprooted by the last storm have finally disappeared. They’ve gone off to become firewood and kindling for the unexpected brisk summer evenings by the shore or mulch for the endless beds of hydrangea adorning most waterfront homes on the Cape. Light caramel-colored beaches that were nearly erased by rising waters and fierce battering are coming back to life as the tides recreate them. Mother Nature left more than a mark; she drew on her canvas with exactly those fixtures we thought were otherwise permanent. My, oh my, how misled we were! The not-so-old, abstract mural that was painted immediately following those winter storms has faded and is being replaced by a glorious new canvas erupting in greenery and color. In bloom, each day seems to leave the painting en plein air with additional brushstrokes of life. And with the burgeoning of Mother Nature’s new art, Sylvia contemplates a new canvas of her own.

Sylvia, reclined briefly and covered with the lap blanket that Erma gifted to her ages ago (it helps her think), has been caught between seasons. Although winter is long gone, spring has departed, and summer is at full throttle in shoreline vacation spots, Sylvia remains less than animated, not by the actual seasons and weather but by the emotional ones- caught between dormancy and vibrancy, lull and surge, complacency and action. The time between the dead of winter and the dog days of summer – not the weather, not the onset of warmer days, not the bluer skies or the sprouting blossoms- the intervening days have left Sylvia unsettled. Until now.

Erma: So Sylvia, tell me. Why the sudden change in disposition? I’m elated, of course, to witness this obvious upswing in mood, but I’d love to know what pulled you out of the doldrums. I feel as if these last few months I’ve been a spectator at the New York, New York roller coaster waiting for my friend to gain her footing and catch her breath after enduring the climbs and plunges of the rickety mainstay high above the Vegas strip. To a friend who knows how much those rides scare you, it’s been painful and uncomfortable to watch.

Sylvia: Wow, I’ve been that bad, Erma? Jesus, I’m so sorry. And somehow you have managed to put up with me. And as you are so often without even realizing, you’ve been instrumental in pulling me from the wreckage I’ve felt trapped in. You saw it as a roller coaster, Erma. Honestly, that might have been more fun. I guess if I had to equate how I’ve been feeling to a carnival ride though, it wouldn’t have been a roller coaster. A Ferris wheel more likely. Not my ride of choice but definitely the ride I’ve been on. The Ferris wheel when it stops at the top to be exact. Trouble is though I’ve been riding it with people who think it’s fun to rock it even though I repeatedly tell them to stop. Even though I have clearly told them that although the ride scares me to death, I’m willing to go because I trust them. Those sharing my gondola seem to almost delight in my fear and angst, and if not delight, then they simply don’t respect my feelings. Either way, it’s disrespect and I can’t tolerate it. I shouldn’t. And I know now, Erma. I know.

Erma: What’s that? What do you know?

Sylvia: I can avoid someone rocking my car if I ride alone. I don’t want to ride alone mind you, but I will if it means saving myself. I will if it helps me believe in myself again. Riding with people who create and feed my fears is just wrong. Going through life with people who can only feel strong by making me feel weak, inadequate, unloved, and less, that’s not living. That’s existing. That’s dying a slow, painful death. So, I’m getting off the ride and leaving the carnival. I don’t want to pay for rides that only others enjoy. And what I have decided is that I won’t return to any more shows, fairs, festivals, or spectacles with people who don’t respect me or how I feel. I’ll wait to share another carnival with someone who respects me, loves me, and wants to see me enjoying myself. So, for now, I’m choosing. I’m choosing me. I will sit in the middle, ride to the left, stand on the right- by myself- if that’s what it takes to free myself. While it scares me to death, the thought of being in the middle of the gondola with no one on either side to see me through to the end of the ride, I’d rather like the chance to control my own fear and save myself if need be. Fuck it. Maybe I’ll even choose to stay on the ground. At least for now.

Erma: Oh, and Sylvia, remember. You aren’t alone. Ever. I’m always up for the merry-go-round. That’s close to the ground, my friend.

Keep It Moving

It’s 10 a.m. Sylvia is contemplating the day, doing laundry, writing, and pouring another cup -multi-tasking as most women do- when Erma phones.

Erma: Good morning, Sylvia. What are you up to today?

Sylvia: Nothing exciting, Erma, but the day is young, so there’s plenty of hope. I am wondering though if life will always be like this. Full. Of nothing and everything.

Erma: Here’s how I see it, Sylvia. As long as it’s full of anything, you are moving. Moving is key. Motion is living. Of course, each decade brings with it a new definition of motion, but let’s not get into that. Semantics aside, at my age- any age, really- moving simply means you aren’t dead, so that’s a real plus! In that alone, there’s hope.

Sylvia: I’m grabbing another cup, my friend, so prepare to give me your overview of moving through the decades.

Erma: Here goes

At twenty, we live with anticipation and energy and the goals (for most of us) are to make tomorrow come faster, to have fun today, and to remove ourselves from what we looked like yesterday. We are chameleons in fact. Changing and moving at the speed of light but too often without direction.

At thirty, we live with hope that tomorrow will be easier; today we will get ahead a bit or at least stay afloat, and we hold out hope that our mistakes from yesterday will not be repeated. Alas, we repeat many of them, but that’s okay because we are charting our own course- or at least we think so.

At forty, we live with anxiety and fear that tomorrow we will find that we do not have enough of anything- time, money, love, or patience. Today we went through the motions and have little recall of what actually transpired. We long for the lack of both the accountability and the responsibility we had in our youth. Yesterday was not so bad.

At fifty, we live with intent and purpose. Tomorrow is getting close. Too close. It promises nothing, so we must accomplish all that has to be done without delay. And somehow, because we have either become more efficient in or less critical of how we perform our tasks, we will also manage to carve out a little bit of time for ourselves, even if it’s only a second to reflect, breathe, write, or have a bit of conscious “me” time. Yesterday, though we intended to do just that, time slipped away and we cannot get it back. Today though, today, for sure, we convince ourselves.

And here’s where Sylvia and Erma stop to welcome their many wise and witty friends of a certain maturity to add their two cents to the decades, which undoubtedly has greater value than anything they could pretend to know or even imagine.

This we know as it has been said time and again: tomorrow is not guaranteed and yesterday is done. Here and now is all we have! Have an amazing day or at the very least a day lived as best you can with intention, purpose, and some self-care.

We are putting another pot on because we have so much more to figure out and so much more life to live.

Cheers with coffee. Gotta keep moving.

The Best Diet Ever

How ironic that one tiny, fleeting moment can fill the heart, and that the resulting fullness renders one nearly weightless!
Savoring moments like velvety spoonfuls of an ice-cream sundae, Sylvia and Erma discover the key to successful dieting.

Being happy. Zero calories.

Erma: Sylvia, you can’t measure the immeasurable.

Sylvia: Thank goodness, Erma. That explains why I’m at my lightest when I’m at my happiest.

Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.
~Zelda Fitzgerald