Monday, March 28, 2011

Mother Love

As excited as we are about moving to Colorado, there are many precious things we’ll be leaving behind. One of the hardest will be a firecracker of a woman who has been a major influence in my life. I knew her by reputation long before I got my first hug from her.

When I met her son, back in the mid 1980s, I never dreamed I’d marry him some day. He quickly became one of my best friends and I loved trading family stories with him. He was a long way from his New Hampshire home as we got to know each other at our southern Missouri college. He had four brothers, I had four siblings also. He understood the concept of never getting a bowl of the good cereal unless you grabbed the box from the grocery bag the minute it came home from the supermarket.

He told me about this woman he called mom, and how she grew up thinking she’d never have kids, because she wasn’t really into babies, but then was blessed with a house full of boys. She was the perfect mom for boys - willing to coach any sports team and able to cook huge, filling meals. She took to the task so well that she began to take in exchange students from other countries. To this day she has ‘sons’ who live around the world.

It wasn’t long before her son and I saw our friendship grow into affection, then full blown adoration. My family knew him well but he was determined that his family should know me too, before any lifelong decisions were made. He and I made a flight back to New Hampshire the January of our senior year in college.

That’s when I first met her in person. Surrounded by sons who towered over her, she kept it all juggled perfectly. Hot, delicious meals showed up on the table three times a day. Family sports were organized during the day, board games around the table at nights. She always had a smile, and was always ready with a hug or a punch on the upper arm, whichever was appropriate (remember, she had all sons…).

After our wedding in November year she officially became a relative of mine. In the next year I watched her with great respect as she suffered through the loss of the love of her life, always carrying herself with class and grace. It was an accurate peek as to what this woman would be to me in the years to come.

She was the one who comforted me when we lost our first baby to a miscarriage, and the one I was most excited to tell when we found out we were pregnant again. I have always known that if anyone understood the joys and pains of life, and how to plow forward, it was this amazing woman I called a mother-in-law.

Then her fortitude was challenged again, as her son and I decided to move across the country, away from her, so he could attend graduate school. She could have been bitter, since her first grandbaby was growing in my belly and just four months away from being born. Instead of cradling a newborn in her arms, she would have to settle for a phone call, and the precious sound of her granddaughter’s first cries. But she never doubted our choices. Instead, she helped us load our Subaru station wagon and gave us warm hugs and bags of cookies as we hit the road.

She’s always been there for us, in a way I hope I can be there for my kids some day. She’s a great example of how a mother can lose her son but gain a daughter, letting go of what she needed to, to let him be the man she raised him to be.

When my own mother died, and I was so lost in grief, this is the woman who stepped in. I wasn’t ready, right away, to have a replacement mother, and she understood that. She stood in, as whatever I needed her to be, and never doubted my path of grief. She’s known grief, and she knew how important it was to just be present.

Two years later, when I thought I had already endured my dose of life tragedy, our third child became deathly ill from an undiagnosed metabolic disorder. We never told her what to do, or where to be. She just booked the flight and showed up. Always there exactly when we needed her.

And so it shouldn’t surprise me, that when we are once again breaking her heart by moving this house full of grandkids she loves so much far away from her, she has not responded with hostility or anger. Just support, love and encouragement. She’s loved having them in New England for five years and has treasured every new memory they’ve made together. But she knows us, and knows what’s best for our family. She accepts it, even if it’s not what’s best for her.

Last week, when I was quickly becoming overwhelmed with getting our house ready to sell, the phone call came. She and my step father-in-law were on their way. They showed up early on Saturday and for two long days they painted and patched and led the charge of house repairs. And, of course, as she always does so well, she fed us.

I’ll never be able to adequately thank this woman who has been such a great life role model for me. She’s set the bar pretty high. But my plan is a simple one. I’ll do my best to raise her grandkids in a loving, supportive home.

And some day, when they go off and have kids, I hope to be an amazing grandmother myself.

I’ll know I’ve succeeded the day one of my kids says, “You remind me of Grammy Berna”.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Serious Sorting

I hate to break it to you but my posts might start sounding like a broken record. Ever since my husband got the news of our impending move to Colorado, our life has been turned upside down. And much like my repeated themes of ‘letting go’ this time last year, as my oldest daughter was nearing her high school graduation, the new theme for the next few weeks might be ‘packing up and letting go’.

This week our lives centered around sorting through stuff. It’s a topic that many of my co-workers could relate to. You don’t have to be moving to be interested in the topic of cleaning out stuff you don’t need. In every stage of life there is a point you have to stop, regroup, sort out, and move on.

Every elementary school child knows the feeling. The last day of school is exciting and all, but in the end, that desk has to be free of personal stuff by the time the last bell rings. It usually means hauling home a big, brown grocery sack full of assorted papers and old pencils, that will be thrown under the bed until mom’s next cleaning frenzy.

Every freshly graduated kid, heading off to college, knows the drill. The entire contents of their bedroom is under the microscope, analyzed for its nostalgia factor. Every poster on the wall, every tattered stuffed animal, and every trophy sitting on a shelf gets its moment of decision. Is it important enough to be thrown into the box labeled ‘take to college’? Will it end up in the box headed for mom and dad’s attic? Or has it’s useful time been used up, its final destination to be a donation center?

Those of us who have lost parents have gone through it in a different way. It’s an odd feeling to be making those same kinds of decisions about someone else’s stuff. I will never forget the uneasiness I felt as my sisters and I sorted through my mom’s closet, as a favor to my dad, after she passed away. I turned to one of my sisters and said, “I just can’t get over the feeling that mom’s going to be really mad when she comes home and finds out we’ve given all of her stuff away…”

And then there are those of us who move a lot. Military families understand. They pack up and move at a moment’s notice and rarely complain about it. I have a friend who has six children and thinks nothing of moving every year or two, following her Marine husband’s career. She runs a streamlined ship and keeps me inspired.

We haven’t moved as much as she has but we’ve done our fair share. This will be our fourth move in ten years. It’s enough to make us feel like we halfway know what we’re doing this time around. Some aspects are similar with every move - the selling of the old house, the life in temporary housing, and the search for the new place we’ll call home. And of course, the sorting of the stuff.

We’ve been in New York for five years. That means you have to compute the following equation: Six people, times five years, adding in a dozen sports and a half a dozen hobbies…oh yeah, and thirty different birthday celebrations and five Christmas celebrations (that brought in countless assorted gifts) and you’re talking a lot of…um…“treasures’.

Which is why a very large dumpster was delivered to my driveway last weekend. We started with the garage and by mid morning we had finally found the floor. At lunchtime we all stepped back, admired our finally efficient space, and took a deep breath. It was now time to hit the basement, otherwise known as the place to throw things that we didn’t know what to do with.

Through one weekend we cleaned and purged. Everything was touched and analyzed. The giveaway pile filled the living room. The dumpster gradually became less empty. There is something about moving to a new house, in a new state, to make you feel like starting over.

For a few months I’ve known this move might be coming. I could have started the deep cleaning six months ago. But I didn’t. It’s easier to keep stuff if you think you might be staying. All the unused coloring books and fresh boxes of crayons I bought dirt cheap at back to school sales, but never used, were very comfortable in the cabinet upstairs. But once I knew I would have to pack them, move them, then unpack them, if I wanted to keep them, they easily went to the giveaway pile. All the stuff I tell myself I might use ‘some day’ is looked at with fresh eyes.

I look forward to setting up a more streamlined house in Colorado. It begins by clearing out all the extras before the moving truck even comes. But it continues by thinking, really thinking, about every item I bring into my house. Do we really need it? Is there justification for making room for it? Is there a way I could comfortably live without it?

I’ve been blessed with several cross country moves, in that they have forced me, time after time, to rethink what surrounds us in our home. It can be freeing to realize how little it takes to really be content. I’m hoping this is our last move for a decade or so. But maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to pretend, every year or two, that a move is coming. It might help me keep our house more orderly and peaceful.

And maybe, just maybe, I can avoid having another dumpster in my driveway five years from now.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mental Moving Math

The upheaval has begun. If you caught my column last week you know that our family is leaving New York. We’ve loved living on the East coast but the dry climate of the Rocky Mountains is pulling us back in that direction. The past week has been a roller coaster of activities and emotions.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been here five years. It’s been a unique time in our family’s life. In our first weeks in New York our oldest child started high school. When we leave in June, we’ll have two who have graduated from that same school. Each of our kids has lived a chunk of their childhood here, the years that you actually remember of childhood. To some it might seem hard, to move as often as we do, but as far as lifetime memories, sometimes it helps to keep the memories of life in order.

My kids will be great at current history questions when they are playing Trivial Pursuit in the future. They can tell you the year (and month) that the sniper attacked the Washington D.C. area because we lived there at the time.

My oldest son’s fourth grade teacher made her class dance in line as they walked from their classroom trailer to the main building every day, knowing a moving target is harder to hit. My daughter helped me pick out groceries online so we could have them delivered to the house, avoiding the vulnerability of walking across the grocery store parking lot. None of us will forget the day the sniper was taken into custody and we were allowed to go back to our normal lives.

My two oldest children have vivid memories of September 11th, not just on the day it happened, but the months after. We drove to New Hampshire to visit grandparents eight weeks after the tragedy, making a point to stop by every crash site. We saw the fence in the middle of a field in Pennsylvania, covered with tokens of grief for the plane that crashed over the ridge from that spot.

Then we drove through Manhattan, a block away from Ground Zero, and inched past the fence covered in posters of missing loved ones. On our way home we headed south and caught a glance of the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon as we passed through D.C. History becomes so much more relevant when you have personal experiences with it.

I watched in horror as the news reports started coming out of Japan this week, and instantly I knew I would never forget the year of this tragedy. I’ll always recall that it was in the New York house, right before we moved. It’s how history is burned onto my brain - which house did we live in when that happened?

The huge waves that destroyed so many Japanese lives reminded me of a sunny day in Utah, and a conversation I had with my visiting stepmother. She was reading the daily newspaper as I cleaned up the breakfast dishes. I remember so clearly my stepmother saying, “It’s hard to believe…this paper says that hurricane that hit Louisiana flooded a big part of New Orleans….they say a large percentage of the city is underwater..” I was sure she was being an alarmist, being dramatic. “Oh, I don’t think that can be true,” I answered, “The reporter must have his figures wrong.”

Unfortunately, the report was correct and our country’s history took another major turn. But I remember that conversation taking place the year before we left Utah, so it had to be the summer of 2005.

Living in different places can also help in more personal family memories. My oldest learned to walk in a small duplex down the road from the college her daddy was attending. Her brother’s first steps were on that same hideous, multi colored shag rug. My middle son toddled for the first time in the house by the park and my baby boy became upright in our barn shaped house on the edge of town.

As we were cleaning out the basement this weekend we came across the old metal high chair we used for all of our babies. It’s the same one I sat in as a baby. I had repainted the tray for each of my children, decoupaging pictures of them to it, to entertain them during meals. My oldest son wondered why the pictures currently on the tray were not of our youngest child. With some mental moving math, I figured it out.

My baby boy was barely in a high chair when we began our cross country moves. The prime years he would have used it, it was traveling around in moving trucks and stored in temporary storage units. He missed out on having his face glued to the high chair tray.

As we move on to call a new state ‘home’ now, we carry with us a treasure chest full of memories that will always be associated with New York.

My oldest son finally got to run on a school track team, something he dreamed about since he was six. My daughter got her first car here. We were blessed to own a patch of woods, that became the kid’s personal playground, with air soft wars and tree forts. We’ve sledded down our own little sledding hill, that drops off right outside our mud room door, probably a million times. I found a writing group that inspired me to become the ‘real’ writer I’ve always wanted to be.

Life will go on.

Major national news events will continue to unfold. Our family’s history will change in big ways. And after this summer, those memories will be in Colorado. But each stage and each state has had its value and its beauty. Each major event will forever be framed in the context of where we lived when it happened.

It’s not such a terrible way to help this busy mom remember the important stuff.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Moving News

I will remember this day for a very long time. And the reason today was memorable has nothing to do with the fact that we woke up to freezing cold house because the heating oil ran out in the middle of the night. I didn’t panic. I knew George, my dependable oil guy, was already on his way this morning, to do his scheduled oil delivery.

I probably won’t remember that we were forecast to get a bunch of rain and a little snow, and instead woke up to a little rain and a whole lot of snow. Another snow day, which left me with a house full of kids.

But I’ll remember today because it was the good kind of ‘house full of kids’. The kids I’m surrounded by are in good moods, who have a special enthusiasm. They found out exciting news a few days ago. After nearly nine months of going through a difficult waiting process, their dad got a phone call on Friday that changes our lives. He got a job in Colorado.

We’ve loved living the past five years in New York. There are lots of great things about living here. We’ve explored the big City to our south and discovered fun places in Boston too. We know the roads to New Hampshire very well, having spent many weekends mixing and mingling with a whole bunch of fun family over there. Thanks to Grammy and Grandpa, the kids are familiar with the beaches of Maine and know the best place to get lobster there (Barnacle Billys!).

Albany has many treasures we’ll miss. The Plaza area under the Egg is a great place to take visiting friends and family. The State Museum is a treasure to explore, and their September 11th display will always make me cry. I’ve dragged my kids along the Indian Ladder Trail so many times they groan every time I say we’re having people come visit, knowing that’s my favorite place to take them.

We will leave behind many great friends too. Five years is a long time to build relationships. Sam almost set a record in our family, coming within a year of experiencing his whole elementary school career in one school. Each of our children has put down roots and built long term friendships. I’ve found a job that fits me perfectly and friends I will never lose touch with.

But we all knew we wouldn’t be in New York forever. Each of us missed the lifestyle we left back in the West. We loved the perfect snow, the dry climate, and the breath taking mountains. As the one who does the bookkeeping in our house, I desperately missed the lower cost of living and lower taxes.

So when our son was accepted into his first college of choice, a school in Utah, and we all realized that maybe it was time to think about another move, Colorado seemed like a really good fit.

We almost moved last fall. Then the job offer changed and it no longer worked for us. Out of the blue, another job opportunity came up and we began the waiting process again. So by the time the phone call came, saying it was real, we could hardly believe it. It was hard to comprehend. It’s still a bit difficult to wrap my brain around. But if I am to believe my usually trustworthy husband, it is true, and now comes the chaos.

I’ve been in this place before, knowing we are on our way out, but still very firmly grounded in a place I love. My most recent memory is of our transition from Utah to New York. Our very best friends lived across the street. Every day of packing ended with looking out my front window and seeing them, and their children, coming and going, and knowing I would forever miss that view. I knew there would be good friends in New York, but no one would specifically replace Jeff and Laura.

So today I am getting those familiar feelings. My children are all in good moods, which doesn’t happen a lot when you have four kids, three of them teens. They are all still in the excited phase, the one where we don’t have to think about the goodbyes yet, only about the fun parts of moving. They are dreaming of new bedrooms and new woods to explore. They are ready to have season passes to ski slopes that have perfect powder six months of the year.

I have them in cleaning out mode, as the house needs to go on the market soon. Suddenly, if it means packing it or not, they are seeing our belongings in a new way. More than half of our family board games didn’t make the cut, as one of my boys sorted through them, making a huge pile to donate. He was so enthusiastic about cleaning out that I had to save some of my favorites from the chopping block (I can’t live without all three versions of Apples to Apples).

I spent the morning photographing Lego creations that will now be dismantled and packed away. As we all worked together the radio blared in the background. My extra son, a neighbor who has become a part of our family and will always carry a part of my heart with him, hung out on the extra bed across the room, strumming the guitar and discussing chords with my boys. My little guy patiently and diligently filled ziplocs with the colorful pieces of each creation.

It was a magical snow day, that had very little to do with snow. It was our first day of living out our news and our first day of taking steps that will lead us down a new road. It was all good and exciting. No tears yet. Today held its own innocent brand of magic.

All of the excitement and none of the pain.