I’m writing tonight from gorgeous St. Pete Beach in Florida.
I’m here with my sister, my first true friend. Born only 20 months after me, Liz was something of a twin to me when we were little. As the big sister, I protected her from scary invisible monsters and bossy neighbor kids.
As the little sister, she gave me a sense of power by obeying my every command.
Then we both grew up, and began to lead our different, separate lives. Time passed and we had different paths to follow. We were no longer in touch every day, and no longer held key roles in each others’ lives.
Nevertheless, she has always been there for me, my husband, my children. I hope I’ve done the same for her.
The years have rolled on. We aren’t those two cute almost twin girls with our matching outfits and matching ponytails. We are no longer those two young women in our new marriages.
Now we’re two aging ladies who have been through joys and struggles. We’re gray. We’re not as svelte as we used to be. We’re quirky.
Now we’re just two old nuts.
Liz lost her husband not long ago. He was the absolute love of her life, her other half. He was her partner in everything.
For 23 years, the two of them spent winter vacations on St. Pete Beach, always staying at the same resort motel. They made dozens of friends and thousands of memories. This place became a cherished second home for both of them.
I’m here because Liz needed to come back to this place. She wanted to make some new memories and to regain a little of the happiness she knew here. She needed a side kick, as it were, and I’m lucky enough to be in that role.
So here we are. Swimming in the salty waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Collecting shells, watching the sunsets, drinking wine.
There are some happy ghosts here for Liz, to be sure. But I think that there are also some new laughs.
In the end, we are just two old nuts strolling along the tide line with our very first friend.
When your children are born, all you want for them is…well, everything. You want to protect them from every possible bump, bruise, scratch, insult, injury, sorrow.
As they begin to grow, you realize as a parent that you can’t actually protect them from the world, from life.
But your initial hope remains true. When all is said and done, what you want for your children is happiness.
Every parent has thought it. Every one has said it, “I just want my children to be happy.”
What that means is something different from family to family, and it changes over time.
But in the end, if we can distill our deepest and truest wish for our children, it is this:
“I wish you a life that brings you pleasure. I wish you a job that makes you feel good about yourself. I wish you friends who laugh with you and share your best and worst times. And more than anything, I wish you love.”
We want our children to find their loves. To find someone who brings out the best in them. To find someone who is their own best with our child beside them.
Of course we may not realize it when the kids are small, and we may not say it out loud when they are older, but we also want them to find someone that we can love, too.
As parents, we wish for our children a life of equal parts adventure and predictability. We wish for them to grow and learn and get stronger every day.
When my three children were little, I imagined them eating good food around their own tables. All of them have achieved this. I desperately wanted them to find a community of like minded souls who would support them, challenge them and laugh with them. All three have that, too.
And I wish, most of all, that all of them would find a solid life partner, like mine, who would be there through all of the financial crises, the health issues, the emotional swings and the changing times. I wished each of them a partner who desired them, cared for them, missed them, stored up stories of the day to tell them.
All of mine have also, miraculously, found partners who bring out the best in them, who love them deeply, and who we love as well.
That’s a mother’s best wish. It’s any parent’s best wish.
“I just want my child to be happy.”
We all say it.
We all mean it.
Last weekend, my youngest child, my sweet baby, proposed to his own true love. We were there to share the excitement. She is the one who fills every one of our wishes for our boy.
Sometimes life give us exactly what we want, exactly what we desire.
This was one of those times.
Yay, Tim and Sweens!!!!! You guys make dreams come true, and not only for each other!!!!!
Before he proposed to Sweens, Tim came with me to see my 88 year old Mom. She was married to my Dad for 58 years. They had one of those magical and loving marriages that you only read about. She said to Tim, upon hearing his news, “I wish for you the same kind of relationship that Grampa and I had. We were best friends and we always looked out for each other.”
To every parent out there, I hope you all have happy children. There’s nothing more important, and nothing more gratifying.
I first heard the phrase “Food is Love” from a colleague who was laughing at me gently on the morning of Sept.12, 2001. After the horror of the terrorist attacks in New York, and the long, terrifying night lying awake and watching endlessly repeating news, I had arrived at school with two dozen home made muffins.
I didn’t know what else to do. The world was out of control. I was sad, upset, scared, confused. I didn’t know how to react.
So I cooked.
Food is love. Food is comfort.
Food is family and warmth and security.
I guess that’s why I have raised three kids who are all exceptionally good cooks. My daughter makes the best pizza I have ever eaten. She makes Indian foods, Asian foods, and delicious focaccia.
My two sons are such good cooks that for Christmas I tend to give them ingredients as gifts. They went to college fully prepared to cook for the entire apartment. Now in their mid twenties and in serious long-term relationships, they love to cook for their partners and friends. They grow vegetables, they seek out organic foods, they browse through recipes for inspiration knowing that they will add/change/delete build upon whatever they find.
So I guess it’s no surprise that one of my favorite parts of every day is cooking with my grandchildren.
I get so much pleasure out of those moments when the two kids are seated up on my counter, helping me to mix, chop, stir, mince, sautee and simmer.
OK. Full disclosure and all that: when we’re cooking, I know where they are and I don’t have to chase them. The chaos is contained.
But that isn’t the whole story.
I just love sharing good food with them. I love sharing the history of our family recipes. I love teaching them how to handle foods, how to measure and pour and stir. I love letting them know that spilling is allowed, mistakes are expected and eggshells can add a little crunch to a cake.
Mostly, I love looking at them. I love seeing their big, dark brown eyes gazing into the bowl of dough. I love the way they listen to my every word, even as I realize that they don’t understand it all.
I mean, how many three year old really understand the difference between slicing and mincing the red peppers? How many 19 month old kids know how to crack an egg, crush a clove of garlic, zest a lemon?
My grandchildren do. Or at least they are beginning to.
Someday, when they are living on their own in small, drafty apartments, I hope that they will pull out a pile of ingredients, start to chop, and tell their gathered friends, “My Nonni taught me how to cook before I was old enough to talk.”
I hope that they think of me when they add a dash of crushed red pepper to a pot of soup. I hope they recognize, on some deep level, that they dare to experiment with spices because their Nonni helped them to feel at home in the kitchen.
I hope that they one day they will gaze with devotion at someone at their table and that they will say, “You know that food is love, don’t you?”
It’s a virtue that in some ways I possess in spades. I mean, (cough, cough), I spend all day with toddlers and I almost never yell or lose my cool. Truly.
But sometimes I do NOT want to wait. Sometimes I am all about the instant gratification. Sometimes I am not at all patient.
Let me give you an example.
A couple of years ago my sister-in-law gave me a gorgeous orchid. I had never had one before, and I was head over heels in love with its tender beauty. I read the little card that came with my plant. It said to give the plant 1/4 of a cup of water every week.
I was a little bit perplexed, because that seemed like a pretty meager amount of water for a tropical plant. I asked my sister-in-law how to grow it, and she gave me the advice that I later found online. Add an ice cube once a week and the plant will flourish.
Really? Once again, that didn’t seem like much water for a jungle plant. Plus, it was really really really cold water. Wouldn’t jungle rain be warmer?
Still, I did what I was advised to do. Because I hate being cold, I skipped the ice and went with the 1/4 cup of cold water once a week.
My flowers stayed in bloom.
They stayed in bloom so long in fact, that when I went to visit my 87 year old Mom, and saw her orchid starting to wilt, I offered to take it home and save it.
I put both orchids in a sunny spot and watered them every 7-10 days with a little splash.
They both dropped their petals, lost some leaves and keeled over.
I was heartbroken.
I mean, I don’t have a lot of skills to brag about, but I thought I could at least keep a houseplant alive! One of the orchids turned totally brown and began to look more like a tumbleweed than a jungle creature. I sadly tossed her onto my compost pile and turned to her barely alive sister.
“Please tell me how to bring you back,” I whispered sadly to my spindly friend. “Look on Youtube,” she whispered back, her voice so weak that I could barely hear the faint hope it held out. “Google orchids….google….care for orchids…..”
I wiped the tears from eyes and followed her sage advice.
And there I learned that (AHEM) I was right all along. Orchids are tropical plants. Ergo, they will thrive in environments that mimic the tropics. As in: lots and lots of tepid water dumped on them all at once, then long periods of heat, then you repeat the process.
So I did as advised. I moved my weakened limp leafed friend away from the direct light of the window (forest canopy, anyone????) I let her roots rise up from the pot and hang outside like spindly spider legs (orchids grow outside of the soil) and I watered the crap out of her every time the wood chips and bark beneath her felt dry.
Lo and freakin’ behold. One fine day, a lovely, bright green shoot arose from her stem. Up, up, up it crept. It took a full month for me to be sure that it wasn’t just another root.
But at last, this courageous and intrepid plant, sentenced to life in a completely non-tropical New England home, sent up a gorgeous stem filled with buds.
I rejoiced! There was prosecco. (OK, fine, there’s always prosecco here, but still. I was very happy). There was music and dancing and as the formerly limp green leaves of the orchid rose up again in good health, there was much cheering of fabulous gardening Nonni.
Every day the buds grew larger. Every day, the purple and green stem arched it’s way toward the sunlight.
Every day Nonni waited to rejoice at the fact that she had brought this nearly dead exotic plant back to life. Nonni waited with gleeful anticipation for the first glorious flower.
She kept the orchid close to the sunlight, but not bathed in it. She turned it a couple of times a day. She watered it thoroughly with room temperature water every few days when the winter heat dried it out.
Nonni eventually started to sing to her lovely tropical guest. “Oh, beautiful plant, so full of life!!!!” she trilled, hoping to nudge it into bloom. “Where the heck are you, anyway?”
Each day the buds got bigger. And fuller. And more alive with promise.
But. The winter days passed. And nothing happened.
As in. No. Thing.
Nonni was losing her grip.
And Hannaford’s had pretty little orchid plants in full bloom for only a few bucks. Nonni bought one.
OK. So maybe it wasn’t entirely fair to bring home a sweet young thing, but I was getting a little bit short of patience. I won’t say that I was hoping to shame my recovering orchid into bloom. But I did think a little competition might be helpful.
Here I sit, in front of my not-cold-not-dry-not-too-sunny orchid. I am still singing to her lovely full buds.
But I’m almost out of patience. I mean, come on already!
Give me all the toddlers in the world. I am not sure I have the patience to deal with shy orchid blossoms.
Git out here already, before I replace you with some early daffodils!
I had the grandchildren today, for the first time in almost two weeks. I was absolutely filled with joy to have them back.
But I was also absolutely beat beyond belief when they went home.
So after they left, I started dinner, and poured a big glass of wine. Then I went out into my hot tub.
I turned on the jets, aiming at the sorest parts of my neck and shoulders. I sipped. I sighed. I laid my head back against the side of the tub. And I looked up.
I saw the many stars arching above me. I saw the undersides of the trees around my yard.
And I saw the blinking lights of the jets passing by so far overhead.
I couldn’t help but wonder. Who’s up there? Where are they going?
I live in Northern Massachusetts, so I know the general flight paths that cross over my head. I know that many of the flights coming from my West will turn toward the North, to Canada and the maritimes. The ones that come from my South will eventually make their way toward the Canadian maritimes, and will then swing out across the North Atlantic toward Northern Europe, or they’ll turn toward the South and aim for somewhere to my West.
I watched the lights crossing my sky. I thought about the passengers whose flights I was seeing.
Of course I had no idea who was up there, but that’s the beauty of it, right? I was able to make them up. To imagine the lives of the people who were silently intersecting with my own life.
Maybe, on this flight from West to East, there was a woman in her 70s. Maybe she had lost her husband five years ago, and was struggling mightily to move forward into some kind of future. I pictured her opening a letter from an old friend, someone she’d known decades ago in college. “Come to visit, please!” I pictured the note saying, “I’ll meet you in Shannon and drive you out to our place in Connemara. You can meet our friends and have some fun.” I saw the women frowning, shaking her gray head. I saw her waking up in the darkest part of her lonely night, reading the note again.
I imagined her buying her ticket, telling herself to go.
I wished her all the best as her flight crossed my path.
Then there was the jet that ran from South to North, too high in the sky to have come from Boston.
On this one, I saw a young woman. I imagined her feeling stuck in a dead end job, wondering where all of her dreams had gone. I saw her in her little apartment in Charleston, eating a lonely take out meal and opening her mail.
Now I pictured her on the flight above me, heading toward a meeting with a man she had so far only met online. I could imagine her friends telling her to go, but to be careful. I saw her mother, looking very much like me, telling her not to go. Telling her that she could find someone right here, right in our very own town.
I saw her, as my head lay back against the edge of my hot tub. I saw her brown hair, recently done up with highlights. I saw the hope in her heart and the caution in her mind.
I watched her fly across my deck. I waved as she passed. I wished her luck and courage and strength and love.
Our lives cross back and forth every day with so many people we will never meet. How lovely to imagine their paths. How powerful to wish them well.
Sometimes, like all of us, I wish that I could make time run in reverse, and go back to earlier days.
I wish that I could visit my childhood again. I’d still have both of my parents. My Dad would be alive and full of fun and handsome and strong. My Mom would still be his beautiful bride, and their six kids would giggle as he pulled her into his arms for a kiss before dinner.
I wish that I could reclaim the sense of endless hope that pervaded those days. When I’d sit in the backyard and gaze at the full moon and dream of the adventurous and romantic life I’d lead one day.
More than that, though, even more than that: I wish that I could hit rewind, just for a few minutes, to see my three little children playing on the living room rug. I wish I could hold each of them in my arms, my beautiful babies. I wish I could hear those voices, laughing or crying, or calling “Mom!”
But time doesn’t work that way, does it? No matter how much we want to hold onto the past, or hold onto today, all of it keeps slipping into the future. And as impossible as it seems, here we sit on the eve of the year 2019.
I will turn 63 this year. My Mom will turn 89. Both are impossible from the vantage point of my heart.
My oldest child will turn 33, and her oldest will turn 4.
Impossible. Unbelievable. Somehow all of it simply wrong. Too soon, too quick, too rushed.
I am not ready.
And that’s the beauty of the whole thing. Time doesn’t care if we are ready. Time doesn’t care if we have grasped our own mortality, or if we’ve accepted the losses that it has brought us.
Time keeps on slipping into the future.
So what is that I wish for in my 63rd year of this wonderful, tiring, surprising, inspiring life?
I wish for another year with all of my children and their partners happy, healthy and filled with hope. I wish for a year of growth and new adventures and continued good health for my grandchildren, my best beloveds.
I wish, with all my heart, for another year with my Mom on this earth. I wish for more shared meals, more jigsaw puzzles, more hours spent pouring over old photo albums. Her memory is weak, so sometimes these jaunts into the past are more upsetting than pleasant. Even so, I wish for more time with her as the rudder in my life.
For my country, I wish for a year of healing. Somehow, some way, I hope that we can find our way back to the days of arguing without hatred. I hope and I wish and I pray that something will change to bring us out of these dangerous times and help us find our way back toward some sense of national unity.
Time keeps on slipping into the future.
We can’t turn it back. We can’t stop it.
We can only keep moving forward, faster and faster every year, keeping our minds and our hearts open to each other. Trying to grow and learn and improve.
My Dad used to say it that way. My Grampa did, too. And my PapaNonni said, “Buon Natale”. In our house we didn’t say it in English when the whole family was around.
For my whole life, those two words have meant the sharing of good food, of laughter, of presents, of long stories told it two languages.
Buon Natale meant the meal of seven fishes, with shrimp and calamari and especially with octopus cooked by my Sicilian Grampa who pronounced it “boopie.”
The magic of the celebration meant gathering with cousins we saw only two or three times a year. It meant catching up with each other’s news, introducing new boyfriends, new fiances, new babies.
Buon Natale. Every year the location of our family party would rotate between the houses of my mother’s siblings. Some things would change, as people moved and families grew, but many many things stayed the same. The boopie, the calamari, the red Santa hats, the bottles of good Scotch under the tree.
Years have passed for me. Decades have passed now.
So many of those we loved have left us. Grampa, the original boopie chef, has been gone for more than thirty years. Our Nana left us more than ten years ago. We’ve lost my Dad, my sweet, funny brother-in-law, and my hilarious and brilliant Uncle.
But you know what?
We gathered again today. We hugged, and kissed and wished each other Buon Natale. There was wine and good Scotch. There was boopie and shrimp and calamari and calzone. We had ricotta pie and wonderful desserts.
Mostly, though, we had a new generation of little cousins who play together and laugh together only once or twice a year. We had laughs and memories and a few quiet tears.
We had each other. We had tradition and repetition and time to look back and remember that the joy of the season is really about celebrating how lucky we’ve been to have known and loved each other.
I don’t know what the future will bring, or how long traditions should hold.
But I know that my daughter will be hosting her brothers and us on Christmas. And I know that she’ll be cooking boopie.
Why are some women born with an innate ability to decorate the spaces they inhabit, while other women are born with the idea that plaids look great with stripes?
Now don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I dislike home decorating. That isn’t it at all! In fact, I yearn for the day when I will live in a place where every item is artfully chosen and precisely arrange.
It’s just that when I actually try to decorate my home, I inevitably come up with something that looks like it was done by a third grader let loose in K-Mart.
I didn’t even know that I was born with this deficiency until I had lived in this house (the one and only home we have ever owned) for several years. We were contemplating a paint job in the living room, and I decided to ask one of my many decoratingly gifted relatives for help.
“So Sue,” I asked my sister-in-law, “Do you think the living room would look good in a shade of Colonial blue?” (This was the 90’s. Don’t judge.) I mean, I was proud of myself for even knowing there was such a thing as “Colonial blue.”
Sue paused for a minute, looking around the room. “Well,” she said, “That depends on what you want to do with the kitchen and the dining room. You have to make sure that your colors flow.”
Flow??? My colors are supposed to…..um….flow???
I though she was referring to spilled paint, but it turns out that she meant that since all of the rooms connect and are visible to each other, the colors should be compatible.
She helped me pick out flowing colors, and the painting was done. Phew!
Over the years, with the help of both of my stylish sisters and my three “we could have our own showrooms” sisters-in-law, I have learned a few things. I sponge painted the upstairs at one point. I learned that the bath towels are supposed to match the hand towels which need to be color coordinated with the rugs, the soap dispenser and the shower curtain.
I now use table cloths when I have company, and they are (sorta kinda) color matched to my curtains, lampshades and picture frames.
I’m getting better! Yay, me!
But now it’s Christmas.
Now I am faced once again with the inarguable fact of my complete lack of taste.
Christmas decorating in this house means pulling out the old, puppy chewed toys from my husband’s youth. It means dredging out the aging, beloved, lopsided popsicle stick ornaments that our kids made 20 years ago. If I have been particularly inspired, it might mean a new Christmas candle or two.
What it doesn’t mean, (because I. Can’t. Pull. It. Off. ) is a perfectly arranged side table with crystal ornaments artfully displayed alongside beeswax tapers and perfect Charles Dickens lanterns. It doesn’t mean a gorgeous arrangement of antique toys or a tiny sparkling Christmas village complete with skating Victorian era children.
Oh, sure. I can put out a glass dish of red and green m&ms, but that’s my limit. How the hell does everybody else even FIND all those perfectly shaped, matching-the-wall-colors, adorable little decorative boxes? Huh?
How do all the other women just automatically KNOW how to set up the miniature reindeers? AND how the hell do they get miniature reindeers wearing bows that match their living room lampshades?
If any of you out there know the code to get into the secret society of decorating genius women, will you please, please let me know?
Meanwhile, I’ll be in the attic seeing if I can find the 40 year old plastic Santa with the chewed off mitten. He’s supposed to stand on the shelf next to floppy Frosty with the frayed scarf.
Our house is an interesting place these days. I mean, like really, ya know….”interesting’.
We are renovating two bathrooms. That means that we are now tearing apart two out of our two bathrooms.
Ergo: we don’t have any bathroom sinks this week. And we only have one working toilet. The one that is in the hall of our main living area. The one that has (cough, cough), no DOOR.
Now, let me be clear. Our house is about 35 years old. We’ve been here for roughly 28 of those years. We have been in the same bathrooms all this time.
Oh, sure, we’ve painted and put in a couple of new medicine cabinets after the original $3.95 cabinets kind of fell apart. We did a little bit to make things better, but still.
We were bathing in a wicked old tub and a wicked old shower. The drains were…in a word….gross. The bathrooms had those horrific “popcorn” ceilings.
It was PAST TIME to update.
And we are.
We have hired a crew of very skilled men who are ripping things to pieces while adding plaster, paint, a new tub, new shower, new toilets, new vanity. It’s gonna be LOVELY.
In the meantime…..
I am here in my house. With two or three toddlers every day. One is in a diaper, so he’s safe, but the other two? Well….they need a toilet every two hours. Or less.
So I have to call out to the nice worker men, “Can we use the toilet!?” They say “Yes!” and go into another room. Then I take the identified toddler and put her on the pot. I stand in the doorway, since both are suddenly all about “privacy” and we have NO. DOOR. on our bathroom.
Here it is:
This means, of course, that the kids sometimes pee in their pants. It means that the working men have to tell me, “Just a head’s up, gonna use the bathroom!”
And it means that old Nonni here holds it in. All. Day.
Nonni is channeling her inner teacher. But still…..yikes.
It means that when the kids go home and the worker men go home, and Papa hasn’t arrived back from work yet….Nonni rushes right into the incomplete bathroom and finds some relief.
It also means that at 3 AM when Nonni feels the call of nature, she has to stand up, turn on her phone’s light and stand there for a minute. She has to think “Wait. Bathroom. Huh? Bathroom? What bathroom? Oh, yeah in the hall….with no door….in the middle of the freakin’ night…..” Nonni finally gets there, but she is left with a strange feeling of “what the FUCK?” as she climbs back into bed after answering the call of nature.
This is a very strange place to be.
And here we are now. At 6PM. The kids and workers have gone home. I have organized and cleaned the living room and started dinner.
And I look around the house, thinking about Nonni’s needs.
We do have one working toilet (thank you, dear Lord, for the half hour with nobody home except for poor old backed up Nonni!). We have a new floor in our small master bath (Nonni will sing the praises of these worker men for months….) We have smooth walls, with no paint or color….we have no sinks, but we can brush our teeth in the kitchen sink for a couple of more days…..
Nonni is working very very hard to remain calm and serene. She is overlooking the plaster dust, the missing toilets, the lack of bathroom doors. She is trying to embrace her inner camper woman, she is trying to recognize that many people around the world are in much worse shape…..
Nonni is kind of “all done.” I will be thrilled to have new paint, new fixtures, new smooth walls.
But I am ready to have this all done. Nonni is ready, thank you, to have a nice, private place to go to get some relief from nature’s most primitive urges.