Happy Birthday to Me


Today is my birthday.

Sixty three very short years ago, my wiggly little self made her way into this joyful world.

Today is my birthday.

For the first time in 33 years, I am not spending the day with my children. I think that’s a big step, and a sign of growth on my part.

As always, my kids reached out and asked, “Are we having a party or something for Mom this year?”

And I said, “Nah.”

Instead, do you know what I did to make the momentous occasion of my birth?

I went to see my Mom.

I mean, really now folks, what is more appropriate for celebrating your life than going to visit the woman who carried you around for nine months of life sucking, back aching, sleep stealing pregnancy? What’s more important than thanking the woman who spent hours of pain, more pain, wicked bad pain in order to push you out into the bright lights of your new world?

My Mom is 88 years old now. Her memory is not what we all wish it would be. She is frail in ways that shock me every week when I see her.

But she’s still Mom. She’s the woman who gave me her DNA, her time, her love of reading, her sense of humor, her temper, her recipe for red sauce and meatballs.

Mom was surprised when I arrived today with a bouquet of tulips. She’d forgotten that today was my birthday. But when I showed her the green/blue cake that her great grandchildren had made for me yesterday, she laughed. It only took a little bit of prompting to get her to retell the story of my birth, which she remembered in every detail.

She was embarrassed that she didn’t have a card for me. I hugged her, gently, and told her “You gave me life, Momma. You’re off the hook for a card!”

I don’t know if she really understands or accepts the fact that I don’t need a card of little gift from her. I hope that she does. I hope that she understand and realizes that with every trip around the sun, I am eternally grateful for the fact of her.

“Without you,” I said today, “I wouldn’t have a birthday, now would I?”

She looked at me and smiled, her familiar mischievous smile. “Dad and I did a really good job with you, didn’t we? You turned out OK.”

Happy Birthday to me.

Thanks, Mom.

Mom with her first great grandchild, my sweet Ellie.

Two Old Nuts in the Sun


Holy Heaven, my friends.

I could so get used to this life.

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.

What We Wish For


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.

It doesn’t get much better than a moment like this one..

Motherhood


It was so many years ago, and it all seems almost like a dream. Even so, I remember all of the sadness, the struggles, the joy. I remember it the way you remember those things that change you at the most minute level of your every cell.

More than three decades ago, when I was a young, healthy woman, Paul and I finally came to the point in our lives when we were ready and eager to start a family. We’d been to college, had our first jobs, gone off to graduate school.

The age of 30 was looming ahead of me, and I was getting anxious about putting off motherhood. After all, I was the oldest daughter in a family of six kids. I considered my own Mom, and her mother before her, to be the epitome of women who were fulfilling their life’s true purpose.

Of course I knew that times were changing, and that women of my generation were expected to have college degrees and jobs and careers. I was delighted by all of that, but I still longed for the chance to become a mother. I had fed and changed and cradled my youngest siblings, and my maternal instincts were incredibly cranked up.

So we put aside the birth control and waited for the miracle. And we waited. And waited some more. My heart became heavier with each passing month, and eventually we realized that we’d need some medical help.

My deepest and dearest wish seemed to be out of my reach.

But at last, at last, at last. Just before my dreaded thirtieth birthday, I conceived. My dream was coming true. Slowly, through those long, anxious months, I began to believe that I would finally hold my own baby.

And it happened. On January 11th, 1986, after more hours than I want to think about, my beautiful girl came into the world. I took one look at her and my heart melted into a pool of motherly smoosh.

THIS was the most gorgeous, most perfect, most lovable and loving human being that had ever been born. I immediately felt badly for every parent who had to learn how to love their inferior children.

I’m not kidding.

I was beyond in love. The smell of her cheek, the darkness of her brown eyes, the shape of those tiny lips…..all of it was completely intoxicating to both Paul and I.

At last, I was a mother. My dream had come true.

Now it is 33 years after that life-changing moment of birth. My beautiful, perfect little baby girl has become a strong, passionate, smart, funny, wonderful woman. She is a fabulous teacher, loved by her students and their parents.

She is a mother of incredible humor, grace, gentleness and love. She is a better mother than I was, and I was pretty damned good. She’s a great cook, a loyal and devoted friend, a supportive colleague. She is a political activist, a well informed and passionate progressive.

She is still a miracle to me. I am still so in love with the beauty of her smile, the shine of her gorgeous hair, the strength that I see in her interactions with her kids.

Happy, happy birthday to the incredible young woman who I still consider to be the most excellent and perfect of dreams come true.

My lovely girl with her lovely girl.

I Dreamed of My Father


Some dreams are only dreams. They come to us through the mixing of our yearnings and our fears. They drift through our sleep, filled with images and sounds forged from both memory and wish.

They feel as insubstantial as clouds. They exist, but they are made of nothing we can touch.

But some dreams are more. Some of them, when we are very lucky, are truly visits from those we have lost.

Last night my father came to see me. He came to me as I slept because he’s been gone from this earth for more than ten years now.

I dreamed of my Dad.

I dreamed that I was walking in a foggy place. I couldn’t see what was around me, but I felt myself moving. And then I saw him, my Dad. Right there, right in front of me.

I felt myself begin to cry. I felt the pain in my chest, and in my throat. There were tears on my face that I felt as they moved down my cheeks. I sobbed and felt the loss of breath.

In my sleep, I reached for Dad, expecting to be aware of him only as a dream. I expected the one dimensional feel of him; an image that I could see but one that would have no substance.

Instead, as I hugged him, I felt the warmth of his breath in my hair and the feel of his arms around me. A shock of recognition and awareness jolted through me, and I said, “Oh, Dad, it’s really you!”

He laughed. His real, Dad laugh, and put his hand on my cheek. “Oh,” he said, in his own voice. “I’m here! Don’t cry!”

I held his hand in mine and looked at his fingers, his knuckles, the way the skin was pulled smooth across the back of his hand. I felt the rough texture of his palm and the pads of his fingers.

These were details that I’d forgotten about him. Awake, I would never have known them again.

But he was there. Smiling at me, laughing at the foolishness of my grief. As often happens in these vivid, “visitation” dreams, I knew what he was thinking without hearing all of his words.

“It’s OK! You’re fine.” I felt that he was amused and touched by my sadness, but I knew that it didn’t worry him.

And then the visit was over.

I don’t remember him leaving, but I remember waking up, feeling comforted, but feeling cheated, too. He had been there, for really real, but he was gone again.

I dreamed of my Father. I smelled his skin, felt the softness of his hair. I was held in his arms, against his familiar chest.

It was him. He was here.

I want to go back to sleep. I want him to come and see me once again.

Dad and I, once upon a time.

Those Long, Long Days


I remember when I was a young Mom, feeling as if some days just lasted forever.

Like. For-freakin’-ever.

I remember hot, hot summer days, the ones where I was home alone with all three kids. I can clearly picture myself looking at the clock after having cooked, served and cleaned up breakfast, broken up two fights, done a load of laundry, swept the floor and helped to make four beds.

I remember it like it was yesterday, glancing up at the kitchen clock and thinking, “Damn! The battery must have run down. No WAY it’s only 9:15 in the morning!!!!”

I remember being wrong. It was, in fact, early morning and I had many, many hours ahead of me.

At the age of 35, that was not a pleasant realization. I remember the way that those days seemed to tick by with each second taking longer than the one before it.

I just wanted to get to dinner time, to have Dad home, to get everyone into bed and to Go. To. Sleep.

But now I’m older and wiser.

I’ve made more than a few journeys around the sun on this old planet. Now those long, long days have a whole different feel to me.

I’ll give you an example.

Yesterday was one of the very few gorgeous fall days that New England has experienced this year. It was breezy, cool, bright and perfectly sunny. The sky was a deeply calming blue, with cartoonishly puffy white clouds drifting slowly by. The leaves were gently twirly and falling through the soft air.

The kids wanted to go outside, so outside we went. Coats on, mittens slipped over reluctant thumbs, sneakers firmly attached to feet, out we went. All three of us stopped on the front step, breathing in the clean, clean air.

Ellie, our three year old explosion of joy, threw out her arms, twirled on the wet grass and crowed, “I am Elsa and Anna and we are so so happy!!!!” Little 16 month old Johnny looked up at me with a drooly grin and chortled, “aha!!!!”

They ran, they jumped, they picked up leaves, they screamed at the pure pleasure of jumping into puddles.

I was happy that they were happy, but to be honest, I was also tired. Nonni here has been fighting off a strangely lingering throat infection, and sleep has been eluding me. So as we walked down the driveway and splashed in every puddle, there was a piece of me that kept thinking, “Is it time to go in? Is it time for nap?”

I wanted to lie down.

Then I remembered those long, long days of my children’s past. I remembered the yearning I felt for bedtime.

I stood there, watching the kids play. And I looked up at that sky and watched those swirling, dying leaves.

And it occurred to me that I don’t have as many days to wish away as I did all those years ago. How many more fall days do I have left out there? How many times will I stand in the glorious sunshine watching two beautiful, happy, beloved children dancing with joy in front of me?

I pulled in a breath, smelling the wood smoke of my neighbor’s chimney, the wet, earthy musk of the decaying leaves, the sharp pungency of the pine trees around us. I looked at the kids, both jumping in the mud, both grinning, sharing a moment of pure bliss with each other.

Life is short. And every year it gets shorter.

If one of my days stretches out and takes forever to pass, well, that can only be a good thing. Now I’m old enough to know that a day like this is a blessing unsought.

Let all of my life slow itself down and take its time to pass.

And may I have many more days to simply stand there, motionless, watching beautiful children at play.

slow time

Heaven is a puddle on a sunny fall day.

Nothing Lasts Forever


When I was young, and newly in love, the song “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas was a big hit.I loved that song. I still love it. I love it for its harmonies, its tender thoughts, its melancholy.

I remember being a young wife, thinking, “I don’t want all of this beautiful life to simply fade into the wind! There has to be a way to make it all last!”

But you know what?  Now that I am a grandparent, I have a very different feeling about that song. I feel differently about the idea that nothing lasts forever.

Now, instead of feeling bereft at the thought, I feel comforted.

Let me try, in my limited way, to explain what I mean.

At the age of 28, I was so filled with life and new love that I thought the world must surely embrace and celebrate my feelings. I knew that I was only one tiny person in a wide world of others, but the strength and the depth of my feelings were so intense that I could not believe they would ever go away.

Then I gave birth to my first child, my perfect, most beloved, most cherished little girl. When I held her in my arms, it was impossible to me to imagine that the universe could fail to recognize the power of my love and the impossible gravity of her life. As I rocked her against my heart, I could not believe that there could exist a time in universal history when her life would not have the power to move us all.

I honestly did not believe that anyone else had ever felt this same miraculous love. I thought we were unique.

Back then, “Nothing lasts forever” was the worst thought that I could possibly hold in my head. I held myself firm against the very idea. I WOULD keep my love for my children alive! I would! I took photos, I wrote notes, I kept cards and letters and little mementos. I loved my kids so hard that I thought I had created an eternal monument of my devotion.

We were here. Our love for each other was too strong to ever fade. We mattered in the life of humanity, and I refused to believe that at some future point we might simple cease to register.

“Everything is dust in the wind….”

I hated that. Hated it.

But time has passed. Time has changed my view.

Now.

Now I have a whole different view, although it’s no less loving and embracing and proud. It is just maybe a bit more wise.

Now I understand that the love my grandparents felt for their children was every bit as intense, as strong, as deep as what I felt when I first held my own. Now I understand that the families that my grandparents created were meant to be islands of strength in a world of turmoil, but they were not ever meant to be eternal.

My maternal grandmother, my Nana, was such an important figure in my life. She was the matriarch. She was the hostess of the holidays, the provider of Sunday dinners, the center of our Italian-American existence. She was Nana. She was the center of it all, of all of the family tradition on my Mom’s side.

But when she died, I began to realize that her time in the spotlight had died, too. I mean, I still teach her recipes to my granddaughter, Ellie, but they don’t help to bring the real, true Nana into existence. Nana was the center of my Mom’s life, a huge part of my life, an important person in the lives of my children.

But Ellie doesn’t know her. Ellie and Johnny will never hear the sound of her laugh or eat a piece of apple that she sliced for them. They will never have the “Nana” experience that we have had.

Because they can’t. They shouldn’t.

Life can’t be all about the past. It can’t be a ceremony of love for those who have come before us. Life has to be about life, about this moment. It has to be about the people we hug and touch and love every day.  Life has to be about the new loves and the new families and the new memories that shape the world today.

So.

I don’t think I’ve don’t a very good job of expressing this at all, I truly don’t.

But let me end by saying that I am now happy to be “Dust in the Wind.” I know that for every day of their lives, my children will remember me and think of me with love. I know that my Ellie and Johnny will live every day of the rest of their lives knowing me and understanding my love for them.

As for their children? I hope that they grow up having heard my name and maybe a funny story or two. They don’t need to hang on to my old possessions or my faded photos.

Love goes on. Love moves from one family unit to another.

That’s just the way it should be.

Nana

Nana with her great grandson, Atticus. 

 

Immigration…and Emigration


For my entire life, I have thought about the idea of immigration. I was raised on the stories told by my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Stories about coming to America. Coming to the land of education, opportunity, promise.

I have always, for all of my 62 years, viewed my heritage through the lens of immigration to the United States. Growing up in a middle class suburb of Boston, I was aware that my grandparents had raised my parents in far grittier, far poorer, far more crowded areas of my home state.

I knew that my grandparents had left Italy in the earliest years of the twentieth century. I knew that they came here because they wanted to find work. They wanted a steady income. I knew that they came because they wanted their children, my parents, to have an education and a chance to escape the endless pressure of poverty that had marked their own lives.

As a child who came of age in the 1960’s, I was raised on the idea of the American “melting pot.” I grew up with the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I imagined my grateful grandparents arriving in this country.

I never thought about those same grandparents leaving everything they had ever known and loved.

It wasn’t until my just finished trip to Italy that I stopped to think about the leaving part of immigration.

Last week I traveled with my husband, our two sons and their future wives to the small village where my paternal grandparents were born. I had always heard about the little town in the “hills above Naples.” I had always heard about the difficult agrarian life, about the lack of opportunity.

I wanted to see that little village because it was the place of my roots. I wanted to see it because my father always talked about it, and because I have missed my Dad every single day for the past ten years.  I had a romantic image of what it would be like to walk on the streets where my ancestors had walked.

But when I got to the little town, winding up its narrow streets, my husband and I were with our sons and the women they plan to marry. I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that struck me when I came into the tiny town center. Getting out of the car in the blistering heat of Italy in July, I felt as if I was carrying the weight of my father and his parents on my aching back. I walked to the small stone monument dedicated to those who had died in the World Wars, and there I read the names of ancestors I would never know.

I was sobbing when the church bells rang at noon, holding onto my youngest child, but thinking of the thread that tied him to my great grandparents. Did my grandmother and father hear those same bells every day? Was this the church where they were brought to be Christened as babies?

The day went on, filled with more blessings than I can name. I met loving, gracious, kind relatives that I had never know before.  I stood on the terrace outside of the little local church, with the most gorgeous valley spread out below us. I heard my sons and their loves talking about marriage. I hugged my husband of 40 years, knowing that he understood how precious this moment was for me. After all this time, to be standing in this place…..

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying to myself with real surprise. “It’s so peaceful and so rugged and so beautiful.”

Later in our trip, Paul and I went to Sicily. The kids had gone home, but we had more time and we wanted to see the home place of my maternal grandparents. These were the grandparents I knew best, and I felt my Grampa with me every step of that trip. We got to Augusta, where my Grampa had grown up and where my Nana’s parents had lived.

I smelled the sea and the orange blossoms and the dry wind, and I was struck right in the heart with how beautiful it all was. While I was in Sicily, I ate seafood, I swam in the Mediterranean, tasted the wine, saw the olive trees.

And one thought kept going through my mind, “How did they ever leave this place?”

We had hugged our kids goodbye as they headed back to Massachusetts, to jobs and friends and lives. I was truly sad to see them go, and there were a couple of tears when they left.

But now that I had begun to think of immigration as “emigration”, all I could think about was the leaving that my family was brave enough to endure.

How did they do it? What desperation, what fear, what sorrow could have pushed my young grandparents to leave behind their language, their food, their music, their parents, in search of something better?

What desperation, what depth of love, what deeply held hope could have given my great grandparents the courage to hug their children goodbye as they boarded the ships that would take them across the world forever?

I thought about the beauty of the sunsets in Sicily. I thought about the light on the mountains of Avellino. I thought about how hard it was for me to give up the sound of English for three short weeks.

And I thought about kissing my children goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.

I’ll never think about immigration in the same way again. Those who leave behind all that is known and secure must be powered by a hope that I can only imagine.

 

The Little Things


I miss my father.

I miss the fact of him, the sense that everything would be OK, just because he was in the world.

Dad left us ten years ago, or at least he left this earthly plane ten years ago. He hasn’t gone very far, though, even after all this time. I see him in the raised eyebrows of my baby grandson when I do something silly. I see him in the skeptical frown of my granddaughter when I try to fool her.

I hear him, right in my ear, as I reach up to his work bench to return a set of pliers that I have borrowed. His voice is so clear that I find myself answering out loud, “Of course I’m going to clean off the dirt before I hang them up!” I hear us laughing together as I do just that.

I miss so many of the little things about Dad. I miss the smell of his skin when I’d kiss his cheek. I miss the Old Spice on his shirts. I miss being called “little girl.”

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I miss the way Dad would grin and rub his hands together to signal that it was time for a cocktail or a glass of wine. I miss sitting and sipping good Scotch together.

I miss how my Dad could make a bad day turn fun. I’ll never forget when he and my Mom and sister came to visit us during our graduate school days. Dad had come with a very good bottle of expensive Scotch, and we had promised to take them out for dinner. But it was a summer weekend, and every restaurant in town was booked solid. We ended up in our tiny apartment, crowded around the kitchen table. We dined on salami sandwiches, a bag of chips, and that excellent Scotch. We had so much fun laughing at ourselves, because my Dad set the tone.

I really miss seeing my children with their grandfather. He was the Grampa who played checkers and dominoes for hours. He taught them how to sand wood and hammer in a nail. He was the Grampa who sat on the floor and let the kids use him as a climbing toy.

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He listened to the kids when they talked to him. He looked into their eyes. Grampa made them feel special, and so they were. I miss the sound of those high voices calling, “Grampa! Grampa!” as they came in the front door.

He wasn’t perfect, our Dad. He was just a regular, hard working family man who loved his wife, loved his kids, loved the life he lead. He laughed more than he frowned, and even when he was mad, he was never scary.

He was solid. Dependable in all ways. He was a man of black and white views about what was right and what was wrong, and so was not a man of nuances around truth and integrity.

But he was always compassionate, always generous, always true to himself.

I miss him.

I feel him in the room with me, even as I write this piece. But I miss him, so very much.

Happy Father’s Day to all the men who love and nurture families.

Love Makes Fools Of Us All


Ah, love.

Is there anyone alive who hasn’t fallen victim to the whims of love?

When we fall in love, we give up our ability to make sane choices for ourselves. We see our beloved through misty eyes. Every fault is airbrushed out, and we only want more. More time with our beloved. More closeness. More intimacy.

When we truly fall in love, we let go of our own egos. We allow ourselves to make decisions that are not in our best interest. “But it will bring me closer to my beloved,” we tell ourselves. “This is going to be great!” All we want, when we are flushed with love, is to be near our beloved. We want to touch, to kiss and hold and nuzzle and dream.

Ah, love.

You lead us all astray. You take away our ability to do what is truly best for ourselves. When you have stormed our hearts, we care nothing for ourselves.

How do I know this, you ask? Ah, I have a confession for you all.

SONY DSC

Who, me? Ruin your sleep?

When we lost our beloved Wolf King last month, Paul and I found ourselves with a big, huge hole in our hearts. To say we miss the old fool would be the understatement of the century. Paul, in particular, was absolutely bereft without his best buddy sleeping on the dog mattress on his side of our bed.

So.

I invited Lennie to come and sleep with us.

See, up until that point, Lennie had been sleeping (all alone) in the living room. That just seemed too sad to me. So I got out some doggie treats and coaxed him into our room, and onto the newly abandoned dog bed.

He wouldn’t stay.

So.

Um.

I coaxed him up onto our bed. With doggie treats. It took some time and some effort, but….I was falling in love with my puppy! I needed him! I wanted him nearby!

The mists of love covered my eyes, and I got the (not so) little guy to stretch out on the bed between us.

He liked it!

And there he has stayed. Every night. Stretching his full length with his head on my hip and his butt on Paul’s shoulder. Or vice versa.

We now attempt to sleep in a queen sized bed where a 50 pound dog has half the mattress and the humans have about a quarter each.

On a good night.

This is not the best situation for aging humans who need our rest. It is not best for our creaky backs or our stiff spines.

But we won’t be changing it any time soon.

Love hurts.

What can I say?

Love makes fools of us all.