What Learning the Violin Has Taught Me About Life


http://”Violin Still Life” by cbyeh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When I was nine years old, my school offered the opportunity to learn an instrument. We were told that we could become a part of our school’s orchestra.

Wow.

I was thrilled at the idea, although I’m not sure why. My parents loved music, but neither was a musician. Still, I happily chose to play the viola, and joined the small group of music nerds in my elementary school.

I fell head over heels in love with the sound of that viola. I fell in love with the deep purple velvet that lined it’s case, and with the smell of the resin that I rubbed onto my bow.

As I played the viola, I learned about the joy of harmony, and was always thrilled to be the lower voice to that of the violin. To this day, I sing alto every chance I get.

My fourth grade year was largely shaped by my love of my Thursday morning orchestra rehearsals and my Tuesday after-lunch strings lesson. Sitting here right now, at the age of 63, I can still remember how I’d wish my Tuesday lunch time over, so that I could step onto the stage in our “cafetorium”, where the dusty curtain would be closed and the small group of violin, viola and cello players would practice in the musty warmth.

Playing my instrument, in a crowd of other young musicians, was magic to me. It lifted me out of my world and brought me into a world of sweetly entwining harmonies. I felt such a surge of power as I played my little beginners viola.

But at the end of that year, I learned that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing. My big family just didn’t have the money to allow me to continue.

I can still remember sitting in the back of the family car after our end-of-year concert. My parents were taking us out for ice-cream, to celebrate my musical achievement.

I couldn’t stop crying. Ice cream or none, I was heartbroken to give up my lovely, golden hued viola.

But life goes on, and childhood sadness fades away. I went on to have a happy childhood, a healthy adolescence and a very good adulthood.

Over the years, I’ve indulged my love of music by joining several choirs and by learning a little bit of acoustic guitar. I listen to music, of course, and I go to see live music as often as possible.

But I’ve still held onto the memory of that viola, of the sweet song of the bow being pulled across the strings. I never stopped wanting to try it again.

And here I am.

A grandmother, a lady with arthritic fingers and an achy back. A retired teacher. A good cook. A reader and a would-be-writer.

And I have once again taken up my beloved strings and bow. This time I am learning to play the violin, instead of the viola. This is in part because that’s what was available to me (thank you, brother Dave!). But it’s also because the violin is easier to learn.

Enter my wonderful, patient, talented, encouraging teacher, Susan.

My dream is coming true because of Susan’s gentle guidance. In the past four months, she has taught me how to hold my violin correctly, how to hold the bow and how to place my fingers. She’s shown me how to put enough weight in my wrist, and how to make “long bows” and “short bows.” The technical parts of playing are beginning to make some sense.

But here’s the best part of what she has taught me.

Susan has taught me to give myself some slack. She has shown me how to look at the goal, and not the individual steps to its achievement.

You see, I am kind of hard on myself when it comes to the violin. I know what a good violinist sounds like; they are sweet, and smooth and effortless. The voice of the instrument is tender and pure.

When I play, on the other hand, the strings tend to shriek. The bow bounces. My notes are either just a bit too sharp or just a bit too flat. I can’t seem to keep my aging eyes on the strings, the bow, my fingers and the music while also paying attention to the movement of my wrist and the position of my right shoulder.

I want to create the sounds that I hear in my head; I am not happy with the struggling, wobbling sounds that emanate from my violin.

Even my dog, Bentley, tends to howl when I play.

It’s demoralizing. It’s depressing.

But Susan keeps me on track. And here is how she does it:

Susan reminds me that children learn by simply doing. They do not think about each finger, they only think about the song to be produced.

“Look at the bigger picture,” she seems to say, “Make the music that you want, don’t keep questioning yourself.”

And she tells me to be patient with myself. She tells me that I am on a journey, and that every step is one to be celebrated. She constantly reminds me that this week I am able to play a simple song that was a struggle for me a week ago.

I am learning. I am growing. I need to embrace and celebrate my progress. I need to accept the fact that I am not an accomplished musician, but that I am someone who is moving forward.

The best part of what Susan has taught me, though, is that when I play music, I do it for myself. I am my only audience. I do this purely for pleasure.

This isn’t a job, or a class, or a medal to be earned. It’s a chance to express myself through music, through the music of a lovely, graceful stringed instrument. It’s a chance to send my emotions out into the air through my bow, through the vibration of these strings.

She is teaching me to take a breath, to do my best, to accept my mistakes and to enjoy my brief moments of musical beauty.

What I love is that these are the exact same lessons I have tried so hard to impart to my children, to my elementary school students, and to my grandchildren.

What a gift!

With my violin awkwardly tucked under my aging jaw, as I carefully pull the bow across those carefully tuned strings, I am reminded that moments of beauty, like moments of success, are both rare and precious.

Thank you, Susan!

Now I’m going to practice my Christmas Carols.

If Anthropologists Found Me


So I’ve been reading about ancient bones lately.

No, not the geriatric news report. More like the ancient skeletons that scientists seem to keep finding in strange places. The old bones of our distant ancestors what are unearthed when archeologist and anthropologists get grants to muck about in the wilderness.

You know what I mean, don’t you?

Take the old Kennewick Man, for example. This old native American lived up in what we now call Washington State. But he lived there around 9,000 years ago.

His bones were dug up and all kinds of smart and learned people started to analyze his life. What he ate, where he lived, how he hunted. They figured all this out just from looking at his dusty old bones.

And then there’s Ötzi the Iceman, whose mummified remains were dug up in the Alps. He did his hiking some 5,000 years ago and died on one of his treks. (One of the many good reasons why I have told my husband that I’m no longer interested in mountain climbing.)

When scientists analyzed these remains, they were able to describe exactly what the dead men had eaten, and how long before their deaths those meals has been enjoyed. They looked at the bones, at the hair, at the teeth and the stomach contents and came up with all kind of facts about the men. Where they lived, what they did for work, how far each walked in a year.

Fascinating.

So it got me thinking.

If I died today, and somehow got myself buried or frozen or mummified or hermetically sealed in a big old bag, what would future scientists make of my remains?

If they looked at my stomach contents, they would no doubt conclude that women who lived in my time were sustained by pasta, chocolate and a boatload of wine.

Suppose those future anthropologists examined my bones? I bet they would conclude that I had lived a highly active, athletic life. They might surmise that I had spent my adulthood working with my hands.

They would think these things because they’d see several broken fingers.

How would they know that all were broken when I tried to learn how to play basketball, but managed to jam my fingers more often that palm the ball?

They would see a broken bone in one foot and broken toes on each of my feet. “Athletic”, they might think. “Maybe a runner.”

I don’t suppose it would occur to them that I might have slipped off of a flip-flop while walking in the wet grass, thereby breaking a metatarsal bone. They’d have no way of knowing that I would have then stubbornly walked on that broken foot for six weeks before going to the doctor.

And there’s no way in the world that those future scientific geniuses would realize that by slightly favoring that right foot I would have caused my ankle to freeze up and for two of my toes to basically fuse.

I’m sure that if my old mummified carcass was examined closely by future scientists, they would see the scar tissue in my jaw, too. They might use that scarring to infer that I ate a lot of very tough and chewy meats. They might assume that I used my back teeth to chomp on fibrous vegetation, or large fruits and nuts.

How in the world could they know that my jaw was out of alignment because when I was 16 years old I accidentally threw away my orthodontic retainer, which my Mom had mailed to me while I was on a trip to North Africa?

They might think that the indentation on the right side of my forehead was caused by a fight, or a war or some other heroic action.

There is nothing about that divot to tell them that I dropped a huge canister vac on my head while falling down a flight of stairs.

So I wonder.

I wonder if Kennewick man was just a clumsy old dude who got drunk and landed in a bog? I wonder if Ötzi the iceman wasn’t really a high altitude shepherd with bad teeth from eating too much grain. Maybe he was a singer who was on tour in a mountain town when he passed out from a night of eating caramel corn.

Who knows?

I just know that we should question our assumptions.

And that if future anthropologist stumble across my frozen carcass, they will never guess what the tattoo on my back really means.

Does the Entire GOP Have Memory Loss?


Source: Fox News Research

I gotta admit this right up front: I am confused.

As an aging progressive socialist-leaning lefty, I am used to hearing my friends and family on the right screaming about those horrible “tax and spend liberals!”

I’ve grown up hearing the skeptical question, “How do you plan to pay for that?” when progressives ask for more support for the poor, better education, cleaner water, more affordable health care…….

“Oh, you crazy, bleeding heart fools! What about the DEFICIT?”

Remember?

Back in 2013, the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, published an article warning us of the many dangers of an increasing federal deficit. They wrote:

President Obama’s high-debt policies will not only bequeath enormous financial burdens to future generations of taxpayers in the form of high levels of interest expense—projected by the Congressional Budget Office to approach a trillion dollars annually by 2023—but these policies will also significantly reduce personal incomes with which to pay these bills.

We liberals took a deep breath, and tried to convince the conservatives that it is both morally and economically wise to invest in the lives and health of the people in our country.

We were laughed at. A lot.

And yet here we are, in the waning days of 2019. The Republican party has been in control of the Senate and the White House for three years.

During those three years, the federal deficit has grown exponentially, as the following graphic will show:

From the conservative paper, “Business Insider”

So.

What the hell?

Where are all those fiscal conservatives now? Where are the GOP voices screaming, “How are you gonna PAY for that tax cut?????”

Or even better, “How do you plan to pay for your huge boost in military spending?” Our defense budget has increased by $160 billion in two years under our current administration.

Where, oh, where, are all those outraged Republicans? Where are their memories?

While it is obvious to many that President Trump is suffering from some form of cognitive decline, I am now wondering if perhaps the condition is contagious.

I ask this because…..seriously…..where ARE all the fiscal conservatives? Why is the huge, and rapidly increasing federal deficit suddenly no big deal? Where are the Paul Ryan types who demanded a reduction in spending back in 2013?

Where is Lindsey Graham, who was so horrified about the deficit back in the Obama days? In October of 2015, Sen. Graham wrote:

The biggest domestic challenge facing our nation is our ballooning debt.

Uh, huh.

So. Where is Senator Graham NOW?

In fact, where are the Democrats?

Where are the progressive voices decrying our ever increasing deficit at a time when we are cutting taxes and rolling back supports for our poorest citizens?

Where the hell is everyone?

I believe the Heritage Foundation when it warns us about the dangers of an increasing federal budget deficit. I believe Lindsey Graham when he demands that the government stop spending more than it brings it.

Where is everyone else out there?

Is the entire GOP suddenly suffering from some form of memory loss? Some type of dementia?

What in the name of goodness is going on out there in the swamp?

Grateful in the Strangest Way


Back in 2011, all three of my children moved out of our house within about a six week period.

Our oldest was already a college graduate, while her brothers were still in the process of getting their educations.

As a “MammaBear”, that year just about broke my heart.

I know, I know: it is a sign of having succeeded when your children reach adulthood and move out into this wide and wonderful world.

Still, for me the transition was the most painful thing I’d ever encountered.

I remember, so very clearly, one cold winter night after they’d all moved out. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed, and I turned, and I tried to visualize every beach I’d ever seen. At 2AM, my heart was knocking in my chest, and I got up.

I made my way through my silent house to the living room. I stood for a moment in the window, gazing out into the snowy, frozen night.

I knew that I was a very lucky woman; my husband of more than 30 years slept down the hall. Our dogs were snoozing on the couch.

Still. My heart hurt.

I sat down in the rocking chair where I’d so often held my children. I pulled a blanket around myself, and stared out into the starlit, frozen night.

And I wondered.

When was the last time that I’d sat here in the night, rocking a feverish little child? When had I last held one of my children to my heart and murmured words of comfort into their ear?

I didn’t know, and that realization had me curling forward, over my knees, sobbing into the winter night.

I wanted to go back! I wanted to recognize my last ever night of holding a sick baby in my arms. I wanted a do-over.

When do we sweep our children into our arms for the very last time? When do we hold them as they shiver with the chills, not knowing that this moment will never come again?

I was so filled with grief, even as I recognized how lucky I was to have brought three babies into a healthy adulthood.

I grieved.

I wanted, just for one more night, to hold a hot little body against my heart, to soothe and to comfort and to rock. I wanted the chance to feel so deeply needed, so wanted, so important.

In my sheltered and unimpressive life, those were my best, most competent, most meaningful moments.

And the years, as they do, went by.

My children made their way into their adult lives. They are happy, productive, loving and whole. My job should be done.

But I’m not ready to let go.

Last night our beautiful little granddaughter spent the night here. Her parents were committed to an event at the school where her Momma is a teacher. Her little brother went with them.

But Ellie had been running a fever for a few days. She couldn’t go to the game. We decided that it made sense for her to spend the night here with her Papa and I.

Because I take care of Ellie and Johnny every day, our house is all set up for them to sleep here. I had pajamas in the drawer. The “Nappie bed” was ready. Ellie’s Dad dropped off her favorite stuffies for the night.

All was well, more or less, as Ellie settled into her bed for the night. I was planning to turn on the monitor but let her sleep by herself just the way she does at home.

But at bedtime, her fever began to rise, and she became a little weepy. “Nonni, will you sleep with me?” she asked. My old momma heart rose in my chest, and I assured her that I’d be delighted.

The two of us snuggled into the nappy bed, where a nightlight, two strings of Christmas lights and a glowstick kept away both her fears and my ability to sleep.

By ten pm, Ellie was asleep, and Nonni was tossing and moving the blankets on and off.

By eleven, Ellie was panting, her eyes were glowing with fever, and she was sobbing about how much she wanted to go home.

I pulled out the thermometer for a check. When it read 105, my heart dropped. “This isn’t right,” I told myself, and checked once again. 104.8 was the reading this time around.

I jumped out of the bed, and poured a dose of ibuprofen. I went into the bathroom for a cool, wet facecloth and began to wipe down Ellie’s face and neck. I pulled back the covers, and whispered that I’d make it OK.

The poor little kid curled herself into my chest, and sobbed.

I suddenly remembered how much I’d missed rocking a hot little body in the night, and guilt flooded me. Had I somehow brought on her illness by wishing to be the one to comfort her?

In something of a panic, I texted Ellie’s Dad, telling him that she was crying to come home at midnight. He answered immediately that he’d be right there.

But common sense and a mother’s wisdom prevailed; as the medicine kicked in and her temperature dropped, Ellie’s Mom decided that it made no sense to take a sick toddler out into the icy cold of a Massachusetts’ December night. Better to wait until morning.

I agreed.

Of course, I did.

Because after that call, I found myself once again wrapped in a blanket, in my living room rocking chair, comforting a sick little child.

We rocked, she dozed, we rocked some more.

My arms went tightly around her, and I felt the familiar blessing of a tiny, hot hand, resting on my cheek in the darkest part of the night.

“I’m so happy that you’re here with me, Nonni,” Ellie whispered. “I’m having fun on our sleepover.”

I pulled her to me, as close as we could get. I kissed the sweaty hair on her brow, and handed her a cup of cool water.

“I am so lucky,” I said into her shoulder. “I am so lucky. Here you are. In my arms.”

It was three AM, and I was still holding her. Her breath was hot and panting on my cheek.

I was so sorry that she was sick. I prayed that I could pull the virus out of her and into myself. I was more than a little freaked out about her very high temperature.

I laid my cool cheek against her feverish one.

“I’m here,” I said.

“I know,” she whispered back.

That fever raged the whole night long. We rocked, we sang, we took medicine every few hours. Ellie panted, and dreamed and cried for home. But she also wound her arms around my neck and pulled me close.

My love for her is a deep and enduring echo of the love I held, and still hold, for her mother and her uncles. I remember every long, feverish night of their childhoods. I remember thinking, “Dear God, let this end!” and I remember my firm belief that I wouldn’t survive another all night rocking-the-sick-kid marathon.

But now I know that one long night is nothing.

I know that it is everything.

In the blink of an eye, these little children won’t need my loving care anymore.

And that is just as it should be.

But for now?

For now I am so happy to have had a chance to feel that too-hot hand resting on my cheek, and to feel those too-hot lips pressed to my neck with love and gratitude.

For now, I am so tired, and so worn down, and so very very very grateful to have had a chance to be the one taking care of a sick toddler in the darkest part of the night.

I hope she’s all better tomorrow. I hope that tonight she sleeps deeply and without a fever.

But I’ll be forever grateful for last night.

Exhaustion is a very small price to pay for being the one who magically makes things all better.

Dog Is My Copilot


The other night I had a very sweet dream. I dreamed that I was asleep, and that my Dad was hugging me. I could feel his arm around my shoulder, and hear him breathing in my ear.

My Dad has been gone from us for 11 years, but I still feel him beside me. I can still see his smile, and his uplifted eyebrows and his loving gaze.

I miss him every single day.

So my dream was sweet, and touching, and it gave me enormous comfort.

That arm around me. The gentle breath in my ear. The feeling of being loved.

As I slowly came awake in the light of an early winter dawn, I realized that my feelings of Dad were only a dream. He was no longer here with us. He was gone.

And yet.

There was definitely an arm around my shoulder, and it wasn’t my husband’s. There was a gentle breathing in my ear, but I could hear Paul snoring and I knew it wasn’t him.

I rolled over.

And found myself face to face with Bentley, our beautiful basset hound-labrador mix.

His front leg was, in fact, over my shoulder. His soft breathing was right at the level of my ear.

And I started to laugh. I laughed so hard, in fact, that I woke up my husband and had to explain what was making me so silly at 6AM.

You see, as I started to think about it, I could totally understand why I had confused my doggie with my Dad.

Both of them were given the special gift of being able to recognize people’s moods as soon as they were felt. Dad would ask me how I was doing when I was a mess of a teenager, seeming to know when I needed to talk even before I did. In the very same way, Bentley has the gift of showing up for a snuggle as soon as my spirits begin to sink.

Dad always gave unquestioning support just when a person would need it. Sometimes he’d just quietly sit beside me; Ben does the very same thing. He knows when my grandkids are sad, or upset, or not feeling at their best. He climbs up, sits beside them, and just gets ready to listen.

Dad and Bentley. I had to smile.

And the physical similarities really struck me, too.

Dad had short legs. Bentley is a basset hound. Nuff said.

Dad had a broad chest, and big shoulders. Ditto for Mr. Bentley Bass.

And the eyes; The big, warm brown eyes. Eyes that look right at a person and give them the feeling that their every word is a treasure.

Of course, not every feature can be complimented. The slightly large nose? Yup, and yup again. Two big schnozzolas. The bit of extra weight around the middle? More to love on both of them!

Dad had big ears. Bentley has ears so big that they get wet when he drinks.

And the personality quirks can’t be ignored, either. Both my beloved Dad and my darling doggie could be described as highly food motivated. Bring on a good meal, and Dad would be there before the table was set. Rattle a plastic bag, and Bentley will be in the kitchen before you can put it down.

Not to say that either could be called picky. Bentley will eat a bug if it’s the only thing around. I once heard my Dad say that the wine he was drinking was terrible, but he wasn’t about to let it go to waste.

When the kids get silly, and start to race around the house, Bentley joins in with delight, even when he clearly has no idea of what is going on. He’ll run in circles, bark happily, and chase kids up and down the hall for hours. The joy is the point, and he would never miss a chance to express it.

Dad was so much the same. I remember in my earliest childhood, sitting on his lap watching The Three Stooges. He would howl with laughter as he watched, and we all knew that a big part of his pleasure was in sharing the moment with his kids.

But for all of his joyfulness and all of his love, my Dad was also a very black and white thinker. Right was right, wrong was wrong and he rarely noticed a shade of gray. He could be rigid in his way, and very stubborn. He saw the world through his own lens.

My dearest doggie is the very same way. While he clearly loves his humans and delights in our happiness, he also sees the world through his very own eyes. ALL food is his food; if our other dog tries to eat at kibble time, Bentley is likely to stand over both bowls. It takes a stern human and some physical reorganization to get him to focus on only his own dish.

If we ask him to get up from the couch, or leave the kitchen while we cook, he will sit perfectly still and ignore us until a treat is proferred.

“Sure, I know what you want, ” he seems to be saying, “But I have my own way of approaching this problem.”

So much like Dad!

I’m not sure that I actually believe in reincarnation, but if I did?

Welp.

A sweet, smart, big old lug with a love of food and fun, and a tendency to gaze at me with his big brown eyes?

It could be either one of two beloved souls.

Feeling Thankful. And Full.


This was just our appetizer table. What can I say? We’re Italian.

This could be the usual gratitude post, about how incredibly lucky I feel to have such a loving family and friends. As I’ve done every year since I started this blog, I could be waxing poetic about the wonderful abundance of food, how much I love having people to feed, how lucky we are to be able to afford so much deliciousness.

Obligatory Turkey pic.

But the truth is, I’m getting older, crankier and more tired.

So yesterday was glorious. It was. My Mom is still here eat turkey with us, and that is a blessing for sure. We celebrated the birthdays of my little sister sister and my nephew, complete with an amazing chocolate cake. We drank a lot (as in a LOT) of prosecco. My youngest son was here over night with his fiancee and we had one of those funny-in-retrospect conversations about political philosophy while soaking in the hot tub.

Politics never came up once.

Good times!

But by nine o’clock this morning, I was home alone with my dogs, a boatload of leftovers, and a vat of simmering turkey carcass. I put on some Netflix documentaries, downloaded a few podcasts (shoutout to Stand Up with Pete) and settled in to relax.

And now, NOW I am truly grateful.

I’m grateful that my daughter and her family spent the holiday with her husband’s family. I mean, sure, I missed the kids….but I don’t mind sharing them with another set of grandparents who love them to pieces and whom they adore. I missed my middle child, who spent the holiday with his future in-laws. But again, I’m so happy that he has another family who loves him and his fiancee.

I’m grateful that my dogs didn’t get away with stealing too many bites of food (OK, Bentley licked a pumpkin pie, but we sliced that part off.) I’m grateful that the turkey was wicked juicy even though I was just too tired to brine it. I’m grateful that nobody said “quid pro quo” at any point and that we all agree that Gentleman Jack is a gorgeous bourbon. (Thanks, Uncle Joe!!)

Mostly, though, I’m grateful today that I can still put on a big meal. I’m grateful that my son shared some nice smooth weed with me (my vape has been banned in Massachusetts), so I got some good sleep. I’m grateful, god help me, that my dear husband had to work today and I got to stay home.

I’m grateful for no humans around.

I’m bad, I know it.

But I sent everyone off with leftovers! I got the laundry done (I’m an idiot. Used cloth napkins.) I did a good job!

So today, after making then big mason jars of turkey stock, I’m thankful to have a few hours to sit here like a big lump of lard with a piece of pie on my knee, whipped cream floating on my coffee and the promise of a huge turkey salad sandwich in my immediate future.

Life is good.

I hope you all had more than enough of food, family and fun. I wish you all a lovely nap!

Is Trump Having Panic Attacks?


Many people experience panic attacks at some point in their lives. The symptoms can include a racing heart, shortness of breath, dizziness and chest pain. People in the throes of a panic attack may feel like they are dying. Many end up rushing to the hospital, where serious physical issues can be ruled out.

Last week, President Donald Trump made a sudden, unplanned visit to Walter Reed Hospital, amid all kinds of speculation about what was wrong. Theories ranged from a heart attack to a fear that Trump had been poisoned.

The official White House explanation was that the President had a little extra time on his hands, so he “got a head start” on his annual physical. The physical that is not due until February.

Skepticism about this explanation was everywhere.

On CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday, Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported that Trump’s doctor accompanied him in the car to the hospital. He stated that having a doctor ride along beside the President is highly unusual, especially for “routine tests”.

Further, Dr. Gupta said that the tests reportedly done on the President during his two hour visit to the hospital could easily have been done at the White House. He also questioned why this visit, unlike past Presidential “check-ups” didn’t include an announcement to staff, the closure of local roads or the closure of key hospital wings.

The President was only at the hospital for about two hours, which means that there were no signs of serious physical health issues. They checked him out, then sent him home.

All of this made me wonder: Could President Trump have experienced a panic attack?

There is certainly enough pressure on the man to have caused one, with the ongoing Ukraine scandal and impeachment proceedings.

This theory seems plausible to me, although I am neither a doctor nor a mental health professional.

This morning I read that the President is doing less and less work in the Oval Office. Instead, he prefers to remain in the residence, where he is insulated from most staff.

Again, this leads me to wonder about the President’s state of mind. Why does he feel like he needs to isolate himself? Is he afraid of leaks? Of spies?

Or is he afraid of another major panic attack, like so many people who have suffered through one of these terrifying events?

I don’t know.

But I sure do wonder.

And I am more than a little worried. For all of us.

Clearly, I Didn’t Think it Through


Oh, what was I thinking? What the hell on earth was I thinking?

Since I spend so much time at home with toddlers, there are moments when the house feels way, way, way too small. The toys seem to all pile up in one place, and the running around in circles starts to feel just a little bit claustrophobic.

I guess that’s why, in a moment of mental weakness and overwhelming crankiness, Nonni here got the brilliant idea of cleaning out the basement and making it into an additional play space.

Oh, smart old Nonni! Won’t it be lovely when you can send the kids downstairs to play with the doll strollers, the blocks, the climbing structure and the awesome interconnected tunnels?

The kids and I spent a full week organizing, cleaning, moving stuff around and setting up a toybox.

Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!

What a fun, warm, wide open playroom we’ve created! Hoo-rah!

So.

The kids now play in the spare bedroom (lovingly referred to as the “nappy room”), in the kitchen, in the living room and dining room AND in the basement playroom.

How freeing to have more room.

I’m not kidding. When things get a little tense, and the kids can’t seem to agree on one single thing, it can be miraculous to have a whole new place to fight…..I mean, “to play”…..There are new items to fight over, new games to invent and play, new furniture to jump on.

But if you are reading this little memo, you might already have found the flaw in my ingenious plan.

Right?

Right.

If one child is in the living room, deeply involved in pretending to be a dragon, at least one other child is in the basement. Nonni, for all her marvelous nurturing powers, can only be in one place at a time.

Ergo: wherever I am at any given moment, there is a tiny person with the lungs of a town crier in the other space. And that child will be shrieking “NONNI!!!!” so piercingly that it’s a wonder the cops haven’t been called.

I swear to you, sometimes I’m sure my ears are going to bleed.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of the challenges I face.

Today my sweet Ellie was in the dining room, playing with a nice tray full of kinetic sand. Johnny decided to head into the basement playroom to “Play Rescue Riders”. I was washing dishes.

Suddenly, I heard a death shriek from the basement. “NONNI! HELP! COME NOW!” I dropped the waffle dish in my hand and ran toward the basement.

Aaaannnnnnd, at the very same moment……”NONNI! COME HERE!” Ellie called from the dining room. I ran down the stairs, yelling over my shoulder, “Wait, Ellie! Hang on!” I threw open the playroom door, ready to grab Johnny and head for the Emergency Room. I swear, my phone was in my hand, all ready to call 911.

And there he was, sitting calmly on the old sofa in the playroom, a plastic box in his hands. “You help me open dis?” he asked.

Once my heart stopped scrambling around in my chest, I opened his box and said, as sternly as I could, “John, do NOT scream like that unless you are hurt! If you need me, come upstairs and get me.”

“OK!” he grinned cheerfully.

I trudged back upstairs, to where Ellie had been reduced to sobs and had not stopped chanting, “Nonni, come here. Nonni, come here. Nonni, come here……..”

“OK,” I think I sounded reasonably calm. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I wanted to show you what I made.”

I looked at her creation, told her that it was fabulous, then repeated my message. “You can’t scream for me like that, honey. Not unless you are hurt. If you need me, come get me.”

Yeah.

Sure.

The message apparently was never received because this afternoon our friend Bel came to spend an hour or so with us. Her visits are totally the highlight of every week. We all love her to bits. Bel is, like Ellie, four years old. She is funny, sweet, creative, kind and energetic.

She also has the voice of an operatic soprano trying out for her first solo aria. The girl can etch glass with that voice.

And so by the end of today I found myself racing from room to room, from one floor to the next, answering shrill cries of “NONNI!” They seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.

Now I’m not a newbie. This childcare gig is not my first time around the manipulative toddler block. I know that 9 times out of 10 the screams don’t mean severed limbs.

But. These are not my kids. Neurotic old woman that I am, I am not quite prepared to ignore the ear piercing shrieks of little children.

Holy fatigue, Batman.

So.

I have a new plan.

I’m thinking that from now on, the kids and I will enjoy our days safely closed in one room. The smallest room I can find. I’ll lock the door and keep us all within each other’s eyesight.

That way when someone screams “HELP! NONNI, HELP ME!” I will immediately recognize that the problem is a doll’s sock and not an invasion of zombies.

And I will hopefully prevent the impending heart attack.

The Sunset of Life


Beautiful, peaceful sunset

My mother is in the sunset of her life.

She is 89 years old, and lives alone in the house where she and our Dad raised six children. Where my siblings and I learned to walk, talk, cook, read, play the drums, play baseball, take turns, rake the leaves……

She is in our home place.

Mom has no intention of leaving that home place, not until she has breathed her final breath. This is her home. Her kitchen. Her bedroom.

I get it.

But today I had one of those conversations with Mom that make me stiffen up and shake and want to argue.

You see, my Mom has some type of dementia. We haven’t bothered to go through the evaluations and tests that would give us a definitive diagnosis, because what would be the point?

We know that Mom has lost her short term memory. We know that she can’t recall the key details of her past, or of ours. We realize that no matter how deeply she loves us all, the details of our lives continue to elude her.

When I visit Mom each week, we talk about my children. She remembers that I have three kids, but confuses the details. She remembers that my daughter has children (two of her four her great-grandchildren) but she might ask me ten time in an hour if those children are girls or boys.

For the most part, these repeating stories are fine for me. I understand. Mom’s memory no longer works reliably. I know that she doesn’t remember the names of her grandchildren’s spouses without a prompt.

I’m always OK with that. I repeat things for her, patiently, feeling good about myself as a daughter.

But.

But then.

A moment will occur where Mom forgets some key memory from my relationship with her. “You came to the hospital to meet my first baby, ” I will say. Mom will jump in then,

“I remember! It was a boy and you had to stay in bed, so you couldn’t see him.”

My heart will race, my brain will screech, and I will carefully but firmly tell her, “NO. My first baby was Katie, remember? You came to see her at the hospital! Dad was with you.”

When she doesn’t remember that poignant moment, my heart will sink.

I know that my mom loves me, and that she loves my kids and theirs. I know this deep in my bones.

And yet, when I tell her something that seems important, and she changes the details, I feel betrayed and forgotten.

I want my Momma to remember our best times. I want her to remember how close we were, but I also want her to remember how much we fought. These are the key threads of my life; and they all involve her. I need to recognize those threads.

Today I visited Mom. I made her some soup, and helped her to feed her cat and clean out the litter box. I checked to see what groceries she’d need. I put lotion on the dry skin on her back, my hand gently rubbing in a circle, just as she’d done for me when I was a child.

Today I asked my Mom what she wanted to drink with her lunch of homemade minestrone. As she often does, Mom looked at me with a sparkle in her dark brown eyes. “How about a nice dry martini?” she asked with a grin. We both laughed.

But then she went on to tell me how fun it was when I first introduced her to martinis. “Remember?” she coaxed, “You made us both extra dry gin martinis! That was my very first martini!”

This is, of course, not at all what happened. In fact, my Mom had been a once-in-a-while martini drinker for years. She had learned about the famous cocktail back in the 50’s, when I was newly born. She used to tell me hilarious stories about getting together with the neighbors or her sisters-in-law and enjoying one too many martinis.

When my Dad died, and I started to spend one night at week at Mom’s house, we sometimes drank a vodka martini before dinner.

Her memory was a happy smooshing of both of these truths.

For me, her story came with pain.

I wanted to correct her. “No!” I wanted to say, “You taught ME about martinis!”

But Mom wasn’t having it. While she generally admits that her memory has lapses, this time she was adamant. She told, and retold, a story of the two of us making “extra dry gin martinis” in her kitchen. She was delighted with the memory.

“I think we got a little silly, didn’t we?” she asked with a laugh.

And oh, how I wanted to correct her.

But then I remembered what families of patients with dementia are told. “Don’t correct them. Those memories are real for them.” I took a breath. I nodded and tried out a smile.

Mom took both of my hands in hers. I felt the tender, brittle bones of her fingers in mine.

“Wasn’t that fun?” she asked.

And I realized that while my mother’s memory was a false one, it was also lovely, and happy and filled with her love for me. She had created a shared moment that hadn’t really existed.

But it didn’t matter. She held my hands, and looked at me with gratitude and love. I kissed her cheek, and then we went into the kitchen to eat our soup.

“Let’s Pretend…..”


Once upon a time, when I was young, I loved to pretend. I loved to imagine that I was someone other the same old boring me. With just those words, “Let’s pretend,” my old bike turned into a wild stallion, and my suburban streets were instantly the wild and dusty west.

I remember, so well, those hours spent riding our horses across the west, racing to get to the next pioneer outpost.

“Let’s pretend,” I’d say, and my best friend would turn into Paul McCartney’s sister. We’d grab tennis racket guitars and hair brush mics and take off on our own version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

There was a time when I slipped easily from reality to pretend and back again.

But let’s be honest. Those days were more than a half century in my past.

It isn’t so easy to shed my rigid old skin these days. When there’s laundry to fold, dishes to wash and emails to check, it’s really hard to jump into the world of fantasy.

But you know what?

Sometimes it’s worth it to ignore the dryer, let the dishes soak and tell the messages to wait.

Because I spend all day with my toddler grandchildren, I have at least 700 chances every day to relive my childhood.

Today was one of those days, where both of my grandkids were completely invested in playing “Rescue Riders.” We try not to watch too much TV, but when we do turn it on, this show is one of our favorites. It has brave kids, funny dragons, simple problems and lots of bright colors.

God help me, I have even heard myself making comments like, ‘Burple wouldn’t fight the Slinkwings.’ as we discuss the latest episode.

So what could I do when Ellie turned those huge brown eyes on me, and said, “We’re playing Rescue Riders! You are Chief Duggar!”

I pretended to be the Chief, of course. Ellie was one dragon, Johnny another. We raced around the house, shouting things like, “Oh, no!!! I’m caught in a cave with Elbone!” and “Winger is getting sick with the Dreaded Dragon Flu!”

Maybe it was because it’s been a tough week, but I had to throw myself fully into my role. It could have come from a desire to prevent the two year old from belting the four year old. Perhaps I was hoping to stop the four year old from whining and sobbing at every move made by the two year old.

Or maybe the laundry and dishes and bills and news alerts and school shootings and impeachments had Nonni feeling like she just wasn’t up to facing reality today. Whatever the cause, I found myself free to throw myself fully into the pretending and the fantasy roles.

It was fairly exhausting, to tell you the truth. After a while I was getting a definite headache.

But then “Chief Duggar” got trapped in a cave, and I found myself hiding in a closet. I heard the “Rescue Riders” searching all through the house and found myself in the darkness, behind the coats and shirts, trying not to giggle.

When at last the two little dragons found me, and opened the door to my “cave,” all three of us burst into the kind of honest, deep, belly laughing joy that rarely happens in the life of an older lady. We laughed so hard that we were crying.

I found myself sitting on my guest room floor, with a laughing little one in each arm. I kissed those sweet, sweet heads and pulled them in against me.

I have no doubt that at some point tomorrow my back will ache from hiding, my foot will hurt from running, and I will be heartily sick of pretending.

Still.

It was worth it.

It was so so so worth it.

As I head off to bed tonight, I’m going to try to remember the feel of riding that stallion across the wild west.