A Lesson From Moana’s Grandma

My mother died last week, the night before Thanksgiving. She lived a long and very full life, and she left that life reluctantly.

Mom was a practicing Catholic, so my family grew up with the typical Catholic imagery of life and death. Heaven or Hell and all that. In her very last days, Mom was unsure of what was coming. She expressed her doubts that she’d really be reunited with our Dad, who was the love of her life for over six decades. She worried that her death would be a true ending, and she held on tenaciously to every fading breath.

It made me incredibly sad to hear her.


Yesterday I spent the day with my grandsons. I hadn’t seen them for 10 days, the time of our vigil by Mom’s bedside. Both had been sick, as had their Mom and sister. They were in COVID quarantine, and as I grieved for my Mother, I missed all of them terribly.

So I was filled with relief and joy to have them here yesterday, although I worried that my sadness and my distracted mind might bother them.

I should have known better.

My little Johnny, all of four and a half years of wisdom, was working on a puzzle of the “Polar Express.” I was sitting with his baby brother on my knee, just watching the puzzle master at work. Suddenly, Johnny asked me,

“Is Great Grandma a spirit now?”

“Yes,” I answered. “She is.”

“But, what is her spirit?”

“What do you mean, honey?”

“What is it? What is her spirit?”

“I don’t know,” I answered as truthfully as I could. “You can’t see it. It’s the part of Great Grandma that loves us. It’s still around us.”

This seemed a bit too metaphysical for such a young child, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. My daughter and her family don’t go to church, nor do we. I know that the kids have talked about life and death. I know that they have looked at and thought about the deaths of birds and salamanders and other animals. They’ve been through the death of their family dog.

But I didn’t know how much of the “invisible spirit” idea a four-year-old could grasp. I didn’t want him thinking of ghosts.

Johnny never stopped placing his puzzle pieces. He never even looked up at me.

He just said one thing before I broke down in tears and he came to give me a hug.

“Nonni,” he said. “I think her spirit is you now. I think it’s you.”


It was later in the day, as we were eating a snack, that I asked Johnny what he thought about spirits. He thought for a minute, then looked up at me seriously.

“Remember Moana’s Grandma? She turned into a spirit of a ray.”

That was all this sweet, wise little soul needed to know. He wasn’t thinking of Heaven or Hell or worthiness or sins. He was thinking that he’d learned everything he needed to know about spirits from one Disney movie.

Call me crazy, but I am so happy to think that my strong, powerful, smart Momma is out there somewhere in sparkling spirit form. Maybe she is a spirit cat, like her precious kitty Tess. Maybe she is an octopus, so fitting for our “pulpi” eating Sicilian family.

Or maybe, just maybe, her spirit really is me.

I don’t know yet.

But I know that Johnny has taken a valuable lesson from one sweet movie. He doesn’t fear death, because even at his tender age, he understands that spirits go on and that death is not goodbye.

This, if you ask me, is the most perfect belief a human could have.

Layers on layers

I used to think that each of us was born as an unformed little white dot. I thought that every experience added on a layer, and that each layer covered the ones before.

I thought that we were like pearls. Layer on layer of life, constantly growing around us until we became fully formed humans. I thought that process would just keep on going until at last we die.

Some of that is no doubt true. We grow and we change and we certainly learn as we move along the paths of our lives.

But now that I’m on the downhill slope of this life, past the midway point, I have a completely different idea.

In the past few years, my husband and I have reconnected with some of our oldest friends. These are people who knew us when we were young and foolish. When we had no real idea yet of who we’d be.

When we weren’t much more than those unformed “dots.”

These were the people who watched us struggle to learn our limits, and who watched us struggle to define our dreams. They grew with us. Our friendships were more intense than any we’d ever have again, although we didn’t know that at the time.

Eventually, we grew up. We got our degrees. We parted ways as we moved into our ‘real’ lives. We became parents. We launched our careers. We grew into our adult selves.

Layers were laid upon our layers.

Then, oh so suddenly, we found ourselves at the point in our lives where we were no longer “on our way.” We were THERE.

Our children grew up. We became the “old guard” at our jobs.

We thought we were our fully formed, true selves.

But now we’ve hugged and laughed with those old friends. Now I see that its time to peel back some of those layers. Those layers of cynicism, and of fatigue. It’s time to scratch off the layers of unfulfilled dreams, and to let them fly away on the wind. It’s time to peel away the layers of self-criticism and drop them into the passing stream.

Now it’s time to go back to our truest selves, our best selves.

I think that in the presence of the people who knew us at our wide-eyed best we can once again find that inner, innocent self.

I think the pearl is in there, but it takes an old and true friend to help us find it.



Dancing with an old lady

So there I was, on a Sunday evening.  My husband and son had gone away on a camping trip up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. It was the final weekend of camping at our favorite spot up there, the spot where our daughter went into labor in July during our annual family reunion!   Paul and Tim had gone up there, to Dolly Copp Campground, for a last “hurrah” in this beautiful summer of 2015.

I stayed home.

I suppose I could make you feel bad for me, left behind by my beloved husband and much adored son, left to cope with all of the chores at the family homestead.  But I have to tell the truth: at the age of 59, I am really and truly ALL DONE with sleeping on an air mattress on the ground. Especially in October in New England.   Been there, honey, done that.  Ain’t goin’ back.

So I stayed home to “take care of the dogs” while the menfolk froze themselves into popsicles in the Great North.

Paul had been planning to drive our son, Tim, back to his home in the Berkshires before returning to our little house in Central Mass.  I expected him somewhere around 8 pm or so.

I planned a nice chicken dinner, and enjoyed my nice quiet house.  I walked the dogs, did some writing, did a bunch of laundry, read an Alice Hoffman novel out on the sunny deck.

And finally, it was around 7:30 at night.  Paul had been texting me on and off all day. His latest message read: “Bumpa to bumpa in Brattleboro.”

He was going to be way. late.

So I poured some wine.  I decided that he’d be too late for dinner, and I started to make a cake. (What? Who hasn’t had cake for dinner after a long ride?)   I was in a happy mood.  I had enjoyed two lovely days by myself in my now very clean house. My boy and my hubby had enjoyed a chance for bonding and a visit to a magical place.

All was well with the world.

I decided to listen to some music as I baked.  I firmly believe that a little good music helps the heaviest of cakes to rise.  I plugged my laptop into my dock and found a youtube video of an incredible band that I first heard when I went to the “Fresh Grass” festival in North Adams, Mass with both of my sons and one of my brothers.  I love this band.  LOVE them.  I put on one of my favorite songs by the band “Birds of Chicago“, and I started to move around my kitchen, singing and whisking and shaking out the cinnamon.

My old dog, Sadie, came into the kitchen to watch.

Now, you need to understand that at the ripe old doggie age of 14, Sadie is coming into the kitchen for the possible dropped food scraps, not for the music.

But here’s the thing: Sadie most likely has cancer.  She has lost a whole bunch of muscle mass on her head and face. She is losing weight.  She is on a bunch of medications.

We often think that this will be her last day.

So.  Last night, as the gorgeous voices of “Birds of Chicago” soared through my house, I called out, “Sadie! Come dance with me!”

And she did.  She wagged her shaggy black tail, raised up on her funny camo colored paws, and began to sway and swing with me in the kitchen.

I sang along to the music, Flying Dreams.   I danced and swayed, and so did my old Sadie, her big brown eyes on mine.

We didn’t think about life flying by, Sadie and I. We didn’t ask each other for treats or hugs or wagging tails.  She simply swayed and rocked and danced, her beautiful deep eyes on mine.  I simply sang and danced, not wondering how much time we might have together.

It was pure magic, for those few minutes.

Please listen to Birds of Chicago!  You will absolutely not be disappointed, no matter how old you are.

Going wild.

Sometimes when I walk around my quiet neighborhood, I wonder what it would be like if all the humans disappeared.

I know that’s a little twisted, but its an intriguing idea.

This is a very quiet place most of the time.  There are no kids here, and people are at work during the daytime.  So sometimes as I walk around in the summer, I feel like I’m the only person left.  Sometimes I wonder how long it would take for the woods to come back, for the forest to reclaim our yards and driveways and streets.

Today as I was walking my dogs, I stopped in front of one of the abandoned houses on our street.  It makes me sad to be there, to think about the people who no longer live in that little house.  I stood remembering my friends, thinking about the kids who grew up with mine.

The house has been abandoned for about two years now.  It stands alone at the top of our street, empty.  It used to have a wide cedar deck, wrapping around two sides. Now the boards are warped and buckling, and the steps have fallen in.

I stood there for a minute, the dogs panting in the bright morning sun. I looked across what used to be a big sloping lawn, and I saw a meadow.

Daisies, yarrow, coreopsis, Timothy grass.

Daisies, yarrow, coreopsis, Timothy grass.

When I looked a little bit closer, I could see that young trees are already springing up, ready to take over now that the mower is gone.  There were tiny sumac, some baby birches and even a little cherry tree.

A cherry sapling.

A cherry sapling.

I saw my friend’s garden, turning into a meadow far more quickly than I would have thought.  I saw weeds crowded together where her foxglove used to stand, and grass as high as my knees surrounding her little patch of phlox.

Phlox and weeds, side by side now.

Phlox and weeds, side by side now.

We finished our walk, the dogs and I, leaving the lonely house behind us. We headed down the hill, following the road as it would through the thick woods on either side.

As we walked, I looked around me, more closely than I usually do.  And you know what I noticed?

There are trees creeping slowly into the edges of every yard, saplings standing where just a few years ago there was a baseball diamond.  Where there used to be small dirt roads, there are now groups of slender maple and oak saplings.  Ferns and daisies fill every open spot on either side of the street.

So now I think that the famous New England forests are poised and ready, waiting to rush back in as soon as our backs are turned.  I think that if the mowers and trimmers were suddenly rendered powerless, all of our carefully cultivated civilization would disappear and we would go back to the tree covered wilderness that we were three hundred years ago.

And you know what else I realized?  I think that’s a pretty cool idea.



Why I love lilacs


Sometimes Paul and I walk the dogs along the local bike trail near our house.  As we stroll along the paved walkways, we look into the woods on either side.  Because this is New England, we see beautiful tall pines interspersed with old oak, sturdy maples and young birches.  We often come across stone walls, covered in moss and lichen, fallen down in places.

We know that these walls mark the boundaries of farms long gone. We realize that farmers lived here a hundred or more years ago, and that they cleared this rocky land for their crops, using the upturned stones to build boundary walls that marked their fields.

But what intrigues me more than anything else on our woodland ramblings is the sight of huge old overgrown lilacs, standing some ten feet apart in the middle of the woods.

If I look closely, I can usually make out the slightly sunken rectangle that would have once marked a front door.  Sometimes I am able to move aside the grasses and weeds to find a little cluster of daffodils or day lilies. Sometimes we can see the shape of the root cellar that once stood in this place.

I love the way the lilacs stand as sentinels, so many years after the houses have fallen back into the earth.  I love the way they continue to blossom and bloom and perfume the air, not caring about whether or not there are humans around to appreciate their beauty.

But every time we stumble upon one of these grand old plantings, I wonder, “Who planted these beautiful bushes? Whose house once stood here?”  And I fall into daydreams, wondering about those long ago families, living in this place where I now walk.

About fifteen years ago, I planted a tiny lilac just outside my front door.  It was a baby offshoot of a lovely bush growing in the yard of one of my old friends.  Her home was older than ours, and the lilac had been there, full and mature and proud, when she and her husband had moved in. Knowing that we were living in a wild and desolate yard, in a new house, she gave me the gift of that baby lilac, and I put it in the ground with high hopes.  Some five years later, that new plant sent out another shoot, which I planted to the left of my door.

And now the air outside my windows is filled with the impossibly lavish scent of lilac.  The bushes are tall and strong, and fertile beyond my wildest hopes.

And as I sit here tonight, in my poorly built house, looking at the cracks in the walls and noting the buckling foundation, it occurs to me that someday in the not-too-distant future, long after this modest home has fallen back into the earth, another couple might come walking along in the woods.  They might pause for a moment as their dogs sniff the fallen leaves.  They might look into the growth of young maples and birches, and notice the strong and sturdy lilacs that stand side by side, their branches drooping with blooms.

And that other woman, sometime in the future, might look with sadness and sympathy on my lovely lilacs and ask herself, “I wonder who planted these beautiful bushes?  I wonder whose house once stood in these woods?”

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

One of the coolest parts of teaching fifth grade is helping young kids to recognize metaphors.  Kids tend to be pretty literal, and they usually come into the grade level with a fairly concrete way of understanding literature and life in general.

Its part of my job to help them understand that sometimes a storm is a metaphor for a really bad mood, or that a sunny kitchen is a metaphor for a happy family life.

I love teaching this stuff!  Our poetry unit is one of my favorite parts of the year! All that symbolism.  All those fabulous metaphors.

So you would think that I would recognize a real life metaphor when it slaps me in the face (literally).

But I missed this one until it rose right up and stared me in the eye.

You see, I am a “wannabe” gardener.  I read gardening blogs. I subscribe to “Organic Gardener” Magazine.  Every spring, I visualize a glorious riot of colorful blossoms, a neat row of delicious vegetables, a panoply of growth and life.  And every June, as the weather gets hot and the bugs descend, I think, “What the HELL was I thinking?” and I go back inside where it is safe.

One of my very favorite flowers is the simple daffodil.  It is easy to plant, easy to grow, and it bursts into sunny, joyful life every year just as we are about to slit our wrists at the thought of one more week of winter.  Daffodils laugh in the face of the winter blues.  They are the exuberant cry of life’s triumph over death.  And they are really pretty.

So the first year that we lived in this house, 23 long years ago, I made sure that I planted a whole bunch of daffodils in the brand  new garden beds that I had created along our home’s foundation.  I planted yellow narcissus, and creamy colored double petalled daffodils. I set them out with tulips and grape hyacinth and day lilies and irises.  Awesome!

After about 12 or 13 years of glorious growth, though, my daffodils seemed to sort of peter out.  A lot of them sent up leaves, but never flowered.  I figured that they were just worn out, lifeless, no longer viable.  So I dug them up and threw them into the woods just behind our compost pile.

I knew that I didn’t want them actually in the compost, but I figured that if I just chucked them out there in the totally unkempt and untouched woods, they would gently fade away.  I planted nice new, fresh bulbs in the beds along the front of our house.

Enter the metaphor.

A couple of years ago I noticed that the thrown out bulbs, although they hadn’t even been planted, were sending up some very nice blooms.  I thought it was an anomaly of some kind, and didn’t really think too much about it.

It didn’t occur to me until this weekend that the “thrown out”, “useless” bulbs on our property were blooming and thriving and filling the air with life and scent and joy in a far more successful and beautiful way than the carefully planted little sets of three that I had so artfully put into the designated garden beds last fall.

I wonder how often my carefully crafted plans and lessons and ideas fall on barren ground, and how often some little “thrown away” thought takes root and blooms.  I wonder how often I overlook the value in what seems worn out and finished. I wonder how often I toss out a thought or idea, never suspecting that it will fall on fertile ground and bloom in awesome beauty when spring comes again.

How lovely it is to think that in spite of our mistakes, life finds a way to send out a patch of beautiful blossoms when the time is right for them to bloom.

Daffodil patch in the middle of the woods.

Daffodil patch in the middle of the woods.

Beautiful flowers flanking the compost heap.

Beautiful flowers flanking the compost heap.

It feels like it will never end…..


It keeps coming at you, even when you think it is finally done.

Last weekend was the start of “Daylight Savings Time” and at long last, I am coming home in the daylight hours.  Spring must surely be on its way.  St. Patrick’s day is coming up fast, there are daffodils for sale in all the local groceries.

Spring must be near!  Time to think of seedlings and lawn care and bug spray.  Time to think of flip flops.

Except that it is snowing tonight.

Big, fat flakes of fluffy white poison, floating down and coating the deck once again.

Spring? You coming?!  Of course you are!  The vernal equinox is only a few days away!  Time to think of chicks and bunnies and peeps and pastel colored sweaters.  Time for renewal and rebirth and lambs and tulips and Cadbury Creme Eggs!

Except that the weather channel is predicting another snow storm on Tuesday.

I know that spring will come.  It always does, right?

But…..you know…..like, what if….I mean, it could happen, right?  What if this is the year when it never arrives? What if we are stuck for eternity in the icy slush of mid-March in New England?  What if the grass never shows up, the crocuses are locked for good beneath the layer of frozen muck?

What if the days don’t get warm, the birds don’t start to sing and the Red Sox decide to stay in Florida all summer?

It is nights like this that truly test the faith of a person like me.  My bones are cold. My toes are begging to be free.  My heart is yearning for the sound of distant thunder, my nose for the smell of warming earth.  I want to hear the peepers! I want to barbecue some sausage! I want to light a mosquito coil and rub on some SPF 50.

And its snowing.  A lot.

I think that I will go to bed, pull the big pile of fluffy blankies over my head and dream of this:SONY DSC

It has to come eventually.

Doesn’t it?!

Internal debate


If I was a natural optimist, I would never have started this blog.

I mean, this whole writing exercise was the suggestion of a therapist, who probably just wanted me to stop whining and taking up valuable couch space.

I’m Italian.  I’m a Pisces.  Drama is my middle name. I gripe, therefore I am.

Lately, though, I have been trying hard to look on the bright side of things. I’ve been trying not to cry and moan and complain so often.  I smile so much at school that my cheek muscles get sore (oops! That was a complaint, huh? See how hard this is for me?) I work very hard to see all points of view and to empathize with everyone around me.  I try to speak positively and look at the future with hope and pleasure.

But you know what?   It’s March and we’re in the middle of yet another whopping snowstorm.  More shoveling, more slush, more wet-dog-smell.  I’m trying to be positive here, but its damn near impossible at this point!

I am supposed to be picking up my baby boy for Spring break today!!!!   I took the school day off, and left elaborate lesson plans all neatly queued up on my desk!

And now its a snow day.  I can’t hit the road to head west until the plows come by, and I wasted three hours of writing, organizing and copying things for my sub.  And, to add insult to injury, I have to make the day up.  In June.


I’m trying to be upbeat.  I am!

But I am turning into one of those cartoon characters with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. You know the ones I mean, right?  The angel whispers positive messages in the right ear, but the devil whispers bad stuff in the left?   Yep.  That’s what’s happening in my tiny brain today.  Snow is pretty-angel.  Snow sucks-devil.

Kind of sounds like this:

Look how the snow coats the trees like lovely whipped cream!

Look how the snow is breaking the branches. The yard is gonna be a mess in April.

The snow flakes look so peaceful, falling gently.

I am so bleepin sick of feeling like I live in a snow globe!  Its making me dizzy.

We can go snow shoeing!

I want to go swimming!

We can sit by the fire tonight.

All this smoke is giving me asthma.

There has been so much snow this winter; the plants will really thrive with all this moisture!

There has been so much snow this winter; we’re going to be eaten alive by mosquitos!

Gosh, how nice to have a snow day! I can catch up on some housecleaning chores.(Angels always things like ‘gosh’ and ‘golly’. Makes me want to slap them.)

Damn, another snow day! We’ll be in school ’til freakin’ July! (Devils are of course, potty mouths. I can relate.)

And on and on it goes. I want to be positive, but I also want to be a size 8 blonde, walking on a beach on Oahu. Some things are not meant to be.

Damn!  That’s a lot of freakin’ whipped cream.

What’s in a name?

Sometimes, as a teacher, I am overwhelmed by the sound of my own name.

In our school, we all use our first names. We think of ourselves as a community of learners, where all voices are valued.  This is lovely.

So all of are called by our first names by everyone in the building.  This is often not so lovely.

Last Friday was one of those days.  I was tired and anxious.  It was freezing outside. My feet hurt.

“Karen, look what I made last night!”  Hold on a minute, honey.

“Karen, should I hand this in?”   Don’t we always hand in our math?

“I need help, Karen.”  Be right there.

“Karen, I need to talk to you about a student.”  Yep, let’s talk about that testing.

“Karen, can we make an appointment for a conference about my daughter?” Of course, just let me look in my plan book.

“Karen!”   “Karen?”  “Hey, Karen….”   “Karen!!!”  By noon time my head was spinning.

I took my 24 students down to the computer lab, which was a huge mistake. Sitting at those machines, everyone needs constant help.  And I mean, seriously, CONSTANT.

“Karen, how do I cut and paste?”  “Karen, can I use this page?”  “Karen, where do I save it?”  “Karen, its not letting me type…save…copy….search…..”   “Karen!  I have the spinny ball of death!”  Karen,karen,karen,karen,karen.

By the time I got home, I was wishing I could change my name to Lucille.

Then I got to thinking.

How lucky I am to live a life where so many people know my name, and are close enough to me to use it.

I know some folks who have no one, literally no one, who calls out to them for attention or help or affection.  No one in the world who wants to show them something cool.  No one who just wants a chance to chat with them.  No one who relies on them for support.  I know some folks who have no family calling on the phone.  No spouse to whisper their name and say “good night”.  No colleagues to greet them in the morning or share a cup of coffee.

No kids surrounding them with eager questions or funny stories.

It made me reassess my day, my reactions and my crabby old self.  It made me laugh.

Call me crazy, or call me Karen.  Just keep calling me!

Les Mis

imgresMany years ago…twelve years?  Fifteen? I don’t remember exactly, but “many years ago”, when my children were still very young, my sister Mary introduced us to the musical “Les Mis”.  I don’t remember details, but I do remember that we suddenly found ourselves in possession of the “Dreamcast” DVD.  Kate and I fell in love with the music, the romance, and drama of it all, and we began to listen to it almost every afternoon, as I made dinner.

My two little boys, then only about 6 and 8 years old, loved to stack up pillows in the hall to make the “barricades”.  As the musical played, they would act out each event. Poor Paul would come home for dinner to find us shouting out the lyrics to “Red; the blood of angry men!  Black; the dark of ages past!” We were absolutely swept away by the magic and power of that music.

Over the years, the soundtrack to the musical of Les Mis became a part of our family history.  Mary and I took our daughters to see a production in Boston when they were only teenagers. And one time Kate and I were so engrossed in singing along to the soundtrack that we completely missed our highway exit, and had to travel some eighty miles out of our way to get back to our route.

So we come to tonight.  The film version of the iconic musical had come out, and my sister Mary had already convinced us that it was wonderful.   I had to go and see it! I had to!  Kate was just as determined as I was, and we made a plan to meet up tonight at the local theater.  I bought the tickets; she bought the popcorn.

We were both excited and happy as the opening credits began to roll. This would be so much fun!

Only, it wasn’t fun at all.  It was beautiful, and epic and gorgeous.  The acting was absolutely stunning, at least to me.  I came home more than half in love with Hugh Jackman, and dazed by the power of Ann Hathaway as “Fantine”.

But my eyes are swollen, my heart is aching, and my throat is raw.  I cried and cried and cried, through the whole two and a half hour event.

You see, I was there at the movies with my little girl.  I used to sing to her, “Come to me, Cosette, the day is dying…..”  And here she was, right beside me, her hand held tight in mine.

I was there, healthy and strong, and sitting with my girl.  Knowing that I have two friends who had to endure the death of their own little girl, a kindergartener, this past summer.

I was there, knowing that my two boys, my activist sons, were safe in their apartment, most likely making music of their own as the music in the theater filled my heart. No one was shooting at them.

As the film went on, I tried to keep my composure, watching the naive boys on the barricades as they tried to create a revolution in the streets.  I tried to focus on the excessive drama and romanticism of the story. I tried to laugh at the obviously fake butterflies flitting by as Cosette and Marius met and fell in love through the wrought iron fence in the moonlight.

And I was doing pretty well, too.  Right up until the moment when I was caught completely off guard when the little boy, Gavroche, the mascot of the Revolution, was gunned down in the street, and the camera focused in on his beautiful, innocent child’s face.  That was when life and  the movies collided for me, and I couldn’t begin to stop my tears. His face in that moment was the face of all those innocent children killed in Newtowne. I had to hold my hand over my mouth to stop from crying out loud.

I used to think that luck and virtue were somehow connected, that those of us who live charmed lives must somehow have proven ourselves worthy.

I don’t think that anymore.

Now I know that finding myself hand-in-hand with my daughter is a gift that is not of my making.  I know that my sons’ trips to New York and Chicago as part of the Occupy Movement, and (more importantly) their safe trips back home, were merely some kind of cosmic luck.  And I can’t begin to know how long that luck will last.

Every day is a gift.  Every family visit, every shared dinner, every song, every meal, every laugh; they are all gifts that are bestowed by a benevolent universe on those who happen to drift past.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”