grace, grief, Jacob, kindness, Random Act of Kindness

Thanks. Giving.

Yesterday, I stopped at Subway to pick up a sandwich for my daughter. In line behind me stood a young policeman. Something about him reminded me of my grandson Jacob, and I immediately knew I wanted to pay for his meal. He protested when I told the cashier to add his total to mine, until I handed him one of the random acts of kindness cards I carry in my purse. “In honor of my grandson,” I insisted. Reading the card, his eyes softened. He nodded, thanking me.

I cried all the way home.

Why am I crying? I initially wondered. The goodwill gesture was a simple one. Not terribly expensive or elaborate. I usually felt lifted through performing random acts of kindness in memory of our sweet boy. Why was I crying?

random act of kindness

Then it hit me.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” the young man had called after me as I turned around to leave. Happy Thanksgiving. 

I was going to be alone on the holiday. Several of my children were scheduled to work, another lives in CA. Since I have to go into work this weekend, we’d all agreed we’d wait to get together in December when Emily visits Iowa with my grandbaby Tommy.

But I wasn’t crying because I was going to be alone.

The tears came because I can’t fix the holidays and make them the way they used to be. Everything is different since David died in 2012 and Jacob the year after. Holidays aren’t the same. I can’t give my children back their dad or repair the deep wound of child loss my daughter and son-in-law live with daily. To make matters worse, I moved away from the two-story home that served as a gathering place to a tiny house an hour or more away from children and grandchildren. Gatherings aren’t as easy or convenient. I can’t make holidays what they were. I can’t fix what was irrevocably broken by loss.

With the unexpected day off alone, I decided to go through letters my mother had written to me, organizing them into binders like I’d done with the letters she’d written to my grandmother. It was the best thing I could have done.

Nov 7 1978 letter

Mom didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving 1978? I’d always imagined my mother making a big deal out of Thanksgiving, memories of a white tablecloth, fine china, and candles on the table. I can’t recall whether any of that happened on Thanksgiving 1978, or if there was turkey served, or a duck or goose my father had raised. What I can say with some certainty is that I came home from my first semester at college to a family that loved me. And, evidently, my dad didn’t care whether any plans were made. He’d reassured Mom, told her not to worry about it.

Thanksgiving isn’t about the food, the fancy china, tablecloths and candles. It’s about family, and I have family to be thankful for, whether I see them today or not.

Then there is this letter, written in November 1990:

Nov. 27 1990 letter

More than five years after Dad’s death in May 1986, my mom was keenly feeling his absence. Much like we keenly feel the absence of David and Jacob.

What can I do about that?

It’s true I cannot bring them back. Cannot make everything the same. But there is something I am determined to do. I can be a better person because of them. I can honor them through my actions. Live a life they would be proud of. Do good in their name. Give a stranger a sandwich.

Give thanks for having had them in my life.



David, grief

Just How Hard Could It Be To Bake a Pie?

“Mom, why are you sleeping again? You’re starting to scare me.” My daughter’s gentle, but urgent voice, startled me awake.

Why, indeed. I’m starting to scare myself.

The booklet the funeral home sent me on grieving through the holidays had suggested taking naps as a form of self-care. I’d never been the napping type, but I had to try something to get me out of the funk I’d sunk into. My last workshop for the year was November 17th. I’d been looking forward to spending most of my free time writing, completing my book and working on several essays. And yet I’d written nothing but my column for seven days.

For eight months I’ve been busy with workshops, speaking engagements, and conferences. Now, with nothing to do but work on my book until February, I felt like a deflated balloon. The irony of my taking naps did not escape me. Hadn’t I always questioned David’s afternoon trysts with the sandman? Why, exactly, do you take naps when on the days you nap you seem just as tired at night and still go to bed at the same time?

David was a regular napper, one who was persistent in asking his wife to join him, a request I rarely met. I have things to do. Naps don’t help me get anything done. The kids won’t let me join you. And besides, I’m not convinced naps even help. I’ll just drink more tea, another cup of coffee, take a walk.

I remember one afternoon, not too long before David had his heart attack, when I did follow him up the stairs. I lay down next to him on the bed, giggling like a school girl who was being naughty. Sleeping in the middle of the afternoon? It seemed decadent and totally wasteful of the precious commodity of time. The children were busy with their own activities and likely wouldn’t bother us. I’d been certain he’d had more on his mind than simply sleeping, but no, he was just tired, and he wanted to be near his wife. He took my hand and closed his eyes, his breath slowing. I paced my own breathing to match his, and soon we were both asleep. I woke up with a start half an hour later, quietly slid my hand from his, sneaking from the room and closing the door softly behind me. Oh, how I wish now that I had indulged more often in the luxury of lying next to the man I loved in the middle of the afternoon. How I regret having chided him, however lightly, about his napping, because I cannot bear the idea of ever having hurt him, my dear, dear husband. And now, here I was, imbibing in naps myself.

Because, you see, I am so very tired. Thanksgiving is approaching, and fast behind that, Christmas.

“Take care of yourself. Do whatever it takes to get through the holidays,” the booklet on grief advises.

So I’ve taken to napping. For the past few days, around 2:00 in the afternoon, I’ve pushed back in the recliner, closed my eyes, and promptly fallen asleep.

And apparently frightened my teen in the process.

“Mom, why are sleeping?” Emily asked me yesterday, and I had no real answer. Did I think I could sleep through Thanksgiving and Christmas? The naps definitely weren’t making me more productive; I hadn’t touched my book for several days. Why, exactly was I sleeping in the middle of the day?

Later in the afternoon, I found myself standing indecisively in front of the freezer at the grocery store when an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for months stopped and touched my arm.

“How are you doing, Mary?”

“Fine,” I answered without even thinking. Ah, that rote answer of “Fine,” that meaningless reply we so politely give, whether true or not.

“Having a crowd for Thanksgiving?”

“No, we’re going out to eat, for the first time ever,” I smiled when I said it, and the smile was genuine. Going out to eat was the best choice I could have made this year; it was something David and I had never done for the holiday. “But the kids wanted pumpkin pie later in the afternoon, and I don’t suppose these frozen varieties taste anything like homemade.” I gestured towards the freezer.

She smiled indulgently. “It isn’t that hard to make pumpkin pie.”

“Oh, I know. I’ve made dozens of pumpkin pies. I just don’t want to.” She cocked her head slightly, not sure what to make of that comment. Why wouldn’t I want to make a pumpkin pie? They weren’t that difficult to make, after all.

I saw her glance furtively into my cart, and I was suddenly embarrassed; Buddig sliced turkey, Pringles chips, milk, yogurt, canned chicken. It had happened again; I’d entered a grocery store intent on stocking up on good food and then spotted something that had reminded me of shopping with David, and discovered I just wasn’t up to it that day, despite my nap. I ended up throwing a few random things in the cart. It has been eight months, and I still have a difficult time shopping. This was what I had resorted to feeding my family during Thanksgiving week? “I just don’t want to bake a pie,” I repeated, and then I grabbed a frozen peppermint pie from the freezer and wished her a happy Thanksgiving before turning and heading to the checkout, unshed tears stinging my eyes.

There is a paragraph that I have been seeing cut and pasted on the Facebook statuses of well-meaning friends who are attempting to show support for those who might be having a difficult time during the holidays. Perhaps you have seen it too. This is what it says;

The holidays are upon us and it can be a very joyful time of year. Some of us have problems during the holidays and sometimes are overcome with great sadness when we remember the loved ones who are not with us. And, many people have no one to spend these times with and are besieged by loneliness. We all need caring thoughts and loving prayer right now. If I don’t see your name, I’ll understand. May I ask my friends wherever you might be, kindly copy, paste, and share this status for one hour, to give a moment of support to all those who have family problems, health struggles, job issues, worries of any kind, and just need to know that someone cares. Do it for all of us, for nobody is immune. I hope to see this on the walls of all my friends just for moral support. I know some will. I did it for a friend and you can too.

I know many people have continued to cut and paste this on their Facebook wall this week, with very good intentions. I would respectfully ask that you not continue posting such a platitude. I don’t pretend to speak for everyone, but I am fairly confident that I speak for the majority when I say that very few hurting souls will look at that paragraph on your Facebook wall and think, “This person is posting something on their wall in support of people like me, and that sure makes me feel better. Gee, I can put the pills away now. Somebody cares.” 

Consider doing something instead of cutting and pasting a random paragraph. Many of you already do give of yourself during the holidays. Bless you for that. But for those of you who are not sure how to show support, this year you might think about knocking on the door of your elderly neighbor who is alone. Invite her to dinner. Or coffee. Bake an extra loaf of poppy seed bread and share it with someone. Send a card. Make a phone call. Offer to babysit so a young, overwhelmed couple can enjoy a night out. Give a gas card to a struggling student, or a gift card to the family with an ill child.

Or maybe, just maybe, think about your children who lost their father this year, and consider their one simple request.

And bake the darn pie already.

Postscript:I tried. I really did. I went to Walmart with every intention of purchasing the ingredients for pumpkin pie. The cans of pumpkin were marked down to $1, a super deal. I picked up a can, a lump forming in my throat with the memory that last November it was David who’d picked up reduced cans of pumpkin, informing me he was going to make me some pumpkin muffins. (he never did, but he always had good intentions) I turned the can over, my eyes scanning the recipe for what other ingredients I would need.

It was no use. I just didn’t have it in me.

“Help me pick out a pumpkin pie,” I told Abby, who obligingly followed me to the freezer section, where we scrutinized everything from cheaper frozen Sara Lee pies to the baked Walmart versions sitting out on shelves in the middle of the aisle. I was seriously eyeing several sweet-potato pies on a marked-down shelf, until nine-year-old Abby looked at me with her Daddy’s brown eyes and innocently asked, “What kind of pies are those?”

Had I stooped so low I would serve my children reduced price sweet potato pie? No. I might not be the house-cleaning, turkey-baking, pie-baking mother I once was, but by golly, my children deserve the best.

The best darn frozen pumpkin pie in the freezer.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

More than a week has passed since I returned from the Heart of Christian American Writers Network (HACWN) conference.  I still haven’t “recovered” from the very spiritual experience I had while there, and hope I never do. How does one follow up a blog posting like my last one? For those who have experienced something similar, I don’t have to. For others, no explanation will suffice. It cannot rationally be explained, so it didn’t happen.

And yet it did.

To borrow the expression of someone else who’d attended the same conference, I hit the ground running when I returned home. I had two days to plan my youth writing class, and a week to plan a couponing workshop, which ended up being so enjoyable, I can’t believe I am being paid to have that much fun. I made an important decision regarding the future of my book. I began the arduous task of following some of the advice given to me at the conference; beginning another blog which centers on the “dark side of couponing,” (see writing some query letters, doing some editing of my book proposal, and working on descriptions  for some workshops I may be presenting at an April retreat. What I haven’t done much of is write. And that is very unlike me. For more than a year now, I have written every single day. Every. Single. Day.  But right now I feel like I need to process everything that occurred at the writer’s conference, and I’m waiting for some quiet, contemplative, “un-busy” time to do so. And that hasn’t happened. It reminds me uncomfortably of the years I spent snatching writing moments between crying babies, changing diapers and marathon nursing sessions. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet, scribbling away in a notebook while a toddler splashed away in the bathtub, or eagerly pull over the curb when a baby fell asleep in the car-seat, only to pull a notepad out of my purse and immediately begin writing. It wasn’t easy, but something made me write, the same something that still pulls at me, even during these occasional dry times when writing takes a back burner to the pressing tasks in front of me. I used to wonder then; when will I have time to write? And now it is; when will I have time to think?

The first opportunity for that was this past Sunday. After a week of power point preparations, planning and conducting my youth writing course, schlepping my son to the dentist to have his wisdom teeth removed, strategically doing some shopping trips to include in the coupon workshop, and writing queries, I found myself sitting in a church pew with some contemplative time. In the peaceful quiet of the church, I replayed that moment at the conference when my eyes locked with a stranger’s and I recognized the unmistakable eyes of my mother. How could that be, I marveled again, and my throat filled with tears even as I felt a surge of pure joy. I knew right then that I never want to forget what that moment felt like, and I always want to remain open to it happening again.

Today it is Thanksgiving. The turkey is in the oven and seven pies are on the back porch. I have spent the better part of two days cleaning my house in preparation for company, company that includes the people I love most in this world; sons and daughters, a son-in-law I include in the son category, three grandchildren, and a girl I have yet to meet who loves my son. Later in the day, a sister and nieces will come to play card games. With temperatures hitting nearly 60-degrees in Iowa, I am hoping to imbibe in one of my favorite activities; what I call the “walking-off-the-pie” tradition I have shared with sisters other years.

And in this brief moment before the children are up and the Macy’s Day parade blares from the television, I can take the time to be thankful for my many blessings; my husband, my children and the people who love them, my grandchildren, my siblings and David’s siblings, good friends, a warm house, good food, and the bliss of the sweet sound of silence.

Thank you, Lord, for this bounty of blessings you have bestowed upon me. And thank you, too, for helping me recognize, through a mother who was my inspiration, the talents you have bestowed upon me in the form of writing and speaking. And let me remember always, as my father told me so long ago to “use them for good, and not evil.”

This photo is of the two pictures my long-time friend and companion at the writer’s conference, Mary Humston, brought with her and displayed in our hotel room. They inspire her and speak to her creative soul. She brought them with her for creative sustenance, and shared their beauty with me. I felt a little sorry for myself when I saw them. I had no framed piece that spoke to me, no portable artwork to add to this display.

It hit me this morning; I don’t need one. I carry my muse, my mother, inside.