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Where We Come From

One day, someone is here. And the next, they aren’t. And you find yourself Googling: how to write an obituary.

My Grandma Rosemary died over two years ago. Just a day before her 88th birthday. She lived a long life! That’s true. She clapped for me at my college graduation, danced at my wedding, saw my husband and me move into our first home, and hold my daughter, her great granddaughter. That’s a blessing, to be sure.

And still, it’s sad. She had dementia, so for the past five years, I’m not sure what she remembered. One day Dan and I took her out for dinner at Unos with Kate. I could tell that several times that evening, she wasn’t sure who she was with. She knew we were someone connected to her. But I don’t think she remembered who we were.

Yet, a few days before she died, we talked on the phone, and she recalled Kate, seemed to know who she was, remembered being with her.

I’m fortunate I knew Rosemary for 30 years. That’s a long time. She was my best friend at a time when I didn’t like myself very much, years filled with angst and self-hatred. Rosemary would let me drive her car and took me shopping and out to lunch and listened to me rattle off a list of grievances and injustices I believed my parents made me suffer.

She was always up for fun, especially when we could be conspiratorial and not tell my parents. We ate ice cream in her bed. I tried on all her jewelry. I’d comb through her tchotchke drawer and ask if I could have that little ceramic elephant or tiny gold ring after she died. “Sure,” she’d say. She taught me how to needlepoint on her rickety old dining table with the mismatched chairs. She had this one dining plate that spun; something about the bottom was uneven. We kept saying we were going to toss it out, but we never did. And inevitability one of us would end up with “the funny plate” at every meal. After her Boston Terrier, Cricket, died, I was her co-conspirator in her next dog purchase. Somehow we ended up driving to a farm in Fredericksburg and purchased not one, but two, Boston Terrier puppies. Litter mates would entertain each other, we reasoned. One Christmas Dan and I bought her a giant pack of cordless phones from Costco since she kept breaking her current set by leaving them in the fridge or outside or throwing them away. When we came over to set them up, she’d squirreled them away in a drawer, saying she would save them for another time.

I hold onto these memories like a vise grip because I can feel her starting to fade away. I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, but I do believe that keeping someone in your memory is how they live on spiritually, if not physically.

I’m a big story teller. At every family gathering, I start the story telling going. Remember that time when…Mom, tell the story about…Who remembers how…

This story telling keeps our family narrative alive. I want the kids to hear where they’re from. I want them to know the past, even thought it’s not perfect. There are no family secrets. The good, the bad, the funny, the sad, I want it out on the table. This is who we are, this is where we’re from, this is what we’ve learned, this is how history should not repeat itself.

This is where you’re from.

The other day, in an attempt to entertain the kids, I started cleaning out my office and involved the kids in organizing and tossing out stuff. At some point, they came across a book of clips I put together from my high school and college journalism days.

What are these?!

Oh, those are just articles mommy wrote for the newspaper.

The real newspaper?!

Umm…yeah kind of.

And what’s this?

Oh, that’s an award I won.

An award?! Like a trophy? For what?

Hmm…that’s when I was selected as high school journalist of the year. It’s like a trophy for writing.

And what’s this? Oh, it’s a book about me?!

Yeah, I put together that scrap book when you were a baby. See, that’s when I was pregnant with you. And that’s our old house. And there are Susie and Papa meeting you. And your Dad holding you for the first time.

They say quietly flipping through my high school paraphernalia and those homemade scrapbooks filled with the short history of their lives. The interest they showed in our family’s history reminded me of why I’m always trying to keep in touch with our past.

Mama, what did you like when you were a little girl? When did you get your ears pierced? Did you like school when you were my age?

I love these questions. Sometimes I tell her I don’t know, so we call Susie and ask her. Sometimes I do know, and I share the story. I bring up Rosemary frequently, talking about how special she was to me, just like her Susie and Meme are special to her.

I don’t know about death. But I know about the people death leaves behind and how to honor that death by keeping them in the forefronts our mind, while not assuaging that loss, keeps that important life linked to the present. We need to know where we’re from so we’re connected to who we are.

#reverb17 // January // 12 Things

If you’d like to join in the #reverb17 project, we have started a Facebook group where you can find all the details of each month’s writing prompt.  We have no requirements or expectations other than to give you a way to express yourself in writing on a regular interval.  We post monthly (with some fun Instagram Challenges) from January through November, then have daily prompts in December to reflect on the past year and set intentions for the new year!  Join us here!

January’s Prompt: 12 things you want to read/see/listen to/experience this year

1. Write everyday. In my heart of hearts, I’m a writer. But, gosh, it feels so painful sometimes. The pain is similar to when you haven’t taken a BodyPump in a week and then try to lift the bar. Ouch. So painful.

2. Grow this seedling of an idea I have about connection, creativity, and community.

3. Take a trip ALONE.

4. Take a trip with Dan.

5. Host several live podcasts. One is already in the works!

6. Read. I already read a lot (at least once a day for a good stretch). But I always want to read more. One book I have on my to-read list is the latest Joan Didion. I’m also in a book club, and we read a lot of things I wouldn’t normally pick, so that’s good, too.

7. Work on my photography skills.

8. Finish the draft of my book.

9. Build a daily gratitude practice.

10. Expand my fitness routine repertoire.

11. Have fun with my family. Little kids are tough. And sometimes I just want to hide with them at home. But we can do better.

12. YIRAH.

Thinking Time, Talking Tallys, and The Break Chair

“I had to sit in the break chair today. I just couldn’t stop talking!”

I nod and keep loading the dishwasher. Each evening, around the dinner table, we all talk about our days, the good, the not so good, and sometimes, who was sent to The Break Chair.

I used to seize up about any form of school discipline. Ack! One of my kids had to sit in Thinking Time?! Oh, no!

I wasn’t upset because I believed my kids to be perfect and incapable of doing anything naughty (Nope. I live with them. They are not always saintly.). No, I used to get flustered because it sends me back to Elementary School Sarah and the Talking Tallys.

When I was in elementary school, I attended a strict, conservative Christian school. My family wasn’t religious; my parents just needed the before and after school care this school provided. So I spent many confusing years listening to tales of a Fire and Brimstone Jesus. But that’s a story for another day.

This school, like many schools, invoked disciplinary measures. It was rumored around huddled discussions on the  playground that one form of discipline involved a paddle. One with holes in it, so when the principal swung it down across your bottom, the impact created maximum burn.

I’m only a little bit scarred from attending this school.

Anyway. I wasn’t ever paddled. So I can’t attest to that. But I can attest to Tallys.

Tallys were handed out left and right and up and down, for what seemed like every indiscretion. You step out of line. Tally. You’re a girl who dares to show up in pants. Tally. You forget to raise your hand. Tally.

You talk too much?

TALLY!

I racked up a lot of Talking Tallys. A lot, a lot. I remember that hot shame rolling over me as my teacher handed me a stack of Talking Tallys to bring home for my parents to sign.

I’m not saying schools shouldn’t discipline. I’m also not saying I have problems with a Break Chair. We all need a break sometimes. And we all need to be respectful. I’m just thinking that sometimes, sometimes, the thing we get in trouble for is also our biggest asset.

“You know what, Kate?” I said, rinsing and loading plates into the dishwasher. “I talked in school too. And I had got a lot of tallys for talking.”

“You did?” she said.

“Yep. I sure did. And it’s important to be respectful to your teacher and the class. And sometimes we need to take a break. But, here’s the thing. I built a success career out of talking. Talking is my job.”

She runs over to me and gives me a hug. I squeeze back and wonder how my chatty girl will use her talent.

You’re Perfect. Just The Way You Are.

“The girls let me sit with them yesterday. Because I wore the right clothes.”

The coffee cup hovers near my mouth. My hands freeze, wrapping tighter around the mug.

“Wait,” I say. “What’s that again?”

She takes a bite of her PopTart and repeats matter-of-factly, “If I wear the right clothes, the girls will like me.”

It’s like I’m pucker punched in the gut. Right back to 4th grade. I’m standing in the Limited, Too with my mom. I’m here because the thing to wear, the right thing to wear, is a Limited Too sweatshirt.

I begged and pleaded and begged and pleaded for that sweatshirt. I had to have it. Without it, I was a zero. Less than a zero. Without it I was akin to the disgusting gum stuck under the desks. At least that’s how they treated me.

I wasn’t ever the popular girl. But, oh, how I tried. And tried and tried and tried. I emulated their behaviors, shopped at the same stores, wore my hair in similar style.

But nothing. The harder I tried, the further away I got.

Every morning I’d yank that Limited Too sweatshirt over my head, collect my carefully curated Lisa Frank school supplies, and stare at myself in the mirror. I wasn’t a cute girl. I was chubby. I hadn’t yet figured out how to tame my naturally textured hair. And my enthusiasm for school didn’t make me well liked.

I hung my worth on their glances, invites to parties (or lack thereof), acceptance into their circle at recess.

They’d say I could join them. And when they saw me coming, they’d snicker and run away.

I wish I could say it ended after elementary school. But it didn’t. It continued into middle school, high school. Even college – especially college – was prime for mean girl time. You know when they stand in a circle and you walk past and they all turn to look at you before turning back in and laughing together in huddle?

Yep.

And it didn’t end there. The mean girls turn into mean women in the preschool parking lot or the soccer field.

But now I don’t care. Because I don’t hang my self worth on what they think about me.

Because I’m a mom to three kids who look to me. And I don’t want them to see that that’s okay. It’s not okay to be mean. And it’s not okay to live and die by what others think.

I put down my coffee mug, walked around the table, held her face in my hands.

“Kate,” I say. “This is important. Never, ever change for anyone. Those girls don’t decide what’s right. You continue being you. You’re brave and you’re kind. And what do we say in this house?”

“You’re perfect the way you are!” she says.

“That’s right!” I say, pulling her to my chest. “We’re all perfect. Just the way we are.”

Bentley and Us

“Do you have a dog?” I choked out between heavy sobs.

I had just hung up after a painful conversation with my parents. Our family dog couldn’t wait until I got back for spring break. The cancer had spread too far, she was bleeding internally. She was in pain. They just couldn’t wait for me. I wouldn’t have been fair.

Wiping my tear stained face with the back of my hand, I swiveled around in the chair to face Dan standing in the doorway.

“I do,” he said. “A yellow lab. His name is Bentley.”

“Tell me about him,” I said, my shoulders shaking and tears continuing to slide down my face.

Dan and I weren’t even dating yet. But I was falling in love with him in that nasty basement of Newcomb Hall where we both worked for the Cavalier Daily. We spent a lot of long nights together in that basement. And that night he sat with me on the mystery-stained couch and told me about Bentley as I cried for our family dog.

I knew I loved Dan. What I didn’t know was that I would love his dog.

I’m a dog person. I’ve always had a dog. I’ll always have a dog. Yep, there are plenty of times I’ve yelled a dog’s name followed by a GOD DAMN IT. But I love our dogs.

And I loved Bentley.

When I met Bentley he was about five-years-old. He was just coming out of most wild stage, and he was a big love. Dan always joked that Bentley was more excited to see me than him when we’d come home from school to visit.

That was true. And I rubbed it in.

“Bentley!” I’d call, letting myself in through my in-laws garage and into the kitchen. “Bentley! Come here!”

I’d sit with him on the floor, he’d push his way into my lap, look up at like he was in love. Dan would walk past and he didn’t even turn to look.

But there was this one time Bentley got mad at me. And he let me know.

Dan and I went to visit his mom and dad at their beach house in North Carolina. That evening we arrived, I sat at the table, enjoying a long catch-up chat with my mother-in-law, Maryellen.

Well. Bentley loves me. But his first, true love is Maryellen. And I was monopolizing her.

Maryellen and I sat at the kitchen table, chatting away while Bentley paced around with impatience. After a while he disappeared. And came out of the room I was staying in. With my underwear in his mouth.

“Who’s purple underwear is this?!” my father-in-law said.

Bentley laid there, with my purple underwear between his paws, with a look that said, yeah, I went through your things. And now I’m showing your underwear to everyone.

And then there was the time that Dan and his family had to go out of town for a funeral, and I stayed back to take care of Bentley. I planned to bring him to our condo, so my father-in-law insisted that I take his crate. So I headed over to get Bentley and his crate. When I arrived, I realized, I didn’t know how to break down the crate. If I couldn’t break it down, I couldn’t get it in my car.

Bentley sat in the kitchen, eyeing me as I messed with the crate. I jiggled it and pushed at it before giving up and sitting down the floor. Bentley came over and sat beside me, looking at me like I was the dumbest girl he’d ever seen.

I did finally get that crate disassembled. And Bentley spent the entire weekend sleeping on our bed.

And of course there was the time Maryellen, Dan, and I drove down to the beach with Bentley. And he slept on me in the backseat the entire drive. And the time he at 12 Costco muffins. And the time he ate all the raw ground beef. And the time my in-laws took a trip to Greece and Dan went out of town for work, so I was left to take care of Bentley solo, five days after Thomas was born. And the time Bentley and my parent’s dog, Baron, got into a canister of Nestle Chocolate Quik and ground the powder into the carpet. And also the time Bentley ate a box of Italian chocolates. Or the time he ate a travel neck pillow. Don’t forget about the time he and Baron sat in the backseat of my old Ford Escape, one on either side of Kate’s infant carrier, breathing heavily and panting in her face while she screamed. And also the time we tossed the ball for him at the beach, and as he went careening down the sand, he feel into a hole.

At fifteen-and-a-half, I’ve known Bentley almost all his life. For over 10 years, as Dan and I went through major life transitions, from dating to engaged to married to home owners to parents of three, there he was. Panting heavily and cruising the counters for baked goods. He served as a source of commonality for my mother-in-law and me, back when we didn’t know each other very well but we both loved Bentley.

Last week Maryellen messaged the family to tell us it was time. Bentley was 15.5 and he wouldn’t get up to eat. Or drink. And he didn’t want to go outside. He had trouble relaxing, he couldn’t get comfortable.

It was time.

We knew this day was coming soon. He was over 15-years-old! But we all cried like babies over that damn dog. The dog that ate entire loaves of bread and several helpings of cookies and various other carbs (carbs were always his favorite). As I sat down on my in-laws kitchen floor and stroked his head, I marveled at how much life we’ve all lived over these 10+ years, how we’ve all grown and changed, and how this dog meant so much to all of us. He was a special guy, our Mr. B. We know he’s eating lots of baked goods in heaven.

On Waiting to Be Ripped Apart

I’m waiting to be ripped apart.

Because that’s what happens to people who are seen and put themselves out there. They get ripped apart.

Part of the reason I don’t like to share myself or my work is because I choose to hide behind perfectionism. And the other reason is because I’m terrified of being ripped apart.

There’s no shortage of mean spirited words being tossed around like beads at Mardi Gras. Just flung around. And I don’t mean just political talk. I mean all sorts of talk about all sorts of things. About seemingly innocuous things that everyone has something to say about. And they say it meanly.

So I’m waiting to be ripped apart.

I’m wondering what it will feel like, to be eviscerated. I see it happen to people every day in YouTube comments, under Instagram pictures, Huffington Post articles. It’s like there’s so much meanness people feel deep inside that they must discharge it.

And it’s not just online. It’s in person, too. Ugliness, exclusion. It makes me scared to be myself or stand for something, lest I be talked about behind my back.

But, then again, so what?

If I don’t like what I see, I have two choices. Stay small and quiet. Or be our there and speak up for kindness.

I’m passionate about community and creativity and connection. Those things require being seen and sharing with other people. And, possibly, being torn apart.

Well. I’ve been torn apart before. In elementary school when I found out that a group of girls wrote about me in a SLAM book. On the eighth grade bus where a cadre of boys called me fat and chanted “fat-so, fat-so, fat-so” all the way home while I hid my face in my backpack and cried. In college where I thought girls were my friends and then went out without me, behind my back.

And it taught me that I never want to be like that. I don’t want people to feel hurt. I never want to push myself up at the expense of others. I want to assume everyone is doing their best.

So it’s okay. It might happen. Or it might not. Maybe I’ll cry. Or maybe I won’t care. But I’ll keep showing up.