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One is a very odd number.

How much love fits on a Post It note? You’d be surprised

May 13, 2012 9 comments

My mom, Ann Ryan O’Connor, died 39 years ago last month. It was the Tuesday after Easter, 1973. She choked to death during an asthma attack. In the hospital. During a respiratory therapy treatment.

As the first of my family to get to the hospital (at age 15, I drove there on a learner’s permit while my hapless Aunt Bert wept and worried in the passenger seat), I remember seeing my mom’s still-warm body lying in the hospital bed. The look on her face was amazing: she was at peace – muscles relaxed, her tortured breathing finally quiet, her long battle with the disease that had robbed her of many normal things finally over. Her beautiful mouth was shaped into a tiny “O” – as if she was surprised by her sudden death. Later that day, we found out that was not the case.

That evening, as we wept and planned her funeral and dealt with annoying and overwrought relatives who were already fighting over who would take custody of the baby, our 4-year-old sister, Patty, my older brother Sean showed us something he’d found in the bottom of Mom’s purse that day. It was a set of hastily scrawled little notes in our mother’s handwriting. There was a fervent prayer on one: “God, please let me be their mother a little while longer.” The other five were individual notes addressed to each one of us.

Each one was a gift – her last  – to us. She wrote about how proud she was of each of us, how much she loved us, and how we should keep living our lives. She told Sean and Kevin that she knew they would grow up to “be the men that their father, Patrick O’Connor” was and would want them to be. She called her baby, Patty, the “gift that replaced a gift.”  We’ve kept the notes, treasured them, learned from them, and even framed them. The original set now lives in a lovely frame on Patty’s nightstand.

For a long time, I refused to look at my note. I can’t really remember when I was strong enough to read it, but eventually I did. I can’t say I have always done what she asked me to in that note, but at least I have tried. I haven’t looked at the notes in years (they always make me cry), but I don’t need to. I know what they say. I know what they mean. More importantly, I can feel the incredible depth of love and fear and courage and sadness in her heart when she wrote them, knowing somehow that she was not going to be around us much longer, yet feeling that she had to teach us one more thing, to be our mother just a little while longer.

As a mother myself now, I have a hard time imagining that I would ever have the courage to face the fact that I would not be alive long enough to raise my children to adulthood. I would have wept and screamed and tried to bargain with God and would probably have been filled with despair that I would not be around to see my children grow up. I am not sure I would have had the wherewithal to write my children love notes.

Then again, my mother was an amazing human being. She had faith. She WAS faith. She believed that everything happened for a reason, that God was good and would always be there to protect us, and that she had been given many incredible gifts in life – including the illness that eventually killed her, which she said taught her patience. She truly believed that the meaning of life was to be kind and happy and loving, and to spend our time treating others well because our real place, our real purpose, was to be with God in heaven. It was just that simple for her. And she carried that faith to the last moments of her life, I think, as evidenced by those little notes.

So, when life treated her poorly (like the day she had to remove her wedding and engagement rings because the government guy at the food stamp office denied her food stamps and  told her that the rings signified that she had enough money to feed her kids, despite being a penniless widow with no job), she did what the guy said. And later, she prayed for the man because, after all, “he was just doing  his job.”  When her husband of 15 years (only 15 years!) died suddenly and left her with four children and pregnant with a fifth, she grieved. Then, knowing the task she had before her, she trusted in God, called upon her faith, continued to laugh and sing and smile, and went on with her life as Mom, treasuring her last baby as a “gift that replaced a gift.”

She was only my mom for 15 years, but there’s not an event in my life that happens where I don’t stop and think about how Mom would have handled it. She never got to hold my babies in her arms, but she taught me how to love and teach and discipline my own children, who have grown into thoughtful, intelligent, generous, funny and sensitive people. Mom never got to see me graduate from high school and college and she never went to college herself, but she taught me how important it was to always be open to new ideas, to learning and to using the things I’ve learned in life.

I see her face every morning when I look in the mirror, even though I really don’t look like her. And while she has been gone more than twice as long as I had her with me, she is everywhere.

I see her gentle humor and her natural grace and ease with talking to people in my son Patrick, who is mature and poised and charming, easily friendly and comfortable with most people he meets. I see Mom’s beauty and her determination and her resilience against many odds in my daughter Erin, who has fought and won so many battles already in her short 18 years. I hear her joyous laugh and feel her warmth and her love of life whenever my sister Claire laughs and sings. I feel her kindness, her sense of fairness and justice and her belief that everyone deserves to be treated well no matter where they’ve come from in my brothers, Sean and Kevin, who live out those characteristics every day of their lives. And I see her pure joy at being a mom – not to mention her beautiful eyes, her soft voice and her amazing smile –  in my sister Pat. (And it’s okay, Pat, as you get frustrated with your own daughter today, even Mom lost patience with us more than once in a day!)

But even though she is always “with” me, I can’t put my arms around her on a day like today, Mother’s Day, and tell her how much I love her and miss her and am grateful for everything she did, for everything she was.

So I wrote her this note.

On being (an O’Connor)

March 17, 2012 3 comments

On days like St. Patrick’s Day (PLEASE don’t call it St. Paddy’s Day or I’ll have to box your ears), and, of course, on days that end in “y,” I think of my parents and my brothers and sisters. But especially on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ann and Pat O’Connor were by today’s standards, dirt-poor. But they didn’t live today. They lived their adult lives in the 40s, 50s and 60s (and Mom, a bit into the 1970s – thank God she didn’t live to hear her beloved Frank Sinatra sing a duet with U2’s Bono). They had literally nothing of their own: they never owned a home, or a car, or property, or jewelry. They didn’t take vacations, or worry about retirement funds, or try to keep pace with their neighbors. They worked and lived, sang and joked, prayed and went to church, loved one another and doted nearly completely on their children.

It was like they lived in this big bubble of love and laughter and learning. And the four of us (at the time, since Patty was the gift from God that Mom got to open four and a half months after Dad died) were warm and safe and happy knowing we were in the middle of this big bubble, being cherished and cared enough about for Pat and Ann to have given up almost everything else in life. They didn’t drink, they didn’t party, but they knew how to have fun with one another and with us. While St. Patrick’s Day for many people means drink until you puke or until the police drag you away, for we O’Connors it meant learning about your heritage, singing songs, knowing why the Irish hated the English, singing more songs, scoffing at Irish stereotypes while singing Irish songs, and occasionally, when Mom got silly, decking the entire house in green crepe paper ribbons and dyeing the dinner potatoes green.

Of all the things that Pat and Ann weren’t, what they were was smart and curious. They read, they talked, they were aware of the world and its woes. They asked questions and more importantly, they taught us to ask questions, pursue answers, understand justice and seek the truth but always, always  remembering the dignity of each person. Looking back, it seems like they must have known they weren’t going to be around long enough to see us grow up and be our own people. So they taught us to be our own people right out of the gate.

I think they did fine. None of us wound up in jail. We are smart. We love God and our families. We all work. We all pray. We have friends and better than that, we ARE friends. We laugh and we love and we read and we question and we sing (although most of us, not very well – cheers to you, my sister Claire, for inheriting the pipes). And most of all, we know what it means to be an O’Connor:

It means that none of us will ever sit alone worrying in a hospital emergency room; even if the other four aren’t physically there, that sibling knows that we ARE there. With our arms wrapped around one another.

It means that at least four other people in the world understand our sense of humor. Sometimes, maybe just those four, but at least four.

It means that even when we don’t speak for days or weeks (Kevin – call your brother Sean today), we each know that there are four other people out there thinking about us, hoping for us, praying for us, and thinking of ways to make us laugh.

It means that we each know that after being through the hell of losing Pat and Ann and all the millions of pounds of other assorted stuff and nonsense that has come after, nothing can truly knock us down. We may stagger (and no, we don’t drink anymore), but we still stand – together.

It means that on the days that we are the saddest, or the most stressed out, or the loneliest, or the poorest, or the most frustrated…that four other people are there  to see us through that moment (and laugh at us later).

It means going out the door each day knowing that you are at least as good – and probably better – than nearly everyone you will meet.

Thanks, Pat and Ann. And Slàinte, Sean, Kevin, Claire and Patty.

Categories: Detroit, Family, Home, Irish

Oh, Danny Boy

March 17, 2011 8 comments

Those who know the Sean-Peggy-Claire-Kevin-Patty version of the O’Connor Family of Detroit, know that we’re not exactly big fans of the Irish tune, “Danny Boy.”

Having been to a funeral or fifty in our time and having heard “Danny Boy” played, sung, cried, mimed, signed, whistled and bagpiped beyond all recognition, we’ve come to despise the song. “Cheap sentiment,” my brother Kevin growls, rolling his eyes upon hearing the church organist crank it up once again. “What’s wrong with having dry eyes in the house?” asks my sister Claire, as she dabs away Danny Boy-induced tears, cursing. “Wonder what’s for funeral lunch,” Sean says in a stage-whisper.

Over the years, the five of us have planned several funerals together, including those of our parents. We have not, will not and plan to NEVER request “Danny Boy” to be played in any way, shape or form. We’ve spent too much time together, walking back down the church aisle after the funeral Mass of yet another family member, or trudging away from the much loved-and-lost guest of honor at a graveside service, to ever want to hear “Danny Boy” played again.

It WAS played at our father’s funeral. And at Uncle Mike O’Connor’s. That was enough.

Wikipedia says this about Danny Boy:

Although penned by Englishman Weatherly, “Danny Boy” is considered to be an unofficial signature song and anthem, particularly by Irish Americans and Irish Canadians.[2]

“Danny Boy” enjoys popularity as a funeral song but, as it is not liturgical, its suitability for funerals is sometimes contested.[3]

Only SOMETIMES? Just ask Sean, Peggy, Claire, Kevin or Patty.  We despise the song. Read the lyrics and you’ll see why:

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone, and all the flow’rs are dying.
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

Clearly the words of a mother who cannot bear to bid her son farewell as he goes off to face God-knows-what in the world. Also clearly not the mother of MY son…who likely will NEVER go off to face anything in the world more difficult than a cable TV outage or a broken Internet link, since he is very comfortable ensconced on my couch, hooked up to the laptop, TV remote in hand and a full refrigerator nearby.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
‘Tis I’ll be here, in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

Being the good Irish mother that she is, she’ll wait and she’ll wait. In sunshine or in shadow. It’s what she does: remain ever faithful to her child, helping, caring, hoping, and sharing.  Like she did all the hundreds of nights that he was supposed to come home but didn’t – or sneaked out while she was sleeping and went God-knows-where – and she spent the night pacing and worrying and praying and imagining every horrible thing that could have happened to her beloved child.  I love you so, she sings, but I hate you, too, for making me worry so much. Welcome to the Irish psyche.

And when ye come, and all the roses falling.
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “ave” there for me.

Ah, the “I’ll be dead” card. Well played, Irish mother. Well played. If the guilt of making “yer poor old Mam” wait for you while you traveled the world, fancy-free, doing as you please while she waited and prayed the rosary wasn’t enough….now you’ve gone and killed her. She’s died of grief (or too much whiskey, but that’s another song). And it’s your fault, son. What are you going to do about it?

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me,
And, all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be

I’ll tell you what you’ll do. She’ll continue to wait, you see. And you’ll visit her grave, all grief-stricken, guilty and sorry. And she’ll be there. Waiting. Again. Still. And you’ll tell her that you love her and she’ll hear it, even though she’s deader than the Irish economy in 2011.  Because the fear/expectation of death and the guilt about everything that comes both before and AFTER death are the solitary Irish emotions. So she’ll be dead (well, she DID warn you…and she waited…but you got here too late). And you’ll be guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Drunk and guilty. Drunk, guilty, telling jokes, waiting for death. It’s your heritage, boy. Embrace it.

We did. Sean, Peggy, Claire, Kevin and Patty. And we still do. When the calls go out to let us know that Aunt So-and-So or Cousin Skippy-Lou have passed, God rest their souls, and the funeral is Friday…well, the O’Connor Funeral Team assembles (everybody into a circle, put your hands together, now BREAK! and go get ’em!). We pay respects. We listen to the homages to the dead. We make ourselves and our cousins laugh – in church, in the procession, and at the wake. It’s what we do. And we do it well.

But please don’t play “Danny Boy.” It isn’t fair. Danny Boy. Grandma Ryan crooned it…her one remaining tooth shining in her mouth as the sad words tumbled out, her beautiful, soft voice singing while she stroked our hair and helped us get back to sleep. Our mother sang it the night our father, her husband, died. Alone in her bed, worrying and crying, she whispered it in her clear, calm voice that if you listened closely, sounded a lot like Judy Garland’s. I’ve even sung it hundreds of times myself to my then-babies…I only had a repertoire of four songs and Danny Boy was better lullaby material than “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw” or “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Whiskey in the Jar.”

Uncle John Jay Patrick Ryan sang it best, I guess. He’d crank up his whiskey-touched, lovely-but-untrained Irish tenor voice, and the drunken crowds in hundreds of bars would hush and fall silent while he sang, his voice catching every time he hit the higher notes in the final words:

For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
Oh, Danny Boy, Oh, Danny Boy, I love you so.

Yes, even though he was English, your man Weatherly knew a good guilt-death-pain-suffering-sadness song when he penned it. No matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid it. Especially on St. Patrick’s Day. My son Patrick played it this morning in the car on the way to school. And of course, on cue, I teared up at just the right spot: “you will bend…and tell me that you loo0ve me…”

God, I hate that song.

Pretty is.

February 23, 2011 7 comments

At 53, try as she might, she cannot remember a single day in her life when she felt attractive. Never mind pretty. Beautiful is straight out of the question. And, at 53 and fairly well-worn by life and circumstances, that day is not likely to dawn anytime soon.

Sometimes, when she is down (which is a lot) or tired (all the time) images of herself appear and move slowly in her mind, cycling through like a Powerpoint presentation.

There’s one from the day she was on the Poopdeck Paul kids’ TV show at age six. She wanted to wear her pink taffeta party dress but her mom said, “no, wear your blue plaid skirt and matching sweater.” So she did. Then she spent the entire time on the show – which featured a bowling competition – watching the other little girl competitors in their party dresses and staring at her own, plain outfit in the TV monitors. She bowled horribly and lost, then began to sob on live TV when Poopdeck Paul himself handed over the first place trophy and all the prizes to another girl who stood there smiling and victorious in HER pink taffeta party dress.

In another image, she is a gangly 10-year-old – all legs – getting her hair cut at a fancy Detroit salon. Her aunt had her own, personal hairdresser – an elegant, perfectly coiffed, silver-haired gentleman named “Prince,” as he was both formerly AND formally known. His  real name was Prentice. He owned his own shop – with his much older wife – yet he actually drove to his customer’s home, picked up the aunt in his ruby-red Cadillac, drove back to the shop and performed his once weekly magic on her hair.

That late summer day, she rode along with the aunt for her own hair appointment. She enjoyed the drive to the shop in the red convertible – loved the sun and breeze on a summer day, loved listening to the grown-up talk in the front seat as the Prince and the Aunt chatted and laughed, excited about getting her hair “done” at a real salon! Two hours later, she sat miserably the  back seat, quiet and unhappy, peeking up every other minute to look through red-rimmed eyes at her hair, as reflected in the rearview mirror. Prince had clipped her thick, frizzy brown hair incredibly short – Audrey Hepburn short – all around, leaving a half-inch row of bangs – Moe Howard of the Three Stooges-style – across the front of her head.

It wasn’t long and blonde and straight and silky the way she had imagined that a Prince could magically transform her hair. It was ugly and thin and short – scalped, nearly – and made her head look unbelievably tiny while at the same time forcing her body to look enormous in comparison. She spent the weekend in her bed, sobbing and hiding her head under a pillow, wondering if she could get by with wearing a stocking cap until she turned 14.

She couldn’t. Her bushy, unmanageable hair is far longer in the next image – taken at 14, the night of her eighth-grade graduation. It’s an image that exists in a real Kodak moment that rests somewhere in the bottom of a pile of old family photographs, hidden away for decades. It’s a fuzzy, Polaroid picture her brother snapped of her as she opened a graduation gift from their mother. The gift is a Louisville slugger baseball bat (she always was an avid Detroit Tigers fan). In the image, she is grinning broadly and thrusting the new bat toward the camera. Her hair is horrible – frizzy and out-of-place – but the rest of her is even worse.

She is wearing a pink knit dress adorned with gold buttons down the front and tied – somewhat unfortunately – around her pudgy waist. The dress is a size 18 to accommodate her 180-pound, body that is already riddled with stretch marks. Her rectangular, black plastic framed eyeglasses, which she must wear all the time just to make her way through her fuzzy world, are like huge scabs resting on her broad, blotchy, sweaty cheeks. In the photo, she looks like a mentally challenged 40-year-old as she brandishes the gift bat that could, in an instant she thinks, turn into a weapon to use against the boys who moo and bark at her every day as she walks down the street to school.

Just a week before graduation, her eighth-grade class had taken a day trip to a local amusement park. It was on an island in the Detroit River – Boblo Island – and the only way to get there was on a huge boat. A boy who was her good friend – the one who understood her humor and her intelligence and love for sports and her disdain for most people – said he would ride all the rides with her once they got to the island. Did she mind, though, that he really couldn’t let anyone see them together on the island? That they’d have to ride rides together “by accident” because he had promised Cindy – blonde, pretty, skinny Cindy who wore blue eyeshadow and showed off her tan thighs in white, short-shorts – that he would be her boyfriend that day and hold hands with her.

She couldn’t argue. What could she say? How could she compete? She was fat and pasty white. Her hair was kinky and frizzy in the early summer heat. She hadn’t worn shorts in public in four years. Sweat rolled down her face, diverting around the acne pimples and scars that dotted that sad landscape. The sweat stung her eyes and dripped onto the legs of her stiff jeans – her size 18 jeans. Burned into the image from that day is Cindy, flipping her long, pretty blonde hair and covering her lovely blue eyes with cool sunglasses. Suddenly, there is the boy – her friend – striding toward Cindy and quickly putting great distance between himself and his friend. She watches as they go off, hand-in-hand, whispering and laughing. Then she gets off the boat with his apologies ringing in her ears and sits alone on a bench for the next seven hours until it is time for the boat ride back home.

Other images flash by as her brain clicks faster through the Powerpoint. A humid summer day at age 15 and she is dressed in a bulky navy sweater and white jeans imprinted with large red and blue squares. Her curly hair is flat and dull, pasted down on her head with some sort of gel.  Her fat cheeks are imprinted with the marks from her glasses that no longer fit her face at all. She looks miserable and she is.

Here’s one from her first day on a college campus. She lumbers across the campus – alone – feeling ugly and out-of-place among scores of thin, pretty young women all looking like cast members from Charlie’s Angels. Dressed entirely in brown polyester, she’s looking more like a middle-aged cafeteria lady than a college coed. Sloppy Joes anyone?

There’s another from her wedding day: she is not a wedding gown person and that day – especially that day – she should have known it. She had dieted for months and was down to a size 12 but in her off-white, plain satin gown with a short veil held by a clumsy floral wreath…she still looked like a sad and graceless spinster trying to fool too many people. Shades of Miss Havisham.

There are many other slides in this Powerpoint. Shots of her, much younger, spending miserable days on the beach dressed like all the other old women while the tan, thin 20-somethings frolicked nearby. Jealous glances at Facebook photos of the cute new girlfriends – with their straight teeth, athletic bodies and smooth hair – of old boyfriends and classmates. Uncomfortable afternoons trapped in business meetings wearing last year’s business suit – fitting a little too tightly and bearing ragged cuffs and sagging shoulder pads.

She hardly ever looks at the text in the Powerpoint. Still, sometimes, because she is a writer and a thinker and can no longer bear to look at any more photos, certain words will catch her eye and draw her attention away.

Like this, from a love letter written too many years too late: “You are a wonderful person, full of love, joy, humor and beauty.  You can make a room light up when you come in.  There are people who literally owe you their lives.  You are one of a kind.”

Or this, whispered just yesterday: “I cannot imagine not being with you for the rest of my life.”

Or this emailed from a former coworker and friend: “You are brilliant and funny and competent…maybe too competent for your colleagues to understand. And sometimes, you have to swallow your pride and let them think THEY came up with idea. You can do that because you are an amazing person.”

Yeah, she’s not pretty. Never will be. But when she reads the fine print, she guesses that, in the end, she’ll do in a pinch.

My apologies to Hallmark…and 1 Corinthians

February 14, 2011 3 comments

I used to think that I knew what love was.

I knew it as a naive, dewy-eyed pre-teen who had watched her parents’ loving and way-too-short marriage through the eyes of an 11-year-old…which is how old I was when my father died.

From watching Ann and Patrick O’Connor, I thought love was a husband who accepted his wife’s chronic asthma and bookended his long workdays spent outside toiling as a forester for the City of Detroit with stints making breakfast for his four children and later, long into the evening, scrubbing dozens of pairs of kids’ dirty socks by hand on a washboard because that’s the way his mother used to do it.

Watching them, I thought love was when Pat gently teased Ann about her “elephant” pajamas as she stood ironing school uniform shirts and blouses early one morning.  She looked less than sexy as she stood over the board, sweat dripping down her neck, her bed-head hair poking out in all directions, her baggy pajamas, covered with large, printed elephants balancing on orange circus barrels. Yet as he got ready to go to work, he walked to her side, whispered in her ear, gave her a long, deep kiss, then reached down and gently squeezed her backside, before walking out the door whistling.

I watched this love scene from behind the bedroom door, unwilling to interrupt their most private moment, but wanting more than anything to be right there, snuggled between them, soaking up their love like the thirstiest of sponges.

I thought I knew what love was, as I saw them, night after night, stretched out on their matching vinyl couches in the living room, watching TV as we kids sat on the floor, and knowing that when we went to bed, they’d pull out sheets and pillows and sleep on those same couches (because they never had their own bedroom in our home). They’d watch Johnny Carson together and share their only “alone time” of the long day.  That’s what love was, I told myself.

And I thought I knew what love was when I watched them have the only “fight” I can ever remember them having: Mom wanted to go to a Jerry Vale concert in Windsor at the Top Hat Supper Club. Dad said they couldn’t afford it. She put her head down and wept, quietly, while he put his arm around her and told her he understood her disappointment, but that he just couldn’t change his mind about spending money they didn’t have. That was it. No ill will. No angry words. No blame. No resentment. Just sadness, then resolution, and then, moving forward to another day. Together.

For Ann and Pat, it wasn’t about money, or travel, or gifts, or “working out” together, or “date night” or worrying about what top college we kids would get into, or stressing how much they had in their IRA. Hell, they never even owned their own home. For Ann and Pat, it was about the sheer joy they found in simply being with one another…no matter what. Pat and Ann were, as a dear friend of mine recently said about his own love life, “dumbass happy.”

Even though all I knew of love back then was filtered through the brain of an 11-year-old, when I became  an older-but-still-naive bride who did not relish the pomp and circumstance of a big wedding but had one anyway, I still thought that “love” was pretty easy: all we had to do was follow what was written in the 1 Corinthians passage that was read at our wedding. It was a neat, little roadmap for a marriage, all wrapped up in a few beautiful lines.

You remember:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And I thought, based on everything I was sure I knew about love, that it would be a cinch to make that happen in my marriage.

It wasn’t.

We tried. We really did. But love wasn’t always patient. It wasn’t always kind. It didn’t always bear all things, believe all things, and hope all things. And in the end, it didn’t endure all things. And when that happens, one tends to forget all about what one thinks love is.

Since our 20-year marriage ended nearly four years ago, I like to think I’ve relearned a bit more about what love…is.

Love is cooperative. It works out its problems together. It doesn’t say, “I don’t know what to say and I’m not going to counseling but you can if you want.”

Love is flexible. It accepts moodiness and the tendency to spend too much, to worry too much, to whine too much.

Love is dependable. It shows up when it says it will, does what it promises, and hangs around no matter how many unpleasant, nasty, miserable and scary things life conjures up.

Love is tolerant. It sticks around even when the other person is overweight and unattractive, or sometimes has messy hair, unshaven legs  and a fairly loud snore. No matter what, Love sees the beautiful soul and loving heart beneath the elephant pajamas.

Love doesn’t quit. It stays around, no matter how tough the going gets. It works long and hard to renew itself, to find every reason in the world to keep going…and no reason whatsoever to throw in the towel.

Love  is thoughtful. It is the husband in a 50-year marriage asking the intensive care nurse for a tweezers so he can pluck the stray hairs that have grown on his wife’s chin since she fell into a coma.

Love is fearless. It talks out its fears and weaknesses and seeks to learn and grow from them and never lets them get in the way.

Love is deep; it is never superficial. Love is listening to the same story for the 1,000th time. Love is listening to whining, bitching and complaining…and thanking God that you are able to still hear the other person’s voice. Love is truth…and sometimes, its little white lies that make the other person feel better at exactly the moment she needs it. Love is acceptance…and talking the unacceptable things through to a resolution. Love is a partnership in which both parties have equal footing…even when one of them needs help getting up the stairs. Love is a fairly young man understanding that his wife’s devastating illness has robbed her of a normal life, so he spends every waking hour making her laugh and tending to her every need.

And mostly what love is, is really, finally for once and for all, understanding that in the end, love is simply all about being dumbass happy.

With apologies to Hallmark, St. Valentine, and Corinthians…

February 14, 2011 2 comments

I used to think that I knew what love was.

I knew it as a naive, dewy-eyed pre-teen who had watched her parents’ loving and way-too-short marriage through the eyes of an 11-year-old…which is how old I was when my father died.

From watching Ann and Patrick O’Connor, I thought love was a husband who accepted his wife’s chronic asthma and bookended his long workdays spent outside toiling as a forester for the City of Detroit with stints making breakfast for his four children and later, long into the evening, scrubbing dozens of pairs of kids’ dirty socks by hand on a washboard because that’s the way his mother used to do it.

Watching them, I thought love was when Pat gently teased Ann about her “elephant” pajamas as she stood ironing school uniform shirts and blouses early one morning.  She looked less than sexy as she stood over the board, sweat dripping down her neck, her bed-head hair poking out in all directions, her baggy pajamas, covered with large, printed elephants balancing on orange circus barrels. Yet as he got ready to go to work, he walked to her side, whispered in her ear, gave her a long, deep kiss, then reached down and gently squeezed her backside, before walking out the door whistling.

I watched this love scene from behind the bedroom door, unwilling to interrupt their most private moment, but wanting more than anything to be right there, snuggled between them, soaking up their love like the thirstiest of sponges.

I thought I knew what love was, as I saw them, night after night, stretched out on their matching vinyl couches in the living room, watching TV as we kids sat on the floor, and knowing that when we went to bed, they’d pull out sheets and pillows and sleep on those same couches (because they never had their own bedroom in our home). They’d watch Johnny Carson together and share their only “alone time” of the long day.  That’s what love was, I told myself.

And I thought I knew what love was when I watched them have the only “fight” I can ever remember them having: Mom wanted to go to a Jerry Vale concert in Windsor at the Top Hat Supper Club. Dad said they couldn’t afford it. She put her head down and wept, quietly, while he put his arm around her and told her he understood her disappointment, but that he just couldn’t change his mind about spending money they didn’t have. That was it. No ill will. No angry words. No blame. No resentment. Just sadness and then resolution, and then, moving forward to another day. Together.

For Ann and Pat, it wasn’t about money, or travel, or gifts, or “working out” together, or “date night” or worrying about what top college we kids would get into, or stressing how much they had in their IRA…because they never even owned their own home. For Ann and Pat, it was about the sheer joy they found in simply being with one another…no matter what. To put it simply, Pat and Ann were, as a dear friend of mine recently said about his own love life, “dumbass happy.”

So, since all I knew of love back was filtered by the brain of an 11-year-old, when I became  an older-but-still-naive bride who did not relish the pomp and circumstance of a big wedding but had one anyway, I thought that “love” was pretty easy: all we had to do was follow what was written in the 1 Corinthians passage that was read at our wedding. It was a neat, little roadmap for a marriage, all wrapped up in a few beautiful lines.

You remember:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And I thought, based on everything I was sure I knew about love, that it would be a cinch to make that happen in my marriage.

It wasn’t.

We tried. We really did. But love wasn’t always patient. It wasn’t always kind. It didn’t always bear all things, believe all things, and hope all things. And in the end, it didn’t endure all things. And when that happens, one tends to forget all about what one thinks love is.

Since our 20-year marriage ended nearly four years ago, I like to think I’ve relearned a bit more about what love…is.

Love is cooperative. It works out its problems together. It doesn’t say, “I don’t know what to say and I’m not going to counseling but you can if you want.”

Love is flexible. It accepts moodiness and the tendency to spend too much, to worry too much, to whine too much.

Love is dependable. It shows up when it says it will, does what it promises, and hangs around no matter how many unpleasant, nasty, miserable and scary things life conjures up.

Love is tolerant. It sticks around even when the other person is overweight and unattractive, or sometimes has messy hair, unshaven legs  and a fairly loud snore. No matter what, Love sees the beautiful soul and loving heart beneath the elephant pajamas.

Love doesn’t quit. It stays around, no matter how tough the going gets. It works long and hard to renew itself, to find every reason in the world to keep going…and no reason whatsoever to throw in the towel.

Love  is thoughtful. It is the husband in a 50-year marriage asking the intensive care nurse for a tweezers so he can pluck the stray hairs that have grown on his wife’s chin since she fell into a coma.

Love is fearless. It talks out its fears and weaknesses and seeks to learn and grow from them and never let them get in the way of living life to its fullest.

Love is deep; it is never superficial. Love is listening to the same story for the 1,000th time. Love is listening to whining, bitching and complaining…and thanking God that you are able to still hear the other person’s voice. Love is truth…and sometimes, its little white lies that make the other person feel better at exactly the moment she needs it. Love is acceptance…and talking the unacceptable things through to a resolution. Love is a partnership in which both parties have equal footing…even when one of them needs help getting up the stairs. Love is a fairly young man understanding that his wife’s devastating illness has robbed her of a normal life, so he spends every waking hour making her laugh and tending to her every need.

And mostly what love is, is really, finally for once and for all, understanding that in the end, love is simply all about being dumbass happy.

Faith: working without a net

February 6, 2011 3 comments

Years ago, my second cousin died in an awful, tragic car accident when he was a senior in high school.  As you would expect, the young man’s funeral was unbearably sad. Hundreds of stricken teenagers and our entire extended family – in shock.

At the end of the funeral Mass,  his mom –  my first cousin – her husband and six other children walked up the aisle of the church, following the coffin. They were crying, as one might expect. The amazing thing was they were also all smiling – broadly. Through the shock and grief they leaned heavily on one another…but more importantly, on their faith. Each one of them seemed to have an absolute, complete, unshakable faith that this beautiful young man, despite dying far too young, had gone to a better place.

And although it sounds awful, I envy them. I’ve never experienced deep faith in that way… not that day nor any day since.

My mother had complete faith in God. Despite a terrible chronic illness that robbed her of a “normal” adult life, she kept the faith. Even after losing her second child in a premature birth, she kept the faith. And when she was four-and-a-half months pregnant with her sixth child – at age 44 – and her husband of only 15 years, my dad, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, she kept the faith.

In fact, it was even stronger. The night before Dad’s funeral, with dozens of relatives roaming around trying to “help” and her four children staggering around the house in a mixture of grief, disbelief and utter terror over losing their father, Mom lay in her bed, trying not to have a miscarriage.

The stress of losing her husband and preparing to bury him had taken its toll. Mom was bleeding and her pregnancy was in danger. The family doctor had told her to remain on bedrest…even advised that if she wanted to keep the baby, she needed to seriously consider missing Dad’s funeral.

Mom listened politely to the doctor, who was also her good friend. She had some cousins put bricks under the foot of her bed, propping her feet up, and did what the doctor said, for the most part. Then, throughout that sweltering night, while the rest of us slept, she prayed the Rosary, talking to God, to her husband, and to Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus. She literally WILLED that baby back up into a safer spot in her womb and trusted that God would make sure it stayed there. And in the morning, Mom went to Dad’s funeral. Four months later, a healthy baby Patty was born.

Yes, my mother had faith. She was faith personified. Unfortunately, she died before she could share her secret with me.

How does one believe when belief seems impossible? How does one trust when disappointment is a daily occurrence? How does one let go – completely – of trying to control a situation that by its very nature is out of control?

Despite attending weekly Mass, reading the New Testament whenever I can, and consulting often with a priest who happens to be a good friend – and hell, even after teaching fifth grade catechism for a decade, I still wrestle with the concept of faith. I still have a hard time believing what I can’t see. A hard time trusting in what I can’t control. And a hard time being assured that there is a reason for everything and that somehow, some way, things will turn out okay, even when many times…they haven’t.

I’ve had a few tests of my faith (such as it is). I was tested at 11 when I found my dad unconscious on the bathroom floor. And again at 15 when I was diagnosed with a chronic pain and inflammatory disorder and later that year, when Mom was rewarded for her lifelong faith by getting to discuss it face-to-face with God.

My faith has been tested a dozen times more since then and I still feel weak and frightened, as  battle-scarred as I’ve been by life’s usual challenges.  At 53, it bothers me that I am still seeking answers, that I feel that I am always walking on eggshells with God, and that each day I feel the stomach-twisting fear that I am convinced must go hand-in-hand with a lack of true faith.

I am not sure I know what the answer is. Right now, I am struggling with another of life’s many challenges that seem to be around every corner. It’s a situation that demands ultimate faith. And I am…well, still a little weak on the concept.

Because every time I remember my cousins and their ultimate show of faith…and every time I hear my mother’s voice in my head assuring me that everything would be all right…all I can think of are the Flying Wallendas.

You remember the famous aerial artist Wallenda family act that toured the world?  They thrilled thousands of fans around the world for decades, entertaining people by soaring high above the ground, doing amazing, fancy tricks on tightropes and swings, flying through the air, performing, death-defying, dangerous highwire acts without a net. Kind of like I feel like on many of my days.

And we all know what happened to the Wallendas, don’t we?

I had this friend…

September 22, 2010 6 comments

When I was in the sixth grade, my best friend Margaret Kearney moved to California. I was devastated. I was shy and introverted and didn’t make friends easily…but Margaret was my true friend.

She was little and pixie-like and fun and lively and we hung out together after school every day. We whispered our little girl secrets, talked about crushes on boys, giggled a lot, played baseball whenever we could, and sang Monkees songs until we were hoarse. Best of all, we had a special bond that came from sharing our weird, old-lady name: Margaret. Then, she was gone.

So, that year, when I was 12, my mom soon tired of me moping around and made me call up other classmates to set up what we would now call play-dates. Back then, it was just a call to see if these “friends” would like to come over and hang out. I called three people. They all refused. I cried for two days. “That’s what I get for trying,” I yelled at my mom, who probably wondered how she had gotten me, a painfully shy, shrinking wallflower, in the midst of the other three rambunctious funseekers that were her other children.

Making friends hasn’t gotten a lot easier for me in the intervening 41 years. I have what can best be described as a “difficult” personality. I am rather direct and, some might say, I have a slight tendency toward the negative. In reality, I am a realist with lots of real-life experience in what’s real. Really.

Still, I sometimes envy groups of women I see out together enjoying “girls night out,” a special “friends” ritual to which I have never been invited. I’ve missed out on things like “girl talk,” and “playing cards with the girls.” When I was married, I had some work friends; together, we had no “couples” friends at all.  Even today, I am a little jealous of couples who dine with, travel with and can count on their close, “couples” friends to invite them to barbecues and bonfires and football games.

Sometimes, when I watch these friends couples, I feel a little like Barbara Stanwyck in the weepy old movie Stella Dallas: standing in the rain, wearing a cheesy dress, mascara running down my teary face, outside the restaurant window looking in at the shiny, happy couples enjoying the high life with their friends.

So, why don’t I have many friends?

Well, I am definitely not a “hope, love, faith, bubbles, rainbows, puppies, kitties, pink ribbons and Care Bears” kind of gal. I call a spade a spade…and a moron, a moron. I can be moody. I swear and complain and am sort of a Glass-Half-Empty-Old-Milk-Ring-on the-Bottom-of-the-Glass-Not-To-Mention-A- Big-Chip-On-The Rim-of-the-Glass kind of person. Some people find that off-putting.

And some people don’t. I like to call them my friends. And I have had friends.

I had this friend…

…who wrote a story about me in which she described my personality as “navy blue…with flashes of orange.” A shy girl, she also stood up in a high school class meeting and told the other juniors to be nice to me and help me out after I returned to school after a year-long illness. We shared a love of baseball and the Detroit Tigers, of books and movies, and of relishing our status as “nerds.” Never invited to a prom, we nevertheless dressed up in prom dresses and posed for prom pictures with our invisible dates. We had many happy times together…went on road trips across the country…drove to our shared urban university together every day for the first two years of college. Then she moved on…to grad school, marriage and a child, and a job a two-hour drive from where I lived, worked and had my own family. I’ve only seen her five or six times since 1992. I miss her a lot.

I had this friend…

…who loved hockey as much as I do. We played hockey on a women’s club team. We went to Red Wings’ games together for years. We traveled to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. We got all dressed up for the traditional New Year’s Eve Red Wings’ game every year for a decade. We got hilariously drunk together at parties on summer weekends at my sister’s house. She and I babysat a lot…watching the children of friends and relatives because we loved babies but didn’t have any of our own. We laughed at world’s skinny, pretty princesses together. We went on crash diets together with the unspoken desire of being skinny, pretty princesses ourselves…just for one day. It was one of my life’s most special moments when she called me to be present at the emergency C-section when she gave birth to her daughter. Then and now, I’d trust her with my life. She’s busy with her own life now, owning a business and taking care of her mom, her husband and daughter. I haven’t hugged her in two years and that hurts my heart.

I had this friend…

…who made me laugh the first day we met. I was wearing my usual tough-chick-doesn’t-need-anybody-screw-you-buddy look on my face when we were introduced. He was the new reporter/photographer at the weekly rag where I was the sports writer. Ten years older, he was witty and fun and just two hours after we met, he shattered my tough-girl facade when he read aloud a news story about a famous young starlet who had just been married. “To whom,” I said, feigning interest. “Leo Durocher,” he shot back, not missing a beat. A friendship was born.

Over the years, my favorite U.S. Marine and I had lots of interesting times: writing comedy scripts, poking fun at the world and spending too many Friday nights drinking rum and coke at the local drive-in, watching awful horror movies until 2 a.m., and then retiring to his house (full blessings from his wife and kids) to eat pizza, finish off the rum, laugh at Monty Python reruns and watch the sun rise. He’s divorced now and lives alone back in Michigan, working doggedly toward retirement. He emails me every now and then…but hasn’t been around in about a decade to give me a real belly laugh. I miss that and I miss him.

I had this friend…

…who seemed like he could see right into my soul. He’s told me things about myself that I never knew and it turned out that he was mostly right. Ten years younger and from a very different background, he was smart and funny and “got it.” Hanging out with him was exciting and dangerous and flat-out fun…things I could never be all by myself. 

We’ve laughed and bantered, argued sports and debated religion and guzzled copious amounts of pricey wine together. We’ve watched tons of our favorite sports, navigated many rough roads together at work, and had a blast traveling on business and coming back with the stories to prove it. He listened to me sing my one and only karaoke song – appropriately enough, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” – and told me that when I sang, he could “hear my inner teenager.” We’ve danced to Sinatra in his living room at midnight on a school night and sang Kid Rock in his car on the way to the Tigers’ game. He has shared a shoulder while I cried about my children’s challenges. And I’ve held his hand while he cried about never finding his true love or real peace in his life. We’ve grown apart recently – I don’t really understand why- and it’s awkward. I miss him terribly.

But I do sense a pattern. And, thinking about these friendships then and now, I suddenly realize that once again, there’s a big hole in my heart where a good friend would fit perfectly. I wonder what Margaret Kearney is doing these days.

Salad days

August 18, 2010 1 comment

It was hot at dinner time last night. Well, what passes for “hot” in the Pacific Northwest: 82 degrees, no breeze, minimal humidity. But we also don’t have air conditioning in the great PNW. I think everyone’s still waiting for Lewis and Clark to bring out the AC units on their next expedition. So, it was a little too warm for the stove or oven.

The kids were pretty hungry so I headed to the store to buy something, anything, for dinner. “Let’s have something cool,” Erin shouted after me as I walked out the door. “Something delicious and  cool.”

“Yeah, let me get right on that, princess,” I muttered to myself as I walked to the car. Grocery shopping and cooking meals have never been in the top 2,751 things I love to do in my life. I’d rather clean up kid vomit – even from someone else’s kid – than go grocery shopping and then cook a meal.

But, since the Department of Social Services rarely sees any humor in parents who don’t feed their kids, I usually manage to muster enough interest and energy to come up with five or six pretty-fair-to-occasionally-awesome evening meals a week. The kids are on their own for breakfasts, lunches and Sundays.

So last night, in the heat, I came up with the idea of a meat and cheese salad. Something with lots of lettuce and a cool and creamy, sweet-tangy dressing. And sweet gherkins, yeah. And maybe a couple of green olives for garnish.

I raced through the store buying ingredients and then headed home in a hurry. It was getting late, we were all hungry and there was still driving practice (Lord help me: two teenaged driving novices on the road at the same time) to fit in before dark.

I told the kids: here’s a recipe I found…start chopping and mixing. Erin was right on it. Patrick’s interest faded when he noticed that there weren’t going to be too many calories in a meat and low-fat cheese salad. And those ingredients, Mom. “Can’t we substitute dill pickles for the sweet gherkins? And black olives for the green? And I hate Swiss,” he said, shooting big holes in my selection of cheeses. “Why don’t you use cheddar instead?” he asked, clearly disappointed that there wouldn’t be any breading and frying going on at dinner this night.

“Because then, my son, then this wouldn’t be a Maurice Salad,” I replied. “And tonight, we’re having Maurice Salad.”

Erin and I worked together in the kitchen, side by side, chatting and laughing. We ran back and forth to the computer to check the recipe several times, laughing at the weird, old-fashioned instructions. “Onion juice…really, Mom?” And, “who is this Maurice dude, anyway.” It was a rare moment for us. And darn it, it was fun.

Fifteen minutes later we sat down to the crisp yet comforting mixture of julienned turkey, ham, Swiss cheese and lettuce crowned by that famous tangy dressing and two – only two – pimento-stuffed green olives on each salad plate.

Patrick politely ate one small plateful and didn’t comment much. But Erin raved over the cool, crunchy combination of flavors and actually ate an entire, normal-person serving instead of the bird-size portions that are her usual practice. “Mmmmm, Mom. This is awesome,” she said, with a full mouth and a satisfied smile.

“Oh, it’s more than awesome,” I said, savoring each bite of my salad. “It’s history, guys. It’s Detroit in a mouthful. This was the salad that was to die for at the old J.L. Hudson’s department store downtown,” I explained, watching their faces for looks of recognition.

Then I suddenly remembered that neither of them had any recollection of the historic downtown treasure whatsoever. J.L. Hudson’s downtown store closed in 1983 and was imploded in 1998 when they were 6 and 4 years old, respectively.

They would never remember that Hudson’s at one time was the tallest department store in America, each floor filled with curiously wonderful and odd sounding items: Notions. Stationery. Men’s Haberdashery. Ladies Foundations. They never sat on Santa’s lap in the 13th Floor Christmas Wonderland. And they never dined in the Mezzanine Restaurant nor did they sit in the window booths of the restaurant, looking out over the First Floor Jewelry counters and watching with excitement as the fancy Grosse Pointe ladies bought their watches and earrings.

Their stomachs full and their attention turning elsewhere, I sat alone with my thoughts. Each bite reminded me of Hudson’s, of Detroit, of home. The memories came flooding back: Saturday excursions by bus with Grandma or Margie Ryan or aunt Bert O’Connor. A stop at Crowley’s or Kerns and then off to Hudson’s for the main event:  shopping and then into the Hudson’s restaurant for lunch. Lunch was always the same: Maurice Salad with a delicate dinner roll and real, soft butter, and a cold Coke with lots of tiny ice chips; coffee for Bert and tea for Grandma or Margie. No dessert, even if the lemon pie always looked delicious. No, dessert was for later, over at Sanders’ Ice Cream Parlor…but that’s another memory entirely.

Last night, as I savored my Maurice Salad I wasn’t wondering who Maurice was…or why, indeed, did they use sweet gherkins instead of dill pickles. I was remembering the wonderful days walking through that old store and the incredible, strong Irish women who made it their mission to introduce us kids to the finest things that Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s could offer. I was remembering the giant flag – largest in the world – that Hudson’s flew every Flag Day. I was remembering the green J. L. Hudson’s shopping bags that invariably carried home special treasures that wouldn’t last nearly as long as my memories of those special times.

“Thanks, Mom,” Erin said, bounding back into the kitchen, ready to rinse her plate and hit the road for driving practice.  “That was delicious. Really cool.”

It WAS cool. REALLY cool.

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