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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.

There’s an IV in my arm so it must be December.

December 8, 2010 5 comments

First Saturday in December and there I was again: hooked up to an IV, EKG sticky strips plastered all over me, oxygen running into my nose through one of those disgusting nose things, scared, feeling awful and worse, very badly dressed in the baggy, open-in-the back, dignity-stealing garment that screams “HOSPITAL! SICK! WEAK! VULNERABLE!”

I WAS in the hospital. And, as it turned out I really wasn’t sick or weak, but I WAS rather vulnerable. Earlier that day, I was working out at the gym when I had chest pain and shortness of breath. It kept happening after I stopped working out, so I went to the emergency room near my home in Issaquah, WA. There, they got two suspicious EKGs so they sent me by ambulance to the Swedish Cherry Hill campus in Seattle which is “all-cardiac, all the time.”

Two days, thousands of dollars of tests, 11 blood draws, 48 hours of cardiac telemetry monitoring, two IVs of potassium (not the lethal injection variety), six very bland cardiac diet meals, one massive allergic skin reaction to the sticky stuff on the EKG strips (I can provide photos), and one nasty thallium stress test (I now glow in the dark!) later, they told me the following:

  1. I did not have a heart attack.
  2. The stress test shows excellent blood flow to my heart, so it is an 85% sure thing (the best that non-invasive technology offers) that I have no blockages or other cardiac ailments.
  3. I have more stress in my life than 14 human beings collectively and need to reduce it immediately. If not sooner. Let me add that to my “to-do” list, won’t you, Doc?
  4. I take in too much caffeine and caffeine can cause wonky EKGs. I need to work on cutting out caffeine…but first, a cuppa Joe.
  5. I should be grateful for Obama healthcare; if I didn’t have it, I’d owe them my first-born son.
  6. Only I could be assigned a young male nurse who looked like he’d be much more at home playing World of Warcraft and Beer Pong than taking care of me.

Now, when most people think of December they think of holidays: peace, love, giving, Christmas, Hanukkah, 24 hours of The Christmas Story on TV, parties, caroling around the Christmas tree…the whole nine yards worth of holly and berries.

Me? When I think of December, I think first of call buttons, nurses, waiting for test results, bad hospital food, uncomfortable yet magically moveable beds, ambulances, disembodied voices calling out “code blues” in the ER, people waking me up in the dead of night to take my “vitals” and then telling me to “get some rest, now.” Because for me, December has always meant “hospital month.”

My first December in the hospital came when I was five and I had my tonsils out. Back then, it was a three-day adventure in the pediatric ward that ended with mega-doses of ice cream. With my luck, it stretched into eight days, thanks to a post-surgery hemorrhage leading to having my nose packed leading to an infection leading to no ice cream because I couldn’t swallow.

My most vivid memory of that visit was sitting in the window of the pediatric ward and watching the movie Lady and the Tramp on the large screen of the now-defunct Eastside Drive-In a few blocks away. How very cruel to position a drive-in screen pointed directly at the St. John Hospital pediatric ward where tiny patients could watch the movie but never hear it!

My next December in the hospital came at age 15 when I spent Thanksgiving and part of December in the peds ward being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. By the time I was well enough to go home in early December, I had lost most of my hair, still had swollen joints and limbs, and was forced to walk with a walker (such an attractive option for a teenager in the 1970s!).

My first day home from the hospital, I wanted to visit my church to see the Christmas decorations. When the pastor heard some slight commotion in the otherwise empty church (I couldn’t travel alone so some of my siblings – the noisy troublemakers – went with me) he came to investigate. Despite my explanations, Fr. O’Shea just chased us all out of building, shoving me and shaking his cane at me. The walker that seemed so painfully obvious to me was apparently invisible to the crazy, old priest. Season’s greetings and wise men, indeed.

It was another December when I was in the hospital for the birth of my first child, Megan Claire. She was born more than three months early, though, so she died in December, too. I spent a lot of the month in the hospital that year – 1990 – trying in vain to keep that pregnancy going, to keep her inside me as long as I could. While I prayed for enough time for her to grow and for her lungs to be strong, I remember hearing the carolers walk through the hospital and wondering why their songs made me so sad during such a happy season. 

Beautiful little Megan was born on the night of December 13, 1990…so impossibly small, too small to survive. As Mike and I held her in our arms, saying hello and goodbye at the same time, the delivery room nurse told me through her own tears that she suddenly had an unusually strong sense of joy.  She felt this joy, she said, because she – she who barely knew me but because of what we had just been through together had come to know me like a sister – had experienced an overwhelming and amazing feeling of hope.

“I know that you will be back here…soon…and you will have  a strong, healthy child. Don’t ask me how I know that. I just know,” she told me as she gently prepared me to give up the body of my child and go into surgery myself.

Indeed, she knew. One year and 17 days later, after much worry, pain and even some laughter (one hasn’t lived until, while one is in her 12th hour of heavy labor, one’s husband points to the TV and says, “look dear, it’s the “Big Breasted Women” show on Montel Williams today!”)…I gave birth to Patrick John Andrzejczyk. He entered the world with a husky cry, a full head of curly, red hair and weighing enough for the delivery room nurses to wince as they helped me push out his 9 pound, 8-ounce, 23-inch frame without benefit of any pain killing drugs (for me…still not sure what the nurses were on).

Three years later, Patrick and I were to spend another part of December  in St. John Hospital. One morning, while  I was getting his baby sister, Erin, ready to go to daycare, Patrick was in the other room watching cartoons and eating breakfast. When Erin was ready, I went to get Patrick into his coat and boots. He was on the couch, sound  asleep. Or so I thought. After five minutes of trying, I could not wake him and his heartbeat was faint and breathing very shallow.

My sister Patty bundled up the baby and I grabbed Patrick’s limp body and we raced to the car. “Please God,” I begged as I drove like a crazy woman all the way to the hospital. “Please don’t let anything be wrong with my baby boy.”  I literally did a dead run with the unconscious 3-year-old in my arms, pushing past the security guard at the ER entrance and telling him to go to hell with his metal detector…my baby was sick!

Patrick spent the day in a 14-hour “nap,”  oblivious to the doctors administering a spinal tap (I watched them do it, but barely had the backbone for it). After many tests and more reassurances from the doctors, it was determined that Patrick had – in the span of five minutes – spiked a fever, had a febrile seizure, and when I found him, was already in the post-seizure slumber. He would be fine, they said.

We spent two days in the hospital that year, Patrick and I. He was sick and crabby and miserable. I was tired and stressed and rumpled (still dressed in the work clothes I’d put on the day before) but very, very relieved.

That night, the carolers came by once again, singing and bearing gifts for the poor children stuck in pediatrics in December. The nice volunteer held out a box filled with gifts from which Patrick and I could choose. Inside were toys, kid videos and games. Patrick’s chubby little hand hovered briefly over one gift before choosing a package of Hot Wheels cars. I looked into the box to see what he had elected to leave behind: a videotape of Lady and the Tramp. It’s amazing how the circle always closes.

All of these “December in the hospital” memories came flooding back to me today, as I spent the day off work, recovering and trying to “de-stress.”  Funny, there were no carolers serenading me this past weekend, I mused, as I recounted these December hospital memories to my now-grown son, Patrick, as we drove around in the car.

“It’s okay, Mom. “Here, we can listen to Handel’s Messiah,” he said, popping the CD into the car stereo. I looked at my nearly 19-year-old “baby,” and marveled at his kindness, his intelligence and good humor, and his patience at my retelling of ancient history. I chuckled as I watched the little boy-like love for all things Christmas that seemed to literally pour from the 6-3, 270-pound, curly-haired, man-son squeezed into my tiny car.

And then I smiled as I thought to myself: “Sometimes, you get to take some pretty cool things home from the hospital in December.”

Missing the Mitten

September 13, 2010 9 comments

Two years ago, I thought it would be an excellent idea to shake up my life. Things were pretty miserable in Michigan – personally and professionally. My kids were struggling terribly and so was I.

After being told by my boss of less than a year that I would lose my job in another year (we want to bring in our own team…you understand…we’ll give you a raise, so you keep doing a great job and spending part of the year finding a new position elsewhere), I knew I had to make a move.

So, after trying to sell my home in a “short sale” and failing miserably, and then watching my home go into foreclosure, I packed all my stuff in to a 17-foot Uhaul and headed across the country to a new job outside Seattle. (Note to old boss: it only took me 60 days to find a new job, ya prick.) The difficult part was realizing the only job I could get was far away from economically depressed Michigan.

Bellevue, Washington, is 2,372 miles from 1797 Brys Drive in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, where I had spent the last 15 years working and the last 50 years living. In reality, it’s on an entirely different planet.

People are, well, a little odd here. Odd in so many ways, large and small. Their oddness is wrapped in a thin blanket of indifference; they aren’t cold exactly…just not very warm. Not exactly a place where an introverted, 51-year-old woman from Detroit can find her new best friend. And face it: any new place can be pretty lonely and unpleasant without friends. And it is.

Then there’s the weather. The moniker “Rain City” doesn’t even begin to cover it; let’s just say that I don’t think that T-shirts imprinted with the phrase, “Seattle: Where the Weather is Miserably Shitty 300 Days a Year” are going to be big sellers at the Pike Place Market, as accurate as they might be.

While I have had many joys here (first year on the job was really great…since then – not so much) and I met a terrific man (who only gets mildly annoyed at my lack of appreciation for his hometown), I still feel very homesick for MY hometown. Every day, in every way, there are some things I really, really miss about Michigan.

Like:

Strangers who smile and actually speak to you. You can make a friend for life in a Kroger checkout line in Michigan (or at least hear the person’s life story before the bagger packs away your Kowalski sausages). In Seattle, if I am walking my empty cart back to the cart corral at QFC and a person walking up to get a cart arrives at the same time, he or she won’t make eye contact. Heck, even if you offer the cart to them, they’ll shake their heads and keep walking away from you to grab another cart. Hey, people: I’m just offering a grocery cart, not proposing a lifetime commitment.

Sportscasters and sports talk guys who actually know what they are talking about. When the Detroit guys say it, they don’t scream it. The baseball guy here – a legend, they tell me – screams, “Fly Away!” when one of the Mariners hits a home run. Uh, Hambone? It’s a baseball, not a peace dove. And on the blue-moon occasions when the “Ms” hit a grand slam, he yells, “Get out the mustard and rolls, Grandma, that’s a Grand Salami!” Ugh. Detroit fans ran one baseball broadcaster out of the D about 20 years ago because of his terminal hokeyness. Not surprisingly, he caught on here in Seattle, where he, too, is now a “legend.”

My front porch. Surrounded by beautiful flowers in the summer and evergreen boughs and twinkling white lights in the winter, my front porch was a wonderful place to sit and gather my early morning thoughts over a cup of hot coffee…or drink copious amounts of beer and wine with my best work buddies on a sweltering Friday evening…or decorate for Halloween and have a family party while handing out treats…or sip tea and munch on Girl Scout cookies with my sisters…or simply curl up in the wicker rocking chairs with two little curly-haired children to watch the fireflies and sing “Amazing Grace” to them until they fell asleep.

Familiar, sensible roads and highways. In Michigan, you always know where you are and how to get there. Roads are usually called only by one or two names (Six Mile = McNichols, Eight Mile = Vernier)…not seven or eight different names that wind around mountains and create havoc for unsuspecting drivers. We went driving yesterday to look at houses in Issaquah or Sammamish (okay, I will admit they have cool names for towns out here…ask me about Sequim!).  For an hour, we drove up and down East Lake Sammamish Pky SE (don’t ask) searching for a house. Turns out it was on “East Lake Sammamish Pl SE.” (Apparently”ky” doesn’t always make things go smoothly…)

In Michigan, if you are lost or need to give or get directions, you just hold up your hand. Here in Washington, an outline of our first president’s head is imprinted on the state road signs. So, when using George Washington’s head to give or get directions, Puget Sound would be…sort of…well, the snot running out of George’s nose. Loses something in the translation.

Living no more than 10 minutes from any one of my siblings. Sean, Claire, Kevin and Patty are my heart and my soul. We never cut the apron strings and we never lost the deep, loving connection to one another that was forged by the challenges of our early lives together. Those relationships are living things that need to be watered and fed often, by getting together and laughing our heads off trying to out-do one another. They aren’t just my brothers and sisters…they are friends, soul mates, connections to our parents and to better times. I only see them once a year now and I miss them terribly.

Despite the loneliness, I AM trying to make a happy life here in the Seattle area. My kids are here with me and so is Max – and that is wonderful. We have lots of good days, mixed in with the sad and lonely ones. I may curse the “marine layer” that hangs overhead for two-thirds of the year…but I marvel at the mountains and someday, I might actually drive the two hours it takes to get from my house to the Pacific and admire the ocean, too.

I drink lots of coffee (my Michigan peeps would love Tullys…it’s a lot like Tim Horton’s). I attend Issaquah Salmon Days every year. And I watch – but never cheer for – the Mariners and Seahawks.

Give me time. You see, when you shake things up, it takes a while for everything to settle.

Cheeseburgers scream. Cupcakes only whisper…

August 25, 2010 4 comments

It occurred to me today that I have been overweight for nearly 40 of my 53 years on Earth. I can say this without feeling too awful about that fact because I just lost 27 pounds in two months.  

Again.   

I first gained weight at age 12 when my dad died, my mom had her fifth child, and our grieving but very busy family fell into some bad eating habits (each of us eating a huge cheeseburger and fries from the old Red Barn restaurant every Friday night was probably ill-advised…as were the Instant Mashed Potato Flakes served at nearly every meal).   

I remember weighing about 90 pounds when I began seventh grade, a year after Dad died of a brain aneurysm. By the end of that school year, I weighed 170 pounds and every cookie I ate was because I was a lonely little girl looking to fill the very big void her daddy left.   

As you may have guessed, the rest of my middle and high school years were an ugly blur of fat jokes that continued on through college and well into my 20s. Even today, my closet has three full sets of clothes, complete with labels: Pretty Princess Skinny, Not-Doing-So-Well-But-Only-One-Chin, and Moving into Muu-Muu Territory…Hide the Fragile Chairs.   

I have gained and lost enough weight over the years to construct a couple dozen regular sized adult human beings from scratch. There are probably 10,000 diets and I’ve tried every one. I joined Weight Watchers at age 13 and again at the ages of 29, 35, and 47. The story was the same: immediate weight loss success followed immediately by a return to poor eating habits and no exercise followed by immediate weight gain. I am obviously not Weight Watchers material. Like Groucho Marx,  I wouldn’t belong to a club that would have me as a member.   

I tried all the geographically related weight loss programs: LA, South Beach, Scarsdale, Shangri-La, Sonoma and Mediterranean. Sadly, I never got anywhere with these plans.   

Then there were the funny-sounding-name diets: Breatharian (stop breathing and weigh nothing in months!), Elemental (eat all the dirt you want and never count calories!), Fatfield (no, they don’t remove your fat and take it to a field), Flexitarian (I think the colon was involved and not in any fun way), Fruitarian (works for a while but there are only so many kumquat one can eat), Hackers (cough up the calories!), Hallelujah (“this one will never work, fatty,” a chorus sang in my ear), Inuit (you’ve gotta eat blubber to lose blubber!), Israeli Army diet (eat, Bubala, eat), and the Pescetarian diet (something was definitely fishy about that one).   

Even now there are 47 different “diet” cookbooks on the shelf in my kitchen. There are another two dozen “This is the last diet book you’ll ever buy!” diet plan books on my library shelf. Someday, I’ll light them all on fire and grill up some nice marinated beef kabobs – served with a side of garlic pine nut couscous – for dinner.   

This time, a serious illness earlier this summer jump-started my weight loss. A real lack of appetite since I got sick continues to plague me…or save me…I haven’t figured out which it is.  When I felt better, I devised a “plan” and continue to stick with it; it’s ingenious, really.   

In fact, I ought to get a patent. It’s complicated, but try to follow me on this: see, you actually just count calories and watch what you eat. One sensible serving of your food choices at each meal…very minimal snacking…make sure it adds up to only 1,200 calories in a day, lots of veggies and fruit, lean proteins, hardly any bread, not much fat or sugar, eat mostly whole foods and drink lots of water.

The real key (and I won’t charge any extra for this innovative tip) is to actually get my ass up off the chair and go outside and walk a couple of miles every day, or ride my exercise bike and then lift small weights. (And shhhh: I do it EVERY day. What a concept!).   

I have a lot of weight left to lose: 60 pounds or so more until I am at the healthiest weight recommended for my height, age and lifestyle (it does occur to me that I wouldn’t have to work this hard if I was an 8-foot-tall hummingbird).   

The best part of it all is that, for the most part, I’ve stopped hearing the voices. See, for years, food has talked to me. Seriously. And I always listened to food. Listening to food was  prettier, easier, smarter, sexier and lots more fun than hearing the gospel according to Dr. Atkins or Jenny Craig.

“We’re here at Josef’s Bakery…right on the bottom shelf,” called the double-chocolate cookies. “Please come buy us and eat us right away,” wailed the flaky, buttery, spinach-feta croissant at another Grosse Pointe pastry shop. “You haven’t stopped by in AGES to eat one of us,” shrieked the grilled cheeseburgers as they sat, dripping gloriously delicious fat while cooking to an even “medium well” on the grill at The Irish Coffee bar.   

The cupcakes are the worst. They only whisper…but they never stop. They started calling to me 40 years ago when Floyd The  Bakerman would bring a six-pack of chocolate frosted deliciousness from Sanders’ Bakery directly to our house – and put it on our tab!   

They continued their sensuous whisper to me from the freezer case at Kroger and they never shut up even when I would jam a carton full of Sara Lee chocolate heaven into my purse – my purse for God’s sake! – to hide them from my family and eat them all by myself.   

Even now, from the incredible Confetti Cupcakes in Issaquah – some six miles away – I can hear their siren song: “Come on, Peggy. Just one. Just one tasty, delicious chocolate squiggle cupcake,” they whisper quietly. “Only a few hundred calories. And no one but you will know.”   

Yes, food after food from place after place and year after year joined their voices until the sounds swelled into an incredibly deafening crescendo that pounded my ears and assaulted all my senses: “Eat us! Scarf us down! We’re delicious! You can’t just walk away!”  

And until now, I never could.   

I feel pretty good about what I’ve accomplished and not-too-bad about what is yet to come. I know I have to work on this every day for the rest of my life. My sister Claire did it: she lost 100 pounds by watching what she ate and writing it all down for a year…and riding her stationary bike to the best place on the planet: freedom from fat.   

It won’t be easy, I know. After all, a waist is a terrible thing to mind.

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.

Driving Miss Crazy


Last week, President Obama did something that made me bristle with envy: during his visit to Michigan and Detroit-area auto plants, he got into, started up, and drove a shiny new Chevy Volt.

It wasn’t the fact that he got to drive this much-anticipated, long-awaited extended range electric car that is so new that it isn’t even on the streets yet. It wasn’t that, as president, he had hundreds of adoring fans and attentive media focused on his every driving move.

It was that he drove just 10 feet, put the car into park, got out, pumped his fist and…walked away from the car.

He walked away from the car. AFTER DRIVING JUST TEN FEET!

It’s good to be the president. I want that job. Well, without the wars and the bad economy and the unemployment and the partisan fighting and the stress and national security and all that serious stuff.

It’s not a bad job if you can spend most of your days being chauffeured around. I’d love a job where – usually when spinning up the voters at the local plant or doing a photo opp and driving around in a pick up to clear the brush down on the ranch – I’d only need to climb behind the wheel of a car and drive it myself once or twice a year.

Yeah, I’d trade jobs in a nano-second. No matter what. I know this because I am…”Mom Who Drives Teens”, also known as the star of the remake titled Driving Miss Crazy.

I haven’t always felt this way. Back when I was a teenager myself, I couldn’t wait to drive. The freedom, the ability to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The sheer, unbridled joy at being able to rely on myself – and no one else – to get me where I wanted to go. The feel of being adult and on my own…a full tank of gas, the wind in my hair, and having to be nowhere in particular. God, what an amazing feeling that was!

Thirty-seven years and hundreds of thousands of miles later, I can wait already. Over those 37 years, I have averaged something like 57,000 hours on the road. Driving. Picking up and dropping off. Parking and waiting. Running from work or school or sleep to drive to pick up a friend, relative, child, stranger, young person, old person, sick person, healthy person, married, single, divorced, widowed, gay, straight and ambiguous. I’ve driven priests, nuns and atheists. Siblings, singers, dates, dancers, grandparents, golfers, cherubs and cheerleaders.

I’ve driven dozens of different cars; I owned some, I borrowed some, rented some, and others I worked hard to get to use for a few precious hours. Ford Mavericks, Granadas and Country Squires. Mercury Montegos. Buicks. Four-ton Uhauls. Every model in the Jeep line. Olds 88s. PT Cruisers – first model year and last.

I’ve piloted most members of the Dodge/Daimler/Chrysler/Plymouth/Fiat family:  Colt, Caravan, Durango, Pacifica, Omni, Horizon, a big, old Ram pickup, Acclaim, Reliant, Caliber, and too many others to remember. There was even a cute, little red Renault Alliance purchased in its first model year – the first car I ever owned – which three years later blew up and was towed away still smoking and grinning its demonic, headlight/grille grin.

I’ve driven those vehicles and others to  school, work, stores, doctors, games, practices, funerals, weddings, college campuses, theaters, stadiums, TV stations, bus stops, parlors – the tattoo, beauty and funeral variety – meat-packing plants, IRS offices, drug stores, feed stores, nurseries and nursery schools, food stamp offices, birthday parties, choir practices and colonoscopies, drug tests, festivals, fireworks, fast food joints, bars, grills, restaurants, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, libraries, lunch counters, loony bins, car dealerships, and yes, driver’s training classes.

Which is where I am now. Well, not right now, but at 10 a.m. and noon every week day for the next month. The kids are taking driver’s ed classes. Both of them. Right now, I am their Travis Bickle without the fomenting insanity. I am the less blustery Ralph Cramden to their calm, cool Ed Norton…if Ed had ever ridden in Ralph’s bus. I am their Jim Ignatowski with way better hair. In short, I am their ticket to ride.

So, every day for the rest of the summer I will drive four miles to work at 7:30 a.m., leave work at 9:30 a.m. to drive four miles back to pick up the kids, drive six miles to Issaquah, drop them off in time for the 10 a.m. class, drive six miles back to work, work for a while, then at 11:45, drive six miles back to Issaquah to pick them up at noon and take them home, then turn around and drive four miles back to work for the day (except on the days when Erin has to go to work at Mickey D’s – then I get to wait at home for an hour while she changes and eats lunch, then drive her BACK six miles to Issaquah to work, turn around and drive back to MY work for the rest of the day…until Erin gets off work and then I get to drive back to Issaquah to pick her up and drive her home.

God help me (and my ringing cell phone) if I am not at any of the pickup/drop-off points on time. That’s basically my day. Get in the car. Drive. Drive some more. Stop, turn around and then drive again, fighting traffic, boredom and frustration all the way. Or, more to the point: Get in a Lather. Rinse (away my fatigue with alcohol). Repeat.

As you can guess, after nearly four decades of being the chief chauffeur in my family, the luster of driving has faded a bit. Just in time for Patrick and Erin to take over. And when they do, maybe I can provide some outstanding memories for them as young and excited new drivers…just the way so many folks did for me when I was a new driver.

I remember the endless Saturdays of my teen years, spent driving crazy Aunt Bert around to all her errands from 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.:  early morning Mass, then off to the beauty salon, the bank, a quick stop for lunch, then on to the grocery store, drug store, paper products store, eye doctor, hosiery department at Hudson’s, drop in on a friend, “oh, I forgot I had a dentist appointment!” – and finally home. “You can have the car tonight to go out with your friends,” she would say each Saturday evening, smiling her satisfied smile. “Oh, don’t forget: your curfew is 9 p.m. Have fun!”

Bert was the same one who rode with me to the hospital the day my mother died. I was 15 and driving on a learner’s permit. Having received the word from the hospital that my mom had “taken a turn for the worse” and knowing full well what that meant, I told Bert that we needed to head to the hospital at once. She was weeping and wailing and wringing her hands, without a clue about what to do. I told her to get into the passenger seat and I would drive.

Along the way, she begged me to join her in praying out loud for my mother’s soul – and to ask God to keep us safe from my driving. At one point, she ordered me to pull over so that we could smell the beautiful magnolias that had just burst into blossom on the trees along the way to the hospital. “Snap out of it, Bert!” I yelled into her face. “My mother is dead. I don’t need you to start acting like the engineer on the crazy train! Screw the magnolia blossoms!” We drove on, the car silent except for the deafening noise of our own thoughts as we began to ponder what was ahead for both of us.

I also remember the many days recently spent driving my beloved Aunt Margie around when the infirmities of age had slowed her down (I had to take her keys away when she drove 23 miles to get to her 11:15 hair appointment and never noticed until she had awoken her hairdresser that she had driven to the poor woman’s house at 11:15 AT NIGHT.)

At age 80, Margie was prone to car-sickness as a passenger after her life-long stint as a driver. I kept a towel and a garbage bag in the front seat for just those occasions when her stomach was upset. Usually she just grabbed the bag and used it while I pulled over to stop and give her a rest from the ride. One day, though, she grabbed for my open purse and launched her lunch directly onto the contents of said purse…never missing a minute of the story she was telling me at the time. As I pulled over, looking grimly at the sad fate of my once-favorite purse,  I saw her smiling sweetly, her hands closed tightly over her own handbag which sat untouched and pristine in her lap.  Margie has been gone for five years, but sometimes I still wonder…

Ah, Patrick and Erin. Savor these special days and the idea of how the car and your newfound driving skills will set you free. Before you know it, just like the Leader of the Free World, I’ll give up driving and I’ll be enjoying life in the back seat of your car, clutching my purse and wondering out loud about how the magnolias smell.

Every nook and cranny

July 21, 2010 5 comments

The kids and I live in a three-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Bellevue, Washington. We’re in the Issaquah School District neighborhood of the tony town of Bellevue (think blue collar and beer-and-a-shot Betty bellying up to a member of the cast of Real Housewives).

We’re on an out-of-the-way hill just a block away from the more comfortable small town of Issaquah. So, it’s not like we are plunked down in the middle of Bellevue jostling elbows with the Microsofties and the blonde, buffed and privileged Pretty Princesses who carry small dogs and babies around like accessories and probably couldn’t remember the last time they tucked their children into bed at night.

It’s a nice enough “apartment home” that we are leasing here in the “Lakemont” subdivision. It’s clean and safe, for the most part. Although the cops were here on Saturday serving a warrant to the guy who lives upstairs. Thank God, really. It’s about time someone arrested him for cranking his surround-sound up to 70, not to mention the unusual sounds that he and his girlfriend like to make at around 2 in the morning.

I am fairly sure I won’t spend the rest of my life here (knock the fake wood on my kitchen cabinets). I hope not. And I don’t think I will have fond memories of this apartment I call “home” at the moment.

For one thing, it’s too beige. Beige walls. Beige ceiling. Beige carpeting. Beige bathrooms. Even the outside of the building is frigging beige. Beige just doesn’t leave a mark on anything.  It never offends. It never impresses. It isn’t even really sure if it wants to be white or brown. Or tan. Oh, occasionally, depending on the quality of the paint, beige might think itself important and try a fanciful slip into “taupe.” But it’s still just beige. Beige tries to please everyone and winds up pleasing no one.

Sometimes when I am sitting out on the beige balcony reading or trying to see the mountain behind the rain…or lying awake late at night listening to the sounds, er, the surround sounds coming from upstairs, I am transported back to other places I’ve lived. Those places were rich with color, wild with noise and vibrant with memories. They most definitely were not beige.

Even their names roll nicely off the tongue: Chalmers. Anita. Lakepointe. Hampton. Brys Drive. Kinda beats hell out of “Village Park Drive Southeast.”

Chalmers. Ah, Chalmers. Probably not enough space to write about Chalmers. It needs its own post…deserves it, really.

We lived on Chalmers when I was born. It was a yellow brick, two-family flat. It had a two and a half story, four-car garage (although we usually scraped by with just the one car).

We lived upstairs in six rooms: kitchen, dining room, bedroom, bathroom, a bedroom for the boys and one for the girls. My poor parents slept on a sofa bed in the living room.

The aunts – three of my dad’s sisters who, for various reasons had found themselves single later in their lives – lived together downstairs. They each had their own bedroom. The aunts owned the house and we paid rent. Which is why the widow/old maids out-bedroomed the hardworking guy with the wife and four kids, 3-2. Landed gentry wins every time.

The house had a great big yard and three wonderful porches, including one at the back of the upstairs flat. That porch had a metal floor, which, when cleverly combined with the rays of the hot summer sun, served as my brothers’ test lab for GI Joe torture experiments that would have done Halliburton proud.

Everyone came over to Chalmers. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Friends. Friends of friends and friends of the aunts, uncles and cousins. Neighbors. Strangers. The coffee percolator in aunt Marie’s kitchen ran 24/7. There were wonderful holidays and amazing dinners. There was a pool in the backyard in the summer and an ice rink there in the winter. We played and ate and sang and laughed and cried and did homework and built forts and ran the block with our friends until we were exhausted. Most of all, we were loved and cherished in that house.

We had big Irish wakes on Chalmers where people cried and laughed and sang and danced in the downstairs living room. Where they filled the trunk of my dad’s navy blue Ford with ice  to chill the large amounts of beer and wine that two drunken uncles had brought back in a wheelbarrow from the party store. It was my dad’s Irish wake in September 1968. He would have loved it…the drinking and the singing and the crying and watching his best friend, a Jesuit priest, dancing with the aunts and snapping their bra straps every chance he got.

Chalmers was an amazing house in an amazing neighborhood in Detroit. It was a neighborhood alive with people and families and busy lives, lived under the shade of dozens of tall elms that made a wonderful canopy of green and brown. Kids everywhere. Crazy old Italian guys who yelled at you for cutting across their grass. Nice Italian women who sent over spaghetti sauce and bread and meatballs. Elderly Belgian couples who bought the cheesy religious artifacts we had to sell to raise money at our Catholic school. Every kid in the neighborhood went to that school and every kid had to sell that stuff…but the Belgian ladies never turned any kid away. They handed over the dough and took the plastic Jesus and Mary statues with a smile.  They probably could have built a bungalow with all the  plastic Jesuses and Marys they bought year after year, yet they kept on buying.

Our house on Chalmers was happy and full and noisy and loud. It was soft yellow and shocking pink and burnt orange and chartruese and blood red and coal black. It was all elbows and skinned knees and Mom singing at the kitchen sink. It smelled like fresh bread and hot coffee and Dad’s sweaty neck and the funny smell that came from Mom’s oxygen tank when she needed air during an asthma attack. It was my aunt Bert’s old maid schoolteacher perfume and the smell of the whiskey she poured into the highballs she made when her ladyfriends stopped by. It was my aunt Marg’s Lucky Strike cigarette smoke and the wonderful sound of her sharp laugh when she told a joke to my dad. It was beef tongue and mustard sandwiches that were tasty enough for us kids to fight over. It was tapioca pudding and fruit cocktail and Rhea’s potato and egg and green onion salad. It was home.

And even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years, I can still see – heck, I can almost feel – every nook and cranny of that house.

I can still jump over the prickly bushes between our house and the Georges’ house next door. The prickly bush high jump was my best event in the annual Chalmers Olympics. I can still hear the rain washing through the gutters while we girls played Divorce Court on the downstairs porch on a hot summer afternoon. I can count the 27 steps leading up from the back door to our house upstairs and I can still feel the sting of the ping-pong paddle cracking against my backside as my mom swatted me up each of those steps, punishing me for telling a lie.

I can feel the stubble of the stucco walls in our living room and dining room scraping my fingers as I scrubbed off the fingermarks during Saturday housecleaning. I can still look out my bedroom window and across the alley and watch Linda’s mom hanging clean, white T-shirts out on the line to dry in the summer sun. I can smell the chlorine wafting from the Georges’ pool and I can watch the Connollys’  nasty white poodle taking a dump in his backyard.

I can feel the rough walls of the fake rock fireplace in the aunts’ downstairs living room. I can lie on their brown and white print couch for a nap – covered up with Rhea’s handknitted afghan – and listen to the murmur of their voices in the kitchen. I can still see myself stopping pucks out on the ice in the backyard, wearing Look and Life magazines as goalie pads and poke-checking away shots with a sawed-off broom.

I can still feel the cold water splash coming from my dad’s well-aimed toss from the doorway as my sister and I sat in the warm bathtub water squealing with delight and surprise…even though he did that every Saturday night. I can still see the outline of my dad’s white T-shirt against his tan arms as he stands smoking a cigarette in the kitchen window with the Tigers’ game sputtering  from the transistor radio in the background.

I can still hear the sound of the rescue squad and fire trucks lumbering to a stop in front of our house, responding once again to our calls to transport Mom –  in full respiratory distress – off to the hospital. I can see the faces on the firemen, sympathetic and kind, as they call Mom by name – “Hi, Ann, not doing too well tonight?” and help her into a chair, carrying her gently down the stairs and into their truck.

I can taste the ice-cold Pepsi and the crunchy, salty Bugles that Marg would share with me while we watched As the World Turns and Guiding Light before she got ready for her night shift at the bank.

I can see my St. John Berchman Grade School red plaid school uniform and white blouse with Peter Pan collar, hanging clean and ironed, in the hallway outside my bedroom, the hanger poked into the latchhook on the fusebox door.

I can still feel my mother pulling brush rollers out of my curly hair, trying in vain to make my mane behave in time for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

And I can still hear the slide-clunk-snap sound of the foldaway sofa bed the April morning Mom died and Claire was praying and cleaning before the day fully dawned on the makings of another Irish wake.

Up in the hills of Issaquah-Bellevue, surrounded by beige as I am right now, it’s easy to see all of that.

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