Tag Archives: family

Sharing Your Story

Dear Mom,

For Christmas, Jamie got me, Jordyn and herself each a copy of a book called “Healing After Loss.” It is a daily meditation tool of sorts – a different thought on grief and moving forward for each day of the year, written by a woman named Martha Whitmore Hickman, who suffered the loss of a child.

Today’s page was about “sharing your story.” It talked about how in sharing the story of  your grief process, you may unknowingly help someone else who is or will be going through their own loss. It also talked about how sharing the story of your loved one – their life and your special moments with them – helps keep them alive and soothes both you and others who loved them through fond memories.

I think I have done a pretty good job in this blog of the former. I’ve written several pieces on losing you and the roller-coaster that has been the aftermath.

But I haven’t done nearly as much on the latter. I haven’t shared your story, or painted much of a picture of who you were in life other than our last year here together.

Perhaps that makes sense. I had to get those grief-thoughts out there before I could dig deeper.  That grief has been like wearing a heavy winter coat on a 90-degree day. It smothered the stuff underneath. Only by shedding it can I let those other things out to breathe in the cool fresh air.

I am slowly coming to the point where I can once again feel that air on my face. So I plan to spend the next several entries on your story.

To so many, you were James’s wife, Pam and Jamie’s mother, and Jordyn’s grandmother. Mom. Momma. Mommy. Nee. Granny Bean.

But before you were any of that, you were Sabina. We so often see our mothers only through our “post-me” lenses.  I was the first to come along and turn you into “Mom,” but you were so many things before me or even Daddy were on your radar.

So this is a little of what I know of you before me – before any of us.

– You were born in Pittsburgh, and although your family relocated to Baltimore when you were still a very little girl, you carried the town and The Steelers in your heart your whole life.

– You had three sisters – Natalie, Dorothy and Cindy. You loved them all, but while Natalie was much older and Cindy much younger, you and Dorothy were so close in age that I think of you as “almost twins.” Knowing that my aunts carry you in their hearts and that their landscape of memories includes all these pre-me moments I could never carry on for you in any way that does them justice has been a huge comfort to me.

– You lost your dad before you came to Baltimore – you were so young that perhaps you didn’t know him nearly as well as you would have liked. He was mostly pictures and stories and other people’s memories, but I always sensed that in your heart he was still somehow your hero.

– Your childhood was not an easy one.  That is not for this blog. But the person it made you is. You were fiercely determined that your daughters and granddaughters would experience a different kind of childhood, and we did.

– You saw yourself as an awkward kid. I never saw you that way, but you told me you felt like all your features were too big for your frame. “Big eyes, big ears, big nose in a skinny little face on a skinny little body,” you’d laugh. And then you grew into them and you were stunning. Not just stereotypically pretty, but soulfully beautiful. Especially those “big eyes,” with those never-ending eyelashes. When I was a kid, the way you said you felt about your looks as a girl gave me hope. I’d look at my beautiful mother and realize that one day all my parts that I didn’t think fit quite right would click into place and work together instead of against each other too.

– As a teenager, you went after what you wanted. You were smart and serious and you wanted to go to a Catholic girl’s school instead of a public school, so you worked and rode public transportation to make it happen. How many teenage girls would put so much extra responsibility on themselves to go to a school where there were NO BOYS? Surely not me!

– Many of the happier childhood memories you shared with me included trips to visit your Aunt Annie and Aunt Genny. I also remember stories of your mom working at a book factory, and of Aunt Nat, your oldest sister, getting married and having her first daughter Kim when Aunt Cin, your youngest sister, was pretty much a toddler herself. Aunt Cin wasn’t crazy about the idea of a new baby and tried to throw Kim in the trash (sorry Aunt Cin!).

– Your first boyfriend was named Milton Dodo. I have no clue if I’m spelling that right. I always pictured him as looking like Crispin Glover as young George McFly in Back to the Future, and once you told me I was kind of right.

– You wanted to be either a nun or a brain surgeon. I came along and you became “Mom” instead. When I’d whine to you about how much farther along I’d be with my writing if I didn’t have to work full-time, you’d remind me that if it weren’t for me you’d be wearing a habit or carrying a scalpel and say “that’s just life.”

I told you I wasn’t sorry I’d kept you from becoming a nun, because again – NO BOYS, but that I was sorry about the brain surgeon thing. Then one night when we’d had a few you gave me a laundry list of all the changes you’d make to our brains (mine, Dad’s, Jay’s) if you had become one, and I told you I was no longer sorry about that either. I so love that we could always talk and laugh about some of these things so many mothers and daughters I know would consider off-limits and maybe even hurtful. We shared a warped sense of humor and had a foundation of love and understanding that allowed us to be real.

– You met Dad because a close girlfriend of yours who went to school with him fixed you up. He was “that guy,” the one running around having fun and getting in trouble and doing what he wanted, while you were preparing for the nunnery or medical school. You fell in love with him and his parents too – one of my most powerful memories from our talks about your pre-me world is how Mommom and Grandad treated you like a daughter almost from day one.  I’m really glad you chose Dad over the nunnery. Even if we do have souls and mine would have ended up popping out somewhere else in that situation, I can’t imagine any other family that would have put up with me.

I could go on, but that’s enough for now. The story of a beautiful life is best told in chapters.

Love you Mom. Like a Dog.






The First Road Trip

Dear Mom:

Do you remember the little Italian restaurant where we stopped on one of our first road trips to Aunt Dorothy’s house, shortly after she and Uncle Larry bought their “retirement home” at the beach? It is just a little ways past the Bay Bridge, in a strip mall kind of place. You and Shannon and I had wanted to wait until we got to Delaware to eat “beach food,” but we were starving, so we pulled in. The owner was an older man with salt-and-paper hair and kind eyes. He hovered over us like we were a royal entourage, because he thought you were beautiful.

Well, of course he did. How could he not?

We drove past that restaurant on our way to Aunt Dorothy’s last Saturday, and my eyes filled with unexpected tears. I knew the weekend would be an emotional one for me. It was our first trip to “the retirement home” since your passing, and my first-ever visit without you. It would be my first time seeing my aunts and cousins (your sisters and nieces) since the funeral – and I can’t look at them and not see you any more than they can be with me and not feel your presence. Plus, spending weekends at Aunt Dorothy’s was always “our thing,” a mother-daughter tradition we started building that was cut short.

We should have had twenty more summers of laying on the beach by day and drinking wine on her porch at night. There should have been twenty more autumns and springs of making a trip to shop til’ we dropped at the outlets, twenty more nights of gearing ourselves up to get into the hot tub in spite of the evening chill that would nip at us when we got out of the water.

But we don’t, and I was a little afraid that when I went for the first time without you, the reality of that would break me and I would spend the weekend in tears.

As it turned out, there were some tears, and not just from me. We can’t talk about you without our eyes filling.

But there were a lot of smiles and laughs. You know why? Because you were with us.

You were with us when Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Cindy got to see Deb for the first time since your funeral, where she gave the “Love you like a Dog” eulogy that was balm to all of our spirits.

Your were with us when Uncle Larry wiped the mock sweat off his brow as he emptied trash or carried a load of laundry. You loved picking on him.

You were with us when Chrissy’s precious new dog – who is shy and skittish around strangers – slowly warmed up to Katie and I over the weekend. I felt like I’d won the lottery when she came up of her own accord, plopped down beside me, and gave me a lick.  You were there when Katie told me that you are the reason she became a girl who would always want a big dog by her side, and how she’d text you seeking your advice when her four-legged family members had medical issues. Every time a dog finds the best-ever forever home because he chooses Katie as his person, it will be because of your influence.

You were with us when we had Thrasher’s on the Boardwalk, hunching over our buckets of vinegary fries so the seagulls wouldn’t swoop down and get them.

Your were there when the frogs sang in the quiet of the evening as we sat on the porch, and when the hummingbirds flitted around the feeders in the muggy morning air.

You were there when Deb and Shannon and Laura and I slept in the living room, sprawled on air mattresses and the couch. Laura was on the couch – the one where you told me you’d gotten one of the most relaxing sleeps of your life a few years ago.

You were there in Aunt Cindy’s stories of being a little girl who would sneak into your closets to play with your shoes.

Miss you!

Miss you!

You were there in Baxter and Julie’s eyes. They both loved you and couldn’t wait to get cuddles and pats from you when we visited.

You were there in the sound of the surf and the smell of the saltwater.

You were there when I drank wine on Aunt Dorothy’s porch.  How many “just one more glass and then time for bed” glasses did we drink, sitting right there?

You were there in the shops we visited in Rehoboth Like me, you weren’t much of one for “regular” stores, preferring to shop online to braving the crowds. But we loved the quirky little shops there. You loved finding the perfect gifts – clothes for Jordyn or jewelry for Jamie.

You were there when we went to the outlets. They were the only place I remember being able to talk you into spending your money on yourself rather than someone else. I’ll never forget the smile on your face when me, Chrissy and Aunt Dorothy talked you into splurging on that purse you REALLY wanted.

You were there, and so there was a lot more laughter and smiles and hugs than there were tears – although of course there were some of those, too. And I realized that bits of pieces of your mannerisms and turns of phrase and appearance and just … you-ness … live on in Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Cindy, in Laura and Katie and Chrissy as they do in your daughters and granddaughter.

If family is there, then you are there. Each of us is a glimpse of you, and I think you smile when you see the bits and pieces come together in one place.

Thank you for being with us this weekend, Mom. Love you. Like a Dog.



The Things I’d Tell You Over a Beer

Dear Mom,

One of the things you always used to say to me was that I had to learn to appreciate “being ordinary in an extraordinary world.” It has taken me a long time to get that down. Hell, I’m not sure I actually DO have it down.

Sometimes the “ordinary world” in these parts is pretty scary. I can’t walk in a convenience store around here without having to listen to some guy with his buttcrack climbing out of his low-riding shorts cussing at his baby momma on the phone while he buys his Slim Jims and cigs.  Our “ordinary” in this neighborhood feels like a Jerry Springer casting call sometimes.

But here is where I am, and since it isn’t really feasible for me to go anywhere else anytime soon, I am really trying to find the beauty and the happiness in each and every day.  In the past, I’d share all those things with you. If you weren’t experiencing them with me, I’d be texting you or talking about them with you on our “beer nights.”

There’s no reason I can’t still tell you about them, though.  So here’s our happy hour conversation. It is morning, so I’m having coffee instead of a beer. The funny thing about that is we NEVER talked over coffee. Your rule was that no one should talk to you until you’d had your java. If I spent the night or we were on a trip, we’d have our coffee together in the morning, each staring off into space and collecting our thoughts before starting the day.  Even though we’re both grumpy morning people, it was a companionable silence.

You don’t need your java to get the gears turning anymore, so I get to break the rules and chatter to you in a letter. So here’s what’s been going on that doesn’t suck:

1. I have watermelons growing in my garden! All our gardening successes make me think of you. We’ve had two eggplants, a ton of tomatoes and a few peppers so far, too. But the watermelon is a new thing. Lee threw some random seeds in our “leftover” garden space to see what took. I hope they stay healthy. Last year was our Great Pumpkin Experiment. I got so excited when the pumpkin vines started flowering, but they stubbornly refused to turn into Jack-O-Lantern material. I sure had fun trying, though, and talking about them with you.

2. Coors Light Summer Brew.  I only discovered it because Lee and I stopped at Deb’s over her birthday weekend and I had one poolside.  It tastes like the perfect summer day – warm sunshine and blue skies without our usual scratchy wool blanket of humidity. It has become my thing when I want poolside drinks, and I’m pretty sure you would have loved it too.

3. I got to see Sherry and her family last weekend. I have a tiny handful of friends who have been part of my life so long we had to sneak into bars together, and she is one of them. She’s a year older than me, and I laugh when I think about how we had to sneak me into the Fell’s Point pubs on her 21st birthday because she didn’t want to celebrate without me.

I remember the minute rice, too. Do you? Dad still does. When I told him I was seeing Sherry he brought it up. She came over after school one day when she was a senior and I was a junior. We were hungry, and rummaged in our cupboards and found the minute rice. Dad wandered into the kitchen a while later, to find us standing side-by-side at the stove reading and re-reading the directions and staring at our pot of water like two novice witches casting their first spell. He was flabbergasted that two college-bound girls who spent their days in the “smart kid” classes at school could be so confused over the directions on a box.

Me and Sherry then

Me and Sherry then

As you know, I never became domestic. I’d probably still stare at a box of minute rice with a “duh” look on my face. In my forties now, I have a small handful of things I whip up in the kitchen, and reserve the rest of my creativity for words. If I lived alone, I’d probably subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pickles. But Sherry is a different story. She’s a wife and the mother of two beautiful children. I spent the day with her family at the harbor, having brunch and reminiscing about old times.

Me and Sherry now

Me and Sherry now

Sherry and I can go years without talking much or seeing one another, but our friendship just clicks into place like we never missed a beat. There are a handful of people in your life that are there forever, even if your fates take you down very different roads. Like you, I was never much of a phone person and always “mean to” call but don’t. Facebook saved my introverted ass in terms of keeping up with friends because I can do it all in one fell swoop. But those who are meant to be among your besties for life just are, even if they move to Florida and become mommas while you stay in Maryland and continue to live the life of a grown woman who seems to get herself confused with a twenty-something bachelor when it comes to the whole grown-up thing.

4. This coming weekend, I’m taking a little road trip to Aunt Dorothy’s with Shannon and Deb. Chrissy is heading down too, and so are Aunt Cin and Laura and Katie.

I have to admit this one is going to be bittersweet. When Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Larry retired at the beach, visiting them became “our thing.” I would have no more thought about going to their house without you than I’d consider going to work naked. You and Aunt Dorothy aren’t just sisters, but true best friends. Her house was your escape from reality. Sometimes we’d go down with the intentions of hitting the beach and the shops and going out to restaurants, and once we got there spend most of our time just hanging out on her porch drinking wine and talking . That porch was one of your happy places, and sitting there with you and Aunt Dorothy and listening to your childhood stories became my happy place too.

I see so much of you in Aunt Dorothy, like I see you in Jamie and Jordyn and myself. We all reflect different aspects of you. When she and I were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, a hummingbird came to her feeder, and we figured it was you saying hello.

It will be strange being there without you. But I think it will also be healing to be surrounded by so many people who loved you –  your sisters and nieces and brother-in-law and dear friends, in one of your favorite places. I will bring along some wine and we’ll toast to you.

Love you Mom. Like a Dog.









Whoopie Cushions in Heaven

Dear Mom,

So, I have a burning question. How long after you got there did you sit on your first whoopie cushion in heaven?

I can see you now, rolling your eyes and thinking “She’ll never be right in the head. Nothing I can do about it – I couldn’t fix it even when I was there. Watching too much South Park broke her.”  Once, you found me and the ex-hubs sitting in your living room cackling over Cartman and the boys meeting Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo. You joined us for a minute, then got up and escaped with your book because you said watching us laugh over a turd in a Santa hat was making your IQ drop.

But you can’t blame my whoopie cushion question on South Park. It was inspired by Ned Hickson. Ned is a blogger I discovered recently. I wish I’d found his blog while you were still here – I think you might have enjoyed it too.  At any rate, he wrote recently about his ongoing fake poo prank battle with his son. I got a good laugh reading the post, and it made me think of Aunt Fuzzy.

Aunt Fuzzy was actually my great-aunt. Her real name was Alma, but I don’t think I knew that until I was 10 or so.  She and Grandmom also had four brothers, and they also all went by their childhood nicknames. The oldest brother, Uncle Darrell, died before I was born. But I knew the others as Uncle Weach (Wade), Bunny (Hugh) and Hop (Frank).

They all lived in West Virginia. As a kid, I visited for weeks at a time each summer, bouncing from house to house, escaping Baltimore and tasting country girl life. Staying with Weach meant rowboat rides on the Cheat River, fishing in his backyard pond, and roller-skating at the old building he’d turned into a community rink. Staying with Bunny meant milking cows and weeding vegetable gardens as big as our entire neighborhood back home and horseback riding with his daughters Cindy and Mindy.

Staying with Aunt Fuzzy meant fart jokes. Her personality was a perfect match for her red hair and sparkling eyes. She was short, but larger than life. She lived to laugh, and nothing made her laugh more than farts.


Me and Aunt Fuzzy

Mommom told us stories about growing up with such a prankster for a sister. Their father, Great Grandad Ruggles, was gone before I came along. But Mommom portrayed him as a good man who liked his booze and got  cranky after a few drinks. When Aunt Fuzzy started dating Uncle Don, she didn’t ease him into getting to know her cantankerous father. Instead, she invited Don in and hid a whoopie cushion on the couch so he would sit on it. Great Grandad looked up from his drink with a scowl and asked his future son-in-law what the hell was wrong with his insides.

Uncle Don knew that marrying Aunt Fuzzy would mean a lifetime as the brunt of fart pranks, but he did it anyway. Like most women, Aunt Fuzzy’s purse held her wallet, keys and lipstick. But hers also contained an arsenal of items capable of producing fart sounds.

When I was 8 or so, I went with Aunt Fuzz, Uncle Don, Mommom and Grandad to Ponderosa or some similar buffet-style restaurant. While we were at the salad bar surrounded by strangers making their own dinner plates, Fuzz reached into her purse and squeezed something that produced a noise like a rectal emission. She made a wide-eyed shock face and cried “Don!” in a mortified voice.

Me and Uncle Don

Me and Uncle Don

He should have been used to it by then, but Uncle Don turned red as the beets on that salad bar anyway.

She didn’t limit her fart torture to Uncle Don. Everyone was fair game. She got me too. Once, we visited her and Uncle Don after they had relocated to Williamsburg. We all went to the Pottery Factory. I was a self-conscious preteen who wanted to fade into the background. But there was no blending into the scenery when Aunt Fuzzy tooted one of her horns and called you out as a fart machine right in the middle of a bunch of old ladies while they oohed and aahed over hand-crafted bowls and jars.

My most vivid Aunt Fuzz memory is one that I think actually pissed Mommom off a little. Aunt Fuzz and Uncle Don had come to Baltimore, and we were all sitting around in the living room. The local weatherman, Marty Bass, was on the news. Mommom excitedly mentioned some event (at her work, I think) where she was going to meet him and get his autograph.

Fuzzy wasn’t impressed. She looked at the weatherman and started crooning “Marty Bass has gas in his ass.” That sure put a damper on Mommom’s brush with local fame.

Marty is still around, and I hear Aunt Fuzz sing-songing that line in my head every time he pops up on TV.

She passed away when I was in my early 20s, but her love of laughter lived on in all of us. And in some of us – like me – so did her potty humor.

I knew you wouldn’t mind me asking you to share a space on “your blog” with Aunt Fuzzy, Mom. We talked about her so much over the years, laughing at her antics over drinks at the pub or a cabin campfire. It makes me smile to think of you two chatting again now.

But that brings me back to my opening question – have you sat on a whoopie cushion in heaven yet? Because if you can reconnect with loved ones in the afterlife, I know damn well that Aunt Fuzz has one waiting for all of us, and that it didn’t take her long to give you yours.

Love you Mom. Like a dog.