Connections

Tomorrow I’ll join my extended family for a weekend gathering we jokingly call ShrinerFest. Because of COVID it’s been three years since my three siblings, their children, grandchildren, my sons, and all of our spouses have gathered, although I did see my siblings in person last year. In the intervening time, many important events have taken place off-stage, away from the full circle of family.

One niece announced her engagement. A nephew got engaged to a woman some of us haven’t had the opportunity to meet. Our two sons married in small COVID-style weddings. A niece and her husband welcomed their first child earlier this year. My second oldest brother and his wife had a rough year. She and their son-in-law experienced bad fractures requiring surgery and rehab. My sister-in-law also had a close family member die of cancer.

Despite the distance (we are spread across five states) we’ve all done our best to stay connected via text and calls. We’ve congratulated each other about joyful events and commiserated about the hard times. We would have preferred to visit in person, but we did what we could manage, and our connections stayed strong. 

I expect our weekend together will encompass lots of storytelling, silliness, and good food. Cousins who are scattered across the Midwest and are still getting to know each other will likely bond over fantasy football or the best way to cook a Beyond burger. No doubt we’ll talk about wedding plans and new houses. 

My two older brothers, younger sister and I will fall into familiar patterns. Although our interests, politics, and religious views aren’t always aligned, we’ll focus on what we have in common and try to avoid topics that jangle nerves! 

As always in this group of 25, there will be emotional cross-currents. Sometimes grievances might get aired quietly off to the side (Why’d she say___? I can’t believe he did that!) After all, we are still family and although there is a lot of love, there are also strong personalities. 

As we drive away I expect to be tired, but I’ll let the good moments sink in. We’ll talk over whatever changes—for better or worse—we see in the extended family. I might be shaking my head over some new development. But no matter what, I’ll be grateful we were able to be together again, fostering connections and cementing our ties.

Ink on Paper

We opened most of the Christmas cards around January twenty-eighth. That’s not a tradition or a day of any significance. I just stopped procrastinating about opening the rest of the cards and putting away the last bit of the holidays. 

As cards arrived, we always look at the envelopes and talk about connection with each individual or family. Not so much connection with our HVAC contractor, eye doctor, car service place and insurance agent. I am family ‘owner’ of holiday cards, so I own that each day I planned to open the cards after dinner and enjoy pictures or notes. We had produced a virtual card to most of our list with a video of a holiday song which kind of changed the rhythm of our traditional card handling.

I hadn’t noticed one holiday card addressed to me alone during my daily shuffle. My amazing daughter-in-law had sent me a card with a note that fed my heart. The best Christmas gift. The best. Maybe even better opened in the quiet of winter after the rush.

An unexpected Valentine postcard from a friend, an untraditional card sent to my on my birthday, certain travel postcards from friends and relatives inspired me to design a decorative wide ribbon where I could hang these treasures in my office. Some of the ribbon is in my credenza along with a bag of tiny brass clips, but the completed project remains in my mind. The treasures are in a tray along with letters from my mother-in-law and one from my father before I was married.

Kind emails and texts mean so much often because the message is unexpected. The gift of a caring personal message in ink, on paper, which is then mailed delivers a flush of happiness followed by days or weeks of remembering each word. Coming from the era of pen pals and mailed greeting cards for every special day from Valentine’s Day to Easter to Halloween and Thanksgiving, I appreciate the effort taken to shop, write, and mail. 

Though we’re all past the age of decorated shoe boxes to hold our Valentines, I hope you find happiness in sending a text, an ecard, or paper card to a person you value, or a whole lot of friends and family members who might need a smile.

Happy January Birthdays

January, a month of fewest births and most deaths, is where we stand fighting the latest variant of Covid. How wearying to be still writing about this unwelcome virus. But like glitter left from wrapping paper or cards, it won’t be dusted, swept, vacuumed, washed, or wished away. Lots of people have stories about trying to rid the nasty stuff from clothes or rugs or skin, but no one really knows the secret to beat the stuff. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay inside, but the hated Covid, like unwanted glitter, stays in the air. 

Our family has a tradition of January births, even among in-laws. The older generation of January birthday holders has mostly passed, many on December dates, but there are four of us who are happy to celebrate. Birthday cake is a nice treat after holiday chocolates and cookies. Maybe there’ll be one more chance to get that sweater or book that wasn’t under the Christmas tree. Even better, everything is discounted and can be bought for yourself with little guilt. Even if there can’t be a party, there are safe ways to gather family or friends. If all fails, Zoom offers forty free minutes to talk with your relatives in sunny Florida. 

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst often runs through my mind at this time of year.  Rossetti’s beautiful words describe winter: “Icy wind may moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like stone…” and that often experienced January weather of “Snow on snow on snow.” As soft and gentle as January is icy and lonely, versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor and others fill my blue light time when it is neither day nor night. You have to sing through to the end of the song for its encouragement that “as empty as I am (of gifts for the Baby Jesus), I must give my heart.” 

That is a magic message. If our basic physical needs are met, then we can push through January, holding each other tight inside our hearts until free once more to meet personally during spring’s warmer days. Until then call a friend, send a note, take a walk. We’ve figured this out and know how to make the weeks pass. In honor of the friends and family who are no longer with us to celebrate these January birthdays, I will treasure mine.

Then and Now–A Year in Review

As last winter closed in a year ago, so did my life. Because of COVID, going to the grocery store was my only excursion (whoopee). There was no need to get gas—I wasn’t going anywhere. Sometimes I’d go for a drive just for a change of scenery. Yoga classes, my book groups, and writers’ groups all went to Zoom. 

My husband and I rarely saw our sons in person. At best, we visited for a few minutes as they stood in the doorway. Across the room we shivered in the frosty breeze. All of us masked. Even more chilling than the air was the understanding we couldn’t touch.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, my husband and I planned menus along with our sons and their fiancées. Our three households shared what we’d cooked. The food was good and we were outwardly cheerful, but inwardly, I felt our aloneness deeply. 

2020

For perspective, I watched shows about WWII and reminded myself that my life was way better than enduring the London bombing, the French occupation, or life on a naval destroyer as my father had. I was grateful we had healthcare and didn’t have to worry about being evicted. We were apart, but it wouldn’t last forever.

This year feels so much better. We are vaccinated and boosted. As long as I’m masked and keep some distance, I am free to work in the pottery studio, tutor, and shop in person. I am able to invite a few vaccinated friends over for a drink or dinner. We spread out and run the HEPA filter, but we can talk, laugh and interrupt each other in the natural conversational rhythms instead of the stilted stop-and-start of Zoom visits.

My life remains more restricted than it was pre-COVID. Dining in restaurants, watching movies in the theater, or flying are TBD. I avoid large gatherings and even assess the risks of events like indoor farmers’ markets.

But now we can do the most important things, like gathering for birthday dinners with our sons and their wives. We were able to be together at Thanksgiving. I’m so grateful the six of us can visit in person this Christmas. We’ll hug, laugh, and eat lots of good food. Pure joy.

2021

COVID rewired my thinking. These days, our plans are provisional. Maybe. If. We’ll see. I’m careful to temper my hopes and rein in my worries. Letting either get away from me doesn’t serve me. 

I have a different, more realistic view about my ability to control anything. Life never was in my control—I just thought it was.

COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. I’m learning to live with it. Going forward, there will be times when the Delta/Omicron/Whatever variant is raging, and I’ll have to limit my activities, and there will be times when I’m less restricted. For now, I’m taking sensible precautions, assessing each situation case by case. I don’t expect “we’ll get back to normal.” This is the new normal. It isn’t all I wish for, but being able to see family and friends in person means a lot.

Five Things I’m Grateful for this Thanksgiving

The isolation brought on by the pandemic has taken its toll on many of us, me included. As a result, rather than seeing the glass half full as I once did, I became a list maker of tiny gripes: endless emails, bad drivers, unreturned phone calls and year-late healthcare bills topped my list.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long to realize that focusing on the negative wasn’t helpful. So I recruited a “bliss buddy” with whom I began sharing what I was grateful for: the beauty of nature, the kindness of strangers and the compassion of friends made the list often.

So did my sister Karen who, for the past 152 days, has sent me a text each morning to remind me that I am both loved and lovable. Her kind words have become the background music of my days, often uplifting my spirits before I even realize they need it.

Here are four other things I am especially grateful for this Thanksgiving:

  • My aunt Caroline. In February 2020, I wrote my first Word Sisters blog post. It was about my aunt and uncle, both in their 90s. He had recently been hospitalized, she had recently suffered a stroke. While he has since died, she continues to thrive, despite having lost the ability to speak clearly or use the right side of her body. The last of my mother’s siblings, she’s an amazing role model whose light continues to shine bright and who shows me that I can age with gusto despite the challenges I may face.
  • My health and healthcare providers. I’ve taken my physical and mental health for granted my entire life. Then, one day in August 2020, despite routinely walking 10,000 steps a day, I could barely get myself around the block. After an MRI, I was told I needed to have my hip replaced. I opted for physical therapy instead and am now able to walk to my heart’s content once again. I also opted to see a mental health therapist. Her support keeps me grounded in the here and now yet gives me hope that I can—and will—change.
  • My book group. I’ve been a member of my book group going on three decades. During that time, one member was murdered by her husband, another died of cancer. Most of us have lost our parents, all of us are coming to terms with our own aging. Getting together every other month means meaningful conversations with women I trust who know both my good and bad qualities and who offer their unconditional love and support.
  • The ability to say no. I’ve been a people pleaser my whole life, afraid of disappointing others. That sometimes meant staying on committees that drained me, meeting friends for cocktails when I didn’t want to be drinking and driving across town in rush-hour traffic when I wanted to be curled up on the couch. The pandemic lessened the things I was invited to do and made it easier to say no to things that weren’t in line with my priorities.

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? Please share.