Lovin’ from the Oven

I spent the day in the kitchen with my first-born, measuring, sifting, mixing, and circulating the sheet pans in and out of the hot oven for about 6 hours. It felt like a dream, seeing her perched on the counter stool, sharing her life with me as we munched ourselves into a sugar coma.

Happy is an understatement.

I remember when I was in her shoes – separated from my parents by state-wide miles of asphalt, making decisions, feeling the burden of juggling life and full-time work, and trying to find my place in the world. The simple pleasure of baking cookies with my mother was limited to the precious vacation time I could carve out for family visits.

I did it, though, pretty much every year, with kids in tow as the years passed. We drove 10-12 hours each way for a week-long visit, which always changed me in some way. Returning to my childhood was complicated, but it afforded me multiple opportunities to heal and grow and learn.

And I wondered how she felt when she pulled up to this childhood home. We had so many over the years, but this one was the last one for her, and by some miracle, I’m still here and her room is relatively unchanged. Did she have regrets or unfinished business? Or did she feel comforted and cared for?

Sometimes it feels weird to be the mom.

As a young mother, I lived most of my life in survival mode (Unwritten, Chapter 1), and as I’ve learned through the years, Fear is not my friend. Surviving isn’t living, it’s managing to keep your nose above the water while you gulp for air and flail your arms and legs until you’re exhausted. It’s hard to think about anything but yourself and that moment.

And so… I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be. I wanted to always say the right thing, to be loving and kind no matter what kind of day I was having, and to support my children with unwavering, unmistakable, story-book love.

Does any mother really want anything different than that?

We don’t set out to create moments that our kids carry with them for years and that land them in therapy. And yet, I can’t think of a family (except the perfect ones on Facebook) who doesn’t have some sort of dysfunction or unresolved hurts, my own included, of course.

As an adult daughter and a mom of adults at the same time, I’m starting to understand that parents are imperfect. (Gasp!) I see my own parents through a different lens, with more compassion and forgiveness. And as I let go of my “shoulds” and wishes regarding my own childhood, I can begin to forgive myself, too, for not rising to the status of Super Mom.

But I have to tell you, seeing that kid of mine all grown up and doing her own thing, my heart swelled, and I thought to myself that surely I must have done something right along the way. She is truly a beautiful soul, and an incredible person, despite her far-from-perfect mother.

Our visit was too short, but it was full of Love, which I bundled up in festive containers and sent back home with her for later.

Christmas Closets

I dragged everything out of the garage that I painstakingly packed away last year for easy retrieval this year. I don’t think I’ll ever get it all back in those boxes when it’s over.

I’m preparing the motherly holiday homecoming experience, to the best of my ability. The bedrooms have miniature Christmas trees, fresh linens, and all the comforts I could find. What do they eat for breakfast now? Do I even know? I’ll don my apron, and we’ll bake cookies while we chat about life and catch up, with the fire flickering in the next room where the stockings are hung with care.

Maybe it will snow!

The billions of tiny white lights spread out everywhere in the house will come on magically around 5pm, and we’ll all be filled with childlike wonder and Christmas magic. We’ll laugh and recall Christmases past just like a Hallmark movie…

But a nagging, painful melancholy will force its way into my soul, with a secret loneliness that always comes this time of year. I dare not acknowledge it. I swallow hard and push it down; it’s not part of the script. Family photos don’t show holes in hearts.

Christmas reaches deep into those dark closets where I store all of the difficult things I cannot bear throughout the year, pulls everything out, and makes a great big mess in the middle of the floor. Every ornament holds a memory. New traditions mix with old ones and the ghosts of Christmases past haunt my Decembers.

Families are fragile. At Christmas, the broken ones patch themselves together just long enough to hold on for a portrait, a meal, or for Santa’s arrival. Sometimes. Others are shattered so badly that the pieces are unrecoverable.

What do you do with a fractured family at Christmas?

Chapter 2

Last night I lay in bed, and my thoughts bumped into my old blog on a dreamland street.  Barely recognizable, the stories of my past have been sitting there, like forgotten books on a dusty shelf, for years now.  For dozens of months I’ve had nothing to say – no urge from within to spill my guts on an electronic page – but there it was.  That tug, that compulsion to over-share my life to some unknown audience in the vast internet blackness.

And so…

The next chapter begins.

When I left off, I was teetering on the edge of a midlife renewal and irrelevancy.  Thriving in my long-distance running and halfway-decent fitness level, I was happy and decided I had finally settled into this thing called life, which wasn’t nearly as bad as I had once painted it, though far from the perfect story I had imagined for myself.

And then… 

Life does what life does.  It changes.  It swirls.  It smacks you up the side of the head when you least expect it.  And nothing that you thought was real exists at all.  You find it was all a dream and only your thoughts and perceptions made it what it was.  Underneath lies the frightening truth of mortality and the fleetingness of a biological body.  Maybe that’s what this chapter is about – facing the aging process, knowing grief, and accepting that death is a certainty for all of us.   

In 2019, I watched in despair as my mother battled a holiday illness that took her to the hospital and then to a rehab facility where she received therapies and care.  As she recovered, I began to realize that she had left a bit of herself behind and nothing would ever be the same for either of us.

This chapter will be scary.  And challenging.  And honest – always honest – at least from my perspective.

Racing Ups and Downs

I haven’t run a half marathon in 6 1/2 years. My last race was the Nike Women’s Half in DC, and I did it because I wanted the Tiffany necklace reward at the end served up on silver platters by firefighters in tuxedos. It was my personal best, but then I decided to focus on the full marathon where I didn’t have to run as fast, because I hate working so hard. 🙂

This morning, I ran the Princeton Half as part of my training schedule for the Philly Marathon later this month. It wasn’t intended to be a race for my best pace, so I felt more relaxed going in.

I lined up with some perky pacers for 2 minutes + under my target finish time, and figured as long as I didn’t pass them I was good.

The hills. OMG.

It’s all relative, the challenges of running, but this course was particularly hard for me, with more elevation than I’m used to in the countryside.

I forget exactly when, but we couldn’t have been more than halfway when the hill won, and I had to drop back and walk. I was so disappointed. I’ve worked so hard to come back to running. I watched the orange singlets fade into the distance and I started the negative self talk. I felt embarrassed walking past the crowds of cheering spectators – like I had let them down on that stupid hill.

But I walked with purpose and intention and made it up the hill with restored energy. I flew down the other side and eventually caught sight of my pacers. I pulled up in formation behind them and told them they weren’t going to lose me today. Not today.

They cheered and encouraged me up and down a few more hills, until once again I had to take it to a walk and fell pathetically behind, losing sight of them completely.

I decided I still had a shot at coming in within a reasonable time compared to my original target, so I hunkered down to run “my” race.

I don’t know how many times I walked up hills, but they definitely got worse as the miles dragged on.

In between, I took advantage of gravity and made up time without even realizing it.

Then…

Orange singlets. I couldn’t believe it – I caught up to them again. Again I told them I refused to be left behind. They let me go ahead of them, but I could hear them behind me, talking to me the way I should have been talking to myself.

I came in a couple of minutes early, but I am very pleased with this one.

So now, the taper. Philadelphia, I’m coming. No matter what happens on race day, this journey has been a beautiful reminder that the Universe can exceed my expectations if I just trust and keep going.

Rain and Pain

I heard the rain pouring down the spouts this morning just before dawn, and I groaned as my brain attempted to highjack my 20-miler today.

Maybe I could take tomorrow off and do it then? What about the treadmill at the gym? I already did one 20-miler. Is it critical to do two? Maybe the rain will stop later…

And I told all of my thoughts to pull themselves together, because we were going to get up and do a rain run. No arguments.

Hat – check. Fluorescent windbreaker tied around my waste just in case – check. Nutrition… water… check check. Let’s go.

Before anyone had a chance to protest, I was out the door and ticking off the miles. The light rain became heavier in mile 3, and the rest was a drenching, puddle jumping challenge.

This one hurt by the end – truly. It felt like the full deal, which I pretended it was. I almost took some walking breaks, but I buckled down and completed this one straight through – just 1 second per mile slower than my last 20.

And now… football and chili. And fuzzy socks.

The Twenty Train

I dragged my broken parts and my disappointments out of bed this morning and packed them up to carry with me on this 20 mile training run.

I found my groove early on and my pace was comfortable and consistent without too much monitoring.

The miles flew beneath my feet like magic. Up and down the forgotten hills of this old route, I gradually let go of my unwanted baggage and focused on the very good feeling of this run.

Very, very good.

Everywhere I looked, I saw a yellow house, which brightened my soul and felt like a wink from the Universe. I thought about three strong women who were running Chicago today, and I passed some of the time cheering them on with my heart and hoping they felt it across the miles.

This was the best 20-mile training run I’ve ever had. No rests, no walking (finally!) Just steady forward progress and a giant peacefulness that descended on my soul.

My recovery has been surprisingly easy, and I can’t wait to do it again!

Saved by the Bell

I ran 18 miles today, unassisted. I encouraged myself out the door this morning, carried all of my own water, and did not come home to a “great job” or ice cold water waiting.

I stretched in agony down to my feet to untie my shoes, made my way upstairs for a shower, and sat on the floor to blow dry my hair afterward because I was too tired to stand up.

I grabbed some almonds and waddled to my car to drive to the tree where I ditched my empty water bottle in mile 10. My hydration vest was enough to manage. I didn’t want to bother with taking it off to store the water bottle inside, but in retrospect…

Found the tree. The bottle was exactly where I left it. I saw a sign that I hadn’t noticed earlier, that the area was posted for archery deer hunting. Good thing I didn’t venture too far off the road.

By then I was starving and wanted salt. So I let my car take me to the Taco Bell drive through (which I haven’t done in ages) and brought back a binge-worthy meal as I watched my beloved Redskins lose their grip in the second half – again.

I’m wiped out.

The long run is magnificent. It’s challenging. It’s glorious. It’s brutal at times.

And the recovery isn’t always pretty.

But tomorrow, I’ll be lacing up my shoes again… because it calls to me and I welcome every lesson.

Saint Saturday

The Universe brought church to the countryside on a brilliant Saturday afternoon this week and filled my soul with everything reverent and good.

First, an hour of yoga practice, then the holy five.

The first mile was exhilarating. The sun warmed my bones and my heart danced all the way into the first tiny town. I raised a hand to halt traffic at the four-way stop (I love that feeling of power), and made the turn down the long road that leads deep into my favorite farmland.

Mile three takes a small curve under the canopy of thick pines, and the scented cushion beneath my feet marks the last of the next-door-neighbors that need curtains on the windows. At the top of the small hill, the trees opened to a bright clear sky, and I found myself suddenly in my beloved countryside. I impulsively raised both hands in the air and joined the angels’ hallelujah ringing in my ears. I ran straight into the powerful scent of lilacs and breathed deeply while my childhood memories of the sweet lavender perfume woke up in some sleeping part of my brain.

I nimbly dodged the ivy with leaves of three that aggressively stretched beyond its assigned space on the shoulder. One tiny brush of my shoe could have me on steroids for half the summer.

Another turn at the orchard for mile four… I surprised myself with more energy than usual in the fifth – and, just like that, my private worship service was complete.

Amen. And hallelujah.

Tell Me Again

My mother’s memory flitted in and out like restless little bird. Each morning I had to repeat the story of her trip to the hospital, the virus, the AFIB, and her transfer to the rehabilitation center. She couldn’t remember the day of the week, the current month, or even the year for as little as 15 seconds.

But then, as day gave way to darkness, she would look at me with sudden focus and clarity, and with a sense of urgency, revealed various secret hiding places for the little treasures she had spent a lifetime collecting.

She gave those end-of-life instructions to me – the safe, the will, the distribution of momentos to the grandchildren, the heirlooms in the attic – panicked that the information would disappear as suddenly as her recollection of it. I didn’t want to think about the end of her memories, much less the end of her time on this earth – how could it be time already? But the calmness in her voice reassured me, and I realized that we were sharing sacred mother-daughter moments that will stay with me until it becomes my turn to lie in that bed and tell my secrets.

And I was forever changed.

Tennis Shoes and Wooden Spoons

I walked through the front door bravely and de-germed my hands with a quick shot from the Purell dispenser. My ears followed the quiet strains coming from the library, and there they were – thirteen toe-tapping seniors with stringed instruments, entertaining themselves as much as the residents with their weekly “jam session.”

He didn’t see me at first, but when he looked up from his dulcimer, his face lit up and his eyes grinned.

I grabbed an overstuffed chair next to a small woman in tennis shoes with silver hair, modernly styled. With a strong voice that had not a trace of a quaver, she told me it was her 92nd birthday. I laughed and looked around for a wink from her neighbors, as she didn’t look much older than my 77-year-old mother, but I got confirmation nods instead.

I asked this darling woman what advice she had for living a good life, and she looked at me, surprised at the question. “You have to have faith,” she said. “Faith in yourself that you can do things.” She informed me that last July she had fallen and broken her femur in two places. The doctors had to put a steel rod in her leg.

“I told myself I was going to walk again,” she declared, “and I did. You just have to have faith in yourself.”

No walker, no wheelchair. Just tennis shoes.

The musicians were set up in a large circle. Three had guitars, and the rest had dulcimers, five of which had been hand-made by my father. To my right stood an elegant woman with a gorgeous red jacket and jeweled-pocket black jeans. She had a fancy stand for her instrument and an iPad secured in front of her with her music.

Dad sat quietly and seemed content not to be the center of attention, while an entertaining guitarist crooned a song about a possum from a large upholstered stool in the center of the room. I hummed along to the melodies I knew and watched the hand-clapping onlookers grow as the walkers and wheelchairs made their way down to see what all the fuss was.

Possum Man asked me if music ran in the family and before I could answer, my father jumped in and proudly announced that I was first chair flute player in school. I didn’t even know he knew that about me, and I felt a warm sensation in my belly. They tried to get me to pick up a dulcimer, but I declined as I really have no talent at all for stringed instruments. But at Dad’s urging, I finally grabbed the wooden spoons from his case and clumsily kept time and hummed along in absolute delight to old hymns and banjo-pickin’ tunes like “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.”

It was positively exhilarating.

She Loves Me

I drove back to my mother’s house in silence through the last of the falling snow. The world was still and white.  The Colts had lost the playoff game and I guessed the locals were drinking away their devastation in the usual hot spots.

It was a beautiful day with my mother – one I will never forget.  She sat in the wheelchair with a soft white down throw over her legs, and I pulled my chair up close.  For hours we talked in quiet voices; mine dropped to match her frail tone.  In the morning I asked important questions in those lucid moments while her mind was still sharp for fear of losing the opportunity.  Then she would appear to wander and her forehead scrunched up as she struggled to put the story together.  But she stayed with me, and together we fought the gaps in her memory and filled in the missing parts.  

Her skin was soft and glowing, and her lips looked like they were stained with the perfect lipstick shade.  Her pink sweater complemented her envious, soft silver curls which looked like they had been painstakingly set, even though a hair-washing was long overdue.  The bruises on her slender hands appeared to be healing, and her blue eyes looked brighter as she looked deeply into mine.  

Just outside the huge picture window, the white stuff piled up on the towering evergreen as it floated softly and steadily down from some unseen source, creating that warm, insulating sensation one feels from a perfect snow. 

There was an extraordinary calmness in our day that sent my soul soaring into pure Love.  Despite the care she now needed, her strength wrapped me up and held me tight, and I marveled at the miracle that I was receiving, at this extremely unlikely time, the very nurturing I felt I’d always lacked from her.