Writing away the Shadows

The Winter Solstice, which I passed with a small group of lovely (vaccinated and boosted) new friends, was, as it always is, a charm against my onset-of-winter melancholy. Though the prairie winds blow cold, now that the days are slowly lengthening as we stretch our way to spring, I am okay. I am well, I promise, but I need to write a few bitter shadows off my heart.

I have survived another set of holidays. Another four seasons. Another year without her, my baby girl, my Mack. I have passed another 365 days of missing her grin and her giggle and her light against my darkness. This year was not easy. Nor was it easier than last year, or the year before that. It is not getting easier, despite the promises of well-meaning people trying to make me feel better. For me it will never be easy. It will just be different. Different the way summer feels different with every additional year between the human I am now and the human I was when I was barefoot and ten in the backyard of childhood.

I know myself well enough to accept and to admit that from Thanksgiving through Christmas, I am the worst of me. Sorrow, anxiety, and impatience override joy, productivity, and peace. The short days and long nights and my false cheer for the holidays and my shame for humbug plague me, and they will, I suspect, forever conjure the ghosts that haunt me. My grieving-mother sadness is the primary source of my melancholy, of course, but I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which rubs like course sandpaper against the raw edges of my grief. This is an annual torment, and it always takes me three cycles of the moon to accept the end of warm and joyful summer.

Yet this December I leaned sadder than usual. My divorce being finalized and my beloved dog Pepper’s health problems cast menacing spells against my spirit and made the melancholy debilitating for a number of days. Burying a female house sparrow who died on my porch on December 19 made the last two days to the Winter Solstice a moody struggle. And although I have tried to keep other negative emotions in check, I have also been angry and filled with despair. My fury and frustration rising with every new report on the climate crisis, deadly tornadoes in December, and the pandemic going on and on and on because so many selfish Americans falsely believe that public health policy is a violation of their individual rights.

“What about my individual rights,” I screamed as I paced through my empty house these past few weeks. “Don’t I deserve during my hardest time of the year to be surrounded by people without having to worry about my health and the possibility of making my loved ones unwell?” Family and friends are my medicine against grief, and this fucking pandemic has withheld in large measure the remedy that sustains me.

And then there was the added insult of writer’s block.

In early November, I began a new scholarly project, which during my struggle season was unfortunate timing. At the beginnings of big projects when I am setting my head to a difficult task, the intellectual power that effort requires zaps my energy, stealing away the creative power I usually ration so well for my personal, therapy writing. The writer’s block this year has been as difficult as anything to endure. Writing is my solace, especially when I am at my worst, in my seasonal doldrums, when I need most to turn my emotions into words and sentences, paragraphs, prose, and bad poetry. This year that coping mechanism failed me. Next year, I will be more cognizant about keeping safe the ration for personal writing, because although I make a great many mistakes, my grief has made a good student of learning what I need to survive the difficult and beautiful condition of being human. Already with the packing away of another year of holidays, made as joyful as absolutely possible by my good and cheerful sister Tracy, and with my new project well underway, my attitude is brighter even as I pen this last blog essay of 2021.

You see, I really I am okay. I struggle, yes, but I am capable of finding my way back home. Now that I have written away the bitter shadows, I feel lighter. I am lighter. Even as my head is filled up with the brains of a cynic who ascribes no tangible value, no magic, to the turn of the New Year, I am hopeful I will find purpose and peace in 2022. Perhaps it is simply the pleasant surprise of my survival of another year which has provided this shift in perspective. I forget sometimes that I can do hard things, and when I am reminded that I can I am grateful. Gratitude frames my mind to see the long winter in front of me as time to work on another book, to rest, and to wonder. And as each passing day gets a little longer, I will be stretching my spirit toward the spring.

Here is to a productive and peaceful winter to us all.

The Dorothy-Parker inspired ditty below is the only thing of any value I managed to write in the past two months. More bad poetry, I know, and I’m sorry! But Mack would appreciate it, and that makes it okay by me.

Writer’s Block
Some days I can write on for hours,
So clever I am with my pen;
But then comes a clog in
My thick, stupid noggin,
And I think I shall never write again.

In our front yard in Springfield, May 2012, this is one of my favorite photos of me and Mack
(although it is a rare serious pose and one of her in a dress!).
To me she was was always larger than life, and in so many ways she still is.

Egg Noodles and the Blues

I don’t cook much from scratch anymore—since Mack died, there are a lot of things I don’t do anymore—but every year for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house I make egg noodles. They aren’t hard to make, although making them is a little annoying and a lot time consuming. And messy. The flour gets all over me and the kitchen, and dried, eggy dough gets stuck to the counter top. I can’t stop rolling the dough until all dozen eggs and three pounds of flour are rolled out because my hands are encased in wet dough and getting it all off my fingers takes almost as much time as the rolling.

But no matter all of that. I make the egg noodles. For more than thirty years, I’ve been making the egg noodles. For all of the years Mack was here to eat those noodles, I didn’t mind making them. But Thanksgiving, a food holiday, was Mack’s favorite, and making noodles and eating noodles and thoughts of passing another Thanksgiving without Mack suck some of the magic out of those damned noodles. I half-heartedly try every year to get out of the noodle-making business and suggest that someone else pick up the tradition. But my egg noodles are special, pillowy and delicious, a family legend, and no one, particularly my niece Zoe, will let me off the hook. I need to make the egg noodles, and that’s okay. Some traditions should continue no matter how annoying or grief provoking, and I suspect I’ll make the family egg noodles until I’m dead.

So here I am, standing in my kitchen working up the courage to make noodles. It is quiet like death in the house and I shudder at being alone with my pre-holiday grieving and my noodles. I used to love to cook while listening to music, but one of the other things that I don’t really do any more since Mack died is listen to music. Music summons the ghosts, which stir up my grief into a hopeless melody of sorrow and self-pity. But a few months ago I started listening to 1920s jazz for brief intervals; and a couple of weeks ago I started listening to the blues. Shemekia Copeland specifically. Something about the old music calms me, and the spirit and humor of Copeland’s songs and the bad-ass-I’m-here-and-you’re-gonna-like-it sound of her voice give me strength.

Okay, then, I think, let’s invite Shemekia to this noodle-making party and see what happens.

I ask Alexa to shuffle Shemekia Copleland, and I get started on the noodles. The next thing I know I’m singing along and my hips are swaying and I’m rolling the dough in time to the music. I am shaking off the cobwebs of ghosts and grief with Mack laughing and cheering me on, helping me face another holiday without her. I am happily making noodles for the people I love most. Savannah will be here for the holiday, and she enjoys my noodles almost as much as Mack did. We will eat them together and remember our Mack, the food-loving, silly, joyful girl whose motto was to eat until it hurts, baby, and then eat some more.

I roll out the last of the dough and think to myself, wow. Instead of dreading Thanksgiving and letting my grief weigh me down low, I’m just here in my kitchen making noodles and singing the blues.

Ice Cream, Grief, and Becoming

Dear Mack,

I had vanilla ice cream for dinner the other night at 9 p.m. I drizzled it with local honey and topped it with salted, roasted peanuts. I convinced myself it was food, an easy meal that would fill me up for the night. I was too tired to cook, too beaten up by the first day of October, a month that has haunted me since you left us. Anyway, I thought ice cream with nuts made the meal at least a notch above junk food. Not so bad, I lied to myself while I plopped the three small scoops into the bowl and added the toppings. When I added the whipped cream from the pressurized can, piling it up above the sides of the bowl, my “meal” went the way of indulgence, unwise for a lactose intolerant, middle-aged woman who should not eat anything so late, let alone ice cream.

But, of course, you showed up and nudged me, your face in my mind’s eye and your voice in my ear. “Eat it, Momma Bear,” you whispered. “Just do it.”

The ice cream was delicious, and I enjoyed it, even as I cursed myself for eating it so late. It tasted like a Payday candy bar. I love Paydays! Remember those, Mack? I often had one in my handbag when we were traveling all over the world for your basketball games. In the absence of gummy worms or sour Warheads, you would eat a Payday, in a pinch, even though you said you hated peanuts. Like you said you hated oats but always asked me to bake oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries. Like I say I hate ice cream because I hate milk, but I eat it often anyway because it is delightful and worth a little tummy ache.

You always come to me when I want to break my rigid rules, when I am pausing before something I enjoy, trying to talk myself out of it because I think I should. You help me see my truth and embrace it. You come to me almost every day, and you come for a million reasons, but when you come to absolve me of useless guilt and regret for being human, I am particularly grateful.

You are looking at me right now, smirking from the other side of my laptop screen. You’re giving me your crooked grin and shaking your head because I’ve spent too much time worrying about eating that late-night ice cream, and now, here I am, writing about it. Life is too short for lament, you say. Your stomach got over it and your heart was happy eating that ice cream, you say. I know you are right, but I cannot do it alone. I need backup. I need you. I will always need you.

You won’t want to hear this, Mack, but I am still grieving the loss of you. In that grief, I fight each day to live, and I power the struggle with my desire to make you proud. And because of you, because of my promise to you, I eat ice cream. I daydream on Sunday afternoons in a rocking chair on the porch when I should be doing the laundry or scrubbing a sink. I laugh out loud at myself when I trip on my own feet or bump my head on a kitchen cabinet I left open. I stop in my tracks to smile and giggle when some human absurdity catches my attention—like a middle-aged man walking down the street with his white socks pulled up over his calves, or pumpkin-spiced everything at the grocery store, or Pepper waking me up for a sip of water from the cup I keep for her on the bedside table. I know you are happy I can find laughter in this silly stuff, which lightens the burden of missing you. And I know the silly stuff is what gives me my best chance to see myself through the sorrow, to show me I need to go a little easy on myself.

You might like knowing that you taught me how to find joy, humor, and perspective. You continue to teach me these precious skills on which I must work but to you came naturally. You keep my serious in check, Mack, reminding me to laugh out loud every day if I can, especially on the days when all I really want to do is cry. You enable ice cream and pass no judgment. You are my guide in grace and gratitude and gusto; and all the positive attitude I am able to muster is all you, baby girl.

It would please you to know that am healthier than I was two years ago when I began charting a path all my own. I am becoming the human I need to be to live without you, to be independent, to put myself out there, and to find the right balance of productivity and pleasure, purpose and peace. I am still up and down, a little sideways, off and on, lonely, and uncertain. I am a work in never-ending progress. I still stand on wobbling legs, my heart skipping occasional beats to the broken rhythm of grief; and my progress of becoming is slower than I would like it to be. But my becoming is in progress, your spirit keeps me grounded, and though I don’t know where the path will lead me, I am walking there with you. I am moving forward in my remaking, in my becoming, and I am making a wish of it in honor of you.

A day without you is an eternity. Seven years? Infinity beyond an eternity.

And that is why I keep you with me. You are with me now and always. You are still laughing at me, making it a mission to keep me in balance. You are still lighting up what passes for my life without you.

You are not gone, my darling girl. You are here for ice cream. You are here to temper my grief. You are here to witness my becoming. No, you are here to be a part of my becoming.

You are here. You are here. You are here.

Riding Alone

I talk myself out of doing things because I feel awkward about doing them alone. All the time I do it. I talk myself out of doing things I enjoy because I don’t have a partner or a friend to do them with me. I’m afraid to be out in the world alone, and that is ridiculous. People go out in the world and do things by themselves all the time. I don’t need to be strong or cool or brave. I just need to make myself go, push my pathetic butt out the door. I don’t want to be a crazy old lady hermit.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a season ticket for one to attend all of this season’s premier shows at the performing arts center here at Eastern Illinois University. I figured plunking down $180 would be the answer for every excuse I might use to keep from taking in good shows that are right here in my little town. I went to the first show of the season last Wednesday, and I didn’t talk myself out of going because I already had a ticket. I felt a little self-conscious and uncool finding my seat alone, among hip college students, but it turned out that going alone was not that hard. I survived it. And although the show itself was not that great, I felt pretty great when I stepped out into the chilly night air after the show and walked myself to my car.

A good friend of mine suspects I might eventually like to do things by myself. I am less sure about that. But here are three things about which I am certain. One: I live alone now. I am a single woman without a partner, and I have no interest in finding a new one. Two: locating joy is hard enough for me in my melancholia without giving up the simple things that still have the power to make me smile and to lift my spirits. And three: I need to cut myself some sack for being tentative and shy about being on my own. I am an old dog trying to learn new tricks. I’m living alone for the first time in my entire life, it’s only been two years, and most of that time, good grief, has been during a global pandemic.

Change that makes us better takes time and patience. Change is a challenge. It demands hard work. And, hey, that is a fourth thing I know: I can do hard work.

Not today, I said.

So, this morning I didn’t let me talk myself out of taking my bike out to explore the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, just four blocks south of my house. It was not easy to beat down the excuses hammering in my head while I sipped my morning coffee on the porch. I am my own worst enemy, after all. What if I fall, who will pick me up? Should a woman be alone on a bike trail in the country? Who will tug me back home if the wind is too strong and I can’t make my heavy bike move forward (this really happened to me once, back when I did have a partner). What if I get a flat tire or get lost or what if what if what if wtf if… See? This is what I do. This is why I have been so unsuccessful taking myself out into the world on my own and doing things all by myself.

Today, I am riding alone.

I got on my beach cruiser, which always makes my heart skip rope like a girl. I smiled and pedaled all the way to Charleston Country Club and back. Just eight miles round trip, but a long ride for me. I enjoyed the sunshine and the lovely breeze, and I stopped by a few butterfly gardens along the way. I waved at passing cyclists, many of whom were alone, like me. None of us wallowing in the self-pity of loneliness. In the bargain, I didn’t fall or get a flat tire and it wasn’t scary. Not really. It was delightful; and I grinned the whole time like Mack always grinned when she was delighted.

It was another baby step on the road to confident single womanhood. It was a badge earned on this journey of mine to be at peace in my head and confident in my place in the world, as a single woman doing my own thing.

I can ride alone. I am riding alone. And that’s okay.

My New Spirit Place

In the shade beneath the feathery emerald branches of a weeping white pine in a secret garden, I closed my eyes. My yearning for the spirit therapy of the dawn redwoods I left behind, along with the rest of my life in St. Louis, was quiet. I had arrived at the new altar of my peace. I breathed in the joyful air of finding a treasure, and I exhaled the end of a two-year search—or, rather, a waiting—for a new spirit place.

I am curating a new life and redefining peace for myself in a charming, craftsman bungalow on a corner lot in a sleepy college town. It is still a restless, sorrowful, lonely journey, but I am well most days and comfortably tethered to the earth. But now that I have found The Whiteside Garden, I have a place for my spirit to wander, for my mind to wonder, and for my heart to continue its journey of healing. I finally have a place to contemplate life, to contend with grief, and to get the hell out of my head for an hour or two each week, away from home. A place to amble and write and commune with trees.

I extract a great deal of the vitamins I need to be emotionally healthy by tending to my old house, reading on my breezy, shady porch, and spending meditative time in the yoga garden I created all by myself. But I have spent two years looking for a replacement for my health-giving, Wednesday morning strolls through the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’ve spent two years pining (pun here intended) for a place that is serene but engaging, bright and shady and lovely, restorative and transcendent. The Lake Charleston trails are too rugged, the sidewalks of my historic neighborhood too noisy, the college campus too populated with ghosts of the past, and the bike trail, although vibrant with wildflowers and butterflies, too unsheltered from the punishing Midwestern sun.

The dawn redwoods and the Missouri Botanical Garden helped me begin my spirit’s healing. And now the weeping white pines and The Whiteside Garden, just two miles east of my new home, will tend to my spirit going forward.

Who knew I only needed to get in my car and drive across a state highway and a corn field, to find my new spirit place? It’s funny how simple the remedies for our sorrows often are. Funnier still how long it sometimes takes to find precisely what we need, although the remedy is so close, within shouting distance, or just around the corner. And isn’t it frustrating that some of our remedies, the life-altering, precious, restorative life medicine we need is often hidden behind an experience or acquaintance that has not, as yet, crossed our path? Is it not unfair that we must sometimes wait for that remedy to emerge from the randomness of life, from serendipity and stupid luck?

Oh, that life is short and still we must be patient.

The planets do not align for our singular benefit, but sometimes we do win the universe’s lottery. In fact, I find it to be mostly true that the elixirs and balms that have helped me to survive my grief have found me when I wasn’t looking. It is no surprise to me that I would find my new spirit place by happenstance. That at yoga one Friday morning at the end of summer I would meet a woman, and that the yoga teacher would introduce us and tell her I was new to the area. That the woman would give me her docent elevator pitch for The Whiteside Garden. That I would venture out into a dangerous heat wave to visit the garden later that morning. That a weeping white pine would greet me like I had known her my entire life. That I would stand under her gentle branches, sheltered in the impossible coolness beneath them, and know that my spirit was home.

The Whiteside Garden, the lifelong labor of love of Eastern Illinois University botany professor Wesley Whiteside, is small and charming, hemmed in by a busy state highway and central Illinois fields of corn and soybeans. Yet to me, it a grand thing, a majestic replacement for my beloved Missouri Botanical Garden. The weeping white pine a gracious gift to fill the void of the dawn redwoods. This glorious new spirit place is the perfect size, the perfect setting, for me right now, where I am in time and space, where I am in my journey of healing. Opened to the public just three months ago, The Whiteside Garden is also a new kid in town, just like me. Yet, as Professor Whiteside, who died in 2015, began cultivating the gardens surrounding his home in the early 1960s, before I was born, his legacy garden will be a wise teacher.

     

I Am Flexible

Yoga in the park this morning was all about the spine. My soft-spoken teacher stretched and twisted and cooed us into shapes that make the back-body purr. The rising sun cast majestic shadows on the concrete of the pavilion. Shadows of my body, reaching and breathing into beautiful movement in the already-warm breeze of a Midwestern day in late summer.

This stretching reminded me that I am alive, like yoga always reminds me that I am alive. These shadows made me grateful. I am able-bodied. I am here. I am breathing. Imperfect and grieving and uncertain, yes; but also accepting and peaceful and hopeful that life might still bring me gifts. That I am deserving of those gifts.

The mantra of my first yoga teacher, more than two decades ago, was: “You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” I didn’t appreciate her mantra back then, because my spine was flexible. It was also young and supple and strong. I was in my early thirties. I did not yet know that my body would change and that life would make me rigid. Back then, I could still do flips in the backyard with my daughters, the muscle memory of competitive gymnastics still lithe in my muscles and bones.

Not so much today, now that I know the weight of living. In my fifties, I am starting over and feeling green, despite my graying hair. I am unbending, even though life has done its damnedest to bend me. I am strong, in spite of all I have endured. But I know all of this, and that is the difference. Knowing is what makes me flexible.

And this is, precisely, the point of yoga. To practice. To learn. To bend. Not just in body, but also in spirit. To remind us to breathe. To make us sit in our moment with all of the crap life heaps upon us. To witness our shadows. To know the beauty of our bodies to bend without breaking.

Sometimes, I think I am old and inflexible. But in reality, I am young and bendy. I am strong. I am human. I am flexible.

I Am Writing

An old University of Illinois friend texted me the other day. “You haven’t blogged in a while,” he wrote. I was a little offended and didn’t believe him. And then I was surprised, because it was true. I hadn’t blogged in a while. But I have been writing. I’ve been writing quite a lot. Since my April blog post, I have completed two more chapters of the memoir and excerpted one of those new chapters for submission to a few literary journals. I spent June and July preparing a book proposal for a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and its fate is now in the hands of a university press. I have also done some prompt writing for my monthly memoir group and pounded out some wretched poetry.

So, yeah, I’ve been writing all summer. But Will was right. I hadn’t blogged in a while, and that got me thinking about writing and perceptions about writing and about how blogging is a really weird and wonderful kind of writing. Here’s the thing about blogging that sets it far apart from the other writing I do—the scholarly writing, the memoir work, and the poetry—blogging is public accountability for writing. Will’s note was a gentle nudge, a “hey, lady, get back to writing; what’s the matter with you?” nudge. Because with blogging, the writing process is public.

Blogging is active. It is in the here. In the now. Readers can see you writing or not writing. When I publish a book or article, no one thinks about me writing. They think about the words and the sentences and the ideas I have shared on the page. When I publish a blog post, they know I am writing. Blogging is comprised of the words and the sentences and the ideas, but it also places the writer in a space of motion. In the process of writing. 

I love that motion, that public process of writing. In that space there is healing. Writing for me is a journey. Publications at the end of the journey are great, but they are not as important as the writing itself. Blogging keeps me up on my writing toes. I welcome that pressure, that nudging. I need it.

I started blogging for therapy in the fall of 2014. Writing my grief after the death of my daughter helped me feel. It helped me process and push through the emotional and physical wreckage of my broken life. My grief motivated the blogging, but the blogging also became a motivator to keep feeling and processing and pushing. Because blogging is a contract you make with your readers to keep writing, right? It is a promise to show up regularly to share a story or offer some artful prose or a little wisdom. It is immediate. It is the kind of writing that puts yourself out there in the world. It helps you find allies, to connect. It reminds you that you are not alone, and, in the bargain, it gives you a chance to touch souls who thought they were alone but because you are writing they feel a little less alone.

Heady and grand the thought of reaching others, yes, but that’s what blogging does for the writer. It makes you brave. It opens you up. The present tense of it is an inspiration. And because I still need to blog in order to keep feeling and processing and pushing, I am grateful for the public space. I am grateful people can see me writing and breathing and learning how to be human.

So, thank you, Will, for rekindling the fire. For reminding me that, no, I haven’t blogged in a while and, yes, I need to blog. I am compelled to share my stories and to offer a line or two of artful prose or a little wisdom. Well, maybe not that artful or that wise. I’m no sage. I’m just a middle-aged woman, finding her way in the world like everybody else, fumbling and falling, looking for ways to expel the demons, to figure shit out, to think out loud. To write. To be writing. Always writing.

The Fears of Bug

On the outside, my long-haired chihuahua mix is golden and gorgeous. Her fur is the blended color of sunshine and fields of wheat turning autumn shades of amber. Her face is chiseled and dainty, and her delicate, pointed snout and dreamy, doe eyes would place Bug in the cute-as-a-bug category of dogs even without the glorious ears that stretch up as if to reach me when I call her name. Bug is sweet and gentle, my lamb, my snuggles, my dear littlest one.

On the inside of Bug, however, are scars and shadows on her willowy bones from anxieties I will never understand. She must be carried up the staircase to bed, but she scrambles down the steps quickly to breakfast all by herself every morning. She trembles at the sound of thunder, but she is brave in her demand that squirrels stay off our porch. She’s shy around men and distrustful of people in uniforms, but she adores the six people she has invited into her nervous little heart.

I adore Miss Bug for her goofy, heartwarming cuteness, even though loving her has required an acceptance of quirky, contradictory, and sometimes infuriating behaviors, like her interminable searching for the poop spot that will allow the least amount of contact of her precious butt with itchy or wet or unfamiliar surfaces. Patience is as important as love in my tending of Bug. If she were a human child, I would have her tested for Asperger Syndrome and practice strategies to improve her social skills and make her more comfortable with the spontaneous, unexpected things that pop up when you are a living creature on this crazy planet. But, Bug is dog, just seven pounds, and even though her neuroses have neuroses, she’s not that much trouble.

Most of the time.

Last night, though, around 3 a.m., just a couple hours after I had stopped reading and settled into a deep sleep, a scream like a banshee from nightmares pierced the quiet dark. My heart jumped like a startled frog into my throat, and I sat bolt upright in bed. I lunged for Pepper, my middle-aged Pomeranian with congestive heart failure, my mind going straight to painful heart attack. But she was sitting up, engaging her annoyance gurgle, having also been yanked from peaceful slumber by the terrible screech. I reached then for Bug, who sleeps on the pillow next to me. She wasn’t there, but I could hear her squeaking and struggling. I found her wiggling body tucked under and between our two pillows, her head pushed through the slats of the headboard. I pulled her free, and she melted into my arms. And then as if we were members of a freaky, psychically-connected chorus, all three of us let out long, whispery sighs.

I’ll never know for certain, but I think in her sleep Bug must have dreamed herself into that pickle between and under the pillows, woke up with her head in that scary and dark place between the headboard and the wall, and screamed out in holy horror.

Pepper rolled over on her back and went right back to sleep, while I tucked Bug under my arm, cuddling her deep into the comforter. I took some deep, meditative breaths to ease my body back into rest, and then I remembered I had heard that scream once before. A couple of years ago, while running up the long hallway of the loft where we lived in St. Louis, Bug screamed like a banshee from nightmares and fainted dead away. I thought she really was dead, limp in my arms when I picked her up. After a minute or two, however, she woke up and I rushed her to the vet. There was nothing at all wrong with her. The vet surmised that she might have twisted her leg or hyperextended her tiny knee while running fast, that she might have felt pain or a twinge or took an unexpected skid that scared her so badly she fainted.

Two years ago, I took my screaming, fainting chihuahua to the vet. Last night, I cuddled my screaming, terrified chihuahua and showered her with love and patience until she fell back into an easy slumber. Once her breathing was even and she was tucked away in a good dream, I closed my eyes and joined my funny little family in sleep.

The Innocence of Grandmothers

She is wearing a black blouse with bold pink flowers. Cabbage roses, they are, as big as her smooth cheeks, which are blushed to match them. I recognize my grandmother in the photograph, but her sweet, hopeful gaze, and the invincibility of her youth is that of a woman I do not know. It is 1943. Kathleen is twenty. She is the wife of a young man who is leaving for war. She is a young mother of two baby boys, my own mother not yet a sparkle in her eyes.

On her young face, there are no lines etched by three decades of factory labor. None textured with the grief of widowhood, which will come to her when she is forty-four, less than a year after I am born. There is no trace of the sorrowful eyes that I remember, the eyes that were a window to the pain of her loneliness, raging diabetes, and the heart disease that would take her life before she turned seventy. No, this Kathleen in the photograph, wrapped up in the arms of a handsome, bright-eyed soldier, who does not know what the war will do to them, is a vision of hope, of purpose, and of life all out in front of her.

Would that we could know the innocence of our grandmothers. To know the girls that bloomed their wisdom. To be friends with the women they were when their best days were in front instead of behind them. My grandmother had grit and humor, grown of her struggles. She taught me to trust my voice and the power of raising it. I loved her and appreciated her rough edges, which often snagged the tapestry of expectations about traditional grandmothers.

She was special to me because she was my grandmother and she loved me unconditionally. She was extraordinary to me because she was a woman who survived great hardship and profound grief and still she could belly laugh at a dirty joke and find joy eating sweets against doctor’s orders, or watching professional wrestling, or teaching her grandchildren how to curse like male factory workers in the 1950s.

But I wish my affection for my grandmother could have been rooted more deeply, as well, in the whole being of Kathleen. I wish her life could have overlapped with my desire to know her better. I wish I would have asked her what it was like to be twenty. In 1943. When she was young and the world was at war. I wish I would have asked her about that crazy blouse with cabbage roses and the bright blush upon her cheeks, and what she was thinking when she posed with my grandfather for that photograph. A photograph that is an artifact of the 1940s. A photograph that is evidence of both my tether to and my distance from my grandmother, far away and across the distance of eighty years and two generations of a family. 

Mack with Me

By myself, I am walking,
Mindfulness in all my steps,
Heel to toe, toe to earth.
Purposeful, with measurement.
In the walking, in my presence,
I find solace out of sorrow.
Unaccompanied, I walk in silence.
Yet I am not alone.

Mack is here.

Her presence in my present
Is my permission.
To breathe. To see.
To find my feet.
To find my peace.

By myself, the mornings
Are coffee and worries.
Blurry with my future,
Foreverness of loneliness.
Caffeine anxiety
For future years of misery.
I lose myself in the tyranny
Of incapacity for grace and dignity.

Mack is not in this state with me.

Her no-show no surprise to me.
To fret. To sweat
What I cannot change and cannot know
Just wastes precious time
She did not get.

By myself, in bed at night,
I fight to sleep.
To be at rest.
I toss and turn through history.
Through memories of who I was
When Mack was here.
When tragedy was unforeseen.
But when I wish upon the past,

Mack will not reminisce with me.

She sees no good
In glances back.
To dwell on loss, forget what’s not.
It breaks her heart
To see me lost.

By myself, I need to breathe.
To learn to sleep.
To find my dreams. To stay awake.
With every step. Through every task.
Through every day.
I need to learn to live for now.
To be content with me
And how to be right here,

Where Mack will be.

Where joyfulness can walk with me,
And Mack with me.
How I can laugh
And hope and see
All the life in front of me.

For you, my dear Mackenzie, on your birthday.
I am here. With you. In the present.