Monday, January 28, 2013

Farewell to the house

The time has come.  I wouldn’t call it a bittersweet moment, because it’s more powerful than that.  It is kind of like having an overwhelming feeling of relief simultaneously with a panic attack.  It’s what we hoped for, but some part of us hoped it would never happen.  I’m talking about the sale of our childhood home.
I blogged about what this property meant to my family here.  I posted that in May 2011, when we knew Mama would never go back to her house and live by herself and the only thing to do was to clean the old house up and put it on the market.  That was an intellectual decision, made partly because it was logical and partly because it was the only alternative and we had no choice.  
Now this week our beloved house will change hands.  It will be official.  That yard where we played softball would be someone else’s yard.  They will not know of the mimosa tree that our cousins climbed when it was in the front yard.  They will not know of Mrs. Ditto whose property was adjacent to ours out back, who would stand at the fence and share her fresh figs.   They won’t know of the clothesline where we hung sheets and blankets to make tents.  They won’t know of all the memories we collectively experienced in that house and in those yards from 1954 on.  
Of course, I’ve lived in several other houses since then after I left there to get married in 1974.  Our first house was a 1920s bungalow.  It had a rich history, and people lived there before us and people came after us. It was our house for 12 years.  From there, Ed went into the ministry and we moved from parsonage to parsonage.  Obviously, they weren’t our houses - they were houses owned by the various churches where their pastor lived for the duration of their appointments.
When Ed retired from the ministry, we moved to Maine to our large Victorian in Ellsworth.  Again, people had lived there before us, left their mark on the house, we lived there and left our mark, and then we sold it to people who will leave their mark.
This is one of many reasons why my childhood home is special.  We are the only family who ever lived there.  My parents bought it around the time they were expecting me.  The house and I have grown up together - and we are showing the same signs of wear, believe me.  In today’s mobile society, it sounds quaint to be born into one house and live there until you get married.  (I went to one school 1st grade through 12th, too!)  Such stability is almost unheard of nowadays.  I wish we could have given our kids that same feeling of home in one place.
But of course, it’s the memories that give me a catch in my throat the most.  It’s where I was loved unconditionally, and especially where I most remember Daddy (there and seeing him in church).  It’s like giving up a piece of him to sell the house he was so proud of - the house where he established and nurtured the stable, happy family he never had when he was young.
Last week I was driving home from work and had to stop quite suddenly at a yellow light.  Without thinking, I reflexively stretched out my right arm over in front of the passenger seat.  Then I laughed.  Daddy used to do that.  Before the advent of seat belts, at any point when he had to brake suddenly, he always threw his arm across whoever was sitting beside him so they wouldn’t careen into the dashboard.  After we got our first used car with newfangled seat belts,  Daddy still did the same movement, as it was such an ingrained habit.  Now, in 2013, alone in the car, here I was throwing out my right arm to protect...nobody.
Then I realized that our precious house is just a building - a special building, but bricks and wood and all the rest.  The memories - the most important things - are in my heart.  Selling the house doesn’t diminish our experiences there, especially of Daddy - because memories of Daddy and everyone else live in my heart where I can access them whenever I wish - whether in a photo in a scrapbook or at a red light in Ellsworth, Maine.
So, go your way, my beloved house.  You’ll always be a part of our family, and a part of me.  I won’t remember you with rotting wood and outdated electricity and peeling paint.  I will remember you as a loving shelter, your yards with a mimosa tree and clothesline tent and open air “club house.”  I’ll remember you with the shiny wood floors we helped Mama polish, the table set for 4, the birthday parties, the naps on lazy summer afternoons, the excitement of getting the Christmas decorations down the creaky attic stairs.   I’ll remember your tastes of York apples, frozen bananas dipped in sugar, cornbread dressing, and half gallons of ice milk.   I’ll remember your sounds of an upright piano, unending laughter, the movie projector, the dice and chatter at Mama’s bunco parties, the Monkees playing on a record player, our excited conversation for Daddy’s reel-to-reel recorder.  I’ll remember your embrace as we watched home movies, saw Daddy engrossed in his stamp collection, had the extended family over at Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I’ll remember you when I think of packing the car, leaving for vacation. I’ll remember the TSA meetings and the play we wrote and acted out, Thanksgiving services held in the den.   I’ll remember Catland Caverns, Mike, the bluejay, the rooster, and all the rest of our pets you tolerated for our pleasure. Oh, no, house.  Don’t worry.  I won’t forget you.  You’re in my heart and there you’ll stay. Thanks for the memories.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The last of the future

Last week we had the joyous arrival of our fourth and final grandchild, Emily.  The picture under her is her older brother, Joshua, and the next picture is her cousin Charlotte and then her oldest cousin, Caroline.  Four sleeping sleeping angels in these pictures.

Each birth had its similarities and differences with the others.  There were 4 C-sections, for instance.  All babies were born in the same hospital.   In two of the births, we knew the gender ahead of time; the other two were surprises at the time of delivery.  Three babies were very heavy at birth, and Emily was the lightest of them all - well, if you can call 8 pounds 7 ounces light!

We now have four - three girls and one boy - and our grandchildren roll call is complete.  It's definitely a bittersweet feeling.  The last time in the hospital waiting room, anxiously awaiting the news.  The last time to see the baby weighed in, the last time to see the proud parents as they hold their newborn with the family discussing which parent he/she resembles most.

Now we look to the future.  I have been fortunate to have lived long enough to see my two kids grow to adulthood; now I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up and establish their lives.         I am so glad my almost 90-year-old mom has lived to see these 4 great grandchildren born.  That is a blessing only some people get to experience.

There's nothing quite like being a grandmother.  I did not really know three out of my four grandparents.  My paternal grandfather I never met.  My two grandmothers were elderly and ill as long as I can remember, so we never did much together.   So that left my maternal grandfather - he had to fill the role that the others couldn't - and he did so with humor, energy, entertainment, and love, lots of love.  Who else would give us chicks for Easter, one of which turned into a rooster in our midtown Memphis backyard and woke the neighborhood until being shuffled off to a farm?  Who else would give us brand-name dolls that we actually had seen advertised on TV instead of the generic dolls our parents could afford?  Who else made sure we had what was to us gigantic Easter baskets with pastel-colored plastic coverings which gave entrancing glimpses inside?  Who else could play the piano by ear with gusto and did so every time he visited?  Who else had a cat who played duets with him on the piano and organ?  Who else could throw a cane up and catch it in the air?  Who else kept two cans in the back floor of the car on family outings - one for bait and one for chewing tobacco?  He was truly a legend.

So now it's left to me to build memories for these four beautiful grandkids.   I'm still learning how to do this, as it's an ongoing effort as they grow.  Their needs change, their interests change, the activities I can do with them change, but at the core is that important relationship of grandmother and grandchild.

It's a cliche to say that I see them as the future, but it's true.  They carry my genes, they carry my legacy.  They are part of my story and they will carry that as well.  If you have grandchildren, you know what I mean.  If you have grandchildren who aren't genetically related to you, you still know what I mean.   If you are still awaiting that memorable event of having a grandchild born, you probably know what I mean.  Our collective influence is powerful.  We are the memory-makers.

I was in the post office the other day when a kid about 4 looked up at me.  I smiled down at him. Then I realized, "That kid thinks I'm old!"  The idea startled me.  Then I though, of course he does!  I would have at that age as well.  58 is ancient, right?   I often wonder how my grandkids will remember me.  I hope it is of a grandmother who took the time to listen, who could actually get down on the floor to play and get up again, who was there for their birthdays and other important life events, who was always taking pictures, who taught them about Lincoln and maybe some French, who sang "Pony Boy," who taught the power of forgiveness and patience, who passed on wisdom and guidance and, of course, love, love, love.  If they don't wholly think of me as an old lady now, I'm sure in a few years they will, and one day I will actually step into those shoes of an "old lady" from even my subjective point of view.  I pray that I will have enough good health and energy and intellect to be able to continue to make precious memories.  In the end, that will really be their inheritance - those memories, all tangled in with love and hugs and laughter and some tears along the way.

In a way it seems selfish to me to be so concerned with if and how my grandkids remember me.  But it's human nature to want to make a difference, to give meaning to our lives. In a way, I'm keeping up this blog in their honor, as a way to connect with me after I'm gone, to get a glimpse into my struggles and dreams and priorities, and yes, how fortunate I feel to be a part of their lives.    I hope to be able to live as long as my mom, maybe even to see some great-grandchildren come my way.  In the meantime, I'll concentrate on my role as memory-maker.  It's one of the greatest honors of my life.

PS - For those of you who participated in Project Birthday Card to send cards from all over the world to my mom last May, the story is in the 2013 February edition of Reader's Digest at the bottom of pages 126-127.  Thanks for being memory-makers in my mom's life!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Joy percent

I was reading a book on healthy eating last week when I came across an interesting observation.  It said that one should never get more than 10% of the total joy in one's day from food.

Say we each have 100% of our total allotment of joy for the day.  If we find maybe 40% of it dependent on the food we eat, we are giving food an inordinate amount of power to make us happy.  And we all know that if you get the majority of your happiness from food, your life is kind of lacking and you probably are overweight.  The way to handle that, says the author, is to deliberately find other sources of joy to enliven your life so food plays a lesser role.

I digested that, pardon the pun, and then I decided to expand the author's thesis.   All the experts in stocks and investments say the same thing - diversify.  Don't put all your eggs into one basket, because then if you drop the basket, you've lost everything.

How about we diversify in our sources of joy?  Expand the food idea.  What if you get 80% of your daily every day from your spouse?  On the one hand, that sounds like a great idea.  It is certainly better than getting half your joy from food.  On the other hand, what if that relationship goes sour?  Or what if that person dies?  All of a sudden we are bereft because we've dropped the basket and have little else to fall back on.  (This is why relationships thrive on shared experiences, as not only do comforting memories bring you joy in years to come, but you may even choose to keep those activities when you are on your own as a continued source of joy.)

Let's say you find 75% of your daily joy from knitting or playing an instrument.  (Another good choice.  I've always been a fan of creativity.)  One day you may lose the dexterity in your fingers or your eyesight.  You have little else to give you pleasure to compensate.

Diversifying our sources of pleasure, of which food is just one,  makes us interesting people.  It rounds us out, makes us balanced.  I never really thought of it before in this way.  Here's an experiment:  Make a list of the things/people/experiences you have discovered bring you joy - major ones like your family, and small ones like bubble baths. Then scatter them around your life.  I can see my precious new grandbaby born this week, experience unspeakable joy, then come back home and find joy in being with my husband, sewing an apron for my mom, blogging, reading, playing the harp, looking through some old photos that make me smile, doing the crossword puzzle, talking to a friend, watching the new season of Downton Abbey, interacting with my kids and three other grandkids, writing a check for a charity, and, yes, enjoying one of my favorite flavors of ice cream.  The key to happiness in life, I'm beginning to believe, is joy in all its forms, liberally scattered throughout every day.  That way if Downton Abbey is canceled (no!  no!), I still have much joy in other places.   This is not to say all joys are equal, by any means.  I would never put Downton Abbey in the same category as my grandchildren.  But our souls crave joy - the big joys and little joys and everything in between.  And don't forget the joys of giving to others - joy is not all take and no give.

I have heard of people who had their joy tied up in their careers, then lost them.  I've heard of others who had their joy encased in their houses or cars, then lost them.  (I remember an elderly lady we met years ago whose husband had left her for a Sunday School teacher.  All her joy in life was embedded in him, and when that happened, she never recovered.   Every visit we had with her was spent listening to her bemoan her unhappy fate.  She was depressing to be around and nothing we could ever say or do made her feel better.)   Even healthy sources of joy such as sewing or gardening or playing an instrument or singing or hiking or swimming can be detrimental if we are so dependent on them as our only source of joy that if they were to disappear, all our happiness would evaporate with them.

This week I want to celebrate joy in all its varieties.  Life has so much joy to offer; why limit ourselves?  The key is finding our sources of joy, then incorporating them on a regular basis.  It is not good to get more than 10% of our joy from food - and it is just as unwise to let other people or things or experiences define our joy.  If we depend on outside sources for our happiness, things are bound to mess up.  Look inside your soul, define your joys, and watch your life fill up with bliss!