Fiction Friday – Obsession and Possession: Confessions of a Book Hoarder

Some books … become part of me…

The best times of my life have been spent in imaginary places. Or real places that have been populated with imaginary people. I’ve learned more from great novels than from any history book or non-fiction treatise I’ve ever struggled through.

Humans thrive on narrative and storytelling – we make sense of the world by telling stories about it. The stories may be true, or myth or some combination of the two, but a narrative will always stick with me where a dry list of facts may not. Tell me a story, though, in words, or words and music, and I’ll remember.

Some of my best friends are fictional characters. They’re always there for me when I need them, getting into and out of the same scrapes and adventures, saying witty or silly or profound things, expressing their hearts in a way that touches mine. I’ve been a nerd a long time, and often a lonely one, and I’ve always found a friend in a book.

Maybe that’s why it is so hard for me to get rid of books. I used to be unable to get rid of books at all. I’ve gotten more ruthless about it, especially with new books (or books new to me.) If they don’t grab me right away, I ring the bell and shout, “Next!” (See the latest entry over there in the Snark Tank.)

But if the book grabs me, holds my attention, makes me stay up all night to finish it, well, it’s MINE, MINE I tell you! And will be for life. Nothing can induce me to get rid of books that have befriended me, helped me through hard times, and give me something new every time I reread them.

I love historical fiction and speculative fiction, and there are a few books in these categories that have changed my life, or, more accurately, become absorbed into my life – become a part of me.

There is only one series, however, that has very nearly spoiled me for all others. Reading anything else is really just a break from rereading these – the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series: the extended tale of a British Royal Navy captain and his particular friend during the Napoleonic wars.

These are not easy books. The first especially requires a leap of faith – just suspend disbelief and trust that you’ll get it eventually.

I first came upon these books for kind of a silly reason – I have a strict “read the book before you see the movie” rule. Back in 2002 or so, I heard that Russell Crowe (and back then I was still in the throes of a pretty serious Russell Crowe problem) was to star in a film called “Master and Commander.”

So I marched off to the library and that book. And something told me I’d better take the next two in the series as well.

I sat down to read it, and I didn’t budge for about 14 hours other than to address basic needs. I remember thinking it was complex, the language hard to follow, but something about it just captured me. The book had a helpful diagram of a ship in the front, and a helpful scene where one of the seamen explained to one of the characters what many of the ship’s parts and the sailor’s expressions meant.

And as I got into I came to care very much about the characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and struggled to savor the writing while fighting the impulse to read ahead quickly to discover what would happen next.

Here was a world recreated in great detail; here was honor, duty, adventure and a great deal of humor. Parts of these books made me laugh out loud, sometimes laugh so hard I cried.

I confess I haven’t read all of Jane Austen, but I know Patrick O’Brian was a fan of hers, and his books are like, you should pardon the expression, Jane Austen with balls.

I don’t know why I like books that contain famous battles or details of military history. I’m pretty much a pacifist – but I just love stories of brave people doing brave things in pursuit of what they perceived to be honorable goals.

I finished those first three books in less than two days and raced back to the library to grab the next four or five, because I couldn’t imaging the agony of having to wait for the next one.

The devotees of these novels who started with them when they first began to appear often had to wait two years between books. I think that might have broken me – I just had to know what would happen next. And while I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, I never really understood the impulse to wait outside a bookstore at midnight for the next installment – but I would have camped out for a week for the next one of these Aubery-Maturin books.

I’m a member of a Facebook group devoted to these books, where no one thinks it is weird that you use eighteenth-century language (“Give me joy!” or “I have the honor to report…” or “grass-combing bugger!” or “would one of you learned coves explain, in terms amenable to the meanest understanding?”) I’ve read the complete Aubrey/Maturin novels, all twenty of them, five times. (They are now mostly available as a complete set in a 5 volume hardcover, but you might be able to find the 20 individual paperbacks used online somewhere, and there’s a 21st, but it is unfinished and sad). I just can’t get enough of Jack and Stephen’s world, and I find something new in these books each time I reread them.

So, Jack, Stephen, you have spoiled me for all others; you have stolen my heart and earned my loyalty for as long as my eyes can read.

When I finished the series from the library, I was able to locate an online bookstore devoted to all things Aubrey-Maturin, and at what was then far too great an expense, as I was grossly underemployed at the time, enduring a sad and difficult time in my life, I purchased the entire set. They now occupy the shelf formerly occupied by my Mike’s chess books. When Mike was unable to read them or concentrate on them anymore, he piled them all into the car and drove them off to give them to a young man who was supposedly trying to start some kind of chess club or school, but who was unhelpful and singularly unappreciative of the effort this dying man took to deliver those books to him.

I kept a few of Mike’s poetry books, the ones that contained poems he shared with me and that we could discuss together, but a great many of the rest went to the hospice chaplain, who shared Mike’s love of poetry and whose friendship, right at the end of Mike’s life, was a great gift to us both.

That made room for me to bring my books downstairs, into our little library room. The speculative fiction I enjoy now has its own separate bookcase filled mostly with William Gibson and Neal Stephenson (Neuromancer my brain to entirely new places, as did Snow Crash. Sharing the shelves with Patrick O’Brian are Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series (absolutely hilarious – someone Fraser has managed to place his hero at every major British and American military engagement of the nineteenth century). Those are good and a nice diversion from the next go-round of O’Brian. McCullough eventually starts writing more like a Roman historian than a novelist, so for me that series kind of wore out, but the first two, The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown are especially good.

These worlds the authors have created or recreated refresh me, comfort me, keep me company and help me through hard times. When I have to come back to the world I actually live in, I feel refreshed, strengthened, but also supported, knowing that there are a few, a self-selected few thousand people on the planet, who love these books as much as I do, and the human connection that results from just knowing they are out there gives me hope and gets me through my days.

You’ll either get completely hooked on Patrick O’Brian, or you won’t get through the books at all. There really is no in-between that I’ve ever heard of with these.

So if you set sail, I give you joy and wish you fair winds and following seas. Let me know if you decide to embark, and if you sign on as crew for life with Captain Jack.

The Attitude of Gratitude – Thankful Thursday 2

This week’s easy: I’m grateful for old friends, and a hometown that guarantees that I will run into them every decade or so, if not more often, and we can pick right up where we left off.

This town, my hometown, has its issues, just like anyplace, but I brought Mike and our child back here for a simple reason: I knew that there are some things in this town that will never change, and that for the rest of our child’s life, there will be people here that have known and cared about our child since elementary school.  Any visit to a regular destination like a local grocery or pharmacy is a pretty sure bet that we will run into someone we know, and every Fourth of July dozens of peer-aged people will return here, and our child will have a happy reunion or two, if only for a few minutes. It’s worth it for that.

This is the kind of place where people you have known since kindergarten, people you grew up with, who share history and memories, will be around, even if you don’t see them often. When you do see them, you’ll take right back up again, wherever you left off, and it just feels good knowing that can happen, at random, any given day.

I’m grateful for the reconnections I made in the summer at my high school reunion (the decade marked to remain unspoken here!) and that I’ve managed to sustain. As my classmates and I cross into new decades, aging into numbers I’m still in denial about, losing parents and spouses, watching kids grow up and leave, or adult children with disabilities take on new challenges, gnawing our nails with nerves but enduring, because we have to, because it is our job as parents, I’m grateful to know I’m not alone in this – that we remember what it used to be like, whose house that was, what the kids looked like when they were small, what the parents looked like when they were young, how they partied, how we did, and how we survived. How we keep going.

And how many of you are thriving. I’ve seen old girlfriends recently who never looked better – who have endured loss, grief and estrangement but who have rallied, reinvented, not just endured but gotten better and stronger. I’m so proud of you, and so grateful that you call me friend. I admire you and hope to be more like you if I can.

So here’s to you, old friends – see you ’round town, soon. Keep up the good work, the strong living, the moving forward. I’ll try to keep up!

We Interrupt This Program for a Brief Dive Into the Snark Tank

I have a few quibbles to get off my chest before my Thankful Thursday post. I’ve spent a lot of time reading during the last week and came across some of my pet peeves – misuses or misspelling of words. Which reminded me also of a few of my pet radio peeves, mispronunciations of common words, suffixes, etc.

So before I get rolling too much on that stuff I think I’d better dive on over into the Snark Tank to take care of it, OK? Back in a few.

Thin Ice

This week I realized that I don’t really have much of a back up plan should my superpowers become temporarily unavailable.

“The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley…”

-Robert Burns

I was going to catch up on a lot of blogging last week – I was going to do my second Thankful Thursday, my first Fiction Friday, and then swing back around today with Non-toxic Tuesday, plus a brief announcement about how I’d temper the annoying alliteration (oops) from now on, because I really only use that as a device to remind me of what I’m supposed to be writing about on which day of the week.

I barrelled home from my New Year’s Revolution Yoga Class (paid for the whole series in advance, non-refundable, therefore irrevocable – don’t make that wasted money, get your booty to class!) feeling energized and ready to write, and then, BAM, flattened with a vicious (and pretty viscous) cold.

No fever, but chills, and aches the magnitude of which I hadn’t felt since I came down with pneumonia about 8 years ago.

Mike panicked when that happened. (He loved to quote Burns, by the way –
“wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie! Oh what a panic’s in they breastie!”) I never get sick. But I’d been pushing myself too hard at work, a very stressful past job I loved and hated, burning the candle at both ends, etc. and ended up coughing myself blue (literally – Mike said I looked blue) for a week before I finally crawled out of bed and went to a doctor, who said he might as well go ahead and start treatment before he confirmed it was pneumonia, because he was pretty sure it was and it would help the symptoms. It was, and the antibiotics brought me back pretty fast.

But that’s the sickest I’ve ever been, and it scared Mike. He scared himself googling the different varieties of pneumonia and the odds of dying from it, and he realized he had no idea what to do if I died. How would he and our child live? Who would take care of them as I had done? (Mike was a stay-at-home Dad.)

“I’ll get through this,” I told him, after he had finished screaming at me for sneaking off to the doctor in the morning without waking him up.

“I left you a note, didn’t you see it?”

“No! Don’t ever do that again! What if you were too sick to drive back or what if they sent you to the hospital?”

“But they didn’t, I’m home now, and I will now commence getting better. Calm down.”

But here I was last week, every joint in my body aching on top of whatever soreness my first yoga class had caused me, remembering how I had pushed myself into pneumonia back then, and feeling a sudden and awful chill.

What if this is the flu? And if it is, what happens if it turns into pneumonia? Shit! Hadn’t thought about that – who would take care of our child if I had to be hospitalized? Mike’s not here! People are dying right and left from this damn flu! Even a few much younger and stronger than me! SHIT!

And that caused me some dark hours of worrying about how thin my support system really is. How thin the ice I’m skating on here really is, trying to be everything at once for our child, trying to hold our life together and move it forward.  There’s one helper, with a family of their own, available occasionally, but that’s it. There’s my brother and sister-in-law, but they have a dog, and our child is afraid of dogs, especially boisterous ones like that new pure bred puppy. Plus they are facing their own family health issues, with themselves and other family members to care for. And my other brother lives thousands of miles away.

So that leaves church family. The usual suspects who have already done so much for our child and me that I feel reluctant to ask.

But I realized I don’t have a choice.

Every six months or so, or more often if changes in our lives require, I send a list of how to keep our child’s life running smoothly in the event I am out of the picture to my brothers. Lists of important phone numbers, what happens on which day, doctors, dentists, helpers, agencies. etc.

I’m going to have to expand that distribution list, I guess.

As far as the vicious and viscous  cold, or whatever it was, our child got it too, and we lazed and slept and coughed and blew our noses, and drank lots of water, chicken soup and orange juice for a week, skipping all regularly scheduled programming, until it finally seemed to break and fade.

I didn’t have the energy to do much grocery shopping or cooking, much less blogging, obviously, until the very end of the week, when we both had events we wanted to attend and we did, equipped with loads of tissues and several small bottles of hand sanitizer. No hugs or high fives for anyone from us last week.

Back on schedule now, but it sure felt like a close call. And the coughs will linger for a few more weeks, I’m afraid.

I had thought of myself as having everything very well arranged, but last week made me realize that is actually only in the event of my actual demise – not in the case of my temporary incapacity.

So some good has come of this, to wit, a few new rules (more with the rules, already! I have rules for being a Middle Aged Woman, and Rules for Thanksgiving, and even rules for trying to meet someone online for if I ever muster the courage to try to create an online dating profile if I can ever decide which app or site to use). Also came opportunity for our child to develop, out of necessity, some new self-sufficiencies, like making sandwiches in addition to the usual fruit and cheese snacks and creating lists and plans for the upcoming week independently.

So, Thin Ice Rules:

Thin Ice Rule #1: Don’t Get Sick.

Thin Ice Rule #2: Expand Available Support Network in the Event of a Violation of Thin Ice Rule #1.

Thin Ice Rule #3: Continue to Coax Our Child to Learn to Do More Independently

Thin Ice Rule #4: Set a Target Date Goal for Our Child to Achieve Independent Living.

Thin Ice Rule #5: Live Forever, so Thin Ice Rule #4 Need Not Be Effectuated. Not Yet, Anyway. See Rule #1.

OK, I’m so not ready to think of myself aging to a point where it makes more sense for our child to live independently of me (with community supports, of course.) I’m SO not ready for that. But this week made me stare down the need to plan for it anyway.

I got through this, just as I got through the pneumonia, and I’ve lost a lot of weight and I’m much healthier now than I was back then, but this whatever it was (my Dad used to call it the “awful awfuls”) was a good smack upside the head reminder not to take something as important as my health for granted.

I won’t live forever, I know; I want to live well for as long as I can, and I want to do a good job of the one job a parent really has, which is to enable their child to survive without them.

Out of sheer necessity, in addition to preparing more food independently than ever before and writing out a weekly plan entirely independently, our child filled hot water bottles and brought refills of water and tea. Necessity is the mother of invention, but apparently also the mother of progress toward independence for a young adult on the autism spectrum.  I’ve been far more insistent than Mike ever was that our child do everything independently that can be done independently, and every day, learn some new small thing to add to that growing list of self-sufficiency skills.

I think Mike approves – this morning when I got up finally feeling nearly 100%, and our child was ready to return to our regularly scheduled programming, I turned on the radio, and the trumpet tune we used for the processional at our wedding was playing (you know the one, Jeremiah Clarke, The Prince of Denmark’s March), right from the start.

Thank you, dear. Keep those little messages coming, and we’ll keep getting through this.

See you on Annoyingly Alliterative Thankful Thursday!

New Year’s Revolutions

It probably came from one of our child’s word mash-ups; this year I’m taking it seriously.

Resolution implies an exertion of will – “I am resolved to do, or not do….” whereas revolution implies action; not just action, but irrevocable action. (“Do or do not….there is no try” as Master Yoda would say.) Crossing the Rubicon, so to speak. Leaving a relationship or starting a new one. Getting rid of old things. Doing something you’ll never be able to reverse. You can’t take it back. Even failed revolutions create irrevocable change of some kind, for better or worse (often worse, for the rebels.)

Mike and I used to joke about what our “New Year’s Revolutions” would be. “Revolution,” instead of “resolution,” probably came from one of our child’s cute word mash-ups, not unlike the wonderful word “belongage,” a mash-up of “belongings” and “luggage” which our child started to use after a first airplane experience. “Please keep your seat belts fastened and stow your belongage in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you.” “Keep your belongage with you at all times.”

Our “revolutions” were the usual kind of stuff – I’ll finally read that book, ride my bike more, get back to a low-carb diet, etc. So really more resolutions than revolutions – lists of things we’d have to will ourselves to do.

This year, after our second holiday season without Mike, I decided it was time to take the “revolutions” seriously, meaning that I would do something, or somethings, I couldn’t take back. Change something, however small, to acknowledge that my life, our lives, our child and me, have had a revolution imposed upon us already. Our lives have been irrevocably changed, and there’s nothing we can do about that, other than, well, go with it. Keep changing things. Move forward.

I always wait until Epiphany to take the tree down – to “undecorate” everything except the wreaths and outdoor lights. (It’s supposed to be over 50 degrees (F) Thursday, so if it isn’t pouring I’ll take care of the outdoor stuff then). So the tree is down and we stuffed it in the Subaru and hauled it to the forest preserve for recycling into mulch – earth to earth.

The decorations are put away in the colorful holiday boxes stowed in the “club” at the top of the basement stairs. It’s the “club” because when our child was a preschooler, Mike would sit in there with our child, at the top of the stairs under the shelves on the little ledges on either side of the stairs, and tell stories or play games. It was their clubhouse. Now that our child is grown, the club has reverted to storage on one side and a place for kitchen towels to be tossed into a waiting laundry basket until there’s enough to justify doing a load on the other. But we still call it the “club.”

I woke up on January 6, Epiphany, feeling centered in a way I had not felt since Mike died. Instead of feeling so incomplete, so exposed, as if I’d put on a one-sleeved jacket, or left the door unlocked or something, I felt whole – singular, but whole; not happy, exactly, just determined (I almost said “resolved” or “resolute” – kinda blows the theme here, though – HA!) , in a “get-on-with-it-Annie,” practical kind of way. Maybe that’s the ancestresses in me – calling from “our” chair, telling me to pick myself up and get busy, work to be done, no sense in moping, life goes on, grab a mop or a needle or a shovel, do something.

I’m not alone, of course, because I have our child to care for and help take on adulthood on the spectrum. But that mother-child relationship exists on a different plane entirely, and is entirely separate from my singularity as a woman, as a widow, and a former half-of-a-pair. Now I’m the remaining half, trying to be whole again.

So after all the decorations were put away, I was unloading the dishwasher, and I picked up the last of the wedding stemware – a lovely wineglass with seashells etched on it, and gold around the rim. There it is, in the middle there, between the coffee cups, in front of the urn with the fern.IMG_20180109_144344.jpg

But it was chipped in two places. And it doesn’t have a mate, a counterpart. It is the last of its kind, and now, serves only to remind me that the other glass, and the man who used it, is gone, forever.

So I did something I can’t take back, now. I threw that wine glass out.

Next came the coffee cup from the eighteenth-century inn on Deer Isle in Maine where we stayed, twice. (A bit of advice? If it was magical, fantastic, the first time, don’t go back).  That cup is also chipped, cracked, and the last of its kind. Missing its mate.

Out.

Between now and summer, the closet full of clothes that I’ve kept for purely sentimental reasons (the dress I was wearing the night we met, the second date dress, the dress from our walk in Lincoln Park) and the old “skinny” clothes from before we met, before I had a child, that no level of devotion to low carbs or yoga will ever get me into again, are going. Out.

Perhaps a small blessing from the autism spectrum, our child is not at all sentimental about things – clothes, objects, toys, etc., so I should get rid of a lot of this stuff while I’m still able, so no one who comes after me will have to shovel it out of here. That’s my job. Tidy up.

I’m also going to move the bird bath. No small task – it is made of concrete.

When we first moved in, the spot where it has been was the perfect spot for it. It covered up some old concrete-anchored post hole, too. We could see birds splash in it, perfectly, from the deck.

But in the last year of Mike’s life, I finally had that rotting deck rebuilt. And the carpenters rebuilt it to “code,” meaning that although we opened the front side of the deck that faces the yard, removing the railings and installing steps so we could walk right down into the yard, the railings around the outdoor table, around our little pentangular “poop deck”, were made higher than the old ones. And we couldn’t see the birdbath from there so well anymore.

Mike loved watching birds in the yard – in May and October, it’s an active aviary, with migrating birds coming to visit annually. We seemed to be a kind of way station. Cedar-waxings, finches, and once a year, a bright orange Baltimore Oriole.

But what’s the use of keeping the birdbath where it can’t be seen well from the deck?

Come spring, that thing is going closer to the middle of the yard. And maybe a new table and chairs that our child and I will actually use for summer dinners “al fresco.”

The second round of holidays without Mike showed me that I can’t live in rituals of the past and I can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. Those days are gone. The first year, yes, it was all about remembering him, how he would have liked this, or how we used to do or eat that.

And I did get a new ornament for the tree, as I do annually, to symbolize the year – a glass monarch butterfly – it was a really good year for monarchs, after decades of decline. The monarch is a symbol of Mike to me because of the first poem he ever left on my answering machine…”Sail, monarch…” I hung it close to the little snowman with the shovel from the winter of 2000-2001 when Mike seemed to be outside shoveling constantly, and near the clip-on glass hummingbird from the “bride’s ornaments” collection I bought for us the first year of our marriage.

Those objects are now quieter, gentler reminders – things I try to be happy about, but not to ritualize.

Our child continues to sigh and say, “I miss Mr. M” almost every day, and every day I have to say again that while he cannot come back to this world, he sends his love from the next.

I hope he’ll send his support for my efforts to forge a singular but complete life this year – there’ve been a lot of good signs already. Dreams, books I’ve finally picked up and read and found very resonant of Mike – as if he led me to them, as if he were saying, “there’s something I want to say to you in here, Anne.”

I’m listening, loves. And hoping in your way, from the next world, you’ll be my co-revolutionary, my invisible comrade, in my New Year’s Revolution of living singularly but completely in this world, with you gone, before me, to the next.

The Attitude of Gratitude – Thankful Thursday 1

The chair wasn’t empty after all – it was imprinted with the form and memory of Mom, Grandma and still more Grandmothers before…

It’s the chair my Mother sat in every day, watching television, when she could still make it from the bedroom out to the family room to sit, on the days when she could just tolerate the frustration of the walker and the tether of the oxygen line.

It has been in my house since Mom died, nearly four years ago. For three years it sat in our little “library” room (a room probably more appropriately called a “den”) and I never sat in it.

Predictably, that cat commandeered it, claiming it as yet another spot she owned in this small house.

It still had the blue seat cushion that Mom used, and I could see her there, scowling, angry, frustrated, fed up, tired, defiant.IMG_20180103_220530955.jpg

On the day I was ready to finally get rid of Mike’s chair, the beat-up glider he had used in that den, I noticed that the cat’s occupancy of Mom’s chair had destroyed that blue seat cushion. It was past salvaging. So after I dragged Mike’s old brown glider, the one that managed to absorb crumbs and dust on its rails in a way that made it impossible to clean and thus also unsalvageable, out to the street as our one allowed “bulk item” for our weekly trash pick-up, I took the blue seat cushion off Mom’s chair, and threw it in the trash as well.

I moved the chair from one corner of the room to another, in a position across from my Dad’s chair (that’s for another post, another day) and slightly more toward the window.

And I sat down in it, for the first time in more than thirty years.

Immediately I noticed how well the chair fit me, as if it were molded for me, or on me. The meat of my palms at the base of my thumbs was cupped exactly by the rounded ends of the chairs’ arms.

The chair hit me in just the right place in my back. My feet rested perfectly on the floor, with my knees at a comfortable right angle, instead of dangling as they usually do from most all the other chairs in the world that seem to be made from some universal measure for people six inches taller than I.

The seat accommodated my, let’s say, “ample” behind like it had been waiting just for me.

I suddenly felt gently immersed in a kinship with generations of women in my family who had used that chair before me – not just Mom, but Grammie, and Grammie’s Mom, and her mother before her, if I remember the history of the object correctly.

That chair has a sort of genetic memory, and sitting in it gave me a moment of that memory.

These were tough, no-nonsense, New England women. Mom, a nurse. Grammie, a schoolteacher who like me, was widowed early. Grammie’s Mom, both a farm wife and shopkeeper’s wife, in early twentieth century Maine.

My relationships with Mom and Grammie couldn’t really be described as “warm.” Loving, yes. But filled with the kind of petty struggles that seem never-ending between Mothers and daughters, generation to generation. Stand up straight, comb your hair, set the table, hem that skirt, sew on the button, shuck the corn, can’t you do something about that hair! Call the men to dinner, dry the dishes, get your nose out of that book and go outside!

But when I sat down in that chair, I felt a depth of kinship, a physical kinship, with these women that was never so apparent to me before.

We were the same physical size. We walked through the world with nearly identical hands. Their hips were broad, like mine, and they liked to sit up straight, as I learned to do after all those little struggles.

I am grateful for that. The chair brought me close to those ancestresses in a different and deeper way than I had felt or considered before; as a teenager I had simply taken it for granted that my Grandmother’s dresses fit me and I never really thought about what that meant until I sat in my grandmothers’ (plural, at least three generations of them) chair.

Here is some deep connection, I thought. Their hands rested here, just as mine do, on short armrests of just the right length for them, and now, for me. The back of this chair supported their lower backs after long, long days of housekeeping, farming, nursing, just as it supports mine now.

The top of the back of the chair, covered in the picture with the cashmere blanket Dad gave Mom when she was expecting my oldest brother, her first child, is quite ornate. It is not comfortable for resting your head on – HA! No matter how exhausted these women were, they still sat up straight, heads high.

And now that my hands are starting to resemble my Mother’s hands, with hints of the same kind of arthritis, and my joints creak a little more, the way hers did, I feel a deeper kinship with these women, and I sense a message from them – they didn’t expect me to understand this while they were living, but they left a message, in that chair, for me, for after they were gone.

You are not so different from us. You have us within you. You’ll be ok. You can make it, no matter what life throws at you. Rest and rock a bit, but keep your head up.

I hope that means I have at least some of their toughness, their strength and grit, their endurance, their resilience, their clarity and longevity, their practical, no nonsense get-on-with-it-ness that got them past 85, to 89, to 90.

We weren’t demonstrative enough with each other – not enough hugs or endearments. But they did everything they could to transmit practical wisdom to me. 

Mom whispered when she sewed, drawing me in as she showed me the careful stitches to shorten the hems of every new skirt or dress, stitches that would be necessary for every new garment before “free alterations” or the new era of “petite” sizes. 

And I am grateful for that. And for the chair that reminds me of that.

Grammie was fierce with the rolling pin, brisk with the homemade doughnut dough (which she got up at 5 am to make for us on our summer visits to Maine), and I remembered that when rolling out the cookie dough this holiday season, using Mom’s wooden rolling pin, which she wielded with similar ferocity against any pie crust that dared defy her.

And I’m grateful I got to watch and learn from them, skills that seem old fashioned and forgotten, but that give me some small pride and pleasure still.  I’m grateful for the sense of shock I felt when an acquaintance casually confessed that she was walking on the cuffs if her trousers because she did not know how to shorten them.

Well, as a descendent of those hardy New England women, I’m grateful that I know how to thread a needle, measure and shorten a hem, sew on a button, roll out a pie crust or follow the rules of ICE (ice, compression, elevation) after a sprain. There is so much more they knew that I didn’t pay enough attention to – but I’m grateful for that chair that reminds me of those strong women who came before me, small as me in stature but richer by far in practical skill. Somehow when I sit there, in that chair that fits me perfectly, I feel a bit of their wisdom and experience coming through – remember – remember what we could do. What you still can do, if you put your mind to it.

So on this first post for my “thankful Thursdays,” I’m sticking to the basics like that chair.

I’m grateful too for the den in this little house where that chair resides, in the spot where Mike’s glider used to be, where memories of evenings listening to music with him remain vivid.

And for the little house itself, in these frigid January days, that has light and heat  and food and blankets within it. And pipes that haven’t frozen through years of winter as harsh as this.

I’m grateful that so far, the chickens have survived the subzero cold, while ceasing to lay eggs, as expected.

I’m grateful that the car starts, that the plumber came on Christmas Eve (time and a half, but hey, he came) and that I found the right part for the dishwasher, even though I’ll have to pay to have it installed.

I’m grateful to live in a place that values open, natural spaces, or as natural as they can be remade to be, to walk and breathe in, and to see the late afternoon winter sun paint the grasses and the ponds a glowing rose-gold while hawks soar and circle above.

I’m grateful and humbled to be the mother of the most amazing human being I’ve ever met, whose kindness, compassion, and cheerful perseverance in the face of a loud and confusing world is an example I continually hope someday to match.

I’m grateful for that silly cat, who gets nose to nose with me each morning, insisting I get up, get going, hop to it, rise and shine, there’s work to do here, feed me first of course and then you can deal with child and chickens. 

And I’m grateful for two more nights with the loveliest, freshest (and cheapest – free! delivered!) Christmas tree we’ve ever had in this house, which has shed not a needle since I won this year’s Battle of the Tree, and glows there in this den, giving me a little more time to be grateful for the peace and hope of this season and an excuse to linger and rock a bit longer, gently, in my Mothers chair.

Some Assembly Required

Whether it is new furniture or a whole new life, there’s some assembly required….

This year, I left the assembly until Christmas Day.

After decades of staying up almost all night on Christmas Eve, to stage the best possible surprise, I decided this year was the year we’d do it the adult way – open the package, see what it is, and put it together later. It gave the same delight, perhaps more, because it prolonged the wait to make use of the new art desk.

There was the usual trial and error (oops, bolts are supposed to go on the inside, take the screws out, go the other way, tighten) and the usual cursing and screaming when the bolts wouldn’t tighten enough, or parts were discovered cracked or broken, but in the end I got it put together with a few hours to spare to set up the appetizers for my brother and sister-in-law’s visit Christmas Day.  And my handy brother got the untightenable bolts to tighten as they should and I got a beautiful adult-coloring-book page of blue butterflies out of it from my young adult, happily coloring at the new art desk.

And when the day was over and our little two-person Christmas feast cleaned up (last year, our first without Mike, I burned the cranberry sauce for the first time in my life – this year my culinary transgression was less severe, but just as disappointing – I made the gravy too thick, and gravy is usually my specialty.  But I aced the mashed potatoes, so there’s that, anyway), I sat “regarding the tree,” after our nightly “candle time” of quiet contemplation and it occurred to me that a new year is coming, and it is time for me not just to figure out what my life is going to be like from now on, but to do something about it.

Each day for the past several weeks, our child has been sighing and saying, “a day without Dad.” And I’ve had to confirm again and again that yes, every day for the rest of our lives in this world will be a day without Dad, but not without his love, because like he said before he died, “Dad’s love never ends.”

Although his love is with us, he is not – not here, physically, to talk to, to joke with, to enjoy music together – and although I do still talk to him all the time (hey, talking to yourself or to your dearly departed is HEALTHY as far as I’m concerned – I may be ridiculous, but I’m not crazy), but I am speaking to a spirit, a memory, a hope that he can hear me on the other side. He’s not here, can’t be here, but I still am. Here. In this world.

So I’m determined not to spend the rest of my life stuck in the absence of his. He wouldn’t want me to. In fact when I do talk to him (HEALTHY, remember, a HEALTHY way to grieve and cope), I ask him to involve himself in helping me move on.

So in 2018, we’re going to put together a new life, a life that will be fully lived, for me and for our child.

Because if I’m trying to learn from loss to live with love and laughter, I probably should find someone to love and laugh with.

Some assembly required. A lot, actually, because I’m not sure where to begin this project of putting together a new life. I know what I want – a meaningful life, fully lived, which means involving myself with other people more, not just sitting at home, or even going out, just to be missing Mike.

That means getting busy doing things I love – singing, improvising, cooking, gardening – and trying new things –  yoga class perhaps, maybe one of those wine education seminars at the big beverage depot. That’s the traditional way of meeting someone compatible – do things you enjoy to meet people who enjoy doing the same things you do.

While the traditional way may still have merit, I know the world has moved on from that hit- or- miss approach.

Now, there’s an app for that. Apps, plural. And some fancy algorithms running behind them, mixing and sorting and making a match, finding a find, catching a catch, so to speak.

So yes, yikes – online dating.

OK there I said it. I’m going to try it. I’m afraid to, and I’m going to do it anyway.

I think I’ve got a good few woman years left in me and I’d like to make the most of them.

This holiday season I’ve been humming to myself, “Santa Baby, put a new man under the tree, for me…one who’ll treat me respectfully…”

We will observe certain rules (this rule thing, it’s getting to be a pattern with me, no? (See “Middle Aged Woman Rules” and “Thanksgiving Rules”). As with the others, I reserve the option to add, alter or abandon these rules. I have rules regarding political views, but I promised no politics in this place – so I’ll keep those to myself. I think my other rules will pretty well take care of them anyway. So here goes (advice on this from those with experience, good or ill, welcome):

  1. Straight male. No confusion there. OK, that’s a start.
  2. No smokers. Non-negotiable.
  3. No married men. Ditto.
  4. No motorcycles. Double ditto.
  5. I will try not to make instant decisions based solely on physical appearance – swiping right – or is it left? – I’m trying to be a better human, one who shows kindness to others, and I’d like to find someone with the same aspiration – there are a few exceptions  (no tattoos, no weird piercings,  no man-buns or ponytails, no ungroomed facial hair – hey, wait a sec, since when am I so special, and so young, that man-buns, ink, pony tails and shaggy beards would be a problem? get a grip, ms. ridiculous!)
  6. All meetings, if any, will occur on neutral turf in public places until further notice.
  7. No man-splaining. Ejector seat on that one.
  8. Must be able to recognize Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart and the original BoDeans on first try. OK, maybe the second try.
  9. Likes the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Cubs.  But see rule # 7 above.
  10. Bonus points: likes, or will at least tolerate, attending the opera and musical theater. And super-spectacular bonus points: has read all of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series, more than once.
  11. Thinks I’m funny, charming, attractive and smart, and likes the roundness of me, and won’t shush me when I sing. Likes my singing.

Like Mike did. Mike liked my roundness. My round head, round face, round bottom. And he took delight in my singing, my ability to vocally mimic the piccolo trumpet descending line in the Hallelujah chorus (BAH! Bah ba ba ba baaaaah!) and my ability to burst out in Puccini along with WFMT when it came on.

I’m sensing the need for a twelfth rule –

12. No trying to recreate or recapture what I had with Mike.

That’s gone. There will never be another Mike and I have to try hard not to impose expectations of a past life on a new man, but instead carry that past life with me, forward into a new future.

Starting from scratch. Starting over, starting again, carrying on, moving forward. Perhaps the best person for me will be someone who has been through a loss like I have, and is trying to carry that loss forward into a new and different life.

Someone who “gets it” about being a parent to a young adult with differences, who understands that this nest isn’t empty and isn’t likely to be for many years to come, long past when others are visiting grandchildren and going on cruises. And who is ok with that.

Good luck with that. I’ll have to try to write an honest profile of myself, the ridiculous woman, that won’t send a nice man running for the exits.

That’s going to require some major assembly – and a lot of hope and confidence. Widow goes a-wooing – in which a ridiculous woman attempts to find new love via mechanical matchmakers.

I’ll let you know how it goes – I’m sure there’ll be some cursing and crying along the way – poorly written or misunderstood instructions, or none, bolts and washers misplaced, the assembled result not quite level, but sturdy and beautiful just the same.

I hope.