I make no apology.

This is the year I learned more about grief than in any previous year of my life. During the long years of caring for mom I once said I was desperate for the anticipated grief to be over and that I was ready to experience the real thing.  It may have seemed a strange statement, but it had been a long journey for me and my mother. She was ready to go.

Since mom died in March I’ve experienced the many firsts–her birthday and Easter, especially. Summer passed and I hunkered down in the garden and got through it. But then right before Thanksgiving I attended a “holiday” grief workshop so that I could better understand some of the emotions that were arising.

I got through Thanksgiving by adjusting plans and being honest with friends and myself about what I needed. As it turned out it was a great Thanksgiving weekend…we experienced joyful fellowship with many people. The month leading up to Christmas was more of a challenge than I anticipated, but then I remembered–Christmas has always been a challenge. What’s new? It was simply a first and adjustments were needed.

Friends reminded me that my feelings were okay and to pay attention to what I needed. My grieving was never selfish, or self-serving, or demanding. I’ve had moments of jarring grief, but for the most part it has been simple and straightforward.

Leading up to Christmas I cried when I saw chocolate covered almonds and when I saw earrings I thought mom would have liked. I cried when son put on Rocky Mountain Christmas, but it was like a tiny storm cloud that passed leaving the air fresh.

But another friend told me that my grieving for my mother was “taking a long time.” What is a long time?” I asked. “It’s not as if I’m blubbering into a drink somewhere, or crying constantly.” How does one judge a long time?

There’s no way to accurately judge another person’s process and whether it is fast or slow or too much or too little. Grief is different for each person for different reasons. Losses vary, but grief is grief and to be honored, made peace with, not ignored, pushed away, or judged. Losing a job, losing a spouse, losing an animal, infertility, loss of health, loss of a parent, loss of a child, loss of a favorite pen. There are innumerable losses with which we must contend.

Another friend told me I had buckets of grief. And I wanted to say, “And?” Ummm, yes, actually I do. Loss of a father, incest, death of friends at a young age, infertility, divorce, etc. But who is it that determines whether or not a person has buckets or a thimbleful and who cares which it is. What is important is empathy and compassion for our individual journeys.

My experience of losing my mother touched me in deep places. Our relationship, while not always easy, was remarkable. She was not on a pedestal, but touched my life in profound ways. We shared a bond that was sometimes codependent, sometimes annoying, and sometimes agonizingly difficult.

But then there was love.

I chafed and complained openly about how hard it was. I was heartbreakingly honest. But I am moved to think about her and her unconditional love and her stubbornness and her telling me that “it will all work out” and her challenging presence in my life.

I miss her deeply. I am sad. I am relieved. I am mixed. I offer no apology.

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Simple gifts

I’m breathing a sigh of relief that Christmas has passed. Not to say it wasn’t lovely, and that I don’t love Christmas. It was, (for the most part) and I do.

This was the first Christmas in 18 years that I didn’t wake up to share Christmas with mom and all the attendant responsibility. I’m always a bit apprehensive right before Christmas, but this year it was compounded by my not knowing what we would end up doing.

Several weeks before Christmas my son and I had still not talked about their plans. I didn’t want to invite them to our house this year, nor did I think they wanted to travel to our side of the state. I wrote them an email and asked if there would be time to see them “around the holidays.” I acknowledged their plans to go to her parents on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and left plenty of room for them to decide and didn’t make suggestions. Within minutes of my email we received an invitation to come to their apartment in Seattle and celebrate Christmas on Christmas evening, have dinner with them and stay the night. I was excited. We had never spent the night at their place. It would be a whole new tradition.

We had a wonderful time. Unexpected peace. Welcome relaxation. And a new appreciation for whiskey.

When we first arrived son played John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas. It’s the record I played every year while he was growing up. He found the record at a thrift store a month ago. When Aspen Glow, the first song, started to play, I cried. Son put his arm around me and said, “I’m sorry.” But I said, “No, it’s good to get the tears out of the way.” After that, it was pure enjoyment. Later we played Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles Abby Road. Girlfriend cooked a marvelous vegan dinner and a spectacular breakfast. I was honored with the responsibility of washing the dishes. Because their kitchen is reminiscent of a boat galley, there was only room for me and husband with the drying towel.

They gave up their bed, offering us a comfortable night’s sleep. They gave us simple but useful gifts.

But mostly, they gave me the gift of Christmas and a new tradition.

Flies on bad meat

Someone posted on Facebook that they “loved the hustle and bustle of the mall,” and I thought, “Are you kidding?”

I went shopping with a friend yesterday, something I rarely do. I needed to look for “stocking stuffers,” which to her meant, “LET’S GO SHOPPING.” Period. She loves the Christmas shopping challenges, something I had vowed to avoid this year.

This trip was preceded by an hour and a half on the phone with Delta booking frequent flyer miles for a spur-of-the-moment trip we are taking in two weeks. I’ve never booked frequent flyer miles, and by the time I was done with five different customer service reps I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.

To make matters worse, after I booked the flights, I ran out of the house without any lunch. Silly me. My plan to go to one store for tights and another store for husband’s gift, and one other store for son’s gift, had already begun to unravel.

First we went to a small upscale clothing store that I heard had good black tights for son’s GF. That way I could avoid the mall. The clerk saw us coming, me in the lead. She looked at me, the person wanting to do the actual shopping, and then turned to my friend and said, “How can I help you?”

What? “That’s funny,” I said. “I’m the one doing the shopping, but she looks at you (referring to friend)?” The clerk had no sense of humor. She showed us tights that cost $34 and $25 and then walked away.”

As did we.

At my friend’s suggestion, we headed for a mall outlet store. I HATE mall outlet stores. You know, the ones where there are 20,000 items on one rack marked down 75% so that everyone in the store is at that rack (except there are racks like this all over the store). Reminds me of flies on a bad meat. Sorry shoppers.

I went into a mini-anxiety attack.

“I can’t do this,” I said, panic-stricken.

She said, “Oh, okay, fine,” she soothed. “You go out to the car and I’ll get the tights.”

“No, really.” I said. “Let’s go.” I knew if I left her there, it would be a long wait.

“Oh, okay.”

On the way out the door a tiny child was screaming at her mother. My friend mimicked the child’s scream, causing the child to stop screaming and smile and her mother to laugh. It was worth the trip to the store.

We went to Macy’s and as we were looking for parking, friend said, “Do you want me to go in and buy the tights while you go get that present for husband (that I can’t mention) and I said, “yes.”

“When I dropped her at the door, there was an unmistakable gleam in her eye. She said, “Give me a call when you get back and I’ll meet you out front.” I knew she was lying.

I was gone 20 minutes and when I returned she didn’t answer her phone. I parked and wandered around the store looking for her. I was calm now and the crowds were more subdued. Less flies on bad meat.

I found her hunched over the check-out counter with the tights (whew), and several t-shirts for her. She proceeded to show me the t-shirts on sale for $4. We were off to the races. I grabbed three of the shirts and saw a sweater to try on. Retail therapy kicked in. Her eyes sparkled. We spent the next hour looking at sweaters on the 75% off rack.

Finally we were out of there with three t-shirts, two sweaters, a pair of tights, and a coat my friend bought for me because she couldn’t resist the deal and I could. She said, “How about a drink?”

We went to a local restaurant and had a drink and appetizers (I was having a hypoglycemic attack by then). Because she bought the coat, I bought the appetizers and drinks, which cost the same as the coat I wouldn’t afford.

When I got home, I tried on the $4 shirts, which didn’t fit. The coat I didn’t buy fits fine. One sweater goes back. The tights for son’s girlfriend didn’t have feet. And all of it was on friend’s credit card because I didn’t bring my Macy’s card–because we weren’t going to the mall! Now I have to wait for her Christmas guests to leave before I can return the items.

The moral of the story? I have no idea. Except I got over my anxiety attack and we laughed a lot. I have a new sweater and a coat all for the cost of the sweater, a couple of drinks and some appetizers. Returning the other items will be another adventure, I’m sure.

Disclaimer: I was not insinuating that any shopper that I may or may not have seen at any mall outlet store was like, or even resembled, a fly on bad meat.

Northwest hoarfrost

The days are long this time of year in the Northwest. So far, we’ve had no snow and often an inversion sits in the valley, trapping smoke and debris and causing asthmatics to stay indoors. It’s been in the teens and twenties at night and rarely warming beyond the low thirties in the daytime. The only consolation for us photographers is the beauty of the hoarfrost that coats every limb, branch, leaf and blade of grass.

Hoarfrost: A deposit of interlocking ice crystals (hoar crystals) formed by direct sublimation on objects, usually those of small diameter freely exposed to the air, such as tree branches, plant stems and leaf edges, wires, poles, etc., which surface is sufficiently cooled, mostly by nocturnal radiation, to cause the direct sublimation of the water vapor contained in the ambient air. (Whatever…it’s pretty.)

Before the fog has completely cleared is the best time to capture a hoarfrost landscape. 

After the sun comes out snow descends from the trees.

Except for the faint blue at the top and the brown grass, this landscape looks like a black and white (or maybe sepia) photo.

Pear orchards with the valley beyond shrouded in fog.

Locust tree with leaves still intact provide a great surface for the hoarfrost.

Ornamental grasses.

Glue and grace

Our niece came to visit this week. She is husband’s blood kin and is the link that reconnected the family a year and a half ago when her brother got married in Colorado. Niece and nephew’s dad, husband’s brother, let us know that his son was getting married, but that he wasn’t inviting family to the wedding (He hadn’t seen his uncle in years), that it was just for friends, that we would get together later, and that it was too far for us to drive.

I kept thinking, “WTH, weddings are often the best time for a family to reconnect.” Or, not. But this was a three-day soirée, a good-time, sit-around, eat-a-lot, and reconnect with family and friends good time. But we weren’t invited.

Enter niece. She and her dad called us one afternoon several weeks before the wedding and although she and I had never met, she got on the phone and said, “Of course, you’re coming to the wedding. They are just being silly.” I liked her instantly.

Nephew then extended an invitation and three weeks later we were on our way to Colorado. Nephew and fiance rented a lodge an hour from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but we brought our trailer to leave room for the friends who were invited. We arrived on a Thursday night, partied until the Saturday wedding, and stayed until Sunday to help them clean up.

We were heartily welcomed and had a fabulous time. Husband reconnected to his family, and I gained extended family. They were happy that their uncle and brother had finally married again and liked me.

The bonus was, of course, that niece and I recognized each other as kindred spirits. Since the wedding we’ve had no time to develop a relationship, other than occasional emails and our blogs. She lives in Northern California and we live in Central Washington.

A few weeks ago she emailed to say, “I want to come visit.” She arrived last Saturday night and for five days we all processed the fine minutia of our lives and complex family history, went for walks and hikes, and looked at family photos. Each evening we were all content to spend time on our computers. She is an adventuress and a writer, and shares her writing on her blog, www.ravenouswoman.com.

Among the many hats she wears, she is also a chef. She made great roast chicken with sautéed kale and garlic and the next day put together the finest soup stock I have ever eaten…sort of delicious broth meets vitamin.

One day we went to Rimrock Retreat and a favorite restaurant, Trout Lodge, before a hike near the reservoir. Thursday we hiked in the Yakima Canyon, up Umtanum Creek, a beautiful canyon north of us. She took photos and collected rocks, further confirmation that she and I are related.

But when we went to The Tav after our hike, a favorite bar and hamburger joint in Ellensburg, Washington, she and her uncle confirmed their shared genes. They both ordered the same dark beer–Irish Death. And at her suggestion they ordered one jalapeno burger and one blue cheese burger, each of which they split in half so they could have double the taste. She is tall and lithe and like her uncle can put away the food without gaining an ounce. The lightweight, moi, had a lighter ale and a garden burger.

The last night here she wanted her uncle to teach her to chop wood, a skill she took to with relish. We had a box of wood within no time. She and I watched Christmas favorites, White Christmas, (her pick) and Miracle on 34th Street,” in between writing on our blogs, reading emails, Facebook, and transferring photos back and forth. Sweet.

Occasionally during her visit, she would say something like, “I hope I’m not imposing.” We would laugh and say, “No, but would you like to move in?”

During the week I thought about a comment a friend made. “Having another woman’s daughter is the best daughter to have.” As much as I relished having a female relative, this niece, to hang with, I wasn’t going to compare her to the “daughter I never had.”

Nieces are not less than, or a replacement for a daughter. They are special in their own right. In this family, niece is not the daughter we never had, but the niece we dearly love, a special kind of glue and grace.

Ashes to Orbs

Last night I went with a friend to visit another friend who has three molten glass orbs containing the ashes of her loved ones.  One orb contains a couple of tablespoons of her mother’s ashes, another some of her father’s ashes, and the third contains some of her dog’s ashes.

My friend told me about the orbs because I had mentioned my nephew’s idea to have mom’s ashes made into gemstones, a pricy proposition.

One of the 4″ orbs was sitting upon a lighted pedestal. The light in the pedestal rotated colors through the colors of the orb.

The colors in each orb represented some aspect of the loved ones. For example the colors in the dog’s orb represented the dog’s coat and the green in the orb represented grass she used to run and play in. It was very pretty. But from the top, in the center of the orb, you could see the ashes. It looked something akin to a giant eyeball.

I don’t mean to be irreverent, but it occurred to me that we wouldn’t save someone’s pinky finger, encasing it under glass to view in remembrance of our loved one. The amount of ashes in one of these orbs represents (to me) a pinky finger.

But these orbs are meaningful to people who have them made. The artist who makes them (or artists) does so with reverence and sympathy.

Everyone has their own way, and I respect that. Some people keep mom or dad’s ashes on the mantle in an urn. Others leave it a box under the bed. Others scatter them. Other’s bury them.

I realized that I don’t have any need to keep any portion of mom’s ashes. I have her hutch, her antique desk, her earrings. I have memories. I have photos. I have her in my heart. Seeing her ashes every day is not necessary. Having them still in a box on the shelf is not necessary!

I will let my nephews know that if they want some of their Grandmother’s ashes, they are free to have them to do what they wish and let these ideas die a natural death.

In the meantime, my brother and I STILL need to figure out how we’re going to gather together in the center of Los Angeles to bury her ashes in the ground next to my dad…something that also doesn’t appeal to me,…but will be done.

Holiday Bizarre

Damn, it happened again.

We’ve decided to keep Christmas low-key this year, but because I’ve signed up with Young Living essential oils as a distributor, I wanted to see how people go about selling their wares at Holiday Bizarres, uh, Holiday Bazaars.  I never go to the Bizaars for fear I’ll spend too much money on things I, and others, don’t need. And, I don’t see myself sitting behind the booth for five hours either.

But I was enjoying my stroll and came to a booth where a woman had some baked goods and handmade items for sale — and some handmade earrings. A pair of silver earrings caught my eye and I thought, “Oh, mom would like these.”

Whoops.

Every year I bought mom a new pair of earrings, some of which I now wear…and some of which my sister-in-law now owns.

I started to cry, right there, in front of the booth, in front of the proprietor of the booth, and I couldn’t speak. I kept saying, “Sorry,” in that muffled, tear-torn way people do when they are suddenly caught unaware by a grief-storm.

She, too, was helpless, and kept saying, “It’s okay.” But she was fine. I knew she recognized that something had tripped me up, she just didn’t know what. Thankfully, no one else was at the booth. Finally, she got up and walked around the side of the booth and put her arm around me. It was a gesture of compassion for which I thanked her.

I was finally able to say, “This is the first year without my mom at Christmas and I always bought her earrings.” She nodded with understanding and said her father had been gone 17 years and she still had those moments.

I asked her name, thanked her again, and went on my way.

Later I returned and bought the earrings. It was the least I could do–for her efforts making them–and for her compassion. I took her photo and got her address and will send her a thank you card with her photo on the front.