Happy Birthday, Brother

Birthdays, siblings, brother, death, death of brother

Dear Reader:

He would be 54 years old  today, but instead he rests under a marker that reads: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not here—I do not sleep.”

Today,  I can not help but remember my brother. Perhaps, you, too, have a special birthday you remember but no longer celebrate in the conventional fashion. Or, maybe your mind turns to a loved one on the anniversary of his death. Loss will touch us all and I have found that it can be such a comfort to share the experience with others. I hope you will not mind if I share my experience of loss with you today on this day that can not help but move me.

During his 36 years of life,  my brother, Matt Lehman, occupied a large place in my heart and in the imaginations of family and friends. He was handsome, stylish and charming. (Think Matt Dillon, seriously!) He was a salesman and a collector. He’d been born with long eyelashes and affecting eyes. And bat his eyelashes, he did! The gesture was even more disarming when it was combined with his ready smile. He radiated enthusiasm, as if for him the entire world and everything in it was exciting. He was a joy to be around, and so everyone wanted to be his friend.

Matt was the youngest of three siblings. He was like the exclamation point after his two sisters. And, he certainly was not meant to be the first to die. But, as he told me one day after a visit to the cancer treatment center “how can I ask ‘why me’ when there’s a 12 year old child sitting next to me waiting for his chemo treatment?”

There was never any hope given other than the  possibility that treatment could extend his life a bit. It was in July 2000 that I received his phone call telling me it was cancer, “not a good kind,” and the doctors had estimated he had four months left. In the end, he lived a full year after his diagnosis. He made the most of that year generously sharing the time he had left with those who loved him.

I vividly remember an exchange with Matt during one of our last visits. His faith was unshakable; he was going “home.” I did not share his strong beliefs, but I found myself explaining that I couldn’t go with him just then. I needed to stay and raise my 4-year-old daughter. My baby brother was going somewhere and some part of me felt that I should go with him or instead of him. Or maybe, some part of me wondered how I could bear my grief.

For a long time after Matt’s death, I felt sure that every ring of the phone would bring news of illness or death. And, of course, just below the surface was the fear that came with being brutally reminded of my own mortality. But, I have celebrated the milestones of 40 and 50 remembering that my brother never did. I am grateful for the years I’ve been given to test my commitment to my husband (shaken but never destroyed!) and to watch my daughter grow into an adult I admire, respect and love.

And, so  with tears in my eyes and a big smile on my face, I remember my dear brother today but not beside the headstone that bears his name.  For he is not there. He lives with me in my heart and I know in the hearts of many others.

I welcome you to share your remembrances of those you have loved and lost.

Love,

*Shell

*This nickname died with my brother. When he was young, he could not manage to say Michele and so I was Shell to him for as long as he lived.

This post was originally written on February 19, 2017 and posted after my blog went live on March 24.

Puppies are Good for Empty-Nesters

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A Favorite Photo-My Husband Admiring our Baby

Dear Reader:

One of my favorite regular columns in any magazine is the Harper’s Index in Harper’s Magazine…of course. It’s a simple list of interesting factoids that makes for fun reading and sharing. Today I learned:

Percentage of U.S. pet-custody cases that involve dogs: 96%

That involve cats: 1

Apologies to the “cat people” in my life, but I was not in the least bit surprised to read this! After all, dogs have a “pack mentality” as do people. (More trivia: what is the name of a group of cats????? Got you, right?!) All three of my four-legged family members are draped across my legs as I write this. It’s a chilly morning and they are earning their keep!

My husband and I have been married for 33 years and for 25 of those years we’ve had at least one dog. We were excited the day we finally moved into a pet-friendly condominium. It didn’t take long for us to adopt our first dachshund, Carly. For eight years, our friends and family had speculated as to when we’d have a child. They had a good laugh when we purchased a small library of books in the genre of how to raise the perfect dog and consulted a baby naming book.  There were whispers that we were “practicing” for our first child. The speculation grew when we took Carly to Sears for Christmas pictures.

Alas, the next member of our pack also had four legs. Bill, another long-haired miniature dachshund, joined us the year after our first. Jeff and Karyn of Wagsmore Dachshunds named the dog after the president “before the Lewinsky scandal” they told us. We thought our new puppy looked rather “presidential” so we chose not to change his name. It would be another two years before we had our only child, Natalie, and Bill would be the first to arrive in her room when she cried.

It’s impossible to imagine our home without a dog or two or three and perfectly outrageous to ponder me and my husband embroiled in a custody fight over them. But, there is no danger of this as we are happy together and have further bonded over the arrival of our latest baby “Winnie.”

Michele

P.S. A group of cats is called a “clowder.” I looked it up.

A Competition of Elegance

Dear Reader:

The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (French, literally a competition of elegance) is ten years older than me and considered to be the most prestigious event of its kind. It is a charitable automotive show open to both prewar and postwar collector cars in which they are judged for authenticity, function, history and style.  Only the 200 best collector cars in the world roll onto the celebrated 18th fairway of Pebble Beach Golf Links where one will be awarded Best in Show.

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2017 Winner: 1929 Mercedes-Benz S Barker Tourer

 

But the Concours is only the finale of Monterey Car Week held annually in my home town every August. The entire week is packed with events celebrating the classic automobile. Most of those events come with a high ticket price, but if you have the resources you won’t be disappointed and you’ll be contributing to a good cause. Last year, over 2 million dollars was raised for various children’ charities.

I remember the first August we spent on the peninsula; I vowed to never do it again.

“Let’s just leave!” I told my husband.

I’d had a bad day. It took me 45 minutes to get to the grocery store. The parking lot in front of my favorite restaurant had been reserved for show cars and I missed my lunch date. The town was packed and I was crabby. Then… I saw a lipstick red Ferrari that took my breath away! I truly admire beautiful things of any kind… including cars. My father had been a vintage car collector and I’d spent hours watching him toil in the garage of my childhood home restoring several Model T’s and a gorgeous 1929 maroon Ford Phaeton. Cars are in my blood.

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Look what I found on the streets of Carmel: a Triumph TR6

I’ve learned to appreciate and look forward to car week. I’ve only attended one official event, but I enjoy the spectacle each year. There are so many opportunities to view cars all over Monterey County…  no ticket necessary. I enjoy getting dressed up throughout the week and strolling the tiny streets of Carmel hand in hand with my husband. We point and ogle and marvel at what we see drive by and occasionally we stop to sneak a photo! It’s fun, despite the disruption to our quiet lives!

Michele

 

 

On Acceptance

“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Dear Reader:

Yesterday I felt a memory. It hurt almost as much as it did seventeen years ago. I was discussing religion with a friend and it brought to mind something I’m sure I wanted to forget. How many words does it take to describe how horrible it feels to be judged? Not many.  And yet choosing the words is so difficult for me, even now.

I’ll start at the beginning. My father converted to Catholicism shortly after marrying my mother, and my siblings and I were raised Catholic. But when my brother, Matt, met his wife he joined the congregation at her non-denominational Christian church, and his new church family came to supplant his birth family. It was not difficult to understand why:  we were raised in the “classic” dysfunctional family. You know the kind; we looked so good from the outside that no one could believe it when we fell apart.

I understood my brother’s desire to believe and to belong. I had moved away with my husband and started a family and a life separate from the drama that was a painful part of my past. I was mothering a newborn as Matt was beginning his married life 300 miles away. We had always been close, but for three years we saw each other only occasionally. We exchanged birthday greetings and the obligatory holiday wishes through the mail.

Then my brother called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few months to live. My husband, young daughter and I arrived on his doorstep the next day.  We were met at the door by a man I did not know. He introduced himself as Bruce, a close friend and the pastor of Matt’s church. We stepped into the small living room of Matt’s ranch house to find him comfortably settled in his favorite chair with his dog in his lap. He looked great; he was smiling. After the three of us exchanged hugs, Bruce suggested that my husband and daughter take the dog into the yard for a romp. Matt grabbed a ball and joined them, and Bruce and I were left alone. That’s when I discovered that Bruce was serving as a sort of gatekeeper to determine who could spend time with my brother. He was applying a religious test to anyone who didn’t identify as an evangelical or born-again Christian.

He asked me to describe my relationship with God. I told him I was Catholic. He asked if I had acknowledged that I was a sinner and asked the Lord for forgiveness.

“Of course,  I’m a sinner. Aren’t we all?” I answered.

He pressed on:  Did I understand that my brother would be going “home” and could I support him in this journey? I felt like crying, but I was steel. I told him that Matt and I had always been close and that I loved him dearly. I assured him again that I considered myself a Christian. Bruce left shortly after our conversation and we enjoyed the day with Matt. My “Catholic credentials” had been deemed satisfactory.

I will never forget how it felt to be held in judgement. I thought I had, but yesterday the immensity of it came back to me with full force. There were people who felt they had the moral authority to decide whether I should be allowed to spend time with my own dying brother. Well, I confess, I judge them as well,  and I find them to be lacking in compassion and grace. My opinion of evangelical Christians was formed by that single heartbreaking experience.

Since then, I’ve been careful when I interact with people who I know to be Christians. But for some reason, this week, after all these years, I opened up to the wife of one of my husband’s closest friends, a woman with whom I’ve also grown close.  I’d been careful to avoid talk of religion with her knowing that she attends a Christian church, but when we found ourselves alone our conversation turned to things we hold dear, such as family. She mentioned her faith and I found the courage to share my memory with her. She disavowed the isolationist position of the members of my brother’s church. While she shared some of their beliefs, she could not exclude us as her friends. I was not steel; I felt tears come to my eyes.

Making judgements is part of being human, but it can be humbling to reflect on the moments you’ve been judged. It can be a reminder to work to consciously choose acceptance of others over rejection.

When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking of the waitress at a restaurant I frequent.  She’s Mexican, and one day she told me that since our president came along she’s been concerned about what people think of her. Are they wondering whether she’s  legal? Did they think she should go back to Mexico? I thought of the day I was discussing colleges with a friend and she said that she and her daughter were researching the rising incidence of anti-Semitism on campuses out of concern for her daughter’s safety. I reflected on a discussion I’d just had with a young man who lost Facebook friends when he announced his engagement to another man. Suddenly my mind was filled with the faces of those who had been judged and hurt.

Perhaps we should all regularly call to mind those times in our lives when we’ve been deemed unworthy so that we may  be less likely to inflict that kind of pain on our neighbors.

Michele

My Favorite Kitchen

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Dear Reader:

I started another writing course this week through Stanford Continuing Studies; I’m having trouble with it. When I write to you, I decide on the topic. But, today,  I’ve been given a writing prompt that I must adhere to!  You, dear reader, now have the opportunity to read my first submission to the class: an essay about a “memorable kitchen” with a bonus recipe!

 

I’m not much of a cook, but I do love to eat so it seems appropriate that the only kitchen I ever really loved was a kitchen that I did not cook in. It was very small and it existed in a different time. One could move between the sink, table, stove and refrigerator with just a few steps. It was brightly lit with three windows counting the one that occupied the top half of the back door that led to the herb garden. There was no dishwasher or microwave, but the phone resided there on a tiny table adjacent to the stove.

This kitchen was alive. I can not picture it empty and yet, of course, it was …when Nonnie slept. I had many meals there and, without exaggeration or exception, they always satisfied me. I could tell you about the dough that was handmade, rolled and cut on the kitchen table or the sauce that simmered on the stove all day. I could try to convince you that a simple vegetable soup with a bit of pasta and meat could be a culinary delight. Or I might conjure up the image of crispels frying in a pan of oil until crispy and then covered in powdered sugar or warm honey and enjoyed with coffee.

My grandmother spent most of her days in this room. It delighted her to cook for family, friends and, of course, the clergy. She prepared meals for the priests at her church often and the bishop was thrilled when his visits coincided with her food deliveries. (Priests lined up to give the eulogy at her funeral!)

Her kitchen was akin to an artist’s studio, but she generously shared it. It was calming and reassuring to simply sit and watch her mix, roll, cut and fold. She completed these repetitive tasks with great joy and precision. She did not require participation in the task at hand, but she was glad to have you step outside to pick the herbs she needed or to allow you to take over the task of frying or filling.  Often, I just sat, though, and fully appreciated the warm companionship she offered while she worked.

Truly, I loved everything Nonnie cooked and baked, but it is a small meal in a mug that I remember most fondly. I would love to share the recipe with you!

 

Nonnie’s Beaten Egg Breakfast

Ingredients:

  • strong coffee
  • egg yolks
  • brown sugar
  • milk
  • and a loving companion

Brew the coffee while warming the milk slowly in a small saucepan. Crack and separate the eggs placing a yolk in each cup. Add a bit of brown sugar and beat the yolk and sugar together. Slowly, while stirring, add the hot coffee to the eggs to temper them slowly. Finish with warm milk to taste.

 

I remember many mornings spent with Nonnie enjoying this simple, sweet pleasure. I lived with her for several months after my parents divorced and I started college. Those coffee mornings gave me the sustenance I needed to pursue my future independently and the love my grandmother gave me remains with me to this day.

Thanks for reading!

Michele

 

 

 

 

 

What Am I Going to Do With This?!?!

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Me with a childhood portrait

“It’s so big I can’t even scan it!” said my husband.

Dear Reader:

Downsizing, I think, is a lot like writing; both exercises require one to discard what is not beautiful or useful. Brutal elimination of the extraneous is a painful process. But hard work and commitment offer the potential to create a deep sense of satisfaction and true pride. My husband and I are collectors and we’ve been alive for over half of a century, so when we moved two years ago into a  home, half the size from our previous home, there were a lot of items we were forced to hold in our hands and decide to keep or donate.

Back in the days when we had little money, we could measure the depth of a friendship by the willingness of a person to help us move. You see there were many, many, many heavy boxes of books and anyone who knew us, knew that! So, if someone turned up on moving day, we knew we had a true friend. Books are still a shared passion for us, but, thankfully, we can afford to hire big, burly young movers.

I started the process of downsizing a year in advance and thank goodness for that! When my friends ask for advice, that’s the first thing I say:  Get a head start!  The act of purging builds on itself. It’s kind of like losing weight; you lose one pound and you’re more motivated to lose the other four. It does take a lot of time, though. You have to develop a rhythm. It’s easy to decide the fate of some things. Yes, I’ll keep every love letter my husband ever sent me. There are a lot as we had a long distance relationship while he was away at UC San Diego  and this was before cell phones and laptops (I’m very old!)! The closet took forever as I tried on each item of clothing and modeled it for my husband. The kitchen was a nightmare.  I’m a wanna-be chef so through the years I’ve purchased many small appliances that promised to help me achieve my culinary goals. Sad to say many of them were never used.  Bye, bye panini maker, waffle maker and food processor! I was forced to acknowledge that I’d never make a crepe or a donut. I did keep my large roasting pan only to discover on our first Thanksgiving in the house that it was too big for my new oven!

My second suggestion is to recruit the help of an honest friend. You know the one who knows how many cake plates you have and isn’t afraid to ask why you need all of them. Self talk is also very helpful. This can be of the silent variety or you can run it past your four-legged furry friends. It goes something like this: “When was the last time I used this? Am I sentimentally attached? Is it really fab or really handy?” Finally, if you’d like to buy a book to inform, motivate and support you, I offer the following recommendations:  It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff  by Peter Walsh and the hugely popular primer by Marie Kondo,  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Today we are happily living among our very carefully curated collection of things. My husband and I have never been, nor will we ever be, minimalists.  We still have a lot of stuff, but it’s all good stuff! Oh, and about that portrait…the frame is gone, but the picture  remains in a large art box filled with my daughter’s early masterpieces.

Best,

Michele

P.S. I can still find room for small dachshund shaped items and most anything in the color of petal pink.

Mean Mothers

Dear Reader:

As we drove home from Southern California yesterday, my husband asked me, “Does Mother’s Day upset you or make you sad in a way?”

I knew exactly what he meant, but the question still took me by surprise as I was quite happily surveying grape orchards and remembering the events of the weekend. If you know me from my blog, you know how proud I am of my daughter and the close relationship we share. If you are one of my dear friends, you begin every visit with the question, “How’s your daughter?” I love talking about my daughter. I simply adore her. She is my single greatest source of pride.

So, why should Mother’s Day in any way upset me? Well, the answer has to do with my mother. She died three years ago on the morning after my daughter had major surgery at Stanford Hospital. In life, my mom had loved being the center of attention and so the timing of her death seemed appropriate.

One of the nurses heard me take the call from my sister and she became immediately quite concerned about my state of mind. My daughter was scheduled to spend four days in the hospital, but she would need continuous home care for several weeks. The doctors and nurses, my husband and I soon realized, were training us to take care of her at home. Her release would be determined not only by her condition, but also by our ability to care for her. The hospital chaplain was alerted to our situation and within the hour began appearing at our door. My husband shooed her away several times while I snoozed, but she was determined to talk to me.

“Ah, good, you’re eating!” she exclaimed as she approached me late that night in the cafeteria. “I’m Dusty, the hospital’s multi-faith chaplain and I’m here to see if you’d like to talk.” Really I just wanted to eat, but I was polite. I thanked her for her concern and let her know that I was tired, but fine, and that I knew exactly what I needed to do:  take care of my daughter. “But,” she continued, “it’s hard to take care of someone else when you are suffering yourself.”

How could she know that was exactly what I’d told myself for years when I thought about my mother? She was simply unable to be kind or nurturing as she was in pain. The explanation served to protect me from completely absorbing the constant emotional assault she inflicted on everyone close to her. My mother died without having a relationship with me or knowing her only grandchild. “She’s no longer in pain,” I told Dusty and I left her to interpret the comment in any way she chose. I returned to my coffee and eggs as she left finally satisfied that she had done her job.

A week later I found myself speeding down the freeway to attend my mother’s funeral. I paid my last respects to the woman who had created me and who had, I think, helped determine the happy course of my life.

“You know we may not have Natalie if it weren’t for my mother,” I answered my husband.

I missed out on having a strong bond with my own mother; maybe that’s why I finally decided at 35 to throw away my birth control pills!   We all make choices and those choices are often based on needs we may not even consciously be aware of. Maybe I needed a strong mother/daughter bond. I did not have that with my own mom, so I set about to create it with my daughter.

It has been many many years since I felt anything for my mother, but it took time and counseling to resolve issues from my childhood. It seems to me that it is still taboo to speak about one’s mother in anything but appreciative terms, but for those readers who can relate to my story, I’m sorry… and I’d like to offer the following book recommendations: Mean Mothers by Peg Streep and Mothering Without a Map by Kathryn Black.

I’ll borrow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to perfectly describe my feelings about my life: “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else…”

I am so fortunate to be able to celebrate Mother’s Day with my daughter. Happy ending!

Sincerely,

Michele 

A Kiss for You…and Me

Dear Reader:

My pink shed is filled with all manner of things that inspire me, inform me or simply please me. One of those things is this bird; you squeeze the sides and its beak opens to reveal a chocolate kiss. It’s been with me for 25 years now. The yellow has faded and it has been stained with coffee spills. It used to hang from a knob above my coffee maker in my old home.

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It was hand-made by an elderly woman who lived down the hall from Nonnie (my Italian grandmother) in her last residence:  an assisted living facility. I remember the day I acquired it quite vividly. I was visiting with the rest of my family and Nonnie was uncharacteristically demanding. She wanted “the bird with the kiss.”  We kept re-directing her back to the garden as it was a particularly pleasant day. But, she wanted the bird. She wanted the bird her neighbor made that gave kisses.

It took a while for us to consider her request seriously and decide to comply. We were, I remember, confused and impatient. But, she persisted, and led us down her hallway and into the room of a woman perched on her bed surrounded by skeins of bright yellow yarn. Indeed, she was making birds that offered chocolate. It was a cottage industry and she could barely keep up with the demand. We each purchased a bird and then retired to the garden where we enjoyed chocolate in the sunshine.

My grandmother died a week later.

I look at that bird and wonder:  is there a moral to this story? Is it a reminder to listen better and judge less or to stop and be patient? Or does its value simply come from the smile it produces on my face when I look at it and remember one of the most beautiful people who ever graced my life.

Tell me about your interesting mementos,

Michele