Christmas Peace Comes After Loss

Holidays have been really tough for me since 2013, a few months after my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Those last holidays together were excruciating and the years after have been difficult to say the least. You are just going through the motions feeling empty inside. While you try hard, it is never quite the same again and really that’s okay. It’s a change in your life, you keep old traditions and strive for new ones to make sense of the loss. The change is a way you cope and it seems that each year you embrace the old with the new, like feeling a warm hug from your lost loved one.

My mom loved the holidays and Christmas was her birthday so that day is a double whammy of grief for me and my daughters as well as the other people who loved my generous, kind badass of a mom. The first Christmas without her was blur and by the second Christmas, we no longer lived in the same house as so many of my memories which helped me immensely. But not everyone wants, can or needs to move, it’s just what happened in my life for other reasons but the change helped me spark into a new part of my life.

Last year, my oldest and middle daughter moved out just days before Christmas when my oldest bought her first house. Exciting and a little disconcerting at the same time. More changes. The nest was more empty but what I have found is that while at first, when that whole empty nest starts hitting you, you want to cling to the old and familiar life you had. That’s normal. I went from being a caretaker for my mom, to being an orphan, to having a mostly empty nest in just a few short years. Mid-life can be tough sometimes. There is a ton of transition not to mention the fact you realize, hey, my life isn’t all out there in front of me now like it was twenty years before. But that in of itself isn’t a bad thing either. I mean it sounds horrible but what it does is focus your energy, you start becoming very picky how you spend your time and whom you spend your time.

Chances are if you have made it midlife, you’ve seen some shit. You’ve dealt not only with joys and happy moments, but tragedy and loss. You’re nostalgic for the old days when you gathered at a table with your grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles but you realize that a good many of them may have passed or you live at different corners of the country. While this seems sad and it can be, you refocus once again on the ever-changing station of your life. This is the same things your grandparents and parents probably had to do. Let go of the past and embrace the present, the future. Nothing stays the same but there is joy in today.

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Mom opening presents

Today is a bit snowy and grey in northwestern Ohio promising a white Christmas tomorrow. After leaving my daughter’s house this afternoon, I decided to visit my mother’s grave as it will be arctic cold tomorrow and really, other than checking on it, I never feel that my mom is there. The graveyard sits on a hill above the small white clapboard Lutheran church where we have attended church off and on since the mid 1980’s. Many of the graves around my mom are people I knew as a kid and were very welcoming to us all these years. Before my mom passed, I would ride my bike on these hills and on a hot day, stop and sit under one of the pines to cool off. The graveyard is a peaceful, beautiful place if you aren’t creeped out by dead people (I am not). But since my mom has been buried here, it always made me incredibly sad and I avoid it for the most part other than to look after her grave.

When I drove out, I thought I’m probably just setting myself up to be down in the dumps. I was alone for the remainder of this Christmas Eve afternoon until my husband gets home later from work. I parked in the snowy circle next to my mom’s grave and bundled up. As I stood looking at her grave, I found I didn’t feel sadness but peace. My mom isn’t there, just her body. The graveyard is not a big one, but I walked to the side that faces the church standing between tall evergreens that have been there longer than I have been alive. The snow blanketed the plowed field between the church and cemetery, creating a pastoral winter scene that one might frame and hang on their wall. Maybe this is the point of acceptance. Not that I don’t miss my mom every day, but the point where peace finally settles over you like a warm blanket of love and memories.

I hesitate to say that I won’t have a day where I’m back at the cemetery in tears but this is a step beyond what I have felt. Grief isn’t something I do well but who does? My mom should be here with us, celebrating, wrapping presents, giving us orders on what food we will bring and so on. Except she’s not and it’s taken me four long years to get back into the Christmas spirit. A spirit that is different from my last happy Christmas. Loss changes you, changes the way you see life and now I embrace the small things even more. The edge softens and you start to be able to enjoy the happy memories without crying. There is no magic number or time that this will happen as I am certain it is personal for each one of us.

However, there is hope that one day the pain will dull, your heart will fill again with your changed life and while there is always that empty space, love fills that void allowing you to feel mostly whole again. The road to here isn’t easy. It really f’ing sucks. But now I understand how my grandparents were able to move on, their parents moved on and still be happy. They say that mid-life is one of the most unhappy points of a person’s life and I think with all the change along with just the stuff you have gone through just from living, it’s true. The flip side of that is that as people age past mid-life, they generally grow happier. I thought how could this be? But I think you grow and learn to appreciate the moment more. Each moment becomes more and more precious as your life quickly speeds past.

This year we started even more new traditions to keep our family close. First we had a Christmas Craft day where we did different crafts to help decorated cheaply for the holidays. I’m not a crafter so I rarely do this kind of thing since the girls have grown up. But it was so much fun as it was like when I used to do little projects with them as kids and we laughed so much. Then a few weeks later, we had our first official cookie baking day. Now I see why families do these kinds of activities as it’s a way to recapture the joy of having your kids around and doing what made you happy years ago. Just because the nest empties, doesn’t mean you can’t sit down and decorate sugar cookies with your kids anymore, it just means that the decorating might be more R rated than G now. Well, at least in my family where we all have a crazy sense of humor.

Life changes, you lose people your love, your kids grow up and move out and you get older but there are many beautiful things as well. There are the memories of holidays with my mom and the appreciation today of how our holidays have gone from complicated and exhausting to simple. That my kids can actually cut out and bake their own cookies, so I’m not exhausted by the end of cookie baking day. Where we can relate on a much different level, like friends, where it’s more fun anyway than telling them quit eating the icing. I seriously don’t miss fighting with them over things. I don’t miss them being little. One day, maybe I will have grandchildren but like my mom said the beauty of grandkids is you can spoil them and send them home. I can see where she is coming from even though I’m not a grandmother.

My Christmas Eve has been quiet and relaxing with a hike thrown in this afternoon. Ten years ago, it was always a frantic mess of wrapping presents, trying to do as much cooking as possible among tripping over a bunch of bodies milling in and out. I’m looking forward to tomorrow as I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to rush through cooking, last minute present wrapping, etc. I’ve had the presents wrapped for a week. I have been spreading out the cooking the last few days. We have simplified our holiday menus, picking dishes that are easy to prepare rather than having more food than anyone could ever eat. Probably a leftover from when women stayed home and were graded on their homemaking skills. Now we’re out working and we don’t have time to make 3 kinds of cranberries. I get to pick how I want to do the day. There is no pressure. I wouldn’t care of my kids came over in the pajamas… None of that stuff ever mattered anyway. Being together matters.

I hope others who are grieving find some peace tonight and tomorrow, well, every day. As close as I was to my mother, I never thought I would really enjoy a holiday again. But I’m pleasantly surprised this year that I actually am looking forward to Christmas as is my daughters. Not that I haven’t had sad moments of missing my mom. They just are less frequent and intense. A relief from the past four years. Life changes, have faith that one day you will feel more peace. I don’t know when, but it happens.

Wishing you a very blessed Christmas (or your holiday celebration of choice) and a wonderful new year full of fun, love and laughter. Yes, there’s going to be some crappy stuff, but in between, I pray you find peace, love and joy. Bring on 2018!

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Memories of Mom – Micro Road Trips

Once I reached about 15 years of age and we had moved into the townhouse apartment in my now hometown, my mom’s finances started improving as she moved up at work. It seemed after the first winter in the townhouse, when spring finally arrived, a new feeling came over our small abode. One of relief and hope as we were able to start doing a few things without fear of not paying some important bill, like electricity. The money had been so tight, my mom must have just buckled down at work and did what she did best, excel in whatever she put her mind to.

One late spring day, she had my sister and I load up in the red Ford Fairmont and we went for a drive. We probably packed up some sandwiches and drinks as the extra gas was a splurge and to balance that, we wouldn’t be able to eat out. This was of little concern because we were so happy to be out on an adventure and escaping the grind of our every day lives. It felt like heaven. I remember bits and pieces of these trips. We would drive way out in the country in an area where chicken farms/ barns were very common and I remember passing one barn where there was this huge statue of a white rooster stood in the front yard. We dubbed him “Super Chicken” and laughed about it for years. The statue still stands today and while I don’t pass it often, it makes me melancholy for those more simple days with my mom when I see it again.

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Super Chicken!

Another time, she took us to a local lake where the swimming area wasn’t exactly sandy but mucky. I remember her sitting at a picnic table, trying to hold down papers she was working on while we kinda swam but mostly ran out yelling ‘ewwww!’. We were there for a long time and I could tell my mom was stressed with whatever she was working on. I felt bad thinking she should be able to have some fun with us too but when I asked her to come wade with us because she never learned to swim, she just shooed me away. That day always stuck with me because over the years I watched the stress and strain of my mom’s job tear at her health. Most people who knew my mom wonder why I didn’t follow in her footsteps. For that exact reason, I did not.

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Grand Lake St. Marys

I remember four-hour trips to Youngstown to stay with my grandparents for the weekend. These trips were our big treats. Sometimes on a long holiday weekend or during the summer, these trips would lead to going in ‘home’ as they called it. These were trips into Friendsville, Maryland and Garrett County, where my great-grandmother Sadie and my great-aunts, Betty & Grace both lived. Trips to Maryland were exotic times as we went from the flat landscape of northwestern Ohio to the mountains of Maryland where much of my maternal side of the family lived in some of the most beautiful land I’d ever seen. Roads that my great-grandfather, Samuel, helped build and the old road leading up to what had been my great-grandparent’s farm was named “Sam Friend” road after him. It is this steep, twisting gravel road that came up through the woods and popped out right next to one of the farm’s barn. We would drive by it and I would listen to my mom and my grandmother wax nostalgic about the idyllic days on the farm and it was a shame what the current owners had done to the place.

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Youngstown, Ohio – Grandparents Home

For our Youngstown trips, an hour into our drive was a road-side rest area just beyond Upper Sandusky that we eat our picnic lunch. I remember a few years later, we were able to stop at McDonald’s and actually have lunch in the restaurant though we decided if it was nice out, we would get our food to go and visit the little roadside park which was much nicer than the noisy fast food joint. Sometimes, we would get KFC which was an extra special treat. Now that seemed like a real picnic to us. Fried chicken? What’s a better picnic food than fried chicken?

The fried chicken brought back memories of happier times of when we lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. My mom would fry her own chicken to pack cold along with some sides and we would eat in the mountains, the four of us. My dad, mom, my sister and I just enjoying a day out as a family. I am sure there were moments when my mom had to be wistful for what she thought life as a married woman would be but she really never said much. But I know she cried when we left our brick front home in Tennessee packed in a U-Haul headed to Missouri. To be honest, I did too. We went from a nice two-story tri-level home to a falling down old rental owned by a paternal great-uncle I think I met once in a nursing home. My dad would lose his job and then become convinced life somewhere else was better, if we move here, things will be great. No matter how many times we moved, it was only great for a short time until his drinking would return full-force.

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Our Home in Knoxville – Happier Times

These road trips whether they were just micro one hour drives in the country or a bigger foray into ‘home’ to Maryland were some of the happiest moments of my adolescence. They were the signs that things were getting better and that if you work hard and keep the faith, you’ll come out on the other side of darkness and into the light. It is why when I had my kids and even when I didn’t have a lot of money, we would load up in the minivan, lunch packed, and head to a park or lake. I knew these simple acts of escape, being outdoors, exploring new places would couple together many happy memories for my own kids. They were the ones who coined these trips as ‘going on an adventure’.

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Laura – Tennesee Mill –

Even today, I get ancy if I’m home a lot. I don’t know if it is just my personality or if being ‘stuck’ in one place for long periods of time reminds me of the times when things were harder. I love getting into the car and driving simply nowhere. Exploring shops, restaurants, historical site and parks along the way. It’s amazing what you can find with no itinerary. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a quick vacation of sorts. The simple things in life are true blessings. Sure that expensive vacation to somewhere tropical is exciting and will always be in your memory, but taking a drive in the country can be just as fun and rewarding. There is so much to explore close to home.

Sometimes I pass the two castles about 40 minutes from my home that my mom, sister and I found on one of our drives. Since there was no internet, we didn’t even know they existed. We were just driving out and about, the Ohio map tucked between the seats in case we got lost, when we drove around a bend in the road and there stood this small castle tucked into a hillside. And down the road there was another one. When we got some extra money, we went back to the castle that interested us the most and paid for the guided tour. While this was probably no big deal for most families, for us it was really exciting to actually be doing something out of the ordinary. Every time I pass this castle now, I think of that day, how we were all smiles weaving through the castle rooms with our tour guide. This memory is dear to my heart. Now, I wistfully wish my mom was still here as I would treat her to a tour to this castle that would probably seem tiny and not such a big deal today but just for old time’s sake.

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One of the Piatt Castles – The one we toured mid 1980’s.

As parents, we do the best we can with what we have. We worry that maybe if our kids don’t grow up with everything that we fail. I struggled a lot when my kids were younger after my divorce from my father. My mom was there to help us and she spoiled them rotten at Christmas and birthdays. I listen to my girls talk now as adults, and there were some bad times in their childhood and adolescence but mostly they have fond memories. They thank me now for not being a helicopter parent and teaching them how to do laundry, cook, do chores, etc. Just like I had to learn to take care of myself and also my mom and sister when my mom had to work so much. Independence and appreciate for the little things in life is a good thing.

This weekend, I think I will make time for a drive, just for old time’s sake.

Happy Holidays, I so appreciate you reading my blog. My biggest reward in writing is when I can touch my reader’s hearts or souls. I wish you the very, very best in 2018. Ciao!

Memories of Mom – Chicken Soup Days

Most people remember my mother as a sometimes intimidating corporate director figure who was also generous to a fault. She worked many years to get to that point though and she showered her family with lavish Christmas and birthday gifts. But before she ‘made it’ in the corporate world, back in 1983-1984, she was a struggling single mom working long, long hours to try to support two kids without any child support from my deadbeat alcoholic father. I loved my dad, but that is how things were and how he was.

Circa 1980 or 81 before the split

1980? Before we moved to Ohio.  My mom, her mom, my sister and I before the split.

My middle school years were punctuated with memories of cold dark holidays and barely getting by. My mom kicked my dad out of the house when I was 13. She came home from a business trip to find my dad passed out at the kitchen table of our small rental house in a pile of beer cans and a rifle pointed at me and my sister. That was it for her. Done, fini, terminado.. whatever. Eventually my dad retreated back to his home state of Missouri and my mom was left with one less ‘kid’ to take care of but also one income. Though if my memory serves me correctly my dad had by then quit or gotten fired from his job as an alcoholic (I know ironic right?) counselor from the County Health Department.

I remember the first Thanksgiving after my father parted, my mom couldn’t afford to take us up to Youngstown to spend the holidays with her parents and siblings so we stayed at the dark, depressing rental house but she had found enough money to buy an off brand turkey and the fixings. She was humming as she fixed up the turkey and slid it into the oven announcing that we would soon be eating our fill of delicious turkey. We started waiting for the roasted aroma to waft to our anxious noses but we never smelled anything. She went into the kitchen and opened the oven door.

“Oh No!” She exclaimed. “The oven isn’t heating right.” Not knowing what else to do, she literally cooked the turkey for hours at the lukewarm temp since a call to the landlord who briskly told her it wouldn’t be until tomorrow before he could fix the oven. Basically we pretended the half raw turkey was great only eating the most cooked parts while praying we didn’t get sick. I think it was one of the saddest holidays I’d had other than the ones after her death.

At this time, designer labels were all the rage and I had none really. I got made fun of at school for having ‘bobo’ or non-designer label clothes. We simply couldn’t afford them. My grandparents had tried to help out but there was no way my penny-pinching grandmother thought it was worth the money to have a pony on my jeans’ pocket. These jeans at Kmart are just as nice. I just smiled and agreed because otherwise, I would have no new school clothes at all. My grandparents sent me home from summer break with some new clothes and a pair of Nike’s with a baby blue swoosh. I was so proud of those tennis shoes that I probably used several bottles of white shoe polish trying to keep them looking almost new. I only had 3-4 pairs of jeans to my name so on Wednesdays, I had to wash a load of dark clothes so I had enough clean clothes to make it through the week. The re-wearing of the same jeans in one week also brought down the fashion police on me and I was tormented over that as well but again, I couldn’t help it.

My grandparents also sent home several cases of Campbells Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup cans. I often wondered why they didn’t send us home with different kinds but it seemed like we were living on this soup that one year. My grandmother wanted to make sure her grandchildren didn’t starve to death and I guess as long as we had soup, we would live. We were old enough to use a can opener, add a can of water, stir and heat. There were also a lot of TV dinners as well. Though I still love TV dinners once in awhile though their appeal isn’t as great as when you’re 13 and you’re digging into half-cooked chocolate cake ensconced in its own square of your disposable tray.

Once my parents’ divorce was finalized in early 1984, when I was 14, (stop counting to see how old I am- stop it!) the darkness started to lift from our lives. My mom traded in her 1979 Ford Pinto on a brand new Ford Fairmont which we thought was just the shit. Though it was rear wheel drive and mom had a hell of a time getting to work and back in the winter. I think about her on those cold freezing winter mornings and evenings because she would work incredibly long hours, driving alone praying she stayed on the road and the car made it in the frigid temperatures. We had no family close. But we did have some friends through her workplace, now my workplace as well, and some of those friends still work with me. So we were blessed to have a support system.

The Ford Fairmont Circa 1988

The red Ford Fairmont circa Christmas 1988 at my Grandparents (in middle)

My mom was incredibly brave when I think about it. She just did it, she had no choice. But once the weather started to get nicer and she got her financial feet under her, we moved to a townhouse in the next town which was much bigger than our current one. My sister had to switch elementary schools but I don’t think she minded. I missed having a yard but not the landlord beating on the door scaring the crap out of us. I remember weekend day, my mom kept the curtains drawn and told us to keep quiet. A car pulled into our driveway and she told us to hide in our tiny bedroom closet. We could hear the landlord out there bellowing “ANITA! I NEED THAT RENT MONEY! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!”. Finally he left after what felt like an eternity. We slipped out of the closet and I will never forget the sight of my mom climbing out of her blanket chest in her bedroom. That stuck with me until this day and I still have that same chest.

She had to not pay the rent I think to be able to move us to a less expensive but nicer townhouse in what is essentially now my daughters’ and I’m hometown. However positive the move was, there were some casualties that absolutely broke my heart. She had to give away our Shih Tsu mix dog I had for years, Boomer, because the townhouse had a no pets policy. Then she had to sell her Baldwin spinet piano. I just remember crying myself bleary eyed when each one left. Before Boomer left, I think she took him to the humane shelter, I took a small Avon box that had housed a ring I loved and lost while still living in Missouri, and I cut a lock of his dark grey hair to put in that box. After we moved, when I missed my doggie, I’d pull that out and touch the fur. And cry. But never in front of my mom, I knew she had no choice. Now I have a Baldwin piano and a shih tsu mix dog… I guess you can say I came full circle when I was able to afford to do so.

My last birthday in that rental house, my mom couldn’t afford much. I would have been turning 14 and I was a huge fan of Garfield. She found these plastic drinking cups with the cartoon cat on them. I still have one of them tucked away in my keepsake boxes. She did her best with what she had. To this day, I still appreciate all she did for us.

While my youth wasn’t ideal, I learned how to fend for myself, I started to teach myself to cook after we moved into the townhouse. I would pull down my mother’s Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and just follow a recipe. Sometimes she would help me on things I couldn’t understand or didn’t get from reading a recipe. Before we moved, I had started learning how to fix my own bike with tools my dad left behind. I could tear a ten-speed apart and put it back together and adjust the shifting until it was smooth as butter. I also learned how to fix some minor electrical issues, how the breaker box worked, how to do some oddball plumbing fixes because my mom was afraid of the landlord and didn’t want him in the house. That house eventually fell in on itself, the roof collapsing and now it’s simply an empty lot. It’s better as an empty lot.

Every time I see Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, I think of those dark days. I think about how much my life has changed in all those years. I am grateful that we made it, for the help we had along the way, for my mom’s tough spirit that kept going no matter what. I am grateful I didn’t grow up to be a helpless girl, that I wasn’t afraid to fix it myself or dive in when I needed to. Now I’m spoiled because my husband does a lot of this stuff and is better at it than me, but I don’t walk around afraid that if down the road, if I were to be on my own for whatever reason, I’m not helpless.

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My mom Christmas time 1987 – Our last in a rental – the townhouse

I have my mom’s fiery, determined spirit.