Surprise!

Every morning, I hear them.

Around the corner from their bedroom into the kitchen where I’m making breakfast, two pair of little girl feet come pitter-pattering with excitement against wooden floors. Four-year-old Kate is usually the first to greet me in front of her little sister — arms wide open and a grin even wider: “SURPRISE!” she exclaims.

I’m not sure when Surprise! became her go-to “Good morning,” but it is now one of my very favorite greetings. It’s like every day is a birthday party.

It occurs to me every once in awhile that having a child with Down syndrome is not the typical thing in most families — kind of in the way I realize, suddenly, that I’m wearing house shoes at the grocery store. It’s all so comfortable and routine to me now, I sort of forget that there’s anything curious about it at all.

And that feeling, specifically, was what I wanted most four years ago — the feeling of normalcy that fits as comfy as house shoes. I wanted to move on from the all-encompassing-seemingly-huge-deal of having a child with Down syndrome that hit me like a wave in those first days. But how quickly the wave washed over and passed on to still waters — newer waters — clearer waters.

The surprise of Kate’s diagnosis on the day of her birth was not akin to the usual emotions of a celebratory birthday party — but oh, how that has changed.

I find myself telling her daily how smart she is, how incredibly, truly bright. How fun she is. How kind she is. How she lights up this world like the most gracious guest of honor — Surprise! she says. And she is so right.

It started the day she was born — when the doctor affirmed confidently she would never be able to breastfeed. Surprise! When I was concerned about her not being close friends with her siblings: Surprise! When I felt like we would be held back from the dreams we had — surprise! (Again.)

The more this goes on, the more I realize that the fact that life is full of surprises is not really all that surprising at all. Or disconcerting for that matter. Who would want to live in a world where nothing ever surprised them? Where the first wildflower of the season didn’t cause a stir of joy? Where the unexpected thunderstorm didn’t bring on an impromptu movie night? Where a surprisingly wonderful conversation in a smoky bar atop a sushi restaurant couldn’t lead to marriage? (Ah, now that was a sweet surprise.)

This morning, they did it again — around the corner into the kitchen with open arms and big smiles. And I did what I do every day. I squatted down to their level and threw open my arms wide to welcome them in.

“Surprise!” Kate said, falling into my arms.

“You’re here!” I responded, pulling her in close for a hug. “I am so, so happy to see you.”

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt

DSC_0112Artwork by Kristen Johns

The power of a matriarch

It’s June 1st. Summer is here. Perhaps not the official summer solstice quite yet, but June means summer to me. It means porches and watermelon and lazy afternoons.

We made our way through old country towns for an inaugural summer road trip to see family this past weekend. “Main Street” towns — each with a post office, an antique store and a cafe named after the owner: “Welcome to Carol’s Place.”

We whirled by cows resting by over-filled ponds (it’s been a rainy season) and made pit stops in small-town grocery stores with talkative clerks who each had a story to tell.

Between towns, we admired the pastoral beauty of the afternoon sun swept against deep green countryside. And when the speed limit dropped to sleepy-town speed once again, we waved at old women with wrinkled lips sipping coffee outside of hair salons.

It was the back-road way to part of my back-story. A scenic view to visit the East Texas town that my mother grew up in — one that I’ve spent summers visiting for years now. The weekend was full of family and a high school graduation, dreams looking forward, stories looking back. The up-and-coming downtown is bringing new life to the rich history there, a sentiment that felt most palpable as I sat drinking a Caramel Macchiato on the patio of a hip coffee shop, just a few stores down from where my Grandfather owned a dry cleaners decades ago.

I love going back there. It is a rare place in the world where as much as things change, the best things always stay the same. And while walking around the old cemetery at dusk, I was reminded of this story I wrote of the woman who grew all the beautiful people who gather there together — my grandmother.

Written almost 4 years ago on her birthday, I wanted to share it again today:

I heard her scamper across the kitchen linoleum in her ever-so-worn, blue Isotoner house slippers.

They had holes in them — but she didn’t care, it wasn’t about style for Grandma. They matched her over-sized, over-stretched, decade-old nightshirt that fell like a window drape to the top of her wrinkled, skinny legs. She fried bacon, scrambled eggs, sipped black coffee and hummed to Willie Nelson on her kitchen radio. And I – just a kid – laid content in the guest bedroom, listening to the comforting morning soundtrack of Grandma’s house.

Her house sat atop a hill that sloped into a dusty pasture with a man-made “tank” that bred Water Moccasins and catfish. Piles of cow patties peppered the summer-scorched grass, while coarse-haired heifers slept under the shade of the East Texas oaks. In the back, a barn stood proud, filled with hay and rusty farm equipment. Its chipped, red siding served as a lighthouse to hungry, homesick family members arriving “home” from wherever they happened to be.

Growing up, I happened to be in a lot of places. As the daughter of an Air Force officer, I moved every few years, traveled across oceans — and lived on a few different continents. But in the midst of all the changes, there was one thing that stayed the same: the house on the hill in East Texas.

We visited every summer and many Christmases and Thanksgivings. Family gathered and caught up and exclaimed a big Texas, “Well I declare, you’re growin’ like a weed!” while Grandma smoked unfiltered Camels and scribbled crossword puzzles on her stained, cushioned lap desk.

It was a comfortable place where time seemed to stand still. It held the comforts of childhood memories and familiar faces. But most of all, it held the diminutive matriarch that wasn’t much into small talk, but who loved a mean game of Yahtzee.

And then one day: something did change in this place that always stayed the same.

The Camels took their toll on the invincible woman who smelled like White Rain hairspray. The lung cancer soon metastasized to take more organs — and soon after, her life.

Suddenly, the house that was so full of memories felt eerily empty. The weary travelers, who looked for their lighthouse in the distance, now saw only a dim flicker. And somehow, they would have to travel forward without it:

The first days, weeks, even years after a matriarch dies are the hardest. They are the times when we learn if the fabric of our family is strong enough to hold without the thread. But then, slowly, we form new threads. New tribe leaders emerge. New traditions begin. And though the memories of our loved ones are never lost — we find a new way to go on in the spirit of their legacy.

We still gather in her house every year for holidays and summers. We still fry bacon and scramble eggs and sip coffee. And we learn that the power of a Matriarch lives on long after she is gone through the women and men that she loved so well.

And so it will be for generations to come.

chicken

Artwork by Martha Anne Hearn

Like coffee in the afternoon

I have become such a traditionalist

That is,

So in love with the rituals that thread day into day

Like coffee in the afternoon

Or the way the morning sunlight peers into my bathroom windows

The way the cat always half-sits

on my legs in the evenings

Or the way my bed-headed baby springs to the edge of her crib after naptime:

Mama, you’re here.

I love when the world feels small.

When neighbors wave while walking dogs,

and oh look, they planted roses;

When friends are so comfortable that they put up their feet,

When a heart is so comfortable it lets down its guard.

They say it takes a long time to grow an old friend,

and perhaps the same to grow an old soul,

but nevertheless;

the older I get,

the more I delight in the little things

(that are really the biggest of things)

that perhaps even my great, great, great

great

grandma loved most.

Like a husband’s worn boots by the mudroom door,

the smell of onions in a cast iron pan,

the giggle of a tickle fight,

the whisper of a 2-year-old’s secret —

and a cup of creamy coffee in the afternoon.

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The vow of stability

Over red wine and herb chicken and a gaggle of loud children, a girlfriend recently shared insights from a marriage retreat she and her husband had attended.

One anecdote from a talk she heard stuck out to me in particular: that Benedictine monks take a distinctive vow when joining the religious order. Along with obedience and conversion of life, they also take the unique vow of “stability.”

I found that so intriguing — like a vow to not be moody? Well, yes, I suppose that could be part of it — but it refers to stability in a much larger sense.

One Benedictine community describes the vow this way:

We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, and forgiving.

Now, I’m no monk nor do I live in a monastery, but I found the vow incredibly apt in the context of family life.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day — a beautiful day that threatened rain in the weather forecast, but that instead flooded our newly planted Viburnums with golden beams of warm sunshine until nightfall. Three generations of family — grandparents from both sides — sat around our heavy, homemade farmhouse table and shared stories, stabbed salads and scooped vanilla icecream drizzled with warm caramel sauce.

And as stories of mothers past and present were shared, I glanced up to the large picture frame hung by the diningroom window. It holds four generations of couples — great grandparents on down. Scanning the faces, I found myself thinking about the unique vow that the Benedictines take.

The vow to stay together. To grow together. To work things out and restore peace. The promise to be like a towering tree where branches grow out and roots grow deep and where the stability of one generation gives strength to another. The vow to endure. And though the environment may be tumultuous at times, to be steadfast. [“Stability” is derived from the Latin word stare, which means “to stand,” “to stand up” or “to be still.”]

And of all the things my mothers and my mothers’ mothers and their mothers alike passed down, it is not just the Blue Danube china hanging on my wall or the old buffet table below it that has transcended generations. Rather, it is their clear vows of love that have sustained future generations.

I suppose the family really is a proverbial tree — where the stability of the roots affect the whole big thing. For even the love of one single mother carries forward for generations.

“Everyone knows that a good mother gives her children a feeling of trust and stability. She is their earth. She is the one they can count on for the things that matter most of all. She is their food and their bed and the extra blanket when it grows cold in the night; she is their warmth and their health and their shelter; she is the one they want to be near when they cry. She is the only person in the whole world in a whole lifetime who can be these things to her children. There is no substitute for her. Somehow even her clothes feel different to her children’s hands from anybody else’s clothes. Only to touch her skirt or her sleeve makes a troubled child feel better.” – Katharine Butler Hathaway

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To nourish

“A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished.” — Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

When I read this quote a few weeks ago, that last word popped out at me and stuck. Well, the root of the word anyway:

Nourish.

It’s come up lately during conversations with good friends on brisk Spring evenings and has occurred to me in moments of reflection and prayer. Nourishment is, after all, what mothers do. It’s a step beyond nurturing — it is this very life-giving thing that is absolutely essential from the moment a new human sprouts in the warmth of our bodies.

And as I have spent time in thought while kneading bread or holding a child with scraped knees or bruised feelings, I am aware that there is such a difference between assuaging — simply satisfying a desire — and nourishing.

Michael Pollan is writing about being overfed and undernourished on something as base as food, but a friend recently shared that she felt similarly about interacting online, unfulfilled by her plethora of cyber relationships. I had another recent conversation with a woman who felt the same about her romantic past — she had many lovers, yet never felt fulfilled. Overfed, undernourished.

I have felt similarly at times — busy working, pulled in a million directions, not sure which of the paths forward to take. But I have decided in recent months and days and hours that the best path is always the most nourishing.

It’s not always the most easy or convenient path (was it Roosevelt that said nothing in the world is worth doing unless it means a little effort?) but it is the path that fills the soul with peace. As illustrated in one of my favorite scriptures:

“They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

I was also reminded of the sentiment while reading the book French Kids Eat Everything. Author Karen Le Billon writes about a ubiquitous French word that intrigued her while she researched the psychology of French food: aliment.

Aliment, it turns out, doesn’t translate directly into English. Both aliment and nourriture are translated as “food,” but these two words do not have the same meaning in French. Nourriture is the easy one to define, as it corresponds to the English meaning for food: something you ingest. But aliment is more complicated.

Searching for an explanation, I came across a quote from one of the best-known French nutritionists of the twentieth century, Jean Trémolières. He argued that an aliment is more than just a nutritious foodstuff. It is also something that can satisfy both emotional and physical appetites; it nourishes both physically and psychologically. In fact, a better translation of “aliment” would probably be “a nourishment.”

I love that. In a world of many distractions to ingest, there is a more nourishing way — the aliment. And not just related to food, of course, but in all we fill ourselves with.

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