Off They Go

If I wrote this post yesterday, it would be unrecognizable.

Yesterday, on the eve of my youngest child’s first day of kindergarten, I was a teary anxious mess. Internally. Outwardly, I was holding it together. By a thread.

I kept having these dual and seemingly contradictory thoughts:

I am absolutely ready for him to go to kindergarten.
I am absolutely NOT ready.

Both felt entirely true.

We spent our last official “Mommy Day” at one of his favorite places, the Crayola Experience, playing with model magic and posing for silly pictures beneath a cascade of melted crayons.

Off they go 1

I tried my best to remain present. Not checking my phone or thinking about the udon soup I planned on having for lunch. Instead I inhaled his sweet smelling head and tried to snuggle him as we rolled out clay and cut them into shapes.

“Stop it, mom,” he said with a smile, pushing me away. I went in for more and he put up his hands.

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.”

I watched two moms enter the room with their matching set of children, a toddler and a baby each. They held their infants while attempting to reign in their antsy three year olds. One toddled off toward us, pausing to stare at Leo, who was too busy cutting out gingerbread men to notice. I thought about how not so long ago I’d been one of those moms, but now I felt the distance expand as I drifted out of that frame and into another.

After finishing up at Crayola, we left for our respective treats: for Leo, a frozen yogurt topped with M+M’s, and for me, a bowl of steaming hot udon and veggies. A couple bites in, I felt my throat tighten up. After a few more, I could barely swallow. Here I was, getting what I wanted, and yet, I felt no pleasure.

I wondered if tomorrow’s milestone would feel similar. After years of aching for a quiet house and time to myself, I was about to get exactly that, but I had no idea if it would leave me feeling hollow or filled.

Turns out, both. It’s always both.

This morning I woke early, making lunches, filling backpacks, with enough time left over to make a batch of pancakes. Leo had a hard time getting out of bed, my bed, where he had appeared sometime in the night.

“I’m scared, Mommy,” he said, burrowing beneath the sheet. “I don’t want to go to school.”

“I know, honey,” I said, giving him a snuggle before luring him downstairs with the promise of Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes.

And then it was time. Sneakers on, backpacks slung onto shoulders, and out the door.

My husband said, “how about a first day of school picture?” and I froze, thinking Leo might refuse, or suddenly realize the thing he had feared all summer long was actually happening. Maybe he’d cling to my leg like so many preschool mornings, or run back into the house. But to my surprise he smiled and posed with his sister.

off they go 2

Then the bus slid into view. I put my phone away, too nervous for photos, afraid that trying to capture this pivotal moment would somehow jinx it. I had led myself to believe it might not actually happen. Maybe he wouldn’t get on the bus. But it was. Happening. We crossed the street, his sister leading the way.

He hesitated for a second. “Go on,” I said, and he did.

My baby got on that bus and sat down, disappearing from view. My husband and I stood at the end of our driveway, watching the bus begin to pull away.

We waved, and to my surprise, my son’s face appeared. His sweet smile framed by the window, and his hand mimicking ours, and then he was gone.

I felt a swell of emotion begin to rise, but when my husband asked, “Are you okay?” it subsided. Tears reversed. All the worry and anxiety had melted away, leaving me feeling empty, but not in a bad way.

“I think so,” I said.

My world is changing along with my children’s. I don’t have babies anymore and this is both a relief and a grief. We graduated that stage, albeit a little reluctantly on my part, and my son’s.

We’d been clinging to each other rather tightly these past few years. Perhaps because I suspected he was my last, I’d been holding on a bit too hard, or maybe it was just the right amount.

But this morning I let him go, and then, hours later, he returned. My little guy bounded off the bus and into my arms, giving me the tightest, sweetest hug.

I don’t know what tomorrow will be like, or next week, or next year. I don’t know how or if my heart will break or swell when I drop him and his sister off at college.

Probably both.

off they go 4

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Time as a Wrinkle

I have whiplash from this year. It went by in a blink. Wasn’t I just meeting my daughter’s new third grade teachers at Back to School night? Didn’t I just sign up my son for his last year at his beloved preschool?

first day of school 2016 copy

First day of school 2016.

Last day of school 2017

Last day of school 2017

My son will be entering kindergarten in the fall and my daughter beginning fourth grade, both seem unbelievable. In September, both of my kids will be in fulltime school, my days opening up like a blank book. Isn’t this the light at the end of my stay-at-home-motherhood-tunnel? And yet as the light bears down on me, I’m struck with nostalgia and grief.

Recently I came across a saying about parenthood that stopped me in my tracks.

The days are long, the years are short.

Leo preK graduation 2017

He entered the school as a two-year old. Now he’s barreling toward six.

Yes, oh yes. But would I want to travel back to those early, painful, excruciatingly days of new motherhood? Long on exhaustion and tears, short on sleep and freedom? Maybe.

***

The tiger lilies are back, as they always are every June. A welcome to summer and a bittersweet tug at my heart. They were my mother’s favorite flowers, or so I tell myself. She’s not alive for me to confirm this assumption. But I know she planted them along the railroad ties holding up the massive dirt hill our house was built upon. Every year they returned. Even after she stopped walking. Even after she and my father moved out. Even after her death. Even now, ten years later.

tiger lilies 2017

Ten years. Want to talk about whiplash? Try looking back on a decade after a death.

In ten years, I went from my early thirties to my early forties. I went from being a young married woman without children, to an older married woman with two. I went from being a devout but sporadic fiction writer to a devoted and slightly frantic memoir writer. I went from losing myself to finding something new.

Two days ago, on June 21, I went to visit my mother’s mausoleum by myself. It felt less like a depressing pilgrimage than a welcome, dare I say almost giddy, escape from my family. (No offense, family.) I packed a bag filled with old journals, new notebooks, notecards, my mother’s book, and my computer. My plan was to write a scene or two of my memoir in her presence. It would be my way of honoring her, and myself.

That morning my daughter made a collage for me to tape on the granite wall, and I printed out a picture of my kids at the pool, their arms wrapped around one another, grinning with the promise of summer, plus a class picture of each.

10 years holmdel

The year before I decided to take the kids for (almost) the first time (Emma had been once as a baby, and Leo in utero). We had a nice day with my father. Spending the bulk of our time at the park across the street, as my mother intended, and then stopping briefly by the cemetery to hang our tributes.

9 years holmdel

Exactly what my mother would have wanted.

This year my daughter did not want to go. The day before I gave her the option, no pressure. “It’s too sad,” she told me, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “You don’t have to go.”

She understands now, the significance, and she has always felt more deeply than most kids her age. “I had a talk with Grandma Susan’s blanket,” she told me earlier that day, “I wish I could have known her. I wish she was alive to meet me.”

Oh, me too. Me too.

Ten years in a blink.

Time heals all wounds, so the saying goes. Well. Anyone suffering a loss knows that is complete bullshit.

Time does nothing of the sort. Like one of my mother’s favorite books suggests, time is a wrinkle. It may stretch out taut over the years, growing smoother, but then in an instant it can snap back together, meeting at the seams, scrunching into a messy ball.

There is no finish line to grief. It’s a forever orbit. We keep going round and round.

Like the seasons, like the school years. The tiger lilies come back every summer, and thank god. They are a reminder of my mother, of her love, of her endurance in my life, and in my children’s, despite having never met them.

We bought journals the day after, my daughter and I. We are summer journaling together, an idea borrowed from a writing friend. Every day we will write or draw a little bit.

journal 2017

“What are you going to write about,” she asked me this morning. “Will it be something sad?”

Oh, this kid. She knows me so well.

“I might write about visiting Grandma Susan, but that wasn’t all sad.”

She looked confused, so I explained how beautiful my drive home had been. Blindly following the directions on my fickle GPS, I went down roads I’d never seen before, passing stunning farmland, huge cows with stripes that looked painted on, and red barns that gleamed in the post-rain sun. I looked for a rainbow, but found tiger lilies instead, stopping on the side of the road to pick a handful.

We sat down to write and she marveled at my speed, and what she thought looked like pretty script, but to me it was the usual messy scrawl, my fingers unable to keep up with my brain.

“It’s so good,” she said, after I read aloud what I had written.

I shook my head, gently steering her in a different direction. “Journaling is always good. It can never be bad.”

So much is a contest to her already. She’s entered the age of acute self-consciousness, anxious about how she stacks up against her peers, against me.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for us. I think about how my mother always wanted her children to exceed her, surpass her. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be an either or. We can all shine. Me and my mother, me and my daughter, me and my son.

We continue on, rolling forward, and back. Repeating old mistakes, and learning from others. The lilies will wilt and die, but there is comfort in knowing they will return.

Life Warrior

I just got home from a Glennon Melton Doyle event (of the crazy popular blog Momastery) and I am still reeling from the experience.

Not just from her talk – which was THE perfect combination of hilarious and heartfelt – but also from the whole exhausting event of getting there in the first place, and then having to leave early to come home to my crazy banshees.

But first, Glennon. I don’t know how or when I first came across her blog. Maybe it was via my other favorite heartfelt blogger Rachel Macy Stafford (what is it with the trifecta of names? Do I need to start going by Dana Heather Schwartz?!) but regardless, it only took one post to be hooked.

At first I was a tiny bit worried about the name, Momastery, clearly a riff off monastery. Would it be too Christian for me, a lapsed and mostly atheist Jew? Nope. That’s the beauty of Glennon. She’s all inclusive when it comes to love and hope and spreading the light.

Also, she’s hilarious. But the best kind of funny, because it’s not at anyone’s expense, it’s about the absurdity of life, and our absurd expectations of ourselves, of each other, and how she shatters it with her blatant unstoppable honesty.

When I was a kid, I had a lot of big feelings (not so unlike my own children). I was very sensitive, tender-hearted, basically a bruise waiting to happen. I still am, but there came a turning point in my childhood, maybe on the cusp of adolescence, when I started to feel a sense of shame about my emotions.

I started to express them more cautiously, or at least, less vocally. I also started to hesitate when asked for advice. Before this, if you asked me for help, I took you VERY seriously. I’d think through my answer, go over it in my mind as if I were composing a speech or writing an essay. Then I’d present you with my findings, totally guilelessly.

I still do this. If you ask me a question about celiac, writing, grief, death, I will compose you the best response I can and from the heart. But there was a period of time when I stopped. Because it didn’t feel safe or acceptable to be so open, so honest.

I started to feel foolish for thinking that people who asked  for the truth actually wanted it.

So instead of lying, or editing my response, I stopped talking so much. I second guessed my instincts. I swallowed my words. Better to say nothing at all than to look like a fool.

I wish I had known Glennon all those years ago, or had a friend like her, one who was as honest and guileless as me, who spoke straight from the heart without censoring or softening or smoothing.

I love the stories she tells about being brutally honest, whether during her kid’s play date, at church, or online, and then being faced with a wall of silence, with gaping mouths, bulging eyes. Basically horror that she had the gall to be real.

“Oh,” she says, her hands up in mock defeat, “we’re not doing THAT here, are we?”

Tonight I took notes on my program and ticket because I forgot my notebook.

love-and-faith

Then about halfway through the event, I snuck another peak at my phone. It had been quiet for a while, but suddenly I saw 3 messages and knew there was trouble before even opening it up. Staying out late, especially mid week, is not something I usually do. Because I can’t.

I’m about to get honest here (without going into too much detail in order to protect my family’s privacy). Spending an hour in Glennon’s presence inspired me to tell my truth. So here it is.

Many other moms I know have no problem saying yes to evening events. They easily arrange girls’ nights out, join book clubs, see movies, get drinks, etc after their kids go to bed. Some even host these events at their house (!). But I don’t. I can’t.

My kids don’t go to bed – well, not very amiably. Not without me. They honestly never have. It’s a thing. It’s our thing. But still, when I saw the opportunity to go to Glennon’s speaking event, I leapt. I arranged things with my husband and my dad, took the kids to swimming first, switched out my son’s car seat, prepped my daughter with the evening’s plans, and then drove away, arriving with only minutes to spare.

I listened with my whole heart and took notes and felt moved and seen and understood by a woman who sat on a stage way too far away to see my face in a crowd of hundreds, but I felt understood all the same.

Then the texts came. Come home, now, from my husband and my daughter. I wrote back, On my way, even as I sat in my seat, soaking up a few more moments. I was disappointed, but not surprised. I looked around. The rows were packed and leaving was not going to be easy, but I made my way out of the aisle as best I could and took one last look at the vibrant woman on stage before pushing open the door.

On my walk to the car I thought about how I could decide to feel. I could be pissed, which I kind of was. I could feel all victim-y, which is another one of my go-to places, why do MY kids need ME so freaking much? And finally, self pity, what is wrong with my mothering that my kids are so abnormally dependent on me? 

Then I read another one of my daughter’s desperate texts, and my husband’s, which was along the lines of please answer your daughter’s desperate texts. So I did. With hearts and loving words.

Right now my kids DO need me more than most kids’ their age. For whatever reason. But one day they won’t. One day I’ll be able to attend events every night of the week and they probably won’t even notice because they’ll be too busy with their own lives. One day they’ll grow up and leave me behind, which is the goal. But I’ll still cry. I’ll still remember the times like tonight when I was needed so much and so desperately that it felt like being strangled.

I drove back home listening to Pandora, and I heard the opening bars of a song that made me think of another song, one from my college years. Sarah McLachlan’s Hold On. I sang what I could remember:

“Hold on
hold on to yourself
for this is gonna hurt like hell.”

And I thought about what Glennon says about pain, what I already know about pain, and that is you have to feel it, you have to go into it, not away from it.

hot-potato

“Pain is NOT a hot potato.”

I laughed so hard at this, because it’s so so true. You don’t get to toss it away. You get to hold it. That’s a gift. Pain and grief is the price you pay for loving.

I thought about what she said about parenting, about how many parents want so badly to protect their children from pain, but they need pain and suffering to learn wisdom and kindness and compassion.

you-can-do-hard-things

“You can do hard things because you are a warrior.”

I thought about how hard life can be – how hard life will continue to be – for my anxiety prone, highly sensitive daughter, and how I will take these words like a gift and offer them to her, and to myself, again and again.

I’m heading off the bed now, but I’m taking one last cue from G and hitting “Send” before editing this (except for spelling and grammatical errors, because come on, I was an English major for crying out loud). But I won’t try to make it prettier or smoother. I won’t try to make it safer, or easier to swallow.

In a few weeks I’ll receive a copy of her latest book, Love Warrior, and I cannot wait to read every word of it.

*Some G for anyone who’s interested, she gives a great podcast

Magic Lessons Podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert

Beautiful Writers Podcast with Linda Siversten

 

Summer Writing, Living

My eyes burned from exhaustion. The kids were bundled up in blankets watching Netflix already and it was barely 7am.

kids

There are just a few more days of school. Summer is barreling toward us. My daughter is eight years old and this fall she’ll begin third grade, which feels unbelievable. Wasn’t I just fretting on my old blog about her entry into elementary school?

Now it’s my son who is closing in on that milestone. Thanks to a November birthday, he has one more year of preschool, for which I’m grateful. One more year until both my kids are in full-time school. That is the dream. The light at the end of the tunnel, my writing time opening like a dam being lifted.

Hours of quiet pouring in. An empty house. It’s what I claim to want, what I do want, and yet, I know it will come at a cost to my heart. The passage of time always does, especially as it relates to my children.

I don’t want to hurry away the hours of summer, wishing, waiting, biding my time – but the struggle to write is real. I’ve been rising early for almost a month now, #writinglikeamother every day. It’s been life changing. If I can get in an hour or more of solitude and work, I am a better mother for the rest of the day. A happier person. The problem seems to be when I don’t.

desk

Like yesterday. Up at 5:40am I was so tired I considered going back to sleep until I heard my daughter’s thundering footsteps in the hall. I crept out of bed carefully, so as not to wake my nighttime visitor, my son, and handed her my phone before heading downstairs. In my mind I’m pleading, please stay in your room until 7, please don’t wake up your brother.

Of course my wishes were not granted.

I slammed down my coffee and dashed upstairs to my son’s cries and my daughter popped out of her room like a jack-in-the-box.

My mood was grumbly. I felt frayed and irritable. Angry, that my time was interrupted.

This is what I feared when I made the commitment to early risings, but life with kids is never predictable. Things change. It’s the one thing you can count on. The only thing.

What I need to do is adjust, adapt. To accept the inevitability of shortened writing sessions, and to be grateful for the ones that last.

When it happened again today, I cursed (more quietly) before running up the stairs. I made jokes about their early rising instead of threats. I put on the rest of The Sound of Music and let myself fall between my babies as we watched, using the computer to pull up a map of Europe so I could show my curious daughter the proximity of Switzerland to Austria as we watched the von Trapp children sing and hike across the Alps to freedom.

Things will be quiet on the blog over the summer, for obvious reasons. I have big goals that I will try not to stress over, like filming lessons for my upcoming grief course, working on my memoir, and living my life.

The summer will fly by, as always, and I want to make sure I’m fully present for all of it, not simply wishing the time away. That will happen on its own, soon enough.

Hope we all have the summers we want, or at least the grace to surrender peacefully to the ones we end up having.

See you in the fall!

xoxo Dana

 

 

Write Like A Mother

Over the weekend I posted this picture on Instagram.

writing desk

It was taken at 7am on Sunday of last week after being woken up at 5:45am by my kid and cat. They often do a tag team on me in the morning, and after years of attempting to fall back asleep, only to rise grumpily an hour or less later, I decided to just get up and write.

I’ve been doing it for over a week now and it’s been kind of life changing. I don’t set an alarm (because I don’t need to, thank you kid and cat) and some days I “oversleep,” which means I get up a little past 6am, but regardless of the time, I stumble out of bed, grab some coffee, and head to my office. My daughter knows not to enter until 7am (thank you Netflix) and when she does I greet her with a smile.

But this post isn’t about advocating early rising, though don’t knock it till you try it.

This post is about being seen.

Getting back to my Instagram photo, I wrote a brief caption describing my new routine and even threw in a hashtag, #writinglikeamother – a big departure for me since hashtags usually stress me out. I have a hard enough time coming up with catchy titles for my short stories and essays.

Shortly after posting, I received a comment from a writer and teacher I admire, Jena Schwartz, co-founder of The Inky Path (where I’m currently enrolled in an incredible 14-day writing prompt course). She responded with, “Love love love love love.”

I stopped where I was in my kitchen and just felt such warmth, and this phrase popped in my head: I’m not alone.

Writing is such a solitary act, well, most of the time, and it’s easy to feel invisible, unseen. Sending out my photo was a way of connecting, of reaching out. The comments I received on Instagram and Facebook made me feel less alone. This is why I do this: blogging, social media, and posting pictures of my desk for crying out loud.

But let’s be real here – there’s a fine line between seeking support and falling into the black hole of Facebook. I know (ahem) from personal experience. The key for me has been finding balance and knowing my triggers.

It’s pretty obvious when I’ve spent too much time online. I start getting twitchy and anxious. Suddenly, people’s announcements about essays and publishing deals make me feel edgy and competitive. That’s when I step away and remind myself about the wisdom I gleaned from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, which is: there is enough for all of us

I believe in that, wholeheartedly, and yet I find myself whispering those words out loud every few days. I’m currently working on a book length project, and there is no immediate recognition or acknowledgment in that, and if I’m completely honest, there may never be. I can’t know or control what will happen to my work, but I know I must do it regardless.

So, my question is, will you do it with me? Will you write like a mother? You don’t even have to be a literal mother, just a writer or an artist with other obligations that pile up in the summer months. Let’s face it, we all have other obligations, it’s called LIFE.

kids summer

My life, my summer.

I already know my summer solo time is going to be minimal, and I’m okay with that, but I want to make the most of the time I can squeeze out. Like mornings. Maybe for you it’s after work, or late at night.

If you’re not too hashtag averse (like I was), consider taking a picture of your workspace before, during, or after you put in some time and tag it #writinglikeamother and I will send whatever support I can (hearts, likes, kind words) your way.

There’s no competition here. This isn’t one of those write-every-day challenges (which for me is a set up for failure) and there’s no need to log in word counts or even describe what you’re working on (unless you want to).

If you want to follow me on blah blah social media, the links are on the right sidebar, or send me a note with your info and I’ll follow you, writingatthetable@gmail.com.

How about we hold each other up when we need holding. Let’s be witnesses for the work we’re doing, even when no one else is looking. Let’s be seen together.

Dana xoxo

 

I’m so pleased to be part of Writing Bubble’s wonderful link-up. Come by, take a look, and perhaps join in!

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Soaring into the Unknown

“If we can find the courage to face the unknown, we can ‘mind’ our futures more gently. We can examine new ideas, go places we never expected to go…”

– Allison Carmen, Psychology Today

soar

Facing the unknown has never been my thing.

I like having an idea of what’s going to happen next, or knowing what the next step should be. The less surprises the better. Clearly, I’m no thrill seeker. At The Franklin Institute over the weekend we finally made our way into the Brain exhibit. I don’t know why we never ventured in there before. It’s fascinating, and we barely touched the surface.

brain

One thing that struck me was a section about why some people are more thrill seeking than others. Basically, it’s less about choice and preference, and more about the brain and how much of a “reward” we get from risky activities (i.e. dopamine). Looks like my dopamine surges must be minimal, because I’ve always sought the comforts of safety over danger.

The last few months I’ve been struggling over the fate of my novel-in-progress. Maybe struggling isn’t the right word, or I was struggling, and then after Florida I decided to surrender. Since then I’ve been letting my intuition lead, following the faded footsteps in the sand, picking up glittering rocks and shells that catch my eye.

I signed up for a local 4-week memoir class and dove into my own crash course on creative nonfiction, reading craft books and memoirs as I contemplated writing my own.

I let myself consider the “maybe” of trying something new. Of not knowing. Of taking a chance.

Then the other day I was scrolling through the bottomless pit of FB when I came across an article whose title made the back of my neck prickle with recognition. “Why Are We Always Looking for Certainty in Our Lives?”

Whoa. I read it and double whoa. The author honed in on my lifelong tendency to play it safe and assume a sense of control. Then I read this:

“But often we are ignoring new opportunities, stifling creativity and true desires for the sake of certainty.”

Oh, crap.

Fiction has been my comfort zone for my entire writing life; not just the writing of it, but the reading, too. I remember feeling vaguely annoyed that I had to spend one module on another genre during my MFA. I picked creative nonfiction not out of a genuine interest, but a lesser of evils, too terrified about the vulnerability of poetry to consider it.

Over the course of the module, something shifted within me as I realized that fiction and creative nonfiction weren’t as far apart as I had imagined. The piece I wrote for my (incredibly awesome) professor, Thomas E. Kennedy, was called House on the Hill, all about my childhood home and how our high perch offered protection and isolation. He gently but firmly encouraged me to further explore the bruises of memory, some old, others still fresh.

roots

All those exposed roots.

I’ve been thinking of the phrase, house on the hill, over these past weeks, maybe longer, as I contemplate digging more deeply into my past and present. Reflecting on my mother, and my own mothering. The choices I make about my life and art, the choices my mother’s body made for her. The house I grew up in looms large in my mind like a patient ghost, always lingering, waiting for me to return.

And now, finally, I’m ready to go back and see what it wants to tell me.

What side of the spectrum do you lean, toward adventure and risk, or comfort and safety? Do you shy away from the unknown or leap toward it?

I’m so pleased to be part of Writing Bubble’s wonderful link-up. Come by, take a look, and perhaps join in!

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We Share Our Losses

My grandmother wasn’t a happy woman, not when I knew her, so this picture I came across the other day is especially striking.

Pauline and Harry

The joy and openness in her eyes, the width of her smile, radiates joy. Beside her is my grandfather, a man I never met, who died when my mom was eight years old. A man who never felt like he belonged to me, in any way.

His ending was a cautionary tale of a congested heart. Three strikes and you’re out. That’s how many heart attacks it took to kill him. A young man, in his mid-forties, he left behind the love of his life and two bereft children. My grandmother never recovered from his death. It left her shattered and bitter, furious at her bad luck. The life she had imagined turned into dust.

I don’t know how my mother recovered. She had been a daddy’s girl.

When I was a kid my mom rarely spoke about her father, though I’m sure she must have explained to us what happened at some point. I remember how she used to light a yahrzeit candle a few weeks before her birthday on the day of his death. Quietly it would sit on the white countertop and burn without ceremony. For the rest of the year it resided in the rarely used kitchen cabinet filled with dusty wine glasses and an assortment of solitary cups and mugs that had lost their companions.

Looking back, I wish I asked more questions, I wish my mom had been able to share her grief with me. But as a cousin reminded me recently, grief wasn’t discussed openly back then. Maybe my mom thought she was protecting us by keeping it to herself, or maybe her memories were too distant to access, but the space it left, in the shape of a father and grandfather, loomed large in my imagination.

My childhood friend Tamra, who I’ve known since third grade, saw the photo when I posted it on Facebook and made a comment that caught me completely off guard.

She wrote, I see the resemblance with you and your mom. I automatically assumed she meant a resemblance to my grandmother, but when I read the rest of her comment, I realized she had been referring to my grandfather. I stared hard at his jovial good-natured face, searching for familiarity: I saw shadows of my mother easily, and then, I almost saw myself.

I stared at him, this man I had never met, barely knew anything about. Despite all that he was mine. He did belong to me. For a brief moment I allowed myself to imagine what life might have been like if he had lived. A grandmother and grandfather coming to visit, living close enough for me to spend the day, the night, to curl up in his big arms and be read to, held, and loved. My grandmother might have smiled more, and maybe, just maybe she would have been a better mother.

Up until this point I had never allowed myself to stake a claim on this man, to miss him, or mourn his absence. To imagine what he might have meant to me. I felt like that would have been selfish. This was my mother’s loss, not mine. But I was wrong. It was both of our losses. Just like her death is not just my loss, but my daughter’s, and my son’s.

It seems so obvious to me now. We don’t have to hide or hoard grief, we don’t have to pretend it’s not ours to mourn. Like love, there is enough to go around.

The spring before my mother died, when she was weak and recovering from a long winter illness, but before we knew she was dying, my uncle came to visit. Her older brother. When his father died, he became “the man” of the house, too heavy a burden for a twelve-year-old to bear. Nevertheless, he bore it out of necessity, and out of love for his little sister, but it left a bitter trace on him, a shadow of his mother’s twisted anger.

We talked about the past that day, which was unusual. Maybe it was me. Maybe I asked about my grandfather, maybe I offered what I had been unable to offer all those years earlier. An acknowledgment of their deep loss. My empathy.

I listened with rapt attention as my uncle recalled that fateful day of the final heart attack. Their father taken away, and then later, the news traveling back to them, my mother running to her room in tears.

“She couldn’t stop crying,” he said, looking awestruck so many years later.

Those four words hit me hard. I looked over at my mother. Her big brown eyes were wide with sadness and memory as she gazed at her brother. In a flash I saw the two of them as children, trying to care for each other.

Before he left that day, my uncle said goodbye in his usual brusque but loving manner. A quick hug for me and a wave to my mom across the room. She said goodbye from her reclining chair where she had sat for nearly a decade since she lost the use of her hands and legs to multiple sclerosis.

“Go and hug her,” I told my uncle in a low voice. He looked at me surprised. This was not his usual way. I don’t know for sure, but I think her handicap made him uncomfortable. Maybe it was too hard for him to look at her in that chair. But that day I didn’t give him a choice. I took his arm and pulled him into the room.

He leaned over her chair and hugged her, maybe for the first time in years, and I heard him say in a voice so tender, “I love you Susii,” her girlhood name. The name her father must have called her. The name my father called her until she became my mother and decided she was no longer a girl, and to please call her Susan.

The next time he saw his sister, she was under hospice care, unconscious, and close to death.

When I got pregnant, shortly after my mom died, I knew right away there was one thing I’d do differently. My children would know their grandmother. I would tell them her name, show them pictures, and talk about her life, her art, and one day, her death.

There are two of them now, grandchildren. A girl and a boy, in the same order my mother had me and my brother. A strange kind of twinning, but not.

They do not wonder about the blank space as I once did because it’s always being filled.  My hope is that she is as vibrant and beautiful in their imagination as she was in life.

mom and Harry

My mom and her dad, my grandpa Harry

Rest in peace, Harry Cooperman, grandpa. I know I would have loved you.