Whatsoever Today

Keeping it positive

To a good and faithful dog

NikkiI distinctly remember the day we decided to get a dog. For years, we had held firm against the children’s constant begging, pleading and cajoling for one. Instead, we got them puppy calendars and books, stuffed toy dogs, doggie ornaments for the Christmas tree—anything but the real thing. Until this particular day. It was a few months before Christmas and we were on our nightly walk when my husband turned to me and said, “Let’s get the kids a dog.” A couple beats later, I replied, “Sure.” And it was done.

We did our homework, studying the various breeds, but we knew in our hearts what we wanted –we wanted a dog like Mo. Mo was a stately and majestic Samoyed; wherever he went, he commanded attention. As soon as the kids would get out of school, they would make a beeline for Mo and throw their arms around his fluffy white head. I wanted a dog like that. Further investigation proved that Sammies are great family pets and love children. We glossed over terms like “stubborn” and “likes to be vocal.” We weren’t sure what “loves to be around people” exactly meant, but it sounded good. We were one step closer to becoming first-time dog owners.

We revealed the big surprise on Christmas day, promising the children a dog in June when school was out and they would be around to help train their new furry friend. To tide them over, we told them we would visit the breeder who just so happened to have a few puppies from a litter in November that they could see. So over Christmas break, we bundled up the kids and drove off to see the puppies. Big mistake. Who could resist a little ball of white fluff with bright black button eyes and a constant smile on its face that looked like a baby polar bear? Certainly not us!

With assurances that it would be far easier to train a dog in the winter because the dog didn’t want to be outside in the cold any more than we did, we picked out a little girl pup who had delighted the kids when she decided to drink from the mop bucket. Instantly, they decided that was the dog for us. Off we went with our newest family member: Nikki. Not only did we quickly learn that Sammies love the cold, they also love to play in the snow for hours.  I must admit that I had never spent as much time in my backyard in the middle of January as I did then. Welcome to dog ownership!

It didn’t take long for Nikki to make her presence known in other ways. Around the neighborhood, we became known as “the people with the big white dog.” No one knew our names, but everyone knew Nikki’s. Like most Samoyeds, she was a show-stopper and people were always telling us, “You have such a beautiful dog.” But my favorite reactions were from the kids. One boy riding his bike stopped to ask me, “Can I pet your wolf?” Another little boy exclaimed to his dad as we walked by one day, “Look Dad! A polar bear!”

Nikki wasn’t happy unless she was at the center of whatever was going on, and if we forgot about her, she let us know. (Read “Likes to be vocal.”) She lived for car rides, spaghetti, rice, chasing (but never catching) rabbits in the backyard, and just generally being admired. She was family, and even as one by one, the children left for college, it was Nikki they always asked about and wanted to see when they came home.

It’s been painful watching Nikki these past six months as the arthritis in her back legs and spine progressively got worse. We’ve struggled mightily with knowing what to do and when, but having lived to nearly the full life expectancy for a Samoyed, we knew it was time. As my friend counseled me, “Remember all the love and joy and happiness that Nikki has brought to you.” And she did bring us all that and so much more – companionship and comfort and constant affection as only a dog can do.

With that in mind, we say to our beloved Nikki, “Well done, good and faithful dog. Well done. You will live in our hearts forever.”

Election Night

Recently, I joined the women’s Bible study at my church. It’s an interesting collection of women — all ages; some retired, some working; some widowed, some single; moms, daughters, sisters, wives. Many have been meeting together for years; a few, like myself, new to the group. Over the past two months, I have come to know them as their stories have slowly emerged in bits and pieces through prayer requests and our weekly discussions, like a blurry picture coming into focus. And in that short time, I have come to admire them. They are strong, courageous, vulnerable, compassionate, loyal, and faithful — much like the woman in the Bible we are studying, Ruth.

But we meet on Tuesday nights. Election night. Yes, that election night. On a good day, it’s a tight schedule for me to get off the train, come home, eat dinner, and then get out the door again. And as I rode the train home Tuesday night, the excuses began to pile up. It was rainy; I was tired; the train was late and there wouldn’t be enough time to eat before leaving. And, truly, I just wanted to stay home, put on my pajamas, and watch the election results with my husband.

In the end, I went. We were a small group, and as we settled into our chairs with steamy cups of tea, I could tell our hostess had something on her mind. Searching for the right words, she began to tell us about Julie, a member of our group. For the past two years, Julie had been battling breast cancer. She had come through the radiation and chemo treatments, but recently had been complaining of pain in her arm and back. Since the fall she has been searching for answers as to what was causing this pain, going from one doctor to another, test after test. Her prayer requests for the past several weeks had been for, yes, healing, but also for answers.

Tuesday, Julie received her answers. After four different doctor visits and another battery of tests, the doctors told her that the cancer had come back and had spread throughout her brain like salt sprinkled over a plate of food. She was given four to six weeks to live.

We sat in stunned silence. We cried, we asked question, we discussed ways we could come alongside Julie and her family, but mostly we prayed. We left that night, hugging each other, and promising to keep in touch and come up with a schedule for visiting Julie, preparing meals, and helping her daughter, who is caring for Julie, and for Julie’s mom, who at 88 will lose a beloved daughter.

As I drove home, thoughts about the election paled. When you have four to six weeks to live, do you care who wins or loses? Does it matter who will be the next president, senator, or congressman? No, it doesn’t. What matters ultimately for Julie, and for all of us, are the people who make our lives rich and fulfilling — our families and friends — and the faith that keeps us moving ever onward. What truly matters is living each day generously with compassion, helping others on their journey when we have the opportunity.  What matters is living as if each day counts, because it does.

Encouragement for a Monday

A few thoughts and observations for a Monday . . .

— As I was standing waiting for the train this morning, I observed a white 16-passenger van pull up on the outbound side of the tracks. It was a “limo van” and obviously waiting for passengers arriving on the next train. While he was waiting, the driver jumped out of the van and began to first wipe down the windows, then open each door to the van and carefully clean those areas. It was hardly something anyone would notice jumping in or out of the van that morning, but it mattered to the driver to make his van as clean and respectable as possible. Watching him perform this seemingly mundane task reminded me that it’s often the small, unnoticed details that can make a difference in doing your job– whatever it may be — with excellence.

–Walking to the office, I observed a father and his son as they passed by me. They were holding hands, and while I didn’t hear exactly what father was saying, I could tell he was gently counseling his son about what to expect once they arrived at their destination. What made me pause was that his son was not a young boy or even elementary-aged. He was older, perhaps in his late teens, more than likely challenged in some way. The care and love this father had for his son was so evident even to a casual passerby such as myself.  It reminded me of the value and worth of every individual who we come across during the day and the way we should treat one another — with care, with love, and with respect.

–And finally, this thought from Seth Godin’s blog was in my inbox to start the day,

Instead of outthinking the competition…

it’s worth trying to outlove them.

Everyone is working hard on the thinking part, but few of your competitors worry about the art and generosity and caring part.

With all the things I tend to worry and think about on a daily basis, thinking about how to be generous and caring each day would seem to be a much better use of our time, don’t you agree?

Happy Monday!

A Love Story

This is the story of a little girl named Allison, who grew up well-loved, her days filled with books and dolls, ballet and swimming, best friends, sleepover, mostly laughter, a few tears. Her little girl dreams of one day being a princess were left behind, replaced with a love for learning, especially about events in the past and how those events shaped the future. When it came time to choose a career, she followed in the footsteps of her grandparents and became a teacher, choosing to teach at the most challenging level — middle school students!

This is the story of a young boy named George, who grew up well-loved, his days filled with hockey, wrestling mania, video games, football, best friends, sports heroes and rock stars. But from the time his mom put a guitar in his hands as a toddler, a seed was planted, and his life was filled with music. When it came time for George to choose a profession, he followed his passion to teach others to play and love music as much as he did. And he choose to instill that love into those students who could barely eek out a sound on a trumpet or clarinet — the fifth grade beginners!

This is a story of the first day of school more than five years ago  when Allison and George were fresh, eager teachers on their first day of school, an orientation tour of their new school district, riding on — what else– a big yellow school bus. Allison finally took notice of the young man sitting behind her when he suddenly jumped up to kill a bee buzzing over her head. Whether it was pure heroics or George’s aversion to bugs, a connection was made. As with most relationships, it started slowly. Dropping by her classroom after school on his way to jazz band rehearsal to see how his day went. Checking in at the band room to see how he was progressing with his bands. Phone calls. Text messages. “Can you help me pick up some furniture at Ikea?” “How about  dinner as a thank-you.”  The name George began to be sprinkled in the conversation, and we sensed something was brewing when he showed up for a Northwestern football game and met the tailgate family. We knew it was something special when George show up for the family Christmas — and stayed.

Allison and George, for those of us who know you and love you, we’ve known that this story was leading to today. As we have watched you over the years care for each other, we know that you belong together and that this day would come when we all could celebrate your love for each other.

As anyone who has been married more than a year or two knows, this is only the beginning of the story — your story together. There are many more pages, many more chapters to be written. There will be trials and disappointments, to be sure. But there will also be the joy and the smiles, the shared laughter and contentment, and always the love that will sustain you both through it all.

After all, this is a love story, and love always prevails.

Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13:13

On Becoming a Mother-in-Law

Four days from today, I will become a mother-in-law. This is not a role you ever dream about becoming. A teacher, a doctor, a ballerina, a bride, a mother, yes. But not a mother-in-law. History has not been kind overall to mother-in-laws. They generally get a bad rap. When it comes to sitcoms, they generally are the source of much friction and the butt of bad jokes. Google mother-in-law, and you get a plethora of websites about how to be a good mother-in-law, what to do about a bad mother-in-law, horror stories about mothers-in-law. You get the picture. It’s not necessarily an easy role to fulfill.

Yet, as I contemplate assuming this role, I truly am filled with anticipation and joy. I’m optimistic that I will, in fact, be a good one. Why? For one, we genuinely like our soon-to-be son-in-law. Now, I know we are supposed to love our son-in-law, which we do, but we really like George. We like spending time with him, going to dinner with them on a Friday night and hearing the latest antics in the fifth grade band. We like going to hear him perform, or attend one of his band concerts. We have fun together.

The second reason is that I have had a wonderful role model as my mother-in-law. My husband’s mom has been nothing but gracious to me during the past 30-plus years that I have known her. She has never once given me unsolicited advice, but has always been there to listen when needed. She never told me how to raise my children, but never failed to ask how each one of them was doing as they grew up. She was always there to help out when needed. And even though she was (and is) a wonderful cook, she never once criticized my feeble culinary efforts, even when one of the first things I served her was a jello mold (hey, it was the 70s) that I had made a half hour before dinner. I know I probably didn’t always do things the way she would have, and our personalities are very different, still I always enjoyed being with her and spending time together. From the time we exchanged vows, I was welcomed wholeheartedly into the family and have been supported and loved through all our ups and downs. I have been blessed and grateful to call her mother-in-law and friend.

So, George, as you and Allison exchange vows this Sunday to love and honor one another, I promise, too, to love and support you both, to always be there to listen and offer words of encouragement, to give advice when asked, and most importantly, to give you both the space you need to become husband and wife. As your mother-in-law, you have my word.

For better or for worse . . .

Today my parents will celebrate 61 years of marriage. Not many things last 61 years. Certainly not our cars, phones, computers, technology, styles, fads. Many of us will not live in the same house, stay in the same place, or spend our careers for 61 years with the same company. Sixty-one years of anything, quite simply, is impressive.

During that time, they have lived in two homes, raised three daughters, and now enjoy five grandchildren. They have traveled to all but two of the states (Oklahoma and Arkansas). They have visited all the continents, making the trek to Antarctica and Australia in their 80s. And I have no doubt that they will eventually go on that African safari.

I can’t even begin to count how many times they have made the road trip between New Jersey and Chicago, how many Northwestern football games they have watched (seeing only one win in person!!), how many dance recitals, musicals, plays, marching band shows, band concerts, and other performances they have attended between their children and grandchildren! They have attended eighth grade graduations (8), high school graduations (7), college graduations (6), and one Eagle Scout ceremony. They have presided over three weddings of their own, and this August they will celebrate the wedding of their oldest grandchild.

Between the two of them they have three masters degrees, and as educators, they literally have touched and influenced thousands of young lives in the classroom, over careers that spanned nearly 70 years collectively.

Certainly, they have had their tough times and difficulties. They have survived the lean times (ask my mom about the winter coat she wore for ten years!), weathered the various health issues and “procedures” that come with age, overcame the inevitable disappointments that life brings, but through it all, they honored the commitment they made to each other on June 16, 1951.

For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.
So thank you, Mom and Dad, for modeling what commitment, true partnership, and marriage looks like. We celebrate you and your legacy of love, learning, light, and laughter!
Happy Anniversary!

A banner day

My dad sent me an email last week telling me that the Mets were reinstituting Banner Day at the ballpark. For the uninitiated, Banner Day was when fans (mostly children) were allowed to parade their homemade banners professing their love for the home team during the seventh inning stretch. I don’t know when the Mets had abandoned this practice, but I certainly remember participating in this wonderful tradition at old Shea Stadium in Queens.

My dad and his buddy had tickets for a night game and they were taking the girls — meaning my sister, the daughter of my father’s friend, and me. It was my first outing to the ballpark, and it was Banner Day! So we took an old sheet, some paint, and in our best grade-school writing, printed in big bold letters, “YOU BETCH ‘UM WE LOVE THE METS!” And in a totally non-politically correct manner, we also donned some cheap dime-store Indian headbands for added effect. (OK, it was the early sixties, and we were just kids!)

It was a magical night. The lights, the colorful stadium with its orange and Mets blue chairs, the sounds of the vendors hawking their goods. The planes flying overhead into LaGuardia. We stuffed ourselves with peanuts, ice cream, cotton candy, and whatever else we could cajole our dads into buying us.  We must have watched the game, but we were too busy counting the innings. And then it was time. During the sixth inning, we went down to the promenade and lined up with all the other kids, anxiously squirming and wriggling. Finally, the word came down and we were off. Proudly, we displayed our bed-sheet banner, whooping and hollering like, well, you know.

Later that night, we found out we were on TV — our moms saw us along with thousands of other Mets fans. It was our moment. Today we would have recorded it and watched it over and over. But back then, it was just that one wonderful instant in time that we would always remember. We went home completely happy.

I can’t tell you who won that game, or even who the Mets were playing, but I do remember the stomach ache that night (totally worth it), and a little girl’s awe of the pageantry and excitement of watching her first major league baseball game.

It was a banner night.

A mother’s gift

Today is my mom’s birthday. Coming so close on the heels of Mother’s Day, it always presents a challenge — the need to come up with not just one, but two gifts that are hopefully unique, thoughtful, and that appropriately reflect the depth of my gratitude to my mom who has given so much to me.

Over the years my gifts have evolved from the homemade card, the misshapen piece of pottery, the gold spray-painted noodle-encrusted “jewelry” box — the type of gifts that moms treasure and keep — to jewelry (real), flowers, clothes, gift cards. But, honestly, what gift could I possibly give — no matter how grand or expensive– that compares with the gifts that my mom has given to me?

So, Mom, thank you for …

The gift of acceptance. I know I have made plenty of mistakes along the way and probably have taken a path you never envisioned for me, but I have never known anything other than your full acceptance and support for whatever I have done.

The gift of reading. No matter how tired you were at the end of the day, you always made time to read to us at night. I will never forget the joy of snuggling close to you and listening to The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, the Grimm Fairy Tales,  The Pokey Little Puppy, Babar, and all those other wonderful stories and characters you introduced to us. Because of that I have been a life-long reader, and at a turn of the page, can be transported to another place, another culture, another life, another world.

The gift of learning. You always taught us to embrace meeting new people, seeing new places, trying next things. At age 83, you are still learning, and I only hope that I will do the same.

The gift of giving. Through your example, I learned how to volunteer when no one else wanted to be the Brownie Leader, or run the concession stand at the Fine Arts Festival, or lead the Great Books club.  I learned the importance of taking time to help others, of listening to a friend, of being there for someone else.

The gift of laughter. Yes, as a family, we argued, we yelled, we got mad at each other. But we always came back together and laughed. You taught us to laugh with others, and more importantly, to laugh at ourselves. Laughter is our love language, and when we gather around the table, swap stories, and laugh, I know that I am home, with family.

The gift of love. I have been richly blessed, we all have been blessed, to grow up in a family where we have been loved, fully and completely. And as I have come to know, that is no small thing.

So, Mom, perhaps the greatest gift that I can give to you is the knowledge that the values and love and laughter that you have poured into our lives have been passed on to your grandchildren and will live forever as long as there is a child who is accepted, who reads and learns, who laughs, who gives, and who is loved.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Always a mom

I’m posting my Mother’s Day blog early because I’m leaving in a couple of hours to pick up my son from college. In a way, I suppose, it’s fitting that instead of sitting at a nice brunch on Sunday, we will be pounding the pavement somewhere between New Orleans and Chicago. Because that’s what mothers do — we do things for our families and our kids.

We wipe dirty noses (and bottoms). We make boo-boos feel better, and then later on when the hurts get bigger, we take the late night phone calls and listen. We give up the last Kit-Kat in the jar, and when a mom says, “I would rather it be me then see my child hurt,” she means it. But I didn’t always fully appreciate the thousands of small, daily sacrifices my mom had made for me until I became one myself.

I will never forget the day we brought my daughter home from the hospital. It was a frenzied ride home, not at all how I had imagined it while waiting all those months. You know, the Hallmark-card scene of a serene mother gently cradling her cooing baby. It was August, hot and sticky, we had no air conditioning in the car, and my daughter, strapped securely in her approved car seat, cried the entire way home. We finally got her in the house and quieted, and I distinctly remember looking at this new little life in her baby basket, and wondering, “What have we done? What do I do now?”

I didn’t have much time to think about it, though, because shortly thereafter, everyone arrived to see the new baby. My mom, dad, and younger sister drove in from New Jersey. My older sister flew in from Seattle. My two sisters had just been to France, and so they wanted to share their slides with everyone. We didn’t have a slide projector, and after much discussion, it was decided they would rent one from the local library. En route, or maybe it happened in the parking lot,  my sister got hit in my dad’s brand new Honda and came home in tears. It was total chaos.

The next day they all decided to go shopping, leaving my mom and me at home. As soon as they left, I broke down. As I cried about how awful I looked (no, the baby fat did not magically melt away), how terrible I felt, and what a horrible mother I already was, my mom gently led me outside, sat me in the fresh air and sun, and let me cry myself out. Then she quietly encouraged me that with each passing day I would feel a little better, it would get easier, and no, I wasn’t a horrible mother. I was just a new one.

My mom stayed a few more days after everyone left and helped me get adjusted. Eventually, though, the day came when she had to leave. I stood at the window and watched the car turn the corner as my husband took my mom to the airport. That feeling of being completely overwhelmed washed over me again. I cried a little, but as I went to take care of my new baby, I remembered my mom’s words: it will get easier; you will be OK.

And she was right, because mothers always are.

Eventually, my daughter did stop crying all the time, I did begin to feel better with each passing day, and my husband and I began to enjoy parenthood, celebrating all the “firsts” throughout the year as all parents do. We were confident enough (or crazy?) to have two more children, and now all three are successful, awesome young adults. My relationship with them has changed, from care-giver to head cheerleader and advice-giver. But I will always be their mom, just as my mom is to me.

And that can be celebrated no matter where you are. Happy Mother’s Day!

Shot for Coffee

Cecily’s last day was Friday, and she will be sorely missed. For the past two and a half years, she has worked at the Starbuck’s in my office building and she has been my barista. Our encounters have been limited to the five to ten minutes it takes to place my order every morning for a grande red-eye, but in that brief amount of time, Cecily has become an integral part of my day. And it’s not just because the minute she sees me come in, she calls out “shot for coffee,” and my red-eye is waiting for me by the time I reach the cash register. It’s how she interacts with me and everyone else who walks into that particular Starbucks.

Cecily has this beautiful megawatt smile that no matter how you’re feeling makes you instantly feel better. It’s how she greets everyone who walks into the door and makes you feel that she’s been waiting just for you. She knows all the regulars by name, and they know her. She’s the type of person who makes your day better, who helps lift the day’s burden a bit. No matter what kind of day I’ve already had — how rushed I’ve been that morning — or what kind of day I’m about to face, I always leave Starbucks with  my red-eye in hand and my spirits lifted because of her. That’s quite an achievement, I think.

And it makes me think about my own interactions with the people I encounter throughout the day — no matter how briefly. Do I encourage them with a smile, or do I make them wonder who that crabby woman is rushing by? Do I make people’s days a bit brighter because they interacted with me, or would they rather avoid me the next time they see me coming? To be honest, it’s probably a little bit of both.

People like Cecily help me remember that it’s the small kindnesses that help someone get through the day. It’s letting that person get on the train first; offering to help when the opportunity arises
; greeting others with a smile. It’s the small things that might just  encourage someone else, lift their burdens, and help them make it through the day.

And that’s not a bad way to live each day. Right, Cecily?