Guardian Angel, Part 3

My big brother, my friend (11.27.57 - 8.25.15)

My big brother, my friend (RIP 11.27.57 – 8.25.15)

I don’t remember many people’s birthdays, but I never forget my brother’s. There were years, while I was growing up in Michigan, when we celebrated in person. There were years, after both of us had left home and settled in other parts of the country, when we caught up over the phone. And there were years, many of them, when I had no idea where he was or if he was alive. No matter the circumstances, I never forget the day he was born. Today he would have been 58.

It’s been three months since the 4 a.m. phone call from the police officer in Missouri. No good news comes at that hour, and my immediate thought was that my brother was in jail again. It did not occur to me that the news could be even worse.

“I am sorry to tell you that your brother has passed,” the officer said. I could hear the compassion and concern in his voice. He called me, he said, because I am the next of kin. I guess I am, I thought. Aside from our older sister, who had written him off years ago, it was just my brother and I. And now he was gone.

“Are you all right?” the officer asked. “Is someone there with you?” I thanked him, told him my husband was with me and ended the call. But I was not all right. Everything, every single thing, was wrong. My brother, whom I had finally reconnected with after years of estrangement, was dead. The second chance I imagined for us would never come.

When I spoke with my brother’s ex-wife later that morning, I learned he had relapsed several months ago. She wasn’t sure what he had taken. He wouldn’t tell her. But she could tell by his behavior that he had used drugs again after more than five years of being clean. She told me it had happened while she was out of town, and as we talked my guilt grew. He had called me around that time, I remembered. Busy with work, I had let the call go to voicemail and responded later via text. My message was light and pleasant. His reply was hostile and manipulative. I sensed something was wrong and decided not to respond. It was my last contact with him.

The early days of grief are filled with “what ifs.” What if I had answered the phone? What if I had been able to stop him from using again? What if our mother hadn’t died when he was 12? What if our father had been more emotionally available to him? What if he hadn’t turned to alcohol and drugs as a teenager to numb the pain and fill the emptiness? What if he had been blessed with the relatively normal upbringing I had with my aunt and uncle? The what-ifs don’t have answers, but we must ask them anyway to find our way through the pain.

Six weeks after my brother’s death, his ex-wife called to let me know the toxicology report showed no presence of drugs. My brother had died of a sudden heart attack, nothing else. He had been fighting to stay sober and had actually sought help from a drug counseling program just days before his death. It was a relief to know the relapse had been isolated, but it didn’t change the fact that he was gone.

Three months later, after a lifetime of worrying about my brother, I know he is finally at peace. I’ve let go of the guilt of not having responded to his text because I know I did it to protect my family and that he understood. I know I made the right choice, but I will always regret that my children never knew their uncle, the man behind the addiction. The kind, caring and fiercely loyal man I knew, the brother and friend I will always love, and now my guardian angel and theirs.

Happy birthday, Bill.

Marathon No. 3 in the Books

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Today I am hobbling around with two badly bruised toes bearing toenails with questionable futures. Also taking a beating from Sunday’s Chicago Marathon was my ego when I saw my finish time. (My results had me starting at 7:30 a.m. when I actually went out around 8:20 a.m. I estimate my finish time was about 4:52, which means I FINALLY cracked the five-hour mark after FOUR attempts.) The fact remains, however, that I finished my third marathon. I ran strong and on pace until about the 30K mark, when my leg cramped so badly I almost rolled an ankle. Things could have fallen apart at that point, but I remained determined to see my daughter, who was volunteering at Mile 25, and to cross that finish line. Between the heat and intermittent leg cramping, the last eight miles of the race were pretty brutal, but I kept running. I remembered my conversation at dinner the previous night with a Boston Marathoner who said she walks through all the water stops to prevent her legs from locking up, and that’s what I did. I forced myself to run through the cramps and used the walking breaks as motivation, knowing I could make it “one more mile.” And it worked. I did it. I crossed that freaking finish line with tears streaming down my face knowing I had never fought so hard physically in my life. I woke up Monday morning still feeling disappointed about the finish time inaccuracy, but it doesn’t matter what the clock says. I know I ran my best marathon ever on Sunday. 

Congratulations to all the other finishers, and thank you to everyone who supported me during the race, whether in person or in spirit (especially my poor husband who couldn’t figure out where the heck I was half the time because my tracking was so screwed up). I know most of you think my running obsession is nuts, and it means so much to me that you encourage me anyway.

Always Keep Moving Forward

For a happy life

I saw this exact sign while shopping on a girls’ trip a few weekends ago, and the last part really hit home: something to look forward to. I’ve been a little down since my Illinois Marathon experience; it’s hard not to dwell on what might have happened (a huge PR) but did not due to circumstances I could not control. Today I decided to add a few shorter races to the calendar before the big one in October (the Chicago Marathon — can’t wait!). It makes me happy to have a few interim races to train for, plus I get to finish the 10-miler on the 50-yard line of Soldier Field. How cool is that? Always keep moving forward.

Illinois Marathon Recap: Mother Nature Won

Well, guys, it truly does seem the 26.2 distance is a big old jinx for this running mama. About three hours into the race — nearly 18 cold, windy and wet miles for me — runners of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon yesterday were told to exit the course and take shelter because lightning had been sighted. So why, you may wonder, am I smiling in the picture below, which my hubby took right after I learned the race had been canceled? Because I kicked some serious butt for those 18 miles. I maintained a consistent pace, I felt great, and I absolutely, positively know I would have finished strong and met my time goal. It was a huge disappointment to not have the opportunity to cross the finish line, but the race officials made the choice they had to make to keep us all safe. 

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The bright spot in all this, for me anyway, is the next picture, taken by one of my awesome running buddies (who drove two hours and stood in the rain to cheer me on). Look how happy I was during the race. And, really, isn’t that the point? I may not have earned a medal or scored the PR I have been chasing so desperately for the past year, but my victory is knowing I did my best.

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Thank you so much for all your support during my training, for both Illinois and Portland. It has meant so much to me. I’m still super bummed about how yesterday turned out, but I know there will be other races. In fact, I’m figuring out my next one right now. Stay tuned.

Radio Silence

PleaseStandBy

 

I got a new computer for Christmas. Why, you may ask, is this relevant almost three months later? Because when I searched for my blog file in Microsoft Word yesterday, I realized I had never transferred it from the laptop I no longer use. This forced me to acknowledge that I haven’t written, aside from work-related stuff, in months. I’m not saying I’m some masterful writer or anything, but I do enjoy putting pen to paper — well, fingertips to keyboard anyway. Sometimes I’m compelled to write; I have the yellowed journal pages filled with teen angst to prove it. But that hasn’t happened for a while, a long while. I got a new computer for Christmas, but I don’t have anything to say.

It makes me sad to think I have neglected this blog — which turned three on March 16, by the way — for so long. I tell myself it’s a good thing because I typically write when I’m sad or having trouble coping: If I’m not blogging, it must mean things are going well for me personally and professionally. I make lots of other excuses too. I’m not writing because: a) I’m burned out from working so much, b) I’m too busy with my kids’ crazy schedules, c) My “me time” is training for my next marathon or d) All of the above. But there are always extra hours in the day if we truly want to find them.

I may not be blogging about my life, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling, as we all do. I’m trying to be a dedicated worker, a supportive mother, a loving wife, a sympathetic friend (I fail miserably in the last department, I know, because the other three roles take up so much time). The worries occupying my mind the most, as always, are of my children. But now that they are teenagers, I don’t feel comfortable writing about them. Their stories are theirs to tell; maybe they always were.

Of course, that is yet another excuse. If I’m not writing because I can’t share my kids’ stories, maybe I’ve lost myself in motherhood again. Maybe my life is out of balance. Maybe I’m not writing to avoid delving into my own thoughts and feelings. Maybe something is missing. Maybe the something is me. Maybe I am not making time to write because I am afraid of what I might say.

Anyway, I know I’m rambling here. My apologies, but I am more than a little out of practice. I guess what I am trying to say is that writing and I are on a break. I’m not ready to end our relationship, but I definitely need some space. It’s not you, dear old blog, it’s me. There will be other Christmases and birthdays. Maybe I will write about them. Maybe I won’t. Please stand by.

18 Years and 15 Kilometers

Yesterday was our 18th wedding anniversary, so my husband and I did what any couple who loves to run does: We ran the Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K. It probably sounds crazy to you non-runners, but, for us, it was the perfect way to kick off our anniversary and celebrate with an activity we both truly enjoy. After my husband’s injury last spring, I am happy for any chance to run with him, but it was beyond awesome to have him with me in the start corral again (along with our 13-year-old daughter and her running pal).

I have to admit, though, that I had an ulterior motive in signing up for this race. After months of training for a marathon that didn’t go at all as planned, I wanted to remember what it feels like to just run for the fun of it. I wanted to hit the streets of a city I love with no time goal in mind, to follow my body’s natural pace and truly enjoy the experience. And I did. My husband and I ran together until the 5K/15K split, shared an awkward “Happy Anniversary” kiss (it’s not easy to smooch while running, people) and then parted ways. My Nike + app went berserk, so I had no idea how fast I was running. I just ran, and it was wonderful. I felt strong throughout the race, clocked negative splits and sprinted across the finish line with a smile on my face. It was the most fun running I have had in I don’t know how long.

Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K finishers

Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K finishers

Sometimes I think I get so caught up in obsessing about time goals and rigidly following training schedules that I forget the beauty of running and how much joy it brings me. What’s funny is that when I stopped being so hard on myself and forgot about goals, I set a personal record. I ran 0.14 seconds faster than last year. A tiny victory, for sure. But in the face of the disappointment I felt about my performance in the Portland Marathon last month, I’ll take it.

Next month I start training for my third 26.2: the Illinois Marathon in April. I definitely have something to prove — to myself – after Portland, so I know I will be serious about sticking to my training schedule. But I also hope to keep yesterday’s 15K in mind and focus on the journey to the finish line rather than the amount of time it takes me to cross it once I get there. I’m guessing that having my husband and favorite buddy along on some of my training runs – the guy who got me into running in the first place – will help me remember to not only keep pushing myself but also keep enjoying myself.

We celebrated our 18 years of marriage in a more traditional manner with a steak dinner yesterday evening. We may or may not have discussed running. We definitely had fun.

Cheers to 18 years!

Cheers to 18 years!

How NOT to Run a Marathon

I met Karen shortly after the start of the race, both of us desperately bobbing and weaving to try to follow the pace group for a 4:40 finish time. It was difficult to talk as we struggled to keep sight of the red, lizard-shaped pace group sign above the sea of runners. But once the crowd thinned, we chatted easily. Karen, a thin, wiry, athletic woman with a weathered face and broad smile, told me this was her 18th marathon and then mentioned in passing that she would be 60 in three months. She immediately became my hero. As we settled into our pace, I learned she was battling a lingering cold and had chosen the 4:40 group because she wanted to start out slow (she finished the race in 4:12 the previous year), which had been my reasoning as well. I told her about the stomach issues plaguing me for the past three days and my fear they would prevent me from even reaching the start line, and we commiserated about the expected high of 80 degrees, a fluke for Portland, Oregon, which is known for cool, rainy Octobers. Unlike me, however, Karen seemed unfazed by any factors that might hinder her performance. “Every race has a story,” she said breezily.

Karen and I ran together for the first 10 miles or so, including most of a long, hot and tedious out and back through an industrial area. Around mile 11, though, the seemingly endless miles of direct sun brought me to what felt like a “mini-wall.” I struggled over another unexpected hill and began to worry about the terrain ahead. Although the race organizers bill the course as flat, that term, as I painfully learned, is relative. What a Pacific Northwesterner deems flat feels more like a constant stream of small to medium elevation changes to a Midwesterner like me. As I watched the red lizard sign disappear up ahead, I wondered if Karen, who lives in Seattle and is used to running hills, would remain with the 4:40 group. Unfortunately for me, the pace I thought would provide the easy, slow start I needed was now too fast for me to maintain.

With Karen gone and no friendly chatter to distract me, the dark thoughts began to set in. I only saw my husband four times on the course, despite his valiant efforts to reach me at other points (that should be a whole other post). During the first two sightings, in the early miles when the temperature was mild and I was still with Karen, I smiled happily, waved and told him I loved him. But when I saw him at mile 12 or so, alone, in pain and doubting myself, I burst into exhausted, panicky tears. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I told him. “There are so many hills. The heat – it’s killing me.” After a teary, sweaty hug and some reassuring words, he helped me exchange the empty bottles of Gatorade on my fuel belt for the full ones in his backpack and I was on my way. Seeing him grounded me enough to continue. Even if I have to walk, I thought, I will cross that finish line.

Over the next four boring, nondescript miles (at least they were pretty flat by my standards), I tried to focus on running a steady pace, but I knew what was coming. I could see it in the distance: the 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that had been the bane of my existence for the past 20 weeks. The cramps in my feet, ankles and calves from all the elevation changes were already forcing me to stop to stretch or walk at times. St. John’s Bridge and the dramatic incline leading up to it seemed like almost insurmountable hurdles. As I approached the on ramp leading to the bridge, I noticed many runners stepping off to the side to walk. I summoned whatever shreds of stubborn pride I could and ran the incline without stopping. I thought about Karen. I wondered how her race was going, as I watched the 5:00 pace group pass me on the bridge. I barely noticed the view of fog-blanketed Mt. Hood as I plodded forward, all hopes of what I perceived as a decent finish dashed. This damn bridge is not going to take me down, I thought.

Oh, how wrong I was. The mini-wall I hit at mile 11 felt like cardboard compared with the concrete mega-wall I crashed into at the 30K mark. After my heroically stupid conquering of St. John’s Bridge, any uphill or downhill running – or walking – produced stabbing pains in my inner quadriceps. My shins and the fronts of my ankles burned, but I could stretch and walk it off. I could keep running. That didn’t work for the quad pain, and I was terrified. I began to seriously wonder if I would reach the finish line.

My husband magically appeared on the sidelines soon after I hit Wall No. 2, and I started to cry with relief the moment I saw him. “I’m really afraid I won’t finish,” I told him. “The bridge … the heat … the pain.” Once again he was my beacon, guiding me away from my fear and helping me believe in myself. “You have to think positive thoughts, Kath,” he said, hugging me tightly. I knew he was right, so I kept moving.

I don’t remember much of the last seven miles of the race. Marathon running is like childbirth in that respect: You block out the unpleasant parts afterward. My routine the rest of the way was pretty much to just run until the stabbing pain in my inner quads and the cramps in my shins, ankles and feet overwhelmed me, stop briefly to walk or stretch, and then push onward. The hills kept coming; there was even another damn bridge toward the end; and when I finally saw the finish line, my exact words were, “It’s about f—— time!” Yes, I said that out loud. Somehow I managed a negative split in the last mile. I think it was just because I wanted it to be over so badly.

I cried yet again when I saw my husband searching the crowd for me in the reunion area, happy to find him and overjoyed to be done. “You would have hated that race,” I told him. I wasn’t just trying to make him feel better about not being able to run it due to an injury. At that point, I did hate the race. It was nothing like what I expected: the decidedly not flat terrain, the brutal heat, the boring course. Even the smattering of crowd support hadn’t helped. A stranger half-heartedly yelling, “Go, Kathleen,” doesn’t do much to bolster your morale when your legs are searing with pain and you’re afraid you may not make it to the finish line – at least it didn’t for me.

When I started to tell him about Karen, whom I never saw again unfortunately, I began to view things differently. She was right: Every race does have a story. While mine was not pretty, it did teach me some valuable lessons about what not to do when training for a marathon. For one thing, don’t go into the race without a true understanding of the terrain (again, “flat” is a relative term depending on where you live). Also, don’t discount the importance of hill work (I have since vowed to incorporate a hill run into my schedule every week). And finally, the most important thing I learned: Don’t have rigid expectations (if 4:40 was my planned starting pace for a cool race, 5:00 may have been a better place to begin on such a hot day).

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Best beer I ever tasted. I have never been so happy to finish a race.

After spending Monday shopping, eating and drinking our way through Portland (what a great city!), we headed back to Chicago on Tuesday. Despite my relatively good spirits after the race, the post-marathon depression hit me pretty hard the following morning as I prepared to go home and back to reality. Nothing had gone as planned, and I felt defeated and demoralized. After 20 weeks of hard work – I missed only one run and that was during the taper because of hamstring pain – I knew I was capable of so much more. My 20-miler had been so strong: 10:26 pace, mostly negative splits. I felt great afterward and even ran five miles the next day. Why had everything gone so miserably wrong during the actual race?

On the flight home, I wound up sitting next to another Portland Marathon finisher. After noticing his marathon shirt, I told him I had run it as well and asked how his race went. He told an all-too-familiar tale: The heat and hills exhausted him, he felt pain in muscles he didn’t know he had, his time was way off his goal, and he struggled just to finish. I am an almost 47-year-old mom with a beyond non-athletic build who never participated in sports and could not even run around the block until I was almost 40. He, meanwhile, is an incredibly fit 28-year-old who played college and professional basketball in France. But somehow, as crazy as it may seem, we shared the same story. You have no idea how much better that made me feel. Thank you, serendipity. I needed that.

In the five days since the race, I have run the gamut of emotions about my marathon experience finally coming to an end: joy, sadness, denial and acceptance. I seriously contemplated running another marathon in a month (that would be the denial phase) to prove to myself that I could improve my time, and I even managed to get my husband on board with the plan. Thankfully, I came to my senses, and the words of veteran marathoner Karen helped me. There will be other races. I have more stories to tell. The important thing is that I finished my second marathon and even eked out a tiny PR. I can view it as a failure because I didn’t meet the expectations I set for myself, or I can treat it as a lesson and do some things differently next time. I choose the latter. In fact, I’m already planning next year’s race schedule.

***

Thank you to everyone who followed my training journey over the past five months, listened to my ceaseless and obsessive ramblings, and lent me support along the way. You all made me feel like a winner.

Away We Go

Well, folks, the big day is almost here. My husband and I fly to Portland, Oregon, today, and on Sunday I will run the Portland Marathon. If – make that when – I get to mile 17, I will cross St. John’s Bridge, a 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that spans the Willamette River. Here it is.

St. John's Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

St. John’s Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

This, meanwhile, is Arrowhead Bridge, the tiny suspension bridge I run across regularly in the small town where I live.

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My daughter on our town’s teeny, tiny Arrowhead Bridge

As you might imagine, this Midwestern girl, who is used to pancake-flat terrain, is more than slightly intimidated by the idea of running St. John’s Bridge – especially at mile 17 of a marathon. I have thought about it constantly during the past 20 weeks of training, worrying that I won’t be able to handle the elevation, wondering if I will be forced to walk it as many marathon participants apparently do. My fear is if I walk at that point, I won’t be able to raise the momentum to start running again.

The other thing I have been obsessing about is the weather. When I signed up for the race last winter, the notoriously cool, crisp Portland temps in October were a huge draw. I knew there was a good chance it would be overcast and even rainy, and that didn’t bother me. I love running in the rain. What I do not love is running in hot, humid weather. When I saw the forecast for Sunday of full sun and a high of 81 degrees, let’s just say I was less than pleased. All I could think about was how hard it would be to maintain my goal race pace in those conditions. I have three goals for my finish time. I won’t list them here because I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just call them “good,” “great” and “awesome.” After looking at that forecast, even “good” seems out of reach.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s awfully hard to accept: No matter how much I would like to do so, I cannot predict what will happen during my race. There are so many factors over which I have no control: that damn bridge, the weather, potential injury, etc. All I can do is get myself to the start line as healthy and well-rested as possible and believe in my training. Instead of focusing on a goal time, I am going to concentrate on enjoying the experience (I hear the view from that big ol’ bridge is spectacular). When — not if — I cross the finish line, I will know I did my best. That’s all that matters.

When Your Past Comes Calling

Whenyourpastcalls

Image by SharifahNor

When I started this blog almost two-and-a-half years ago, I thought of it as a place to share my thoughts and memories. I find writing therapeutic, and I often use this forum to work through feelings or experiences, both past and present. I also consider it somewhere I can record bits and pieces of myself for my children. If something happens to me, I want them to know who I was. I want them to understand that not only was I their mother, I was a wife, a daughter, a friend, an editor, a writer, a runner and a music lover. I was once a teenager who felt misunderstood and a young woman who struggled to find herself. I have experienced great love and joy as well as devastating loss. I have been many things in this lifetime; a mother is only one of them, although it is, to me, my most important role.

What I did not expect when I started this blog were the connections I would make to other bloggers, other mothers in my community, other people in general. It is not easy — and many would argue a little crazy — to expose your true emotions and imperfections on the Internet. But I have received only kind words and support from those who comment. I have had numerous people tell me that they related to one or more of my posts and that they found relief in knowing they were not alone. This blog has been a positive outlet for me, a source of healing and growth.

The thing is, when you share yourself online, everyone can see you. Why I never considered the full weight of that kind of exposure, I’m not sure. Obviously, “everyone” includes people you leave in the past and wish would stay there. I heard from someone like that this week. I am not sure how he found my blog, since we haven’t been in contact for a good 20 years. But he read through a few of my posts and sent me an email. He didn’t use a real name and never admitted his true identity, insisting that I knew who it was. He had much to say about my blog, about my life. I was left wondering why he felt entitled to comment, but I guess I gave him permission by clicking “publish” in the first place.

The rest of the story doesn’t matter. The experience left me to reassess the whole public blogging thing. Being the naive Pollyanna I am, I guess I never expected the negativity of the Internet to affect me. I want to keep writing, sharing and connecting, but not with everyone, especially not those who once knew me in the real world but never took the time to get to know who I am.

The Internet is a dark, dirty place. This isn’t news. But I don’t have to like it.

Soundtrack of Our Lives

Farewell, old friend

Farewell, old friend

I always wanted a shiny, black grand piano. Not that I play or anything, though I have thought of taking lessons from time to time. I just liked the idea of having such a strikingly elegant object in my home, I guess. When we moved into our second house, I saw a perfect spot for one: the nook next to the fireplace in our great room. My husband had the same thought, but it was something we only talked about in passing. We had other, more pressing expenses. Maybe someday, we said.

And then someday came. Well, sort of. A guy on the trading floor mentioned to my husband that he was selling a piano, and a few days later our great room became home to a used, mahogany-stained Story & Clark baby grand with a broken foot pedal and keys that stick. While I viewed it as a charming antique to occupy a vacant spot in a room, my husband, the musician, had other ideas. He found a piano teacher and signed up our children, ages 7 and 9, for lessons. If it’s going to be in our house, he said, someone needs to learn how to play it. I agreed, recalling having read somewhere about the scholastic benefits of playing piano. Plus, I never learned to play any musical instruments as a child and loved the idea of giving my own kids the opportunity.

Little did either of us realize the impact that old baby grand would have on our lives. Our children’s experiences learning to play it were as different as the two of them are from each other. My son took to it easily and naturally; my daughter did not. For him, the piano was a confidante to whom he could pour out his artistic passion, an unconditional friend he would never let go. For her, it was an acquaintance whose company she grudgingly tolerated and eventually abandoned. But for both, the piano unlocked what I hope will be a lifelong love of music.

A few months ago, we stumbled upon a sleek, black Yamaha baby grand for sale. It was in mint condition, and it was the perfect step up for a pianist of the caliber of our now teenage son — or at least that was what his teacher had been politely but firmly suggesting for several years. It was also a lot closer to the pristine black piano I had envisioned in our great room so long ago. We snapped it up immediately, our son was thrilled, and we were finally off the hook with his teacher.

The Story & Clark, meanwhile, sat sad and untouched in the other corner of the nook. It reminded me of “The Giving Tree,” patiently waiting for its boy to return. I thought of all the times I heard my son play “Für Elise” on it. I remembered him rushing immediately to the piano like a long-lost friend after his week away at band camp. I recalled all the times I welcomed the distraction of his beautiful playing as I worked next-door in my office, enjoying the entertainment too much to remind him to do his homework. On that piano, for a good six years, the soundtrack of our life had played.

Today, movers came to take our Story & Clark to a new home. A local family with five young children bought it, and the mother seemed excited about her kids learning to play. It made me happy to know our first piano has another family to enjoy it, and I am sure I will come to love our shiny, new one. Still, I was sorry to see the old one go. When I look back years from now, the house I will remember most vividly is the tiny bungalow in Chicago where we brought home our newborn babies from the hospital. And the piano I will recall most fondly is that Story & Clark with the broken foot pedal and keys that stick. Both were where some of my favorite family memories were made.