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.

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.

A Letter to My Soon-to-Be 15-Year-Old

Dear son,

In two days you will be 15, which is a pivotal age. You get your driver’s permit, which is huge. But what has me even more concerned is that you will find yourself in increasingly challenging social situations. Only you can determine how you behave in them. Will you be a leader or a follower? My guess is a leader. But I know that, as all kids your age do, you are struggling to figure out this whole life thing. I don’t expect you to be perfect. I just want you to consider the consequences of your actions. You, and only you, are responsible for every choice you make, good or bad.

One of the most difficult things about parenting is the knowledge that your children will make mistakes and that you have no choice but to let them and hold them accountable. It’s especially hard, kiddo, because I remember vividly some of the downright stupid decisions I made when I was 15. Unlike you, I was a clueless mess with zero self-awareness. I was unhappy at home, unpopular at school. I made some poor choices because I wanted more than anything to be noticed, to belong. The more mistakes I made, the emptier and lonelier I felt. Each wrong step I took made my inner voice harder to hear.

I like to think that at almost 15 you are already too wise to repeat my teenage mistakes, too confident, too responsible. Unlike me, you have always known who you are. You have never cared about fitting in or being cool. And, at least I hope, you feel loved and supported at home. These three factors, I pray, will help you stay on the right path and remain true to yourself. Listen to that inner voice, kid. It speaks the truth.

The problem is that peer pressure becomes more complicated in high school, where even smart kids (like your dear old mom) make dumb decisions. You’re a sophomore now, and a lot of your friends are older than you. You may see people you admire and respect do things you know are wrong, even dangerous. Not only will you have to choose whether to join them, you will also have to decide if maintaining relationships with them is worth jeopardizing your own future. You don’t have to be the one doing the bad thing to get busted. Being there is enough.

I could preach to you right now. I could say, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made, son.” But I won’t. Your mistakes are yours to make, just as mine were when I was your age. There is nothing I can do to stop you. I just hope you will tell me about them when they happen. I hope mine will be the number you call if you find yourself in a situation you don’t know how to navigate. I hope mine will be the door you knock on if you get into trouble and need help. I may not have all the answers, but I will always be there for you. I will always listen. And I promise never to judge. I can’t, kiddo. I was 15 once too.

Love always,


My sweet boy on the morning of his baptism. I still remember the joy I felt seeing that smile on his face.

My sweet boy on the morning of his baptism. I still remember the joy I felt seeing that smile on his face.


Guardian Angel, Part 2

My brother and me circa 1983

My brother and me circa 1983

I never noticed the “other” tab on my Facebook message page until this morning when I was deleting some old messages from my inbox. When I clicked on it, I found messages dating back to 2012 from a handful of people I don’t know. One was from a Jack C., whose name I recognized from a friend request I had long since deleted. Curious, I opened it and discovered he is the grandson of my estranged brother’s ex-wife. He included her phone number and asked that I please call her. That was all he said. The message was dated June 24, 2013.

I knew I had to call, but I sat in my office paralyzed with fear. As much as I wanted to know if my brother was all right, I dreaded even more learning that he was not. I had not seen or spoken to him in the eight years since our father’s funeral, at which point he was clearly still battling addiction. What news did his ex-wife have to share? Did I want to hear it?

Shortly before Christmas, my cousin told me my brother and his ex-wife were back together, and I thought about contacting him then. My cousin gave me their address, but I never sent a card. I considered it again in March, around the time of our deceased mother’s birthday, wondering if he was remembering and missing her too (I wrote about that here). This week he was on my mind once more. Monday and Tuesday marked our father’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, respectively. In my mind, it was no coincidence that I stumbled upon Jack’s Facebook message just two days later. My dad is telling me to make the call, I thought, so I did.

After she recovered from the shock of hearing my voice, my former sister-in-law happily chatted with me, and we took a few moments to catch up. I was glad to hear she was doing well, but what I really wanted, of course, was news about my brother. All of it was good. She said he has been clean and sober and working steadily for more than five years. I burst into tears of relief and joy, feeling the weight of worrying and wondering about him lift. It would have been one thing for my brother to tell me he was off drugs, but hearing it from a woman I respect, trust and know is not a user made me sure it was true.

I asked how she found her way back to him; they were divorced after all, and he had hurt and disappointed her as much if not more than he had everyone else in the family. It turns out that our aunt, who raised me after our mother died and always supported my brother even at his worst, played a big part. Before she died, my aunt begged my former sister-in-law to give my brother another chance. After he went into rehab, she did, and without her love and compassion I doubt he would be where he is today. My brother doesn’t just have two parents as guardian angels. Our aunt is watching over him too. She sent his ex-wife back to him. I truly believe that.

Before we ended the call, we talked about getting together. She mentioned that they had seen pictures of my children on Facebook via 11-year-old Jack, whom she called an Internet whiz. She said my brother was afraid they would not hear from me because so much time had passed since I got the message, but she told him to “keep praying on it.” They have never met my two teenagers. By the end of our conversation, I felt as if that were a possibility.

I called my husband next, for courage and support, and then dialed my brother’s number. The sound of his voice had me in tears all over again. He was laidback and casual, stoic like our father, but that didn’t stop me from saying all the things I have wanted and needed to tell him for so long. I apologized for staying away, explaining that I was protecting my family. I asked if he understood, and he said he did. I told him I never stopped loving or thinking about him and that I never will. I said those things even though I knew they might embarrass him or make him uncomfortable. I said them because I had to. If I have learned one lesson through all the loss I have experienced, it is that the hardest words to say are the ones that matter most. You are never sorry to have said them, but you always regret no longer having the opportunity.

I hope to have more chances to become reacquainted with my brother after our talk today, but I know I need to proceed cautiously. Addiction still shadows his life. It always will. Today on the phone, though, I heard the big brother I remember. I can choose to believe in his recovery, and I do. I can choose to allow him back into my life, and I really want to. I owe thanks for that opportunity to 11-year-old Jack for sending the best Facebook message I almost never got. I am also grateful to my brother’s and my guardian angels — our mom, dad and aunt — who I believe helped me find it.

I Just Wanted You to Know

Dear Mom,

I have been thinking of you a lot this week, I guess because Mother’s Day is tomorrow. I even got out that photo album you made. Do you remember the one I mean? It’s filled with shots of you and Dad from before you got married, on your wedding day and during your honeymoon. There are lots of photos of friends I never met and family members I barely remember. There are pictures from when you modeled in New York and when you worked at Michigan Bell. What was your job there again? Dad told me once, but I can’t remember. I love all the photos of you and him goofing around on your honeymoon. Where did you go on that trip? I think Dad said it was Niagara Falls, although I can’t tell from the pictures. It’s fun to see that you had a silly side. You both look so happy and in love.

I left the album on the couch the other day, and Isabel found it. She said I look like you, but I think she resembles you more. It is strange, but somehow comforting, to see myself and my daughter in photos of someone I don’t remember and she never knew. I wonder if she thought the same thing. I was overwhelmed with emotion looking at the album with her, knowing that you had thoughtfully placed all the photographs on the pages, adding funny captions, telling your life’s story. It was as if you were there beside us. I felt you, Mom.

Afterward, I hugged Isabel and told her how proud you would have been of her. I told her what a sweet, loving person she is. I told her how happy she makes people. I try to say things like that to her whenever I think of them, Mom. I say them because they are true, but also because you never had the chance to say them to me. I know you would have.

I just wanted you to know, Mom, that even though I was too young when you died to have any real memories of you, you have always been a presence in my life. I have the photographs of you and, even better, I have the stories Dad and others told me. I share them with Isabel and Sam from time to time because I don’t want you to be just a picture on the wall to them. I want them to know what a strong and talented woman their Grandmother Jeanne was. That is so important to me.

Aunt Thelma, my undeniably amazing second mother, used to say “life is for the living,” and I think that is true. We should focus on the loved ones who are still with us. But I also believe we should never forget those whom we have lost.

I just wanted you to know I am thinking of you, Mom, as I often do. And I wanted to tell you how much I love being a mother. It brings me peace, Mom, to be able to give my children the love, the comfort, the support you weren’t able to give me. It makes me happier than I ever imagined I could be.

I just wanted you to know.



 she never knew.

Guardian Angel

 Jeanne Marie, RIP (3/26/27 - 4/28/70)

Jeanne Marie, our mother and guardian angel, RIP (3/26/27 – 4/28/70)

The rusted remnants of my brother’s car sat in our uncle’s barnyard like a mangled shrine to the recklessness of youth. I don’t remember the make or model of the vehicle, only the crushed roof and the weeds growing around and through its crumbling orange shell. He didn’t die or suffer even a minor injury in the accident, his second rollover, or any of his other many crashes. Our father bought him car after car and found him job after job during his teens and early twenties, but nothing lasted for my brother. Nothing fit. Not after our mother died.

Today would have been our mom’s 87th birthday, and I have no idea where my brother is. I wonder if he realizes it is her birthday. He was 12 when she died; I was 2½. I don’t know what he was thinking or feeling because I was too young to remember anything from that time in our lives. But I know from the stories my family tells that he was her golden child, and he adored her as much as she doted on him.

Today I am a 46-year-old mother, three years older than our mom was when she was diagnosed with leukemia and died six weeks later. I have two teenagers who need and love me, who want and deserve everything from me. I know, or can at least imagine, how my brother felt by picturing my children’s lives without a mother or an emotionally involved father. My brother acted out to get our dad’s attention before our mom died, but it was typical young boy shenanigans. After her death, the trouble he managed to find intensified. He skipped school. He partied too much and started using drugs. Eventually he dropped out of high school. My father insisted that he work, but he could not hold a job. With every disappointment, my father’s detachment from and animosity toward my brother grew. My brother wound up marrying a girl he barely knew and moved to Texas to work for her family. He left Michigan, just as I would eventually, to escape the sadness, to find peace.

Something broke inside my brother after that. I’m not sure when it happened, since he estranged himself from us almost completely. But at some point, his drug use turned into the darkness and desperation of full-blown addiction. My devastated father said he was always broken, but I don’t believe that. I still care about the brother I once knew, who teased me relentlessly and loved me fiercely, even if I cannot welcome the man he has become into my family’s life.

This April will mark 44 years since our mother’s death. She will have been gone one year longer than she lived, and that is a strange and unsettling realization. I wonder if I should try to contact my brother, if he is thinking about her too. It has been almost eight years since I last saw him, at our father’s funeral. Although in my own grief-stricken state I refused to acknowledge it, it was obvious to my husband and others that my brother was still wrestling with the same demons that caused him to wreck cars and lose jobs in the early days. We made the difficult decision to keep our distance after the funeral. But when I heard last year that his second ex-wife had taken him back, I tracked down her address in Arkansas. I thought of sending a Christmas card, but I never did. She is a devoted, kind-hearted woman who always saw the good in my brother, and, as much as I would like to believe otherwise, he is a master manipulator.

I don’t go to church or pray, at least not to a god of any sort, but I do consider myself spiritual. I believe our mother watches over us and keeps us from harm. I made my own share of wrong choices and wound up in some potentially dangerous situations in my younger days, but I always found my way home safely. I don’t know where my brother is, but I think he is all right. Maybe that is just me putting a happy ending on something over which I have no control, or maybe our mother really is our guardian angel. Either way, I want to believe that something lasted for my brother, that something finally fit. I have to.

Let It Go

My new hero: Queen Elsa from "Frozen"

My new hero: Queen Elsa from “Frozen”

I saw “Frozen” last night for the first time with my husband and children. I realize this is not a particularly earth-shattering event since it is a movie with more than $1 billion in worldwide box office sales, but my kids are long past the ages when they would normally deem an animated Disney film worth their time or attention. As our family’s resident sucker for happily ever afters, I was more than a little shocked and beyond pleased when they agreed to hit the couch and watch it with me.

Unfortunately, “Frozen” did not receive quite the acclaim in our household that it has from film critics and our friends with young children. My 12-year-old daughter and husband fell asleep halfway through it, and my 14-year-old son said it was “pretty good,” although he did not understand why it was “all over the Internet.” I, meanwhile, loved it and woke up this morning with “Let It Go” as my earworm.

Being rather pop music illiterate, I had never heard the song until Idina Menzel performed it at the Oscars (yes, I just Googled the spelling of her name; no, I do not remember or care what the Travoltified bungling of it was). It did not resonate with me at all then, although I thought the version she did later with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots on toy instruments was charming. When I heard it in the context of the movie, however, it had me in tears. In fact, I cried through a lot of “Frozen.”

If you know me or have at least read this blog before, you are probably not surprised. I tend toward sappiness and sentimentality at times. OK, most of the time. But lately, I have been struggling with some negative, albeit quite human, feelings, and the movie’s story and that song really got to me. I am not sure if this is the beginning of a midlife crisis (I am pushing 47, after all) or just the residual effects of an unbearably long winter, but either way, I have been a little lost, less than happy and not quite myself lately. Let’s just say that if my life were the movie “Cinderella,” I would undoubtedly be Drizella, the ugly, older stepsister, and my enormous foot would be busting out of that glass slipper despite my best efforts to make it fit.

Unlike “Cinderella,” in “Frozen” I found a main character with whom I could actually identify. If you are one of the maybe five people in the entire world who still have not seen the movie, Queen Elsa is plagued with powers she does not understand that arouse fear in those around her and drive her away from the people she loves. OK, so I am not a queen with magical powers, and no one fears me (except my kids when I give them The Mom Look). But I have always felt different. Not exceptional in any way, but not normal either. As a child and teenager, I was sensitive and serious, while others teased and joked. I shared my thoughts and feelings, while others made small talk. I preferred the company of a few friends at a time, while others thrived in large groups. I did not realize that these were positive qualities when I was young. But as I got older, and found like-minded people who preferred to delve beneath the surface and form true connections, I became more confident about who I was because I knew I was not alone.

And that is why I loved “Frozen”: It shows little girls that happily ever after is about being true to yourself. It is not about snagging Prince Charming. Queen Elsa is on a journey of self-discovery, not a man hunt. Her sister, Princess Anna, finds what she naively believes to be true love but then leaves her prince behind, bravely venturing into the storm to save Elsa. That Anna finds love in the end is more of a side bar; the real story is Elsa accepting and taking pride in her differences, finding happiness within herself, and realizing others will love her for who she really is. What little girl doesn’t need to know she is in charge of her own happiness? And what grown woman doesn’t need a reminder once in a while?

I know I do. So, thanks to my hero Elsa, I’m going to try to let it go — the “it” being all this self-doubt, insecurity and fear that has been festering in my middle-aged head lately. The glass slipper is never going to fit, and I know better than to force it. I have always been happier in my Converse anyway.

The Heart of the Home

As a little girl, I remember watching my grandmother bake apple pies in my aunt’s kitchen. She added a “pinch” of this or a “dash” of that to the mixing bowl, following her own recipe from memory. Then she sprinkled flour on the counter and kneaded the dough. I can still picture her wrinkled, liver-spotted hands as she worked the dough and then flattened it with a rolling pin. Her apple pies remain the most delicious I have ever tasted, but the best part about watching her bake were the scraps of dough she filled with jam and folded into turnovers. She made them just for me.

Sadly, I did not inherit my grandmother’s baking prowess. It is not something I enjoy. But I do love time spent in the kitchen with my family. Although we both cook, my husband is the master chef in our house. He is that enviable kind of cook who can whip up a gourmet meal from what most people, including me, consider a bare cupboard and nearly empty refrigerator. On the weekends, when we have time to prepare meals at a leisurely pace, our almost 13-year-old daughter always helps. I joke that I am their sous chef because I wind up chopping onions and mincing garlic — the jobs neither of them wants to do. I don’t mind, though, because I know the tasty rewards that await me.

Last night, as my husband and daughter stirred risotto at the stove, I watched them from the other side of the counter. Sometimes they bicker in the kitchen, I think because they both want to be the head chef. But last night, their culinary visions appeared to be in sync. As I chopped their onions, I listened to them reminisce about our trip to Italy, observing their easy banter, their laughter, the way my husband gently placed his hand on her back as he showed her how to stir the risotto. I loved that he was teaching her to cook, but what I truly relished was what he was giving her: his attention.


In two months, our daughter will be a teenager. She will be confronted with lots of difficult choices, not immediately, I hope, but soon enough. She will have to decide who to befriend, who to date. At some point, she will be offered alcohol, maybe even drugs. She will drive in cars with people — with boys — we barely know. She will find herself in uncomfortable situations where the right choice is not the easiest to make. The decisions will be hers alone, but they will in part be determined by how she values herself as a person. All those hours she spends in the kitchen with her father show her she is worth his time and attention, and I hope they teach her to expect both. And not just from her parents. From her friends, from the boys she dates, from the man she may one day marry.

My grandmother died years ago, while I was pregnant with my 14-year-old son. But those times I spent with her in my aunt’s kitchen are still precious to me. I was a little girl who had lost her mother and did not live with her father, and I think my nana, who was orphaned at a young age, bonded with me because of that. She always made time to read to me, to sing to me, to bake for me. With every turnover she made for me, she showed me I was special. She showed me I was loved.


Watching my husband and daughter in our kitchen gives me a sense of personal closure because I never spent that kind of one-on-one time with my father. To see them together, my husband giving her his undivided attention, brings me joy and also peace. We want for our children the things we never had. Some are tangible, but the most important are not.

I am not sure what my nana, who was born in 1899, would think about our modern household, where my husband does much of the cooking and I do none of the baking. I do know that she would be happy to see the love in our house. She may not have been able to pass on her pie-making skills to me, but she is part of the reason I know I matter in this world. I learned that with her in my aunt’s kitchen, the heart of the home.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

April 1971 at the Melrose house

That’s me on the front porch of the Melrose house in 1971. It must have been Easter or something. I wasn’t normally so fancy.

I played alone for hours outside the house where I grew up in Southfield, Michigan, daydreaming on the swing set or exploring the pastures and back woods, acting out books and creating my own worlds. A barn on the property housed several horses, and one of its three pastures doubled as a vegetable garden, which I helped my Uncle Lincoln plant and tend each summer. The modest ranch house with a screened-in carport anchored two acres of land, but it sat close to the gravel road, its doors always open to the stoppers-by who regularly bellied up to my Aunt Thelma’s table. Her kitchen smelled of coffee, cigarettes and bacon grease, a combination of odors that thirty-some years later still reminds me of home.

I left the house on Melrose at age 11 to move in with my father and his new wife, but I can still picture the kitchen table, where my aunt sat in her white quilted bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and writing letters, while Patsy Cline sang softly on the transistor radio. I can see my bedroom window at night, a bright light beckoning from an apartment building on Lahser Road, and hear the soothing hum of a train passing in the distance. I recall the gilded mirror with a photograph of a boy playing cowboys and Indians that hung on the wall of the rec room, or “rumpus room,” as my aunt and uncle called it. I remember the cobalt blue candy dish in the living room filled with butterscotches, which my uncle let me eat before dinner when my aunt wasn’t looking.

Whenever I dream of going home, even now, it is to that house.

With the holidays approaching, the Melrose house and my childhood there are on my mind more than ever. It was in that house that I knew safety, comfort and stability after losing my mother as a toddler. It was there that I discovered the importance of tradition and the meaning of family. It was there that I felt the unconditional love of two people who were my aunt and uncle but also my parents. And it was there that I unwittingly learned how to be a mother and make a house a home.

I miss my aunt and uncle, and the Melrose house, the most this time of year. An industrial park now stretches across their property, their house long since razed. Uncle Lincoln, my second father and best buddy, passed away when I was pregnant with my son, who is now 14. Aunt Thelma, the only mother I ever knew, died two years ago, four days before Christmas. As anyone who has lost one or both parent knows, there is something hollow and unsettling about spending the holidays without them, even if you have a family of your own and no matter how much time passes.

Although there is nothing left of my childhood home, I like to think it lives on through the life my time there helped me find. After the tumultuous teenage years I spent with my father and stepmother, I wandered lost and miserable through my early twenties. I was looking for something, I guess, but I had no idea what. When I met my husband, a quiet, thoughtful man much like my Uncle Lincoln, I realized all I ever wanted was what I had in that ranch house on the gravel road in Southfield: to feel safe and loved.

I’ll be home for Christmas. I am already there.

There’s a Place for Us


My favorite quote from Ally Sheedy’s character in “The Breakfast Club”: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

Remember the basket case in “The Breakfast Club”? That was me in high school. I may not have been decorating my artwork with my dandruff, but I walked through the halls feeling lonely and disconnected. The academic part was easy. I took AP classes and earned mostly A’s with minimal effort, whipping out papers the night before they were due and barely studying. The social part was what killed me. I had a small group of close friends, and I don’t think I would have survived without them. I was adrift in high school, a nobody in a sea of kids who all seemed to belong somewhere.

Looking back, I recognize that I never found a niche in high school because I didn’t look for one. I didn’t join clubs or participate in sports. I didn’t audition for plays or musicals or learn to play an instrument. No one encouraged me to do any of those things. I’m not blaming my parents. My father worked the afternoon shift, and my stepmother was on days. Neither of them was around after school to drive me to auditions or practice even if I had thought to ask. I was a kid who preferred sitting alone in her room writing in her journal or reading a book, and it was the ’80s, an era of hands-off parenting not tiger mom hovering.

I’ve talked to a lot of moms who, like me, grew up in middle-class homes where music lessons and other activities were a luxury not an entitlement. And, like me, they have gone out of their way to ensure their own kids have the chance to participate in activities, hoping they will find something they love to do. Are we overcompensating for what we view as our parents’ slights against us? I don’t think so. We just happen to be lucky enough to be able to give our kids the opportunities we didn’t have.

Some of us, like me, do go a little overboard. My children (now 12 and 14) have begged to join — and eventually abandoned — a laundry list of sports and activities over the years, and I have almost always said yes. I do have one stipulation, however: They have to honor the commitments they make by finishing the class or season. I may have more disposable income than my parents did, but I’m not willing to shell out hundreds of dollars only to have them quit on a whim after one disappointing class or a particularly hard practice.

In my son’s case, music has been the only thing to stick. He found his true love, the piano, in fourth grade when we bought a used baby grand, and he started playing saxophone in the school band the following year. Music is something I hope will always be part of his life, but when he talked about joining the high school marching band, I had concerns. I worried about the grueling practice schedule, but not because I thought it would affect his scholastic performance. Like me, he is a kid for whom school comes easy. My fear was that he wouldn’t have time to make friends and have fun or, worse yet, that he would be labeled a “band kid” or “nerd” and ostracized.

What I could not have realized, because I knew nothing about marching band or the culture that surrounds it, is that he would find much more than his niche. All those practices, football games, parades, competitions and band camps (insert tired “American Pie” joke here) form unique, unbreakable bonds. My son doesn’t feel adrift when he walks through the halls of his high school because he knows he belongs somewhere. And that makes the countless hours my husband and I spent watching him participate in long forgotten sports and activities worth every second.

As an adult misfit who still feels like Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club” much of the time socially, I wonder if things would have been different if I had tried a sport or learned to play an instrument, if I had made the effort to get involved in high school. But the feeling of not belonging is what pushed me to start a journal all those years ago. Writing helped me stay afloat during my high school years, and it’s been a beacon throughout my life. My love for it led me to major in English in college and become a magazine editor in Detroit. A potential newspaper job brought me to Chicago, which is where my life as a wife and mother began. And here I am, all these years later, writing this little blog, my online journal.

In the end, the goal is to be part of something bigger than yourself — whether it’s a marching band, a sports team or a family — and to find your place. It just takes some of us a little longer to get there.

Me circa 1985: "...each one of us is a brain... ...and an athlete... ...and a basket case... ...a princess... ...and a criminal."

Me circa 1985: “You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain… …and an athlete… …and a basket case… …a princess… …and a criminal.” –“The Breakfast Club”