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.

God Save the Queen

I decided to go with a shot of Sid Vicious in the forefront because he will always be my favorite Sex Pistol.

A shot with Sid Vicious in the forefront because he is, after all, my favorite Sex Pistol — especially since I witnessed Johnny Rotten spitting on the crowd at a P.I.L. show. 

Yesterday, after my first girls night out in what seemed like about 150 years, I heard “God Save the Queen” on the ride home. So I did what felt natural: I cranked up the radio, rolled down the window and sang along with the Sex Pistols to one of many anthems from my teenage years, when rebellion reigned supreme. All that was missing was the cigarette dangling from my lip.

Not much compares to the release you get from belting out song lyrics at the top of your lungs while driving alone. No one can hear you or judge your singing ability, so you can be as loud and as passionate as you want. It’s like singing in the shower but with backing vocals. With enough creativity and determination, you can find personal meaning in any song, even when you are a middle-aged mother singing along with punks fed up about England’s fascist regime.

God save the queen…

A mother is a queen of sorts, right? She is the queen of her family, its sun, the center of its universe. She is everything to her children. But by being all to them, does she become nothing to herself? Is it possible to emerge from motherhood without winding up a soulless figurehead?

She ain’t no human being…

In exactly two weeks, my youngest child will be 13. In five years she will graduate from high school and head off to college. I can see that portion of the future clearly and will do everything I possibly can to ensure it happens. But what about the mother she leaves behind? Obviously, there is no turning back once our children are grown, but what propels us forward after they are gone? How do we find new roles for ourselves after nearly 20 years of doing the toughest job imaginable?

There’s no future, no future, no future for you…

I can’t attest to their logic, but somehow these were the questions I found myself pondering while singing along to “God Save the Queen” after a visit to my favorite local tavern with an old friend. Maybe the craft beer I drank was stronger than I realized. Or maybe the existential angst I thought I left behind in my teenage years — along with the Aqua Net and black eyeliner — is resurfacing and I’m having the female version of a midlife crisis. I don’t want a sports car or a trophy husband, however. I want a life of my own, plans and goals that are mine, all mine. I want a redefined sense of purpose. And the only person who can provide those things is me. I’m working on it. But I’m thankful I still have five years to figure it out.

Considering how much better I feel after reconnecting with my friend last night — and doing karaoke on the ride home — I guess I need to get out and spend time with other queens, I mean moms, on a more regular basis. I need to be reminded that I’m not alone, that others share my doubts and fears. Who doesn’t need that once in a while?

Motherhood becomes increasingly lonely as our children get older — or at least it can if we let it. The friendships that form effortlessly during play groups and other activities when our kids are young become harder to find as they grow up and spend more time living their lives without us. But we have to keep looking. We have to keep trying to make new connections, while also nurturing the ones we have and rekindling those we miss. I have let a lot of relationships lapse during my motherhood reign, and it makes me sad. I guess I need to work on the whole being a good friend thing too. Those five years will be gone before I know it.

In any case, Mr. Johnny Rotten, John Lydon, John Rotten Lydon or whatever you are calling yourself these days, I just wanted to let you know that despite what my teenage self may have said, middle-aged me knows there is indeed a future. And while I am far from being a queen in need of saving, I guess what I realized last night is that I could use a little company as I figure mine out — and a lot more singing in the car with the windows down.

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.

Rock On, Kid

My girl (right) at her first concert with one of her besties: Imagine Dragons @ Allstate Arena

My girl (right) at her first concert — Imagine Dragons — with one of her besties

Last night, we took our almost 13-year-old daughter to her first concert: Imagine Dragons at Allstate Arena in Chicago (technically Rosemont, IL, but the bands playing there don’t say, “Hello, Rosemont”). My husband and some of our friends are musicians, so she has been to a handful of family-friendly bar gigs and outdoor concerts. But this was her first arena rock show performed by a Grammy-winning band in a packed venue that seats more than 18,000 people. It was a big deal to her and, as a mom who happens to be a total music freak, it was a big deal to me too.

You see, I am the fan who is online at exactly 10 a.m., password and credit card in hand, the day of concert ticket pre-sales. I am the fan who suffers through a tortuous opening act to save my spot near the stage. I am the fan who forgoes bathroom trips and sends my friend/boyfriend (disclaimer: before I was married)/husband on beer runs because I don’t want to miss a single moment of the show. I am the fan whose heart pounds when the band finally plays “that one song,” the one I know every word to, the one that moves me the most. And I am the fan who won’t leave until the house lights go on because I refuse to chance missing an encore.

I have been to hundreds of concerts in the past 30-odd years, some unforgettable (Neil Young and Crazy Horse), others barely memorable (Lollapalooza ’91). Last night’s rated up there on my list of favorites, and this surprised me a little. Am I a big Imagine Dragons fan? No. I only know the songs I have heard — and sung along to at full volume with my daughter — a million times on my car radio. Do I appreciate the arena rock experience? No. I prefer small, intimate venues. Would I have gone to see this band on my own? Probably not. But as I watched my daughter and her best friend from preschool singing along to the lyrics, taking selfies and giggling every time the little girl behind us screamed, I thought about my own early concerts. I remembered the relief of securing tickets, the anticipation as the date approached, the excitement when it finally arrived, and the elation when the band took the stage. I remembered those feelings because I still have them, even as a 46-year-old mom/chaperone.

Last night was not about who was playing on the stage. It was about experiencing live music — one of my lifelong passions — with my almost teenage daughter for the first time. Her journey as a music fan is just beginning, and I am so excited for her. I hope it takes her to as many cool and magical places as mine continues to take me and that she will let me tag along now and again, maybe even after she no longer needs a ride.

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.

Best Valentine Ever

photo (100)

My kids’ Valentine’s Day cards and candy were waiting for them on the kitchen counter when they came downstairs for breakfast this morning. They were not surprised, especially my daughter who helped me choose which chocolates to buy for her and her brother. I have always given them presents on Valentine’s Day. Although I consider it a silly, Hallmark-engineered holiday, it’s a good excuse to remind them I love them (see yesterday’s post). I did not expect anything in return because I honestly can’t remember the last time one of them gave me a Valentine. It was probably a Strawberry Shortcake or Sponge Bob card left over from one of those multipacks parents buy for little kids to distribute to their classmates.

This year, my almost 13-year-old bowled me over with a book called “52 Reasons I Love You,” which she made from a deck of playing cards. I was not surprised by the thoughtfulness or creativity behind the gesture. She is a kind, caring person and an excellent gift giver because she truly listens to people and wants to know who they are. What blew me away about the book were the sentiments she expressed.

If you follow this blog, you know that, as most mothers and daughters do, we have our ups and downs in the getting along department (here’s a letter I wrote to her about just that). Cards in the book like “You watch ‘Pretty Little Liars’ to make me happy,” “You give amazing fashion advice” and “You always let me borrow your stuff,” while they sound trivial, meant something to me because I did not have that kind of relationship as a teenager growing up with a stepmother. My stepmom and I rarely watched TV together. She did not help me decide which shoes or jewelry to wear. She never knowingly let me borrow her clothes, although I did sneak items out of her extensive wardrobe occasionally. My stepmother and I had a cold, distant relationship. There was no communication, trust or support. One of my biggest fears as a parent is that things will be the same for my daughter and me.

The book she made gives me hope. When I read reasons like “I can trust you with anything,” “You never let me down,” “You never doubt me” and “You always make sure I am happy,” I think that maybe, just maybe, I am doing some things right. Maybe, just maybe, our relationship will survive her teenage years, and the two of us will stay close. That would be the greatest gift of all.

There were funny cards in the book too, which is fitting because my daughter is a silly, lighthearted kid. “You scream every time we watch a horror movie” cracked me up because it’s true. She and my son argue about who has to face the embarrassment and shame of sitting next to me when we see scary films in the theater. “You taught me to embrace my inner nerd” made me laugh too, but it also made me proud. I want my daughter to be confident of her intelligence, to never play dumb or downplay it. As her mother, and as a woman, that is one of the most important things I can teach her.

There were many cards in the book that described how she views me as a person, not just her mother, and they gave me the impression she might admire, respect and even like me a little. She obviously knows me well: The second to the last card read “You’ll probably be crying by now.” I was.

The final card said “You’re my mom, and you couldn’t have done a better job.” Well, I have my doubts about that sometimes, but I try to do my best. Apparently, my daughter thinks my best is good enough. Happy Valentine’s Day to me.