Who Knew?

The song came on in a random iPhone shuffle seven miles into the race. My blistered foot and searing hamstring were slowing me down, and so was the humid May morning on the Chicago lakefront. I thought about stopping, just for a minute. Then the song started playing, and I knew I had to keep running.

You took my hand, you showed me how…You promised me you’d be around…

It was May 19, my dad’s birthday and also the day before the anniversary of his death. That Pink song had played constantly on the radio in 2006, the year he died. I could feel my dad with me as I looked at the Chicago skyline and the boats in the harbor. A U.S. Navy veteran, he had always loved the water. I did too. It reminded me of him. Tears streamed down my sweat-covered face, but I kept running.

If someone said three years from now, you’d be long gone…

I remembered sitting in my SUV in our driveway after he died, sobbing to those lyrics, not wanting to cry in front of my children but needing the release. It was a love song, but it was about loss and regret, both of which had been constant themes in my relationship with my father. After years of disconnection, we finally found our way back to each other emotionally after my kids were born. Being a parent helped me to forgive him, to love him again. And then he was gone.

When someone said count your blessings now, ’fore they’re long gone, I guess I just didn’t know how…I was all wrong…

My foot and leg ached, but I kept running. I had signed up for this half marathon as a way to keep myself on track after quitting smoking. By race day, I was 145 days smoke-free. My lungs were stronger. I had grown faster. My mantra during those grueling 12 weeks of training had been one of my father’s favorite sayings: “Mother always told me, just do the very best you can.” And on race day, when my foot and leg teamed up to stop me, his words kept me going.

Around Mile 10, the 2:10 pacer passed me and my heart sank. I had wanted so badly to finish at less than a 10-minute-mile pace, and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I could still beat my 2010 time of 2:17, though. I adjusted my goal and my mind-set. I told myself I only had to run for 30 more minutes. After all those hours of training over the past 12 weeks, 30 minutes was nothing.

At Mile 12, I looked at my Garmin and realized just how much I had slowed down. I knew I had to find a way to pick up the pace. I forgot the pain, the humid air. I focused on my breathing, my stride. When I finally saw the finish line, I sprinted toward it. “Finish strong,” I heard someone in the crowd yell. And I did. My Garmin read 2:14 when I crossed the finish line.

I did it, Dad, I thought. I did the very best I could. I did it for you, to celebrate your life. But more important, I did it for me. I believed in myself, and I made it happen.

Who knew?

My husband and I at the finish line. I couldn't have done it without him, my running buddy and my love.

My husband and me at the finish line of the 2013 Chicago Spring Half Marathon. I couldn’t have done it without him, my running buddy and biggest supporter.

Red Lipstick

My older sister said our mother never left the house without lipstick. Before she carried the garbage to the curb or hung the laundry out to dry in the backyard, she painted her lips a glamorous red and wound her blond curls into a tidy upsweep. My father said when she walked into a room, everyone stopped to look at her. She was a talented seamstress who could spot a dress in a department store and recreate it at home without a pattern. My aunt said she kept an immaculate house and dressed herself and her children impeccably. She was a homebody who had few friends, and she seemed to prefer it that way.

I don’t remember my mother, but from other people’s stories and memories, I have woven together an image of her, and it has profoundly affected the way I navigate my life and relationships. I compare myself against the image. I decide which parts of her I wish to embrace and imitate: the confidence, the independence, the self-assuredness. I recognize the ways I am like her and accept the ways I am not.

The part of the picture that puzzles and intrigues me most is that she didn’t have a lot of friends. Was that by choice or default? I wonder who taught my mother how to read the subtleties of female behavior, to avoid being sucked into the vacuum of cliques, to spot real friendship in the sea of selfishness and phoniness. Did her mother teach her those lessons, or was their relationship the reason she didn’t like or trust other women?

My relationships with my stepmother and the aunt who raised me had a major impact on the type of women I choose to befriend. From my charming, popular stepmother, I learned that those who follow the crowd often do so because they neither know nor love themselves. From my aunt, I learned that strong, confident women make the best friends because they don’t want or need anything other than your companionship. Neither of them ever told me how to interact with other women; they showed me.

I think of my own daughter as I watch her unravel the inner workings of middle school friendships. I wonder what effect I have on which girls she chooses to befriend. Like my mother, I don’t have lots of female friends, but the ones I do have are loyal and true. Like my aunt, I speak my mind and do as I please. Unlike my stepmother, I will never be popular and am fine with that.

I hope my daughter will learn to be herself and not succumb to the bullying and peer pressure that happen even in adulthood. I hope she will ignore the static and forge her own path. I hope she will wear red lipstick when she takes out the garbage and not give a damn what the neighbors think. I hope she will be a little like the grandmother she never knew.

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

Jeanne Marie (RIP 3/26/27 – 4/28/70)

Wake-Up Call

Our morning dance begins with my calm, cool attempt to rouse my seemingly comatose teenage son. “It’s time to get up,” I say, tapping him gently on the shoulder. No response. “Get out of bed, please,” I continue, my voice gaining volume and force. I shake his shoulder, not violently, but with intent. No response. My cheerfulness spent, I break out the mom-means-business voice: “We are going to be late. Get. Out. Of. Bed. Now!

We do this wake-up dance every day, my son and I. Yesterday was no different. Once I safely delivered him and his sister to school, I nestled into my home office chair with a second cup of coffee and started sifting through the weekend’s accumulation of email. When the phone rang and I saw the middle school’s number on the caller ID, I sighed with exasperation, wondering which of the kids had forgotten a gym uniform or lunchbox.

But no one had forgotten anything. My son was horsing around with a friend during band practice, the woman from the school office told me. He fell off a countertop and hit his head on the floor. “He seems a little out of it,” she said. “Do you want to pick him up, or should we wait and have the nurse look at him when she gets here?”

How bad could a fall from a countertop be? I thought. I am not a pessimist; I don’t always expect the worst. In fact, I figured my dramatic firstborn child was playing up the injury so he could miss a day of school. “Let’s wait for the nurse,” I said.

The nurse called me 10 minutes later with a laundry list of symptoms: nausea, fatigue, light sensitivity, sluggishness. She suggested a trip to the pediatrician’s office for an examination, so we went. But even after the pediatrician confirmed that my son had a concussion and would need a CT scan to rule out internal bleeding, I assumed she was just being overly cautious.

Thankfully, I was right. He did have a concussion, but the results of the CT scan were clear. The doctor said he could return to school the next day but would have to miss gym class for a week. Considering how much he loathed his gym teacher, I knew the latter part wouldn’t be a problem.

On the drive home from the hospital, he talked about his latest favorite video game, but I only half listened. I kept picturing him on the CT scanner table covered in a royal blue lead blanket, moving slowly into the spinning, humming machine. We had made it through almost 14 years without him breaking a bone or suffering a serious illness. We had always been lucky; I had no reason to expect the worst to happen. But in that moment, watching my suddenly small, fragile child on that table, I knew it could.

Our morning dance began as usual today, with my son feigning sleep, despite my best and continued efforts to wake him. “But, Mom,” he finally whined. “I have a concussion.”

“Yes,” I said. “Now get out of bed.” Even I didn’t buy my mom-means-business voice. We do this wake-up dance every day, my son and I. But this morning it was different.

The Evil Queen

Evil Queen

She made me go with her to the mall that day. I didn’t want to go shopping. I didn’t want to go anywhere with her. She acted like my best friend when we were in public, and it made me cringe. I may have only been 11 years old, but I knew she was a big phony and I hated her more than anything.

I never wanted a stepmother. She wasn’t part of the happily ever after I envisioned with the father I barely knew but adored. When he visited my aunt’s house, where I lived after my mom died when I was a toddler, he talked about the home he would buy for us someday. He said we would live there together as a family. He never mentioned a new wife.

When he started dating my stepmother, she and I enjoyed a brief honeymoon phase. She was attractive, fun and vivacious, charming me with shopping trips, movie dates and sleepovers. My aunt and older cousin had concerns. She was too young. She had no children. What did she know about being a mother? But I couldn’t wait to move in with her and my dad after their wedding.

Everything changed once we were living in the same house. It started with her wanting me to call her mom. I couldn’t. I already had two mothers, my real mom and my aunt. She tried to appear understanding, but I felt her resentment. My dad didn’t want any more kids. She was stuck with me and my 21-year-old brother, who was rarely home and wanted nothing to do with her.

As the months passed, the distance between us grew. When my father was around, we managed to be civil. But on the days he worked afternoons, she and I sat silently at the dinner table. Afterward, she shut herself off in their bedroom, leaving me to fend for myself. I escaped to my room, seeking comfort in books or music but feeling as if I had nothing and no one. The longer I lived in that house, the lonelier I became and the more I hated her.

Despite the tension between us, my stepmother showed off a happy mother-daughter relationship whenever other people were around. At the mall that day, while I skimmed racks of neon-colored tops, she engaged in giggly, bubbly chatter with the saleswoman.

“Are you two sisters?” I heard the saleswoman ask.

“No, she’s my daughter,” my stepmother said, laughing and shaking her head with false modesty.

“Oh, you look way too young to be her mom,” the saleswoman fawned. I seethed with anger as I watched my stepmom bask in the compliment.

We walked out of the store together, neither of us speaking. “You’re not my mother,” I said under my breath, as we entered the noisy mall.

“What did you say?” she asked, oozing venom through clenched teeth.

“I said,” speaking louder this time, so she would hear me, “You’re not my mother. I hate you!”

This time her fury trumped any concern about appearances, and she backhanded me across the mouth. I stood there in the middle of the mall, stunned by the taste of blood in my mouth and the sting of her hand on my face. I looked around and saw a few people watching us. I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go, so I turned and ran. I knew I was in trouble, I knew running would make it worse, but I didn’t care.

I found the nearest payphone and called my brother for a ride home.

Class of 2017

I opened the envelope in the driveway, shivering as the January wind ripped through my pink flannel pajamas. I scanned the letter quickly, finding everything I hoped to see. My son, a soon-to-be high school freshman, had earned honors placements in all his classes, a clean scholastic sweep. My first thought was to call my father, my own academic drill sergeant. The tears stung my freezing cheeks as I imagined his voice, knowing I could no longer hear it, but relishing the sound of it in my head.

As a parent of two, I am no stranger to the bittersweet thrill of watching my children reach milestones. As a woman who lost her parents at various stages in life, I also know the haunting emptiness of experiencing my own firsts without them. What I did not fully recognize until I opened that letter last week is how much more I ache over my children’s milestones now that all three of my parents are gone.

I brushed away my tears as I headed inside to tell my husband, wanting to escape the cold and my melancholy. I watched his anxious anticipation as he took in the vision of me in his office doorway, still shivering in my pink flannel pajamas, eyes wet and red, clutching a mysterious letter. I stumbled tearfully over the words, and somehow he managed to surmise that, in fact, no one had died and the letter contained positive news.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I told him, sobbing as he read it. “This high school thing — it’s not gonna work for me.”

I can only imagine what he was thinking as he patiently consoled me, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of: “Oh, boy. Here we go again.”

You see, I am not like those other mothers who healthily anticipate change and eagerly prepare themselves and their children for it. I was anxious, borderline neurotic, for weeks before my oldest child’s first days of elementary, intermediate and middle school. Now every time he or anyone else says “Class of 2017,” I catch my breath. In a year and a half, he will be driving, and I will be forced into the passenger seat. I will be able to suggest alternate routes, different turns, safer speeds, but he will control the wheel. How will I let go and allow him to venture into the unknown world of adult disappointments and heartbreak?

These were the bleak thoughts I wrestled with that day, as I waited for my son to get home from school. I wondered what advice my father, a stoic World War II veteran, would give. When he and I tussled verbally during my tumultuous teenage years, he often said, “You know, if there were classes on parenting back in my day, I would have taken them.” I’m sure he chuckled heartily at my expense over all the parenting books I read years later, knowing that none of them would prepare me for the hard-knock lessons of watching my own children grow up and away from me.

When my almost freshman walked up the driveway that afternoon, I thought of how proud my father, who hadn’t finished high school, had been of me when I graduated an honors student. Although I could not tell him about his grandson’s achievement, I felt his pride right there, next to my own.

I met my son at the door and gave him the letter, watching the relief and satisfaction wash over him as he read it. For a moment, I felt only his joy and none of my dread. “You earned this,” I said, hugging him tightly. “I am so proud of you, so happy.” And I was — tears, pink flannel pajamas and all.

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My soon-to-be high school freshman on his first day of fourth grade.

Hockey Skates and a Not-So-Lucky Cat

There are moments in marriage when you look at your significant other and remember why you got hitched in the first place. Of course, there are also moments when you wonder, “Who is this person, and why on earth did he just do that?” The best moments are a bit of both: His actions take you by surprise but in a way that makes you see him as you once did.

I never thought I’d find my husband of 16 years more attractive in a pair of hockey skates, but it happened two Sundays ago in Chicago.

School was about to resume after a two-week break, and everyone in our family was dreading Monday’s arrival. A friend suggested dim sum in Chinatown, and it sounded like the perfect beginning of a winter-break last hurrah. It was. We spent an hour at Phoenix Restaurant stuffing our faces with mostly unidentifiable but delicious steamed and deep-fried dumplings. Dim sum, like marriage, requires a leap of faith.

As we sipped our tea and patted our bellies full of heaven knew what, we decided the next leg of our journey would be shopping in Chinatown, followed by ice skating at Millennium Park. My 13-year-old wasn’t interested in shopping or skating, but I promised him an overpriced hot chocolate at the Park Grill and he kindly acquiesced. My 11-year-old wanted some panda paraphernalia for her collection, and I was dying to find a “lucky cat” (a.k.a. maneki-neko) to add to my tchotchke trove. Five (more like 10) stores later, our daughter scored a panda coffee mug, and I settled on a bright-eyed mama cat with a full litter of kittens, figuring all the babies made her extra lucky. With our dining and shopping needs satiated, we headed to the rink.

My not-so-lucky cat

My not-so-lucky cat

My new cat may have been cute and fertile, but she didn’t seem to have much going on in the luck department. We spent at least 30 minutes trying to find parking, and when we finally arrived at Millennium Park, the wait for renting skates was an hour. My daughter brought her own skates, which meant she could hit the ice immediately. But what fun would it be to skate alone? When my husband saw the dejected look on her face, he donned his super hero cape and hatched a solution. All we had to do, he said, was hop a cab across town to the nearest Sports Authority and buy him a pair of skates. It was an impetuous, overindulgent and completely out-of-character move, and it thrilled both my daughter and me.

Thirty minutes, two cab rides and about $65 later, Super Dad was slipping and sliding across the ice in a brand-new pair of hockey skates. I enjoyed the warmth and libations of the Park Grill with my son, both of us laughing as we watched our super hero try to keep up with our figure skater in training. The man had no clue how to skate, but he knew how to make his daughter happy.

I’m not banking on my not-so-lucky Chinatown cat winning me any lottery jackpots, but she makes me smile every time I look at her on my living room bookshelf. She reminds me of a day when I remembered why I love my husband so much. And so do those hockey skates in the garage.

Super Dad and the figure skater

Super Dad and the figure skater


P.S. Thank you so much for all the supportive comments on my post about quitting smoking. I’ve been smoke-free for 21 days now, and I feel great. It truly helps to know you guys have my back.

It Really Is a Wonderful Life

Source: RKO/NBC

The first time I watched Frank Capra’s magnificent film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I was a single twenty-something living in Dearborn, Michigan. The movie made me sob, first and foremost because I am a gigantic sap. But also because it made me think about how much value each of us has and how many other lives we touch, whether we know it or not. It made me think of my future and the place I wanted for myself in the world. It made me realize I wanted to matter to someone.

I’ve watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas since then (the black-and-white version, of course), and each time it says something new and different to me. There was the year I watched it for the first time in a Chicago apartment with the man who would be my husband, and he loved it just as much as I did. There was the year we watched it in our first house, a 1920s’ bungalow in Chicago, and I understood exactly why Mary wanted to fix up and live in the drafty, old Granville house. There was the year we watched it for the first time with our kids, neither of whom liked it all that much, and I cried extra hard when George found Zuzu’s petals in his pocket. There was the year we watched it after my husband lost his job, when Mr. Potter seemed extra villainous and George’s victory celebration was particularly poignant.

This year, the line that resonated most with me was Clarence’s inscription in the copy of “Tom Sawyer” that he leaves behind for George: “No man is a failure who has friends.” It has been a tough 12 months for me (parent’s death, job loss), and I don’t know what I would have done without the strength and support of the friends who buoyed me through it. I’m also very lucky and grateful to be married to my own George Bailey, my best friend and the richest man in town.

On this Christmas Eve eve, I am happy and thankful to be exactly where I am. I wouldn’t change a thing. The bad times only make the good ones mean more. I guess I don’t need Frank Capra to tell me it’s a wonderful life, but I do enjoy the reminder.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays with those you love the most in your own wonderful lives.

The ‘I Love You’ Rule

My husband is not a morning person. When our children were babies, I envied his ability to sleep through their crying, something my bionic mommy hearing wouldn’t allow me to do. A decade or so later, long past the years of late-night feedings and baby monitors, he still dozes peacefully through my 6 a.m. alarm until his own clock starts buzzing an hour or so later.

Since their father is rarely up before they leave for school, it surprised and pleased our children to see him heading downstairs at 6:30 yesterday morning. They were already bundled in their coats with backpacks in hand, waiting for their ride to band practice. My husband settled in next to me on the couch, and we all cuddled together for a few minutes.

As the kids walked out the door, we told them we loved them as we always do when we say goodbye. It’s an unspoken rule in our family to say “I love you” whenever we part ways or end a phone call. I never coached the kids to say it; they just did, and still do.

After they left, I asked my husband why he was up so early. Was he worried, as I was, about them going back to school after what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary? He said no. In the same way he can sleep through baby monitors and alarm clocks, he can push tragic events to the back of his mind. When he finds it too painful to think about something, he doesn’t. It may have been a coincidence that he was up early, but our kids still received an extra hug, kiss and “I love you” from their father on a day when these things especially mattered.

It was comforting to have my husband take part in our morning goodbyes yesterday, but I don’t mind being the one who gets up with our kids. As they grow older and the world in which we live becomes less certain and more frightening, I embrace the chance to connect with them before they leave the safety of home and family. While they eat breakfast, I help pack their lunches and we talk about their plans for the day. Some mornings they are talkative, others they don’t say much at all. But I am there if they need me, and that makes it easier to watch them go.

My husband may not be a morning person, but he has no problem handling bedtime. He has always been part of the night-time ritual, helping with baths and reading books. As our kids grew older, I eased myself out of the routine, letting him take over the night shift. Even now, at ages 11 and 13, they still ask him to tuck them into bed, and I do it when he isn’t home. Before we leave their rooms, we kiss and hug them goodnight, and we say “I love you.” It doesn’t matter who says it first; one of us always does. We know the rule.

Image source: Fireside-Home.com

Happy Birthday to You, Mom

Today I am remembering my beautiful Aunt Thelma, the woman who raised me, on what would have been her 93rd birthday. She was a loving daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother and great grandmother who touched so many lives. To me, she was a mother, a hero, a role model and a dear friend.

Thelma was 51 and had already raised her own two children and multiple foster kids when she and my Uncle Lincoln welcomed me into their home. At that point in life, some women would not have been so giving and selfless, but that wasn’t how Thelma rolled. Her brother’s wife was dying, and he needed her help. All he had to do was ask, and she and my uncle were setting up a crib for me in their house.

My aunt said it was a seamless transition, me moving in with her and Uncle Lincoln. She said I slept peacefully in my new home on the very first night. I was only 2½, but I believe I sensed the love in that house and felt safe. I was exactly where I belonged.

No one was a stranger in Thelma’s house. She welcomed everyone. In fact, her kitchen was kind of like a 24-hour diner: You never knew who would show up. From my dad, to his friends, to all my “aunts” and “uncles” (which was how children respectfully referred to their parents’ friends back in the 1970s), there always seemed to be someone different sitting at her table. My aunt was a great cook, for sure, but she was an even better friend.

Happy birthday, Mom. Thank you for everything you gave me, for your love and friendship. Thank you for showing me what it takes to make a happy home and marriage. I would not be the person, wife or mother I am today if it had not been for you. I was, and continue to be, blessed, and you are the reason.

Thelma, my beautiful aunt, mother and friend. RIP 12/14/1919 - 12/21/2011

Santa Puppy: Yes, We Dress Up Our Dog #IPPP

Meet Rosebud, the Santa who sits on my lap. Rosie B, as we affectionately call her, came into our lives two holiday seasons ago. We stopped into the local pet shop a few days after Christmas, and immediately fell in love with her. Well, the kids and I did anyway. Their dad was a tougher sell. Strangely enough, he is now the one most attached to RB and proudly walks her through the neighborhood in her pink argyle sweater. Yes, it’s true we’re those people: We dress our dog. Disclaimer: She only wears holiday-specific or cold weather attire. That makes it OK, right?

Rosebud would love to know what you want for Christmas. She doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice; she’ll sit on your lap either way.

I’m linking up with the awesome GFunkified and Mamamash again this week for iPPP. Click on the link below to join us for some iPhone photo phun.