How Lovely Are Your Branches

I don’t remember placing a single ornament on our first ever artificial Christmas tree last year, not even the ones I bought for each of my children. I don’t recall shopping for gifts, wrapping them in patterned paper and shiny bows, or placing them under the tree. I have no idea what we made for the family dinner we hosted on Christmas Eve. I’m certain we did these things. I have the photographic evidence to prove it. But I have no memories.

Last year my aunt, who raised me and was a grandmother to my children, died four days before Christmas. She had been ill with pneumonia since Thanksgiving and passed away shortly after her 92nd birthday. Given her age, frailty and poor health, her death was a blessing. But that didn’t make it any easier for her children, grandchildren and all those who loved her to let her go.

The weeks surrounding my aunt’s death were a numb blur, and the holidays became something to endure rather than enjoy. I can see it in my glassy eyes and forced smile in a photograph of my husband and me that I don’t recall being taken on Christmas Eve. It appears that I put on the “happy mommy” show as best I could for my family, but it was as phony as our new tree.

After the holidays, we packed up the 12-foot, pre-lit tree, which my husband hated and hadn’t wanted to buy in the first place. He swore we’d get a real tree next Christmas.  I don’t remember caring too much one way or another about the tree being artificial. I just didn’t want to look at it anymore.

As the weeks and months passed and took us further away from Christmas, my numbness faded. It may not be the nature of grief to release us entirely, but it does slowly loosen its grip. The darkness gradually lifts, and the good days, so fleeting initially, grow more frequent. The ghosts of our memories move to the outskirts of our thoughts, and we focus on those who remain before us. We remember to feel, we remember to live, and we desire to do both.

This year my husband tried to convince me to get a real tree, but I wanted to give “Tree-hemoth” a second chance. I even managed to talk him into putting it up the week after Thanksgiving, which is early for last-minute holiday non-planners like us. The door of my home office stays open all day so I can admire my glimmering fake fir.

I am feeling festive without pretending, but I haven’t deluded myself into expecting a picture-perfect holiday. I know there will be stress, and some things will go wrong. I will miss my aunt and everyone else who is no longer with us or cannot be here. But I’m ready to make new, happy memories with my family. My smile in this year’s photo will be real.

Creatures of Habit

My father and me in 2005 at his 80th birthday party

My dad ate poached eggs and toast for breakfast every day when I was a teenager living with him in Livonia, Michigan. He woke up at 5 a.m., put on a pot of coffee, read the paper and made his simple but satisfying morning meal. He didn’t say much as he sat at the kitchen table, methodically planning his morning. His shift as security director at Mount Sinai Hospital in Detroit didn’t start until 3 p.m., but he had things he needed to accomplish beforehand. Each moment would have a purpose; no task would go undone.

As a World War II veteran and retired Detroit police officer, my father experienced turbulence and loss throughout most of his life. At 18 he was on board a U.S. Navy ship bombed by a Japanese suicide plane in the Sulu Sea. A torpedo from a nearby destroyer sunk the U.S.S. Ommaney Bay, and 95 of his fellow Navy men were lost.

Whatever remained of my father’s innocence sank to the bottom of the sea with his ship. He returned to the states suffering from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He was haunted by what he had seen and needed to re-establish order in his life. He went from the Navy to the police department, finding comfort in the structure of enforcing the law.

But the chaos followed him, professionally and personally.

It traveled with him through the streets of Detroit as a beat cop, and as he climbed the department ranks to become an inspector. In 1967 it took shape in the Detroit riots, the violence and destruction of which left the city he fought to protect in ruins.

That same year he and my mother faced the personal upheaval of an unexpected pregnancy. They were relieved and pleased that what my 40-year-old mother thought might be a tumor turned out to be a baby. Two-and-a-half years later, she was diagnosed with leukemia and died within six weeks. My older siblings stayed with my father in Detroit, and I went to live with my aunt and uncle in nearby Southfield. Two teenagers were enough; a toddler was more than a devastated widower could handle.

At 11, I returned to live with my father, a man I barely knew, and his new wife. I didn’t understand him or his rituals. I didn’t know about the things that had happened to him or what he had seen. I couldn’t possibly comprehend the significance of his morning routine, the structure he imposed on his life. I wouldn’t realize who my father was and why until I heard his stories years later and then experienced firsthand some of the chaos and loss that come with adulthood, including his death six years ago.

Now, as a wife and mother of two, I find comfort in morning rituals of my own. I pop out of bed at 6 a.m., rouse my bleary-eyed children and head downstairs to prepare their lunches. I make myself a cup of coffee, turn on the television for the local weather report, and silently and methodically plan my day. Each moment will have a purpose; no task will go undone.

I am my father’s daughter.

Five Star Friday

The Bad Wife

I dreaded my husband’s business trips when our kids were young. Parenting alone for a few days several times a month left me in need of therapy, a vacation, or at the very least a case of wine and a visit from the fairy housekeeper. I missed his help more than his company when he traveled back then. Perhaps that sounds coldhearted and selfish, but anyone who has single-handedly wrangled a baby or toddler will understand.

Nope. That's not me. (Image source:

In the tween and teen years, parenting alone is trying but manageable. The angst, attitude and backtalk stress me out, but at least my kids are old enough that I can reason with them some of the time. And because they are independent and more or less self-sufficient, this mother’s work actually is done at the end of the day. When my husband is away now, I miss his company because I do fine without his help, usually at least.

His latest trip has been a different experience for us here at home. One of our kids is having a tough time, and life has been more than a little challenging. (As much as I would like to talk about it here, I can’t, because I have to respect my child’s privacy. I’m starting to understand why people blog anonymously. Self-censorship sucks.) In light of our struggles, you would think I would want my husband here with me.

Instead I’m enjoying a few days of freedom. There’s nothing sordid to tell. I haven’t been out boozing, gambling or carousing — at least not yet. Actually, I’ve been home every night since he left.

I’m a bad wife not because of anything I’ve done while he’s away but because I’m relieved that he’s gone.

For the past few days, I haven’t worried a bit about being unemployed for the past four months. While the kids are at school, I write and work out at my leisure because he isn’t here to see me slacking. In the evenings, I relax on the couch in front of the TV without a twinge of regret because he isn’t still working in his office upstairs. I do whatever the hell I want, when I want, and I revel in it.

I’m a bad wife because even though my husband has supported me lovingly and completely ever since I lost my job, I still think I’ve let him down. He’s given me no reason to feel this way, none whatsoever. It’s all in my insecure, delusional head. He wants me to be able to relax and do the things that make me happy. Instead, I’ve relegated myself to serf status in my own home because I think I am not carrying my weight financially.

I’m a bad wife for the same reasons I’m a good mother: I would rather give support than receive it. I want to be the caregiver not the patient. I want to heal my family’s wounds, while ignoring my own. If I want to be a good wife who is worthy of my even better husband, I have to allow him to take care of me a little. I have to admit I need the emotional Band-Aid of someone telling me it will all be OK.

This bad wife could really use a good husband right now. Thank goodness he comes home tomorrow.

Jeff Buckley and a Flat Tire

It was Feb. 9, 1994, a snowy Wednesday night in Chicago. I was with a friend at Schuba’s Tavern, one of our favorite music haunts. We met there to see Jeff Buckley, but it was a sold-out show and we didn’t have tickets. A drink at the bar before we trudged home through the snow: Why not?

When the guy with snow-covered hair nudged his way up to the bar next to me, I noticed his cheekbones, his motorcycle jacket, his playful smile. As he waited for his beer, he built a house out of matchbooks. He was trying to get our attention, so we indulged him.

I asked him if he was there to see Jeff Buckley. He wasn’t. His friend had a flat tire outside the bar and called him for backup. Apparently, he called several other friends too, so Cheekbone Guy decided to go inside to warm up and have a beer.

I teased him for not helping his friend and laughed when he admitted he’d rather be in the warm bar having a drink. We talked about the NPR “Car Talk” guys, and he told us Janis Joplin was one of his favorite female singers. The conversation was easy, so we shared a few more drinks.

When he asked for my number, I gave it to him. I assumed he wanted to hang out with my friend and me. (I’ve always been a little naïve about picking up on guys’ signals — even the blatantly obvious ones.) My friend laughed at me. “He is going to ask you out,” she said. But I didn’t take her seriously. He was a few years younger than us; I really didn’t see it happening. Plus, I was 26 and had just moved to Chicago four months ago. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend.

Cheekbone Guy called a few days later and asked if I wanted to go see a movie. I asked him if he meant “go see a movie” as in “go on a date.” Yep, he said, that was exactly what he meant.

We saw “Reality Bites” at the Biograph Theater on our first date, which lasted 24 hours. Six weeks later we moved in together. Today we are celebrating our 16th wedding anniversary.

Thank you to Jeff Buckley and a flat tire for making it all possible.

Keep Your Politics Off Facebook, Please

This post is not about the election. It’s about the social media aftermath.

I went to bed last night at my usual 10 p.m., having reached my daily peak of exhaustion. It takes a lot to keep me up any later on a weeknight. A sick child, a gripping movie, a foot-stomping concert? Yes, maybe and perhaps. The presidential election results? Not so much. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s that I was pretty convinced the guy I didn’t vote for would win and figured the next morning, after a solid eight hours of restful sleep, was soon enough to learn the news.

So what happens? I wake up to find the guy I did vote for won. Say what? I’ll admit I was excited for and proud of our president, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm. But I have a lot of Republicans and/or Romney supporters in my life (including my husband) and didn’t want to rub salt in anyone’s wounds. This is what was in my head when I logged on to my computer to post about Obama’s victory.

What did I find on Facebook? A whole lot of openly hostile as well as passive-aggressive posts from adults, a picture of the Statue of Liberty with her head in her hands, and a post from a teenager saying something to the effect of “at least I know my parents didn’t vote for him.”

What the f*ck, Facebook?

So I, the perpetual Pollyanna, post this: “I’m ALWAYS proud to be an American, to have freedoms and choices, and I love ALL my friends and family, regardless of their politics. I’m for keeping Facebook politics free. Anyone with me?” Not a single comment or “like” (at least not yet). I also posted this image of and quote from Thomas Jefferson.

You'd think they would at least listen to Thomas Jefferson (source:

Wow. Four-hundred and fifty-nine Facebook friends and not a single one believes we should stand together as Americans and respect the collective voice of our nation? Now that’s something for the Statue of Liberty to be ashamed of.

And so I ask you, Facebook friends, what do you get out of attacking our president online? I understand that you’re angry, disappointed, frustrated. But is Facebook really the right forum to express those feelings? Will your electronic-courage-fueled posts effect the positive change you claim he is incapable of producing? If you are that angry about the current state of affairs, why don’t you get out there and volunteer, run for office, do something to be the change you want to see in our country?

Whatever you do or don’t do, I would really appreciate it if you stopped clogging my Facebook news feed with your vitriol. I go there for the cute baby pictures.

Meet You at the Finish Line

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 runners who crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon this year. I registered for it. I even started training. But I couldn’t do it. Not this time around.

The year since my husband and I ran the 2011 marathon has been challenging for our family. We lost my aunt, the woman who raised me and was a grandmother to my children, and then I wound up out of a job. After two pivotal life changes within seven months, running another marathon moved to the bottom of my priority list.

My husband, meanwhile, stuck with it and ran the Chicago Marathon a second time. Even if I didn’t have the desire or motivation to run myself, I wouldn’t have missed being there to support him. I even dragged both our puffy-eyed, half-conscious children out of bed at 5:30 a.m. so the four of us could make the 45-minute journey from the South Suburbs to the city together.

I was excited for him as we piled into the car and he did his final gear check. But once we hit I-80, a lump of regret swelled in my throat. Why hadn’t I kept up with the training? Why had I given up so soon? Why had I let myself fail without even trying?

I had lots of excuses for dropping out of the race, some more valid than others. Before I lost my job, we planned two summer vacations, which meant I would miss a total of three weeks’ training and some of the longer, and most crucial, runs. But lots of marathon runners skimp a bit on training and still finish. A bigger problem was my foot, which started nagging me as the training schedule ramped up. After rupturing my plantar fascia 11 weeks into training the previous year, I worried the same or worse would happen again. What if I hurt my foot so badly that I couldn’t run anymore?

If I had truly wanted to run a second marathon, I would have ignored my aching foot with the help of a cortisone shot as I had done the previous year. My primary reason for quitting this time was that I no longer had the energy or the passion. When I lost my job six weeks into training, I knew it was over for me.

The morning of the race, dropping off my husband and watching him and thousands of other runners head toward the start line, was bittersweet. I wanted to be there to see him finish, set a new PR and feel the rush of personal victory. But I also itched to be out there with him, to experience the singular pride and joy of crossing that finish line one more time.

Before the 2011 race, my husband and I signed up for text alerts so we could track each other’s progress. I run much slower than he does normally, but because of my injury we weren’t sure if I would even finish. My longest training run had been the 16-miler when I hurt my foot.

We parted ways shortly after the race started, and I took it slowly and mile by mile. I didn’t have a time goal; I just wanted to finish. Right before mile 20, when I was exhausted and beyond doubting myself, I got a text that my husband had crossed the finish line. It was one of the best moments of the race for me; knowing he had made it carried me through my last six miles. When I crossed the finish line an hour after him, he was right there waiting for me.

This year I was determined to do the same for him.

I signed up for his text alerts so my kids and I could follow his path — or at least trace part of it. We met him with shouts of encouragement and a homemade sign near mile three and again just before the halfway mark. I wanted him to feel our support, but I also enjoyed reliving the thrills of the race.

About 20 minutes before his estimated finish time, we pushed our way through the crowd to the bleachers near the finish line. We needed just the right vantage point, and this was it: The kids could see over the adults in front of them, and my husband would be able to find us in the crowd.

When we spotted him after that final curve, my heart raced as we screamed his name. The look on his face when he saw us was pure joy, and it was as if I were experiencing those last 400 meters — the best part of the race, if you ask me — right by his side.

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 finishers at the Chicago Marathon this year. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever cross that or any other finish line again. Sometimes watching the person you love win and sharing in his happiness is enough. This year it was a victory for us both.

That guy in the blue shirt with his arms in the air is my marathon man husband, just before he crossed the finish line and set a new PR of 4:24:32.

Do Not Disturb

I kicked off my slippers and melted onto the queen-size bed in a pool of new-mother exhaustion. It was mid-afternoon, and I had just laid down my six-week-old after nursing him for the fourth time since dawn.

Or was it the fifth time?

The only thing I tracked accurately without pencil and paper in those early weeks was the number of hours until my husband would return from work. I longed desperately for some time to myself, adult conversation and, more than anything, undisturbed sleep.

I’ll just lie down for a few minutes while he naps.

I had never been very good at napping, but the more experienced moms I knew told me to try to sleep when the baby slept. The chores can wait, they said.

As I sprawled out guiltily on top of the peach-flowered comforter, I thought of all the things I should be doing: scrubbing dishes, folding laundry, writing thank-you notes.

This is a waste of time. I should get up and accomplish something while he sleeps…

But the whir of the air-conditioning unit in the window was a soothing lullaby, even for a Type A mother with countless chores to cross off her list. I drifted into a deep sleep, bobbing in and out of consciousness with the occasional sighs and rustlings coming from the nearby baby monitor. Upon each brief awakening, my head felt heavier, the room seemed darker.

Is it dusk already? How long have I been asleep?

I looked for the clock on the bedside table, but it wasn’t there. I lay there in my haze, searching the room for a buoy of wakefulness. I needed to get myself together and check on the baby. The pale mocha walls seemed fuzzy as I watched the ceiling fan spin round and round overhead. Suddenly, a large shadow in the doorway appeared in my peripheral vision. My eyes darted in its direction, but it was gone.

What the hell was that? Is someone in the house?

Panicking, I tried to sit up. But something was holding me down, a weight so heavy I struggled for breath. The dark, giant mass covered my entire body, and I was completely immobile. I could see nothing through the blackness that enveloped me, gripping me with terror. I felt the insurmountable pressure of it bearing down on me, pushing me further into the pillow-top mattress. This thing, whatever it was, was trying to suffocate me.

I screamed again and again, but my constricted throat couldn’t expel the sound. I strained to move my limbs, to push the thing off me. My breath grew shallow; my body felt limp.

And then, as abruptly as it had appeared, it was gone; the weight, the darkness, lifted.

I rolled slowly onto my side, panting with fear, my muscles still flaccid and weak. I looked through the doorway and down the hall to my son’s room.

Nothing was there.

As I dragged my sluggish body from the bed, I noticed bright light streaming through the cracks of the blinds. I scanned the bedside table for the missing clock and found it right next to the baby monitor, where it always was. It was 3:02 p.m., just 20 or so minutes after I had put the baby in his crib, and nowhere near dusk.

I crept into my son’s room and found him fast asleep. I shut his door and wandered foggily through the house checking the doors and windows. They remained locked, the house quiet and untouched.

I didn’t sleep well that night. And it wasn’t because of the baby.

"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli


My Failed Facebook Dry-Out

If this one sounds familiar, that’s because it originally ran March 28, 2012. I edited and reposted it for this week’s Yeah Write Challenge.

I gave up social media for Lent this year, and I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me that it didn’t last. Let’s face it: I am a Facebook junkie. I like to “check in.” I like to “like” things. When I go a day without updating my status, people text me to make sure I’m OK. That last part probably sounds like an exaggeration, but sadly it is true.

Inspired by my husband, who gives up alcohol every year for Lent, I decided to try some clean living of my own. For 46 days (actually 40 because Sundays don’t count during Lent), I would give up Bejeweled Blitz (I am embarrassed to admit how much time I spent matching and detonating jewels); checking in (how would anyone know about the fun places I visited?); and updating my status (almost unthinkable for someone who has as much to say as I do).

Since I am not Catholic, I figured I would make my own rules and start Lent early. On Feb. 8, I announced my intentions publicly, via status update, of course. My friends wished me well and offered words of encouragement. One went so far as to send me a sympathy card the first week. No, I’m not making that up.

Somehow this perpetual Facebooker managed to quit cold turkey. For an entire week I did not take a single peek at my page or anyone else’s.

All was well until I realized that an email address I desperately needed was only available to me on Facebook. I knew I’d be cheating if I ventured back to the dark side and, although I may not be Catholic, I am prone to overwhelming guilt. So I signed on, got the email and admitted my lapse in a status update. I also said a quick hello because Lent hadn’t officially started and the temptation to let my 416 friends know how much I missed them was more than I could bear — even if most of them probably had no idea I had left Facebook in the first place.

Hoping it would be an isolated slip-up, I climbed back on the wagon. Again, I lasted about a week. This time I felt the overwhelming need to brag about my options guru husband, who had made an appearance on Fox Business News. It was a really big day for him, and he is not one to boast about his accomplishments. Someone had to do it for him, right?

By the time Fat Tuesday rolled around I knew I was in serious trouble. Giving up Bejeweled Blitz was nothing. It was going without the social interaction that was doing me in. So I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone, and I deactivated my account.

I did pretty well initially. I logged in on two separate Sundays (the Catholic Church says they don’t count, remember?), but I deactivated my account before Monday, when Lent resumes.

Then I was faced with the mother of all tests of my addiction: My daughter, a fifth grader, won an essay contest. As her mom, I would have been proud of this regardless. But as a professional editor and on-again, off-again writer, I was thrilled. I had to let my friends know. I just had to. So I signed on to my dog’s account (yes, my Yorkshire Terrier, Rosebud, has her own Facebook page), and I sang my daughter’s praises. Rosebud only has 38 friends on Facebook, but, hey, it was something.

It was a Friday, not a Sunday, and I was on Facebook posing as my dog. I knew I had reached a true low point, so I gave up and reactivated my own account. Lent, for me, was officially over two weeks early.

Our dog, Rosebud, unsuspecting victim of FB identity theft

Am I embarrassed that I couldn’t last the full 40 days? A little. But I’m proud too. Although I’m a miserable failure at making Lenten sacrifices, I did accomplish what I had set out to do during my Facebook sabbatical: I started this blog.

After months of thinking and talking about it, of agonizing over putting myself out there and writing again, I did it. And I’m pretty proud of myself, broken Lenten promise or not.

I’m not sure where this journey is going to take me, but I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted in my Facebook status updates. Oh, and for the record, my husband is still happily on the wagon.

The Dating Game

I didn’t date much in my early twenties. Dating was for girls who wanted to settle down, get married and raise children, and none of these things was part of my plans. I would rather dance the night away with my friends at some seedy new wave club in downtown Detroit than spend an evening that most likely would go nowhere with some guy I barely knew.

Dating was not my scene.

Nevertheless, at 22, I found myself in an audience of young, single women on a Detroit morning TV show. The men on the “Kelly & Company” stage had been voted Michigan’s 20 most eligible bachelors out of a pool of 1,000 applicants, and we, the audience, were their potential dates for a group luncheon cruise on the Detroit River.

Unlike the other women in the audience, I hadn’t chosen to be there. I didn’t buy a ticket or win a seat. I was the assistant editor of the magazine cosponsoring the event, and my boss had requested that I go. It was my first job out of college and, even at my most idealistic and militantly feminist, I knew I was lucky to have it.

So there I sat in the studio audience, hoping desperately that none of the bachelors on stage would notice, let alone pick, me. I had abandoned my loud, funky post-punk wardrobe that day for a modest paisley blouse and long skirt, borrowed pearls, and sensible navy blue hose and pumps. I was dressed for a job interview, not a date. My goal was to blend into the walls of the television studio, and I thought I was doing a fine job.

Meanwhile, in the seat next to me was another young woman from my office, a sales assistant in a short red skirt, her shiny black curls and pink lips glistening under the studio lights. She hooted and hollered as the guys chose their dates, while I nonchalantly slumped further into my seat. I was sure all eyes would be drawn to hoot-and-holler girl or any of the other brightly dressed, heavily lip-glossed women surrounding me. I was safe, I thought.

But then something terrifying happened. One of the men on stage made eye contact with me. At first I thought I was mistaken, so I quickly looked away. When I glanced back, he was staring directly at me.

“I am a photographer,” he told the show’s cohost, Marilyn Turner. “And the eyes are the windows to the soul.”

My cheeks reddened and my heart pounded, but it was not out of newfound passion.

“Holy crap,” I mumbled to hoot-and-holler girl, praying he was looking at her and not me. She started to squeal, and I sighed with relief. It was like going to a concert and thinking the lead singer is singing to you. Only this time I was really happy he was singing to my friend.

Hoot-and-holler girl shrieked again suddenly and grabbed my arm. “He picked YOU, Kathleen! He picked YOU!”

And she was right. He was pointing directly at me, the sensible feminist in borrowed pearls and navy blue pumps. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, he really needed a pair of glasses.

I went on the group date with Picture Guy, and it was predictably painful. During the limo ride to the Detroit River, he bragged about his photography and made worrisome comments about his living situation. A man who took himself too seriously and lived with his parents was not on my personal list of most eligible bachelors. Did I mention he liked pop music?

I had an out, though, and thankfully it didn’t involve swimming to shore from the cruise ship. Since I worked for the magazine cosponsoring the contest, I was obligated to talk to the other bachelors, or at least that’s what I politely told Picture Guy.

Too bad Lenny and Squiggy weren't on the boat.

After lunch I wandered around the ship, drank champagne and made awkward small talk. I had no expectations; I just wanted to get away from my boorish date. To my surprise, I met someone remotely interesting as I made my rounds. Lawyer Dude was as apathetic about the contest as I was and mocked it openly. He was sarcastic and had a sense of humor, and he was a music fanatic. When he asked for my number, I didn’t say no. But I was sure not to slip it to him in front of Picture Guy, whose calls I already knew I would never return.

We went out a few times, Lawyer Dude and I, but there was a generation of musical distance, not to mention life experience, separating us. During a heated discussion of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” for example, he championed the album fervently while I, who had never even listened to the whole thing, wrote it off as dinosaur rock.

Sometimes age makes exceptions for youth. In this case, it never called her again.

It was OK, though. Youth was quite happy dancing the night away with her friends.

Looking for a nurturing, supportive group of writers who blog and bloggers who write? Come join me over at Yeah Write. You will love these folks.

The Long Way Home

I drove the 260-mile trip home to Michigan countless times over 20 years. In the early nineties, just a few months after I moved to Chicago, I brought a nervous new boyfriend home to meet my family. Two years later, we ventured back as an engaged couple, clinking blue-stemmed champagne flutes with my father and stepmother. In another several years, we took our infant son there for Thanksgiving, two overwhelmed first-time parents, cringing as our baby wailed for what seemed like the entire four-and-a-half-hour car ride.

Sometimes, pre-kids, I made the trip home alone and stayed with friends. Post-kids, we went as a family and stayed with my aunt, who had been a mother to me when I was young, or with my dad. We planned our visits around holidays, so they were equal parts stressful and joy-filled. I wanted my husband to help me wrangle our two children, but even more than that I needed the cushion of his emotional support.

I needed it more than ever as we made our latest trek to Michigan, to my cousin’s house in Brighton. Our previous trip there had been to visit my bed-ridden aunt, whose frail, 92-year-old body was unable to bounce back after a bitter bout with pneumonia. She died shortly afterward.

Now, eight months later, we were on our way to her memorial.

On that early Saturday morning in our atypically quiet car, my husband focused on the road, the kids on their iPod games, and me on the prospect of keeping it together in front of my relatives and their friends. This wasn’t a funeral; it was a celebration. It was no place for tears, mine or anyone else’s.

As we passed the exit signs on our journey east on I-94, landmarks we usually pointed out went unnoticed. Not even the Climax, Michigan, sign, which normally elicited a dirty-minded snicker from my husband or me, seemed to register. When we finally reached Brighton, we missed my cousin’s street. I noticed my marker for it — a strangely constructed, half-underground house — but forgot to tell my husband to make the turn. Nothing felt familiar. Everything had changed.

It’s sad and strange to go home when the people you loved the most are no longer there.

I reminded myself that everyone at the memorial had lost my aunt, not just me. When we arrived at my cousin’s house, I forced a smile on my face, hid my sad eyes behind Ray-Bans and headed into the party. My aunt had taught me as a little girl to always say hello to everyone who visited us. So there, at what used to be her home, that’s what I did.

After an hour or so of small talk with relatives and friends, a few of my cousins and I gathered in my aunt’s living room to watch some old videotapes of family parties. My aunt, the matriarch, had dominated our family get-togethers. I felt her presence as we watched the videos, even when she wasn’t on the TV screen.

My beautiful aunt, our family’s matriarch

When dinnertime came, we all felt her presence — in the menu. We dined on the foods she had served at family gatherings: beef brisket, ham, potato salad, cole slaw, cucumber salad and butter tarts. We shared a toast after the meal, each of us raising a shot glass of watered-down scotch with an ice cube in her honor. My aunt had loved her scotch and water — every day at four o’clock and even in her nineties.

The guests departed gradually after the toast, but my husband, children and I stayed well into the evening. We sat in my aunt’s living room with her children, my older cousins, trading stories and catching up on one another’s lives. Their company was familiar, soothing. I didn’t want to go because leaving would mark a conclusion. How could I place a period at the end of the last sentence of such an important chapter of my life?

We did leave eventually, as parents of tired children must. We said our goodbyes and drove up the gravel driveway. That’s the point where I would normally burst into tears after visiting my aunt, sobbing and shaking until at least the end of my cousin’s street. I hated leaving her. I hated being left.

This time I hadn’t cried, which I didn’t realize until we reached our hotel. The memorial had been a good thing, I told my husband. It gave us all closure.

When I woke the next morning, I felt an overwhelming desire to run, fast and far away. I had my closure, and I needed to leave Michigan, my ghost town of memories, and return to my present.

I rose quickly, showered and packed before waking my husband. “I need to leave,” I told him. “Now.” He understood.

We made a quick stop for Coney Island hotdogs — a Detroit-area tradition — on our way out of town. At our table in the diner, I watched my children scarf down pancakes and bacon while my husband and I noshed on our Coneys. My tension ebbed.

The past was painful, but I didn’t have to run from it. I had punctuated the end of my Michigan sentence long ago.

We finished our food and began our 260-mile journey home to Illinois.


P.S. My cousin, the talented blogger behind The Three Under, shares her thoughts on the memorial party and growing up in Brighton here