My cousin Cale was given this quilt after my grandparents died. It wasn’t one my grandmother used; it was kept on display on a high plant shelf above the kitchen. Cale’s puppy didn’t show such deference and sooner than later the hand-stitched heirloom was in pieces.
Cale, abashed, asked me if I could do anything to fix it. “It’s just so soft.”
It was soft. The fabric had been used for a generation before being tucked on a shelf, and I didn’t blame him for wanting to use it, or for his puppy not knowing better. Accidents happen and Grandma Maxine would have been the first to smile at her grandson wanting the quilt to live on.
It took a bit of cutting away tiny stitches…
and a bit of creative patching…
I cut away three of the four corners and patched them with new fabric, and backed the quilt with flannel. This beauty will live on for yet another generation.
Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays. My late Grandmother Maxine would have us to her home in Tucson for a simple meal after church, and we’d all enjoy chocolate. She loved chocolate, and it was her annual sacrifice for Lent.
I think of her often, how she’s molded who I am today, and how I wish I was more like her. She rarely complained. She rarely missed church. Her family was always her first priority. She was a child of the Great Depression, and this made her a practical, frugal adult. Our Christmas cookies often came in recycled cottage cheese containers, for example. She felt no shame in this.
That said, she loved beautiful things, for which she also felt no shame. She loved American Indian jewelry. I was lucky to inherit several pieces when she died; I still get choked up when I wear them. I wore one of her necklaces when we were married, and always wear a piece of her jewelry for important book events.
This week, as the world watched Notre Dame catch fire, I thought of her. My grandparents traveled to Europe on vacation in their late 70s. Her heart would have broken to see a place of worship in flames, especially during Holy Week. However, I think her spirits would have been lifted, as mine were, to see Parisians fill the streets to sing hymns in response.
My grandparents also spent many years living in Louisiana, and knowing my practical, ever-loving grandmother — her charity would have gone to the Baptist churches burned by an arsonist earlier this month. I can see her writing that check to meet her budget –$12, or $18, or whatever she could give.
I miss her dearly. When I sit in silence, I feel her presence, nudging me back toward church, pushing me toward closer relationships with my cousins, giving me the eye when I put the cottage cheese container in the recycling bin.
How lucky I have been to have these strong, faithful women in my life. As we celebrate Easter this weekend, I am thankful for them. It was, after all, a strong and faithful woman who told everyone of the resurrection.
When I was born, my British grandmother, fondly known as Gramma J, was just 45. She was a young mother, as was my mother. By 50, she’d have three grandchildren and one on the way.
Gramma J is still alive in body, but her spirit has long since left this world. She suffered a stroke many years ago and has acute dementia. She lived independently, with the help of an aide, until recently. Gramma J has smoked since she was a teen, and Arizona’s recent record-breaking winter drove her smoking habits indoors. This was problematic for many reasons, namely that as someone with both dementia and a nicotine habit, she could easily burn the house down. Perhaps if she could switch to portion snus instead, this wouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Her children decided it was time to find her a place in a memory care center where she’d be cared for. Gramma J and her late husband lived in their home for more than 20 years. It was a place where my brother and I loved to spend weekends. We’d play in our Grandfather Leonard’s workshop, chase the neighbor’s farm animals, and raid the pantry for full-size chocolate bars and whatever the Schwan’s man delivered recently.
Their house was decorated when my Gram was at the peak of her accounting career in the early 90s. The off-white leather couch, hutch full of cut crystal figurines, and cocktail carts spoke to their lives as adults with grown children. When we visited, my mom used to warn us not to touch anything. We didn’t want to be inside anyway.
Two weeks ago, my mom came to Arizona to both see my grandmother, and to empty her home of its belongings. We went through closets of clothing she hadn’t worn in decades. There were polyester suits, silk scarves, and heels, a stark contrast to the comfortable cotton sweatpants and slippers she lives in today. Leonard’s workshop sat dusty and empty, with a stack of wood still piled in the corner. Every inch and tchotchke reminded me of her, down to the Union Jack magnet on the fridge.
There is so much to say about going through her home and having to decide what to keep, sell, donate, or give away to neighbors. My mother wanted items she’d made for her mother — calico quilts faded from heavy use, and oil paintings she’d done in high school that still hung on the walls.
Eventually an estate company and a dumpster company were called to manage the minutiae that we didn’t know what to do with. Would someone want her towels? Surprisingly, yes. And the pantry full of old Corningware–dishes she’d used to serve us English peas, her favorite, for years? They’d sell too.
I knew what I wanted. It was the same thing I wanted when my Grandmother Maxine similarly developed Alzheimer’s and went into a care facility. Stubbornly, foolishly, and with all my heart, I wanted my grandmother back.
With Gramma J, I want to be 8 years old again, driving around in her pink 1976 Thunderbird to Tower Plaza before she married Leonard. We’d spend these weekends like two single gals out on the town. She’d let me stay up and watch whatever I wanted on TV while we ate pizza. For being a woman who never weighed more than 100 pounds, she always had the best ice cream in her freezer.
I want to go to Target with her on my birthday, when she’d let me load the cart with new school clothes and always sign our cards, “xoxo, Gramma.” I want her to take us swimming at one of the apartments she lived in before marrying Leonard. She’d sit on the deck, her capris pulled up to dip her toes, and we’d splash and scream until our eyes burned from the chlorine and her cigarette smoke.
While I’ll remember her for happy memories, when Gramma J was fully here, she was a complicated, stubborn, and generous woman. What she was incapable of giving to her children, she tried to make up for with my brother and me. It often left my mom scratching her head to see her emotionally constipated mum telling us how much she loved us.
Gramma’s mom abandoned her three children and husband when my grandmother was in elementary school. Her father, my great-grandfather, struggled. This single act profoundly influenced my grandmother’s life. I think Gramma lived worried that unexpectedly she’d wake up one morning and her children would be gone, just like her mother. Why she was able to put this worry aside when it came to loving her grandchildren decades later, I’ll never know. These are the things you don’t see as a kid, but come into ugly focus when you look back with adult understanding.
When we pulled away from her house for the last time, the car was loaded with the quilts and paintings. My mom cried quietly in the passenger seat. I took a spoon from Gramma’s collection, a bottle of tequila from the cocktail cart, and the Union Jack magnet.
What I am actually taking away from my grandmother’s life is this: our decisions influence generations. Our selfishness, kindness, or generosity may change the lives of those we’ll never meet.
Hold your children’s hands and tell them how much you really love them.
This time of year, I like to look back and think about all of the wonderful days that we celebrated in some way. There was the trip to Mexico City, which remains one of my favorites of all time. Jason and I loved the culture, walking the city, the food, and definitely the art. Mexico City knows public art. It’s the first place I’ve visited that I loved so much, I’d prefer to go back in lieu of a new destination.
There is so much good food. And so much excellent public art.
After the earthquake, our friends from the DF rushed back to help friends and family. It was uncovered, unsurprisingly, that many of the buildings that fell around the city did so because the building codes had been ignored, inspectors paid off. It was also shown, equally unsurprisingly, that the Mexican people flooded the city with offers of assistance. They had to turn volunteers away, so many came to help their fellow countrymen in need.
Have I mentioned how much I love this country?
Yes, there was the slight blip of us wandering into a tequila bar near the Condessa neighborhood only to realize two steps inside that we were actually in a narcos bar and very, very much out of place. But hey, a quick shot of tequila before any other shots could be taken and we were back out on the streets with a great story in our pocket to elaborate and share with friends back home.
Also this year, my husband and I both changed jobs. I’m in the same field, and he’s returning to something he loves. We bought an all-electric car and expanded the garden to grow more of our own food. We hiked the Grand Canyon. We enjoyed our first full year of marriage, much of which we spent arm-in-arm happily arguing over who has the best burrito in town.
For media, a few things to share that I absolutely fell over myself loving:
Novels by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. His stuff is so weirdly creative, it is a true pleasure to read.
‘Til the Well Runs Dry, a novel by Lauren Francis-Sharma. I’ve thought about this book several times this year. The characters and the plight of immigrants stick with you.
Africa Solo, which is my favorite non-fiction of the year —namely because I always want to be on the road seeing new places and Africa has my heart. I enjoyed traveling alongside this author.
Let us also remember this year, 2017, as the one where Robert Mugabe was removed from power. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the day. I hopeful the people of Zimbabwe will find true leadership and inspire the people of Cameroon to boot Paul Biya next.
Wishes for 2018 include more travel, democracy, compassion, and peace around the world.
Thanksgiving prep is underway at our house. The tables soon will be full with family, extended family, and neighbors. For the first time, I’m cooking the bird.
I’m a wee bit anxious. (Okay, it is 5 am and I’m blogging after spending an hour reading recipe reviews and turkey-cooking hacks. Apparently mayonnaise seems to be the way to go.)
Also this week, I started a new job. After nearly five years in state government, I decided to take a position with a health plan. I’m thankfully still working in public health, but with a new ID badge and set of coworkers. I’m hoping this place will be a lot more organised and professional than my last job. The early signs are good, as I haven’t had to wait two weeks for my new ID badge (yes, this is something I’ve experienced before). Apparently they order it online, presumably via a company like InstantCard (https://instantcard.net/) and it’s shipped the same day. Thumbs up so far. This week’s big project includes promoting HIV and TB testing among a specific population. In other words: MY JAM. Walking in the door of the new building yesterday felt much like the first day of school-nervous excitement, and also after two weeks off, a bit of, “Oh, man. This means no afternoon naps, right?”
There will be no afternoon naps until, perhaps, Thanksgiving. In putting together the menu, and asking everyone to pitch in this and that, I’m most excited to make Orangette’s cranberry compote. I’ve made this before and like she describes, it really is a show stopper. This recipe reminded me how much I enjoy her blog, too.
The other tradition we’ll honor is a large bowl of black olives in a nod to my Grandmother Maxine. She hated olives, but knew her grandchildren loved them, and therefore always had a ready supply. We stuck them on our fingers and waggled them like fools until we were all well into adulthood. Like so many things, Thanksgiving always makes me think of Grandma Max. I miss everything about that woman, down to the way her house smelled when we’d arrive for the holiday. As I remember it, it was a mixture of coffee, all spice, turkey, and Ivory soap.
If the timing goes right, and I drink enough coffee this weekend while prepping pies and setting up guest rooms, I hope to run in our community turkey trot Thursday morning. Put one turkey in the oven, take the other out for a spandex-clad shuffle around the neighborhood. What could be better?
This week I attended a bris. As we stood around the living room, the mohel leading the group in prayer, I played with the other kids quietly in a corner until everyone was exclaiming “Mazel tov!” and singing and clapping. I’d been to one of these before, two years prior, for the same family’s first son. I knew what was going to happen and was happy to be distracted.
The naming portion of the ceremony is my favorite. By custom, as the mohel explained, the baby is not to be referred to by his name until after he is circumcised. Then he is officially welcomed into the world with his new name. This baby boy was named after his late great grandmother (H) and her best friend (R). Amanda, the mother, spoke about how her grandmother and her grandmother’s best friend were tied to the hip. And now they would continue to always be together through her son’s name.
I started crying at the notion. Most in the room, including the parents, were also teary. One of the kids in my lap looked at me with wide eyes and said a bit too loudly, “Can we eat the cake now?” We all laughed.
When my parents moved to Texas more than 10 years ago, I found myself at the kitchen tables of my friends’ parents. I wiggled my way into their family vacations, Sunday dinners, and invitations to important events — anniversary parties, holidays, baptisms. I was thankful there was always an extra plate of food and often far too many questions and concern about what was going on in my life.
This bris, with my friends’ parents asking about my work, their nieces climbing all over me, and distant family chatting with me about recipes—it felt like I was home. Yes, it’s been more than a decade and I have my own family now. And yes, my parents are thriving and I’m happy for them. But also, yes: I miss them. I miss our Sunday tradition of bbq chicken, Rummicub, and bad television. I miss being able to craft with my mom. I miss swimming with my dad. I miss them being in my everyday life. Our time together now is infrequent and scheduled and often stressful.
As we head into the holiday season, I know I’m not alone in being more sentimental. It can be hard when the people you want there aren’t present—and vice versa. Here is to hoping our tables are full of laughter, and full of the family we’ve made, not just been given. And that there is enough wine to help ignore everything else.
My grandfather, Trevor, died in June. We had a memorial for him this weekend at his small church north of Tucson, tucked in the shadows of the Catalina Mountains. He joins my grandmother, who passed 4 years ago. Tucson seems empty without them. It is so very strange to visit and not see one of them.
A bit of what I shared at his service:
Trevor, or PapPap as his 6 grandchildren called him, was born September 2, 1926. He passed just a few months short of his 91st birthday. He was the oldest of four children raised in Wolfdale, Pennsylvania. His parents, Henry J. and Clarice Hague Beecham, had Trevor, Harry, Clarice – known as Sis – and Jack. Sis and Jack are still living.
When Pap graduated from Trinity High School, he enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. He was in Okinawa when the treaty was signed on his 19th birthday, September 2, 1945. He returned to the United States via San Diego on New Years Eve, 1945 and would go on to continue for a few more months before honorably leaving the service.
One of the stories I remember Pap telling was how appalled he was, as a child who had grown up during the Great Depression, by the sheer waste of war. He talked about watching with horror as he and his fellow Navy men followed orders on their way home, dumping jeeps and other heavy materials off the back of the ship into the sea making the ship lighter. The only benefit was it made the trip home faster, or so they thought.
After the service, Pap attended LSU and remained an avid Tigers fan until his last days. I remember him fondly holding an LSU bottle opener that when tapped would play the fight song. He’d sit in his recliner on Saturday afternoons and cheer along with those in the stadium.
He returned to Washington, Pennsylvania in May of 1959 to start a job in finance. To his surprise and delight, waiting for him was the small town news that Maxine Pettit Donley, now a mother of two young boys, was recently divorced and had returned home to live with her parents on their family farm. Pap would tell us how Maxine had been the apple of his eye in high school, and he was considering reenlisting in the military, but instead stayed in Pennsylvania. They were married four months later. At the age of 33, he became a husband and a stepfather to two feisty boys, Kit age 8 and Rex age 5. His mother tried talking him out of the marriage; marrying a divorced woman with children was scandalous. He didn’t care.
Soon, Trevor would move his new family back to Louisiana. He continued working in finance in Lafayette. In the 1970s, they moved to Scottsdale, Arizona.
We gathered around their dining room table for countless meals, including one of Trevor’s favorites to prepare: gumbo. Cooking was next to football in Trevor’s heart. He loved to cook for others and enjoyed showing off the recipes he perfected during his time in Louisiana.
He was proud of his time and service at this church. He enjoyed serving as a deacon, elder and moderator. He liked being a lay speaker, choir member and Bible school teacher. On one of our last visits, he told me he once thought about going into the ministry because he loved to preach.
He was so happy that for his 90th birthday, his siblings – including Harry who was in good health at the time and Sis, who’d come all the way from Pennsylvania, surprised him for dinner and cake. I have photos of him crying, holding their hands, so thankful for their kindness. My Uncle Kit and Aunt Paula made sure the event went off without a hitch. In that moment, it felt like my grandmother was very much in the room as well.
I will dearly miss Trevor. I enjoyed speaking with him about books and travel. He loved me dearly in return. In his last days, I visited him with my husband, Jason. Pap hadn’t been well enough to attend our recent wedding. He held Jason’s hand and asked him to “take good care of me.”
With any luck, he is watching great football from heaven, sitting with my grandmother and great grandmother, and likely arguing with God.
I’m going to avoid the trite apologies to the digital heavens about not checking in. I haven’t written anything here for a long time. My browser, for the first time in 10 years, didn’t remember how to get here.
So, that’s weird.
I’ve been married for nearly 8 months. I could write books on those 8 months. They are mostly this dreamy state of happiness where boxes continue to arrive from Macy’s, and dinners are made with care, and I receive love letters, and I’m living in a beautiful home. That beautiful home on the edge of the desert also happens to be the dustiest place I’ve ever lived. It is gorgeous and clean for exactly one hot minute. (Literally hot. 118 later this week.) And, there is the whole thing about living with another being you just pledged the rest of your days to.
I waxed and waned here for years about how desperately I wanted to be married. I wanted a husband! I mean, I quit my job, sold my stuff, and moved to New Jersey for two months once upon a time because I was romantic. Once married, I could add “wifey” to my bio and laugh and be smug with the others who I envisioned had a life royale.
Well, look. Come to find out, life is a bit more nuanced. I am wary of how many people ask me in a whisper, leaning in with an eyebrow raised, “So… how is married life?”
How is married life?
Married life is weird. And wonderful. And a switch in perspective. I’m doing this forever. I’ve never done anything forever.
I wonder when people ask this leading question if they are actually asking, “Are you having great sex?” Do they assume married couples that are getting a little older and have spent a few years together can’t keep it hot as you’d expect from couples you’d see on the likes of sexmature or any other example you can find online? Or, more likely, are they looking for immediate cracks in the levee. Are you sad you’ve decided to jump into this age-old cultural and religious tradition where the property of your father is legally transferred to your future husband?
(The name change process is an entirely different post. There wasn’t a single step that was simple, and I’ve yet to relinquish my passport for the swap.)
So, how is married life?
It’s fun. I love coming home to my husband, who’s interested to hear how my day was, while dogs nip at my feet and beg for my attention. I love this family. I love our home.
And, married life is tricky. We are two adults with established routines, habits, bed times, bank accounts, and traditions. Thrown together, there is a fair amount of adjusting for everyone to make it feel good, fair, and loving.
Oh, dear blog. You have not been forgotten, although you have certainly been neglected lately. I’d apologize, but I have good reason. I was planning a wedding and a honeymoon and over-thinking everything.
We had a handful of our favorite people in one place and I have never had a better day. There were so many loved ones and we had a chance to chat and dance and toast and inhale green chile and homemade tortillas and gingersnaps with all of them. It was an overplanned, anxiously executed dream come true.
There were lots of great handmade details that were important to our big day. I made 100 jars of marmalade as the favors, painted the cake toppers and stitched the ring pillow. The invitations were handmade and printed on vintage handkerchiefs. My mom sewed a bow tie for Nelson and made our chuppah — which was a wedding ring pattern I love. A girlfriend’s mom made my bouquet and the boutonnieres. We had friends recite poetry and help read a blessing. My grandmother’s begonia was tucked in my bouquet, and I wore her sparkly necklace that I’ve adored since I was a girl. Another girlfriend’s mom made our guest book. Others brought cookies for the dessert table. I baked a small cake.
I’ll post more photos as I can about our special day, but here are few for now:
More to come. In the meantime, I’ll be writing thank you cards, which I hope to finish before Christmas. And moming, which makes my heart so happy and full, my cheeks hurt.
When I was 11 or so, a new family moved to the corner house on our street. They had one tow-head toddler who couldn’t say Kelli, so he called me Ki Ki. Soon, another baby boy was on the way. The parents and my parents made fast friends. I spent many, many summer days with tan lines and blood shot eyes chasing those two little boys, and my younger brother, around the pool.
The scent of burning charcoal briquettes immediately takes me back to these happy days. Our parents would grill and lounge in the shade and we would squeal and play and be utterly exhausted by the time night fell. (In retrospect, this was a brilliant parenting strategy.)
In time, I became the babysitter. I’d watch the two boys regularly over the next few years. I loved the brothers like they were my own. I read their favorite books to the point of memorization. I rocked them goodnight and gave them baths. I watched Aladdin on VHS tape approximately 10,000 times. I helped teach them to swim.
In 1994, I left my family (and theirs) to study in Mexico for a year. I was 14 and communication home was expensive. I’d call home on Sundays, and sometimes sneak a call to my dad at work. He’d always accept the charges. It was on one of those calls, when I stood at a pay phone in the foyer of the Mexican high school library, that my dad relayed the bad news. Gently, he told me the younger of the two neighbor boys was sick. He’d been sick for a while and they hadn’t been able to figure it out. Finally, they knew. He had a form of pediatric cancer and was off to Minnesota for treatment. His mom left her job and was living in the Ronald McDonald house.
I cried the tears of a gulping teenage girl whose world view had cracked, and was 1500 miles from those she loved most.
My mom helped watch the older brother, still just a little one, and my parents together kept an eye on their dad, who must have been out of his mind with grief and potential loss. The details of those days and months are not clear in my memory. What I do remember is returning home six months later and the youngest brother was still alive, in recovery, everyone back at home. When I went to visit, I realized that while he was alive, he was still dealing with the repercussions of having cell-altering chemicals and radiation at a tender age of growth. His color wasn’t right for a long time, his skin black and gray. And my last memory of him as a kindergarten student a few years later was one where he used a walker, dragging a foot behind him.
But he was alive!
The years rolled on, and soon the family was off to the Pacific Northwest for work. Their house sold quickly. I don’t remember ever saying goodbye. I do remember feeling like a piece of my childhood was packed in their moving truck, tucked between the towels that always smelled of chlorine and the tonka trucks. During the next 20 years, I spent more than a few hours looking for their family online with no luck.
Imagine my utter shock when about six weeks ago, laying on my mat in silence before a yoga class, a woman leaned her head next to mine and said, “KELLI!”
It was their mother. By sheer coincidence, after more than a decade of living elsewhere, we are neighbors again in an entirely different neighborhood. I hugged her with a ferocity that I think scared us both, and told her through tears how I’d searched for them. How was her youngest son? I asked it hesitantly, wondering all these years if the cancer had come back.
“Oh, he just graduated college. He lives with us! He’s great.”
He is great. That weekend, I got together with their family. Their eldest son, now a PhD candidate in northern California, was home visiting for the weekend — again by chance. We sat and reminisced, and I soon realized that while it was so important to my childhood — the time we’d spent together — the boys barely remembered me. They were more than ten years younger and their memories, of course, were those of little ones: blurry at best. But they did know of our family from the stories their parents had repeated, and I hugged them like an older sister would.
It was, and remains, a wonderful set of coincidences that brought a friendship together again.