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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Too Young to Die

Virginia and Betsy in 2016

I met Virginia on the same day we said goodbye to our first-to-leave-the-roost daughter. Despite the ecstasy I felt at the mere thought of reducing my daily dependents by a third, I had mixed emotions about my kids being old enough to navigate life on their own. We had driven 500 miles down to Chapel Hill the day before and after unloading too many brand-spanking new Bed, Bath and Beyond products into a sweltering dorm room, were heading back north. It was 150 degrees out, the traffic was a nightmare and we were expected for dinner at my father-in-law’s in Baltimore to finally meet his not-so-new friend, Virginia.

When we arrived, hot and bothered, not to mention an hour late, my spouse and I made an unspoken truce to abandon our “I told you we should have left earlier,” and “We’re never going to get there,” sniping in the old minivan, showing only our sweet and selfless selves at dinner that night.

And Virginia showed us hers.

Virginia already knew everything about our family. She knew that the daughter was fulfilling her longtime dream of attending the University of North Carolina, (coincidentally the same school her own granddaughter chose several years later), that Max was home gearing up for football season and that Leo’s shoulder was still sore from tossing too many baseballs. She asked all about the novel I was writing (that’s still sitting in my computer) and the news stories my spouse was reporting on. 

I could tell from the get-go that Virginia wasn’t trying to make a good impression. She genuinely cared. 

My father-in-law had been widowed for several years and moved into a cruise ship on land. One of those wonderful places with a tastefully decorated lobby adorned with huge vases of fresh flowers, friendly faces who greet you by name and a dining room that serves the best crab toast appetizers this side of the Chesapeake. There are bus rides to town, an indoor pool, an outdoor patio, classes and lectures, a communal garden, day trips, happy hours, card games and crossword puzzles. And, for the first time since college, you’re surrounded by a whole campus of people your own age. I can hardly wait.

When Virginia first came into the picture she was an unnamed friend who lived in the same building and shared an occasional dinner with my father-in-law. But as time wore on, her name slipped into the conversation more and more frequently. Virginia and I saw a show in Baltimore. Virginia and I are taking a road trip to Williamsburg. Virginia and I went grocery shopping…

When it became clear that Virginia and he were together for the long haul, my father-in-law knew it was time for her to meet the family.

Virginia and I clicked immediately. She got my sense of humor. She admired my joie de vivre. And she always praised my ability to juggle my family’s multiple activities and personalities. 

That first Thanksgiving, Virginia came to the first of many family gatherings in Pennsylvania. She met my mother, my three sisters, my niece and nephew and a whole slew of childhood friends who came and went throughout the day. And when the same cast of characters would show up at subsequent parties over the years, Virginia would greet them all by name, always recalling some tidbit about each and every one of them. 

Everyone loved Virginia. It was hard not to when she showed such joy and interest upon meeting friends, family and even strangers.

Virginia loved the arts. She was a painter and a sculptor and had a true appreciation for life’s beauty. She was fair-minded and liberal and worried about the underdog. And, she was wise and wonderful enough to know that friendships could transcend different world, political and religious views. 

Virginia and my mother shared a birthday. They became good friends who often spoke to each other on the phone. I know they chuckled about the crazy things the grandchildren were doing and rolled their collective eyes about the off-color blogs I wrote and the too many road trips we took, but I also knew she was never judging us. Only enjoying us. 

But, it wasn’t quite fair that she got to know my whole family and I never got to meet hers. So, in true Virginia fashion, she kept me informed of their doings and whereabouts and once sent me a bunch of photographs, all labeled with names so I could have a visual of her side of the family tree. 

“I don’t want to meet your people for the first time at a funeral, you know!” I said more than once. But, time and distance got in the way, and that’s exactly what happened.

My spouse and I went down to the cruise-ship-on-land one day shortly before Virginia turned her ailments over to the doctor. She wasn’t feeling great, she was terribly short of breath and her very being ached, but, like a trooper, she ventured down to the dining room to share what ended up being our last lunch together.  

A couple days later I called her. She answered the phone after too many rings, breathless and tired. But upon hearing my voice, immediately kicked into gear and started asking all about me and family, and especially Leo with whom she had a special creative connection. She asked how my mother and all my sisters were doing. She asked about Griffey, the dog. I think she even asked how my childhood friend, Margaret, was. And I finally had to stop her. 

“What about you, Virginia?” I asked, anxiously afraid to hear what the doctors had discovered.

And that’s when she told me she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. 

“But we all have to die of something,” she said dismissively. “I think it’s probably better than having a stroke.” 

Virginia wasn’t my mother-in-law. Nor was she even my step-mother-in-law. But since the day we met, she’s been family.

At Virginia’s memorial service last week, our families finally came together. My spouse and I, our three kids, my mother and oldest sister represented our contingent, admiring Virginia's two daughters, three sons-in-law and three talented and gracious granddaughters during the moving and musical service. It was abundantly clear that Virginia's love of life and warm and welcoming spirit will live on through her daughters and their families for many generations to come.

As for our side of the family, we never knew how old Virginia was. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to figure it out; after all, at a certain point, it doesn’t really matter. Our best guess was that she was somewhere between 80 and 85 years-old, making her younger than both my mother and father-in-law. 

So, upon entering the memorial service, my journalist of a spouse and I were both justifiably horrified at the typo on the front of the program.

Virginia Sawyer Duncan
October 19, 1916 – June 13, 2017

But, alas, it wasn’t a typo at all. Virginia had never shared with us that she was 100 years old. She didn’t want people treating her like she was old. She didn’t want people making a fuss over her big birthday. And she was just as happy letting others believe she was dating an older man. She looked and acted that young.
After the shock wore off, I smiled to myself remembering how she used to sign all the letters that she wrote to me:  Love, from your ONBFF.

Which translated to Love from your Old New Best Friend Forever. 

I suspect she was dropping me a hint, giving me a wink, knowing that one day I’d learn the truth. And that when that day came, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference how old she was. 

Virginia knew that I am a no-holds-barred kind of a gal. That my life is an open book. And that I will always point out my quirks, my mistakes and my wrinkles before anyone can do it for me. 

So, I can’t help but think that Virginia knew exactly what she was doing by not letting on how old she was. And that maybe she was trying to pass on some life lessons with her ageless existence. Perhaps she was telling me to live life the way she did. To fill my heart with hope and happiness and humility. To surround myself with good people. To appreciate the beauty in the world. To never give up on love. And to forget the little stuff, like fretting about turning 60 on my next birthday.

In the grand scheme of her grand and glorious life, I didn’t know Virginia for very long at all. But, I knew her long enough to love her. I knew her long enough to learn from her. And, I knew her long enough to call her my ONBFF.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hooray! The Kids are Home!

“But, it’s MY house!” I said, in a slightly less exasperated tone than I felt.

“That’s what my mother says too!” Heather said, in a slightly more amazed tone than I expected.

This was in response to the “What we don’t get is why WE have to be the ones to change, rather than the other way around” statement that one of the two 25 year-olds voiced while the other one simply thought it.

The daughter’s best friend from high school, who I have known and loved for most of her life, was visiting and I dared to join them at the kitchen table. As they shared a bottle of wine they began commiserating, swapping horror stories about living at home with their completely inflexible, unsympathetic, erratic, mean and volatile mothers. The fathers are fine. It’s just the mothers.

The daughter is home for six weeks. The middle child just moved back home. And the youngest is home from college for the summer. I had been enjoying a clean house, a stocked refrigerator and an uninterrupted work environment for a good stretch of time. I had been living in what you could call an almost empty nest. I say almost, because there always seems to be one coming while another is going. But, I rarely am blessed with having all three home at once for an extended period of time.

As the wine glasses emptied and filled, the lips loosened even more and I found myself defending my actions as well as those of Heather's mother.

“But why should I have to deal with with someone else's long strands of wavy hair twirled around the bristles of MY hairbrush?” I asked, explaining its sudden disappearance from the communal bathroom.

“Oh, please,” the daughter responded, not being able to fathom how sharing a hairbrush could possibly bother me.

My hair is an inch long. Maybe two. My hair hasn't wadded up in a hairbrush, wrapped around a bar of soap or clumped in a shower drain for over 20 years.

“My mom yells at me for stupid stuff like that all the time,” Heather said.

“I never yell,” I said.

The daughter burst out laughing. Heather just smiled. 

“I don’t!” I insisted.

“I remember when we were young, you’d scream at us and I’d get so scared,” Heather confessed.

“Are you kidding?” I asked, completely flabbergasted.

I’ll never deny flipping out at my kids when they were young, but I honestly and truly thought I had successfully hidden that part of my personality from their friends.

Long after Heather was gone and the daughter had retreated with a book to her bedroom where she was running the air conditioning with the window open or eating crackers in bed or drinking too many water bottles or any one of a hundred other offenses for which I chastise her, I found myself in a moment of solitude in front of the living room television.

One boy was in the basement watching Fargo, another was in his room burning a scented candle (another broken house rule), and the spouse had long since retired. The dog was lying peacefully by my feet, waiting in hopes that I would forget I didn't like him and break down and pat his head.

The front door opened and in walked Harrison. Like Heather, I’ve known and loved Harrison for most of his life. It’s always a pleasure to see him in my house, but I was admittedly a bit out of practice. I had almost forgotten the screen door slamming, footsteps pounding, refrigerator opening, refrigerator shutting, dog jumping, late night visits of undocumented and undoorbelled friends.

“What’s your house like these days?” I asked Harrison, knowing that his mother was in the same boat as I, with three out of four of her adult sons home. But she got the added bonus of one of her son's big, unruly dogs to complement the menagerie they already had.

“It’s a zoo,” he admitted.

I felt a little better.

I love my kids, no matter what they think. I love their senses of humor, their passion for what they believe, their philosophical views on the world. And contrary to popular belief, I even love having them home.

It's just that I like things a certain way. I like clean rooms (just close the door, Mom), my toiletries intact (just buy new ones, Mom), the chicken saved for dinner (what's the big deal if I eat it at lunch instead?), the water bottles limited (isn't it better than drinking soda?), the late night escapades restrained (just don't worry, Mom), the laundry basket returned (just use another one), a check on the amount of paper towels used per person per day (but there are 8 rolls in the basement), an occasional "I'm alive" text (what do you think is going to happen?) the bathroom free when I want to take a shower (use the other one), the toothpaste squeezed from the bottom rather than the middle (you've got to be kidding).

"Guess what, Mom!" the middle child said shortly after Harrison left and Kris had come and gone in an inexplicable and better-not-to-know five minute encounter.  "Taryn's coming to stay with us. For eight days!"

"Great!" I answered, meaning it. After all, what's one more?

But, it got me to thinking. No wonder the daughter and Heather were so astonished by my "But, it's MY house!" comment.

They've all known all along what I've just come to realize.

It's NOT my house.

Never has been. Never will be. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Bride, A Buoy, A Backyard and a Bar

“Will all of you witnessing these vows do everything in your power to support Alexandra and Nate in their marriage?” the handsomely personable pastor asked at their wedding last Friday night.

In unison we all responded, “We will!”

Which got me to wondering, how in the world, living worlds apart, am I going to do that? I lost what little power I may have had over the bride when our Friday morning play group dispersed and I could no longer withhold bagels, apple juice or Barbie dolls. But what was I going to do, say no?

Meanwhile, the handsomely personable pastor, who actually knew the beautiful bride, relayed to us the story of Alex’s first triathlon. Having a bit of anxiety about being out in the open seas, Alex wasn’t particularly happy about the swimming part of the event. But, stroke-by-stroke she persevered, keeping her mind on the finish line which was marked by a green buoy. And later, having survived the challenge, she told the handsomely personable pastor how Nate is her green buoy in life. He is her safe place; the one who is always beside her when she’s feeling scared or anxious or unsure. And also the one who is there to have and to hold when she finishes the race.  

This, of course, elicited a collective pull at the heart strings.

It was a one-of-a-kind wedding held at Race & Religious, a venue named for the cross streets on which it has stood for almost 200 years. It was a one-of-a kind evening, with clear skies and low humidity, an anomaly in New Orleans.  And they were a one-of-a-kind couple; he from north of Albany, she from west of Manhattan, who met at Tulane, fell in love, got a dog, moved to Houston and boomeranged back to tie the knot in the place where it all began.

The very nature of New Orleans propagates a Big Easy kind of fun. The live music. The dive bars. The killer cuisine. The southern drawls. The overt overindulgence. So, even if my daughter didn’t live there, I wouldn’t have hesitated to travel the 1,300 miles for Alex’s wedding. Besides, I happen to like the bride; her parents, Dianne and Tom; her sister, Ianthe; and the party they throw every year at Christmas.
The night before the wedding, the mother-of-the-bride’s sister and brother-in-law, who conveniently live in New Orleans, hosted a crawfish boil in their backyard. Something I would never in a million years endeavor to do. Henry and Cecilia have a hip and artsy style about them that perfectly complements their southernly hospitable personalities, setting the tone for a fun-filled, fish-peeling, cross-talking kind of a time. We drank bourbon slushies with the bridesmaids, grinned as the groomsmen recovered from their night-befores, and befriended friends from myriad walks of life. There were the lake house friends; Lisa and John (who kindly didn’t mock my extra-cup-of-ice-on-the-side issues) and their wise and wonderful offspring, the beauteous Becca who I may or may not have previously chatted with on my last food truck stint. There were Dianne’s three sisters and representatives from each of their families who had traveled from places as far as North Dakota. There were the Tulane friends; Blake and Dylan and Elizabeth who won my heart by remembering my name. There was Emily from Teaneck who I hadn’t seen in years and years, and of course, our next door neighbors, Ted and Kerri, part of the original playgroup and the Christmas party elite.

As was expected, we made and retained friends at the wedding and the next day went to ultra-cool Bacchanal – a bar where “food, music and culture collude,” with the amiable Anna and her mother, Michelle. At this one-of-a-kind 9th Ward destination, you enter through a wine store, choose your bottle, grab a plastic bucket, fill it with ice, dunk your bottle in the bucket, pick up some glasses, find a seat in the outdoor courtyard, listen to live music and drink to your heart’s content, knowing that there’s always an Uber just around the bend. That afternoon we consumed copious amounts of wine with Paul and Paula, who serendipitously joined our table and soon became fast Facebook friends with whom we shared life stories and later an Uber to Frenchman Street for a night of jazz.

It’s been a week since the wedding. Nate and Alex are far away on a honeymoon. Their parents have returned to their lives and their bills. The guests are back at home, back at work, back doing what it is we all do. And I guarantee, in the week that has passed, every single one of us has thought about that wedding weekend more than once.

While most of my ruminations tend to revolve around raucous reveries, I gave plenty of sober consideration to the handsomely personable pastor and the promise we made to support Nate and Alex in their marriage.

Which, in turn, brought me back to the buoy.

Perhaps for Emily, her buoy is that baseball-loving boy with the country band name. For Kimmy, it may be the handsome dude she met at another wedding with another cast of characters. For Paula, it may be her namesake, minus the A. For Anna, it may be the one who gave her refuge from the rodents. For Rita, it may be that same ol’ guy she’s been with for 67 years.

But, not everyone has a significant other. And not everyone’s significant other is their buoy.

And so I got to thinking about other kinds of buoys. Maybe Becca’s buoy is her horse and the hurdles they’ve jumped together. Maybe Ianthe’s is the land on which she’s living and tilling. Maybe Molly’s is the inner-city kids she’s teaching. Maybe it’s a dog. Or a job. Or a song. Maybe it’s a Maverick. A bicycle. Or a sculpture. Maybe it’s a sister. Or a garden. Or a God.

And maybe, just maybe, as friends and family gathered together for the very fun #kreweofcostello wedding, we were, each in our own unique way, a little buoy in a big sea of celebration for the bride and groom. To have and to hold from this day forward.