Blowing out quarter-century candles

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Birthdays are a good reminder of time and the realization of how fast hours, days and years pass by without warning. The saying “time flies” is not anything new, but it’s the truth.

I recently celebrated my 25th birthday. During a phone call with my Dad that morning, he made sure to remind me that any day after my birthday would be “sliding down the hill to thirty.” What happened to a fatherly rendition of singing happy birthday in front of a well-lit cake?

You know what though? He’s right. I’m no longer in the twenty fifth year of my life. I’ve shut the door on childhood, teenage rebellion and college living and have entered the next quarter-century of experiences, pitfalls, challenges, friendships and celebrations. As I sat down that evening feeling more exhausted than at any previous birthdays, my mind swirled with memories of the past year.

My daughter and I almost a year ago

Since becoming a parent, I’ve promised myself to jot down stories, frustrations and insightful memories to share with my children when they are older. This was no exception. On the back of my daughter’s daycare newsletter, I began scribbling – in no particular order – the lessons I have learned during the past year leading up to turning twenty-five.

  1. Traveling 13 hours with a tired husband, two dogs and baby to see family, even if in a few hours notice, is well worth the trip.
  2. The southern translation of passing gas is “poot”.
  3. Kickball is more than just a game played in gym class. There are leagues of teams playing eight-week seasons, complete with playoffs and concession stands.
  4. Being a parent is the most rewarding, complicated and fun profession out there.
  5. It is possible to make edible hard-boiled eggs in the oven.
  6. Spending Christmas without family (or snow!) is as difficult as it sounds.
  7. Some farmer’s markets sell “throw away” peaches at a discount; all you have to do is ask.
  8. Potty training is more difficult than it sounds.
  9. Andy Griffith grew up in Mt. Airy, N.C.
  10. Every pregnancy is different.
  11. Contrary to the way I was raised, many children will never known what it’s like to eat food out of your own garden.
  12. Ponytails can be fashionable.
  13. Babies grow way too fast.
  14. Meeting new friends without comparing them to others is impossible.
  15. There are never enough photos.
  16. Growing grass is similar to spending your paycheck on clothes without bringing anything home.
  17. It’s important to donate – anything.
  18. A routine drive to work and daycare can be a good opportunity for a toddler to learn colors of cars.
  19. If accidentally locked in a pantry, my Border Collie will make a mess.
  20. It’s possible to lose sleep excited for someone else.
  21. Two-year olds are smarter than people give them credit for.
  22. My husband needs to throw away fraying shirts he still has from high school.
  23. Waking up thirty minutes early to sit in peace before the day begins makes a world of difference.
  24. There is nothing like Michigan in the Fall.
  25. Strangers will surprise you, in more ways than one.

Reflecting on the last year of life has helped me appreciate the knowledge we learn from each other. I’m ready to start the next quarter-century full of experiences and lessons, but think it’s best I light the candles before cutting into the cake.

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There’s a funny thing about aging; finding the hidden benefits

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When a group of women more than twice my age gather in a coffee shop to chat, it’s hard not to listen. It becomes even more important to pay attention when they begin dishing out advice and sharing wisdom about the benefits of aging.

After a round of gossip at the table about who is getting divorced for the second time, the women began talking about updates in their lives while giving and seeking advice from the others about various topics.

“You need to be on the Facebook,” the one said while the others politely smiled. “That is where all of the fun is happening.”

The chattiest of the bunch leaned back in her chair as if feeling defeated and started sharing the struggle she’s having with her teenage daughter.

“The coffee shop down the street is hosting trivia night Friday night. They’re even playing songs from the Beetles and ask guests to request,” she said. “My daughter will be home from college and I’d like to take her, but I know she wouldn’t want anything to do with ‘old people’.”

The women laughed and moved into a discussion about the benefits that come as a result of accumulating years.

“There’s a point you get to when you realize age really doesn’t matter,” one woman said. “I’ve decided to stop counting at 69.”

The conversation continued, with a list of important aging benefits trailing close behind.

  1.  Discounts at grocery stores
  2. Cheap Frosty’s at Wendy’s
  3. Ability to say what you want; and
  4.  An unsaid societal license to use the word “dead” without sounding to harsh, when speaking about those who have passed on before you

The best of the advice, though, was that from the last woman to leave the table.

“These are the perks of getting older. We need to take advantage of them because we’ve earned it!”

Everything but the Kitchen

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I walked up to the big, intimidating brown door, carrying a pan of warm apple crisp dessert as its sticky juices leaked out the sides onto my hands. Christmas music played loudly behind me; young children laughing and skating circles on a small ice rink under bright lights and the moon.

As I approached the building, I noticed something. The window wrapping the front of the door was shattered. The glass was broken, but not enough to cause an opening. 

Gulp. 

There was a part of me wanting to turn around, get back in my car and drive safely home. But, I signed up for this and knew it would be an eye-opening experience. I was right.

After reaching the front door, I peered through the window. A young woman made eye contact and walked over to open the door for me. I smiled, introduced  myself and nervously asked to be directed where I might set down my leaking dish. An older gentleman walked down a hallway towards us and kindly showed me the way. But, moments later I learned I would need to first walk through a large gym before getting to the kitchen.

One big room, 25 mattresses; just as you see in the movies. Every mattress was accompanied by a notebook piece of paper torn from a tablet and taped above each pillow, labeled with a corresponding number. Women of all ages – young, old, crippled, healthy – sat on the mattresses, walked around the room, sang to each other or simply sat at one of the long tables set up nearby.

Bed Time...

As I weaved my way through the mattresses lined up on the tiled floor, I noticed some of the women gathered in a corner of the room. Piquing my interest, I stared long enough to see what they were doing. A volunteer sat in a chair as the women took turns having their fingernails painted.

“You look beautiful,” the volunteer said after finishing painting for one of the women.

I made my way to the kitchen, helped set up a buffet-style table of food and grabbed a cup of coffee.

One of the women quickly ran up to me, eager to hand me a brown paper bag.

“Would you like to read this?” she said, holding up a local newspaper with a square photo of her pictured in black and white on the front page. “One of the stories is about me and the path I’m on to make a better life.”

“Yes, I would love to take a look,” I said, smiling.

“There’s something else in the bag that’s a bit more personal, if you’d like to see,” she said.

Hesitant, I opened the bag and reached in to pick up a yellow piece of fabric.

“Would you like me to take it out of the bag?” I asked, unsure if the item was too personal for the rest in the room to see.

She nodded her head yes.

I picked up and unfolded the item, which I quickly recognized as an extra-large macaroni and cheese colored t-shirt covered in words and images, hand written with a black permanent marker. I fumbled the shirt a bit, so she snatched it out of my hand and held it up for me to see more clearly. The front of the shirt read “We are a family and we still love you”.

I nodded.

Tshirt #1 - Complete

She rotated the shirt, showing me the backside. My stomach dropped as I saw four little faces drawn on the fabric, and above the image, the words “If you love us, why do you make us black and blue?”.

I nodded again, unsure how to respond to a message so clear, yet so disturbingly sad.

She told me she made the t-shirt in therapy as a way to help her cope with life and start on the right path. As she placed the t-shirt back into the bag, a tall authoritative woman walked into the large room and signaled for everyone to gather in the middle of the room.

Without speaking, all of the women and volunteers (including myself) gathered between the mattresses and the tables and held hands. The woman who seemed to have authority began saying a prayer.

“Thank you Lord for bringing us together to a warm place tonight. Please bless this food and show us your grace through fellowship and the meeting of new friends. In God’s name we pray, Amen.”

How cool, I thought.

I, along with four other volunteers, took our position behind the long table with food. The women lined up single file on the other side of the table — plates in hand and manner in tact. We served our homemade chicken pot pie, garden salad and warm apple crisp and they thanked us for each serving.

“This smells so good,” one woman said.

“A home cooked meal is just what I need right now,” another said.

The women ate their meals while sharing fellowship. The dishes were empty, all food gone. I grabbed another cup of coffee and sat down at one of the tables.

What can I possibly say to these women? I’ve never been homeless. And, while I’ve had extensive training and experience working with women involved in domestic violence, I’ve fortunately never had to experience it myself.

“How was the food?” I asked, feeling a little out of place.

All of the women at the table smiled and shook their heads as if approving of the meal.

And then it hit me – I was no different from these women. I am human and so are they. Our experiences should not define our being, who we are or who we hope to be someday.

“How was your day?” I asked the woman sitting next to me.

“Difficult,” she answered, attempting to ignore me.

“Well, it’s good to know you have a full stomach of good food.”

“Well yes, but I’d like my own kitchen and be able to cook for myself again. It’s hard being homeless. It’s heavy on your heart and your mind.”

I didn’t have a response and sat silent for a moment.

“Where are you all from?” I asked, seeking conversation.

One woman grew up in Ohio and another in South Carolina. I shared with these women, while now in North Carolina that I too was an “outsider”. I had recently moved to the state from Michigan less than one year ago with my husband and 15 month-old daughter.

“They were interested to hear more about my little girl and share with me stories about their own children.

“Guess how many children I have,” one of them said. I responded with a confused look and asking, “how many?”.

“Ten,” she answered, lowering her head as if it hurt to talk about them.

“I have four kids,” said the other woman – the one who had shared her personal item with me earlier in the evening.

“But…I haven’t seen them since 1997,” she said. “They are what keeps me going each day. I know I will see them again, but it’s about taking life one step at a time and I’m focusing on that.”

I instantly felt sadness and looked over at the woman next to me who had just shared she is a mother of ten. Tears fell from her eyes as she looked up.

“Thank you for sharing your story,” she said.

“You’re welcome; it’s a way for me to help myself, too. I am amazed when anything I do or say actually means something to another person.”

How true. And while I’m not sure if anything I said that night made a difference to those women, I left with an appreciation for my family, a warm home and for my very own kitchen –  used to make sticky apple crisp for new friends on a Friday night.

An Hour of Strangers

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“Daddy, do you like sand in your sandwiches?” a little boy asked, sitting on his father’s shoulders and lowering his head, careful not to hit his head on the coffee shop entrance.

My initial thought was – how funny. A little boy, who is clearly too young to understand ‘sand-wiches’ does not imply sand is actually in the food. An hour later, I started to think he may be on to something. 

Two middle-aged women sat at a two-person table in the corner of the establishment, obviously engaged in what seemed to be a serious conversation. They sat close, both leaning forward as if waiting for the climax of a good book. It was one of those “closed” conversations; the kind you see in a public place, and as a courtesy, sit far away.

What was interesting with this one, though, was there were two gentlemen who weren’t able to see the situation this way, and with coffee in hand, confidently sat down at the table two feet away.

“Whatchall talkin’ about?” one of the men asked the women.

“The benefits and secrets of shea butter.”

I smiled.

The men seemed genuinely interested and went on to ask questions about why people use the “expensive stuff” – referring to name brand cosmetics. In a matter of minutes, these folks went from complete strangers to more than acquaintances.

I looked to the left, as the jacket of a young man walking by brushed my side. He was looking for a place to sit in an overcrowded coffee shop on a busy afternoon. I began to feel guilty for sitting by myself at a four-person table and was a few seconds away from offering him a seat.

He started toward the only couch in the place – a small; beat up, two-cushion piece of furniture. A man in his late 60’s sat on one side of the couch, deeply engaged in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal. As the young man approached and began to sit down, they exchanged a friendly greeting, introduced themselves with a handshake and went back to reading.

No longer strangers.

A woman rushed into the coffee shop. Her hair was a mess, keys hanging out of her purse and chomping a piece of pink bubble gum.  She shot a snarky look at a man sitting by himself at a nearby table and then sat down.

“So what do we need to do?” she said.

From what I could hear, the two were recently divorced and meeting face-to-face for the first time to discuss their high-school aged daughter. At first, the conversation replicated an exchange between two co-workers meeting for the first time.

How odd, I thought. Two individuals who seemed to have once had a loving, intimate relationship, now trying to get to know one another again.

Topics of conversation ranged from typical custody details to explaining their situation to their frustrated daughter. By the time they got up to leave, the two seemed less like new strangers and more like old friends.

And, then, just after the new divorcees left the building, a man in his late 40’s or early 50’s walked in the coffee shop with a set of keys in hand.

“Did someone lose their keys?” he asked loudly, trying to speak over a crowded coffee shop. “These keys were left in the trunk of the white car parked on the street out front.”

It only took a few seconds for a college student to come running to the front door.

“Thank you so much! Someone could have taken these and I appreciate your honesty for bringing them in,” he said.

“David,” the older man said with a smile as they shook hands.

 “I’m Joe. Thanks again.”

“Not a problem. It’s what I hope someone would do for me.”

David walked out the door and continued walking down the busy street. Joe returned to studying at a table in the back corner.

After witnessing these interesting exchanges between strangers, I thought back to the little boy’s question.

“Do you like sand in your sandwiches?”

It didn’t seem so odd now, because it helped me realize something about strange -ers. They might not be so strange, after all.

I don’t like the”strange” in strangers. And, I don’t like sand in my sandwiches, either.