The Thirty-Seventh Letter: Generations of Women

IMG_5395

Dear Daughters,

Yesterday, as I picked up a frowning, teary, and inexplicably needy just-turned-two year old, I heard myself asking her, What’s the problem? The way I said it was comforting, not accusing, a question more along the lines of, How can I help?

As baby girl leaned her face into my neck, pulling herself tight against me, I asked again without thinking about it: What’s the problem?

Then something surprising happened.

In my head, I heard the question repeat in my maternal grandmother’s voice. Clear as day. As if I’d heard it a million times before, though I don’t have any distinct memories of her saying it.

And then, as I listened to the reverberations of her imagined voice, I heard my mom’s voice saying it, too. What’s the problem?

I listened more, still holding baby girl, who had wrapped her legs around my waist, and the two voices–my grandmother’s, my mom’s–became indistinguishable.

Because they’re nearly the same voice.

Sometimes when I’m on the phone with my mom, I hear in my mom’s voice the distinct intonation that was my grandmother’s. Actually, I hear it most clearly when I listen to her speaking to you, probably because what I’m remembering is the way my grandmother spoke to me.

I remember once as a teenager listening to my mom and her three sisters visit during a holiday gathering. They all had the exact same laugh, it seemed to me, and even twenty years ago, I recognized in it my grandmother’s laughter. Grandma was still alive then.

Sometimes, when I answer the phone, your dad says to me, “You sounded just like your mom.

Sometimes, when I answer the phone, I myself can hear her voice come out of my mouth.

We named the eldest’s first babydoll “Elsie” because my mom’s first dolly was “Elsie” when she was a little girl. We have a photograph of my mom and her Elsie back in the 1950s. It’s amazing to me that Mom’s bright eyes and round cheeks foreshadow yours so strikingly, girls.

So much of what I think of as “me” as a child, I see in you. And the older I get, the more I realize much of the me part of me is really my mom. And that part of her has a lot to do with her mom.

Mother’s Day was Sunday. Yesterday was my mom’s birthday.

A few years ago, one of my dad’s sisters came to visit, a woman who of course had known my mother well when Mom was my age. They’d sat in many a church pew next to one another. While in town, Aunt Diana went to church with us, and later she told me that sitting next to me in the pew was like sitting next to a young Bonnie. She said my mannerisms were the same, the way I sat, the way I crossed my legs. Those details were just like my mom.

Nobody had ever mentioned those likenesses to me before.

Last weekend, I put a new pair of stretchy jeans on and stood before our full-length mirror, something I don’t do very often. I saw my mom looking back at me. I’m a lot taller than Mom, but it was uncanny. In fact, I came down the stairs and told your dad, “I look just like my mom.”

Girls, you and I come from strong women. Women of courage.

My grandma died before you were born, and because it was important to me that the eldest carry her name, I hear myself saying Grandma’s name all day long, day in and day out. And Grandma’s voice echoes to me each time I see you print those five letters on your artwork. You are so proud of being able to write your name.

In those early, hazy days of being a mom, when I felt like I was sinking rather than treading water in the ocean of parenthood, one of the few things that brought me comfort when rocking you or nursing you or bouncing you on the yoga ball was doing a very non-Protestant thing.

I talked to my grandmother about being a mom. My grandmother who was deceased.

I asked her to pray for me.

She had six kids, and the first three were really close together. I thought she must have known a thing or two about how I felt, exhausted, hormonal, focusing on getting through the minutes because the day as a whole was too overwhelming.

My mom was her firstborn. My first name is Grandma’s middle name.

I figured if Grandma could get through this thing called motherhood and end up the sane woman I knew her to be when I was a child, she could help me get through it, too.

And she did.

My mom tells me that the first time I crawled, it was because she was catering a meal at a church and was busy in the church’s kitchen. Mom had left me down the hall in the nursery, and she could hear that I was crying, but she couldn’t stop what she was doing and come to me. In a little while, here I came, still crying, but crawling out to find her.

I love that story.

Maybe the ending goes something like this:

Mom sees me crawling and crying, my face red and frustrated, my bottom lip sticking out the way both of you do when you’re sad. She washes her hands and walks over to me, and I pull myself up on her legs to stand. She picks me up. I lean my head on her shoulder, pull my body in tight, and wrap my legs around her waist. She rubs my back and asks me, her baby girl, “What’s the problem?

And maybe she hears her mother’s voice.

Love,

Your Momma

 

Advertisements

The Seventh Letter: Patchouli & Typewriters

photo 3

Dear Daughters,

After a long and difficult week, today I saw my reflection in the car window while picking up our Thai food takeout and I cringed just a little bit. I was wearing my favorite winter jacket—a circa 1978 reddish brown leather jacket with a faux fur collar, courtesy of your dad’s mom, my mother-in-law. Back in 1978, it was a gift from your Papa when uncle Ryan was born. Since she is tall and I am tall, it fits me better than pretty much any coat I’ve ever owned.

Did I mention the faux fur? It pretty much rocks.

There I was sporting this ridiculously retro jacket and my boots and skinny jeans, and I was carrying Thai food takeout—most of it with tofu in it—and I had my giant sunglasses on, and I was about to crawl into our 1999 Volvo stationwagon.

It was, well, so perfectly cliché in a typewriter-in-the-living-room-next-to-the-MacBook hipster kind of way.

Or at least that’s how it felt until I got to our friends’ house with the takeout and I got to eat my pineapple fried rice with tofu, no spice, thank you. And the toddler picked out all of the tofu from her plate to eat it first because it’s her favorite part. (She calls it toe-food.) And we cracked open some homemade dill pickles to have on the side and cheddar cheese, because everything is better with chunks of cheese. And we laughed and joked and loved with our best friends after all of us had survived a terrible, no good, very bad week.

It wasn’t cliché, girls. Not then. It was life.

Over the holidays I was able to visit with one of my favorite cousins. He and his wife are the sort of cool people I have always wanted to be, even back when we were all teenagers together. They wore patchouli before I even knew what patchouli was and shopped at vintage clothing stores. She was the first young person I knew with a tattoo and had a bleachy streak in her hair. They went to college in San Diego. They are awesome people.

As I hugged him hello, he still smelled like patchouli.

No joke.

They live in small-town Pennsylvania now and homeschool their kids; he’s an art teacher at the public school; they talk about nitrate-free bacon.

Maybe because I have always wanted to be like them—free spirits and yet somehow grounded, passionate, and fun—when I catch myself actually being like them, I feel like maybe I’m an imposter.

An imposter with my fair trade coffee and chlorine-free diapers and homemade babyfood.

An imposter with my second-hand clothing and compost bin and church that has a community garden.

An imposter with my retro pyrex bowl collection and arm-knit infinity scarf and, yes, typewriter we pulled out of your grandparents’ barn.

But at other times, most of the time, really, I feel at home in my skin, in my clothes, in my car, at home eating our tofu Thai food around our second-hand dining room table. With friends. Always with friends.

On those days when I don’t feel like an imposter, don’t care that on the outside I look like a hipster cliché, that, for goodness sake, I really think that typewriter is beautiful, I realize this, this is who I want to be.

So, girls, I guess what I want to say to you today is this:

Be who you are. Love people. Care about what matters.

Don’t worry about the rest.

You know, I’ve been thinking—I don’t wear patchouli, but I might start. It smells like earth and happiness.

And life.

Real, lived life.

Your Momma

The Sixth Letter: Everything Is a Letter

photo 4

Dear Daughters,

Maybe it is because I’m a writer, but ever since I’ve been a mom—or at least, ever since I came out of the post-partum haze of will-I-survive-this and why-does-anyone-have-more-than-one-child chaos—I’ve wanted to write everything down. For you.

And by “everything,” I mean everything. Everything about me, about you, about the world, about your grandparents, the important things in life, love, loss, brokenness, joy, good books, beauty, creativity, sacrament.

Everything.

It’s ridiculous. And ambitious. Impossible. Overwhelming.

Not that I don’t write a lot, trying to take a stab at this “everything.” I do. I jot notes, mostly, notes and bullet points and sentences and paragraphs, things that are important that someday I can flesh out a bit more, someday when we aren’t in survival mode, aren’t fighting pink eye, aren’t dealing with diapers and potty training, aren’t picking goldfish out of the carpet.

Those somedays probably won’t come.

I realize this.

But I also realize something else—there is a sense in which everything I write and live and do already is a letter to my daughters.

I have a journal for each of you where I write notes about what you’re doing, how you’re growing, the funny things you say, when your teeth come in and you crawl and walk and faceplant. So those are letters to you. Real letters. You’ll read them some day.

But those poems I write? I think they are letters to you, too. Even the poem about the man in the coffee shop who reminded me of a piano player we knew in Texas, the poem about slicing open an avocado, the chamomile poem that became an epigraph for my friend’s novel—someday you will read these poems and others and yes, I really think so: they are letters.

When I highlight in the Richard Foster book I’m teaching in that Wednesday night class at church, when I jot notes in the margins, these are letters to you, too, aren’t they? They would be, at least, if I were gone and you were looking through my things.

I remember my mom looking through her mom’s Bible after she passed away, and the same for my dad, looking through his dad’s Bible, and they talked about what their parents had underlined, poring over it, wondering about it. Will you read through the verses I’ve underlined? Will they be meaningful to you? Will you wonder about me and my conviction and my pain and my joy?

Or, creases on the binding of my favorite books—will you look at those pages some day?

Splashes of food on the recipes in my cookbooks? A note about adding extra broccoli or one-and-a-half-ing the cake batter to make a layer cake?

The handprint Jesse Tree we made this year that hangs on the back of the basement door?

And what about those things I hang onto? So many things. In closets and drawers and boxes in the basement. Old T-shirts I save that are steeped in memory–races I’ve run, theatre productions of your dad’s, second-hand-thrift-store-thread-bare T-shirts from high school. That collection of old Pyrex bowls, my grandma’s glass bell, our wedding quilt. The index card love notes your dad used to hide in my things when he went out of town.

It matters to me that you’ll “read” these things some day. I think about it and about what you’ll discover and learn and love.

So, daughters, while I’ll keep jotting those ambitious notes about the important things in life, keep hoping that someday, someday I’ll write even more, I’ll also just keep living life.

Because I have this crazy hunch that life, all of it, is itself a letter.

Your Momma

The Third Letter: The Important Things

Dear Daughters,

I really like lists.

Before trips I make lists, we keep a running grocery list, and my journals have always consisted of lists upon lists—gratitude, to-do items, prayer requests, essay and blog and poem ideas. I write them on post-it notes, on the backs of envelopes and scrap paper, in the margins of books, on graph paper I keep on a clipboard. If you look in my purse, books I have only half-read, my striped go-everywhere bag, back pockets of unwashed jeans, under the seat in the car, you’ll probably find some of my lists.

When I was pregnant the first time around, I went on a retreat with one of the women’s groups from our church, and the theme of the weekend was “Of This I Am Certain.” Prior to the retreat, we were encouraged to think about the things that are most important to us and, what’s more, the things we hold deeply and with certainty.

I made a list:

* The red sock will always turn pink if you wash it with your 
    load of bleached whites.
* It is always better to invite someone in, to share food, 
    to listen, to cook from scratch.
* Few things in life are as rewarding as freshly baked bread.
* There will always be enough food at the potluck, so don’t 
   hesitate to invite more into your home.
* Exercise is never a bad idea.
* Checking your e-mail will always take longer than the 
   few minutes left on the oven timer.
* Community is hard work.
* Memorizing Scripture is always a good idea.
* Recording what you are grateful for will make you more grateful.
* Thank-you notes will never go out of style.

That’s it. And that’s the order the items came to me at the time. You’ll find the original list handwritten in the first pregnancy journal.

Maybe you can tell, but my train of thought has always been nonlinear (so less like a train and more like a… traffic jam), and I almost never number my lists—just bullet points, or check marks, or arrows. Actually, lots of arrows. And squiggles. And underlines and asterisks and usually multiple colors of ink, as I’ve gone back and added more items.

I’m really good at the brainstorming stage of the writing process, by the way.

When I was pregnant the second time around, I decided to write a second “Of This I Am Certain” list, without going back and reviewing the first. Only two years had passed, but I was curious what would strike me as worthy of being called “certain.” In that pregnancy journal, you’ll find these goodies:

* Hand-written notes are always a good idea, and 
   making them personal is important—thank yous, 
   condolences, encouragement, love.
* Coffee is good to drink for social reasons, but 
   tea is better.
* An item's value and quality is more clear after it’s been 
   handed down—that new leather couch might be fake leather 
   but you wouldn’t know it until it flakes off.
* Sitting, resting, reflecting, and making lists of 
   gratitude, of prayers, is what mental health is.
* Crying is okay. Never feel bad about it.
* Having friends who are older than you, who have 
   made it through, will get you through.
* Keeping in touch with people is all your responsibility. 
   If your friendships fade, blame yourself and do 
   something about it.
* Always invite someone to eat—there will be enough.
* Making bread for other people is never a bad idea.
* You shouldn’t write things down you don’t want other 
   people to read. Ever.
* You don’t need to clean up for guests, but organizing 
   the clutter might make you feel better, let’s be honest.
* There are always things you can do to help people.
* Public libraries are great resources.

It’s now a year after I wrote this list, three years after the first one. Are these the certain things?

You’ll notice that neither time did I think to put religious belief on these lists.

Why is that, I wonder? It seems strange, considering I am a Sunday school teacher, have been in the pew all my life, even when it was a folding chair at youth group, have been ordained as a deacon. You know. I’ve got the street cred of Christianity.

And I am happy to confess the creeds, which are, of course, lists.

Does an “Of This I Am Certain” list need to include an “I believe” statement? Should it all be “I believe” statements?

Huh.

Maybe the reason I didn’t include religious belief or faith issues here–didn’t even think to include them either time–is that I take the lists of religious belief for granted. That you’ll believe, too. That those are the easy things to believe.

The hard things to believe are the nitty-gritty people-in-your-home kinds of things, the dirt-on-your-floor kinds of things, the being-real-people-in-the-real-world kinds of things.

The being-hands-and-feet-of-Jesus kinds of things.

Which is really why we confess those other lists, right? We do these things because we believe those things.

At least, I hope you will do these things. Because they really are important.

I’m certain.

Your Momma

The First Letter to My Daughters

Daughters,

There’s a small framed photograph in the hallway outside the downstairs bathroom, just above the thermostat.

From the wood paneling in the background, I’m pretty sure it was snapped in the late eighties in our apartment in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where my dad finished up his BA at Messiah College. This one is a color copy of the original, slightly grainy and dark. In the image, my great-grandmother is flanked by my mom and my grandma, and my brother and I are standing in front of them. Four generations of women. I’m probably about seven years old.

I pause and look at this photograph a few times a week. I can remember my great-grandmother’s passing a handful of years after this photo was taken, perhaps the first funeral I attended, and I remember my grandmother’s passing, just a few years ago.

What strikes me about this image is that my mom is now older than my grandma was in this photo.

I am grateful for the good relationship I have with my mom. We text and FaceTime and talk on the phone regularly. She’s come to stay with us after your births, though missing each of them by only a few hours. She’s called me for recipes, I’ve called her for garden advice.

This may seem strange, but I realized something recently: As good as our relationship was and is and will continue to be, I just don’t remember my mom as she was in this picture. In her thirties. Before the divorce. Just having finished her RN degree. With a big perm.

I am in my thirties.

The interesting thing about aging is that I don’t remember people as they were in old photographs; I can only remember them as they are now. I see snapshots and think that I remember moments, but I don’t really know the people as they were. I can’t hear their laughter or see the way pants puckered or smell the perm. I don’t remember what worried them or what they watched on TV. It’s as if my mom was always the mom she is now.

I love my mom in her sixties. She’s amazing. And way more fashionable than she was when this photo was taken, by the way.

But what was she like in her thirties?

That’s what this blog is about, I suppose. Trying to offer a small piece of who I am so that you will know and you will remember. Trying to help you know the me I was when you arrived on the scene, the me I was when I was learning what it meant to be a mother, the me you’ll hopefully still be able to find in the me of my sixties. Or seventies. The me who struggled a lot and cried a lot, but also loved a lot and cultivated a life of community and courage and compassion around her daughters.

Basically, I want you to know me.

Welcome to my world, girls.

Your Momma