The Ninety-Third Letter: Make Space for Stories

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Dear Daughters,

A friend I’ve gotten to know this last year wept beside me yesterday as she shared about her mom’s death and the dark times that followed the loss. We were sitting in our homeschool practicum training together—not exactly the space you’d expect vulnerable sharing to take place—and I ended up needing a tissue, too, just sitting beside her, touching her shoulder, listening to her words.

The thing is, I hadn’t known that piece of her story until yesterday, because even though we’ve shared classroom life together for the last year, even though I’ve been to her house and bought eggs from her and eaten weekly packed lunches across the table from one another, there was never really an opportunity to share our stories. There was always lots of chaos and kids and chatter and distraction and pretty much no vulnerability.

Girls, today is Fathers Day. I could write about how amazing your dad is or how amazing my two dads are or about God the Father, but instead I want to talk about our stories and why we need to do better at offering them, listening to them, and providing space to hear them.

This morning I saw the daughter of a friend weeping in church, and because I do know a piece of her story and the pain related to fatherhood in her testimony, my heart felt heavy for her. So heavy. I wanted to say, it’s okay, this is a heavy day, it’s a complicated day, go ahead and cry in church, you are welcome here. I wanted to say so many things.

Then I started looking around our sanctuary and my heart felt even heavier because even though I saw folks I see every single week, I realized how many people’s fatherhood stories I don’t know—mourning fathers, absent fathers, broken families—and how much pain there certainly was right alongside me in the pew. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there was plenty of joy alongside me, too, but on Hallmark holidays, the silent stories are usually sad and complicated ones.)

Girls, I’ve been thinking about this idea of not knowing others well enough to really know their stories.

But if we don’t know people’s stories, we can’t be part of their story. We can’t rejoice with them. We can’t mourn with them. We can’t remember with them.

We can’t do life with them. Not really.

And we certainly can’t be the Kingdom of God to them.

One of the (unexpectedly) best things about being a writer is that when I share something personal in a public forum, I’m nearly always tracked down afterwards so folks can offer me a “me, too” story in response. Sometimes it’s a text or an email or a direct message. Sometimes it’s catching me in the hall at church or sending me a letter in the mail.

But I’ve found that by going first, by being vulnerable, especially in a public way, it provides an opportunity for others to share the hard things.

It might seem like everyone wants to keep private things private—I myself am a pretty private person and it doesn’t come naturally to me to share vulnerably—but when someone realizes that you’ve been through the same thing, cried the same tears, felt the same frustrations, prayed the same prayers, they often do want to tell their story.

Because we’re never as alone as we think we are.

It is hard though.

It’s hard to share the hard things. It’s hard to even make the space for the relationship that leads to the conversations that enables the honesty.

It’s so much easier to just say we’re okay.

But please don’t, girls.

Please make the space for the hard conversations. The honest conversations. The relationships that empower others to be vulnerable.

There’s no easy how-to for any of that, of course. It’s not something I can do for you, and I don’t know how it happens.

But I do know that those relationships, those stories, are where the Kingdom of God is.

I’m sure of it.

Love,

Your Momma

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The Fortieth Letter: Intergenerational Friendship

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Dear Daughters,

When I lived in Waco, one of the first native Texans to befriend me at church was an older woman named Katy. The first Sunday she met us, she shook our hands and made us repeat our last name a few times until she realized that what we were saying was a double last name, and then she said she loved that young people were doing that these days.

As my friendship with Katy developed, I stood next to her in choir and kept her looking in the right place in the music, as we jumped around during practice, with the point of a pencil. She invited me over to her house for tea, and we ate her top secret cookie recipe off depression glasswear alongside embroidered cloth napkins. She lit a tealight candle under a stand to keep her teapot warm. I always felt at home in her house.

She recited poetry. She hung modern art paintings right next to old black-and-white photographs on her walls. She had different locations in her house for praying for different people.

She told stories. Such great stories.

We shared a birthday, only separated by 57 years.

When I moved away from Texas, Katy and I wrote letters for a few years, even as her health began to decline and she could no longer live independently. Her words became confused, but she was still so vibrant, such a character, so sweet in spirit. She always praised my penmanship.

I got news that she had passed away when I returned home from a women’s retreat just before the eldest was born.

*

My friend Gwen, a retired college professor, came to visit me after that birth. I knew Gwen from my monthly creative writing group. We didn’t go to the same church but she was an active member and deacon in her congregation, and she was very involved in our local town. Everyone knew her.

She brought you a little piano toy that, I’ll confess, sang a very annoying  and repetitive song, and she also brought you these little pink and purple socks that were patterned to look like ballet slippers. When she held you for the first time, she said, and I distinctly remember this, “I don’t remember the last time it was that I held a baby.”

Before that moment, I hadn’t thought much about the fact that my tendency toward intergenerational friendship might be an anomaly. Maybe it wasn’t a typical thing for women in their twenties or thirties to be friends, at least close friends, with women in their sixties and seventies.

At that particular time in my life–and maybe even now, I’m not sure–the majority of women I knew well in our small town were quite a bit older than I was. Through a weekly women’s group at our church, and my writing group, I’d gotten to listen to so many voices, so many stories, so much love, forgiveness, sadness, and hope. These women became part of my life without me even realizing it. They became my friends, my community.

Most were at least ten years my senior, and many of them had children my age. In fact, at my baby shower, most of the hand-me-downs I got were being offered because their grandchildren had already grown out of them. Score for me.

My older women friends are also excellent yardsalers.

I stopped in at Gwen’s house one day to drop off my chapbook, and she invited me in for tea. I guess tea is a trend in my stories. Gwen had some British ‘digestives’ to go along with the tea, and we visited for quite some time. It was the first time I’d heard her story, the life events that made her into the person others in my town knew her to be. I had the eldest with me–you were still in cloth diapers and quickly filled one, long before I was ready to leave–and we talked about her career, her family, her writing, the big wooden table in her dining room, and where you can find the authentic British biscuits.

Gwen passed away suddenly the next year, before the youngest was born.

It’s been important to me as a mom to have friends who are not treading water in the season of motherhood.

I appreciate especially those older women who don’t look back through rose-colored glasses, those who can commiserate with me–and say to me that, yes, this mothering business is the most mind-numbing thing I will ever do–but then say, with confidence, that I can survive it because they survived it.

That’s a message I’ve needed to hear at times.

I have many wonderful women in my life who have lived amazing stories. They’ve lived through traumatic life events and losses and broken marriages and straying children, but they’re also walking testimonies of faith and courage and wisdom and grace. They inspire me with their conviction.

And they shower love on me and on you.

Sometimes I feel spoiled about it all, actually, that I have these people who love me, that you have these people who love you.

But a few months ago, it became clear to me that these friendships aren’t just about what I receive, the support our family receives, but about what we give. Because that’s what true friendship is. It’s both.

At Wednesday-night dinner at church, the eldest ran over to one of my closest friends, a semi-retired science teacher who probably has the most interesting stories of anyone I know. She frequently comes over to read books to you and pass us hand-me-down toys. She’s a recent widow. You ran over to her and gave her a hug on your own, without my prompting. And you know what she said? She said, at 5:15 pm, “That’s the first hug I’ve had today!”

You offered her a hug because that is what four-year-old’s have on offer, and it was exactly what she needed.

Intergenerational friendships are important, girls. I’m pretty sure that for most people they take a lot of work, a lot of intentionality, because we naturally coast into friendships with people like us.

Even I’ve realized that it’s easiest, as a mom, to be friends with other moms. Other moms will be sympathetic to the chaos that is life with children, and other moms will have baby-proofed homes, and other moms understand the need for quiet time. That’s all true. But the easiest path isn’t typically the most rewarding path.

Being friends with women from other generations–my mother’s generation, my grandmother’s generation–and learning from them as I live life alongside them has made me a better human being.

It’s made me a better friend.

It’s made me a better mom.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Fifth Letter: Stuff & Story

Dear Daughters,

This morning I got up early to drive my mom to the airport. Grandma prefers to be at the airport ridiculously early for her flights, so we left at 4:15 am. (I’m the same way, so I shouldn’t make fun. I do, of course, but I shouldn’t.)

In the dark of my bedroom, after already rousing to nurse the baby and then unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I turned off my alarm and grabbed a sweatshirt, socks, and a pair of easy-on sneakers before heading downstairs.

As I tied up the shoes, I remembered that I had ordered them online six years ago before your dad and I headed to Italy. We’d been saving for five years and planned to celebrate both our fifth anniversary and your dad’s finishing his doctorate at the same time. Because we intended to live out of backpacks for two weeks as we stayed in bed and breakfasts, I needed a versatile and small shoe that would be comfortable for walking and hiking. The ones I ended up buying–these–are a strange shade of burnt orange, and the eyelits are pink, but they served their purpose as we hoofed it in and out of cathedrals and museums in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Tuscany.

That’s what I was thinking about this morning during my sleepy daze at four o’clock in the morning. Italy.

Your dad and I don’t spend a lot of money on new clothing. You might resent this about us some day, but the truth is, I hope you, too, are thrifty. Because thrifty-ness in our case isn’t just about money, or about our ethical convictions about the supply chain of most mass-produced goods, but about the importance of story and permanence and valuing a narrative.

Sure, I keep these shoes because (a) I have them, (b) they fit, and (c) they’re lightweight and comfy, but I also keep these shoes because they travelled around Italy with us. For our fifth anniversary. At the time, five years felt like forever happiness. Now it seems like we were only babies ourselves.

Tying these shoes up this morning—a double knot, because the laces are slippery and somewhat short–I remembered the ridiculously long path we hiked along the Cinque Terra and how it felt to come down into one of the small, colorful seaside cities perched on the cliff, with laundry hanging out of nearly every window and the strange German tourist we saw walking around in his Speedo and white socks and sneakers.

I haven’t thought about that bizarre image in quite some time.

The socks I’m wearing are a fuzzy giraffe-print pair that your dad’s grandmother gave me for Christmas one year. I have a picture of the toddler wearing them, pulled way up to her thigh.

The T-shirt I’m wearing is a “Walk Across Texas” campaign shirt from my old job at Baylor University in Waco, eight or nine years ago. I was on a team of middle-aged women who were wearing pedometers and keeping track of their footsteps in order to win this T-shirt. There may have been more motivation than that at the time, but all I remember is the T-shirt. Which I’m wearing. Right now.

The long-sleeved T-shirt on top of that is a Hard Rock Café London shirt—where your dad and I went on our first date, second semester of college, thirteen years ago. We were spending the semester abroad with our undergraduate college’s First-Year Honors Program. We were nerds. We still are nerds. But our first date was in London, which is freaking awesome.

The navy blue sweatshirt on top of that was my stepdad’s from when I was a kid. It’s got some fraying spots along the neckline and sleeves, but it is soft and warm. And it’s kind of eighties in its style, the big and bulky size of it, but–I never believed this would happen, never–the eighties stuff is coming back in. It’s almost cool. Maybe twenty years from now, you’ll pull it out of your closet and find the same to be true.

The scarf I wore in the car this morning was a souvenir my college roommate brought me from her semester abroad our junior year. She went to Paris, and these long pashmina-style scarves hadn’t yet become commonplace here in the States.

I could probably list off similar stories and facts and tidbits about eighty percent of my wardrobe, a sure sign that I hold onto my clothing a long time and also that I have a memory for details that aren’t important in the scheme of things.

Or maybe these are the details that are truly important in the scheme of things.

Because I guess what I am trying to say with this catalog of my clothing’s history is this:

Live as if everything has a story, girls.

Because it does.

Your Momma

The Second Letter: Glimpses

Daughters,

I made cookies during your nap this afternoon so I could eat the batter without the guilt of you wanting to eat some, too.

And I’m not even ashamed of it.

As I poured a bag of chocolate chips into a bowl of cookie batter, I remembered my grandma telling me that we could know how much she loved us by how many chocolate chips her cookies had in them. This was Ginny, my stepdad’s mom, and she was young and wonderful, and when we married into her family, she was ecstatic to have two more grandchildren–her other two lived overseas at the time. She loved us and told us so.

Ginny died of colon cancer the summer before my senior year of high school. It was the first real loss I remember feeling. My young faith at the time was certain she would be healed, and I felt that loss deeply.

I hadn’t thought about her chocolate chip cookies in quite some time.

The thing is, there is no concrete memory attached to the chocolate chip/love ratio comment, just a brief moment passing through, but it is myriad moments like that one I wish I could compile to pass on to you.

Oh, how I wish it. The ways we remember those we love. The quirks of this life. The things I remember, even if fleetingly, especially the things I remember about people and places. Maybe most especially the absences of people.

How can a list of moments be worth passing on? Who cares about chocolate chips? Or whether I ate way too much raw egg this afternoon for any single person to consume in a lifetime?

I don’t know.

But I do know that chocolate chips can, sometimes, take us to a moment in our past worth remembering, a person worth remembering. So can milk. Tomato soup. Basil. Meatloaf. Pie. Cinnamon sugar.

I’m serious.

When I pour milk into my tea every morning, I nearly always think of my maternal grandmother, the way the milk in her coffee swirled around and remained partially separate in her glass mug. This memory is so vague, in fact, I’m not sure it is a particular moment that ever happened, and yet it feels real, as if it happened many times in the old farmhouse we shared.

Once, after she moved into her new house, she burned tomato soup while I was visiting her. I told her it tasted burnt, and she told me that soup couldn’t burn. And then she tasted it. It did taste burnt. I was right. Did that really happen? True or not, I think of it when I make tomato soup on the stove. Every time. I try to be careful not to burn it.

I was cutting up basil with scissors the other evening to sprinkle on top of our Thai drunken noodles, and I remembered the first time I had pesto, remembered my mom slicing up the basil into skinny slivers to mix with the olive oil and pine nuts, remembered the homemade pasta from the machine that had a design flaw and broke repeatedly. I make pesto all the time now. In a food processor. With basil from our garden. But that was the first time, and I can see and smell and feel my mom’s kitchen on that evening before dinner.

On the rare occasions I eat meatloaf, I am transported to the kitchen island at my dad’s house with the high ceilings, the first time my stepmom offered to let me mix the meatloaf by hand. I can still feel that thawed-refrigerator-cold beef squishing between my fingers and into the slime of the raw egg and the sandy breadcrumbs and the squirts of ketchup. Such a vivid sensation I feel on my fingers when I eat meatloaf. It makes me smile because I am more likely to touch tofu than beef these days.

Watching your dad make pie–which he does quite heroically–always reminds me of my mom bending over the counter and carefully crimping the pie crust between the thumb of one hand and the index finger and thumb of the other.

When I open our herb cupboard and see the bottle of cinnamon sugar, I also see my brother and me carefully putting our cinnamon toast back into the toaster oven to melt the butter.

Can it be true that dozens of things throughout each day spark a memory, or at least an inkling, of a moment or a person? It is for me.

How about the way I fold towels or make a bed?

Or how ridiculously thick and soft I like my toilet paper?

Or how obsessive I am about Chapstick?

Or how awesome I am at identifying actors in movies?

All of these tidbits are part of the story I’ve lived and the people I have loved.

Which is really our story.

Because you’re part of this story now, too.

Your Momma