• family,  introspection

    Honoring the Dead

    A few years back, my mother died quite suddenly of MRSA, in part of an epidemic that killed several children in the D.C. area. She was the only adult to die from it and, being a teacher, her death got national attention. Peter Jennings ran a report that featured her. The night she died, I went home to her empty house and was greeted by news crews. Very few people get to honor their parents in such a public way, so I talked to every media outlet that wanted an interview and ended up on TV, in the Washington Post and on some radio show somewhere. It was a great gift to be able to say nice things about her to such a wide audience.

    Last week I was contacted by her church, who are starting up a scholarship in her name. They asked me to write an academic biography, as the recipients of the scholarship are high school seniors from her church that are carrying 4.0 GPAs. There’s really no better role model than my mom for academic excellence. We come from a family of academic overachievers; I am at least third in a direct line of women who believed in education above all things. My mother takes the cake, though, so it’s been fun going through her records and realizing that while I may be an unbelievable prat, she was even more so. My favorite part has been finding a letter from her to my grandmother in which she was worried that her average in military language school could drop from a 98% to a 95%. Mom, we are too much alike.

    I am beyond honored at the scholarship and will be supporting it. I can think of no greater tribute. My mother was the classic case of a student that was overqualified to go to college, but had no money for it, but wasn’t going to let reality stop her. She joined the Army for the tuition benefits and started her first university classes while eight months pregnant with me and working full-time. This was after she had graduated from military linguist school, where she learned Russian well enough to be commended repeatedly for her contributions in translating military radio transmissions. By the time she was twenty-three, she was separated from my father, my primary caretaker and a sophomore in college. She went on to graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelors in Psychology and then a Masters in Education, all while being a single parent. In other words, my mother was a badass.

    Writing her biography has reminded me of all the way I grew up on the University of Maryland campus, going to the library with her and helping her Xerox papers. I learned to read books and roam the library stacks to entertain myself while she was in classes. (True fact: university library stacks still give me shivers of absolute delight.) I sat by her night after night as she read textbooks and wrote papers on her electric typewriter that she bought for $295 in 1980. She’d had to put it on credit, but she paid it off month after month. Even when it was extremely difficult, my mother pursued her education. In doing so, she made me an unbelievable prat with the same curiosity for the world that she had. Writing about her has been an awful lot like finding myself. It has been a great deal of fun.

    So, hey, thanks Mom. Thanks for it all.

  • family,  friends,  knitting,  relationships,  spinning,  wedding

    2011 Holidays

    Christmas was a quiet affair filled with good friends and family, which is what it’s all about. I made out with some very thoughtful loot and ate slightly more than my body weight in cookies.

    But I have prevailed; the cookies are all dead. In my belly.

    I enjoy the week between Christmas and New Years an awful lot because it is so quiet. After all the hustle and bustle of lights, tree, cooking, family, etc., it becomes almost necessary downtime. The trains are quiet, nearly everyone is gone from the office, and I have no excuses for not getting a great deal done. As a productivity nut and worker bee, this makes me very happy. As a person with an exciting life to write about, well, not so much. But it’s been a nice quiet. I’ve been able to conquer the world in Civilization get some writing projects done, master some Bach and finish some big projects that have been hanging over my head at work. It’s a nice feeling.

    I see other bloggers out there doing lists of what they’d like to do next year. It’s made me think about some of the highlights of this year. This year, I:

    – got engaged to the love of my life (this is a celebration, not an accomplishment)
    – actually managed to get good enough at the piano to be able to sight read stuff where the left hand does more than play chords. Slowly, mind.
    – learned how to fox trot, to rhumba, to merengue
    – learned that if fox trotting, rhumbaing or merenguing with a 6’3″ man, heels are a good idea. Otherwise, neck injury occurs.
    – (self)published a knitting pattern
    – had the realization that not being my skinniest weight ever does not, in fact, make me a bad person
    – watched my ward pull in grades higher than he thought possible on his report card, despite having skipped most of two years of school a few years back.
    – adopted a house hippy. Everyone should have one.
    – learned to rip up carpet and stained all the wood for a new staircase in a weekend
    – went to a spinning convention and actually learned how to spin yarn that looks like yarn
    – fell in love with the mountains of eastern Oregon and took some awesome pictures
    – bought a cowboy hat
    – knit multiple sweaters, learned to not hate knitting socks and designed a few more things on my own
    – have actually done a little bit of wedding planning, despite hating it like you wouldn’t believe
    – actually genuinely enjoyed the holidays for a third year running

    It has, all in all, been a good year. We are all safe and happy and the family grew again this year (see the house hippy aspect). I am filled with gratitude and can only marvel at my good luck. Life is good; my only goal for next year is to keep it good.

    Happy New Year everyone. Let’s make 2012 even more filled with light than 2011.

  • amusement,  art,  culture,  family,  friends

    Visiting Time

    When I went to your town on the wide open shore,
    Oh I must confess, I was drawn, I was drawn to the ocean

    It is summer and we live by the ocean, which means that we’ve had a steady stream of visitors for the last month, which is an excellent thing indeed.  I’ve also been doing my share of visiting, having popped down to Virginia in the beginning of June to meet one very excellent baby.  I’m afraid I have fallen rather in love and have been compelled to knit and buy small things.

    This was followed with a far too short but excellent visit with a very old friend and a new friend, where we spent most of our time on the beach in both bad weather and good.  There are some friends that you can just pick up with after any amount of time away and the time spent together is so restful.  Too short, but incredibly wonderful.

    Last weekend, my aunt came for a visit, where we went to see lots and lots of art in jewelry format.  The jewels were so scintillating that after two rooms, I actually had eyestrain.  I found the exhibit really inspiring from a knitting design perspective; I have some ideas in my head that will be hitting paper soon.  Then we took a day to wander up to Boston, taking the Port Jefferson ferry over to Connecticut, then stopping for lunch in Mystic.  I got to tourist Boston for the first time – despite morning thunderboomers and storms, we made it to Fenway Park (and I sat on the Green Monster) and walked quite a lot of the historic trail and waved at Sam Adams’ grave (why yes, that is my beer of choice) and went shopping at Quincy Market (where I proceeded to get overwhelmed by a cosmetic purchase, which you’d think I’d have gotten down pat by the age of thirty-one).  Dinner was excellent Vietnamese, which sent us off to sleep, only to awaken to a day at the Science Museum, which is pretty much the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time.  Lightning bolts and amazing ship models?  In one place?  Awesome.

    The social life continue this weekend with some more very dear friends coming up for a visit and barbeque and FIREWORKS IN THE BACKYARD.  We’re not all that patriotic, but we sure do like setting things on fire.  Just hopefully not ourselves.

  • family,  feminism

    An unexpected series of events; my grandmother

    This last two weeks have been ones to go down in the record books. My birthday was on the first of the Mondays and it was also the day that my maternal grandmother passed away.

    It wasn’t a big secret that this was coming; she was nearing ninety and her health had been declining for some years. Several years ago, she moved into a nursing home and had had constant medical care available to her. There have been a few scares along the way. So not unexpected, but with any conclusion of a chapter, there is always sorrow.

    There is also the largest family gathering that I’ve seen in years. I’ve arrived in Wisconsin on the Wednesday, having made rather sudden travel arrangements on Tuesday when I got the news. I’ve been blessed in being able to be involved in helping plan the ceremony itself and handle some of the details. I helped in putting together some pictures of her life into a tableau. It was a great honor to be able to be among the first to the wake and to be able to greet people as they came in. I think that particularly because of the distance at which I’ve always been from my family, this meant something particularly special for me. Family is a rare and cherished event for me.

    My grandmother was an ambiguous character. She was at her best with small children and really spent her life with them. She gave up teaching when she was young to help raise her older sister’s kid. She married and had six kids, but when her own children were old enough, she went back to school and got her teaching certificate and spent her career teaching head start classes. Little kids were her thing.

    She had a difficult life, raised in the Great Depression and moved thither and yon in order to survive and get an education. Her father died when she was two and her mother did what was necessary to support her four kids. My grandmother finished her primary and middle school years in a one room school house, then had to board with strangers in a bigger town to get her high school education. She worked for her board, helping take care of the kids and acting as a mother’s helper. But even though it was the 1940s, that level of education wasn’t good enough for her – she went straight into a teaching academy. My grandmother, in one of her most superhuman feats, raised six kids as a single mother. And then, when they were old enough, she went back to school to finish her education credits. Wowza.

    My grandmother often frustrated her family with her distance. My memories of her all come from when I was very young and we did crafts together. As I grew older, our visits became more awkward. I remember her speaking to me frequently through my mother and resenting it. When she’d lost some of her mental acuity due to diabetic complications, she remembered me as “Merry’s daughter”, but couldn’t remember my name. And I think that’s how she thought of me – as a person that was intrinsically related to my mother, but not someone she really knew. I wished for years that I knew her better. I wished that I knew how to. I don’t know if it was on purpose that she was so distant, or if she thought she was protecting us, but I think most of us wanted to know her better than we did. I’ve been heavy hit with grief; more than I expected given how often we communicated over the years. I apparently took a lot more solace in knowing that she was there than I realized. I’m now the oldest in my direct maternal line and I am not ready for it.

    I seem to come from a long line of remote and admirable women; women who don’t let their period of history limit them. I’m at least a third generation feminist, just one more fighter in a line of fighters. And my grandmother’s legacy was so obvious at the funeral – the room was filled with people that wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t made the choices she did. Goodbye Grandma – may we all live to die of old age, surrounded with the evidence of how we changed the world. You taught us to love music and crafts and education and to care about social justice. You done good.

  • family,  feminism,  introspection,  relationships

    Weddings for Feminists

    I am clearly not a stereotypical bride. In the three weeks in which I have been engaged, I’ve started doing some research in wedding planning that is driving me nuts. This began with signing up for theknot.com so that I could access their checklists. The Knot presents you with a nearly 200 item checklist that is largely presumed to be my responsibility. Because I’m the bride, which means that apparently I’m meant to have been dreaming about my wedding day for my entire life. (Hint: never once thought about it.) I’m meant to have a vision and colors and some dream about a dress style, all of which makes me want to have no wedding at all, because it sounds like a lot of expensive work that I can pretty easily screw up by picking the wrong napkins, etc. It all makes me pretty grumpy, but I am a fan of ceremonies and rituals to mark the important events in your life and I love seeing my family, so we’re going to have one anyway.

    Weddings, in their default traditional state, are pretty creepy. It’s probably no surprise that the heavily orchestrated gender roles of the process are giving me trouble. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on how to make my wedding awesome instead. I refuse to degrade my friends with the whole bouquet/garter toss and I would prefer both of my parents to walk me down the aisle, if only that were possible. I’d like a drum circle and dancing until the wee hours. I don’t want a groom’s side and a bride’s side – I just want our friends and family together, for a day filled with love and joy. It is a day for two families to come together, a day where I will not just make my fiancé my family, but also his family. It’s the day where he officially becomes part of mine. And that’s where I want the focus to be, not on the price tag of my dress or the rings.

    We want something that’s authentic to us, which doesn’t sync very well at all with the traditional ceremony. Above all, I don’t want it to be boring. People will be paying a lot of money to come to our wedding, since most of our relations and childhood friends are far away, and I want to make sure they have a good time and talk about it for years.

    No pressure there. None at all.

  • cooking,  family

    Cupid in the Corner, Sloshed

    As we are burgeoning alcoholics[1], we’ve started a tradition of making a different cocktail each Sunday. It’s fun and it lets me justify the purchase of The Complete Bartender’s Guide, which I bought when I first moved into my house, since I love to throw parties. (Note, parties thrown to date: three, which happens to be an average of one per year. But all memorable, I assure you.)

    Tonight, I started with a Grasshopper for my fiancé and tried it and decided that I didn’t like it much. We didn’t get green crème de menthe, so it wasn’t even pretty. It was pretty minty and heavy on the cream, which I’m not such a fan of. We refer to plain cream as Irish cream in this household, as Americans know better than to eat it without sugar. Cultural differences were discovered at an inopportune dessert moment for which we still sometimes bow our heads in mourning.

    So for my cocktail, I browsed through the book for Things That Use Chambord, as we had just returned from purchasing some at the liquor store. I settled on Cupid’s Corner, which is equal parts cognac, Chambord and heavy cream with a dash of grenadine. You then use some cream to draw a heart on the top of the drink, which I got better at by the second one. The trick seems to be to barely touch the surface of the drink – you’re laying the cream on top of it, rather than putting it in the drink at all.

    Personally, I found it far too alcoholic to my taste, although we were admittedly pouring doubles for lack of real cocktail glasses. Of course, you can see what that leads to.

    [1] As the child of an alcoholic, I can make that joke. And no, we’re not really, but everyone needs a goal.

  • family

    Reader, I married him

    On New Year’s Eve, at thirty minutes until midnight, my live-in boyfriend went down on one knee on the James Joyce bridge over the River Liffy in Dublin.  We’d just had dinner at a Spanish restaurant with some friends and his brother.  He had a ring.  I figured I’d better say yes and so I did.

    Now I find myself engaged and it’s changed absolutely everything.  (It’s even made me want to take up blogging again, because the wedding industrial complex is insane and I’m afraid of boring my friends.)  A permanence and a gravity has been added to our relationship that wasn’t there a week ago.  We are people who take marriage seriously.  Perhaps even a little too seriously, since it’s our first engagement each and I am thirty and he is forty-four.  But we’ve finally gotten here.  And it’s good.  It feels right.  It feels solid.

    It would be hard to be happier.  I figured I’d better tell the world.

  • family,  relationships

    Family Changes

    What a month!

    About a month ago, I took my kid brother into my house and set about the business of raising a teenager. Although strange at first, this has gone surprisingly well, and it’s been just delightful having a young mind around the house. I really enjoy his different perspective. Even if the spaghetti I made for dinner sometimes ends up on the carpet. And my socks. And pants. (Really, I thought the spaghetti throwing stage was supposed to be over at a much younger age. Perhaps the aim just improves.)

    Two weeks ago, I had news that my maternal grandmother was not doing very well. She seemed to have suffered a stroke and the reports were dire. As such, I caught the next flight to Wisconsin that I possible could and spent the weekend at the retirement home where she was being made comfortable. On Friday, she had stopped breathing for a few minutes – by Sunday she was eating a little and speaking a little. We are all somewhat amazed at the robustness of the human body and – more specifically – of Grandma.

    I did leave the kiddo with my lovely boyfriend – and reports are that they got on just fine all weekend and did not miss me one bit. Harrumph.

    Sometimes I look at my life a year, even two years ago, and I just can’t reconcile it to where it is today. It seems like ever since I got the call telling me my mom was sick, life has decided to keep throwing things at me that I never imagined for myself. The last two years have been an incredible roller coaster, but the sort that ends at the top of the hill, not the bottom. There have been dips and bumps along the way, but on the whole, it’s looking up.

    Coming home each night to family is very, very nice.

  • family

    Visiting the Homestead

    It has been a very busy month. I just came back from a visit to Wisconsin, where I saw quite a large percentage of my mom’s side of the family. It was the first time I’ve been there without her, so it was a little sad from that perspective, but it was nice to be around people who remember her. People who knew her can laugh with me over all the crazy things she would do. It’s nice.

    Family visits are always a little odd to me because I was raised geographically distant from both sides of my family. I have cousins, but we didn’t grow up together, which has always made me kind of sad. I have a brother, but he wasn’t born until I was fourteen and we’ve never lived in the same country. My aunts and uncles and grandparents all live in other states. I don’t even recognize most of my extended relations without someone whispering “great-grandfather” or “cousin” or “your father’s cousin”. For most of my daily life, family consisted almost entirely of my mother.

    I think this is why I like visiting family so much – I do always wonder what it would be like to grow up with more regular interaction, but it’s really nice to be creating memories. And perhaps the wildest part for me is discovering all the things I have in common with people that I’ve had pretty limited exposure to. I’m pretty out there – and comfortable in my strangeness – so finding people that I share a lot of things in common with is rare. To find such a large group of people who think like I do, act like I do, look like I do and laugh like I do is really empowering. Some things must just be in the genes – which I find really comforting.