A Fill Up

 

img_1273After seeing something like this several years ago (and thinking each January 1st that I’d do it but not following through… thoughts and ideas seem to stay in my head a long, looong, painfully long time before there’s any actual action), it’s finally in our house.

The idea is to paint a pretty jar, bottle, or catch-all, write down special memories that happen throughout the year, then read them New Year’s Eve.  Many of us reflect on struggles we’ve had during the current year as we welcome in the new one, and I thought this will be another way to honor the good. There’s always so much good… a great conversation with a friend reminding us we are loved, a car ride with a son who makes us laugh so hard our sides ache… and I don’t want to forget those moments.

So the first day of 2019, I sat at the table with a little clay pot, armed with ambition and positive thoughts, surrounded by paint bottles and brushes, then remembered I am NOT an artist! Not even a little bit. I spent the next few days brushing on uneven coats of paint, letting them dry, discovering they were indeed not dry as I left many thumbprints thinking “Lemme just check and see if it’s dry…nope, not yet,” and making plenty of goofs with paint dripping where it wasn’t supposed to go.

Realizing that it would be July before the paint job would be ‘perfect’ and that would be just another way to justify in-action, I decided the little pot was finished and on came the over-thinking phase. What should you call it? Why do you have to call it anything? But if you do call it something, come up with a good name. Merry Memories? Beauty Bucket? Cheery Chamber?

Finally I decided on Happy Pot- one because it made me smile, and two, because the name was safe since my son is no longer school-aged. I can only imagine being called in for a teacher’s conference if we’d started the ‘happy pot’ years ago:”We have some concerns. Austin says ‘Every time we come home from doing something fun, Mom goes straight to her happy pot. She loves her happy pot!'”

The Reason-for Austin

For the past 18 years, my son has found a Hot Wheels car in his stocking every Christmas morning. I don’t think I ever told him why…until now.

As it does for many of us, decorating the Christmas tree and looking at all the ornaments collected through the years brings forth so much nostalgia; there are my favorite handmade ones from my son Austin, old ones from my grade school classmates, ones Austin and I bought on vacations we took together (Mom and I started that tradition many years ago when we’d go on trips), some from my childhood, and many given as gifts by cherished family. There’s one from the wife of a patient who died –she gave it to me as thanks for caring for her husband- and another from the first new nurse I mentored. One of the ornaments I treasure is a hand-blown glass angel from Copenhagen. Mom took me there when I was a teenager and we bought matching angels. Some years later, when I moved out on my own, my mother packed up all the ornaments she’d collected for me through the years so that I could have them for my own tree. Despite her careful and gentle packaging, I somehow managed to break off the tip of one wing. For years, I’d position her on the tree so that no one could see the flaw. As I got older, that changed. The beautiful angel now takes her place front and center on the tree and is a reminder that sometimes we are stronger because our wings are a little broken.

But back to the point- I’m always painfully slow getting to one… thinking about Christmas brought me back to the one when Austin had just turned four. We went to the mall to have his picture taken with Santa. It seemed as if we were in line forever, his warm little hand in mine, and I wondered if he’d be ok sitting on Santa’s knee by himself-historically, that had not been the case! He did it, photos were successfully snapped, and he ran back to me afterwards with a big proud grin.

As he gave me a huge hug, I asked him what he told Santa he wanted for Christmas. He said in the earnest way only small children do, “A hot wheels car, a blue cereal bowl…and earrings for you, Mommy.” The look of pure joy on his face when there were earrings for his Mom Christmas morning was unforgettable. The blue cereal bowl, too cracked by now for use, is carefully tucked away, there has been a Hot Wheels car in his stocking every year since, and he still has the same unselfish spirit he had when he was a young boy.broken-wings

Gratitude

bills

 

When I finished paying bills today, I cried. Undoubtedly, this was not the first time in history paying bills has made someone cry, but these were different tears. They were tears of joy and thanksgiving.

Years ago when my son was little, his father and I separated then divorced. Expenses that I had not incurred became ones that were my responsibility; I was fearful of not being able to provide for my son and too prideful and ashamed to tell anyone of my struggles. At the same time, though, I was so grateful holding that sweet baby in my arms, knowing how blessed I was to have that special love!

At first, things were a juggling act…making partial payments to utility companies, paying with one card to make a payment on another… all things many of us have faced at times. Gradually things became better, and I remember clearly the day I’d paid ALL the bills and saw I still had money in my account. It was five dollars, and I was so excited! That was THE day I knew we would be okay. Five dollars between paychecks became a little more every time, and about a year later, I bought a blue portable stereo/cassette player from K-mart. It was the first non-essential purchase I’d made in a long time, and I felt really guilty until I saw how much my toddler loved “dancing” to the music and hearing me sing to him… that was back when he enjoyed my singing, and those days were short-lived! Understandably. I really can’t sing… or rather shouldn’t

Though I’ll never be rich in the material sense and there probably will be times again that may not be easy, today my son and I have everything we need, I was able to pay bills and have a little money left over, I have a job I like, a car to drive, and a house to live in. Most importantly, I have a few close friends, family I love who love me back, and great coworkers- riches I certainly don’t deserve but do appreciate. I thank God for that every day.

The Point

(There really is one; I’m just always painfully slow getting to it whether the communication is written or verbal. My friends, family, and boss can attest to that. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by very patient people!)

For those who are struggling, and there are so many, please hang in there and persevere. We develop our strengths the most when we are at our weakest; tough times really don’t last forever.

My Sister’s Mother- for Miss Jody

Thirty five years ago, my mother accepted the marriage proposal made by my step-dad; it was her best decision of my life. At the time our families merged, I was 13 and my step-father’s four children were all young adults starting to carve their own paths. I’ve never asked any of them how they felt when their dad remarried; if there was pain over the breakup of their own parents’ marriage, and it’s certain there was, they were too gracious to show it. When I think of the many lives they have impacted- lives brought forth, lives nurtured, lives saved- I become overwhelmed, but those are stories for other days. This one is about their Mom.

I wish I remembered where we were the first time I met Miss Jody- it must have been someone’s birthday, or a holiday… what I do remember most is the way I felt before and after. I wonder what she’s like. It’s going to be weird meeting her. What if I don’t like her? And the last question, which was the only prophetic one- What if I do?

She hugged me when we met and got me past my shyness by asking about school… and horses; like a lot of young teen-aged girls, my passion then was horses. Over the past almost twenty years, I’ve watched this beautiful lady do the same thing with my own son at family gatherings.

Riding home in the back of my parents’ car that night, there were more thoughts that couldn’t be said out loud. She’s really nice. Did it feel strange to her being around my mother? I like her. Am I disloyal to Mom because I like her?

Everyone who knows Miss Jody can attest to her sweet, kind spirit. She didn’t have to accept me. She didn’t have to accept my son. She’s done way more than that… she has loved us, truly loved us- openly, genuinely, completely, and unconditionally. I always look forward to seeing her.

At my sister’s birthday lunch this past Sunday, I got a few minutes alone with her mother. As we talked, I couldn’t help blurting out, “Miss Jody, is it ok that I think of you as my step-mom?” The thought had been in my mind for several days and just had to come out- I struggle constantly between being awkwardly quiet at times and a blurter at others. “Oh, darlin’, of course! Of course it is!” was her sweet reply. She hugged me and told me she loved me as she pushed away strands of hair that had fallen into my eyes with her gentle fingers. I love it and it makes me smile when she does things like that- it’s her nurturing way. I love you too, Miss Jody.

Giving Thanks

There are many great memories of Thanksgivings past. For me, this one was the best ever, being spent with cherished family and friends who are family too. Gone at last were the selfish and self-imposed feelings of guilt and dark regret, leaving so much more room for light, love, happiness, joy, and gratitude. The beginning of this year was a scary time for our family as my brother Hank was really ill; his recovery has made the closing of this same year that much sweeter.

Sitting around the fire pit outside with everyone after our huge feast, we shared wine, stories, and lots of laughs. Being with nieces and nephews who are all grown now, learning more about them through their conversations with us and each other, hearing their laughter, and seeing the closeness they share was priceless. My niece Beth entertained the group both with her humor and her guitar, indulging all of us with our requests, leading us in sing-alongs, and best of all, occasionally going into a solo which allowed us to hear her beautiful voice- I don’t think she knows how good she is. Cliff and his sweet wife, Kara, radiate love and are always sure to include everyone in conversations- I love that about them. Oliver exudes warmth and makes everyone feel special; he has a quietly giving nature. Katie lights us up with her laughter and brings to the group her optimistic, positive energy.

As my sister-in-law, Claudia, periodically left her chair for only a moment at a time- we don’t know how she does this, but she takes photos in pure stealth-like fashion without us realizing she’s doing it; we only know later when we see the beautiful images of the ones we love, their personalities captured perfectly- I couldn’t help thinking about when these young adults were little… Beth as a toddler, walking around at a festival in Gulf Shores, a balloon tied to her wrist, a precious grin on her beautiful face, and arms outstretched to everyone… Oliver at the age of one, giving gentle pats on the back to whoever held him in their arms; God gave him the Spirit of a Comforter very early in life and he continues to share that gift with all of us…. Cliff when he was eight, meeting my two-week old son for the first time- such a kind soul then and now, he made sure to say goodbye to the baby before he returned home with his parents… Katie as a toddler too, standing on her daddy’s shoes, holding his hands, and ‘dancing’ at my wedding reception; she is the kind of young woman who makes others happier just because they are in her presence. It was with Divine timing that my own grown son phoned during these reflections. It was the first Thanksgiving I’ve been apart from him, and his phone call made it seem that he was with us all.

When it came time to leave, Hank said he’d walk me out (he’s always so polite) and the following conversation took place, making me smile widely as I type this:

Me: “You don’t have to do that.”

Hank: “I want to.” That’s just how he is, and we love him for it.

Me: “Ok.”

We stopped by the kitchen, and he insisted on carrying the casserole dish I’d brought. As we got closer to my car, walking out with my sister Mary and her husband, Mark, Hank asked, “Are you ok? You seem ok, but are you really ok?”

Me (perplexed at first, thinking physically? Mentally?- that’s sometimes up for debate! Emotionally?): “Ohhhh! You mean to drive?” (DUH!)

Hank: “Yes. Are you ok to drive?”

Me: “Oh yeah, I’m fine! I let people know if I’m impaired, huh Mark?”

Mark (my very patient brother-in-law): “She’d let you know.”

Me, to Hank:” I got really drunk Easter. Mark and Mary drove me home.” A little side-note here, Mark asked me the very same question Hank was asking now after the family Easter celebration at their home, to which my obnoxiously loud reply was, “Nope! Not even a little bit!” Yes, my parents were still waiting up for me that night when Mary and Mark drove me home, and yes, even though I’m in my 40’s, I felt like I was back in high school all over again…

Mark: “We didn’t mind.” So sweet.

As we reached the car, Hank asked me one more time gently and quietly, “Are you sure you’re ok? You’d tell me if you weren’t, right? Don’t lie to me.”

I really wouldn’t lie to him. There was only that one time, and that was over three decades ago! (https://awhitlow2.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/a-hank-story/)

Me: “I’m ok, I promise.”

Hank (seeming convinced): “Ok.”

Me: “I love you.”

Hank: “I love you too.”

Me: “I’m gonna cry now.”

Hank: “That’s ok.”

When I got in the car, the tears made it hard to see him standing behind, giving directions on how to back out of a tricky spot. It’s one of the Hank-like ways he shows us his love, and it feels so unimaginably good to have that.

Remembering the “Wheeeeee!!!!!” -for Hannah

Feeling tired and cynical tonight, my mood lightened at this memory.

My son and I are blessed to live on a street where children still play outdoors until it’s dark and the neighbors are like family- always there for each other during times of celebration, ordinary times, and times of need.

A couple of years ago, I re-entered the world of cycling and fell in love with my bike all over again. All avid cyclists, regardless of ability, know that what is a hobby can quickly become an obsession as we focus on increasing endurance, keeping our cadence up, finding the right form, surpassing our prior PB (personal best), and so forth.

On a sunny afternoon, I headed out the door with my bike, focused solely on adding twenty miles to the weekly total. One of my youngest neighbors, Hannah, was outside playing and quickly asked, “Miss Ashleigh, can we go for a bike ride?” Seeing that beautiful, eager, eight-year-old face, all thoughts of the 20 mile ride vanished, and I replied, “Sure- go ask your dad.” It took only about one minute for her reappear with her little pink bike fully equipped with handlebar streamers and a white plastic basket in front sporting a daisy.

We have several children in the neighborhood- Hannah is my favorite. A friendly and unselfish soul with a big heart, she is the kind of person who makes others feel good just by being in her company. About a year ago, her older cousin tragically lost her mother to cancer and began to take her anger out on Hannah; when a concerned family member asked Hannah about her cousin’s mistreatment of her, the sweet child replied, “It’s ok, I don’t take it personal. Some people have so much sadness it comes out as meanness, and she has a lot to be sad about.” Boy, I wish we could all be as understanding as that little girl.

So off we went on our bikes and I couldn’t stop smiling at her continuous monologue: “This is so much fun! Can we ride to my school? Look at me- I can go fast! Are you having fun, Miss Ashleigh? Let’s go faster! Can we stop at the playground? My friend lives down this street. I never rode this far before!” And finally, as we gathered speed along a longer stretch of road, came the “WHEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

That one exclamation of pure joy from an eight year old really hit home, and I remembered what I liked about cycling in the first place. Because of Hannah, every now and again when I’m out on my bike, I take my mind off performance, cadence, speed, endurance, and power for a moment to remember the “wheeeeee!” Thanks Hannah-you always make me smile!