How do you explain the beauty of a sunrise to a blind man? How do you describe the intoxicating aroma of a jasmine blossom to someone who has never smelled one? I feel almost compelled to disclaim today's essay with a warning sign...
CAUTION: WOEFUL INADEQUACY AHEAD!
It all began 19 years ago at a brew pub (See 31/50 "John Harvard’s" August 6, 2015). I was new to Atlanta, a few years divorced, and I had just sworn off younger men, especially men under 30. What’s that old saying about if you want to hear God laugh, just tell Him your plans? Yeah that.
Knowing what I know now, it’s ridiculous that when I met the man who is now my husband almost 20 years ago, I was determined to never marry again. Not because my first marriage was bad; quite to the contrary. My marriage to Joe wasn’t terrible, I was just terrible at it. (See 10/50 "Marrying Young” July 16, 2015)
From the very beginning Ed seemed to be unnaturally good at this thing called “relationship” despite being a young man.
Despite our wildly different upbringings and our age difference, we discovered we had similar values and beliefs systems and what I loved right away is how easily we got along. Some couples might find it terribly boring to live without the drama that arguing creates, but I find the ease we have comforting and lovely. In the nineteen years we’ve been together I can count the number of arguments we’ve had on one tiny cat paw.
I never expected to be "treated like a queen" because frankly, it seemed an awful lot to ask of another person and a surefire way to have your expectations be left unmet. Ed has always treated me like a treasure, irreplaceable and precious. He respects me, he protects me, and he always has my best interest at heart.
I’ve learned so much just from being around my amazing man and I feel so lucky to have found him!
First of all, everyone likes him. If you’ve met him, it’s pretty much impossible not to! He’s smart, kind, sensitive, creative and has a razor sharp business mind. Although he’s an introvert he is an outstanding conversationalist who enjoys lively debate and learning from others. His capacity for self growth is seemingly unlimited. He has transformed himself from a budding speaker to someone who can capture and hold the attention of any audience and he enjoys doing it. He reads books like I eat chocolate and he’s without a doubt the most focused and productive human being I’ve ever met.
One of my favorite things about my husband is his silly side. I love the adorable expressions that show up on his face when he’s had wine. I love his cute little “drunk smile” and the way he cracks himself up because he’s just. So. Hilarious.
I love it when I’m upstairs in our bedroom in the morning and I can hear him through the floor vent, talking sweetly to our cat about breakfast. He truly is the yin to my yang. His quiet demeanor balances my sometimes frenetic energy, he's a calming force in a knee-jerk world, his even keel remains steadfast amidst my sometimes choppy seas and his moral compass always leads the way.
In my youth I thought that love was a feeling. As I’ve grown older, I learned that love is not a feeling, but a beautiful mix of emotions and actions. Somehow Ed always has always known how to make me feel loved. In 1998, my beloved cat Clara went to Kitty Heaven. Before I got home from work that evening, he cleaned her food and water dishes, emptied and washed her litter box and put them, along with her toys, on a high shelf simply because he didn’t want me to have to do it. That simple act was one of the most loving things anyone has ever done for me.
In my opinion, marital love is best when you first appreciate and respect your partner as an individual and secondly as your spouse. It’s not my husband's job to make me happy nor is it my job to do the same for him. It's incumbent upon each of us to be happy people in our own right, which makes our shared happiness double.
I sometimes hear married people say the secret to their success is that one of them travels most of the time. Although we have each done our share of business travel and being away from one another on a regular basis I would never say it's the reason our marriage is successful. Instead I’d say our marriage is successful despite being interrupted by long periods of bi-coastal commuting. One of the things I like best about our relationship is that we aren't independent of one another nor are we dependent on each other. We're beautifully and wonderfully inter-dependent. We aren’t a couple joined at the hip however we are joined by our hearts and minds.
I know there are things about me and my personality that can drive him a little batty just as there are small things about him that drive me a little nutty. I try to just chuckle and thank God that those small things are my biggest marital issues. No spouse is perfect but I think mine comes as close as any mere mortal could.
I love our special morning rituals, our silly inside jokes and the way he can never stay awake to see the end of a television show. I love that he hangs his naked booty out the side of the covers when he sleeps and how he spoils our cat rotten because she’s old as dirt and they’re deeply in love. I love how I never have to ask him to empty the dishwasher, scoop the litter box, or take out the trash. I love the fact that he gets super annoyed when it takes me an hour to say goodbye at a party but he never says a word about it. I love his quiet confidence, his beautiful speaking voice and the way we always have things to talk about. I love that he’s even-tempered past the point of most people, but when pushed he’ll push back.
And I FREAKIN’ LOVE THAT HAIR!! Mrrrowwwwwww baby!
It's easy to say I wish we had met years earlier because one lifetime doesn't seem enough to share with such a person as this. But I believe in divine timing, so I’m content that Ed came into my life at just the right time 19 years ago. In those days, my hair wasn't so short and his hair wasn't so white. We were young and just starting out and in time we discovered that 1 + 1 does not equal 2, but that it really can equal 11; we are better together than apart.
While my first marital failure was indeed my doing, the blissful success of my second marriage is not my doing. I’m just following the lead of an extraordinary man while trying my best to be the wife he deserves.
As my 50/50 project nears its close and I review my essays, I notice I’ve written more than once about places I’ve lived. Not just the cities or towns, but the homes themselves. Last week, Ed and I met up with our friend Steff in Chicago to celebrate my birthday at a bucket list restaurant. It was heavenly and I’m so glad we went. We visited Millennium Park, walked the Magnificent Mile and ate more than our share of Chicago dogs and deep dish pizza. I enjoyed the view from the balcony of our ninth floor apartment and found myself drawn to the windows of the other high-rise buildings that surrounded us.
These towers are like man-made beehives, windows stacked on windows, reflecting the sun and concealing what lies behind the glass. However, at the right time of day, you can see curtains, plants on window sills and even the furnishings that fill the spaces. At night chandeliers and televisions illuminate the evening as the inhabitants take off the burden of their day like a heavy coat, knowing they'll put it back on in the morning. Each window offers a glimpse inside four walls where someone is building a life.
In the spirit of writing about the walls where we live, I must include our current home in my 50/50 project. I will write about it not only because it’s been special to us, but because we’re on the verge of leaving it.
In early July 2002 we bought a little house in Alpharetta Georgia in a small cul de sac community called Summer Trace. At the time, we had no way of knowing what this move would mean to us. Six weeks after moving in, we got married and settled into our new community. We immediately met our neighbors Kathy and Sean and their three adorable girls. We also met our neighbors up the hill John, LuAnn and their boys John and Joe. We fell in love with Becky and Robert and their four — and ultimately five — children. Our dear friends Steve nd Lisa bought the house just across the street a year later, which has brought us even closer as friends.
Over the years we got to know more people in our neighborhood through our Summer Trace Yahoo Group and most recently, our Summer Trace Facebook group. These social media connections have enabled us to communicate easily and have been a wonderful enhancement to our community. We keep each other informed about events and happenings, lost and found pets, and we share the ups and downs of our lives. We use the groups to sell and donate items to each other, or put the word out about a great new contractor, plumber or painter we just found.
Summer Trace is much like the the neighborhoods so many of us grew up in, where neighbors know and watch out for each other. When something bad happens, we pull together, just as we did when we lost a longtime neighbor to a tragic house fire earlier this year.
We’re the kind of neighborhood where you can borrow a few eggs, a shovel or a lawnmower if yours is on the blink. We’re the neighborhood where the kids still ride bikes in the street and play ball in front yards while chatting moms in camp chairs look on.
Home ownership comes with both blessings and challenges and our home is no exception. There are endless maintenance projects to be done and always a new repair to spend our hard-earned money on. In the thirteen years we’ve been here, we’ve replaced, repainted, redecorated, repaired, remodeled and refinanced. Some expenses were must-haves while others were nice-to-haves and although we’ve spent what feels like considerable money making our house a home, it has more than repaid us in happiness.
This home is the first place Ed and I lived as a married couple. (By the way, I realize that I never did get carried across the threshold when we returned from our wine country wedding!)
These floors are the ones our two sweet Egyptian Maus’ soft little paws first walked on after the passing of our last kitty, Louis. This dining room was the original backdrop for our 50 Shades of Grape wine videos and where we entertained groups, both large and small. We’ve broken bread and shared countless bottles of wine with friends on the screened porch, serenaded by the peaceful night song of crickets and tree frogs.
The walls of our home have seen joy, sorrow, grief, and anger. I lived here when I got married and this is the home I came back to after my mother’s passing. Our home has sheltered us from actual storms and been a safe haven in emotional storms. It has been a sanctuary where we've fed our friends with home-cooked meals and fed our souls with friendship.
Within these four walls we've shared our hopes, dreams, plans, troubles and fears with each other and with those we love. I like to think each home holds the memories of many lives which have passed through it.
Come mid-September we’ll be leaving this house for the last time. We’ll say our goodbyes and leave the keys for for another couple. They’re young and on the verge of marrying, as we were when we moved in. I hope that after we carry out our last bit of furniture and pack up the final box, that the kids who move in will make their own beautiful memories here, that they'll adore this house as we have and that they’ll feel the love we’ve left in the walls for them.
Some of my fondest and earliest childhood memories of my mom involve the two of us living together in a small apartment. I can still remember staying up late into the night, watching her pour raw shelled peanuts out of a clear plastic bag onto a cookie sheet. She’d pour salt into her hand before sprinkling it over the sheet, and pop it into the oven until the nuts turned from pale to a fragrant and oily golden brown. We’d settle in on the sofa together, eating warm peanuts and watching The Dick Cavett Show. As I grew a bit older, our shared late night television dates expanded to include Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special on Friday nights with Wolfman Jack.
No doubt these late nights were not what she imagined life in her twenties would be. Getting pregnant when you’re a single 22 year old is hardly ever part of a person’s life plan and I’m confident my mother was as surprised as anyone to find herself in just that situation at the end of 1964. It makes me a little sad to think of how things might have been different for her, had she, barely an adult herself not been derailed by an unplanned infant. Her struggles are the kind I can’t begin to imagine.
Being an unwed mother of a toddler in the 1960s, with its social implications must have been challenging enough. Add to that, giving up your second child for adoption, marrying, getting pregnant a third time almost immediately, then ending up divorced and raising two children on your own. It's a journey that would be difficult, even for someone of higher education and financial means, let alone a young woman without such advantages. My mother’s choices and life circumstances unkindly pushed aside whatever plans and dreams she may have had, replacing them with the responsibility of two young lives.
Had our family circumstances been different, perhaps my mom would have been a brownie-baking, lunch-packing, dinner-cooking, come-to-every-event kind of mom. While many of my school friends woke up to a Happy Days’ Marion Cunningham around the breakfast table, I awoke to equivalent of One Day At a Time’s Ann Romano. Like the feisty red-haired TV mom, my mom also had to balance motherhood with work, perhaps even feeling at times like a failure at both.
The truth couldn’t be more to the contrary.
Imagine yourself in charge of raising two lion cubs. If you’re smart, you’d teach them to respect your authority while they’re still much smaller than you, otherwise when they grow up they might figure out they can tear your throat out. I think this scenario was the basis of my mom’s parenting style, which was part Mother Teresa and part Siegfried and Roy.
Never one to be a victim herself and certainly not about to raise any, my mother enforced a “no whining” policy at our house. Hard work and respect were the norm rather than the exception. Everyone contributes in some fashion. You did not lie, you did not cheat, you did not dare say NO to a directive and you certainly didn’t mouth off.
I did mouth off once, in a hormone-induced moment of temporary insanity. Did I mention I only did that once?
Through her actions and words, my mother taught me values and life lessons she knew were difficult to accept but would serve me well later. Despite my obvious KNOWLEDGE OF EVERYTHING, (a common affliction in teenagers) her words of wisdom eventually sank in, helped me make good decisions then, and have been the basis of my guiding beliefs as an adult. What are these magical words of wisdom, you ask?
Well she had a number of mantras — parenting pearls you might say — that she shared with us liberally, many of which I didn’t understand until much later.
“Life isn’t fair” was her money-back-guaranteed response when I or my brother protested the inequities of such serious matters as staggered bedtimes and unequally distributed chores. Destroying the childlike fantasy that life is fair to begin with is truly one of the best things she ever did for me.
Her other favorite and well-worn mantras included, “What goes around comes around” and "The world doesn’t owe you a living.” As a young child, I hadn’t a clue what such cryptic statements could mean. Eventually I realized that although she was certain life wasn’t fair, she also believed that life would even things out as long as we work hard, earn our own way in the world and don’t look for a handout.
In retrospect, she could have condensed all her mantra into, "Suck it up buttercup."
The picture I’m painting may not seem like a mother you’d have wanted as yours, but she was an amazing human being and I’m grateful she was mine. Granted, in the years I knew her, my mother was never as squishy as I am, but she wasn’t all steel and bone. She was loving and caring, expressing those things in her own way. Just being a single mother working full-time to keep her family off welfare was possibly her single greatest act of love. Supporting a family is an often Herculean feat, that as a child you don’t recognize and that no decent parent will tell you about.
As a daughter, it’s easy to remember the “mom” side of a woman, but before I existed, she was a person too. She had hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, joys and sorrows. She loved her friends and family and enjoyed great food and travel. She had a passion for learning and for all things in the world of nature. She could tell you the name of almost any plant, tree or bird and one of her favorite things to do was observe nature happening around her. I miss being able to call her to share my excitement over the first green glimpse of a daffodil poking through the snow or the first hummingbird of the summer.
My mom was smart and funny and when she laughed, she meant it. Her hugs were long and sincere. From the time I was a little girl, every hug was accompanied by a side-to-side rocking motion and a little humming tune. That was our special thing. We hugged like that right up until the end of her life. Her hugs are one of the things I miss most about her.
My mother’s life was short. She lived just 61 years and for 38 of them, she was my mom. She navigated the seas of parenthood the way a budding gymnast takes on the balance beam. At times graceful, and poised; stepping, turning and leaping with a seemingly natural confidence and power. At other times, wobbling and unsure, sometimes dangerously close to falling off.
Despite having more than her share of heartache and challenge, she never did fall. She lived her life well and brought joy and friendship to those around her. She wasn’t perfect but what’s most important is that I know she loved me and she did the best she could. That’s really all I could have asked for. heart emoticon
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” ~ Helen Keller
On the heels of writing about my oldest friend, I wanted to write about the concept of friendship as a whole. Some people seem perfectly happy with a relatively solitary existence, nurturing few close friendships and partnerships throughout their lifetimes. I respect that lifestyle, but candidly, I can’t relate. Life without friends would be utterly meaningless.
As I’ve gotten older I've grown to enjoy my own company. I’ve evolved from an unabashed extrovert to a person who craves more balance, seeking out periods of solitude as a respite from interacting with others. I now value quiet more highly than ever and unlike during my restless youth, the concept of being still is appealing.
As much as I value quiet times, small gatherings and balancing social time with solitude, I also consider my friends as necessary to life. I could no more live without deep and meaningful friendships as I could live without oxygen.
I’ve written about just a few of my close friends in this 50/50 project already. I wish I could write about each and every friend I’ve made in life, but that would require me to be celebrating my 1848th birthday. Heck 50/50 was challenging enough, I don’t think I want to sign up for the 1848/1848 project!
I've found that friendship is one of the best tools we have to navigate life. We learn so much from friends that we could never learn on our own. Friendship offers up a buffet line of character traits, all on display in others for us to observe, examine and perhaps adopt for ourselves. Friendship also shows us that we can learn from our friends’ mistakes, and they from ours. Friendship can act as a mirror in which we see ourselves, painful as it may be at times, and it can also be a lens, through which we view the world from a different perspective.
I see characteristics in my friends that I admire and aspire to. When I think of calmness and integrity, I think of Melanie or Lorie, both of whom I can always count on to keep a level head or say the right thing. My friend Sara is an oasis of fun, silliness and unconditional love in my life that I treasure beyond words. There's a reason we call each other "wife."
When I need a dose of deep conversation that makes my brain hurt but makes my heart feel good, I look to Steff or Shawn. There is no friend more loyal than Paul, more generous than Debbie, smarter than Laura, or more kind and accepting than Whitney or Peggy.
My friend Lisa represents boldness, while Bethany and Holly are both ridiculously witty, hilarious and have an enviable exuberance for life. Tracey is like a younger sister with an old soul and an extraordinary character and moral compass.
Manny and Dan are like my perfect older brothers — they’re wicked smart, lots of fun and they’d both totally punch someone out on my behalf on the playground. I could go on and on, listing everyone I've ever loved through friendship and yet it would still fall short of my true feelings and depth of emotion and appreciation of the joys and virtues of friendship.
Human beings are walking stewpots, each of us a unique concoction of personality traits and attitudes that vary, not only from person to person, but also over time. My friends have changed and evolved over the years, as have I. As a result, we may have grown apart or closer together; we may get along better than ever, or barely at all. We may have wildly different values now than we used to or perhaps we no longer see eye to eye on the issues that matter.
But whether you have been my friend and gone, or been my friend and stayed, you have enriched my life in some way large or small. My hope is that I have done the same for you.
Like waves crash and recede on the shore, friendships come and go from our lives. Some last a season or two, while others last a lifetime. No matter how long friendships last, each one teaches us and contributes something good to our lives, because the basis of all true friendship is love.
Those words are stitched on the face of a small, lace-edged ivory pillow on my guest room bed. The pillow was a gift given to me by my oldest friend Melanie. By old, of course I mean we’ve been friends for longer than we’ve known anyone else outside of family. We met when we were five years old and in Mrs. Greider's kindergarten class.
As children, we’d play in the streets of our small hometown until well past dark, running, running and running some more. It’s a wonder our hole-riddled sneakers lasted a single summer for all the miles we put on them. We’d hunt for crayfish in the river, spend summer days looking for cute boys at Hersheypark and often tag along on each others’ family vacations.
Childhood turned to girlhood, then to womanhood and through it all, Melanie was always in my life. I always felt at ease in her family’s home and I know today if I were to show up there unannounced, her sweet and loving parents would welcome me with open arms. Her siblings treated me like one of their own and her family seemed so stable, in contrast to my chaotic one.
Despite our personality differences, she and I are super compatible, as evidenced by our 45 years of friendship. She so graciously tolerates what I imagine to be my excruciating extroversion and analytical nature, while I'm awed by her striking combination of beauty, brains, compassion, hilarious sense of humor and quiet confidence. We travel well together, we have similar beliefs and values and in all these years I can’t remember a single disagreement or fight.
There is so much I treasure not only about Melanie as a person, but also about our friendship.
I love that we both have a passion for and an insatiable curiosity about animals and nature and if I share a bird nerd moment with Melanie, she’ll be genuinely excited.
Me: “We saw twelve Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at the mountain house last weekend!”
Her: “No way! That’s so cool! You don’t see those very often!”
I love that the theme of our friendship has always been laughter. We are two grown up little girls with decades of memories made together, adventures and silly stories that pass between us with barely more than a word.
I love the rare occasion when we’re in the car together and a Journey song comes on, how we’re both back in sixth grade, singing along with Steve Perry at the top of our voices.
I love the way she thinks before she speaks, a skill I’ve finally begun to learn at my advanced age.
I love and admire how she is steadfast in her opinions without being opinionated.
I love her unwavering commitment to her faith and that it is hers alone. She has no need to wear it as a shield as to avoid discussion or wave it around as a flag for all to see.
I love how we can go from discussing serious matters such as politics and economics, straight into comparing notes on different birds and then fall apart in hysterics recalling some silly thing we used to do, or perhaps something we’re about to do. We have shared too many fun times to count yet I know I’ll always feel the number is too few.
Melanie and I are from the same small hometown in Pennsylvania, and although neither she nor I have lived there in decades, the miles and years have taken no toll. She is my oldest friend. She knew me when, and she knows me now. She’s seen me at my worst and at my best. She knows the stupid things I’ve done and she’s witnessed some of my best moments.
We have remained friends and supported each other through over four decades of great times and challenging personal times and as we grow into the mid-summer of our lives, my love and appreciation of who she is continues to grow.
My mother gave birth to me three days before her own 23rd birthday. It must have been difficult to be a young unwed mother in the 1960s but with the assistance, love and support of her family, she somehow managed. When I was almost two, she became pregnant again. In October 1968, she gave birth to a second daughter, my sister Amy (See 13/50 “Amy” July 19, 2015), whom she immediately gave up for adoption to a loving family. The following September, just eleven months later, my mother gave birth my half-brother Jeffrey. His father — my step-father — is the first and last man my mother would marry.
For a while, things felt sort of stable. We were a blended family in the 1970s, not unlike the Brady Bunch in our own way, minus the cool house, the housekeeper and the white collar income. After a few years however, the situation at home deteriorated and my mother, my younger brother and I moved out. Then we moved back in. Then we moved out again for good. And although breaking our home apart was for the best, my family was, as they say down south, “a hot mess."
Sometime before I turned ten years old, I learned that my step-father was in fact, not my biological father. Of course he wasn’t. Had I given it a bit of thought, I would have known that. I was born before he and my mother ever met, but as a young child, you don’t remember or understand these things the way an older child would.
When we lived in the Green House on the Hill (See 1/50 July 7, 2015) my real father was never spoken of, and until my mother’s divorce I don’t think I even knew his name.
After we had moved out of the green house permanently, my mother still told me very little about my father. She told me his name was Pete, that he lived in Pennsylvania and that he was married with a step-daughter and a young daughter of his own.
I wondered how she knew these things but I didn't dare ask. Did they speak during those years? If so, what were their conversations about? Did he ask about me? Did she tell him about our life? One thing I know for sure is that I never once heard my mother speak ill of Pete or of our situation.
She did tell me that during her marriage, my step-father had made her burn all her photos of my father. I found it shocking, not only that a person would demand such a thing, but that she would have complied. Comply she did, however she managed to save two black and white photos from destruction by hiding them between the pages of a book. The images, taken in the early 1960s, are of a tall handsome young Navy man with whole his life ahead of him. Those two photos now belong to me.
As I grew older, I became intrigued by the idea that I had an entire family I had never met. The summer I turned 18, my mother wrote down a telephone number, saying it was what I needed to contact Pete whenever I felt ready. Contacting him had never occurred to me, but I knew my mother would not do it for me. If I wanted it, I had to be the one to make it happen. It was a big decision for a young girl to make, but I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t.
I was as nervous as I had ever been about anything before. What would we talk about? Would he want to see me? Was he nice? Would I look like him? These questions, which I had never before pondered more than briefly, suddenly seemed important.
I don’t remember the day I made the call. I just remember the call. With trembling fingers and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I dialed the telephone number my mother had given me. A woman answered.
“May I speak to Pete please?"
Moments later, I heard my father’s voice for the first time.
I wish I could recall the exact conversation but it’s only a blur, the memory muddled by nerves, adrenaline and the uncertainty of taking such a risk. We arranged to meet for lunch. I remember the restaurant feeling dark inside, in the way pubs seem to capture and hold the night within their walls, even on the brightest days.
Over lunch, we discussed his life, my life, his family, my family and the circumstances that had brought us together. To say it was initially awkward for both of us would be an understatement, but it was a start. It was also the first time I saw a picture of his daughter Nicole, my younger half-sister. An adorable, dark-haired girl of nine, she looked out at me from within the white borders of tiny grade-school photo. I searched to find a glimpse of my face in hers and I wondered if she would ever come to know the older sister she didn’t even know she had.
My lunch meeting with Pete ended three hours after it began, and with neither of us knowing when or if we would meet again.
We did meet a few more times over the years. and about eighteen months ago we began emailing on a fairly regular basis, which keeps us current on life and personal events. At some point -- I don't remember exactly when -- Nicole learned of my existence. I would say I can't imagine how she felt, but I can. Remember that I learned about my sister Amy when I was in my late 30s, so I know Nicole must have been just as surprised, shocked and maybe even angry to learn about me.
As a child, I sometimes looked at others who had happy, healthy father-daughter relationships, and wished I knew how that felt. My cousin Heidi deeply loved and admired her father. My friend Lisa and her father Winston are very close. I have untold numbers of girlfriends who think their Daddy hung the moon and I’m glad for them all. My friends John and Dan are both wonderful fathers to their own daughters.
My story is different from theirs and that’s okay.
Long ago I accepted that I’ll never have the kind of father-daughter relationship that my girlfriends have with their fathers or that my male friends have with their little girls, and that’s okay too. This life experience from childhood forward has been uniquely mine. It's been an exercise in learning, growth, acceptance and choice. Has it had its challenges? Of course. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a situation that happened. I didn't create it and its future is out of my hands.
Last Christmas I flew to Pennsylvania to see my family. While I was there, I arranged to meet with Pete and Nicole face to face. It would be my fourth time seeing him and my first time meeting her.
The three of us met at a local favorite spot of theirs, we shared a delicious dinner, exchanged stories, looked at old family photographs and got reacquainted. It was easy and comfortable and I believe we all came away better for the experience.
It’s been a blessing to continue to get to know both my father and my sister through email and Facebook. I enjoy their writings, seeing the happenings of their lives and looking at photos of an extended family that perhaps I’ll someday meet.
I especially like that Facebook allows me to observe their relationship from the wings. I like that I can see how close they are to one another. It’s clear he loves her deeply and she adores him in return. It makes me happy that I'm the first born child of a man I like and respect, a man of character and a man capable of such great love.
My relationship with Pete and Nicole is admittedly late in coming, it may not be the norm and it may seem odd to many. The way I see it, I have two choices. I can either lean in to these new relationships with love and optimism, or turn away in anger and sadness over years and opportunities lost.
If someone surprised you with a carrot cake for your birthday would you be disappointed that it wasn’t chocolate? If someone gave you a beautiful bouquet of white roses would you be annoyed because they weren’t red? I hope you wouldn't and I won’t either.
I choose to lean in with love and optimism, because what’s important to me is not when it all began, but ultimately where it’s going.
The family is our first society; a training grounds of sorts. The family is the construct within which we begin to learn life skills, social norms and societal expectations. As a microcosm of society, all families are bound to have both good times and disharmony, but these situations are learning opportunities for all involved. Hey, sharing a single bathroom with five other people teaches valuable lessons!
Human beings, flawed and imperfect, are the building blocks of our families, and as such, a family can only be as perfect as the people in it. Hence, families often become dysfunctional, fractured and even broken. My own family tree is twisted and gnarled, branching off in different directions, but for better or worse, it has shaped my life and helped me grow.
My immediate family was small — just my mom, my brother Jeff and myself. Family time at our house wasn’t particularly fun; it was just the stuff of everyday life. But getting together with extended family was time I always enjoyed. Most of my best memories of childhood revolve around spending time with my extended family.
I was the second born of what would eventually be fifteen grandchildren and we were together a lot when we were young. The Kuhn aunts, uncles and cousins were a close-knit group when I was a kid. We’d spend holidays at my grandparents’ tiny house, enjoying delicious food and listening to the adults tell stories of their lives. As young children, my cousins and I used to play together in back yards and basements, throwing lawn darts, catching lightning bugs and sitting by a roaring fire.
As one of the oldest cousins, I remember when each of the others was born, some more clearly than others. I remember thinking Mike was just about the cutest baby I had ever seen and Randi was a stunningly beautiful little girl, just as her own daughter Kat is today.
I could tell you I looked up to my cousin Heidi but it's more accurate to say I was the president of her fan club. Tall and beautiful, she brought with her a sparkle wherever she went. She was my idol and as much as I adored her, I’m sure I annoyed her too, as younger kids do with older ones. Despite the five years between us, we were each like the sister the other never had and to this day we share a special and indescribable bond I treasure dearly.
Over time we all grew older and our lives took different directions. The cousins no longer carefree children, assumed the roles our aunts and uncles had played when we were young. Life began to focus on marriage, work, babies, bills and the stuff of the everyday consumed our time.
Some of us relocated far away, while others stayed in Pennsylvania. Uncle Danny was one of the first to leave Pennsylvania when he married, raising his family in Iowa. Steven shipped off to Europe with the Army and never did return to the states to live. In the 80s, I moved to Philadelphia and then in the 90s, to Atlanta, where I built a life I love with an extraordinary man.
As every family does, we’ve had our share of discord, disagreements and some might even say quiet feuds over the years. As every family does, ours has experienced marriages, divorces, health issues, births, deaths, joys and sorrows. We have celebrated together, supported one another and cheered each other on during good times and challenging ones.
We each have a story and the only one we can tell accurately is our own. Sadly, one part of the story we all share is that none of us will likely ever again step foot inside 4800 Smith Street, where we spent so many good times and made so many childhood and family memories. We don’t have access to many of the rooms and relics of our past, but we do still have each other and despite our busy schedules, sometimes hectic lives, and physical distance between us, I feel we’re closer than ever.
They say you can’t go home again. Perhaps that’s true, but thanks to the blessing of technology we don’t need to go home to stay connected. We no longer have to be just down the road to see brand new Kuhn babies come into the world and grow up. We can be miles and even oceans apart yet the familial bonds and the golden thread that connects us remains intact.
I love you family; more than you will ever know.
In 1999 Ed and I bought our first home together. We had been renting a condo with our roommate Brandon, and when the owner of the condo decided to sell it, we thought it would be a good time to buy our first home. We weren’t making much money, but both with excellent credit, we managed to buy a little end-unit town home in Peachtree Corners, about 40 minutes northeast of downtown Atlanta. With its white berber carpet, three small bedrooms and about 1200 total square feet, it was modest and not in the most upstanding of communities. But it was ours and we loved it.
Excited to be homeowners, we moved in bringing along our cat, our mismatched furniture and Brandon. He was much younger than we were and he had been such a good roomie with us in two rentals prior, so why not bring him along once more, this time to a home that we actually owned? He appreciated having a decent place to live and Lord knows we appreciated a third person to share monthly expenses. We so enjoyed having him with us and we thought of him like a son.
I wish I could remember the exact timeline, and perhaps he’ll correct me, but it seems we all lived there together for about a year before he moved out to live with his girlfriend (now his wife) Dada. We were sorry to see him go, but our little bird had to fledge sometime.
Shortly after our first “son” Brandon moved out, a new one came into our lives. Although John would come to be our second son, I believe the first person to contact me about renting our newly-empty third bedroom was actually John’s mother, Blondie. She and John's dad Dolphus wanted to be sure their freshly college-graduated son would be living with clean cut, responsible adults. Who could blame her? That boy is a treasure and if he had been my (actual) son, I would have wanted the same. Sorry if I embarrassed you John, but I'm sure you remember we had to pass the "Dolphus and Blondie Test" before we could officially adopt you.
We loved having John around too, and during that time, we got to know his girlfriend (now wife) Lori. John eventually moved out, as Brandon had, to begin his life as a husband and eventually a father.
As I write this, I’m seeing a pattern. Hey moms and dads! If you want your sons to marry good women, just send them to live with us for a while. That seems to do the trick!
One summer day about a year after we had moved in, I noticed a car stopped at the end of our driveway. Ed was outside talking to the driver, a handsome man I had never seen before. I quickly learned that his name was Whitney and he was our neighbor just across the cul de sac. We hit it off immediately and as luck would have it, Whitney was a hairdresser and I needed a new one. Isn’t it nice when God sends you just what you need when your roots are showing?
I’m sure Whit would agree that in those days I didn’t even have a hair style, but in time, he managed to get me to come around, moving away from my trusty standby style cleverly named, “long and straight."
Ed and I both began seeing Whit professionally from then on, and over the years our relationship has grown immeasurably. We started out neighbors, became clients and for many years now, Whitney has been a dear and treasured friend to both of us.
If you don’t know him, you should. He’s is one of those rare true friends who will tell you when your outfit is just plain wrong and you’ll be glad he did. He is hilarious and I'm always amazed how he can remember jokes better than just about anyone I’ve ever known. Unquestionably, the thing I do most when I’m with Whitney is laugh. His gift for humor is something I'll always wish I had myself.
The man has his priorities and relationships are a big one. He flew all the way to California to be a guest at my wedding and as a wedding gift, he did my awesome up-do and my bridesmaids hair as well!
Whit is the kind of friend who will tease you with a playful smirk and a knowing twinkle in his eye, but you know he’d run into a burning building to save both you AND your snakeskin shoes. He is smart, kind, sensitive and I have always felt he would love me no matter how far I might fall. When I think of Whitney I think of unconditional love; the kind I feel from him and the kind I hope I give back to him.
In the summer of 2002, exactly three years after we moved into our first home, we moved out. The little place we called our own was in a community that had begun to take a downturn. Thankfully Ed saw it happening and one evening he came home from work and abruptly announced, “We’re moving.” And that was that. Our timing -- or should I say Ed's timing -- couldn't have been better. We put the house on the market and within a month it was sold.
I neglected to mention that at the time we had a very sweet but brain damaged cat named Louis who had no bladder control. We did our best with sweet Lou to control where he peed, but kindness and puppy pads can only go so far. As a result, our little house had a faint odor of cat pee.
The fact that the house sold so quickly was one thing, but believe me when I tell you it was meant to be. It was bought by an elderly couple who had no sense of smell, which was a godsend given our history with Louis. They also wanted to buy the house without having it inspected, they had 50% to put down and they didn't have a Realtor of their own. The Lord does work in mysterious ways, eh? Betty and Jerry Turner moved into our home and counting our blessings, we moved out.
As much as we refer to “that crappy little town house in Peachtree Corners” I thank God for that place. When we sold it, we made just over $25,000, which paid for our entire wedding and left us plenty to put ten percent down on our current house, which we have loved for thirteen years now. It was our first home together, and it was a home to our two “sons” before they went off to begin their lives. Finally, living there enabled us to meet Whitney, one of the dearest friends we have in life. All in all, despite its ugly exterior, I’d say that little house was worth much more than we ever imagined.
In the 70s my Pappy bought an old school bus and converted it into a camper. He enlisted the help of his my aunts and uncles and the grandkids to paint cartoon animals on the outside of it. What a fun project that was! I was so envious of my cousins Dennis and Heidi’s artistic talent. They were supremely gifted in the drawing and painting department, and still are. We took that bus on summer trips to the remote mountains of western Pennsylvania to a town called Driftwood, which was the site of the children’s home my Pappy and his brother grew up in. (See 21/50 “Pappy” July 27, 2015) According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Driftwood has a population of 67 and that’s about how it felt when we were up there.
Going to Driftwood was absolutely magical. The tiny blue cabin on the cleared property had no indoor plumbing, nor electricity. After sundown, propane lanterns provided light and the only modern appliance was a propane-powered refrigerator. We kids took particular pleasure in drawing ice cold water from a hand pump on the property. To this day I can’t remember water that ever felt so cold or tasted so good.
An old, broken down bus, a hulking shell of its former self, sat near the cabin. I didn't know how long ago it has been left there, and perhaps its original purpose was to provide additional sleeping quarters. But by the 1970s, we suspected it had become a home to raccoons, porcupine and perhaps even snakes. It was the mountain equivalent to a forbidden haunted house, simultaneously intriguing and dangerous. I remember on more than one occasion, what began with a few of us kids daring to step inside and look around ended with us running out screaming due to a noise someone heard, real or imagined.
There were other families who came to the annual Driftwood children's home reunion. My cousins and I, along with the children of these families spent the warm days running, playing, picking wild blueberries and tea berries under the shaded canopy of hardwood trees. We walked the mountain roads looking for deer, avoiding snakes and explored freely without fear.
At night there was always a bonfire where we’d roast marshmallows on long tree branches. The boys used to like setting theirs on fire and blowing on the blackened crust to put out the flames. I preferred to hold mine just near enough the flames for them to turn a perfect golden brown. I remember the sky in the mountains being blacker than any sky I had ever seen and with no light pollution, we could see millions of stars.
July 6, 1974 all we kids were awakened out of a sound sleep by our parents. Crawling out of our beds and sleeping bags, we found the adults awake and staring up at the night sky. I’ll never forget the sight. High above us was what appeared to be gossamer fabric waving in the blackness, showing colors of green and gold, and flickering like a cosmic bonfire in the sky. I had never seen the aurora before, and I haven’t seen it since but it lives in my memory and I hold it dear, as I imagine my cousins must as well.
I can’t remember how many summers Pappy took us up to the mountains in that old bus, but those July trips were a special part of my childhood. The bus bought by Pappy and painted by his grandchildren has now too, long been permanently parked in the clearing by the old water pump. It serves as a reminder of the family bond that created it and of the many families that gathered together on the mountain to make summertime memories in this place our elders had once in their childhood, called home.
"Our attitudes control our lives. Attitudes are a secret power working 24 hours a day, for good or bad. It is of paramount importance that we know how to harness and control this great force."
As you know, radio is my first love (See 6/50 "Radio” July 12, 2015) and I’ve been listening to The Bert Show longer than I’ve ever listened to any other morning radio show consistently. When it first aired in 2001 with Bert Weiss, Jeff Dauler and Lindsay Brien, I was listening and haven't stopped since. As fun and entertaining as the morning show is, they also tackle serious issues and current events, and put their energies toward positive community work that makes a difference for others. All these things resonate with me.
Several years ago, the show began an initiative called The Bert Show's Big Thank You. It's a massive letter writing campaign that begins each year in September. The goal is to get a unique, hand-written thank you letter to every single American military man and woman serving outside the United States in time for Thanksgiving.
Reaching the goal means collecting anywhere from 70,000 to 110,000 or more letters. These letters come in from all over the country, from all walks of life and every age group you can imagine. I've enjoyed the spirit of the Big Thank You, and I loved listening to the updates as the letters rolled in and The Bert Show reported the progress. On a whim three years ago, I decided to volunteer on the project.
On a dark early November morning in 2013, I headed to the radio station to volunteer. It was Big Thank You Day One. When I arrived, I signed in and was immediately put to work. What I didn’t realize then is how much has to happen between the time you promote a letter-writing campaign and the time the letters actually get mailed to the soldiers, sailors and airmen.
As the submission deadline draws near, letters begin arriving in postal bins, slowly at first and then thousands every day. Sorting, reading, organizing, counting and bundling them all is a pretty massive undertaking that requires organization, a specific process and the ability to teach the process to others. Hmmm that sounds familiar. Who knew this volunteer project would be such a perfect fit for my skill set? Go figure.
That first morning I volunteered, the first new friend I made was fellow volunteer Andrea. We connected right away, and spent the morning opening and reading letters with other volunteers. We giggled at the hilarious and candid things middle schoolers write, fawned over the adorable drawings of the little ones and shared the heartfelt words of gratitude from veterans and grateful citizens all over the country.
My sunrise shift turned into lunch, which turned into dinner. I can’t tell you how many thank you letters I read in those fourteen hours, but at the end of the evening, when I signed myself out, my heart was full. I knew I’d be coming back the next morning. I ended up coming back nearly every day for two weeks. As a strong supporter of our United States military, and having multiple family members who served, I was officially in love with this project from the get-go.
Tommy Owen is The Bert Show’s Show Director and he also runs the Big Thank You project. When I joined the effort in 2013, Tommy was coordinating everything by himself. Between helping to run the morning show and keeping Big Thank You on track, he was putting in exhausting 16-hour days.
After a few days of volunteering and seeing Tommy there constantly, I also noticed some of the same people kept showing up every day. Sharp, wonderful, motivated women who, like me, loved the project. We began getting to know each other and we recognized that Tommy had way too much on his plate. As groups of women are wont to do, we formed a committee.
There were seven of us. We held a secret meeting, we came up with a secret handshake and we approached Tommy about becoming an official committee for the rest of the 2013 and going forward.
Understandably, Tommy was reluctant to give up control of this massive project and he resisted a bit at first. But when he realized how well this new committee got along, worked together, and kept things running smoothly, he came around.
Truth be told, I think the poor man was willing to try anything if it meant he'd get a few hours sleep. From then on, Big Thank You 2013 was the year of the ad hoc committee, and it went pretty well despite the fact that we were figuring out processes on the fly. After all was said and done, the letters were mailed and another Big Thank You was in the history books.
The new committee held a post-mortem meeting to evaluate our success and look for ways to improve the following year. Yes we were a brand new committee but we knew that with some organization and advance preparation, we could make Big Thank You 2014 the best one yet. And that’s exactly what we did.
We held meetings several months in advance to document our processes, create templates, identify supply needs, vendors and hash out a timeline. We assigned roles and responsibilities and we worked together, so that when November came we'd be ready! Somewhere along the way, Andrea (my first Big Thank You friend and one of our original committee members) got pregnant in the off-season, so our committee members changed a bit for 2014, but we were still prepared to rock it!
Having an actual Big Thank You committee allowed Tommy to be the leader instead of doing everything himself. As our leader, he was able to stay focused on the big picture, come up with bigger ideas and leave much of the execution to us. As a result, Big Thank You 2014 was epic!
Tommy added new and exciting elements for 2014! Keurig donated coffee pods and brewing machines to the cause. We had an honest-to-goodness break room with snacks and drinks for the volunteers. We had Big Thank You Fatheads made to decorate the walls of our volunteer headquarters and life-size stills of Bert, Jeff and Kristin greeted volunteers as they arrived. We purchased a flag from every branch of the service and affixed them to the walls of our volunteer headquarters. We set up a Big Thank You Wall of Fame where we displayed the very best letters for others to enjoy before they got packed and shipped at the end of the project.
Each Big Thank You committee member signed up to run one of four volunteer shifts every day. We traded off opening at 6:00 a.m. and closing at 10 p.m. and we trained the hundreds of wonderful volunteers who showed up, all the while pushing out heartfelt and hilarious updates on social media. Seriously, who can forget #FreedomPoo?
Thousands upon thousands of letters began to arrive at Big Thank You headquarters and we, along with hundreds of volunteers showed up to read them. You might think I’m nuts to wake up at 5:00 am to be at a volunteer job by sunrise nearly every day for two weeks. Maybe so, but in the quiet darkness of the morning, when I’m the only person there to see the sun coming up, I’ll brew a cup of coffee, sit down with a stack of letters and begin to read.
The letters are the reason I commit my time and energy to the Big Thank You. They come in from all over the country, and a few even come from other countries. They’re written by young children, teens, and adults. The purpose of the letters is to say THANK YOU to a military person currently serving, but many who write also share stories about their own lives too. I imagine it's an attempt to relate and connect with a person far away who may be just like themselves, or nothing at all.
In the letters, people write about their grandparents and uncles who served in the military and perhaps even fought in a war. They write about their friends and relatives who perished on combat missions and how much they miss them. They often write about their own military service, what they experienced and how it changed them. One letter that particularly touched me came from a man named Ron, whom I’m now friends with here on Facebook. After reading his letter and his story, I couldn’t help but look him up.
Sometimes those who write the letters share their thoughts on life, God and country along with their personal joys and sorrows. Many draw beautiful pictures of soldiers, eagles or American flags to include with their letters. For many, I believe writing a note of thanks feels woefully inadequate, yet important for both the writer and the reader.
By the end of Big Thank You 2014, those tens of thousands of letters got opened, sorted, read, counted, bundled and shipped to every non-domestic United States military base on the globe, all without a hitch. For that, I give the credit to the Lord because when you have seven women working together for two weeks and there isn’t a single argument, it's surely the work of the divine.
Another result of the new and improved Big Thank You 2014? Tommy got to see his lovely wife Renee and he got to sleep at night like a normal human being. Big Thank You 2014 was, in a word, AWESOME.
It’s gratifying to work with a team toward a common goal and actually achieve it, especially when it benefits such a worthy group as our United States military. It’s heart-warming to see so many people from around the country writing hand-written letters of gratitude to a service man or woman. It’s inspiring to see hundreds of members of The Bert Show listening community volunteer their time and energy for such a great cause.
Historically I’ve not been a joiner. Outside of my professional association, I rarely volunteer, but I am honored to be a part of The Bert Show’s Big Thank You team. The effort is near and dear to my heart and I cherish not only the friends I’ve made through it, but the experience of contributing to those who give so much this country every day.
Several years ago my husband Ed and our friend Lisa Dunwell decided my superhero name would be Super Sensitive Sense Girl because my senses of smell, hearing and taste are so acute. Being Super Sensitive Sense Girl, you might imagine I’m easily distracted by things others don’t even notice such as the annoying ticking of a watch, an unexplained faint humming sound or a smell that others swear doesn’t exist. However, being Super Sensitive Sense Girl has an upside too! I get the pleasure of noticing many small and seemingly insignificant things that make me smile and appreciate being alive.
The contrast of bright green trees against a vivid blue sky always catches my eye when I’m driving. The sweet smell of crepe myrtle blossoms or honeysuckle wafting through the air on a summer day. Shiny green bursts of new leaves shooting up on a potted plant. Subtle aromas of licorice, yeast bread, green bell pepper and myriad other notes revealed in a swirled glass of wine. The perfect swirl of a snail’s shell. The peaceful rise and fall of a sleeping kitty’s furry belly. The way the light shines through a flower. The silky texture of a perfect bite of mousse. The high-pitched chirp of a hummingbird in a tree outside my window. The intricate pattern and texture of an unopened hibiscus bloom. The indescribable joy of screaming hot water cascading over me in the shower, which I say a silent prayer of thanks for every day.
I could go on and on about all the small things that bring me joy, but you get the picture.
Noticing these small moments of beauty and taking a moment to savor the pleasure they bring helps me re-boot my attitude when I might not be in the best mood. These tiny gifts remind me of my own smallness in the master plan and act as mental speed bumps that slow me down for just a moment so I can acknowledge the work of a higher power. Perhaps that’s why they’re put there in the first place... to remind us that no matter what’s happening in our life, there are always free and abundant moments of pleasure all around us if we take the time to notice.
Until I took on the 50/50 challenge I never thought much about the significance of the four walls we live within. However, through this writing exercise, I’ve begun to realize that each place I’ve lived has indeed played a role in my life. Perhaps the home by itself didn’t impact my life, but each place I’ve lived has, like a crucible, been a vessel where I experienced pain, change and ultimately growth and maturation. Each new residence in our lives is the roof under which a new person begins a new chapter in their life.
In early 1991, I received the documents finalizing my divorce. My vision blurred by tears, I read down the page and saw the words “irrevocably broken.” The phrase hurt my heart like a dagger, yet I knew it was true and that I had played a part in the breaking. What was now done could not be undone and it although I too felt irrevocably broken, it was time to move forward on my own.
I saw an small classified ad in the local newspaper for a small apartment for rent on the main street in Malvern, PA. It was an adorable old home that had been purchased by an accountant named Chuck Deegan. Chuck had converted the first floor into a space for his CPA firm and added a beautiful two-story addition on the back.
The front door under the covered porch, led up the original staircase and where the bedrooms had been, was now a tiny apartment. To a newly single young woman this tiny haven was a godsend and a serene little island in a turbulent sea of change.
I moved into the Malvern apartment with the few items I had brought with me. When we split, Joe and I agreed that we would each take what we had brought to the marriage. This meant he got most of the furniture and electronics, while I got my mom’s drop-leaf table, a bed, a love seat, a clock radio and anything that had four legs and a tail.
When I think back on that time, I believe the absence of physical things helped me process the personal upheaval of divorce and the adjustment to my new life. Although it was my first experience living completely alone, I adored my apartment and sparse though it was, it was mine.
Everything about Malvern was ultimately positive, even the bad parts. From the unfortunate circumstances that got me there in the first place to the mysterious sounds of a steam radiator in the night, and the financial hardship I encountered, living alone was a catalyst for tremendous growth and change for me.
I think everyone should live alone at least once. Coming home to just a cat and having no television or Internet as distractions, I was forced into a place of emotional discomfort. I had no choice but to feel that discomfort, face my circumstance and to work through the life changes I had brought on myself.
I remember sleeping a lot that first year. I liken that time to a baby’s first year of life, when their little brains rely on tremendous amounts of sleep to help make sense of their new world. To those around me, I was a functioning adult but on the inside, I was again a baby, making sense of my new reality and figuring out what would be next for me.
Financially speaking, things were interesting. Living on roughly 25% of what I had been accustomed to was quite an adjustment. I ran my soft pretzel business in the mornings (See 25/50 “Philly Soft Pretzels” July 31, 2015) and worked in the restaurant industry at night so I knew I wouldn’t starve, but several months in, staying ahead of my bills became a real challenge.
I reviewed my expenses to figure out which ones I could reduce. I was so desperate to save money that I called Rolling Stone magazine to cancel my subscription. LOL. Blessedly, I had no car payment, so my electric bill was often my largest monthly expense and I had come up with a plan for that. My mom had told me years before that the refrigerator was an electricity hog, so in the wintertime, I unplugged my refrigerator and moved my food into the attic counting on the Philadelphia weather to keep it plenty cold.
My financial difficulties during those two years I lived on West King Street, didn't prevent me from falling in love with the little town of Malvern. My apartment was directly across the street from a Wawa, a decent Italian restaurant and a meat market. Just down the street was the National Bank of Malvern where I converted my daily pretzel coinage to dollars. A block down from that, the King Street Grill and the Pour House Cafe offered delicious food and a welcoming atmosphere for locals.
One afternoon as I was standing in line at Wawa waiting to pay for a freshly made deli sandwich, (likely Lebanon bologna with provolone) I heard someone say my name. It was one of those times we’ve all experienced, when you see someone you think you know, but you aren’t sure it’s them and you question whether its worth it to say anything at all.
“Mona?” she asked.
I turned to see a young, beautiful, dark haired woman who had been a co-worker of mine a local restaurant. Although we had worked together, we barely knew each other. She re-introduced herself and we quickly discovered that we lived in similar apartments just blocks apart. We were each living alone in Malvern, and each in the midst of our own period of painful growth and change. Our friendship could not have come at a better time. We leaned on and learned from each other, we laughed together and grew to love each other.
Malvern was a special experience for me. That upstairs apartment with its old fashioned front porch, sun-filled kitchen, and claw foot tub was my harbor in a storm. As difficult as those two years were, they were also some of the best times of my life.
My time in Malvern gave me a taste of solo living which helped me move through a major life transition. My time in Malvern blessed me with challenges that made me dig deep into my well of self-sufficiency and think about my future direction. Living with my little grey cat in the 400 square feet above Chuck Deegan’s family business gave me the opportunity to nestle into a small quaint community for a while and regroup. However, most important of all, it brought me a friendship with Steff.
Ever since Steff said hello in the Wawa, we remained connected. We know each other's stories and share inside jokes that never get old. We still lean on, learn from and love each other, and although I eventually moved to Atlanta and she moved to San Francisco, our friendship endures and continues to blossom ever sweeter.
From the moment I met Beth in the Westshoremen drum line in the fall of 1981, we were best friends. In as many ways as we were similar, we were also different. We were both outgoing and gregarious. We both loved to laugh and we were both dare I say, “boy crazy” to one degree or another. However, when the rubber met the road, Beth was the devil-may-care yin to my uber-responsible, rule-following yang. (See 37/50 Breaking the Rules) Her flair for singing and acting, her hilarious sense of humor and magnetic personality made her as hard to resist then as she is now.
Later that winter, Beth and I both abandoned the dream of playing in the drumline and migrated to the color guard, she on flag and me on rifle. We marched two summers together in drum corps and were inseparable in the off-season as well.
I was sixteen when Beth and I met and I had just learned to drive. I had a dirt brown Toyota Corolla I had bought for $600 but my memories of Beth revolve around her green Chevy Corvair. I’ll never forget that car. My guess it that it was an early model, probably 1961 to 1963 and it hauled our young behinds so many fun places.
Because we were too young to go out to adult establishments, when we weren’t marching drum corps, we would head off to Trindle Bowl in Camp Hill, armed with rolls of quarters to play hours worth of video arcade games. I don’t think we ever actually bowled once. Our favorite games were Ms. Pacman, Galaga and Q-bert and Beth could NOT be beaten at Q-bert! I can still hear the stupid little sound of him falling off the mountain of cubes when I pushed him just one space too far.
Our teenage adventures included spinning flags and rifles at home in my bedroom and in her basement. We’d make up color guard routines to pop music songs, and talk about which were the cutest boys in drum corps. I remember us going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight one evening, she dressed as Columbia and I as Magenta. We were in her bedroom spraying my slicked back hair with bright red temporary hair color spray, which makes total sense of course. After the fact we realized that her pale blue drapes were covered with tiny droplets of red from the overspray. Whoopsy. To a bystander it would have appeared a herd of mice had been murdered just moments before.
One of the themes of our silly teenage years together was boys. We always had our antennae up in search of cute boys to look at and talk to. The funny thing is that as boy-crazy as I was at that age, it was Beth who always managed to get a date. (See 11/50 “Blooming Late” July 17, 2015) She was prettier, funnier and way more self-assured than I was so it’s not surprising that she was the butterfly and I was "the awkward friend." Not that I minded TOO much really, because as a rule-follower, I would have been terrified to be anything else. (See 37/50 “Breaking the Rules” August 12, 2015)
We had lots of fun times flirting with boys, both in and out of drum corps, but once she met Chris Moyer, a member of the Westshoremen drum line, that was the end of that. The two of them were a solid unit for several years. Beth and I took so many “road trips” to visit Chris that I can’t even count. At the time, Camp Hill to Lebanon felt like a big drive, but it was really only 32 miles or so. Perhaps the fact that we usually had to hide our intentions to go there from her parents made it an even bigger deal. We’d jump into the Corvair and head east down Pennsyvania route 322, hang a left at Quentin and zip north a few miles to Lebanon to visit Chris every chance we got. Why she wanted me along on trips to see her boyfriend, I will never know. Perhaps it was just to make the drive down and back entertaining, but no matter, I always enjoyed seeing Chris and his family.
Over the years, Beth and I shared a carefree friendship filled with ridiculously funny times and very few troubles between us. As we got older, our lives went in different directions. I moved to Philadelphia, while she moved to southern California and although we were nearly 3,000 miles apart, we talked on the phone constantly, remaining as close as ever. It was during these years we began to experience the challenges of adulthood; navigating romantic relationships, family situations and career dilemmas. Through it all we loved and supported one another, never once letting the miles come between our bond.
On an absolutely perfect summer day in 2001, I was proud to be in her wedding on the roof of a hotel overlooking the Puget Sound on a perfect summer day in 2001. Two years later, she was my matron of honor at my wine country wedding.
In January 2004, I found myself in a hospital room in Camp Hill Pennsylvania with my terminally ill mother. Beth knew my mother and I knew she would want to be informed of her grave condition so I picked up my phone and dialed her number. At that time, she and her husband Frank lived in Seattle Washington. She had no idea I was in PA with my mom, as it had all happened suddenly. As fate, destiny or divine intervention would have it, Beth and her husband were not only driving through Pennsylvania at the time, but were fifteen minutes from the hospital where I was waiting to learn my mother’s fate.
The timing could not have been more perfect. She immediately came to my side and spent the rest of the day with me in friendship and support. Much of that time is a blur, but I remember the two of us spending the night sleeping in the hospital room listening to my mother’s labored breathing and talking about life.
In 2006, Beth and Frank had a beautiful baby boy. From the beginning, I was in awe of my friend’s parenting skills. She took to motherhood like a duck to water. I’ve been amazed at her patience, her kindness, and her resolve to do the hard thing when it would have been so much easier to give in to the demands of a small child. As a result of her commitment to excellent parenting, her son is smart, polite and an absolute joy to be around.
Beth and I became fast and best friends in 1981, and that’s a long dang time ago. Beth and I have lived more years far apart than we ever lived close together in the past 34 years, but our relationship has stood the test of time. Our friendship has weathered opposite coasts, different lifestyles, marriages, divorces, moving, family drama, parenting and personal challenges. Through it all we have remained close and she will always be my original BFF.
Responsible. Driven. Mature. Leader. Does the right thing. Capable. Follows the rules.
These are the curses of the first born. I know this because I am one. We first borns are simultaneously a lucky and unlucky bunch. We’re our parents first foray into the scary world of child-rearing so they’re extra careful with us and we get all their attention. We’re the most photographed and the least left to our own devices. In turn, like puppies, we’re often eager to please and perfectionistic, wanting to do not only the right things, but do them in the right way. First borns typically color inside the lines and play by the book and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Or is there?
I have no issue with being mature, responsible and capable. I’m proud of those qualities. I don’t mind being driven and competition is motivating! Doing the right thing? That shows character and discernment. I’m even cool with being a leader although when you’re seven, it’s being “bossy.” (Whatevs) So what’s my beef?
Following the rules.
I’m an expert at rule following. As a first born I’ve spent my life looking for boundaries and finding the edges as not to step beyond them into the frightening world of the unknown. Others have long seen me as high energy, fun-loving and spontaneous, but those qualities have always been tempered with an underlying caution and sensibility that goes along with being “the responsible one.”
My mom made sure I knew the rules and followed them. Some rules are about how to act in public, how to treat others and how to get along in a polite society. I value these rules highly, and I believe they’re lacking a bit today. But even well-intentioned rules can be taken to the extreme.
As a kid, I never rebelled. I didn’t feel that I needed to, but moreover I would have been too afraid to! Rebelling is ANTI-RULE FOLLOWING and that just isn’t done when you’re me. I mean, for Pete’s sake, I’m even named after a saint.
I remember sitting at the dining room table listening with rapt attention as my Pappy and Uncle Denny told stories of their boyhoods, teen years and time in the military. They did things that only characters in books and movies would dare to do, and I’d wonder how a person could repeatedly ride the ragged edge of disaster and come time after time come through unscathed. Surely those people were special; not like me.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and had met Joe Ricci that I learned to look at rules differently. Joe’s opinion was that most rules in life are really more like guidelines and their purpose is to corral those who would go to the extreme or hurt themselves if left to their own devices. This is some of the best learning I’ve ever done.
I’ve adopted that stance and I believe rules belong on a continuum. At one end are the societal mandates. In the middle are the ones that keep society intact and are pillars of respect for others. Toward the other end are the rules that feel optional because they barely matter in the grand scheme and the ones that are downright ridiculous.
Murder? Assault and battery? Bank robbery? Probably shouldn’t break those rules.
Parking in a handicap spot or throwing trash out the car window? For me, unthinkable.
Getting in the express lane with 12 items instead of 10? Go for it.
As I grew older, I realized I had allowed my first born reverence for rules to hold me back. Not that I wanted to drive a motorcycle on the edge of a building like Uncle Jesse in Full House. I didn’t want to strap on a set of water skis and jump a shark like the Fonz. I just wanted to live without worrying that whether I was meeting someone else’s random expectation of acceptable. I wanted things I couldn't ask for because I had somehow learned it’s against the rules of being polite to ask for what you want.
These days I’m more balanced about the whole concept of rules. Thanks to Joe’s words of wisdom and my life experience, when faced with the choice to abide by or break a rule, I now consider the variables and choose accordingly.
Who made the rule? Will it negatively impact someone else if I don’t follow it? If so, how? Will I compromise my own character or ethics if I break this rule? Why does this rule even exist? Is it valid or merely a guideline for the clueless among us? And finally, what’s the worst that could happen if I break it?
The result of my new-and-improved, skeptical approach to rules is that I feel fully like an adult! I AM the boss of me. I’m charge of my life and I’m willing to deal with the consequences of not following a rule or two. I’ve become more bold and learned to ask for what I want, even though it may not seem acceptable in someone’s mind.
If I zoom out to 30,000 feet and look back on my life, I guess I’ve come kind of a long way. I've shifted from waiting for permission to asking for forgiveness and it's served me well.
I’ve transformed from a Goody Two-Shoes to a regular James Dean! A rebel without a clue! I'm living on the edge, doing crazy things like staying a half hour in a 15-minute parking spot, walking in through doors clearly marked EXIT and mercilessly hanging up on telemarketers. Yep, my grown-up approach to rules has me jumping over the sharks of my own life like I'm The Fonz on water skis.
I’m still not gonna litter, though.
Growing up, I often heard my mom remark about this kind of bird, or that kind of plant. She was very much into nature and wildlife and she had a longtime love affair with the mountains, which she called her church. It’s not surprising that I inherited her curiosity and passion for all things nature-related. I too am a certified bird nerd. I can tell at a glance whether a woodpecker is a Pileated, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Downy or Hairy, and I can spot the subtle difference between a Carolina and a Black-Capped Chickadee. I love photographing plants, flowers and wildlife and I’m happy to sit on the deck with my bird book all afternoon comparing the ones I see in the trees to the ones in the pages of the book. The next time I bore you with bird talk, just remember you owe that to my mom.
In the spring of 2008, my husband and I bought a small home on three acres in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. We named it Bella Vista (Italian for “beautiful view”) and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting you know it lives up to its name. Ed and I have made some poor real estate decisions in our lives, but buying Bella Vista is one of the best decisions — real estate or otherwise — that we've ever made.
Sure, owning a second home comes with ALL the same expenses of a first home, along with the same maintenance and repair issues. Sometimes more! Plus, as an added bonus, when that home is located in the mountains you have extra fun things to contend with like bears gettin' all up in your grill. Literally.
The upside of a owning vacation home is that it can also be a vacation rental property. Not only has our home been a wonderful retreat for us a few weeks a year, it’s been a blessing to so many other people. A handful of our friends have rented it, but mostly our guests over the past seven years have been strangers who find us online, and then turn into friends.
We have had many repeat guests like Pam and Clay who come all the way from Louisiana every year. Then there's JT, who came from south Florida three years in a row to work on a genealogy project. We can’t forget about Joan and Don, a sweet elderly couple from Florida who spent a month in our home last summer and they’re coming again for another month this summer. Then there’s Terry and Ashley who spent Thanksgiving week in the mountains last year and they’re coming back again this September.
I have a heart for hospitality and service (See 8/50 “The Hospitality Business” July 14, 2015) and for me, the most wonderful and unexpected joy of having a second home is sharing it. There’s something very gratifying about being able to contribute to another person’s happiness through the vehicle of a home. My favorite part of managing our little vacation rental are the beautiful notes our guests leave us in the journal and in our online guestbook.
"Our stay at this beautiful home was just perfect. We enjoyed the views, which differed each day. We enjoyed hiking, as well as visiting numerous interesting stops in the region. Above all, we enjoyed the peace of mind that was possible simply because we had rented from excellent owners. Monica and Ed provided everything we would need. Their care for their home transcended to us, the tenants and that meant lots. We highly recommend this home and look forward to returning in the near future. ~ Raul"
"What a relaxing way to spend Thanksgiving. The views will take your breath away. We even got snow on Thanksgiving morning and it was so nice to have a nice warm fireplace to help warm things up. Monica and Ed have thought of everything to help make our stay special. Attention to detail was great. Loved having everything in the kitchen to make cooking a breeze. We are already making plans to another visit soon. Monica and Ed, thanks again for everything. smile emoticon ~ Terry and Ashley"
"Thank you for sharing your beautiful home with my siblings and I! You have gone above and beyond to make our stay enjoyable! This has truly been our most pleasant rental experience to date! We can’t wait to revisit Bella Vista in the near future! ~ Katie and Family"
There are 68 other messages like these in our online guestbook and I feel so blessed to have played a part in creating such wonderful getaways and memories for so many people over the years. There is something special and wonderful about this mountain home, not only for us, but for those who have come to stay.
For a young military couple, their time at Bella Vista Mountain Cottage was a much-needed Valentine’s Day break from the day to day demands of managing their growing family.
For the author of several novels (one of which you’ll find on the bookshelf when you come), Bella Vista is a quiet retreat to focus on writing and enjoy the sounds and relaxation of the mountains.
For one young woman from Florida, our cottage was the perfect gathering place for she and her siblings to share a long summer weekend re-connecting and enjoying family time.
For the 40-something couple from South Carolina, Bella Vista Cottage is a cozy place to spend quality family with their daughter and grand-daughter a few times a year.
For one very ill repeat guest, being in the peace, and serenity of the mountains provides a change of pace and a distraction from her chronic pain.
For the couple who spent their first wedding anniversary in our home, it was a place to celebrate their love and life together.
For the young woman who took her grandmother on an annual summer vacation, their week at Bella Vista was extra special because it was their last one together.
Our goal is for every guest who rents our home to feel as if they are simply staying at a friend’s house Yes, Bella Vista is just a little house on the side of a mountain that we enjoy now and again. Like any house, it comes with its share of quirks and issues, it requires time and energy to maintain and like any house, it can be expensive.
All these things not withstanding, it’s been a gift for us and we know it’s been a gift for others, whether strangers or friends. Enjoying our home is lovely, but sharing is has been the bigger gift and one that has enriched my life more than I could have imagined.