Gratitude and Grace

It’s the day before American Thanksgiving and I’m sitting in my mom’s living room looking out at the quickly fading daylight. Soon it will be twilight and lights around the city of Rochester, New York will come on, our 21st century way of prolonging daylight.

The mashed potato roll dough is in the refrigerator, pumpkin pies are cooling, cranberry sauce is made, and everything else will happen by tomorrow. While no one would ever call me a traditionalist, when it comes to Thanksgiving, I love traditions of food and activities. I love it all – the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and homemade cranberry sauce. I’m happy to add extras like saag paneer and parathas but bring on the traditional foods and I’m content. I love the tradition of sharing memorable Thanksgivings from the past and favorite foods. I love playing games and easy conversation.

As I sit with my mom, a lot of our time is spent reminiscing. Her childhood and early adulthood come up often in these conversations, memories of people and events long gone. Memories return through all our senses – the taste of cranberry sauce, the smell of pumpkin pie, the sight of an old recipe, the sound of a song, the texture of a piecrust – and with their return the stories tumble out, often flowing into the next story before the first one is finished. These stories somehow live deep in our DNA, sometimes pushed far down but never truly forgotten. Listening and absorbing these stories becomes ever more precious knowing that at 94, any event could be my mom’s last.

As I sit in the quiet, gratitude for this season is a welcome companion. While Christmas brings its own peculiar pressure, the gift giving never seeming quite enough and the pressure to please sometimes overwhelming, Thanksgiving is enveloped in traditions and gratitude. No matter where we are in the world there is room for gratitude and feasting. No matter the tragedy or sadness that may be circling around us, Thanksgiving helps us stop and breathe, opening up space to remember friendship, protection, hope, and grace.

And with this, I am grateful to you all – some who I know in real life, some who I know online, others who reach out with kind affirmation and still others who read on the sidelines. I have processed through writing for eleven years….it’s a long time to walk with someone. Thank you! I will never take it for granted.

Image by Denis Naumenko from Pixabay

In Memory of a Friend, In Memory of a Community

The news came, as it does these days, over the waves of social media. It was the death of a childhood friend, the news posted by her brother. Within minutes, a community of us, some who hadn’t seen Ruthie for many years, others who saw her this past June, and still others who were with her recently were collectively remembering, collectively grieving.

Ruthie was three years younger than me, a classmate and friend of my younger brother, Dan. She was petite and pretty with a smile that radiated from her bones to her face. She came from a dynamic family, all of them uniquely gifted musically and relationally.

I had the chance to see Ruthie in early June at a reunion for those of us connected to Pakistan. It was the first time I had seen her since 1993 when she visited Cairo with her boyfriend Mark, the man who would later become her husband. We had just left our beloved Maadi community and moved to a different area of Cairo. I was getting used to a new flat in a new part of the city, the kids were anticipating a new school, and my husband was starting a new job. In the midst of all that new came the familiarity of an old friend. Every morning before she and Mark went off exploring the city we would laugh and talk. Every evening we would do the same. The familiar mixed with the new, a gift of memory and discovery.

As I talked to her this summer, I brought up the memory. I was delighted that she, too, remembered. I learned that it had been a key moment in her life with Mark. I knew as I was speaking with her that cancer cells were overwhelming her healthy cells, that she was fighting a hard battle with the tools of chemotherapy, gifted doctors, and prayers of “Thy will be done.” I saw the deep love that she and her husband had formed through the years, a love large enough to embrace four biological and twelve adopted children. But I knew that I only saw and heard a fraction of what her journey had included.

The service was at two in the afternoon, Albanian time. It was broadcast as a gift to many around the world who, through computer screens, could participate in honoring her life.

As I sat in my living room in Boston, miles away from Albania, I began to see others from my Pakistan family and community sign on. With each one, came a rush of memories and thoughts. Ruthie was little sister, mentor, friend, classmate, big sister, and more depending on who you were and how you knew her. Most of all, she was one of us.

In our small community we shared tragedies like they were our own. When a father or mother of one of our friends died, it was like losing a beloved family member. The limbs on our missionary community tree stretched wide and when one of them was gone, no matter how we lost them, it meant leaves and fruit, nourishment and love were gone. These many years later we still feel losses when we hear of the death of someone we loved, someone we knew. No matter if it was another lifetime, they were part of us, and we feel the ache. The names still come to me – Dale, Carolyn, Angela, Val, Joy, Roy, Stan, Tim….and these are only a few of the ones that we have lost. Some were long, slow deaths, others were quick, tragic accidents – no matter, the way they died, their deaths put another nail in a community coffin.

Yesterday we grieved the loss of another. Yet, it was not only her life that we grieved. It was all of it – the loss of one brought up many other losses. In grieving for Ruthie, we had permission to grieve for lost community, lost time, and lost childhood. In grieving the loss of one of us, we once again felt saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. In seeing her life, the adult version of Ruthie featuring a life lived large with joy and love, we perhaps questioned our own scarcity and unwillingness to live large, our inability to love with abundance and live generously.

“Everything precious is costly” were words that were said of Ruthie at the memorial service. Her beloved Mark, her children, her parents, her siblings, and her community are already experiencing the costly loss of wife, mom, daughter, and sister. And we on the periphery, we hear those words and know their truth, for we have lived and witnessed an extraordinary and precious community, gone but still glimpsed in memorials and memories.

But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

Frederick Buechner

What Place or People Made You Who You Are?

“What place or people made you who you are?

What place or people gave you your fundamental values and shaped the way you see the world?

A number of years ago when I was worried about one of my children, a wise friend said to me “Every chance you can, remind them who they are.” I remember my silence as I thought about what she had said. It was so simple, but so profoundly helpful.

Remind them who they are. Remind them that they belong to a bigger story. Remind them that they are beloved. Remind them of laughter, of fights, of homes and houses, of moments. Remind them.

I’m thinking about that on this Friday morning. Fall is slowly arriving in our area, evident in the chilly air that greets me each morning. Soon we will see the reds and golds that make this area famous for its leaf peeping. apple picking, and cider donuts washed down with hot apple cider.

I’m in a place of needing to remember what shaped me, remember the stories passed down to me, remember the faith of my father and mother, remember who I am, remember that his mercy indeed echoes down through the generations.

Questions of belonging and identity come throughout life in many shapes and forms. When we are younger, they cause more crisis, more angst. When we’re older, it’s more like a subtle despair and deep longing. We silently chastise ourselves for what we feel is the immaturity of our struggle. We try and push it off on other things like our jobs, our friendships, our churches. But a look in the mirror reveals a more difficult truth. And when, as my friend Liz Rice says, our “umbilical cord(s) of identity”* stretch out to cities, countries, and people who are far away or no longer exist, the result can be a profound sense of loss.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to pause, give thanks and move on to the next right thing. Focusing on the losses has the defeating effect of creating more loss. The older we get, the more unbecoming it is to wallow in self pity or despair. Besides, there are walks to be taken, coffee to be savored, sweet rolls to be made, and pedicures to be had. Wallowing won’t give me any of those beautiful gifts.

And so today I pause and I think about those people and places that have shaped me, that have helped me shape my values, my loves, my longings, and the way I see the world.

*Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation

Safe Travels Down Memory Lane

This is what happens when you come back. Time fails. Geography wins. We’re in the children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown in which the little bunny keeps trying to run away, but his mother is always there, arms outstretched, embedded in the landscape. This is what [coming back] is doing to us. We are her children, and we are being claimed.”

What Falls From the Sky

“We’re going to Winchendon today,” I texted my husband on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago.

“Safe travels sown memory lane,” he replied.

The “we” referred to my oldest brother and my mom. We were in Central Massachusetts visiting my younger brother for a short two days and two of the places that had been home for our family during furloughs were within a forty minute drive.

My mom was born and raised in Winchendon, Massachusetts before leaving the United States to spend a lifetime overseas. I was born in the same town and spent my first three months of life there before arriving in Pakistan as a three-month old. I returned to Winchendon at four, then at fourteen – each time living for a limited amount of time before returning home to Pakistan. I had also lived in the city of Fitchburg, about a half hour away from Winchendon, when I was 10 going on 11. Though I have lived in Massachusetts for many years now, I had never gone on a trip down memory lane.

Memory lane travel began on Klondike Avenue in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Klondike Avenue received us, a missionary family with a bunch of kids, made us feel like we were at home, like we belonged. As we drove down the street I eagerly waited to see the house where we lived during that unforgettable year. I remembered it as being an old New England home on a dandelion dotted hill that sloped down to the road. Like many things in my memory, the house was far smaller, the hill was not as large, but the house looked happy and well cared for with bright red and pink geraniums beckoning from the back steps. The area around the house was completely built up, farm land sold to a developer many years ago. Paradise had indeed been paved to make way for homes, families, and urban growth.

Klondike Avenue was thousands of miles away from our world in Pakistan. We traded boarding school for day school, a land rover for a Ford station wagon, Sunday night singspirations for Sunday night cereal. We were the missionary family with all the kids and as we entered, the neighborhood seemed to know we were coming.

Memories flooded over me of swimming in the Pierce’s pool and playing softball on late spring evenings on the Pierce Farm field; riding bikes to the book mobile that came every Thursday and Vacation Bible School at Highland Baptist Church; laughing and talking with Carin Waaramaa who lived at the end of the street and generously offered me her friendship and her family, no strings attached, no motives, just pure grace.

For kids coming from Pakistan, Klondike Avenue was near perfect.

At this point we were miles into memory lane and I wondered aloud if we could find East Street School, the old brick building where my youngest brother and I went to school that year. Just around a corner, we unexpectedly came on it. It’s sad facade begged us to stop and pay attention, clearly no one else had. Windows were boarded up and resilient plants sprouted their way through cracked concrete. A young woman with a brilliant smile that sparkled of good dental care had pulled up to the side of the road. She looked at us curiously, what would bring people to stop and take pictures of this sad building? Through an open window I explained to her that I had attended this very school many, many years before.

Highland Baptist Church, an old New England Church with white clapboard and a tall steeple, was our next stop. We chatted with the current pastor, my mom relaying some of her memories and we hearing some of the current happenings in the community.

On to Winchendon where we visited the cemetery where my grandmother and grandfather are buried, as well as two stillborn children and a first wife that my brother buried before he was 28 years old. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the suffering of your siblings. In that space, the midday sun shining brightly on us, I remembered.

We drove on to the veteran’s cemetery, the graves lined up like tidy soldiers, a startling contrast to the untidiness of death, to the untidiness of war. It took a couple of text messages and looking on a website to find my father’s grave. Not having thought ahead, we shamelessly “borrowed” some flowers from another grave for a photo op, and we will ever be grateful to the family of Kenneth Proos for their unknowing generosity. Immediately after the picture was taken we returned them to their rightful owner. I like to think that the laughter it brought us was gratitude in itself, but we will never know.

My mom’s childhood home at 485 Central Street in Winchendon was our next stop. To our amazement we connected with Mr. Walker, a man who has lived there for decades and remembered my grandparents. “You’re a Kolodinski?” he asked my mom. He and his wife bought the house not too many years after my grandmother moved. It was a poignant connection and gift to hear memories of the house and neighborhood. As we drove away, we weren’t thinking much about memories. Pizza and subs were on our collective minds. How can memory make one so hungry? Revived by sub sandwiches at a local pizza place, more family stories were told.

Our last stops were the schools we attended and 40 Hyde Park Street, the street and house where my cousins lived, a home base of sorts for us every four years until it wasn’t. My great grandfather, a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant, bought farm land when he moved to the area hoping his son would take it on after he died. Like so many immigrant families, what the parent wanted and what the adult child wanted were two different things. The farm land was slowly sold off, in its place stand an assisted living center and other homes. We had lived in the house next door for my freshman and sophomore years of highschool, a perfect location with cousins, an aunt and uncle, and grandmother next door.

As I looked up at the windows of the tiny room that had been my bedroom, I remembered tumultuous teen years in a place where I didn’t fit, a round (quite round as I gained a lot of weight that year) peg trying desperately to fit myself into all of the square holes around me only to realize that I was too round, too different, too “other.” And yet, I still remember sweet friendships with people who could reach across the barriers that divide, inviting me into relationship and connection.

It was mid afternoon when we began to drive back to Clinton. There was still a lot of daylight left, the summer sun not yet tired, but our return trip was quieter, perhaps each of us were lost in memory and story.

I have often tried to forget this area, to deny my connection to the geography or people. Whenever I thought about Winchendon, the only colors that would come to my mind were grey and sad, while the colors that came into my mind with Pakistan were brilliant reds, yellows, blues, and greens. But it is as impossible to forget this area as it would be to forget Pakistan. They worked in tandem to raise me. This is a place that has been part of my extended family for generations and has given me a heritage that I cannot deny.

Each of us has an invisible box of told and untold journeys and memories. Some of these have names and faces, roads and mailboxes. Others have emotions and conversations, wishes and regrets, dreams and hurts. There are the valleys of gravestones and unimaginable pain and there are mountains of unexplainable joy. Memories remind us who we are, where we’ve come from, what we’ve lived through. They connect us even when they are hard and sad, for a life without contrasts is no life at all.

It is now a couple of weeks later. Life moves forward and, as Dumbledore tells us, “It does not do to dwell on dreams (or memories) and forget to live.” Perhaps that’s why we need the caution to travel safely down memory lane. For whether the memories be good or hard, living color or deep grey, they can trap us into imagining life was far better or far worse than it actually was or is.

As for me, my travel down memory lane was safe and secure, full of stories and laughter, a day of being claimed by the memories and geography that make me who I am.

Stones of Remembrance – Heritage

This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.

Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.

Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.

In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.

The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.

I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.

In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.

Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.

Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.

Winter Fruit Pie and the Taste of Memory

My father was not a cook. While my mother’s early journals record his cautious steps into baking cookies and occasional cakes, he was far more comfortable asking “What’s for dinner?” than he was making dinner.

It was in his last few years of life that he developed one baking specialty, and that was his famous Winter Fruit Pie.

While he was alive we never really knew what was in the pie. It was full of fruit, nuts, flavor, and texture, but the exact ingredients remained a mystery. I don’t think he purposely withheld the ingredients, I don’t think I ever asked. When complimented on his offering, Dad would just smile and willingly accept the praise.

In the fall of 2017 we knew that my father’s health was declining and that his days this side of Heaven were numbered. So it was that in October, on Canadian Thanksgiving, our extended family gathered together in Rochester, New York for a feast that could send a man straight to heaven.

We gathered outside at my brother’s house, seated around long tables, plates filled with every kind of Thanksgiving delicacy. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce – it was all there and with it, the goodness of conversation and family banter. There was laughter and joy, running children and toddlers, new marriages and new grandchildren. It was glorious.

And for dessert, there was pie.

Because of my dad’s health decline, I had proudly designated myself the ‘Baker of the Winter Fruit Pie.’ “How hard could it be?” I said to myself and my dad. He smiled knowingly. My pie was terrible. It was dry and crumbly. It had none of the rich, moist sweetness characteristic of my dad’s recipe. I humbly acknowledged that, despite being a good baker, I had failed. Being the good-natured, easy person that he was, he ate it, remarking that’s “it was delicious!” But I knew better.

Just two weeks after that memorable weekend, my father died.

Last night I made Winter Fruit Pie. I had learned my lesson and wisely, I asked for the recipe in our extended family group chat. The aroma of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and fruit filled the kitchen and my heart. As I made it, taste testing at least once, my heart was full – full of gratitude and of the sweet taste of memories.

Feast days, like thanksgiving, are times of gathering and with the gathering comes memories and the taste of memories. Whether you are a family that sticks to die hard recipe traditions or a family that forges new foods and gathers new places, most of us will have the taste of memories as we fill our plates. It could be Grandma’s raisin cookies or YaYa’s baklava. Perhaps it’s saag served next to turkey, a tribute to a childhood spent in Pakistan, or spanakopita as a side dish. It could even be the ghastly brussels sprouts that your aunt made (and your mom made you eat.) Whatever it is, food at holidays is so much more than food. It is stories and memories, gathered pieces of history and tastes of belonging.

Food memories and feast days are part of the strong glue that hold families and friendships together. We taste, we remember, we laugh and we cry. We break bread together and with it there is an opportunity for resentments to dissolve, for the arguments and ideas that break us apart to be overcome by the sweet and savory flavors that bind us together.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, may you know the joy of gratitude, the mystery of how friendships and families survive, the delight of making new memories, and the sweet taste of old memories.

And may your pie, whether it be pumpkin, apple, or winter fruit, be especially delicious.

On Launching our Children

Children are characters in the family story we tell — until, one day, they start telling it themselves.

Rachel Cusk

For a month I have wanted to write a piece about launching children. I don’t know much about parenting, despite having parented five who are now adults, but I do know something about the feelings that come with launching children. I also know that many of you are going through this for the first time. I’ve seen the pictures. I read the captions. More importantly, I can also guess the subtext, the unspoken, the words that are in your hearts and your journals because only those places can capture your true feelings.

From the time they put our children into our arms for the first time, we enter into a place and journey best descibed as a foreign land. Never have we been so confronted with our own weakness or strength, never have we been asked to do so much for so little. These small humans are part angel, part dictator, and part parasite. In one momentous event we enter a place of protection, responsibility, and love all combined and we are never quite sure which one is playing out at any given time. Perhaps it’s because they are so entwined. The incomparable Rachel Cusk says it well in her book A Life’s Work:

Having lived so high up in the bickering romantic quarters of love, it is as if I were suddenly cast down to its basement, its foundations. Love is more respectable, more practical, more hardworking than I had ever suspected.

Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work

As moms we are tuned in to these extensions of our bodies and hearts. We have eyes in the back of our heads, and ears everywhere. We have the sixth sense that comes with parenting – and then they’re gone. We birth them — either through the physical labor of the birth process or the emotional labor of the adoption process. We carry them home in soft and sweet-smelling 0-3 month baby clothes, making sure the car seat is facing the proper way. We teach them to brush their teeth and tie their shoes, eat healthy food and get enough sleep, learn to trust and learn to pray. We bravely wave goodbye at first days of Kindergarten and watch them cross over, alone, to school play grounds–their (and our) version of the river Jordan. We yell at them, hug them, cry with them, laugh with them. We vehemently advocate for them — just as strongly as we urge them to grow to be people who advocate for others.

And then it’s over. One day we could be accused of neglect if we don’t know where they are and the next day we aren’t even allowed to see their medical records.

And as we wave goodbye they rarely look back. It’s part of the armor of growing up, this not looking back. They look forward, as well they should. But we are left waving silently at their backs – and brushing away tears as we recognize this is a rite of passage and nothing will ever be the same.

Suddenly we miss the round marks on the wooden coffee table because we miss the ones who made those marks so very much. The house is too quiet. There are too many cookies in the container, and in our case, too much hot sauce in the refrigerator.

So what of this launching? What can I offer you beyond words?

I offer you these things:

  • Trust your intuition – if you wake up in the night and you can’t get them off your mind, there is a reason. Call or text them. If they don’t answer, call someone who can check on them. Buy a plane ticket and go see them. You won’t regret it.
  • Try not to equate your university student not following in your faith path as lack of respect and love on their part. It’s not. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way. As they journey forward, the faith of their mothers and fathers must be taken on and worn to become a part of their being, or not worn as they choose.
  • Send care packages. If you live far away and mail is not reliable from where you live, you can find people and places that will do this for you. In the United States, Spoonful of Comfort is one such company.* In the United Kingdom, this company could work for you.
  • Learn to release. This is the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. Releasing is a daily act of faith and trust. It is a daily giving up of our right to know what’s going on with our kids. We were editors of their stories for a long time – 18 years – but we are no longer the editors. Instead, we become the readers of some good and some hard stories. As we learn to release, we become better readers, better listeners, and better at journeying beside these children of ours.
  • Remember that from the beginning parenting has not been all light. There have been the shadows, otherwise how would we recognize the light? It’s easy as we enter the launching stage to imagine that all that came before was bright and light. But the truth is more complicated. Now we enter a stage where for awhile it may feel quite dark. Sophomore and junior years of university in particular can feel fraught with disillusioned youth, but the light will shine through and be all the more precious for the dark.
  • Don’t look to the right or to the left. If you look to one side you will be proudly preening wondering how you got so lucky with your kids; if you look to the other your shoulders will slump in dejected insecurity. Again I look to Rachel Cusk as source of wisdom and brilliant writing. She says that the public narrative of parenthood denies the light and shadow of reality and “veers crazily toward joy.” Nowhere is this more evident as on social media. Carefully curated feeds insult our hurting hearts and we wonder how the rest of these parents seem to do this thing so well. Remember – you are seeing only a public narrative. Grab a cup of tea on a dark day with any one of those parents and you will cry tears together. Parenting young adults levels our proverbial playing field.
  • Honor their journey. You’ve raised them for this. It’s true that you no longer play the same role – if you did, it would hold its own hard journey – but you are always and forever a part of the story. You’ve just traded places in who gets to tell it.

So there you have it. You’ve entered a new season. Before long, it will be normal, but before it gets that way enjoy the change in colors. Like leaves that fall to the ground too quickly, this too will some day be gone. In the mean time, eat those extra cookies. You wouldn’t want them to go stale.

*No compensation is received for this post!