Reflecting on October with my Mother

My mom recently told me that the last leaves to turn are the Sugar Maples. They turn a brilliant red, an impossible color to describe. She tells me this as we meander our way through a state park on a perfect, October day.

I don’t remember growing up with brilliant Octobers, though my Pakistani childhood in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range must have had some sort of fall. As I travel back in my memories, I remember pristine snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees that whispered in the spring wind, roared in the summer monsoons, and lay heavy with snow when we left for winter vacation. Fall colors are not in my memory. Fall colors feel quintessentially New England and the October I now experience is the October of my mother.

She grew up in New England. Until she moved to Pakistan she lived in a world of seasons and colors. White, mountain laurel in the summer, golden, red, and orange leaves of the fall, cold snows of the winter, and buds peaking over picket fences in the spring. Or so I imagine.

It was a delight recently to spend time with her – not in New England, but in New York where she now makes her home. My mom is 91, a vibrant, lovely 91. She is an example of aging with an attitude of intentional flexibility. She looks and acts younger than many 75 year olds that I know.

“How are you doing?” I say to her on the phone. “A bit achy,” she replies and then goes on to tell me that she took her walk this morning, finished up a chapter of the book she is writing, and went to Bible Study. She has aged with intention, yet has made room for the inevitable change and losses that come with the word and the reality of a body that is destined for a better world than the one where it currently resides.

Her home is now with my brother and sister-in-law in Rochester, New York. Rochester has its own beauty and the recent weekend that I visited her in October was not a disappointment. We made plans to go to a state park, where miles and miles of roads and untouched beauty are there for pure pleasure.

We meandered along, stopping occasionally to look over a gorge or take pictures of the cascading trees that bent toward the road below. We had lunch at an inn, savoring the food and the time together. We looked out over a waterfall, the spray reaching high above even as the water fell far below.

It was beautiful. These days with her are slow and reflective. We spend time reading her old diaries, talking about our different current realities, and eating at least one decadent pastry during our time together.

Anyone who has walked the journey of watching a parent age knows the bittersweet realities of time together. We watch as a process beyond our control takes away too many things from the person we love. We watch, and inside we sometimes shudder. It is too close to home. It will come for us too. Though not yet, it will come. This we know. This we can count on. But to step away from the shudder, and into the beauty of an aging life is so worth it. To laugh, read old diaries, sit comfortably in the shadow of an Autumn evening, and eat pastries with more whipped cream than a cardiologist could possibly approve of – these are times that won’t be forgotten, times that we will look back on with immeasurable gratitude.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables Series who wrote that quotable phrase for all of us to use through these years. As I reflect on my October weekend with my mom, I think “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers and my mother.”

A Slice of Life from Charlestown – Volume 1: A Map of New Beginnings

I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.

My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.

It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.

I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.

A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀

Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.

How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids?

During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy. 

After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.


I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.

There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.

In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.

I found my way there and I found my way home.

Celebrating a Quiet Life

Ask anyone about my father-in-law Richard Gardner and they will tell you that he was a quiet man, a listener who married a talker. He had simple tastes and led an uncomplicated life.

On Saturday we gathered in beautiful rural Georgia to celebrate his life.

My father-in-law died in November, the day after our grand son was born. My husband received the news in Kurdistan. He was alone with no family to sit with him through those initial numb stages of grief and loss. Our Kurdish friends stepped in, sitting with him through the evening hours and inviting him to meals for the next few days.

Richard Gardner was a quiet man and a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also others in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family particularly felt the absence of a father during his military tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went, no matter if it was the middle of the school year.

In more recent years he had developed Alzheimer’s and his memories of the past were more current than his memories of the present. The stories of long ago would surface as treasures found under the sea of a long life. One particular story was when he arrived back from his service in Vietnam to the west coast. Vietnam was not a popular war and the ones who lost in the game were soldiers who lost much only to return as unsupported veterans. The story my father-in-law told was of arriving late to the commercial flight that would transport him back to Florida, where his wife and four young sons anxiously waited for him. He ran to catch the flight and the flight staff opened the door for him. As he walked in, out of breath and tired, every person on the plane stood up and clapped for him thanking him for his service. He told the story with eyes full of tears.

This story came from a man who was a listener. The rest of the family are story tellers, but Richard? He was a listener. This made the story that much more poignant and beautiful.

In a world of platforms and influencers we desperately need to recognize the value of a quiet and faithful life. As a story teller myself, I am slowly learning that some stories can only come in the quiet, that honoring stories means you have to wait for some of them to be told.

In a world that talks far too much, we need the quiet listeners. We need to learn and grow from them, to wait quietly for the stories to come.

There will be no more stories from this man. Those are saved for eternity when we will be caught up in that great story of God that feels more precious every day.

On Saturday we said final goodbyes to this quiet man, a man who was ready to die. At his memorial service my husband quoted these words from the Russian novel Laurus:

Your body has become unsuitable, prepare to leave it; know that this shell is imperfect.”

Richard’s body had indeed become unsuitable. My husband went on to talk about the thin veil that separates life from death. One minute we are breathing, the next we are gone.

Richard Gardner is gone. We are still here. May we storytellers and talkers learn from the quiet men and women around us, and in doing so may we be changed.

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

Eight years ago, my friend Mary gave me a giant mug as a hostess gift. She had come from Egypt to Boston for a conference and our apartment in Cambridge provided a perfect place and easy access to the conference. The mug was not just any mug – it was from the Starbucks country collection or “You are Here” mugs, so along with being 16 ounces, it also had a picture of the pyramids and the word ‘Egypt’ in large letters across it.

It quickly became my favorite mug. Curling up every morning with a homemade latte, a journal and pen in hand, is how I have started most mornings since the week she visited. It has been my routine wherever I’ve been in the world.

It is a routine that easily transferred to my life in Kurdistan. While I can’t get the same coffee and my foam maker burnt out within a month, I’ve found substitutes and it has been a wonderful comfort as I adapt to life in Rania.

Until this morning….

As I poured the hot coffee into the mug, it began leaking out the bottom. Startled, I ran for a saucer. There above the coffee mark was the unmistakable sign of a crack, and clearly a deep one. I transferred the coffee to another cup and took a look. The crack was beyond repair. My beloved mug was finished. I would no longer be able to use it for my morning coffee.

All of Life’s Cracks….

I sighed and then I cried. The tears fell freely, as if they’d been trapped too long and they needed an excuse. In all of our lives there are items we own that represent people, places, or events that are much bigger than what you see on the surface. This mug not only reminded me of one of my favorite places – it represented my life before Massachusetts. It reminded me of a world that was hidden, visible only through photo albums and occasional retelling of old stories, told a thousand times before. It reminded me that my life in Egypt was a significant period of time – a time of birthing babies and young motherhood, a time of learning what it was to live overseas as an adult, a time of joy with a growing family. It reminded me of my friendship with Mary, the one who gave me the mug. Mary was present at the births of my two youngest children. We were nurses together in Egypt and our kids spent hours playing together while we solved a good number of the world’s problems.

To see that mug crack made me feel all of life’s cracks and broken pieces. I felt all over again the hurt of goodbyes and the long process of new hellos. I felt the intensity of starting anew and the difficulty of keeping up friendships faraway. I felt the sting of misunderstanding and cultural adjustment. I felt the sadness of living between worlds, the diaspora blues of being – “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both”*. I felt the emptiness of lost friendships and the scars of ruined relationships. All of this came over me as I surveyed the spilt coffee and the cracked mug.

I felt so, so sad.

It’s now several hours later, and I still feel myself on the brink of tears. What I wish I could do with this old, beautiful Egypt mug is to mend it with gold, the Japanese art of “kintsugi”. Instead of throwing away the object that has cracked and broken, this restores the piece, making it even more interesting and beautiful. The focus becomes the cracks and the scars. My mug deserves that sort of care, deserves to be an object of interest and pride, like a mended tea pot that I have owned for years and carried around the world. The teapot was broken into many pieces, but painstakingly mended with large metal clips and a metal bottom put on it to make it stronger.

Though broken and having little of its original beauty it is so much more interesting and represents so well the human condition.  Despite the original break, despite the cracks – it continues to be useable and stronger than if it had never been broken.

I won’t be able to do that, but I will keep the mug. Instead of using it every morning, sipping my morning coffee as I begin the day, I will put it on my desk. I will use it for pencils and pens – a re-purposed memory bank. It deserves at least that. And, like the teapot, it will serve as a continual reminder that the circumstances in life can crack and mar us, but they don’t get to destroy. They don’t, and never will, have that kind of power.


When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.


http://www.iskandar.com/waleed911/griefwalterstorff.html

*https://www.theijeoma.com/

“Mawage is Wot Bwings us Togeder” Thoughts on 34 Years of Mawage

 

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv.”

In the beloved classic Princess Bride, there is a wedding scene where the villain, Prince Humperdinck, is attempting to rush his marriage to Princess Buttercup. Like the rest of the film, the scene is funny with a questionable priest talking about “Mawage and twu wuv”, a coerced princess, and an egotistical prince. It’s all part of what makes a fabulous fairy tale satire.

Mawage brought my husband and I together 34 years ago. It was a glorious sunny day in Chicago, neither too hot nor too cold – just perfect. And unlike the fictitious Buttercup, I wanted to be there. My farm boy’s name was Cliff, and he wasn’t the quiet “as you wish” type.

We celebrated with people from Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Pakistan, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, China,Taiwan, and the United States. At one point we looked out on the crowd and saw people from three different countries in conflict sitting next to each other – they were smiling and in that snapshot, we suddenly knew the ceremony was far bigger than we were. The top of our wedding cake was an edible globe of the world – a sweet reminder that we wanted our celebration to reflect God’s world and his sacrificial love for the world.

While the Princess Bride ceremony was satire, our ceremony was serious. We knew the vows we took were bigger than we were and represented a mystery and sacrament that we did not fully understand.

Fast forward 34 years and marriage is still a mystery, still something we stand by as hard and good and brave. Much has changed – five children, significant others, and arguably the cutest grandson on ever earth. We no longer have the bone tired joy of parenting toddlers, we have the wakeful nights of loving, and sometimes not understanding, adult children.

We still don’t completely understand the vows we took. We will never fully get the mystery of marriage this side of eternity. But what we do know makes us tremble in its impossibility and stand in awe of its delight and difficulty.

We will be the first to say that if it was about us, we would have failed many times over. This journey, which began in an impossibly sweet and unconventional ceremony, took us on roads and trails, into airports and houses, entering countries and territories with a lot of laughter, a fair share of anger, and heartbreak that only God could repair.

In one of my favorite books, Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, Hannah talks about looking back on marriage:

“When you are old you can look back and see yourself when you are young. It is almost like looking down from heaven. And you see yourself as a young woman, just a big girl really, half awake to the world. You see yourself happy, holding in your arms a good, decent, gentle, beloved young man with the blood keen in his veins…..”

She goes on to talk about how this man and this love are going to disappear into a “storm of hate and flying metal and fire. And you just don’t know it.” While she is writing about war, many of us could write about how this love and this man are sometimes going to disappear – disappear into a storm of ill spoken words and unthoughtout actions, a storm of misunderstanding and just plain meanness – and you just don’t know it. But you keep on living and you keep on loving, because some day it will get better. And in the better that comes you rest easy and joyful, you laugh and talk as though the world can never stop your words or your love.

And that’s us on this day. We’ve both spoken words we regret. We’ve had sadness and meanness. We’ve struggled to make it. But we just kept on living, and praying, and then a new day came and we began to love again. This is life and marriage in its circle of hope and defiance of its critics.

So we stand today declaring the value of a brave marriage and ready to face the next chapter.

And with humility and excitement we announce that our next chapter will take us to Northern Iraq where we will be working at the University of Raparin in the city of Rania. It is unexpected and yet so welcome. For the past five years we have wanted to spend more time in the Middle East. Whenever we come back from short trips we enter back into the U.S. with a longing to return as soon as possible to the Middle East. The prospect of being able to come alongside this university in our professional roles of nursing and grants administration feels like a tremendous gift.

So this anniversary comes with gratitude and expectation for the next chapter of our brave marriage. We hope you’ll continue to follow along!

The story is not over; the journey continues….Some days, it feels as though it is still just beginning.*

*from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Dear Dad, I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday….

Dear Dad,

Soon after you died, I began planning Mom’s 90th Birthday. As I planned, I would periodically panic – something seemed to be missing. Now I know that something was a someone. It was you. Normally I would have talked to you about it, talked to you about what you would want to add, talked to you about the place and especially, the food! But that was impossible because you’ve been gone these seven plus months.

I remember last October how she told you she was going out to buy a dress with me and Stef.  You looked right at her and told her to buy two – one for your funeral and one for her 90th birthday. Even in the midst of your hard last days, you knew there needed to be a celebration. I think she knew you weren’t long for this world at that point – you were so willing to let go of money. Where you were going you wouldn’t need it!

I wanted to write to you today because I miss you and I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday.

We got together at an inn in Fairport, right near the Erie Canal. Family came from as far as Thailand, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, and Greece to as close as downtown Rochester, because movement, even with its high cost, is in our family’s DNA. The area was perfect and the weather even more so. The Inn on Church is at the corner of Church Street and South Main. The rooms are spacious and lovely, boasting all their original character with new amenities. There is a large wrap around porch with plenty of rockers and a sign that  invites people to sit a spell and join the “Porch Sitter’s Brigade”. Inside was enough space for 42 of us to congregate, first for breakfast on Saturday, followed by a late afternoon tea – something that you know Mom loves.

You would have loved the breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and a gorgeous frittata with bacon, potatoes, cheese, and just enough spinach to look healthy. We laughed and talked over breakfast, so much to catch up on since we last saw each other at your funeral. There was time and space to walk, go kayaking, sit and read, or play croquet in the back yard.

Early evening came and we gathered for a high tea of scones, bread, ham, salads, and cupcakes made by one of your granddaughter’s. The head table’s unseen guest was not Jesus, but you.

And then we celebrated Mom. We went through her life with poems, songs, skits, memories, and prayers. We laughed a lot and choked up some as we thought of you being gone.

It’s a long way from small town Winchendon to celebrating a 90th birthday, but it happened! Some of your grandsons began the program with a tale of Mom’s life until she went off to college. Your granddaughters did you proud as they reenacted the young Polly with a crush on Ralphie. There may have been references to a former girlfriend – Joyce – but they were quickly squashed as Aunt Ruth and Aunt Charlotte remembered your wedding and Aunt Ruth led us in singing “Saviour, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. Her voice is beautiful; her spirit more so.  Still more of your kids and grandkids went through stages of her life – Pakistan, 8-Acre Woods, South Hadley, and then retiring in Rochester. A couple of your kids remembered you as a couple, one in a rhyme that would make your heart swell with pride. Singing and prayers for the past, present, and future finished the program.

Our hearts were so full – full of the joy of memories, full of the time with each other, full of the love that you and Mom so generously gave; the love that she continues to give.

And oh how we missed you. You would have loved celebrating the 90th birthday of the love of your life. These past months since you left us have not been easy for her. Losing you was like losing a couple of limbs and half a heart. Those losses would make anyone limp a little. No matter how much the rest of us love her, we can never love her quite enough, never love her the way you loved her.

But though she lives with these missing pieces, she still radiates joy, wisdom, and strength. She continues to pray for all of us; continues to reach out to others and allow others to reach out to her.

Toward the end of the program, your grandson, Michael, sang a hymn. He sang it with his beautiful, strong voice and though I know where you live there is extraordinary beauty and singing like we’ve never seen, from our still limited perspective his song was a taste of heaven.

I’ve included a verse for you, because I think these words may best express what your dear Polly is experiencing.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

So what can we say? It was amazing, but we sure do miss you. 

Losing My Umbrella – Some Thoughts on a Father’s Death

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I am looking through old pictures when my eyes begin to blur with salty tears. So many of the pictures I’ve been looking through are pictures of my father.

Whether summer or winter, there he is – his familiar face with his ready smile. My dad smiled from his bones. It was never fake, never false, it was who he was. I look at pictures from years ago and pictures from last summer with seemingly little difference. He is there, he is strong, he is fully present, he is smiling.

When your father dies, say the Irish

You lose your umbrella against bad weather.

This is the beginning of a poem by Diana Der-Hovanessian that describes how different cultures express what happens when your father dies. It’s a good beginning. Anyone who has lost their father can write their own when my father died moments. In honor of his birthday coming up on June 7th, here are mine.


When my father died, I lost a rock, someone who was steadfast and secure in a shifting world.

When my father died, I lost the offer of a bowl of icecream whenever I visited.

When my father died, I lost someone who asked me every weekend of the summer “Are you heading up to Rockport this weekend?” How he loved Rockport!

When my father died, I lost the ability to say “Hi Dad!” and hear his strong reply “Hi Marilyn!”

When my father died, I lost his well-worn jokes, told with so much laughter he could hardly make it to the punch line.

When my father died, I lost a piece of enthusiasm and love for life.

When my father died, I lost a birthday and a father’s day. There will be no more cards to send, phone calls to make.

When my father died, I lost one grandfather for my kids. I lost his earthly prayers, but his heavenly ones remain.

When my father died, I lost pieces of my childhood, now buried in a piece of earth.

When my father died, I lost my umbrella, my raincoat, and my hood. He was all those things and more.

When my father died, I lost his presence, but I kept the memories and they are sweet.

When my father died, I lost him, but I didn’t lose myself – because he never wanted me to be anyone else.

When my father died, Heaven became a lot sweeter and a bit closer.

When my father died. 


SHIFTING THE SUN by Diana Der-Hovanessian

 When your father dies, say the Irish

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians

When your father dies, say the Canadians

you run out of excuses.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the British,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever

and you walk in his light.