You Made It Home Just in Time

Friday, about 5 p.m. I spooned freshly pan-fried slices of chicken, still hot, into plastic, pink dishes for Grace and Anna. I added another spoonful, this time of four-cheese macaroni and cheese, into each dish.

“Girls!” I called. “Dinner’s ready!”

The girls burst into the kitchen, and I ushered them into the breakfast nook to eat. From the basement, I heard the dryer beeeeep. Before I could run downstairs to grab our clean clothes, the front door creaked open.

“Dad!” Anna said, in between a mouthful of mac and cheese.

Grace ran to greet him. “You made it home just in time!”

Stanton hugged her. “Just in time for what?”

“Food!”

“And it’s good!” Anna yelled.

Beeeeep.

“Figure out what you’d like to eat”—my greeting to Stanton. “We’re almost ready to go.”

My maternal grandmother had just turned 90, and that weekend, my three siblings and I were gathering at my parents’ house to celebrate this milestone birthday. Stanton, the girls and I would make the drive that evening, about a three-hour trip south from our home. A manageable excursion, although traveling with kids is never easy, per se.

“Can we get McFlurrys before we go?”

“Honey, you and Anna just had ice cream.”

“Mommy, can I have more ice cream?”

“Mom! Anna just spilled her water, again!”

“Stanton! Where did you go?”

Traveling with kids. (And we were still in the house at this point.)

About an hour later, the four of us were on the road to my Pennsylvania hometown. The drive through the Hudson Valley and Catskills is panoramically beautiful; we watched the sun set, softening from orange to yellow, near the New York/Pennsylvania border. In between the girls’ eventual snoring in the backseat and Ed Sheeran’s bring-you-to-your-knees voice on the radio (“And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70”), the thought that runs through all moms’ heads mid-road trip ran through mine: Did I forget anything important?

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The next morning, Saturday, Stanton and I went for a rare walk together while my parents, brothers and sister entertained the girls. We took a route of back roads that my childhood best friend and I called “the monster walk” years ago.

“This is the monster walk?” Stanton asked, holding my hand as we trekked down a hill. (Kate, if you’re reading this, we were on Church Street at the time.)

“This is it,” I said.

Later, back in my parents’ kitchen, I told my family that I wanted to write a blog post (this is that post, friends) based on Grace’s quote from the evening before. “I love the idea of making it home just in time,” I said. Then someone said something witty, and I noted that that quote would make for a good post too.

My sister raised her eyebrows. “You’re just sitting here, waiting around for us to say something to inspire you.”

“That’s not…completely true,” I told Jenna.

Jenna and I began looking through a box of our Grandma’s mementos, which our mom had brought out of storage. Grandma had saved a drawing of a teddy bear I made for her when I was 6 or 7. “Awww.”

Jenna showed me some old family photos. We both agreed I had had some awkward years. I texted snapshots of some of the photos to family who weren’t able to be with us that weekend; we all shared some laughs (or, more accurately, LOL’s and smiley-face emojis).

Despite some cringe-worthy blasts from the past, I really appreciated having someone to share these memories with. I hoped, not for the first time, that my own daughters would stay close all their lives too.

On the subject of memories, my siblings and I had each come up with five memories of Grandma, that Josh typed up and then collected into a keepsake box—a “memory box” of sorts for our grandmother. One of Josh’s memories made us smile: When we were little, on half days from school, Grandma would pick all of us up (our parents would be working) and take us to Burger King for lunch. And every time, on our way out, Grandma would say, “Refill your cup before you go.” I’m not sure if Burger King still offers free refills (I haven’t been there since those half days from school with Grandma), but “Refill your cup before you go” isn’t bad advice, would you agree? 🙂

Jared remembered needing a ride to his after-school job at the Y. He was running late, and he called Grandma. “You got me there in 5 minutes,” he wrote for the memory box—and it should have been more than a 5-minute drive. (Grandma had a bit of a lead foot, back in her driving days.)

Despite some cringe-worthy blasts from the past, I really appreciated having someone to share these memories with.

Jenna had a sweet memory of coffee breaks with Grandma, going up to Grandma’s house (she lived just one block from us) for regular afternoon caffeine fixes and chitchat.

I remembered calling Grandma to tell her I was expecting Grace, and she would be a great-grandmother. Then I said, over the phone line from San Antonio to Northeastern Pennsylvania at the time, “Thank you for everything you did for Josh, Jared, Jenna and me,” to which Grandma replied, “You kids were my life.”

I remember that phone call, that conversation, where I was that day, and that was exactly what my grandmother said: “You kids were my life.”

When I was growing up, my family went to a local Italian restaurant, Perugino’s, for special occasions. We did not branch out; we went there all the time. Stanton’s parents also hosted our wedding rehearsal dinner there, which I may have shared here before. Perugino’s is very special to my family. Thus, we had to have Perugino’s for Grandma’s 90th birthday celebration.

We did not branch out; we went there all the time.

We got takeout this time—easier to eat at home. My mom ordered our old favorite, Chicken a la Andy, along with manicotti and pasta e fagioli. (Side note: If you go through life without trying Perugino’s Chicken a la Andy at least once, then I’m sorry to say, you have missed out just a bit, friends. 😉 )

Finally, we all sat down—my parents, my three siblings, Stanton, the girls, myself, and the guest of honor, my Grandma. My dad said grace, and then he and my brothers encouraged Grandma to say something. “Speech, speech!”

Grandma looked up from her spot next to Jenna. She has thin, gray hair now, and soft, wrinkled skin. She looked around. She isn’t used to being the center of attention, at least not these days. But she smiled and said, “It’s great to see everyone, and I’m happy to be here.”

Her words touched my heart.

My grandmother grew up humbly, the daughter of Southern Italian immigrants. Her life isn’t my story to tell, and I want to respect her privacy. But I will share that, like all of us, she had moments of sorrow and struggle, as well as those of joy.

So for her to say, very simply, that she was “happy to be here”—that was beautiful to hear.

What Grandma said also made me think about the journey we all travel. Life.

“It’s great to see everyone, and I’m happy to be here.”

The truth is, many of us (most of us?) will live fairly ordinary lives. When we reach age 90, if we’re lucky enough to do so, whatever big box of mementos we have probably will hold keepsakes of fairly ordinary moments: family dinners, high school and college reunions, weekend soccer and softball games, summer vacations at the beach, the occasional red-carpet night out memorialized with a tattered ticket stub. We won’t actually have walked that many red carpets ourselves.

And as the recent sad news about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has showed us, even years of red-carpet walks doesn’t promise contentment or fulfillment. (For those who may need it, the number for the national lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.)

Rod Stewart, himself a living rock legend, noted, “You go through life wondering what it’s all about, and at the end of the day, it’s all about family.”

There’s a lot of beauty in living a fairly ordinary life, I think.

In looking around a table when you’re 90, seeing people you love and lived for, and being happy to be there.

In having a big box of tattered ticket stubs, old family photos and drawings your grandchildren made you—in finding joy and meaning in those seemingly simple things.

In taking a walk, watching a sunset, walking in a front door and getting a hero’s welcome home.

You made it.

You made it home.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

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Mom, Why Did You Have Two Kids?

Grace, Anna and I were driving home on a weekday afternoon. Grace had had an early dismissal from school. After picking her up at the bus stop, the three of us ate a hasty lunch of leftovers from the night before and then zoomed over to her pediatrician’s office for an overdue annual well visit. Following the well visit, we ran a few more needed errands, the last of which was a stop at the grocery store for, of course, milk, plus a few other things.

Every time, without fail, the first item I write on the grocery list is milk. Maybe you do too.

That afternoon at the grocery store, I was about to pay when Anna clasped her hands together and yelled, “Mom! I need to go potty now!”

“OK,” I said, paying and then asking a kind store employee to keep an eye on our cart of groceries while I hurried Anna to the restroom, with Grace trailing behind.

Eventually, we were back in the car, our groceries stowed in the back. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but something happened that caused Anna to throw a tantrum as I buckled her into her car seat. I shook my head as I climbed into the driver’s seat. There was always something.

I began driving home.

“Mom.” Grace’s thoughtful voice interjected Anna’s continued yelling. “Why did you have two kids?”

I paused, surprised. (The way Grace asked the question, I couldn’t be sure if her implication was that wrapping it up at one kid—herself, Grace—might have been the way to go.)

I wanted to tell Grace the truth, and not simply respond with a trite explanation. I smiled at a memory that was crystal-clear in my head. “What happened, Grace, is that…”

Two Kids

About four years ago, Stanton and I were having dinner out together—a somewhat rare date night. Grace was about 2½. We had gotten through our first couple of years of parenthood, and life felt manageable. Grace was sleeping well at night and enjoying her preschool. Things were good with both Stanton’s work and mine—I was glad to have found a part-time writing job at a marketing company after taking some time away from full-time work. Our life had a good rhythm.

So Stanton and I were sitting together at a table for two. Our food hadn’t come out yet. To my left, I saw a middle-aged couple sitting together in a booth. Across from them sat a teenage girl, whom I guessed was their daughter. The three of them seemed happy and comfortable together.

In that moment, I saw a flash forward of Stanton, Grace and me, ten or twelve years down the road. To this day, I still remember that moment—picturing a future of our own (current) family of three, enjoying dinner together.

I looked across our table, at Stanton, and gestured to the booth to my left. “That could be us someday. You, Grace and me.”

Stanton glanced over and nodded. “Could be,” he agreed.

I looked at the booth again, and then closed my eyes to consider the flash-forwarded picture in my mind. There was something about that picture I just didn’t feel. Something felt off, to me.

Someone was missing.

Someone was missing at our dinner table.

The connection between food and family played a major role in my Italian-American upbringing. It makes sense to me, then, that my thoughts about motherhood, in that moment, were tied to food, and a dinner table, and the people at that table.

“I feel like someone else should be there with us,” I told Stanton. “At our table.”

Stanton paused. He had two brothers and a sister, just as I did. He appreciated the meaning that siblings could bring to a person’s life. He also knew—as I did—that our first years of parenthood had been so hard. Did we really want to do all that again?

We both gave it some more thought, and obviously, the answer was yes.

I’m so happy and grateful we found our way to “yes.”

I told a shorter version of this story to Grace (ultimately, Anna calmed down to listen too). I pulled into the driveway and glanced in the rearview mirror. “What do you think?”

Grace met my gaze in the mirror. “I’m happy we have Anna.”

I smiled. “Me too. And I’m happy we have you.”

Grace smiled back.

We each find our way into the family that makes sense for us. There is no “one size fits all.” What makes sense for one person may not make sense for someone else.

On a related note… The girls recently asked Stanton and me if we would get them a baby brother, a puppy or a fish. This was, perhaps, the easiest multiple-choice question we ever had to answer.

No deep thinking needed, friends: We’re getting a fish. 😉

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

That Was the Place: Here Comes Memory

Stanton, the girls and I spent Christmas at my parents’ house in my hometown near Scranton, Pa. On Christmas Eve, the two of us headed out for a rare, much-appreciated date at a local café, leaving Grace and Anna in the capable hands of my mom, dad and three siblings.

We were on Bennett Street when Stanton turned onto Wyoming Avenue. Out the window, on the right, was Abe’s Hot Dogs, a local institution. Stanton nodded to it. “Have you ever been there?”

“Of course,” I said. Then I frowned. “Haven’t I ever taken you there?”

Stanton shook his head.

“Never?”

“Nope,” Stanton said, continuing the drive along “the Ave,” as it’s known. “You don’t like hot dogs,” he added, frowning back at me.

I assured him that Abe’s Hot Dogs were amazing. Abe’s was closed for Christmas Eve, but I promised my standing date of 15+ years that we’d drop in next time. “You’ll love it,” I said.

Stanton isn’t a picky eater, so he agreed. We stopped at a red light. He gestured to the right again. “There’s your library,” he said.

There it was indeed—the Hoyt Library, where the bookworm in me spent many happy hours (pun intended!) as a kid. “Oh, man, it’s closed too,” I noted. I would have loved to have ducked in for a minute.

“Ah, too bad,” Stanton said. But he’s not a bookworm; I knew he didn’t care.

The light turned green, and we continued on.

“My old high school is…”

“Right over there,” Stanton finished for me. He smiled over at me. “I know.”

I had shown Stanton all these places many times before. All the places that, when I was young, meant a lot to me. Hole-in-the-wall hot-dog stand, reader’s paradise, school.

That was the place we got lunch at in the summer. That was the place where I won my first writing award. That was the place I grew up.

That was the place.

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A few days after Christmas, my brothers, sister and I went out for dinner—our new-ish tradition, an annual siblings dinner.

Food has always played a big role in our family, since we were little. Partly because of our Italian-American heritage. Everyone knows Italians make the best food. Just kidding, friends! (For the most part… 🙂 ) More practically, we were a family of six, and the kids were always asking—and our parents always wondering—“What are we all going to eat?”

So my siblings and I went out to eat together. Sharing a meal—at first glance, the practice may seem ordinary. In my experience, though, it’s far from it.

To me, there’s something special about a dinner table. The physical space—the table—and the people gathered around it. This gathering place gives people the chance to see one another…to nourish the bonds of family and friendship…to acknowledge the gift of one another in our lives.

I read once that “your presence is your present,” as wording for a birthday party invitation. For me, that rings true not just for birthday parties and holidays, but for everyday life. What we want, for the most part, is for the ones we love to be there.

To be where?

To be…right there. The place where we gather as a family…even if just for a few minutes. All those places that seem so ordinary—the fast-food restaurant, the library, school—that, 34 years later, we’re telling the person who’s ended up beside us, “That place once meant something to me.” Probably it still does mean something.

I hugged Josh, Jared and Jenna goodbye on New Year’s Eve. “I loved seeing you all,” I said.

“I can’t wait to read about myself in your next blog post,” Jared replied. (I’m happy for him that he has a healthy sense of self-esteem.)

Well, here it is, bro. Thank you (and Josh, and Jenna) for showing up for dinner. Thank you for making the time, for sticking around, for telling stories that made us laugh.

What have we done with our time if we don’t have laugh-out-loud stories to show for it?

If we don’t have people to share our stories with?

Thanks for being my people.

What we want, for the most part, is for the ones we love to be there. To be where? To be…right there.

New Year’s Eve, earlier this week. Stanton and I were driving together again, back home to New York. From my parents’ house to our home in the Capital Region, we drive through the Hudson River Valley. The nature along this stretch of highway is breathtaking.

All the greenery, along with the car ride, reminded me of the drive we used to make from our first home together, in Richmond, Va., north to my parents’ house. Back then, we’d drive along 64 West and eventually 81 North (preferring an alternate route to the traffic along 95!).

Somewhere between Point A and Point B was a Cracker Barrel that I always wanted to stop at. Sometimes we did; sometimes we didn’t. Stanton likes to get places; I don’t mind scenic routes.

We knew it was there, though, that Cracker Barrel.

We are still somewhat new to this chapter in our life, to New York. We don’t yet have favorite pit stops along our Hudson River Valley drive.

The girls were napping in the backseat. Stanton and I were listening to the radio; yes, country. Outside was cold, but sunny.

“At some point, we’ll have places we’ve been before,” I said. “A favorite rest stop. A scenic overlook we always go to.”

He smiled at me. “You know how much I like scenic overlooks.”

“Ha…ha.”

Stanton laughed, squeezed my hand. “I’m not worried about it, Mel.”

Because of course, the places do come, and the memories too.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.