Paper Plates Will Work: On Keeping Family Traditions Simple

Stanton and I have been parents for seven years now. Before our older daughter, Grace, was born, we attended a baby-care class together. Yes, we were those first-time parents (or, at least, I was): hyper organized, well-researched and well-intentioned…and completely clueless.

I don’t remember much from that class. A clear memory I do have, though, is that the instructor (a labor and delivery nurse) encouraged everyone to think about family traditions they’d like to create once they brought their newborns home from the hospital.

A baby-care class that had carved out time for…family traditions? As our younger daughter, Anna, would say, “Huh?” Shouldn’t we delve back into Braxton Hicks, bonding and belly-button cleaning?

Family traditions…really?

But Stanton and I dutifully did as instructed. We talked about family traditions. We even wrote them down.

What did we come up with? Well, friends…seven years later, we have no idea. I want to say that, seven years ago, we thought a fun, future family tradition might be a regular game night. I am almost positive this is one of the things we came up with. But I can’t say for sure.

I also think we said we’d say grace before dinner every night. But again, I don’t know…and, anyway, we don’t regularly, even though we are thankful… So another uncertainty.

Our first few years of parenthood went by in a blink. A predominantly frazzled blink.

Yes, we were those first-time parents (or, at least, I was): hyper organized, well-researched and well-intentioned…and completely clueless.

At this point in our family life, though, we both feel more confident, more contented (and much better rested) than we did then. We’re older. Maybe not wiser, but we’ve had some experiences. And we’re able to be more conscious of the choices we’re making for our daughters.

Now, we’re consciously trying to create family traditions.

And they aren’t always fancy, friends.

So Grace recently turned 7. The day before her birthday, I told her she could pick any dinner she wanted, and I’d make it for her—a simple but still-special tradition that your family may partake in too. Grace picked French bread pizza.

“Yes!” Anna (who had been eavesdropping) exclaimed.

We all like pizza. And the French bread recipe I make (found at the bottom of this page, compliments of Gina Homolka’s wonderful “Skinnytaste Cookbook”) is fast, easy and delicious. Win-win-win.

The next evening, Stanton, the girls and I gathered outside. One of my favorite parts of our home is the red-brick patio in the backyard. We pulled some mismatched chairs around the table there. Then we dug into Grace’s birthday dinner of French bread pizza, salad and blueberries from a local farm. It was a picture-perfect summer evening (and I did take a picture), served up on paper plates.

We don’t need to break out the fine china for family traditions, although it can be lovely and extra celebratory to. What matters most, at least for our family traditions and maybe yours too, is that we’re all together. The home team.

Keeping things simple (sometimes, or all the time) is OK. Paper plates can cut it.

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As Stanton and I are getting older, we’re rediscovering the beauty in keeping things simple. We’ve always been T-shirt-and-jeans-type people. Lately, though, we appreciate more than ever simply being together, being with our children. We don’t need to drive to Vermont, say, to take a scenic walk. We can just as contentedly walk a nature trail in our neighborhood. As long as we’re together. As long as we’re healthy.

I’m also relearning the importance of saying no—to invitations to gatherings or “opportunities” to volunteer that simply don’t work well now with our family’s schedule. Instinctively, I want to say yes to people, to experiences, to invitations of all kinds. But there are times when saying no makes sense for the family as a whole.

It can be healthy to say no, just as it can be helpful to break out the paper plates.

As long as we’re together. As long as we’re healthy.

Both Stanton’s parents and mine came to visit with us this summer. I love preparing food for our moms and dads. They have all done so much for Stanton and me, as well as our children, and I get a lot of joy from feeding them, taking care of them in this small but sustaining way.

Our parents appreciate my cooking for them, although they say (especially my mom) they don’t want me going to the trouble. I insist it’s no trouble, and they insist we at least use paper plates. Deal.

Paper plates signify different things. A full dishwasher, and no other clean dinnerware. A fuller house than usual, and a call to simplify the cleanup logistics later.

If you give a child a paper plate, they may not see something to hold food at all, but instead, the steering wheel to an imaginary car. Environmental scientists, meanwhile, may encourage an eco-friendly alternative (palm leaf for that pizza, anyone?).

However we all dig in to our family traditions, whatever they may be and wherever they happen…I wish all the folks gathered together (family, and those who are like family)—I wish them joy, and inside jokes. Picture-perfect moments, and a group hug (or two).

…I wish them joy, and inside jokes.

In seven years, I haven’t been a picture-perfect parent. I’ve been selfish. I’ve made mistakes. Certainly, I’ve let my girls watch “Captain Underpants” one too many times so that I could finish some writing work (or, let me be completely honest, eat alone in the kitchen—heaven!). Just yesterday, we rolled out of Hannaford with a family-size box of Lucky Charms peeking out of one of the bags, alongside two containers of store-prepared fried chicken tenders (#dinnerthatnight). Just off the top of my head, there are a lot of things (more vegetables, less TV, not so many raised voices) I could be doing better as a parent.

So I was sitting in the backyard with my family, eating Grace’s French bread pizza on paper plates. Grace helped herself to seconds; Anna made herself comfortable on Stanton’s lap. I was sitting in the backyard with my family, and I thought, “This feels good. I am lucky for this.”

Undeservedly lucky.

Our backyard moment didn’t resemble a Williams-Sonoma window display. There was no Tuscan-inspired tablescape, or monogrammed napkins, but no matter. There was love, and comfort, and thanksgiving.

Grace asked how we picked her name. Of all the names in the world, she wondered, how did we decide on hers? Such a simple name.

“Grace means gift,” I told her. “And that’s how Dad and I thought of you, and still think of you. We were so happy to have you.”

“And so happy to have me too, right, Mom?” (Anna is always listening.)

Then I told both girls that the name Anna actually means grace, which Stanton and I didn’t know, originally. We thought it was, simply, a beautiful nickname based on both our grandmothers’ names (Angelina and Nancy).

“My name is really Grace?” Anna squinted at me. “Huh?”

Sometimes, it really is best to keep things simple, and/or stop while you’re ahead. I held up my hands. “Time to sing ‘Happy Birthday.'”

Anna said she wanted to blow out a candle too. Stanton reminded her it wasn’t her birthday.

Grace shook her head. “It’s OK, Dad. Anna can have a candle.”

Traditions can be what we make them, right?

“Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple.” -Natalie Babbitt, “Tuck Everlasting”

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

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Getting to the Good Part

“Mom.”

My 3-year-old daughter was tugging on a corner of the tie-dye T-shirt I had pulled over my head two hours earlier. “VOLUNTEER,” it noted on the back.

“I want to go home, Mom.”

All around us, elementary-aged kids were working on arts-and-crafts projects. Glitter, watercolors and stickers covered the tables. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” a banner proclaimed.

I squeezed Anna’s hand. “I need to take just a few more pictures.” The church’s camera drooped from a scratchy strap around my neck.

Anna flopped onto a chair.

I had offered to help out with any last-minute details for my older daughter’s Vacation Bible School that week. The last-minute detail I had been assigned: photographing moments from the week-long summer program for the last-day slideshow. Anna was my unofficial (and at times, reluctant) assistant.

I snapped a few candids. Group shots are best, the program’s directors had advised.

“I’m tired of volunteering, Mom.”

“I know, honey.”

“I want a snack, Mom.”

“In a minute, Anna.”

“Mom…I think I need to tinkle…I do need to tinkle, Mom!”

I grabbed Anna’s hand, and we ran to a restroom, the camera bopping against my chest in time with our flip-flopped footsteps. As I helped Anna onto a toilet, and then waited for her in the cramped stall, the thought crossed my mind: Things could be going smoother. (Note: This isn’t the first time this thought has crossed my mind, since becoming a parent.)

A little later, Anna and I picked up Grace. “Mom and I were volunteering,” Anna told her 6-year-old sister, adding, “It was boring.”

I groaned as the three of us weaved our way outside to the car. I hoped the VBS folks didn’t overhear Anna’s commentary.

Now Grace was tugging on my T-shirt.

“What, honey?” I searched through my bag for the car keys. Wallet, phone, the girls’ combs, lots of chocolate-chip granola bars…

“I’m happy you were here today, Mom.”

“Awww.” I stopped and smiled at Grace. “Why, honey?”

Grace smiled back. “I liked seeing you around.”

I definitely was a sight that day, with the camera and Anna in tow. What Grace said touched my heart, though. What she said, and how she felt—and how she made me feel, which was happy—made the craziness worth it.

“I liked seeing you around.”

Two days later, a good friend of mine shared the happy news that she and her husband were the new parents of a baby boy. They had been waiting a long time for this baby, and I was (am!) so happy for them. Worth the wait, I thought when I saw his picture.

Sometimes, we may wonder if what we’re doing is worth it.

The question comes to us in cramped bathroom stalls—in doctors’ offices—in the dead of night when we can’t fall asleep, our minds racing with worry and our hearts heavy with pain. Is…this…worthwhile?

It can be hard sometimes to answer that question with a “yes.” This, whatever it is we’re in the middle of, may not feel worth it, at the time. Maybe it even feels like a mistake.

And then someone tells you they’re glad you were there. Your being there—simply being—mattered. Or you witness something beautiful. The gift of a child…friendship…kindness. And you recognize that this is the good part.

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Getting to the good part may be a rocky road, with red lights and rerouting along the way.

Things can happen that hurt us, break our hearts, maybe even break pieces of us. Maybe we feel broken for a time. I’ve felt that way sometimes; I imagine every human being has.

Maybe we make peace with the hurt, the heartbreak, the broken pieces. Or we ignore it and move forward. Or we never get over the pain, but move forward anyway. There are thousands of different ways to respond because we’re all different, and we do life differently.

There are thousands of ways but no best way to make sense of the bad part.

When the good part comes, though, hopefully we find joy in it.

There are thousands of different ways to respond because we’re all different, and we do life differently.

On Saturday evening, Stanton, the girls and I had dinner in the backyard. We tried a new recipe, grilled shrimp tacos. After a crazy week, the grass under our feet and gently waning sunlight felt heavenly. “This is one of my favorite things,” I shared with my family. Being outside, being together.

“Me too,” Stanton said.

Anna looked up from her taco. “But what about ice cream?”

“I do like ice cream,” Stanton said.

“Yeah, that’s my favorite thing,” Anna said.

Grace nodded. “But dinner’s good, Dad.”

What are your favorite things, friends? What are the good parts? Whatever they are, I hope you enjoy them—I hope you find joy in them.

And I hope you know that you may be someone’s favorite. You may be the good part in someone’s life, even if they haven’t told you yet. Even if they haven’t been born yet.

Keep moving forward.

P.S. The answer is yes—it’s worth it.

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.

You Have to Make a Mess Sometimes

I scrolled down the recipe, my all-purpose-flour-smudged finger clouding the laptop screen. On wax paper, roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick square. Yes, that was what I had forgotten during our grocery-store run an hour ago: wax paper.

“What do we do next, Mom?” Grace smiled at me expectantly.

“Hmm…we’re going to improvise.” I pulled out aluminum foil.

“Does the recipe say to improvise?”

I looked at my older, by-the-book daughter. She looked back. “Work with me here, honey,” I said.

“Yum, yum, yum.” Anna was sitting cross-legged on the countertop, scooping up rainbow nonpareils—we had accidentally spilled half the jar a few minutes earlier—and stuffing them into her mouth. Our baking adventure could be going a bit smoother.

(P.S. A fun fact: Aluminum foil is not a good substitute for wax paper, at least in terms of a surface on which to roll dough and then freeze it.)

Beeeeep.

“Mom!” both girls yelled simultaneously.

I held up my hands. “The oven is ready,” I explained. “Everything is OK.”

I peered at the screen. Bake until cookies are light brown, 18 to 20 minutes. I got them into the oven and set the timer.

“I can’t wait to eat them,” Grace said.

Anna looked up from her fistful of a sugar rush. “Me too.”

“We’re making these for Pop, for his birthday,” I reminded my daughters. “We have to save some for him too.”

The girls looked at each other, having a silent, sister-to-sister tête-à-tête in front of me. “Pop can have two,” Grace told me.

Anna nodded her agreement. “He’ll be fine.”

Two cookies out of twenty for the birthday boy—sure, that seemed fair.

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Approximately half an hour later, I let the girls sample a cookie—”Just one, ladies!”—as I’d promised. I poured milk into two glasses too, because everyone knows you can’t really enjoy a cookie without a glass of milk (or cup of coffee).

Then I knocked over one of the glasses of milk.

Milk splashed across the countertop, onto my legs, into a white pool on the floor. I closed my eyes, sighed.

“Mom.” Anna poked her head around the corner. “Do you have our milk yet?”

“Just one second, honey…”

Later that evening, I emailed a picture I took of the girls baking (snapped before things got messy) to my parents and Stanton’s. I shared with the grandparents that making the Funfetti shortbread cookies had resulted in a disaster of a kitchen.

Stanton’s mom always replies to my emails with thoughtful ones of her own. This time, she wrote back, “Just think how discouraging it would have been to have a messed-up kitchen and a not-so-yummy sweet!”

This note struck a chord with me. Because it’s true. You have to make a mess sometimes.

And sometimes, if we’re lucky, our mess yields something sweet. Funfetti shortbread cookies, for example. As I was writing this, I remembered a quote I’ve always liked: “One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas Day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.” (Andy Rooney)

Cookies, Christmas morning—worthwhile messes, for sure.

…sometimes, if we’re lucky, our mess yields something sweet.

What about the messes we make that are far from sweet? The ones that are, simply, trouble?

Mistakes. Miscalculations. Faux pas and false steps.

Decisions that turned out to be bad ideas.

Around the time of my baking (mis)adventure with my daughters, I was talking with someone I care about. She expressed some doubts, some pain to me. I responded to her with my usual spiel about finding silver linings, things happening for a reason.

The more I thought about it, though…the more I thought, it’s OK to acknowledge you made a mess, plain and simple. It’s OK to look for silver linings…and not find them here. To say, “Here, we simply have a mess.

“I’m human. I made a mess. Now let’s move forward.”

We can recognize the humanity in others, but at the same time struggle to accept it in ourselves.

It can be difficult to forgive people. It can be even more difficult to forgive ourselves. But we do need to forgive ourselves…to recognize and accept our humanity…to move forward.

It’s OK to look for silver linings…and not find them here. To say, “Here, we simply have a mess.”

Even where we can’t find silver linings, we probably can uncover some learning experiences. Oh, learning experiences. Who doesn’t love those, right? 😉

Years ago, I made a mistake I still remember. I could have helped somebody more than I did. Why didn’t I? Partly, I was young and immature.

I’ve come to forgive myself for that lapse in judgment. Looking back now, I still cringe and think, Ugh, I could have been a better person. There was no silver lining there—none that I know of, at least.

There was a learning experience, though. When I have the opportunity, these days, to help people in a similar way, I do. I try to be a better person.

You have to make a mess sometimes, to become a better person.

And if you’re lucky, you make a mess, and you get two cookies on your birthday.

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.

 

Time to Stop Being Jealous

Summertime is here, along with its pervasive supply of Popsicles—in our house, at least. One afternoon, the girls asked for their favorite ice-cold snack. “Please, please, please, Mom?”

It takes the girls roughly 10 minutes to finish a Popsicle, which translates into 10 minutes’ peace for me. Not quite eternity, but still somewhat heavenly for a mom (right, moms?). Thus, I said yes to Popsicles.

Grace chose strawberry, Anna lime. Lime is my personal favorite, summer’s virgin version of a frozen margarita. But I wasn’t sure Anna would like it.

“I love green, Mom,” my 3-year-old assured me.

“Hmmm, how about red this time?”

“I love green!”

Five seconds later… “Mom, green is bleh. How about red?”

I helped myself to the lime Popsicle, and gave Anna strawberry, like Grace…who had something to say, right away.

Lime is my personal favorite, summer’s virgin version of a frozen margarita.

“That isn’t fair,” Grace protested. “Anna got two Popsicles. That means I get another one, too.”

I willed myself to be patient. “No…”

“Red is better than green,” Anna announced, helpfully.

Grace glared at Anna. “You are so frustrating.”

Anna slurped on her red. “Don’t freak out,” she replied.

(My daughters spend so much time with me, they’ve adopted my predominant figures of speech as their own.)

“Mom!”

“Grace.” I sighed. “Anna made a mistake…”

“She always makes a mistake.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Girls!”

Oh…summer.

I wish I could share, at this point in the story, that the three of us, my dear daughters and I, sat down together on the front porch. Engaged in a no-raised-voices conversation about gratitude, and getting along with your sister, as an early-evening June breeze tousled our trio of ponytails. What happened in real life, however, is…

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“Life isn’t fair, Grace,” I snapped. “You have a Popsicle; be happy with what you have. Did you even say, ‘Thank you,’ for it? Worry about yourself. It’s time to stop being jealous of your sister.”

My 6-year-old pouted.

Anna, meanwhile, kept slurping. “Yeah, Grace.”

“And you…” I frowned at Anna. “No more green Popsicles for you. And you need to remember to say, ‘Thank you, too.”

The girls called a (somewhat grudging) truce.

As we grow up, somewhere along the road, we do learn the futility—the uselessness, the emptiness—in trying to keep track that the count is “fair.” One for you, one for me. Another one for you, another one for me. Life doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes you’re ahead; sometimes you’re not. Once in a while there’s a tie, but much of the time, there’s a winner…and there’s the rest of us. Or, we “win” in different ways, at different times. Everyone has their own vision of a blue ribbon, their own personal picture of that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

…somewhere along the road, we do learn the futility—the uselessness, the emptiness—in trying to keep track that the count is “fair.”

Stanton and I recently received the latest issue of our college’s alumni magazine. Now, there’s a lesson in humility. Flip to the back of your alumni magazine, where your classmates can send in news from their postgraduation journeys, and compare their biographical highlights to your own. (I never do this, of course. 😉 )

There are people my age, people I know, who have become law partners and head coaches, who have made Forbes lists, who have fostered children and fought for social justice and made big differences in the world…already. Moments like these, I sigh with face-saving relief that I didn’t email in a note about my newest self-published e-book release. Because when you start comparing one set of circumstances to another, finding parallels—and remembering what matters—become difficult.

Which is why the most fulfilling course of action is to focus on your life. What you’re holding in your hands. This is what I believe, anyway, and it’s what I hope to impart to my children.

A quote I’ve always liked is this one, from Willie Nelson: “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” I don’t think you need to be a hippie, country-music fan or churchgoer to appreciate the truth in his message. The message of looking at the good in your life, really seeing it, and feeling gratitude.

I understand, though, if it may take a source more credible than Willie Nelson to make an impression. So consider this fact from Harvard Medical School: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” The University of California at Berkeley recommends writing in a gratitude journal three times weekly, as a practicable guide to cultivating gratitude in your life.

Count your blessings, not other kids’ Popsicles—the kindergarten version of this life lesson, perhaps.

The message of looking at the good in your life, really seeing it, and feeling gratitude.

Grace just finished up kindergarten. She loved kindergarten, and I’m deeply grateful for that, for her wonderful teacher and school. I’ve shared before that one of my favorite books is All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum.

My undergraduate and graduate degrees in English obliged me to read all the classics, to discover and appreciate everyone and everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Toni Morrison. Still, I’m not ashamed to admit that Robert Fulghum’s little book of essays is one of the few pieces of literature I turn to (return to) time and again. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten strikes a chord with me.

During one season in his life, Robert Fulghum was a minister. He writes, “I am sometimes amazed at what we did not fully grasp in kindergarten…I was always taken aback when someone came to me and said, ‘I’ve just come from the doctor, and he told me I have only a limited time to live'” (page 6).

He goes on to recall, “I was tempted to shout, ‘What? You didn’t know…Where were you the week in kindergarten when you got the little cup with the cotton and water and seed? Life happened—remember? A plant grew up and the roots grew down…a few days later the plant was dead…Life is short. Were you asleep that week or home sick or what?'”

Life is short. Time is limited. The little cup, the water and the seed.

Anna actually got her cup, water and seed this past school year too…in preschool.

From a very young age, we all understand that our time here has an expiration date. We don’t know when, exactly. But we know life is not for forever.

Why would we ever choose to spend…the precious time we have…being jealous of someone else? When right in front of us, more often than not, we have abundance upon abundance upon abundance?

The past couple of years, I’ve been lucky to be able to spend some good time with my grandmother. She turned 90 earlier this month, as I shared last time. My Grandma lives in a personal-care facility now. Do you know what I’ve noticed, friends, when I’ve gone to visit my Grandma there?

I’ve noticed that pictures—lots and lots of pictures—adorn the walls and decorate the desktops of my Grandma’s room, and others’ rooms too. Pictures of family and friends. And I’ve noticed that that is what perk up nonagenarians like my Grandma: visits from those people whose pictures provide their current wall decor.

That’s what these older folks spend a lot of their time—their very precious, limited time—talking about too. Chitchat about family and friends is right up there with the day’s menu (everyone likes the baked ziti) and upcoming bingo night.

…we have abundance upon abundance upon abundance…

I’m speaking from my narrow personal experience, of course. I am fairly certain, though, that around age 90, the majority of people don’t bring up childhood Popsicle squabbles; the size of their once-upon-a-time paychecks, cars and homes; and the highlights they sent in to their alma maters.

Time to stop being jealous. Time to remember what matters.

And beyond that…why not be downright happy for other people, when they have good news to share? When they accomplish something they’ve worked hard for, something they’re proud of? Or when they make a mistake, and they get the gift of a second chance?

Who among us made all the good things in their life happen completely on their own?

Can we all acknowledge that, at one time or another, each of us accepted a helping hand (or two)? And maybe we even owe some of our good fortune to a random roll of the dice—a lucky break or total fluke? And possibly, just possibly, we find ourselves sitting where we are today by the grace of God and nothing more—nothing we can take any credit for.

Stop being jealous. Remember what matters. Be happy for others.

Lend a hand if you can.

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.

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.

The Best Part Was the Hot Dogs

I read once, somewhere, to ask your child, “What was the best part of your day?” Not, “Did you have a nice day?” which tends to elicit a one-word response, but “What was the best part?” because that question can open up a bigger, more meaningful conversation.

Sometimes, I do ask my children the question, “What was the best part of your day?” Other times, my 8 p.m. inquiries are more along the lines of, “Why did you just push your sister?” or “Did you remember to brush your teeth?”

But sometimes, sometimes, everyday life lends itself to moments of reflection deeper than sibling shenanigans and personal hygiene.

On Saturday evening, I asked my 6-year-old daughter, “What was the best part of your day?” I was giving her and my little daughter, Anna, a bath.

Grace thought for a minute.

“Was it our bike ride?” I prompted. That morning, the girls rode their bikes along the nature trail near our house. I walked along with them, until Anna asked me to carry her (and her trike) the rest of the way.

(If you and I are Facebook friends, then you already know this, because I posted a picture of this moment after it happened. 😉 )

Grace shook her head—no, not the bike ride. I rinsed shampoo out of her hair.

“Was it your play date?” Two girls from Grace’s class had come over to play that afternoon. All three kids kindly included Anna in their fun: playing with dolls, make-believe games of “Sleepover” and “Firefighters,” simply running around in the backyard.

(Like most younger siblings, Anna believed her big sister’s friends were there to play with her as much as they were there to play with Grace. Ignorance is bliss.)

“I loved the play date, but…no, that wasn’t the best part either.”

I handed Grace a washcloth. “I know,” I said, smiling. “It was when Dad came home.” Stanton had been traveling for work and walked through the front door moments earlier.

Grace smiled back at me. “Actually, Mom,” she said, “the best part was the hot dogs.”

“No way.”

Grace nodded. “Yes.”

hot-dog-1238711_1920

Around the block from us is a fire station. The red-brick building was built nearly 100 years ago, and is staffed by volunteer firefighters. Throughout the year, the firefighters host a number of community events for our neighborhood: a biweekly fish fry during Lent, educational workshops for kids, a bounce house at Halloween.

As it happened that Saturday, the firefighters were holding an open house to recruit new volunteers. Grace, Anna and I saw them outside when we were heading back home after our bike ride (which had turned into my lugging Anna and her trike, remember).

The firefighters waved us over. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. Great—I was looking presentable as usual.

“Hi, guys,” I said, setting Anna down for a minute. “Sorry, but now’s not a great time for me to volunteer.” (I knew they were working on their female enrollment.)

The firefighters smiled. “No problem. Would you all like some hot dogs?”

Grace and Anna exchanged a glance, then a smile.

“We have a lot,” they told us. “And Gatorade too.”

“Grace!” Anna exclaimed. “We love Gatorade!”

“And hot dogs,” Grace added. So the three of us sat down outside the fire station for an impromptu lunch of hot dogs and Gatorade. When we picked up our short walk home a little later, the girls concluded the firefighters were very nice.

(But let’s be serious, folks: Who doesn’t love firefighters?)

I could feel sweat pouring down my face. Great—I was looking presentable as usual.

“That was the best part of your day?” I asked Grace that night. “Why?”

Grace shrugged. “It was nice. I love hot dogs, and you never buy us Gatorade.”

“Mom!” Anna waved at me, reminding me she was there too. “We love Gatorade!”

I’ve written before about “the little things.” About how little things (like an unexpected hot dog and some Gatorade) can make us smile, can stick with us.

I’ve also written about moments in our lives that become stories, when we never might have guessed they’d be story-worthy. But then they were.

So I’m trying not to repeat myself here. Trying to find a new inspiration to pass along.

Here’s what I’ve come up with, friends.

Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. (Stanton was supposed to come home on Friday, not Saturday, but his work plans changed.) And then you try to make the best of things, and Plan B falls apart too. (Carrying Anna and her trike for what felt like miles.) And then—then—out of the blue, someone asks if you’d like a hot dog.

Just…say…yes.

Put the kid down. Let the trike fall to the sidewalk. Let Plan C be that hot dog.

Sometimes, the best part of your day will be a hot dog. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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.

Coincidence (or Fate) and a Few Wrong Turns: A San Francisco Story

About 17 years ago, I was standing outside a high school in my Pennsylvania hometown. It was a Saturday morning, and I was waiting to take the SAT II’s, in Writing and Math. At that time (and maybe still today), the majority of colleges didn’t require SAT II scores in addition to the much more familiar SAT scores. But a college I was interested in—the University of Richmond—did.

Like other writers before me, math has never been an intuitive skill of mine. There are times, today, when I’ll catch a glimpse of one of Stanton’s Excel worksheets on his laptop, chock-full of line after line of numbers and budget items for his job, and my eyes will literally glaze over. Excel = my cure for any bout of insomnia.

So 17 years ago, I was feeling confident about the SAT II in Writing, and concerned about the Math one. Part of my concern stemmed from my unfamiliarity with my new graphing calculator, which my handy SAT II prep booklet had instructed me to bring to the testing site that morning. What were all these buttons for again? Sine, cosine…I was pretty clueless.

Standing outside that sunny morning, I noticed a girl. She was tall and blonde, and—I’m relying on an old memory here, but I believe this next part is true, too—had a large supply of No. 2 pencils. This girl looked prepared, I thought. She also looked like a person who would know how to work the sine and cosine buttons on my calculator. I walked over to find out if she did.

As it turned out, the answer was yes. She was warm, friendly, helpful. She helped me with my calculator. We chatted some more, and I discovered she also was applying to and hoping to attend the University of Richmond. Popular colleges for high schoolers in our part of Pennsylvania include Lehigh University, Penn State and St. Joe’s in Philadelphia. It was extremely coincidental (or, perhaps, fate) that I bumped into anyone else thinking about that particular school in Richmond, Va.

As it turned out, the answer was yes.

Allison and I ended up heading six hours south and attending the University of Richmond together. She was my first friend in college. When she invited Stanton (whom I met in college, and whom Allison knows well, too) and me to her wedding in San Diego, this past weekend, we very much wanted to be there for her, if possible.

Flying from our home in New York across the country to California—that’s a bit of a trip, friends. Not a problem, but a bit of a trip, East Coast to West. Coincidentally, Allison’s wedding date fell around the same time as our 10-year wedding anniversary. Stanton and I decided to combine our good friend’s happy day with a mini vacation of our own—several days in Napa, by way of San Francisco. We flew out to the Golden State earlier that week.

Before we left for our West Coast adventure, my dad gave me his copy of the AAA TourBook for Northern California. I smiled with affection, and some amusement. Does anyone but a dad still actually have these kinds of hard-copy guide books and maps anymore? We’ve got our phones with access to Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Uber. A guide book I could hold in my hand—of course my dad had one.

I did read through my dad’s AAA TourBook, but the Millennial in me couldn’t help but turn to Yelp for a first-morning-in-Northern-California breakfast spot recommendation. Yelp recommended the Beanstalk Café, not far from our hotel in Union Square—lots of good reviews, opening soon at 8 a.m., sounded perfect. Stanton consulted Google Maps on his phone for directions.

Seconds later, we trekked up one of San Francisco’s famous hilly streets for breakfast, my dad’s guide book tucked away in my carry-on back at the hotel.

I smiled with affection, and some amusement. Does anyone but a dad still actually have these kinds of hard-copy guide books and maps anymore?

If you ever find yourself near Union Square in San Francisco, the Beanstalk Café is a solid choice for breakfast. Stanton and I both enjoyed their signature toast cups (bacon-wrapped scrambled eggs baked within bread—I could have eaten another one!) and coffee. I’ve enjoyed a lot of coffee, in a lot of places, and this place’s coffee is amazing.

Now, I wasn’t planning on writing this post. If I was, then I would have taken a picture of my toast cup to show you, friends. I would have been that person styling and photographing her food (typical Millennial behavior, right, Dad?), instead of doing what generations before us have done with food—putting it in their mouth, and chewing.

But one hour into our San Francisco excursion, things took a turn for the story-worthy. (You never do know when your life is about to take a turn for the story-worthy, do you?)

Stanton and I had been to California before (San Diego, both of us; Monterey, just him), but never to San Francisco. Of course, we wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge; we had to. Also on the itinerary my Type A self had prepared weeks ago: A drive by 2311 Broadway, the house where Party of Five, one of my favorite TV shows, had been filmed.

“Ugh, Party of Five,” Stanton said, as we walked out of the Beanstalk Café.

“Come on, it will be fun!”

“What will you do there, Mel?”

“I just want to see it, Stan.”

Stanton grumbled a bit more about my ‘90s nostalgia and enduring affection for Scott Wolf. Then we came upon a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. Stanton gestured. “Let’s take the subway to the Golden Gate Bridge, and then we’ll take an Uber to Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up our rental car.”

Stanton grumbled a bit more about my ‘90s nostalgia and enduring affection for Scott Wolf.

“Why don’t we just take an Uber to both places?”

“Mel, the subway is right here.”

I frowned. “How about a trolley, or cable car? Those things are much more San Francisco.”

“But the subway is here, honey.”

Reluctantly, I fell into step with Stanton as we made our way down. “You know I don’t like being underground.”

“I do. You’ll be fine.”

We walked past a gentleman playing lively music on his guitar, as well as several folks engaged in questionable activities. “I’m also concerned about earthquakes.” I grabbed Stanton’s hand.

“The chances of that happening…”

Huh…I witnessed a few more questionable activities. “Stanton. I am officially out of my comfort zone.”

Stanton squeezed my hand. “We’re fine, Mel. I’ll just buy our tickets, and we’ll be at Golden Gate in no time.”

And when Stanton asked the lady behind the Information Desk how to get to the location, that’s how he described it: “Golden Gate.” (A mistake, as we would later learn.)

“Take the N train,” she told us.

“N?” Stanton repeated.

She nodded. “N as in ‘nasty.’”

The N as in ‘nasty’ train, friends…that should have been our first clue.

The lady directed Stanton to hold his ticket against an electronic reader. He did, and then walked through the turnstile.

“And what should I do?” I asked the lady.

She peered through her glasses at me. “Follow him.” (This is a direct quote.)

Follow him. Stanton and I would later joke that this was not the best advice anyone ever gave me.

But I didn’t know then what I know now. So I followed him, friends.

Stanton and I would later joke that this was not the best advice anyone ever gave me.

Two other things we should have asked that lady: 1) The N as in ‘nasty’ inbound or outbound train? We didn’t know, and we needed to know. And 2) at which station did we get off the train? Two major questions.

We ended up on the outbound train—an educated guess. Then I asked another rider where we should exit to see Golden Gate.

“The park, or the bridge?”

I smiled blankly. “Excuse me?”

“Golden Gate Park, or Golden Gate Bridge?” this lady said in accented English. “They are two different places.”

“Are they pretty close to each other?” Stanton asked, nodding optimistically.

The lady shook her head. “No.”

I looked at Stanton. “We have no idea where we’re going. Let’s get off this train.”

Stanton grunted his agreement, and we got off at the next stop. We walked back up to street level.

Have you ever seen the movie My Cousin Vinny? There’s a scene in which the title character’s girlfriend, played by the excellent Marisa Tomei, notes that she and her New York City-accented, leather-jacket-wearing boyfriend “don’t blend” in the small-town Alabama setting they’ve found themselves in.

Let me tell you, friends: Wherever in San Francisco we were that morning, at that moment, Stanton and I didn’t blend.

“Stanton…”

“I know, I know, I’m getting an Uber now.”

And then, like many a wife has done during a romantic getaway with her better half, I looked at my husband and hissed, “You did this to us. This is your fault.”

Never one to lose his cool (except when watching his beloved San Antonio Spurs), Stanton continued tapping at his phone.

“We have no idea where we’re going.”

Minutes later, we hopped into our Uber ride. “My husband may have mixed this up when he called you,” I said to the driver, as Stanton shook his head, “but we’d like to go to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge, not the park.”

“OK,” the driver said, confirming the information with his phone. He picked up another passenger, and we were off.

We drove along, and drove along some more. Then I noticed a street sign: Broadway. We continued along Broadway, a thoroughfare lined on both sides with gorgeously maintained Victorians. “Stan…oh, my gosh.”

“Mel, you should feel completely fine here…”

“No, no.” I scrolled through my itinerary (in an emailed “note to self”) and smiled. “This is the street the Party of Five house is on!”

The driver stopped and dropped off the other passenger at a home across the street from the site of the Salinger family’s many and varied dramas. (One of my favorite quotes from the series: “She’s a juvenile delinquent, Bai!” –Will to Bailey, regarding fun but troubled Jill, in the first season.)

“What are the chances?!” I rolled down the window and took a bunch of pictures, as any bona fide fan would do. Here’s one of them, for all the other Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox and Neve Campbell (circa 1994–2000) fans out there:

1_Party of Five

“I can’t believe that happened,” I said, as we began driving through Pacific Heights again. “That was the craziest coincidence. The subway, the N as in ‘nasty’ train, the wrong stop…all of that led to this.”

“I’m glad you’re happy, honey.”

“And I’m not upset with you anymore, Stan.”

“That’s good, too.”

Finally, we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge. Here’s the picture of that, because you can’t go to San Francisco for the first time and not get a picture of yourself against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.

2_Golden Gate Bridge

A breathtaking place.

Stanton and I both loved walking the nature trails of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area surrounding the bridge. The setting, along the deep-blue Pacific Ocean, is amazingly gorgeous and refreshing. We could have stayed all day, simply walking and listening to the waves breaking.

We had to get to Fisherman’s Wharf, though, to pick up our rental car and head to Napa for a wine tasting reservation. Another Uber, please.

(A travel tip, for those who may not know: It’s difficult to find parking in San Francisco, and it can be expensive to park in the city, too. For example, it would have cost us about $60 to park a car at our Union Square hotel overnight, for just one night. Thus, we didn’t want to pick up our rental car until we were ready to drive it out of the city.)

I asked this Uber driver to bring us to Ghirardelli Square, which (according to my dad’s TourBook) was an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf. “The original Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is there,” the chocoholic in me informed the driver. He smiled politely, but didn’t seem interested.

Soon after, he pulled over at a busy intersection. Stanton and I exchanged a glance. “Is this Ghirardelli Square?” I asked him.

He smiled politely again, and pointed to his phone. “My phone says it is.”

My phone says it is. Even the Millennial in me will agree (as my dad certainly would) that there’s something unfortunate about that statement, about that philosophy. Stanton and I hopped out, crossed the street, and did indeed find Ghirardelli Square close by.

We enjoyed walking through the elegant space…

3_Outside Ghirardelli Square

…and partaking in Ghirardelli chocolate treats inside the red-brick building. (Impossible to resist.)

4_Inside Ghirardelli Chocolate

Fisherman’s Wharf, nearby, was much more tourist-y, but still fun to see. There was a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on Jefferson Street, and any time I see one of those, I sense I’m in Tourist Trap Central. (Can you believe the hills?)

5_Fisherman's Wharf

We picked up our car, then bags at the hotel, and headed to Napa. On our drive back to San Francisco later that week, Stanton and I exited before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in order to explore the national recreation area again, this time on the north—we love this place. Absolutely beautiful. We conferred with our phones and my dad’s TourBook to find directions, and were mostly successful.

6_North Tower

However, we inadvertently drove into Sausalito, a lovely coastal town opposite San Francisco. It felt like a “hidden gem” find to us. The pace is a little more laid-back, and parking is easier. We had dinner at the Salsalito Taco Shop (gotta love that pun)—a seafood platter for Stanton, some lettuce wraps with chicken and veggies for me (pictured below).

7_Salsalito Taco Shop

How do we end up where we do? On a visit to an unfamiliar city…on a Saturday morning taking the SAT II’s…wherever we find ourselves right now, this very minute?

Some of us may believe that a life is a series of events, strung together across many years, a random collection of people, places and things. Life as chance, as coincidence. A valid point of view, to be sure.

Others of us may believe that some things are meant to be. That people, places and things come into a life for reasons. Even if the reason is simply to surprise and delight us with the apparent craziness of the moment (my Party of Five house moment), so that we can remind ourselves to smile, take a breath, have a little faith.

Have a little faith in the goodness of life, the beauty and resilience of it, and in the goodness of the people who surround us.

Or maybe life is a little of both, part coincidence, part fate.

I’m not going to make a case for one point of view or the other. I am, after all, the person who still isn’t quite sure how to use a graphing calculator, 17 years later. What do I know?

…smile, take a breath, have a little faith.

One thing I do know. This past weekend, my husband and I attended our good friend’s wedding. Allison looked radiant as she walked down the aisle holding the arms of her mom and dad. I felt tears come to my eyes.

I was happy for her, that she had found the perfect person for herself. I was grateful for our friendship, our love for each other.

(Because what good is anything—a special occasion, an ordinary day, a misadventure on a San Francisco subway that becomes a story—if you don’t have friends and family to share that journey with, and reminisce and laugh about it with later?)

Most of all, I was happy to be there.

Whatever coincidence, or fate, may have contributed to my being there, at that moment, to share in joy, friendship and all the good things that words often struggle to explain, and math and science can’t quantify…but that move us in life, and that we remember for years…

I was happy to find myself there.

(P.S. Congratulations and best wishes to the newlyweds. We love you. ❤ )

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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.