Before and After

“Before” and “after”—this is how I sometimes think about this year, 2020. Before mid-March, before the pandemic. And then after. Maybe you do too.

The before part was short, only two and a half months into the new year. After, though? More than five months later, we’re still in after.

The other day, I stood in a socially distanced checkout line at the Stewart’s off the Rail Trail. The girls and I had walked over for ice cream (them) and coffee (me).

Before the pandemic, I bought nearly all my to-go coffee at my favorite local coffee shop. I still do go there, but Stewart’s—a regional convenience store/gas station beloved for its ice cream selection—has become my other go-to caffeine fix.

That day, the girls relayed their requests to the friendly young woman we’ve come to know who works behind the counter: rainbow sherbet for Grace, mango dragon fruit sherbet for Anna. After she scooped their treats into kid-size cones, I asked her to please add a small coffee for me too.

“And,” I said, rifling through my wallet, “would you punch my Scoop Club card?”

No problem, the server replied. She punched two slots in my “Buy 10 ice creams, get the 11th one free” card. The girls were now three punches away from a free ice cream.

A slender, white-haired man with a dark blue bandana over his face was waiting behind me. He was very tanned, wore a T-shirt and jeans, and held a single bottle of—I think it was Diet Coke, but it may have been Coors Light. The label was gray, and I saw it for only a second, probably less. But he had just this one item, and so I said, “Thanks for being patient,” gesturing to my Scoop Club card, the girls’ two ice creams, etcetera.

He waved his hand. “Life’s too short to be in a rush.”

I smiled, although nobody saw because I, too, was wearing a face mask. I finished paying, said goodbye.

Life is too short. Some of us feel this more keenly than others. Age has something to do with it, experience too.

I always appreciate these kinds of chance moments of everyday wisdom.

Another day this week, I was in another line when another moment like this made me smile.

This time, I was at Customer Service in the grocery store. I showed the gentleman behind the counter my receipt from a previous visit, when I had accidentally been charged $13.89 instead of $6.50 for frozen pizza (pepperoni, in case you were wondering).

“I usually don’t do this, but that’s more than double the price, so…”

No problem, the man said, handing me seven dollars and some change.

I thanked him, then added, “Kind of embarrassing, right? I wasn’t overcharged for fruits or vegetables, but frozen pizza.”

The sides of his eyes crinkled, and I could tell he was smiling behind his face mask. “At least it was organic.”

I laughed. “Right.” I’m pretty sure my organic frozen pizza had the same long list of questionable ingredients ending in -ate and inclusive of “gum blend” as, say, DiGiorno or Tombstone.

But at least it was organic. 😉

I always appreciate these kinds of chance moments of everyday wisdom.

Almost every evening this summer, I’ve gone outside to our front flower bed to water our flowers. The time I’m usually there is about the same time my next-door neighbor goes outside to walk her dog. Thus, we’ve had fairly regular, off-the-cuff conversations and gotten to know each other better than before.

I realized, at some point this summer, how much I appreciate bumping into my neighbor at the end of the day. She’s nice; it’s nice to talk, to have human connection beyond my nuclear family that’s inside the house; it is, simply, a nice, new routine. It’s been a nice thing about “after.”

One evening recently, my neighbor said the flowers were looking good.

I thanked her, and added that I couldn’t believe how good they really did look—this was definitely the longest Stanton and I had ever kept plants of any kind alive.

“It makes me happy seeing you out here watering them,” my neighbor said. “I can tell they give you joy.”

I hadn’t thought of it quite like that, but I do feel a sense of satisfaction from my front flower bed. The joy, though—I think the joy comes from the human connection that surrounds the flowers. From my next-door neighbor whom I see when I water them each evening. From another neighbor who gave us pointers when we first planted them. From folks taking a walk and passing by, who also say the flowers are growing well.

To quote Mark Twain: “To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with.”

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Since March 13, I hadn’t made one new recipe. Not a one. I was feeling a little badly about this, especially when I kept seeing mouthwatering-looking photos of my friends’ food creations in my Facebook News Feed. It seemed as though all my friends were preparing amazing dinners for their families, and I was feeding my family…well, frozen pizza. For five months and counting.

Thus, inspired by social media-induced guilt, I headed over to my favorite local bookstore. They have a small though well-curated Cooking section, and I perused the cookbook titles. One cookbook was beautifully photographed, but I doubted I’d actually make the recipes. The other had accessible-looking recipes, but I wasn’t a big fan of its author (a Hollywood actress).

“Need any help?” the bookstore manager stopped to ask me.

“Agh, yes, please,” I replied. I explained what I was looking for: a cookbook of recipes I’d actually make, that my family would actually eat.

The manager suggested three ideas: anything by the Barefoot Contessa, “The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100” and “13×9: The Pan That Can.” Gratefully, I thanked her. (As easy as online shopping can be, you really can’t beat your local bookstore for personalized help like this, in my humble opinion.)

Ultimately, I ended up buying…”13×9: The Pan That Can.” Earlier this week, I made my first recipe from the book, Italian roast beef slider melts. And that night, four out of four Leddys were members of the Clean Plate Club.

That felt like a win, friends.

Thus, inspired by social media-induced guilt…

Before mid-March, I enjoyed chitchatting with people—anyone, everyone. Smile, say hello, get some good vibes flowing—why not, right? Why not be kind, be positive?

After, though… As the days and months have rolled along, and we’re still in the “after”… I find myself not simply enjoying but truly feeling the joy of so many quick, spontaneous conversations with friends, neighbors, people next to me in checkout lines.

All these encounters offer up a variety of things: cookbook recommendations, encouragement, everyday wisdom. More than anything, they remind us of our shared humanity, and our need for one another.

The white-haired man with the Diet Coke (or was it Coors Light?) was right: Life’s too short.

“Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.” —Mark Twain

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

I Almost Shared This Picture – But Then Wrote This Post Instead

What I most appreciate about Facebook probably is the same thing as you: keeping in touch with friends from the varied chapters of my life. I enjoy seeing pictures of new babies and four-footed family members; cool restaurants as well as at-home recipes to try; and reunions of all kids—family, school, work, neighborhood, you-name-it. These social-media moments are fun, and help me feel close to college partners-in-crime, old colleagues, etc. that I no longer chat with every day.

As much as I can, I participate in this social-media communion too. I share pictures, mostly of my ever-growing daughters. Our recent move to upstate New York has been providing fresh backdrops—nature preserves, museums, parks—that I hope are interesting for folks.

Some friends recently told me, “You all look so happy!” And that’s true; we are.

Yet.

We can be so happy—and look so happy—while still struggling with a challenge or two.

Thus, I almost shared this picture:

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Yesterday afternoon, Grace and I baked cupcakes for her preschool class Thanksgiving party (happening later today). Grace started to frost them; I took this picture. As usual, I emailed it to Stanton and both sets of grandparents.

Then I thought about sharing it on my Facebook page. The editor in me even came up with an insta-caption: “Who doesn’t love Funfetti cupcakes?” Followed by my signature smiley face, of course.

🙂

But.

Overall, it had not been a picture-perfect day. The night before, Anna had been up with a cough. When I finally settled her back to sleep, Grace woke up crying—a bad dream. Stanton was out of town for work, so I had no parenting backup. I was late for my yoga class, and just minutes after I took that picture, Grace had a temper tantrum because I told her no, she couldn’t eat the remaining frosting from the 15.6 oz. container for dinner (talk about a sugar rush!).

I love scrolling through my friends’ good times and celebrating along with them, and getting their positive vibes in return.

Every now and then, though, it might be healthy to take a moment and acknowledge that life is a beautiful journey of ups and downs. Happiness can coexist with imperfection. And we’d never know JOY if we didn’t dance with sorrow too.

My daughters bring me joy every day of my life. I am deeply, deeply thankful for them. They’re also the reason for my gray hairs, and my coffee addiction.

This is my moment.

P.S. Who doesn’t love Funfetti cupcakes?

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.