My son-in-law’s mother died this week.  We knew it was inevitable, and she died surrounded by the people who loved her.  She was too young, and she had too many contributions left to make, but I take comfort in the wealth of family who were there for her at the end.  Her life will be celebrated this weekend in a funeral mass and in a gathering of her large, rambunctious clan.  We will be there to honor her, too.

I didn’t know Peg well, but we had one very important thing in common.  My daughter.  And from beginning to end, Peg was the mother-in-law I always wanted for her.  They probably didn’t agree on many things, but it never really mattered.  Peg showed her caring and concern for my daughter at every turn.  She had her back when I couldn’t be there.  She demonstrated how important family is, visiting, hosting parties, and arranging family camping trips.  When I was with them, she made me part of the family, too.  Not with effort, but with unconscious grace.

I love my own in-law children.  All three of them.  I always wanted a child with red-hair (genetically unlikely) and instead was given two daughters-in-law with red hair.  They’re fabulous cooks and fun to talk and shop with.  We now have a family tradition of Thanksgiving pedicures together, and it’s a cherished memory each year.  My son-in-law warms my heart with his care and concern for my daughter and grandchildren.  He’s a go-to guy, and I know he can always be counted on.  He’s the husband my daughter needed, and she chose well.  They all did.  I am blessed.

So here’s what I learned from Peg.  You don’t have to buy your way into an in-law’s heart.  You don’t have to make elaborate gestures or statements of affection.  You really just have to show up.  Again and again.  When you’re needed, and even when you’re not.

Thanks, Peg, for the advice you never even realized you gave us.  You will be missed.  You will be forever loved by all your children, those you gave birth to and those by marriage.

What a wonderful legacy you left.

Greater Good Science Center.  Really?  I didn’t remember “liking” any such institution on my Facebook page, but now these interlopers were sending me updates. Just as I was about to send them to “unlike” purgatory, the link itself caught my eye.

Gratitude vs. Materialism

Okay, now I realized who they were.  GGSC researches emotional and social well-being and even better, finds ways to apply their findings.  The organization might want to rethink its name, but the headline intrigued me.  So off I went to explore.  Quite honestly if I wrote as many hours as I “explore” I might turn out three books for every one I actually do. 

As it turns out, this post was part of a blog by a sociologist, Christine Carter, who studies happiness and explains how her findings can help us raise happy children. (more…)

**Congratulations to Paula, commenter #2, whose number was chosen at random.org and will now receive an autographed copy of Love Finds You in Sugarcreek, Ohio.  Thanks to everyone who “chatted” here with Serena while the giveaway was in progress.

Some years ago I received an email from another minister’s wife, an aspiring author.  She wanted to know what kinds of issues, if any, I had run into with my husband’s congregation because of my novels.  She, too, wanted to be a published novelist, but she was looking for exactly the right publishing home.  I liked her immediately and we began a correspondence.  A year later when she drove to West Virginia from her Ohio home to meet me at a conference, we were already friends and have remained so through the years. (more…)



Thumbnail image for A Mother's Touch.jpgI’ll confess these days I wince when I hear mother-in-law jokes.  I wince because I am a mother-in-law times three.  I have three wonderful in-law kids, and our family is enriched three-fold by their addition.  I’m hoping to be a completely different kind of punchline at the end of my life.  As goals go, that’s not so trivial, is it?

My husband’s mother Lillian passed on years ago.  She was beloved by her children, a constant optimistic presence in their lives no matter what was really happening.  We used to say that if Lillian’s house burned down, she would hold out her hands and tell us how toasty a good fire felt on a cool winter evening.  Had it burned down in summer, she would have run out to the store for marshmallows.  Since my husband’s father was ready and willing to spot the dark cloud in every silver lining, Lillian’s optimism was particularly well received by her children.

Lillian had a wild streak, although by the time I knew her, that streak had been tamed by five children, a full-time job and a crushing burden of housework and cooking that she allowed no help with.  I watched her march daughters and daughters-in-law out of her kitchen whenever assistance was offered.  Even more horrifying, I watched her stand between the stove and the kitchen table as the rest of the family ate, so she could better serve them.  Although I made certain never to repeat this tradition in my own home, I now understand that Lillian loved to serve, and her meals, no cookbook in evidence, were her pride, examples of the best of southern country cuisine.


Mike, Dave and Lil.jpgLillian’s youth was a different story.  She grew up in a small town in North Carolina but still spent time on the Navajo reservation in Arizona clerking in her brother’s store.  In her final years she still remembered a variety of Navajo phrases and the musical name someone had given her, which meant sparkling diamond–a fitting description.  Once in that wild and crazy period she pretended to be a reporter so she could snag an interview with Roy Rogers, and did. 

In her fourth year at Elon College, WWII was declared and Lillian quit to join the Waves.  She married a Chief Petty Officer and spent much of the rest of her life on Naval bases working as a secretary and raising children, but she still did handstands and cartwheels whenever she had the opportunity.  She had a beautiful smile and a fierce protective instinct that meant each in-law was under scrutiny until the day Lillian died.  She was a friend to everyone, but only a few people really knew her, and she was related by blood to each and every one of them. 

The bonds between in-laws are tentative and sometimes difficult. Inlaw jokes can be rooted in reality, but this week, devoted to motherhood, is a good time to look at the women in our lives who have “mothered” us.  I am grateful for Lillian, whose positive spirit lives on in my husband.  I’m grateful she fought to help all her children succeed and cared enormously if they did or didn’t.  I’m grateful that she never interfered in my marriage, and that I was able to witness the results of a lifetime of struggle to find the best in everybody.  Most of all, I am grateful that even at the end, when she was in the grip of dementia, her graceful, loving spirit continued to shine, and that she passed on, still knowing she was loved by everyone who had known her.

In honor of Lillian, I’ll be giving away three copies of A Mother’s Touch, which was just reissued for the holiday.  This is an anthology devoted to Mother’s Day, and my novella, A Stranger’s Son, appears there along with novellas by superstars Linda Howard and Sherryl Woods.  To enter the giveaway, comment here and tell us what you loved about your own mother-in-law.  (To comment simply click on “comment” on the top right of this post).  If you never had a mother-in-law?  Tell us about a woman who reached out to you somewhere in your life journey.  Random.org will make the final three selections for winners on May 14th.

This week some of you may have entered a Mother’s Day giveaway on my Facebook page by telling stories of your moms.  Although the prize is the same, this giveaway is separate, and you’re welcome to enter both, although there’ll only be one win per reader.  Long live mothers and mothers-in-law, and the good influences they can have on us. I hope to be counted in that number.

Broken Ice.jpgThis week the news networks were filled with stories of the ”mother” who sent her adopted son back to Russia, unaccompanied by anybody except flight attendants and the child’s own distress and sense of failure.  Her action was wrong, plain and simple.  No child deserves that treatment.  No flight attendant deserves or should accept that kind of responsibility.  And yet, what do we really know, other than what the news media has told us?

I am the mother of an adopted child, adopted from an orphanage in another country when she was six.  Now my daughter is a well-adjusted, happy, and beautiful adult with a daughter of her own.  My daughter and her family hold such special places in my heart, that there aren’t words to express them, and clearly we have the happy ending all parents, adopted or not, pray for.  But as I watched this latest news story unfold, I wondered about the unhappy ending in Tennessee.  I’m still wondering.

It’s so easy to place blame.  Even when we only have a few of the facts. As an adoptive parent, I was furious.  Then, I sobered.  Because so many questions are unanswered.

(more…)

Melrose 042.jpgThey had been a couple for more than twenty years.  Each having been married before, tying the knot in front of a judge or minister didn’t appeal, but their relationship was committed and solid.  Not until two months ago, when ill health and inheritance laws made it mandatory did thoughts of a wedding intrude.  She, too sick to walk down an aisle, stayed in the van in the Dollar General parking lot while a designated official did the honors.

Enter two families.  In the intervening months a small miracle had occurred.  She was given a new medication that bought more time.  Family was coming, both his and hers, to make sure that this Thanksgiving was one to remember.  The suggestion was made that right before dinner would be a good time to really celebrate their vows.  After all, one of the relatives was a minister, more than happy to do the honors.  Two others were musicians with banjos at the ready.  We already had the feast planned.  The perfect lakeshore was only yards from their front door.  Her father was there to give her away; her sisters were there to help her dress.  A favorite niece was thrilled to be the flower girl.

One group of family decorated the house with flowers and candles.  Another went to buy a wedding ring.  I found the grocery store and bought the only cake not decorated with Thanksgiving turkeys.  The bride’s choice of processional music was discovered in a neighbor’s CD collection.  The couple’s old Jack Russell agreed to be the ring bearer.

They were married again as the sun set.  The bride, who until recently had not even been able to stand, walked down the aisle on her father’s arm.  At the most solemn moment of the ceremony a trio of sandhill cranes flew across the lake and into the sunset, calling as they flew, as if in blessing.

I have attended many weddings and many Thanksgiving dinners.  I will likely attend more.  This Thanksgiving will always be one of the truly special ones.  In the midst of uncertainty, two families, nearly strangers, joined together and made sure there was much to be thankful for.

Crushed hearts from stock.xchng.jpgI’ve been cleaning my study.  Today I discovered that the table behind my desk is white.  Earlier in the week I learned the desk itself is brown, chipped Formica.  I said hello to these old friends, who’ve been smothered by paper piles I hadn’t cleared away for longer than I care to commit to print. 

They are safe with me, these vintage relics.  The desk has been in our family since we bought it second hand in the 1970s when the Talon Zipper Factory left our little Pennsylvania town.  It’s been to New Orleans and Cleveland and now here to Northern Virginia, used by various family members and still far too useful to replace with something sleek and lovely.  Every book I’ve written has been written on this desk.  There is just the slightest chance that if I moved on to something new, I might never be able to write again.  It’s just possible the desk is magic.  Who’d want to chance it?

I’m not only “attached” to my desk and to far too many things in my too-small office.  I am attached to a host of items in my kitchen.  My oldest son is not afraid to point this out to me.  When he shrieks over a pan from the 1950s I explain that his grandmother made brownies in that pan.  He sits me down and points out that he knew his grandmother, that even though she’s been gone many years he still remembers her well.  His grandmother would NOT want me to keep that pan.

Fast forward to this week.  My husband, who would rather pull out his fingernails than go to a mall, turns into a wild man at Costco.  On Monday as he was throwing everything in sight into our cart, he spied a set of half-sheet baking pans and in they went.  I explained that new pans were great, they’d complement my jelly roll pan.  He said no, they were to REPLACE the jelly roll pan.  Hadn’t I looked at it recently?  Dented, blackened, well used.  He’s afraid the aforementioned oldest son will never visit again if he catches sight of it.

I explained that the new pans were not quite the same size, but no matter.  When we got home, he pulled out the jelly roll pan and showed me every dent, every flaw.  And finally, he convinced me. Into the trash went the jelly roll pan.  My sad, rejected jelly roll pan.  I couldn’t watch.

That night in bed I realized that the pan in question is my focaccia pan.  How would I now bake focaccia?  Would I be forced to change my recipe?  And would the new pans hold enough oats when we make mueseli?  Then, of course, there are roasted vegetables.  Are the sides of the new pans high enough to contain this favorite of our weekly menus?

I resolved to sneak the pan out of the trash the next day, and decision made, went back to sleep.  Then, before dawn, I was awakened by the weekly garbage pickup, apparently on steriods this morning. I’d waited too long.  My pan was now history.  Judging how long it would take me to run outside in my pajamas and scare the crew, I pulled the covers over my head and mourned.

An hour later I sadly dragged myself out of bed to discover that the garbage truck had only taken the recyclables.  Of course the truck would be back.   Very soon.  Unfortunately I was still in my pajamas, whereas my husband was on his way out the door to walk the dog.

How do we know for certain we are loved?  We ask the impossible.  We ask the ridiculous.  We know we can because we’ve done it before.

The pan is back in my kitchen now.  Gleaming, smiling.  My husband is shaking his head, but for his efforts?  I smell a pan of rosemary focaccia in his future.  Baked in the pan that’s absolutely perfect for it.

Castaway business man.jpgMy husband is about to go on sabbatical.  This is one of the perks of his profession, a chance to study and think for months every so many years.  He’s done some wonderful things; we’ve done some wonderful things together, but I’ve always written while we’ve been away.  There are no sabbaticals for writers.  We call that being unemployed.

Years ago we had the opportunity to go to Australia and New Zealand for six months on our very first sabbatical as a family.  We packed up all four children, ranging from four to fourteen, and off we went.  There were no “laptops.”  We shipped a Radio Shack Model II computer in the luggage compartment of the airliner.  I remember watching from a foreign port as it was loaded on a conveyer belt and dropped from on high into the hold.  Chalk up one for Radio Shack. Not only did it survive, I wrote a book on that computer while we were away.  A little book, true, but a book nonetheless.

Ten years later we went to Australia again, and that time we took a real laptop.  Two days into the trip the computer died.  Try getting a US computer fixed in Australia.  Try buying a new computer in Australia that will work once you get it home.

I had a book to write.  I pulled out my yellow legal pad and dug in.

And that’s when the kindness of strangers came into play.  Adelaide, Australia, where we were living, had a romance writers group.  They asked me to speak, and I was happy to do it.  These were truly lovely women.  I’ve never met nicer.  The next morning, though, I woke up to a phone call. As an icebreaker I’d told the group my computer story, and a member who heard it or heard about it had cleaned up her laptop for me to use.  She didn’t know me.  Now I’m not even sure she was at the meeting.  But she dropped off her laptop that afternoon.  She told me just to give it back before we left.  I wrote a book on it.  A little book, true, but a book nonetheless.

Ask yourself how many times strangers, people you’ve never met and will never meet again, have come to your rescue.  It’s astonishing, isn’t it?  You may need more than your fingers and toes to count them all.  That one stands out for me.  What a sweet memory it is.

This time, we aren’t going to Australia, and we aren’t hauling children.  We’re starting in Chautauqua, New York, and today I typed “the end” on the book that will be due at the end of September.  Instead of writing steadily I’ll spend this first month of my husband’s sabbatical making changes at my leisure, blogging, answering email and thinking about my next novel.  But if something goes wrong, do I want to depend on the kindness of strangers?  Nope, I’ve taken precautions.  The book is on my laptop.  It’s also on a flash drive.  In addition I’ve emailed it to myself in its entirety and put it on my eReader.  As my final piece of insurance, I’ve bought a netbook, just in case my laptop succumbs, as laptops seem prone to do.

Do I still trust in the kindness of strangers?   Absolutely. My faith is strong.  Need proof? 

I still haven’t learned to change a flat tire.

I have the greatest admiration for any single mom or dad.  Raising children with two parents is difficult.  Raising children alone?  Anyone doing this deserves all our support.

                                      Take Mama Bird, for instance.

Birds.jpg

Remember those babies in the boot from my photo last weekend?  Unformed little critters who barely resembled birds?  Now look.  One week later and ready for solid food.  And just as I was feeling sorry for Mama Bird and all the work this single parent had ahead of her. . .

Mom and Dad Birds.jpg

Dads everywhere, take notice.  Even birds understand that children are everybody’s responsibility.  With Father’s Day right around the corner, it’s great to see Daddy Bird earning his title and his keep.  What a role model.   

Wondering about the eggs in the boot from a couple of blogs ago?  Wondering what kind of bird fits inside a boot  to lay so many perfect tiny eggs?  Wonder no more.

Mama Bird and boot.jpg

Mama Bird’s a Carolina wren, and very conscientious.  The babies are alive and well, although we hope they eventually begin to look more like her.

Baby Birds.jpg

Now, are you asking yourself how my son got that perfect photo of Mama Bird without scaring her off?  Easy–for him.  He set up a camera with motion detection to monitor her comings and goings.

 
Baby Bird Camera.jpg

“This” Mama Bird raised a flock of techie sons.  I hope Mama Bird’s as happy with her offspring.