The Light

I absolutely love this ❤ Source: The Light

In the Moment

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.
~ Maya Angelou

Writer’s Eyes

fuchsia

Two weeks after attending the Newburyport Literary Festival I am still seeing the world through my Writer ‘s Eyes. The sky needs describing, the woman at the checkout with the muddy sweatshirt demands a backstory, and the fresh raindrops on my fuchsia beg the words to do them justice.

Being surrounded by writers and avid readers for two days both inspired this view of the world and assures me that others have these moments too. My friend Corinne described our time at the Festival as “Being with the Tribe.” This tribe of authors and readers coming together to discuss the written word were all about the need to convey emotion and vision and imagination, and the desire to grab the reader and take them along for the ride. I came away with a new appreciation of how hard it is to get it just right as a writer, and still make it read as if it is oh so easy.

Many laughs, many notes, and some new friends – it was a great weekend. As I dropped Corinne off at the airport to head home, we agreed to each take a shot at writing a short story inspired by our weekend. What follows is my short story. This is a work of fiction. Although there is a hotel in Newburyport called the Shoreline, everything else is a product of my imagination. For the record, the staff there was lovely and helpful, and I would highly recommend the Shoreline as a great place to stay, right on the beach with the ocean outside your door.  Enjoy!

shoreline

 

The Shoreline by Sandra Courtney

The dull throb in her temples was the alarm clock of the day. Slowly her thoughts muddled together, finally landing on why it was important that she get out of bed.

It was just a few steps to the bathroom and as she hit the switch the gravelly sound of the bathroom fan whirred to life and the light came on. This would be Ronnie’s third summer season working at the Shoreline, and her room next to the laundry was part of the deal.

She lit one of the cigarettes from the back of the toilet and turned on the shower. While she waited for the water to get hot she opened the blinds and winced a little at the glare of the light grey sky.

Taking a long drag from her cigarette, she checked her phone for messages. There was another text reminding her about this afternoon’s check-in for the double queen room. Sherri wanted to make sure she was at the desk at 3:00p.m. Seriously? She had only missed a guest once and it wasn’t really her fault. Whatever.

She put the phone down on the sink, tossed the cigarette in the toilet and shed her oversized Newburyport t-shirt. The heat of the water stung her skin and she wished she had remembered to pick up some Motrin yesterday. As good as the money was, working at the bar until closing time four nights in a row had left her feeling thin around edges. She kind of wished they hadn’t finished the coke; that would have made the afternoon a little easier to face.

Her cell phone croaked out a tree frog sound from the sink as she climbed from the shower. That ringtone had seemed hysterical last night. Now, it was just irritating. “Pls b sure 101A has cofee crm sug thnx!”

Jesus H Christ, just because this was the first guest in more than a week Sherri was acting like she couldn’t remember how to prep a damn room. She messaged Sherri back “Im on it!” muttering to herself “Screw you.”

She pulled on her jeans and grabbed a shirt from the closet. It was almost 2:00 already but if she hurried she could catch breakfast at the diner and be back by 3:00. She started to grab the pin with the Shoreline logo and RONNIE printed in big block letters but tossed it back on the unmade bed. “Screw you,” she muttered again, shoving her phone in her pocket and slamming the motel room door behind her.

The diner was almost empty when she took her seat at the counter. The waitress, Ashlynn, recognized her and walked over with a mug, setting it down and filling it with coffee. Ronnie reached for the sugar, nodding as Ashlynn said “Two eggs and hash?” Sipping the steaming black liquid, Ronnie picked up yesterday’s paper and paged through to her horoscope. “The wild currents begin to settle down again even though you may encounter a few tricky rapids along the way today.” She thoughts about last night – those were some wild ass currents all right.

She slid the paper back across the red Formica counter as the waitress served up the hash and eggs. Ronnie shook the little boat shaped peppershaker until black speckles covered her fried eggs like a diseased lung. She mumbled her thanks as more coffee was poured into her mug, and added more sugar to the inky, hot liquid. She made quick work of the hash and eggs and glanced at her phone as she asked for her check. If she missed this check-in, Sherri would be pissed.

The parking space in front of the Shoreline was empty as she pulled around the back of the motel. Her phone said it was 3:02. Letting herself into the office with the key, Ronnie dropped into the rolling chair behind the counter. Thank God – there were no messages on the machine. She closed her eyes for a moment, wishing she could just crawl back to her bed for an hour. The dull throb in her head had been mopped up with the coffee and hash, and all that was left was the jittery feeling of too much of everything except sleep. She was getting too old for this.

Caffeine, she needed caffeine, and a cigarette. She opened the back door of the office and stepped into the alley, lighting up as she walked to the laundry room. She fed her crumpled bill into the vending machine, punched the Pepsi button and jumped a little as the soda clunked down into the machine’s metal tray. Slowly she loosened the lid and licked her dry lips as the carbonation hissed its escape.

Flicking her cigarette out into the street, she returned to the office and flipped on the TV. Judge Judy was asking some tattooed jerk why he was stealing from his landlord when Ronnie finally found the post-it note she had scribbled on Tuesday when Sherri had called about the reservation. 3:00 4/25 – 413-242-8955 186.50 2Q. The scrawled message didn’t have a name – damn. What if they didn’t show up before her bar shift started at 8:00? Sherri probably told them a late check-in was just fine. Shit.

She dialed the number. “Hello?” A woman answered and Ronnie found herself annoyed right away at the smile she could hear in the voice. “Yeah, this is Ronnie from the Shoreline. They said you was gonna be here by 3:00.” “Oh, hi! We are on our way!” was the incredibly annoying, cheerful reply. “I was told we could check in anytime after 3:00 and well, you know how it is, we got a little bit of a late start. We are outside of Worcester now so it looks like we will get there around 5:00 or so.” Ronnie could picture a perky smile to go with the cheerful voice and it just pissed her off even more. Her gravelly voice grew deeper “But they said you was checkin’ in at 3:00.” “Oh, sorry for the confusion – we’ll see you around 5:00!” Ronnie grumbled out an “Alright” that sounded like sandpaper on a wood fence and hung up the phone.

Judge Judy was really letting the dirt bag have it when Ronnie turned off the TV and locked the door behind her. She lit up as she walked back to her room, set her phone’s alarm clock and pulled the blinds.

Thoughts While Making Chicken Noodle Soup

Image

 

I cooked this afternoon, and it felt good. It was as if I found myself as I peeled and chopped. I am learning this new place in my parent’s home. No longer the child, I am now the caregiver. Lifelong roles have been ripped apart by my father’s death and my mother’s subsequent surgery.  I was the wild child; now I am the golden child, stepping up to provide care and guidance and comfort. Today I am finding purpose in creating nourishment, finding patience with the simple repetitive steps involved in cutting apart chicken and chopping carrots.  Could this be the secret behind the healing properties of chicken noodle soup? Is the salve to the soul of the cook as much of a succor to the sick as the carrots and onion in the broth? It felt right to simmer all day, despite the heat and the humidity.

I feel like I am part of a long chain of women, all learning the same lesson as the generations fade into time.  We find ourselves pouring ourselves into places we didn’t know about, oftentimes while standing in our kitchen.

Did my mother’s mother feel that way as she made us her pork and spaetzle every year?  Was she pouring love into her special recipe each time she made it for us, knowing that no one else could prepare her signature taste of German Cincinnati? The smell of sauerkraut taking over the un-airconditioned house and staying with it long into the steamy night was an integral part of summer visits.  I loved the salty taste of kraut clinging to pork, even though in my role as the family’s picky eater I adamantly refused to eat the kraut every year.  I also stubbornly refused to try her German Potato Salad. When I was in my 30’s and Dad prepared it using her recipe I was blown away by the tantalizing blend of flavors. Now when I break out the recipe for family cookouts, each taste brings me back to Cincinnati summers.  Most mornings during our visit I would wake up early to find Grandma already standing at the stove, tissue stuffed up her sleeve, boiling the potatoes or starting the evening’s meal before the heat filled her kitchen, her busyness leaving little room for the chatter of small children. How much love did she pour into these dishes, love that she couldn’t show any other way?  I have no memories of snuggles or kisses beyond the perfunctory kiss goodnight. But every meal was homemade and at night sometimes she would comb my hair and braid it just so in the way I loved.  It was only when she could no longer do these things that she began to say the words “I love you.”

******************

From June 2013

 

 

 

The Unknowable

psychicclosed

When the FB invite for a “Holiday Shopping Party” appeared in my newsfeed, I RSVP’d with a maybe, and my comment: “Food, Shopping and a Psychic, what could be more fun?” received several likes.

In truth, psychics make me anxious.  While I don’t “not believe,” I also don’t believe I have ever met someone who is actually psychic.  Intuitive?  Oh yes.  Psychic?  Not so much.

But the evening rolled around and my friend and I arrived, ready to nosh and shop and maybe glimpse into the future.  The gathering was a predominately female affair; folks with artistic tendencies and a modest degree of disposable income.  There were local artists displaying beautiful creations, all being admired by wine-drinking moms with a few random men sprinkled near the refreshments. The psychic’s name was Nanci with an “i,” an affectation I am willing to bet she adopted well into her 40’s.

She was a large boned woman, with that coarse hair that women of a certain age have, colored to a metallic sheen somewhere between auburn and copper.

Her jewelry was tastefully earthy, her clothes flowing and in natural shades of blue, green and purple.

She had a great smile, a warm manner, and not the straightest teeth.

I had been watching her watch the people in the room as they shopped and mingled.

One of Nanci’s friends asked if I had a reading yet and highly recommended her.

I joked about not wanting to know too much about my future. She assured me that there would be no bad news. Inwardly I mused this was a pretty good indication that Nanci with an ”i” was not psychic; experience dictates that bad news happens on a somewhat regular basis and surely a psychic would notice that.

It seemed to me that Nanci was likely another perceptive 50 something year old, discovering a midlife career telling women what they wanted to hear at craft fairs and senior centers.

I sat down, and wrote her a check.

She asked if I had a child – a daughter?  I nodded, silently applauding her observation of my shopping so far.

She asked if I sang – said that she saw music all around me.  Since most of the attendees were friends of our theatrical hostess this was also not much of a stretch.

She asked about a grandmother – were we close?  She saw the color brown, says the message she was receiving was telling her that my grandmother loves me and she is so supportive. She talked some generic happy memories of large family gatherings at holiday times that sounded lovely, but had nothing in common with my childhood memories of holidays living far away from any extended family.

And then she asked if I had any other children?  A son?  I told her he was deceased… and there was a moment’s hesitation, eyes closed, head still for second, followed by that attending nod.  She told me she sensed a loving presence, asked if he died young, as a baby?  Yes…

She nodded a lot with her eyes closed and told me that he was always near me and supportive.

Mhmmm.

Then she asked about my work and gave some nice vague encouraging signals about successful projects that were going to be great because I am so resourceful and said that my coworker or manager would let me take charge.

And then it was over.  There were a few more affirming nods, and then a smile.  Did I have any questions?

I was grateful she didn’t try to fake it.  She didn’t try to convince me she could channel Ryan, didn’t try to tell me that he was communicating with her to tell me anything.

I so wish it was different. I wish that when I am truly missing my son I could simply write Nanci with an “i” a check for $25 and have 15 minutes of definitive knowing. Knowing that he is aware of how much I miss him, how much I wish he were here to grow up with his sister.  Knowing that someday, I would be with him again, in some meaningful way that I cannot imagine.

But it is not to be.  I did not hear what my heart wants to hear.  I hadn’t dare to hope, and I wasn’t disappointed.  I finished my wine.  I picked up my cleverly packaged purchases, and hugged my hostess good-bye.

It’s OK That He Stinks at Valentine’s Day

So I was thinking about writing for our local Open Mic night and dithering over a topic when Kevin (the nice man I am married to) suggested that, since it would be Valentine’s Day I could write about that. That, of course, led to a conversation about Valentine’s Days that we have shared. We have been married for 20 years – that is a lot of Februarys together – but I could only come up with one that I had a clear “romantic”memory from, and Kevin wasn’t even home.
At this point in the conversation he declared himself a lousy husband.

No No No!  He is definitely not a lousy husband, but he is kind of lousy at events.

I think that it is easy to forget sometimes that these are very very different things.

A lousy partner never notices when you are tired, but always notices if you gain 5 pounds. He’s the guy who calls it babysitting, and complains, when he gets to spend time with the kids while you do something crazy sexy like grocery shopping or going to the PTSA meeting.  He’s the guy who complains about dinner but wouldn’t think of planning and cooking it once in a while.

These guys might come through with the gifts – the flowers and the chocolate and the jewelry.  They may use it as an apology.  They may even believe that it proves they really love you, even as they treat you like last year’s phone.

Who co-opted the idea of a“good husband” and sold it back to us as the guy who knows what to buy for Valentine’s Day and Christmas and Anniversaries?

The “good” husband is the guy who occasionally clears the table or runs the vacuum and doesn’t think you owe him one for doing so.

He’s the guy who worries about the kids just as much as you do, and the one who makes sure they know how much he cares about them.

He’s the guy who takes care of his parents because it is the right thing to do, and because he loves them, even if they may not remember his name.

He’s the guy who will give you a hug when you need one, who laughs at your jokes… at least sometimes.  He’s the one who always, always has your back.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against flowers and romantic getaways. But I received enough flowers from guys who didn’t show up when it counted to know the difference between presents and presence.

What if, instead of buying stuff, we chose to tell our Valentine simply, I love you?  I am grateful to have you in my life.  Thank you for making me laugh.  I love to watch you take care of your parents, I love to watch you play with the kids.  I am proud to be married to you.  You rock.

It doesn’t really matter if you are lousy at events if you show up every day for life.

That is what love really is.  Not diamonds or chocolate or roses.

Love is going through life, side-by-side, showing up, eyes open, hand in hand.

By the way, that romantic Valentine’s Day was right after we were married – he went skiing and I came home to an empty house and a brand new Bob Dylan boxset and a single red rose –the right gift can be pretty amazing too.

 

Thoughts While Folding Laundry

It is 9:30 at night and I am sitting on my couch folding my 2 year old daughter’s laundry.   I am sorting out favorite dresses that are showing wear, and little shirts that no longer fit.  This makes me just like thousands of moms with toddlers that grow faster than we ever imagined.  But most other moms are not in tears, sobbing while they hold little pairs of jeans with grass stains.

The waves of grief that hit me this night take me completely by surprise and take my breath away.  It has been over 2 years since we lost my son Ryan, right before his first birthday.  He never played in the grass to get grass stains on his knees.  He outgrew clothes slowly and his clothes never showed signs of wear and tear.  The fact hits me hard in that place in my stomach where the dull ache of sadness still lives.

The challenges of parenting after the loss of a child are hard to explain to someone who hasn’t walked this path.  Each milestone that my daughter accomplishes is washed with pride and joy and wonder, and then bathed again in the melancholy of knowing that Ryan never took a first step, never learned to feed himself bananas, never said “I love you Mama”.

It isn’t that I spend all of my time thinking of what we lost with Ryan’s death.  On the contrary, I am far more aware of all that I gained from being his mother.  But there is the flash that goes off, with each experience, that reminds me of what could have been.

Grief is surprising in its’ unpredictability.  I expected melancholy on my daughter’s first birthday, after all my son died days before his first birthday.  Her birthday turned out to be a joyful and peaceful day.

On the other hand, many months later, I cried inconsolably when I came home to find my husband had removed the crib from my daughter’s room.  It was bound to happen soon, she was sleeping in her “big girl bed.”  I knew the crib couldn’t stay there forever, just like Ryan couldn’t stay forever. The decision was made for me, again, ready or not…  If my own husband had a hard time understanding why I was so upset about the crib being removed, how could I possibly explain it to my friend.  She tried to comfort me by saying “They grow up so fast”.  I wasn’t crying for “They grow up so fast”; I was crying because, sometimes, they don’t grow up at all.

****

I wrote this essay almost 8 years ago.  It first appeared on the Rowan Tree Foundation website – an organization supporting families through the loss of a child. http://www.rowantreefoundation.org/category/on-grief-and-loss/page/2/ I am proud to be a Board Member of RTF. It is now 10 years since my son died and my grief is no longer overwhelming or exhausting, although it is still very real.  Often it is most challenging when it presents itself as loss to my daughter.  I sometimes think that her loss of her sibling is the saddest loss of all.

 

Living On

It is a small photo, black and white, a glimpse of a different time captured in a 2”x4” image.  It is one of my favorites, plucked from an old family photo album with heavy black pages – photos carefully placed with those little corner holders.  I used to love looking at the albums during our summer visits to my grandparents; so many relatives staring back at me from the past, all sepia colored in memories.

This picture captures a mid summer day at the Courtney family homestead on Red Bank Road in Cincinnati. The year is probably 1933 or 1934.  There is a young woman, a boy and a cow – the cow probably belonged to a neighbor – my people were not farmers – but they were clearly comfortable around the bovine and she clearly wasn’t worried about them, in spite of the guns, but I’ll come back to that.

It is hot, the trees are all fully leafed out and the young woman wears her nylons rolled down to her ankles – a concession to the sultry river valley heat.  Her hairstyle, short and wavy, would not look out of place on Downton Abbey, but her dress, I know, is homemade, because she made all of her own dresses well into her 70’s. She never, ever wore pants.  But I don’t want to be distracted by the grandmother to come – here, she is a young mother in her early 20’s and she is enjoying a summer day with her family, being silly with her little boy.

The boy also has his socks rolled down right to the top of his snazzy saddle shoes.  He is young, maybe 5 or 6, wearing short pants, a short sleeved shirt, a summer buzz cut and you can just see the edge of his grin – I love that grin.

And there they stand in a well-grazed field; you can see the road, unpaved, just beyond the fence.  They are impishly aiming guns at the heifer standing just 5-6 feet away.  The woman carefully sights down the line of her rifle, the boy doing the same – his grip belying a comfort and confidence that says this is his BB Gun and he knows how to shoot it.  He stands just in front of her, and although the picture doesn’t show it I am confident he has one eye closed to look carefully down the barrel to perfect his aim.

And so they pose for the picture, intent on looking like they mean serious business, only a close look reveals the smiles.

The cow gazes placidly out towards the viewer with a “Can you believe this?” look on her face.  I imagine that she turned towards the photographer, doubtless my grandfather, as he called out suggestions for the perfect photo of the silly scene before him.

How I wish I could be there.

I wish it were like one of those pictures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where the characters move around and talk.  I wish I could share this moment in time with them, hear my father as a little boy, all excited about playing in the field with his Mama.

A boy, his mom, a cow; his dad capturing a lighthearted moment in time and preserving it so that on this snowy afternoon some 800 miles and 80 years distant I feel the kinship with them.  I see the spark of my Dad’s sense of humor in the knobby-kneed boy in short pants.  I miss him.  The warmth of my grandmother’s love of children is evident in the whimsical image.  I miss her, too.  I named my daughter after her, to remind me of her love.  And I feel that love, over distance and time.

Love is, after all, forever.