Thank you ALL for entering the giveaway for my newest book! I had originally planned to give away 8 signed copies but added one more to include more entries! Loved the entries and names … and photos!
I’m a strong girl, friends. Independent, resourceful, and generally optimistic. I’ve done sweeping seasons of challenging circumstances where you hunker down for months of resilience and put a therapist on speed dial.
This week was different, though. This week was a series of days filled with unfortunate events that finally sent me up and over the peak of sanity.
Let me set the stage: I’m single parenting four kids. After a layoff last fall, my husband took a job in California and started work there in January with family plans to re-locate after the school year winds down. I co-created and co-agreed on this plan of action.
Enter the Polar Vortex winter of 2014. Since January 1, school has been called off FIVE days for extreme cold and/or snow. As of Sunday, the metro area had registered the most days below zero in 32 years; and the 13th longest stretch of consecutive subzero low temperatures. Our Snow Blower is broken.
I could stop right there and I know you’d understand.
My husband was in town last weekend for 3 days. It was wonderful. We went out to dinner. He changed lightbulbs, pounded things in, walked the dog, and drove kids places. Then he left on Monday.
On Tuesday, I took my child for his second attempt at his driver’s test which ended with a hope that “the third time will be the charm.” (sad face).
That night, I drove to the Varsity basketball game with my 10-year-old in tow. Two minutes from our destination high school, I was following my GPS instructions to make a U-turn at the light. That was going fine until a truck plowed into me 90% into my U-Turn, taking out my front right bumper and headlight. A truck driven by an off-duty policeman no less. I got out of the car and he asked me why I did that, and I asked him where he came from. Apparently he turned into traffic from a restaurant parking lot that I couldn’t see behind the 18 foot high snowbanks. The insurance company tells me it’s my fault because I was making the U Turn. The cop reminded me on the scene not to admit fault, and he didn’t have his insurance card with him. He did show me his shiny badge though.
As we are driving away from the scene, my son says, “I’m glad Dad has a good job.” I don’t explore his logic.
Abra Auto Body tells me they can fix my car in March sometime. And you need a headlight to take a driver’s test.
On Wednesday night, my 12-year-old daughter joins me and the dog in bed at 11:00pm to tell me she is certain she has a bladder infection and isn’t sure she can endure it through the night. I jump online to look up 24-hour-care clinics and find none. The word Emergency Room sends her into a teary heap. I offer Tylenol, a heating pad and prayer. It seems to work and she sleeps.
My 16-year-old son pops into my room to tell me he prayed for me at Youth Group that night. For my strength. I get teary.
Thursday we go to the doctor, first thing. Bladder infection confirmed by Target Clinic. ”We will have your prescription in 10 minutes,” they tell me. Except they don’t because no pharmacy within 10 miles seems to be in stock of this antibiotic. So they find it for me at a Walgreens in a questionable part of town.
I drop said daughter at school and go on search of medicine. This is when the blizzard starts and continues to snow for the ensuing 24 hours, dumping 12 inches of new snow. Our snow blower didn’t fix itself this week. But my delightful neighbor boy loves to plow anything in sight and came over to do our driveway. I ran out in my pajamas, grabbed his face and kissed him. On the cheek.
My high school friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. Highly treatable they tell her.
My new cute red glasses come in. I can now see far away reallllly well. And yes, I was wearing them during the U-Turn.
I have therapy for my sore hip. JC tells me she thinks my hip pain is coming from tight neck muscles. And proceeds to massage my neck for two hours. I’m delighted she cares about me so much even though I am paying her to care.
I pay Mark, the Hearth Master, to fix my gas fireplace after 3 years of not working.
On Friday, school is called off because of the blizzard. Basketball games are called off. By lunchtime, I decide that I will attempt a trip to the bank and to Target. So I’m waiting at the stop light to turn into the Target parking lot.
And a guy plows into me from behind. In my other car. Two cars smashed within three days. We pull into Home Depot and we both get out to exchange information. He tells me he has never been in an accident until today. An accident virgin until he met me. Super.
He drives away and I have his name, phone number and insurance information on Post it notes all over my dashboard. I put my head on my steering wheel and cry.
My daughter is supposed to get in a car with her basketball team in one hour to drive to Rochester, MN for a tournament. I decide in that moment that she is not going. I don’t care if I’m disappointing anyone. Sorry folks, this pity party is mine alone right now.
I don’t want to be consoled by my husband. Only a Winter-weary Minnesotan will do right now. Not picky on age or gender.
I start texting people who love me telling them the latest. They swoop in with care. One takes my dog for a play date. Two others take my kids for sleepovers. My girlfriend drives me to Saturday’s basketball game. And invites me out to dinner with a group of her friends from high school. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
At dinner, we play a game. ”Tell a story from the week and we decide if it’s true or false.”
Me: ”I got in two car accidents this week, one with an off duty police officer. The other with a chain-smoking, accident virgin.”
Them: ”We would say false,” they explain, “but something like that can only be true.”
It’s Sunday now. The sun is shining. And I’m drinking coffee next to my gas fireplace. All is calm and all is bright. I slept for 9 hours.My kids are alive. My cars are drivable. My husband is employed. I am loved.
Hello New Week, here we go.
Four kids. Those who know me say it doesn’t make sense for the girl who in high school proclaimed, “I’m never having kids.” And the same girl who at 30 years old reaffirmed, “I just don’t know if I want to do that kid thing.” Then a devastating miscarriage at age 31 catapulted me into realizing “I think I changed my mind,” and we welcomed four kids in six years. It was an emotionally and fertility challenged stretch for sure with three additional miscarriages interspersed. Two losses at eight weeks and another at 14 weeks.
I was beyond blessed with the arrival of my third child, my daughter, in 2002. Then my husband cancelled his vasectomy appointment three times and we welcomed Will, number four, in 2003.
So there they are above. (L to R) Cole, 16. Julia, 12. Adam, 14. And Will, 10.
When it’s time for a new book, I reflect on my own parenting journey and those of my friends and acquaintances. I ask myself what we have in common and how are we unique? What challenges and affections are universal? To what can we all relate? I reflect on the unique relationship I have with each of my kids and what they teach me about love, humor, perspective, encouragement, persistence and gratitude. And I try to wrap that all up in a book that parents and kids of all ages can embrace.
A couple of the inspirations behind certain books:
My Shoes Take Me Where I Want to Go was a book I wrote many years ago that has been discontinued by my publisher but can be found here and there through online outlets. I adored this book as it was inspired by my son Cole when he was 2 years old. His dad was putting on his shoes for him while telling him, “Your shoes take you where you want to go. Inside, outside, down the street and to the park.” I listened to their cute exchange and used it as a launching for this book that told of the imaginative places one can go, simply by donning a new pair of shoes!
I Love You So… was first inspired by the bedtime conversations I had with Cole, Adam and Julia. I would say, “I love you to the moon and back, down the street, to the post office and back to our house.” Then they would try to “outdo my bigness of love. ”I love you to the moon, to Mars, to McDonalds, to school, to Florida and around all the stars.” With this book, I attempted to put into words the enormous, unconditional love parents have for their child(ren).
I’m Not Tired Yet! was inspired by Adam whose bedtime antics included the “gorilla hug.” Yep, we’d put our arms around each other and hug like gorillas! Don’t you?? This turned into the tale of Ralphie Mix, who at age of six, didn’t want to go to bed. His mom made up all sorts of hugs, squeezes and tickles to get him off to dreamland.
If I Could Keep you Little was created in a moment of me putting my hand on Will’s head, pushing down, and saying aloud, “Oh, if I could just keep you little, I would.” I immediately knew I had uttered the words on many a parent’s heart and started contemplating this thought — how if we DID keep them little, we’d miss out on all the cool things ahead on our parenting journey!
Beautiful Blue Eyes and Beautiful Brown Eyes paid tribute to Cole, Adam, Julia AND Will — and their eye color. I have two of each and — when they were little — would refer to them by eye color: My blue-eyed girl. My blue-eyed guy. Big brown, little brown and laying down brown (the dog.). And no, I never did a book for green-eyed kids!
And lastly, my newest. I’ll Never Let You Go is inspired by each of my kids’ comfort objects — Carl and Buddy, the bears. Ellie the elephant and Timothy, the blanket — and the role they have played in the family. In this book, Edward the Bear doesn’t want to go to school without Blankie and so his mom explains to him that even when we’re apart, we are always together in our hearts! Another sentiment to which many parents can relate!
As my kids grow, I am asked by many if I will start writing chapter books for older kids. I don’t think so. Kids often read chapter books to themselves, by themselves. My books are about connection. Connecting with a parent’s heart and giving them a vehicle through which to connect with their own kids. I feel like the connection piece is my inspiration and calling. And I’m so blessed and thankful for my own children from whom I can learn what this motherhood journey is all about.
A year ago today, my dad died. He was 89 and spry until about two weeks before he passed. Then a random fall in his living room led to pain which led to Percocet which led to his giving up on living. I had long thought my mom would die first, given her advanced Alzheimer’s Dimentia. But one never knows until it happens. I miss him. He was my conversationalist, though our dialogue was written on a whiteboard passed between us.
Before he died, we could find fault with his increasingly crabby tendencies, his complaining or his incessant worrying about finances, though my brother continually reassured him he. was. fine. Before he died, I would find myself wishing that life had been different for him in many ways. That he could hear. That he didn’t worry so much. Before he died, I would find myself wishing that that childhood had been different for me. That I had had a dad who was confident in himself, engaged with us kids and not so annoyingly frugal.
Now that he’s gone, I don’t ponder any of the above. I buried with him any unfulfilled longings and angst. A lovely peace has settled in, mingled with gratitude for who he was, foibles and all. I’m thankful for how hard he tried. I realize more clearly the gifts he gave me, the penchants he passed on. Don’t get me wrong, I would re-script certain childhood chapters if I could, but what’s the point?
What I hold most precious now are his writings he left behind that told the story of him. He printed out our e-mail exchanges and tucked them in a folder. I have hand-written letters he sent me through the years. Prompted by me, he had also written 60 pages of his life story, re-telling stories from the Great Depression that we would have never known otherwise. And we have copies of his diaries that he kept for nearly a decade.
I have a growing interest in helping grown up kids connect with their parents before the ”wisdom window” closes. To capture some of their stories that may go untold unless asked for.
In honor of my dad’s first birthday in heaven — go ahead and connect with YOUR dad (If you’re fortunate to still have him around). Engage him in conversations you’ll remember when he’s gone, the kind that let you get to know him as a person — and not just your dad. Maybe some of these for starters?
• Tell me about your childhood house. Was it big? Small? Did you have to do chores?
• What were your favorite classes in high school?
• If you could jump back in time and re-live any five-year time period… when would it be?
• What was the first job you had?
• What was a huge challenge in your life that you overcame?
• What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
It’s been quite a year. New friends, partnerships and opportunities. Losing both my parents seven months apart. It has felt emotionally full. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface on fully connecting to everything the year has brought.
What I do know, however, is how thankful I have been for my rock-steady husband walking through it all with me. While I often ride an emotional roller coaster, he’s kind of like the sun. Steady, unchanging, available. He’s more left brained and analytical. I’m more right brained and feeling. Together, we are pretty darn whole. Rest assured, it’s not always easy. We still have many mutually-annoying moments, but as for a life partner? He’s a gem.
We snapped this photo two days ago at the Mall of America celebrating our 10 year old’s birthday. We were sitting on a bench, waiting for them to come off a ride. We have concluded that we parents do a LOT of waiting. Before sports events. In bus lines. During hair cuts. At doctor’s offices.
I looked at the photo on my phone and immediately said, “Look at all those wrinkles around my eyes.” To which he sarcastically said, “Sure, that’s what you should focus on.” I immediately was brought back to a memory of looking with my dad through my beautiful wedding photos and my dad said, “look at my bald spot.” Here we are, re-living my beautiful wedding day and he’s looking at his bald spot.
Jim says, “let’s focus instead on how much we like each other.”
Yep, thankful for this guy.
Who are your rock-steady pals and life partners?
This ornament hung on my tree for many years. Well, it used to be an ornament. A really, really special one from my dad’s childhood. When I was a kid, my dad and I used to decorate the tree together because my mom had no interest in doing such. Me and dad would lovingly unearth the ornaments from the previous year and hang them up. One in particular was a very old glass swan that had been on his tree when HE was a kid. The swan had no tail, just a hole in his “back area” where a tail should be.
One year, while I was hanging up the swan, I tilted in just enough when lo and behold, a nylon, brushy tail emerged through his back end!! ”Dad!!” I shouted upon this discovery, “The swan. Has. A. Tail.” We both were giddy over it.
When I got engaged to my husband Jim, my dad gifted me the swan to hang on my own tree. I was deeply touched by his gesture.
Then we had kids who didn’t know to care deeply and tenderly about my swan ornament. And my then 2-year-old son fell into the tree which knocked the swan onto the floor and broke him into a billion shattered pieces. And I felt my heart break for what this swan meant to me. I cried while I scooped up the shards and put them in a Ziplock baggie that I couldn’t bear to throw away.
For a couple years thereafter, I hung the baggie on the tree but that made my kid feel really bad. And so I finally took it down and stored the broken swan in my own special box of memories, out of sight. I practiced breathing the disappointment and sadness out of my heart and breathed in the joy of having kids who are excited about Christmas.
This is the ultimate season of expectation. Will I get the tree up, presents bought, gifts wrapped, concerts attended, love shared, people remembered, lights up, cocoa ingested, cookies baked, charities donated … all before December 25th? Oh, and perhaps you’re working for an outside employer, too, whose expectations and deadlines don’t pay much attention to the calendar.
Do Your Best and Let Go.
Breathe in gratitude for what you accomplished and let go of what won’t get done.
Breathe in love, friends. If you find time to do anything this holiday season, breathe in love. If it’s full in you — you’ll naturally share it with others.
And guess what? No stress required.
Met up with a friend yesterday (who I have known since I was 10) for breakfast and a walk along the lake and talk turned, as it often does, to mothers, family and feelings. “I wasn’t raised in a touchy, feel-y family,” my girlfriend said. “My mom and I never tell each other ‘I love you.’ She went on, “I mean we obviously both know the other person thinks it, but we just don’t say it, it’s weird.” ”How about with your own kids?” I asked. ”Oh, yes,” she said ” I tell them ‘I love you’ every day if not many times a day!”
Why is it so difficult to say out loud the very thing we feel inside?
As we parted ways at her car, and I ran to mine… she yelled, “Bye!” I turned around to wave and she added, “I love you Marianne!” To which I replied, “I love you, too, Deb.”
I drove my 11-year-old daughter to school this morning and she shared a recent experience on the bus where she and her pal were sitting next to an older student who, in my daughter’s words, “used the f word about twenty times in 3 minutes.” “Whaattt!” I exclaimed. ”Did you tell him to please choose different words while sitting next to you?” I went on to explain to her that the bus space was just as much hers as his and that you had a right to a swear-free ride.
Why is it so hard to speak up for ourself, diminishing our own rights to give someone else theirs?
As you know, I’m a big believer and promoter on feeling your feelings. I’m not always good at it, however. No, quite often, I’ll talk myself out of it for fear of dis-connection. What if I say I don’t like it and they get mad? Or don’t want to work with me anymore? What if I tell him how his actions hurt me and now he doesn’t want to speak with me anymore? What if I tell her I don’t want to go out and she never invites me again?
All these outcomes may be true. And in reality, these outcomes are more about him, her or they … than you. You can share your feelings — authentically, respectfully, and peacefully — and the other person still may feel mad, sad, rejected, revengeful.
What I’ve learned, however, more often than not is that the converse is usually true — that when I share my truest feelings with someone, I emerge feeling MORE connected, MORE self-assured and MORE peaceful.
Case in point: I was feeling ill at ease toward my brother about some personal financial issues regarding my parents. I thought about e-mailing him. But I knew we needed to talk person-to-person because only then could I really share my heart. And so we talked … for nearly an hour. I told him how I was feeling. I told him about my circumstances that led to me feeling my feelings. And then he shared his thoughts. And his circumstances. I learned things I never knew. Things made more sense to me. I chose to move forward in love.
I followed up with this e-mail:
Dear T, You know what makes me happy?
That we care enough about the relationship between us to think through — and talk through — issues that could potentially cause a rift if not careful. I’m really, really thankful about that.
And I really, really love you. Love, M.
To which he replied:
Dear M., I appreciate you saying that. Last night as I was reflecting on our conversation, I had this overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’m lucky enough to have sibling who is also a good friend.
They always say you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. Fortunately for me they are one in the same.
I love you too … more than you know. Love, T.
I’m not so naive to believe it will always work out that way — with your relationship affirmed and in tact. But YOU have the opportunity to emerge more affirmed and in tact.
It’s a practice. And I’ll start you off with some phrasing that I’ve found helpful for starting the conversation:
Are you open to my thoughts on that?
Can I share with you what I’ve been feeling about that?
These are my feelings. Tell me if they make sense to you.
I’ve been feeling badly about what happened the other day. Can we talk about it?
I’m struggling with (insert situation). Are you open to hearing why?
You get the idea. It’s about permission. When you include the other person in the exchange – you’ve already gone a long way toward connection.
Tell me about a time you were able to feel your feelings … and emerge with a relationship strengthened.
I attended an Author Fair this past weekend in Chicago. Something planned since March. I first said, “No thank you” in my effort to pick-and-choose. But Carl, the inviter, was persistent. And overly gracious. And so my no became “Yes, I’d love to.”
The event was not very well attended. It happens. You can promote, promote, invite, extend, and hope — and sometimes the people don’t come.
On the up side, I was the busiest of the non-busy. Several family groups came through for whom I signed books and whose enthusiasm for my work was much appreciated. I met the cutest 3-year-olds with sparkly tights and glitter shoes. We did an impromptu story time.
It was tempting to second guess my participation in such an event when I’m missing my own kids’ last soccer games back home. When I’m choosing to be present for other families on this particular Saturday — and not mine.
Then Julie walked in. I was mid-chat and saw her in my periphery. I was her sole reason for coming, I could tell. She approached my table with her arms encircling my book, If I Could Keep you Little. Her own copy brought from home. She looked to be a young mom, maybe late 20s with her own mom at her side. She crouched down so we’d be eye-to-eye.
Her eyes were red from recent crying. She wore a puffy winter jacket and I noticed the decorative pin that adorned her upper right chest area. A little bar pin with a dangling picture frame. And in the frame – a sweet baby boy’s face.
I had a feeling.
She told me how she loved her book. My book that is her book. She told me about her little boy who died at 5 weeks old due to some freaky choking episode that so tragically and suddenly took him from her. She started to cry. I started to cry. I moved from behind my table to embrace her in a long hug, her puffy jacket exhaling to let me pull a little closer.
She told me that my book was the last one she’d read him before he died.
She asked if I would sign her book to she and her son. Because my book — her book — was a connection to her son that was comforting and precious and irreplaceable.
I signed it and told her baby boy how much his mommy missed him.
I can’t get her off my mind. Her story. My words. Her book. Our connection. How she and I are forever linked through words I wrote that became her parting gift to her son.
It makes me want to tell you to gift your words to people. Your from-the-heart, unscripted words of love and affection and gratitude to the people you appreciate. In a letter. On a post-it. Said aloud. They matter.
So there. I just told you.
As many of you know — if you’ve followed my stories — my mom passed away in September after a decade-long journey with Alzheimer’s Dimentia.
She wasn’t present of mind for a long time.
Even when I was younger, I often felt she wasn’t present of mind.
She lived in her past. Her time before marriage. And before motherhood. She seemed homesick for her birth city of Philadelphia, now living in small-town Wisconsin and married to a farm boy. She called herself a “city girl” and refused to drive on the highway. She went through a bout of depression while in Air Force and her doctors opted to treat it with Electro-Shock therapy. That experience forever changed her and convinced her that every malady in life was somehow tied to that. My seizures for one. Her distrust of the medical community colored her decisions on my behalf, opting not to allow me medication and instead seeking alternative intervention. Which didn’t work. Because it was a brain tumor causing my seizures.
I was mad at her for a long time.
I thought, “how could we be more different?”
Then she died and my brother wrote a letter to my mom’s childhood friend, Dorothy, to tell her the news. She and Dorothy had known each other since they were five, both growing up in the poor part of Philly with Lithuanian parents who didn’t speak English. Dorothy still lives in Philly.
Dorothy typed a letter back, saying she was sorry… and telling my brother how my mom was the fun-loving one. The one who arranged blind dates for anyone needing a partner for the dance. Mom introduced Dorothy to her husband, Gus. Dorothy said she’d miss hearing from her.
My mom… fun loving?
I called Dorothy this morning.
“Dorothy?” I said when the late 80-something voice answered. ”Yes?” she said. ”This is Marianne, Mary Sokas Helf’s daughter,” I said. ”Do you have a little time to tell me about my mom?” ”Oh yes,” she said.
Your mom could never sit still. She was always doing. ”Me too,” I thought.
She worked three little jobs at once, just to keep busy. ”Me too,” I thought.
Your mom kept in touch with everyone … including kids she went to grade school with!” ”Me too,” I thought.
Your mom loved to walk and exercise.” ”Me too”, I thought.
I listened and asked. And asked and listened, learning about a young girl who was always up for adventure, fun-loving, looking out for her friends, and making something out of the nothing they had.
A lot like me, I thought. I would have liked her.
I hung up with Dorothy, wishing that I would have seen more of that free-spirited woman in my life… but she had her own stuff going on that seemed to often trump her availability to me and the present. Can a mother truly level with her daughter if her disappointment likely includes her very role as mother and wife? I think not.
I’m not mad anymore. More melancholy about the missed opportunity to know the best parts of this person. I am intrigued, however, by the unwrapping of this gift of understanding as so many things make more sense now than they did then.
How about you? Have you found yourself making sense of something that eluded you for a long time?