Tuesday, May 31, 2011


We arrived home from our house hunting trip several weeks ago. The minute we hit the road for home, with the mountain ranges in our rearview mirror, I knew that the fun part was over. Somehow the long roads home were mile after mile of mental lists, while the long roads out to Colorado had been mile after mile of excited anticipation.

On the drive west we came to appreciate living in states that have beautiful scenery. I give full credit to the farmers who keep our grocery stores stocked with foods, but I have to say I’d have trouble living in the land of wide open fields. Acres of scrubby grassland stretched on for miles, occasionally dotted with cows. We passed a few large corporate feed lots, making comments about the origins of our last McDonald’s hamburger. But there were also plenty of smaller farms, and many fuzzy dots curled up in the shadows of mama cows, indicating that spring breeding had been successful.

We took the northern route, not having time to stop along I-70, where most of our friends and family live. Across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, the roads go on forever. It was common to see turkeys on the side of the road, who seemed unaware of the inherent risk of hanging out next to a path of zooming vehicles. Signs for the Pony Express popped up along the way. Rest areas were way too far apart to be entertaining and we counted it as a personal victory when we could find a small Subway sandwich store tucked into the back of a truck stop.

Then suddenly, after three long days in the car, we were there. We rounded a corner and there was civilization. First a smattering of houses, then a full fledged town, on the east side of Denver. Before we knew it we were in the middle of the city, practically giddy with relief that we’d actually survived the trip. A quick stop for drinks, then it was back in the car, to keep driving west. Denver’s great and all, but our sites are set on some mountain towns outside of the big city.

We oohed and ahhed at the wide highway that took us up in altitude, toward white capped mountain peaks. We teased my husband, that he’d have such a ‘horrible’ commute every day, up and down this strikingly beautiful corridor. We soon went into full camera mode, meaning the cameras and cell phones with cameras were never again put away. Around every bend was something new to capture.

We began to notice some themes. Every vehicle seemed to have a dog riding along. Every stoplight had at least one vehicle with the word Jeep on it. Neighborhood after neighborhood had wildlife running rampant. Elk, foxes and deer were as common as squirrels and chipmunks in my neighborhood. Early on, my boys started a game where each animal got a number of points assigned, depending on how rare they were. Deer were low points. Porcupine and skunks got higher points. I was impressed with their game until I realized that points actually translated into punches. If the animal ended up in our grill, there were even bonus punches to be given. Did I mention how much I missed my daughter?

Another common sight, which seemed sad and ironic, was the number of lost cat signs hanging on utility poles. As we roamed residential areas, through thickly wooded areas and switchback roads that led up the mountains, we saw sign after sign. Each had the familiar plea, “Lost Kitty!” and an adorable picture. Cats of all ages, all colors, seemed to have been rounded up and taken away. Considering the number of wildlife we witnessed in these same neighborhoods, many of which are carnivores, it seemed obvious to us that most of the missing felines would never make it home. It led us to believe that the people of Colorado are a very optimistic group, indeed.

After spending five days roaming the area, we really aren’t that much closer to finding the house we’ll call home next fall. We drove almost every street and road in the two towns we’re considering and have a better feel for the area, but finding a specific home is tricky. Many great homes, comfortably in our price range, with amazing views, are perched on lots that are almost impossible to access. The endless switchbacks almost make me woozy at times. Other homes, with easier access to the main roads, are in remote, rugged areas that would make a bike ride after school almost impossible for my boys. It will be a trick, once we physically arrive in Colorado, to find a place that has everything we need, and that we can afford without winning the lottery.

But I know it will be there, waiting for us, right when we need it. With every move we’ve had the same concern, finding the right house in the right location. So far we’ve done very well, and every house has felt very much like home. The long trip out to Colorado was the first step. Getting the scenes of our new town swirling around in our heads helps the process along. Now we’re back, and it’s time to wrap up this great life we’ve created in New York.

Because way off in the distance we can hear it. Colorado’s calling us back, wanting us to come home.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tornado Terror

As I stood in the driveway last week, talking to my neighbor, the familiar sirens went off a few blocks away. I hear them often. They’re a signal to our local volunteer firefighters that their service is needed. It took me a long time to get used to these frequent alarms.

Especially on stormy days.

As my neighbor and I chatted, there were storm clouds rolling in. Big, ominous, dark clouds, full of rain and probably a bit of lightening. Then the fire house sirens went off. And my blood pressure shot up. I had to mentally coach myself that everything was okay.

Because, you see, I grew up in the Midwest. Bad weather in the spring brings lightning and thunder. And sometimes tornadoes. When you live in the Midwest you learn to live by the tornado sirens. You have tornado drills at school, where you end up crouched in a hallway with your hands cupped around the back of your head. And you never ignore a siren.

So when I hear warning sirens, as I’m standing outside watching dark clouds roll in, I’m pretty confident there’s a tornado headed my way. And my gut reaction is to gather my children and run for the safe corner in the basement. My neighbor, who was raised in tornado-free New York, and mostly concerned about the fact he wanted to get home before he got drenched by the approaching storm, had no idea the level of anxiety I was feeling.

And then, just days later, I turn on my TV on a quiet Monday morning, to see that my home state has been once again struck by a big one. Joplin is just over an hour from Springfield, where I went to college, met the love of my life, and gave birth to my first two children. I know that part of the state well.

I’ve crouched in closets and basements, waiting out similar storms, in that part of the state. I know what those people were feeling as the storm began to hit. And I’m deeply affected by the images I’m seeing on TV, of the aftermath. While riding the bike at the gym, I had to look away from the screen of the news channels that are running continuing footage of the devastation. I couldn’t afford to burst into tears in the middle of my work out.

And it seems selfish to even say it affects me, that it upsets my day. Who am I to complain? I have a safe, intact home, that will never be blown away by a tornado. I have survived a few blizzards in this house, but I’ve never dashed to the basement to take shelter from a tornado. I don’t personally know anyone in Joplin. I’m not waiting for funeral arrangements to be made for someone I love, who wasn’t safe from nature’s fury.

But my heart hurts the same.

Out of shock, and sorrow, from a weather event that I grew up fearing.

The randomness. The inconsistency. The disturbing potential for destruction. For the past decade I’ve lived in states that are not at risk for tornadoes. As a mom, it’s been a relief to take it off my list of things to worry about (at least until the next fire house siren blows).

I live in relief that I don’t ever have to try to outguess a tornado again. I don’t have to live through so many false alarms that you start to take them a bit more lightly. Then a big one hits nearby and you’re reminded once again, of its terrible unpredictability.

I’m sure the residents of Missouri, the state I still hold dear to my heart, will rally up and take care of their own. Every person I know in Missouri is the type of person who would stand in line to give blood and volunteer to clean up debris, if asked. That’s just how the Midwest works. I’d like to think that’s how America works.

So although I can’t do much more than give to the Red Cross, my money and my blood, from this long distance, I can think of my Midwest neighbors, and pray they get through this awful ordeal with a sense of peace and community. I will pray that they can bury their dead with respect, and be spared more storms that might come along this spring.

It’s a tough way to live, waiting for the next big one. I’d guess it’s not unlike the earthquake weary in Japan. Except the Japanese people don’t get anxiety every time they see a dark cloud in the distance.

My fellow Missourians in Joplin have a long haul ahead of them. Heart wrenching clean up and thoughtful rebuilding. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. But I know they’ll do it. It’s really all they can do at this point.

Pick up and move on with life. Salvage what you can, of your belongings and your emotional fortitude, and plow forward.

And wait, wait, wait, for the next forecast.

Making sure the safe corner of the basement is stocked and ready. Knowing that if the big one hits, and you survive to walk out into the chaos of its aftermath, your friend, neighbors, and countrymen will be there to help you start again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Becoming Myself

Living in New York has changed me. Every season of my life, and every state I’ve lived in, has contributed to the person I am today, but New York has caused some of the biggest changes of all. When I moved to this state, almost five years ago, I knew I loved to write, but I didn’t yet think of myself as a writer. This is the place that changed all that.

When the moving truck arrived at this address, I had a quiet project tucked into the hard drive on our family computer. Right after I had my amputation surgery, I began writing about it. I had lots of sitting time, as my residual limb healed, and I decided to write out the journey that led me to this new title of amputee. By the time I got to New York I had pecked out a significant manuscript. Significant in size, not necessarily in quality. I knew it needed a lot of tweaking but it was nice to have a starting point. But because it wasn’t even close to being published, it didn’t even cross my mind that I might be a ‘writer’.

Sure, I’d always kept a journal, even when I was a ten year old and had little to say beyond ‘cleaned my room today…’. Then, when the kids were small, I pecked out essays about what they were doing, what we were doing, and how I felt about it all. After my mom died I wrote more, trying to hash out my grief with words on a screen. But I was always fully aware that to be a real writer, you had to have a book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble.

Then one day, early on in our time in New York, my son got off the bus bubbling with news about an author who had visited his school.“She was just like you, mama! She loves to write and she loves kids!” I looked her up and found a website. Something in her presentation had lit a spark in my boy and I wanted her to know it. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply to my email, just a few days later.

The author, Coleen Paratore, was gracious and warm. She had come to Sam’s school to talk about her new book The Wedding Planner’s Daughter. But her school talks were as much about finding your own passion as they were about promoting her latest book.

She encouraged me to attend the local meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It met nearby, in Guilderland, and anyone who loved children’s books was welcome to attend. It piqued my interest. I’d never really written for children, but the idea of hanging out with writers sounded fun. The night of their next meeting I made my way to the Guilderland library and walked into a room full of strangers.

To begin the meeting, everyone went around the room and shared their connection to writing and children’s books. It was amazing to hear each person’s journey. Some were published authors, many times over, and some were still learning the craft and writing when they could find the time. Being new to the state, and knowing very few people well enough to call them ‘friend’, I felt unusually at home in that room.

These were people who didn’t think it was strange that I had files full of half finished projects. These were people who also had scraps of paper all over the house, bits and pieces of words and phrases that would later remind them of some writing idea. These were people who knew how painful it was to carve out a manuscript of heartfelt stories, then have to go back and cut it down. That night I returned home and announced to my husband, “I have found my people!”

Through that meeting, and the many meetings since, I’ve been inspired, watching these new writer friends follow their own paths. Some have become published in the four years I’ve been attending, some are still plugging away. Coleen has become a writing powerhouse, publishing a handful of books in the short time I’ve known her. Even when I’m not working on a project for kids, my friends at the SCBWI writers group remind me of how important it is to claim what’s important to me, and keep writing.

Not long after I found my people, at the SCBWI writer’s group, I landed an incredible gig, writing the parenting column for the local paper. Every week I think I’ve run out of ideas to write about and yet every week another one finds its way to my computer screen. It’s been a gift to me, tracking our life and all its ups and downs, as we’ve explored this great state of New York. It has given me a valuable deadline every week, one of a writer’s best friends.

And there you have it.

I just officially called myself a writer.

It took many years, a lot of concealed writing, and a well placed encouraging email from a published book author to help me find my path.

There’s a room full of people who will continue to meet, month after month, long after I’ve moved away. They will encourage each other and helpfully critique each other’s work. They will say good bye to members who are moving on and they’ll warmly accept the newbies who wander through the door. I’ll always be in debt to these people, my people.

They helped me to define myself as a writer.

And I’ll never forget them.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Alphabet Lessons

Just as I suspected, the trip to Colorado came and went in a flash. Any person who has ever gone on any vacation knows the feeling. The days creep by as you await the magical date on the calendar, then once it arrives, time speeds up, and in a nano second it’s all over. As soon as we pulled into the driveway back in New York, real life kicked into high gear again. Hubby unpacked, then re-packed, to go on a work trip to Connecticut. The kids jumped back into school. I split my time between work, unpacking, and once again preparing the house to go on the market.

But just as I’d predicted, we made some great new memories on this trip that re-introduced us to our identity as a nomadic family. It was a new experience for me, traveling with all boys. Our daughter stayed home to work, so for the first time I was the only female in the car. I held my own pretty well and only once became misty eyed, when an innocent comment was made by the woman creating my sandwich at a Subway in the middle of Indiana. She crafted the orders for my hubby, then each of my three sons, and when she finally got to me, she flippantly said, “Boy, I guess you wish you had a daughter…”

It was the end of the trip, day nine of our ten days on the road, and I was definitely ready to see my girl again. After swallowing the lump in my throat, I calmly replied to the Subway lady, “Oh, I do have a daughter. She’s at home. And I do miss her.” I’m sure it was a forgettable moment in that woman’s life, but I can immediately be in that moment again, reminded of the way our family is changing as our children grow older and move on with their lives.

From our very first day on the road, we played many rounds of the ABC game. It started with just finding the letters, on any sign or license plate. Then, to make things more challenging we changed the rules. Each letter had to be at the beginning of a word. That might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re driving mile after lonely mile through the flat fields and empty highways of Midwestern states, a billboard of any kind is a treat, and one with the correct words on it can be a gold mine.

Electronics were put aside as everyone in the car rallied up to play. Who knew teen age boys could be so easily entertained? They all groaned as we passed a semi truck with the word ‘Zemmert’ printed on the side. We weren’t even close to needing a Z yet, and we’d struggled to find J and O words. The chances of finding another perfect Z word when we’d need it were pretty slim.

Slowly, slowly we clipped our way through the alphabet. We got a bit tripped up again when it came to X, but a good hospital sign with the word X-ray on it saved the day. After a quick Y (Yummy!), we were finally in need of that magical Z. Mile after mile, billboard after billboard, and no Z. Then suddenly, Jeff pulled to the side of the road. As we came to a stop on the gravel shoulder, the mood in the car changed. We all assumed there was a problem with the engine. From my perch in the back seat I could see my hubby’s face in the rearview mirror. He didn’t seem concerned.

Then I saw the smile lines form around his eyes. He was up to something. After a minute of quiet confusion, he simply said, “That Zemmert truck should be along shortly…” Knowing we’d passed it a dozen miles back, he was sure if we sat for just a minute, it would come along and give us our Z. The nervous tension in the car erupted into laughter and high fives. It would’ve never occurred to me to pull over on the side of the road, on the first day of a four thousand mile trip, to wait for a Z. Hubby got huge points with his boys.

A few days later, as we were driving in downtown Denver, out of the blue my husband commented on a license plate we’d just passed. “Wow, look at that. WQJ. What a dream…” We were all confused, since we’d been out of ABC game mode for several days. Silently we were all wondering how he would think a WQJ could mean anything related to dreams.

Then he spelled it out. To pass that specific car on the highway would have been a dream, when we were desperately searching for difficult letters. My boys decided that if they ever lived near a highway, they’d have huge billboards in their yards, filled with words starting with every letter of the alphabet, just in case there were other travelers in need of a good Q word.

And before you start thinking I have genetically altered children, who just love being in the car for 86.5 hours over the course of ten days, let me set you straight. There were plenty of fussy moments, and a few random, well placed punches, thrown by frustrated brothers who’d had just a little too much togetherness.

But as the mom I don’t dwell on those fleeting moments. I like to remember the laughs, and the playful wrestling that threatened fragile lamps on hotel room tables. It makes me smile to remember all the new places we explored and the inside family jokes that were born on this trip.

And one of the best memories of all is the mental snapshot, of a car full of these people I love, sitting on the side of the highway, waiting patiently for a Z.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Frozen Numbers

It was surprising news to wake up to on a Monday morning. After almost a decade of hunting for him, the mastermind behind the destruction of the World Trade Center had been found and murdered. Swirled into the constant updates on the situation were references to the attacks on our country, that occurred almost a decade ago. That news was almost as hard to believe as the assassination news itself. Ten years. It’s been ten years since we turned on our TVs to find out that our country had been attacked.

I remember it like it was yesterday, as does almost anyone who was over the age of ten when it happened. But the anniversary date has come, year after year, and life has raced ahead in between. If given a minute, I could always tell you exactly how many years it’s been, but I never had the number as a constant in my head. Heck, I have to do some mental math just to tell you how old my own children are, at any given time.

It led to me ponder how some numbers are slippery but others become frozen in time, especially when tragedy strikes. We are about to celebrate another Mother’s Day. It’s my nineteenth time to enjoy the honor. That’s easy math. My daughter’s birth ushered me into this sacred position. But every year I also do some other math. Without wanting to, my mind always, without fail, stops to calculate how many years I’ve had to celebrate without needing to buy a card for my own mother.

She died almost seventeen years ago. This will be my sixteenth year of missing her on a day I want to pamper her. The sixteenth year that I’ll walk by the aisles of Mother’s Day gifts as I make my way to the section of graveside flowers for Memorial Day. The irony catches in my stomach every single year.

To be honest, I had to stop and do the math on that last paragraph. My daughter was born in 92, my son in 93 ,and she died in 1994. Quick math gives me a seventeen. But another number is burned into my memory. I don’t have to do any math to come up with it. A big five and a zero. She was 50 when she died.

A night of country dancing, as she powered through a terrible headache, ended in the ICU, with a stroke that eventually took her life. In the shock and grief that followed, the number fifty was seared into my brain. It seemed like an ‘older person’ age, although I felt way too young to be without her. And every year that has brought me closer to that number myself, helps me to see just how young she really was.

I have a personal tradition, to ease my own longing for my mom. Every Mother’s Day I send a card to a woman I’ve never met. She lived in my neighborhood when, just two years after I lost my mom, she lost both of her daughters on TWA flight 800. In one fell swoop she lost all of her children. Their plane crashed on the month after I gave birth to my third child.

My house was full of life and little people, and hers was suddenly, permanently quiet.

The next time a Mother’s Day rolled around I thought of her, and how her heart must be aching also. So I sent her a card, and my heart felt better.

Every year since I’ve repeated the gesture. We’ve exchanged holiday cards and she usually sends me follow up cards, in the weeks after Mother’s Day, but we’ve never met. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about her, when I’m pondering this crazy thing called grief.

I’m sure she has a couple of numbers seared into her own brain. The numbers 25 and 28. That’s where her daughter’s lives ended. At ages 25 and 28. They will never be 26 and 29. Just like my mom will never be 51. Those numbers will forever be frozen in time.

I’m sure almost everyone you meet has a frozen number or two in their brain. The grade they were in school when their father died. The year they lost a baby to miscarriage. The day their spouse asked for a divorce. We all walk around with some number imprinted on our soul.

Today I plan to put a special card in the mail to my mother in law, my stepmom, and the friend I’ve never met. Then I’ll wait for Sunday to roll around, and I’ll enjoy the day with my own children. Because for as much as I miss my own mom on that day, I never take for granted the gifts I have living under my own roof.

Our family is still very much full of life and love and new memories. Every year my children are growing, and changing, and becoming new people. No frozen numbers here.

Mother’s Day can be a time of reflection, but it’s also, very much, a time to treasure the numbers that continue on.