A Life Well Lived

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IMG_1148Yesterday my beloved aunt Mary was laid to rest after 94 years of a life well lived. The chapel where her funeral was held was filled to capacity with family members, friends, and Aunt Mary’s many caregivers who had come to know her during her last 10 years spent in a nursing home.

Aunt Mary was always a favorite of mine because I was her godchild and namesake. Her presence was always a benign and pleasant one. She seemed to take raising a large family in her stride, and I don’t ever remember seeing her sullen or angry. Aunt Mary was intelligent. Even after a stroke had left her with partial paralysis, she became known for playing Scrabble regularly at the nursing home. She loved music, my cousin once told me, especially opera. And when I visited her, Aunt Mary could regale me with all the doings of her massive extended family. Above all, Aunt Mary was kind. She gave time in service to the church and community. But at the end of the day, what she lived for was to care for her family.

I had mixed emotions as I watched Aunt Mary’s many children, grandchildren, and great-children say goodbye. Whether escorting her casket into and out of the chapel, reading aloud from Scripture, or processing up the aisle to place individual white roses in an arrangement on the altar, her loved ones were clearly shaken and grieving. Even her son-in-law, who in Mary’s last years was a big presence in her life, could barely read  the comforting words of our faith without choking up.

It was so very clear to me that Aunt Mary was beloved. And I wondered, will people mourn my loss some day with such heartfelt love? Will my children and my children’s children miss me so deeply?

A few days ago, I received a text from an old friend. She had seen an obituary for my aunt in the newspaper and had found it jarring since Aunt Mary and I had the same first and last name before I got married. Thinking about my possible death had caused my friend to reach out and affirm her affection for me, and we agreed to see each other soon.

What does it mean to lead a life well lived? In a word, love. Love is what Aunt Mary showered on everyone she met. Love is what helped her endure hardship and loss, including the untimely death of a son. And love is what went with her yesterday and what will live on in the hearts of all those who were privileged to be part of her life.

In the final words of the priest at the funeral, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)

 

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Minivan Mom

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Of all the cars I’ve ever had, the minivan was my favorite. Back at the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to say that), we owned a “denim blue” Toyota Sienna XLE, the Rolls Royce of minivans. I’d roll up in the school drop-off line, slide open that side door with the push of a button, and deposit my precious cargo onto the sidewalk. Oh, yeah: Minivan Mom.

I loved everything about that minivan. Its color was so distinctive, and it was so decidedly NOT an SUV, that it was easy to find in a parking lot. The inside was spacious, even for three or four children, and the space between seats made it easy to separate squabbling siblings. At the time, Toyota refused to put DVD players in their minivans, reasoning that they’d prove a distraction to drivers. So my kids were left to the radio, their little books on tape, or – perish the thought – talking to me and each other. One of our favorite things to listen to in the minivan at Christmastime was my brother-in-law Dave Rudolf‘s album Completely Cracked Christmas. The album features parodies of well-known carols, and you could hear us warbling for miles: “What’s that smell? I can tell/We’re getting fruitcakes for Christmas.”

The much-maligned minivan has been the subject of mockery and condescension for years. Owners of the much chic-er Ford Explorer, one of the most popular SUVs at the time, would look down their noses at the Dodge Caravans of the world, as if to say, “We know you’re a harried mother of 6 with your hair in pin curls and your bunny slippers still on at 4 in the afternoon.” But I never cared about the image of Minivan Mom. I drove that baby for over 100,000 miles until its untimely demise.

It happened one warm summer day in June. My teenaged son had left the house in the Sienna, headed to the gym for an early morning workout. Literally on the next block, he ran into an old electric pole, which cracked and thudded onto the roof of the van. Luckily, my son did not get hurt, and we never did get the straight story as to what precipitated the accident. But due to its age, the insurance company declared the minivan totaled, and we had to say goodbye.

We’ve never owned another minivan, but I still miss having one. It was so nice to be able to drive the whole family to Grandma’s house or out to dinner. Now we have to take two cars. Our kids are more likely to argue about who gets to ride shotgun because the back seats in our other cars have never been as spacious.

I’ve heard that affluent families have started gravitating toward old-fashioned station wagons, a relic from my youth that I do not miss at all. Who wants to spend life facing backwards in the way, way back? Maybe the minivan will make a comeback in time for me to drive my grandkids around and teach them twisted Christmas carols.

 

Thankful for a Break from Politics

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Thanksgiving dawned in Michigan in the usual way: cloudy, barren skies and chilly temps. Michigan is the home of my husband’s family and the destination of my family’s Thanksgiving travels every year. Besides looking forward to the delicious turkey and fixings my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law were up early to prepare, we were anticipating the happy chaos that is always a part of our visits to the Motor City.

True to form, the buffet table groaned with an assortment of dishes and later, far too many desserts even for us and for my husband’s six siblings and their families to consume. And while there were a few minor dramas, for the most part Thanksgiving held a convivial air.

What I appreciated most about the many conversations in which I took part was the complete absence of political dialogue. At least to my hearing, there was no talk about Trump, immigration, foreign policy, or the recent November elections. Instead, Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions football dominated the scene in the family room where the cousins congregated in front of the giant TV and good-naturedly trash-talked each other’s teams.

Other than a comment made about a movement to eliminate the Thanksgiving holiday because of white settlers’ mistreatment of Native Americans, there was nothing to ruffle any feathers, and no one “talked turkey” about their political beliefs. This fact, coupled with my avoidance of Facebook all day, made for a blissfully nonpolitical and mostly unstressful holiday.

Instead, we took turns holding our nephew’s adorable baby and playing “store” with her older sister. We helped ourselves to another slice of apple pie and enjoyed the camaraderie of family members. We drew names for the annual Christmas grab bag we hold each year. By the time we were ready to bundle up and head home, we were all ensconced in the happy glow of full bellies and family togetherness.

This morning the sun is out. The brief reprieve from November gloom is a welcome sight, and it is prolonging my feeling of happiness and peace. Now the Christmas holiday season is upon us. All the shopping, baking, decorating and bustle begin. I’m so glad I had the chance to spend a day in thankfulness for the bounty in my life: family, friends, and food.

Maybe I’ll keep up my fast from politics for the entire holiday season.

Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.

 

‘Til We Meet Again

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IMG_1148My husband’s beloved aunt passed away the other day. Although her death was not unexpected (She had fought a valiant battle against cancer.), it nevertheless has been a shattering blow to her loved ones.

Auntie Sue was a beautiful, happy, gentle woman all her life despite the heartache of losing a child and the untimely death of her husband. She remained extremely close to her children throughout her life and was a constant presence in the lives of her grandchildren.

I myself was the recipient of many kisses, warm words, and love from this woman that I came to consider my aunt as well. I remember when my first child was just a baby, Auntie Sue urged me to hurry up and have another one. From someone else I would have considered this interfering. But Auntie Sue had such a sweetness about her, I could only smile.

Towards the end of her life. Auntie Sue endured much suffering. But she still embraced her life and her family with arms wide open. I honestly can’t even picture her without a smile on her face.

Her suffering is over now, and I have no doubt she is being held in God’s warm embrace. Still, those who love her now abide with a heavy heart.

Although we will miss her warm smile and generous heart, we who love Auntie Sue must commend her spirit to God and keep her memory alive in our hearts until we meet again in God’s heavenly kingdom.

 

What Makes a Family? Love

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(photo courtesy of Gift of Adoption Fund)

The gift-wrapped package looked like it contained a pair of shoes. Teenaged Lauren watched while a special man in her life, Joe, opened her gift. Joe is not her biological father but has cared for her like one since she was a tiny girl. Inside the box were adoption papers. In a twist on the marriage proposal, Lauren was asking Joe, “Will you be my adopted father?” Of course, Joe and Lauren collapsed in tears and hugs. They recognized a simple fact. Being a family is not about blood ties.

Fourteen years ago on a hot July day in Hefei, China, my husband and I adopted our beloved fourth child, a daughter. We brought her home to her sister and two brothers on the other side of the world. The first weeks were rocky. She had her days and nights mixed up and would regularly awaken my daughter, with whom she was sharing a room. Invariably in the morning,  I would find my oldest child in a sleeping bag on the living room floor where she had decamped to escape the crying. Our new baby was also afraid of our boys and, to a lesser extent, her new dad. We reasoned that this was because in the orphanage where she had spent the first 11 months of her life, there were no males.

Before long, though, she was understanding us, laughing, playing, and walking. Her sister doted on her, and her brothers could make her laugh like no one else. Each afternoon after I had dropped my son off at preschool, I would take her to Panera Bread, where we would share a bowl of soup. Occasionally, we would have to suffer an ignorant or obnoxious question about her being adopted and whether she was really ours. Mostly, though, she just fit into the life of our family and became one of us. When I now look at my 15-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever having lived without her.

The adoption journey is not without its struggles. Sometimes unknown physical or emotional issues come to light. Some adoptees have identity crises or feelings of abandonment. The adoption process is anything but simple itself. Between the home studies and paperwork and waiting, it took us two full years to adopt our daughter. And the cost of adoption can be prohibitive.

Here in my hometown of Chicago, an adoptive couple in the north suburbs started a nonprofit to help families defray the many costs of adoption, particularly overseas adoptions, which require all kinds of fees as well as travel expenses. Gift of Adoption Fund has helped countless families grow through financial assistance that prioritizes families adopting children in the most urgent cases, such as those in foster care or with special needs. (Gift of Adoption Fund is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.)

Families come to be in so many different ways. Just as Lauren learned over the years that Joe was in every meaningful sense her true father, we have learned that what makes a family is the love and commitment to care for each other and to be there no matter what.

Planting Things

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IMG_1146I spent a recent afternoon strolling with some of my sisters through the University of Minnesota’s arboretum. It was a mild summer day: slightly overcast and on the cool side for the end of June in this northern Midwest locale. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been home for two of my sisters for many years, and a third recently moved to the area. That makes a visit to the Twin Cities even more of a draw for another Chicago-based sis and me. (I have eight sisters. Cue the oohs and ahs.)

Along with the majestic trees from which the arboretum derives its name, the park is home to numerous gardens growing everything from succulents to kitchen herbs to seemingly as many types of roses and lilies as you can name. As we wandered through the meticulously maintained grounds, stopping to admire fountains and sculptures and to take photos, I marveled at the time and care it takes to grow and maintain all these plants. I pictured gardeners lovingly tilling the soil, placing tender seedlings in it, watering and weeding.

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I myself am not much of a gardener, but when I was a child, I loved to spend time with my dad in his garden. If I helped weed, I would be allowed to place the tiny seeds for annuals gently in the soil and then water the plants as they miraculously went from seed to sprout to full grown flower. During our walk through the arboretum, my sisters and I reminisced about our father and his love for trees and flowers. We laughed and acted silly and forced passersby to take group photos of us in front of ponds or waterfalls.

Relationships are like plants. They must be lovingly tended. It takes time and attention to grow a close bond, time spent laughing, sharing confidences, building each other up and helping each other through difficult times. The inevitable weeds of conflict must be uprooted sometimes so that the lovely fruits of friendship and sisterhood can ripen.

Time spent in nature with my sisters was a beautiful gift this week. It reminds me that the roots developed in our families form the basis for who we will become. It encourages me to tend to those roots with my own children so that they too will carry on a meaningful and loving sibling relationship throughout their lives.

Long after the sun sets on the garden and the day lilies close their petals for the night, God’s gifts of nature abide in quiet magnificence until the dawning of the new day. May our lives mirror the beauty, tenacity, and strength of trees and flowers, granting joy and peace to those we encounter each and every day.