Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ode on Grace's Urn

My father-in-law, Jimmy, and I, spend a lot of time together.  A lot.  As a blended, inter-generational family, it's a lot of togetherness and no shortage of stories.  Many Friday evenings, we sit around just reminiscing.  Last night's family story time was all about funerals.  How morbid, you may think.  But I actually fancy myself not only a professional eulogist, from the number of eulogies I've given, but also an excellent, go-to girl for funeral planning.  I have had very early and profound experiences with dying and death, and obviously funerals.  My father-in-law and I still joke about some of our more memorable funeral home experiences.

When my beloved mother-in-law passed away, I tagged along with Jimmy to help with arrangements. We did the traditional funeral home admissions process, I like to call it, filling out forms, choosing prayer cards, coordinating services, but the elephant in the room was the Casket Showroom.  I knew I had to go with him there and dreaded it.  He too, had shared that he wished they had taken care of this detail many years earlier so emotion and grief would not interfere with the decision making.  

"Don't worry, Jimmy.  I'll help be the voice of reason," I assured him.

When we first walked into the room, similar to a car showroom, the highest-end casket was prominently featured.  It was a beauty.  Impressive.  Finest wood, plush interior, beautiful trimwork.  Jimmy was entranced and actually stood there for an uncomfortably long period of time.  

Finally, I interrupted any rationale he was trying to process in his mind, "Jimmy, that casket is $65,000.  If you buy that, it better have satellite TV, a wet bar, room service and a bathroom because because that's where the rest of family is gonna put you, if you even think of buying it."  

Jimmy snapped out of it and chuckled and we were able to continue on to pick out a reasonable, yet beautiful resting place for his beloved.  

Just a few years ago, Jimmy and I were at it again.  This time burying his late wife's aunt, who we had cared for in her final years at a nursing home.  Aunt Grace was a very, very simple woman. Devout and prayerful, she was a former Franciscan nun, who adhered so strongly to St. Francis' teachings, she didn't pull covers over herself in bed and thought air conditioning was something St. Francis would have met with disapproval.

Aunt Grace and I grew very close over her final years.  I would cook her eggs and toast with a cup of black coffee and she would say, "Thank you for your kindnesses" and I knew she really meant it.  She had lived alone most of her life and I think her declining health frightened her after so many years of independence.  She found such comfort in her faith, I was almost jealous watching her peacefully sit in a chapel praying.  I'd ask her how found that peace and she'd say, "Oh, it's so easy.  Just let it be and He takes care of it.  That's how I found you, you know."

Aunt Grace died very peacefully on New Year's Day just a few days shy of her 96th birthday. Since I knew Aunt Grace's time with us would be short, I had already started the funeral home admissions process, so they were all prepared when I made that final call.  Hers was a fairly uncomplicated file but I had left one detail unattended.  

The urn.  

The day after her death, Jimmy and I went to the funeral home to pick out the urn.  We were greeted by the funeral home director, all dressed in his suit, with the appropriate words of condolence and sorrow.  It was sad.  I was sad.  But the reality was, I wasn't actually really that sad.  Aunt Grace had lived a wonderfully long, very healthy life and had shared many gifts.  It was not a tragic passing, in my mind, it was the circle of life and it was really okay.  But suddenly, sitting with this funeral home director, I became almost uncomfortable with my comfort level.  

Just like the Casket Room years earlier, there was an Urn Room and now it was time to go there.  

As the Director led us into the room, he said, "I know this is difficult.  Please, take your time.  Take however long you need to decide.  When you're ready, I'll be in my office."  

I looked at him most sincerely, smiled and said "Thank you," as he closed the door.  

And with that door closing, Jimmy and I were left in total silence with shelves full of urns.  

After about 3 minutes of no one speaking, I turned to Jimmy and said, "What's the cheapest urn here?"  

That immediately got Jimmy perusing the shelves.  "Umm, wow!  Look at this one!  It's $2,000!  It's got an eagle engraved on it," as his eyes grew huge.

"No, stop looking at them!  Don't get attached.  Look at the price tags and find the cheapest one," I whispered.

"Here it is.  $210.  Simple pine with a photo slot," he exclaimed, as if he had just won a game of Bingo.

"$210?!  For that?  I could go to the craft store and with a coupon get a great pine box myself and decorate it," I said, a bit louder than Jimmy cared for.

"You're not an authorized urn manufacturer.  They have rules," he shouted.

"Actually, I do know a little something about this.  The cemetery told me you could use a Ziploc for the ashes since they're buried in a liner," I replied with my know-it-all look.

"Remind me to take your name off the list of people handling my affairs.  I can't believe you just said Ziploc!" he retorted, disgusted with me.

Defending myself, I replied, "I don't make these things up. I was told that by someone in charge."

"Well, this one is the cheapest and it's good," he said.

"Great, that's the one then.  She didn't want money spent and I can type up the Prayer of St. Francis and slip it in the frame with photos of the kids behind it.  We're done.  Let's go," as I started for the door.

Jimmy grabbed my arm and said, "But, we've only been in here five minutes.  Don't you think we should wait a bit?"

I hesitated, "I don't know.  What's the rule?"

"Don't you know?  Is there a rule?" he asked.

"Do we look uncaring if we take five minutes to pick out the cheapest urn?" I wondered out loud, "Like we didn't love her because we didn't buy the engraved eagle?"

"The eagle is nice," Jimmy said.

"No, we can't waiver.  We've got to stick to the agreement.  She wanted the least expensive.  This one is nice and no one will ever see it six feet under."

Sensing we were on hidden camera, Jimmy and I stood staring at each other another minute until we burst into laughter.  "This is stupid," he said, "Let's just go order it now."

We both took a deep breath, gathered ourselves and exited the Urn Room to the Director's Office.  Once again, he greeted us with the remorse and concern that only a funeral director can give.  "Have you made a decision on Grace's final resting place?"

I looked over at Jimmy thoughtfully and replied, "Yes, we have.  We would like the.....the ummm....the..." suddenly fumbling my words, realizing that I never looked at the name of the urn we picked out, only the price and I couldn't well say out loud - "We'll take the $210 dollar one."  

Coming to my rescue, Jimmy cut in and said, "The simple pine one.  She had been a Franciscan nun and would have wanted that."

Jimmy for the save.  What a relief.

"Ah, yes, that's a beautiful one.  Fine choice.  We will take care of everything," he said with a smile.

And I sighed a big sigh of relief and said, "Thank you for your kindness."  

When Jimmy and I walked out, that's when I finally did cry.  

A week later I picked up Aunt Grace and brought her home until her burial date. She sat in dining room, overseeing the kids' homework time and meals.  

One night Jimmy said, "Maybe we should move Aunt Grace for a bit, so she gets a different view?"  

"Good idea," I replied as I shifted her around.

"Better than the eagle, definitely better," he said with a smile.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tasty Treats

Last night, when I returned from the grocery store, I piled all the grocery items on the counter to put them away when my father-in-law, Jimmy walks into the room, inspects the items and says, "Oh, good trip! Great stuff!"
As I start putting things away, he reaches for a small bag, opens it and takes out a handful of the items and pops them into his mouth. I just watch, saying nothing.
"These are good! What are they?" he exclaims.
"Those? Actually, those are cough drops," I reply.
"Oh, I thought they were candies. They're good." he says with a smile.
"There's a warning on them for children but I see now they need to consider the other end of the age spectrum with their warnings - maybe thirty point, bold font. Or maybe, Jimmy, you just need to pause a moment before you eat something to make sure you're positive what it is."
"I'm sorry. Is this a reference to that beef jerky goof?" he asks.
"You mean, the Beggin' Strips dog treats you thought were beef jerky and ate half the bag???! Why would I ever bring that unfortunate incident up again?" I say, with a smile.
"You got me," he replied, as he popped one last cough drop in his mouth.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Holiday Huggers

Well, the turkey is ordered, you're thinking about when to start hanging those Christmas lights, and answering all those high-level Santa-themed questions, like, "Are the elves salaried or hourly employees?"  Yes, the holiday season is now underway.  Everyone has their "thing" they love about the holidays - whether it's family time, the cookie baking, the festive music, or if someone might accidentally Kragle a broken Christmas ornament to their palm (yes, that happened in this family).  
It's all peace, love and eggnog.

However, I want to share something a small subset of us have a deep-seated fear of....

...Holiday Huggers

Something about the holidays brings out the over-hugging in people.  I know it's gratitude; I know it's love; I know it's okay.  It's not that I hate hugs, but those who know me well know that I am not a hugger.  Sure, I hug my immediate family and I embrace that; I love my family and want them close.

But, otherwise I'm a one-armed hugger.  I feel the need to keep the other arm free.  I realize it must be some type of defense mechanism.  I'm sure a therapist or four would have a field day with the inner workings of my mind and exactly why I cannot do the full embrace.  I won't go into it here.  Suffice it to say, that the holidays bring out the huggies in so many people.  Friends I see every day, all year long, will suddenly now hug me because there's Christmas music playing; extended family will hug me at holiday events even though I just saw them a week earlier, not to mention the awkwardness of the holiday hug with the mailman and UPS guy.

Those who have known me a while, I suspect have noticed my half-hearted, one-armed hug.  I try, I really do, but cannot commit to two arms.  I need an out.  I have family that laugh as they go in to hug me.  One cousin even says, "Will she go all in this time???!"  It makes for quite the entertainment with howls of laughter.  And there have been events when too much eggnog has been consumed, where family will smother me with the bear hug.  As an asthmatic, it's almost more than I can bear (no pun intended).  Sometimes I wonder if they are taking bets on it before I arrive.

I realize that by revealing this I open myself to a flash mob of huggers.  
But know, just because I give the one-armed hug, does not mean I don't love you. 

It's not you, it's me.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Spork Tales

Another installment of back to school stories....

"Mom, did you buy hot lunch when you were in school," middle son asked.

"In elementary school I remember I did, not alot, though. I remember the fish sticks and I liked those."

"What about the pizza?" he said.

"The pizza we had isn't the fancy stuff you guys get now from a pizza place.  Ours was frozen squares of pizza.  I used to get that too but my mom made my lunch most days and then when I got older, I made my own."

"Did you get hot lunch in middle school?" he continued.

"I have no idea.  I can't even remember what the cafeteria looked like in my middle school.  When you get older, you will realize that you block out most of middle school.  Plus, our middle school was only two years, so it wasn't long enough to remember it all."

"What about high school?  Did you get hot lunch then?"

"No, I couldn't."


"Because my friends and I all sat in what they called the Bag Lunch Annex.  My high school was huge.  I don't even know if I ever walked into the real cafeteria.  No one brought hot lunch in the annex."

"It was a rule?"

"No, it wasn't a rule.  It was an unwritten rule.  It was a rule made up by someone a long time ago and passed down throughout all the bag lunch carriers over time.  It was sacred though and you wouldn't want to be the one who broke it."

"Did anyone ever try?"

"Oh yeah, every so often at the beginning of the year, usually a new kid, would try to come in the annex with hot lunch.  But everyone would yell, "Bag! Bag! Bag!" and they'd leave.  An unwritten rule is still a rule but it's harder to prove since it's not in writing.  Nowadays everything's in writing because people like to sue each other.

"Did any kids ever sue about the Bag Lunch Room?"

"No, I really don't think anyone cared.  The Bag Lunch Room was a crowded mess anyway.  It was probably more comfortable in the cafeteria.  But the annex wasn't set up for hot lunch.  No napkins, no spoons, not even a spork."

"What's a spork?"

"A spork?!  It's a spoon that's a fork. Your grandfather John used to bring them home from work."

"He stole them?"

"No, he worked in the food business and had a lot of sporks.  They're the greatest thing ever!  You can eat canned peaches with them and get the juice, or macaroni and cheese with no problem.  Sporks are fun. They used to have those with hot lunch.  Do you want me to make you a spork costume for Halloween?  Your brothers could be a hot lunch tray and a carton of milk!"

"Um, no.  Why would anyone dress up like a spoon?"

"It's a fork too!"

"That's okay, mom.  You're so weird."

"It's an unwritten rule!" I said with a smile.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Cheese Touch

I fancy myself a pretty good multi-tasker and a person who pays attention to details. I'm thorough, I like to think.  When last school year ended, I responsibly took stock of supplies.  I assessed the uniforms for signs of irreparable damage and purged.  I emptied backpacks and cleaned them.  I put lunchboxes back to their summer home atop the refrigerator.  I went through all those papers, saving only what I thought the curators would really want in the boys' Presidential Libraries in the future.  I am that mom.

And then summer came into full swing and we did the summer juggle of work and kids, kids and work.  About two weeks into our summer, I noticed a smell in the kitchen.

"Do you smell that?" I asked Coach.
"I don't smell anything," he replied.
"Do you smell that?" I asked my father in law, Jimmy, who was working on his morning Sudoku.
"I really haven't been able to smell for the last 20 years.  But let me know if you think we need to evacuate," he said.

So, I began my quest to find the smell.

First, I blamed it on one of the dogs.  Honestly, they do smell but it wasn't that kind of smell.
Then, I figured it was the trash can so I removed the bag and scrubbed down the can.
It worked for a day and then the smell was back.

Then, I blamed it on one of the appliances so I did an inventory of the refrigerator and freezer, purged the old take out and scrubbed it down.  It helped for a bit but then the mystery smell returned.

So, I tackled the dishwasher, the microwave and even, the oven.  I cleaned the counter tops, scrubbed the floor, cleared the pantry.  I checked the cabinets, checked the plumbing lines, I was exhausted.

Summer was coming to a close and still the stink remained.  Am I losing my mind?  Not a single other man, from any generation, seemed concerned about this smell that only I could smell.

And then I was distracted in my quest because school has begun.  Oldest son reached up to the top of refrigerator to grab the lunchboxes.
"Here you go, mom?"  he said, "What's that smell?"
"You smell it?!  Do you really?  Oh, thank you, thank you!  I thought I was losing my mind!  Finally, someone else smells it.  I have NO idea where it's coming from!"  I said as I started making lunches.

...and then I opened oldest son's lunch box...and to my horror, I discovered this...

I screamed.  My son shrieked.  The other boys ran to the kitchen to see.

"What is that?" they yelled.
"That was your croissant cheese sandwich from June 10th," I replied, disgusted with the scene and myself.
And the room erupted in hoots and hollers.  It was the greatest thing they had ever seen.
It stunk and it looked gross.
I was Mother of the Year.

The smell is now gone but the tale will live on.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mistake on the Lake

So, just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.

My husband's family is originally from Cleveland, known to many as "the mistake on the Lake." Today was a perfect example of how this moniker seems to transcend time and space.

Five passengers set sail that day for a three hour trip, a three hour trip.......

Coach and my eldest son, were invited to go crabbing along the beautiful Chesapeake Bay with one of my husband's brothers, Mike, another brother and his young son.  Mike has a boat that he adores; he spends many, many hours on his beloved vessel which I long ago started calling the SS Minnow, primarily because I've often questioned its sea-worthiness.

Never mind the fact that the forecast called for rain for most of the day, never mind that the crab season has been horrible, these men were going crabbing on the eve of Uncle Mike's 50th birthday no matter what.

This episode of Deadliest Catch meets Gilligan began with Coach steering the Minnow into open waters via the requisite 4 foot channel, only to become grounded on a sandbar due to distraction by the 8 and 11 year old first mates.  What follows is the actual recounting by my son:

Mom, it was wild.  So, we were totally stuck and the only way out was to push the boat back into deeper water.  Out of nowhere Uncle Chris took his shoes and shorts off and climbed in the water in his underwear!!!!  He pushed the boat back into the channel, almost naked but not afraid.

The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed.

The crabs were not plentiful.  The chicken necks they brought only drew the attention of eight crabs.  Coach announced the cruise was over and they should head back.

Eldest son continues his interview:
It was raining really hard and I noticed some smoke coming from the back of the boat.  And it got thicker and thicker and Dad was yelling to get the boat in to the dock quick.  I had my life vest on so I wasn't too nervous but we thought the boat was going to catch on fire and Dad told me to turn away from the engine in case it blew up.  We got to the dock and Dad got me out quick, along with everyone else.  Uncle Mike turned the engine off and tied the boat up.  I don't know what was wrong.
Coach said, "I guess we should feel a little badly.  We probably screwed up a lot of the wedding photos."

"What wedding?" I asked.

"There was a wedding going on under a tent right by the dock.  Sort of an embarrassing way to crash a wedding.  I bet all their pictures are going to have quite a bit of smoke in the background."

The Minnow would be lost

Coach continues, "Yeah, Mike called us when we were driving home.  The boat's half sunk at the dock.  Something about the gas line.  I'm glad we're outta there."

"Didn't I tell you guys that I thought this whole crabbing idea was stupid," I said, "You're from Cleveland!  You're not fisherman.  That boat is not seaworthy!"

"Well, not anymore, for sure," replied oldest son.

And with this, dear Jimmy, my father-in-law, who sat quietly during the tale of the SS Minnow, interjected.  "You know, our family is actually a descendant of an Irish sea captain."

"Really?  And how exactly did he meet his eternal reward?  Did he die at sea?" I shouted.

And with this, Jimmy lifts his downcast eyes, starts to chuckle and says, "Well, if we're being honest.....yes, he did go down with his ship."

Mistake on the lake..and the bay...and the open sea.
Point for mom.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Musical Chairs

As another school year begins anew, my sons love hearing tales of old school in our house.  Some of their favorite stories actually come from my husband, who with five brothers, had alot of teacher mayhem tales.  But, growing up in Connecticut, my stories seem to have the New England charm any young boy finds magical with such foreign concepts as well water, skating on frozen ponds, the legend of the Charter Oak tree and of course, school bus stories.

My oldest son plays the trombone.  I feel for him, playing a big instrument and juggling his backpack, books, lunch and whatever else he has to bring to school on any given day.  But in a "When I was your age" one-uppance, I casually said to him, "You're lucky you get driven to school."

"Why?" he asked, "Didn't you like taking the bus when you were my age?"

"Well, sure," I responded, "What's not fun about being with your friends on the ride to school, and picking your special seat and the race every morning uphill (Truly, my walk to the bus stop was uphill albeit, not both ways.)  And when I played the flute in 4th grade, it was fine because a flute is small.  But when I got into 6th grade, I really wanted to be in jazz band.  My teacher told me I should learn another instrument."

"Oh, trumpet," he answered.

"No, better.  Tenor saxophone.  You know, the one with the curved neck and the big bell.  It was fabulous and I was the only girl in jazz band.  I loved it."

"Mom, this story is sort of lame.  What does this have to do with the bus?"

"Your mother sacrificed prime bus seating for her art.  You have no idea what it does to your seating options when you board the school bus with a tenor sax case.  No one wants to sit with you and if they do once, they never do it again.  They do the bus seat spread, moving all their stuff across the seat.  I can spot that look that comes with it a mile away now."

"That's kind of sad.  How long did you play tenor sax?"

"For years, but then I wanted to be in the orchestra and you don't need a tenor sax in that and I knew I couldn't earn a coveted flute chair, so I decided to talk to the teacher again."

At this point middle son chimes in, "Oh my goodness," he explained, "did you play the gong?!"

"No, better.  I played the bassoon.  No one in my school had ever played the bassoon.  It was in the back of the instrument closet.  And that case was even bigger than the tenor case!"

By now, I had them enthralled with my tale of musical, musical chairs.

"Did you ever bring both instruments on the bus at the same time?" they asked, wide-eyed.

"Well, I'm not crazy!  And technically, jazz band and orchestra never met on the same day.  It would have been catastrophic.  But that bassoon case saved my life one morning."

"It did?" they asked.

"Yes, it was a cold, snowy morning in Connecticut but we still had school, because when I was young and lived in Connecticut, they never cancelled school.  And the buses has chains that they put on the wheels to give them traction which they don't use here in Washington, D.C.  As our bus went to stop on our hill, because everything was uphill, it slipped a bit.  But we were young and back then, there were no crossing guards, so we all started to cross.  But the bus wasn't stopping.  And just as I put my bassoon case up, the bus touched it and stopped."

"So, you saved everyone's life," said middle son, grinning from ear to ear.

"And then they all wanted you to sit with them because you saved them all," said oldest son.

"Oh, I never really thought about that," I replied, confused.  "I don't remember them all asking me to sit with them.  I think we just got on the bus and I sat with bassoon, alone.  Oh, I think I like your ending better."

"Yeah, that was a good one, mom.  Goodnight."  And they went to bed and I went to put clothes away in my closet.  And up on the top shelf, looking down at me, was my beloved flute case which I've carried with me all these years because, well, it's much easier to move around with a flute.